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Interview: Jack Tatum of Wild Nothing

"I'm a sucker for the idea of a simple pop-song."


Jack Tatum of Wild Nothing
FilmMagic/Contributor/FilmMagic/Getty Images

When Wild Nothing arrived in 2010, Jack Tatum went from an anonymous journalism student at Virginia Tech to a blogosphere buzz band in a blink. Catching ears with a killer cover of Kate Bush's "Cloudbusting," Tatum delivered a dreamy dream-pop sound that owed a huge debt to classic indie-pop bands like New Order, The Smiths, The Go-Betweens, and Cocteau Twins. Wild Nothing was part of a crew of jangly indie bands —including Beach Fossils and Craft Spells— that turned budding Brooklyn label Captured Tracks almost instantly into a classic record label. After a profile-building tour with Beach House, Tatum turned out a 2011 EP, Golden Haze, and, in 2012, a 7-inch single, "Nothing Nowhere." By the end of 2012, Tatum had finished the second WN LP, Nocturne, which brought with it a Wild Nothing tour alongside breakout labelmates Diiv, and video for single "Paradise" starring Hollywood starlet Michelle Williams.

Interview: August 21, 2012

Did you grow up wanting to be a musician?
"I've always made music, playing guitar since I was 10 years old, but even when I was a kid it never seemed like a realistic career option. I went to school for journalism, and I did a lot of writing when I was in school, a lot of creative fiction and poetry. I actually dreamt of doing music journalism; that's what I presumed I'd be working in. But, even then, I was never sure. I sometimes wonder how anyone is expected to know what they want to do with their life when they're 22. Luckily, I didn't really have to decide, it got decided for me. I started working on this project the last year I was in school, and it kind of took off."

How does the music you make —and the lyrics you write, especially— relate to your study of fiction, or poetry, or journalism?
"Obviously they're all related in a lot of ways, especially when you compare poetry and writing songs. But I approach things very differently depending on what I'm working on. Writing poetry has so much more freedom than writing songs; if you're working within a pop format, there's definite limits to what you can say. And I'm a sucker for the idea of a simple pop-song."

There's an assumption when listening to music, much moreso than with fiction, that if the word 'I' is in there, that the songwriter is talking about themselves. Do you find songwriting to be more personal, more interior, than writing fiction? When you use the word 'I' in a song, are you talking about yourself?
"Sometimes, definitely. On Gemini, I spoke a lot from personal relationships and experiences. But with [Nocturne album I felt a little bit more free from myself. I wanted to try and put a little bit more distance between me and the songs, to have more moments where I may be speaking on behalf of myself, but not speaking any specific truth from my own life."

Did you feel as if you revealed too much of yourself into the first album?
"I think you always put so much of yourself into what you're doing, no matter what kind of art it is. Especially for someone like me, who does all the writing and plays all the music themselves. It's impossible not to inject yourself into something when you're writing every part. There's so much of me, and so much of my specific musical inclinations that go into Wild Nothing. It's very much a projected image of me. But I don't think of it as painting a self-portrait. I'm not even trying to say anything specific about myself, or my life, or my experiences. It's more of a subconscious thing. But that doesn't make me feel as if people are peering deep inside me; I try to make the songs universal enough that when people listen to them, as much as they hear me in them, they also hear something that makes them think of themselves, and their own experiences."

As listener, playing your records feels like listening in on something quite insular, like peering into someone else's interior world. As the person who creates them, do you identify with that kind of thought?
"Yeah. I do. Making these records is a really insular, internal process. Doing it all myself, I really am just alone in my head. The lyrics do reflect that, to some degree, but I try not to think too much about them, and I don't sit with them. With Nocturne, I'd finish a song, then work out the lyrics right then; I'd hardly spend more than an hour on it. Just because I wanted it to be something that was relatively immediate and fresh. In some ways, that can make things feel even more like they just came from your internal thoughts, because you don't stop to polish them off, and spend a lot of time working them over, they're just there."

What was it like, when Gemini came out, having this confined, personal project going out unto the world, sharing what you were doing with so many people? What did it feel like letting go?
"It was very strange. I, of course, didn't realise the reach that it might have. Having people on the other side of the world hear the things I was saying —that were, at the time, very personal things, expressed in very personal moods— was definitely surreal. I was just very naive, I think, to not realise it was going to happen like that; that once this record was out in the world, literally anyone who wanted would be able to hear it. It wasn't something I was upset about; I was very happy to have the success that I did. But it took me a while to get used to it. Because, at that time, I was a very, very private person."

How did that then play out with making those private songs into a liveshow to be performed in a public space?
"The thing with the first record is that I didn't give myself any boundaries, I didn't think about how they would be played live, or how many people it would take to play the songs. So, when we put a band together, we had to make a lot compromises in the way we played things. It was simultaneously frustrating and exciting, for me. In terms of the way these songs had been such a product of my own insular nature, for other people to hear them, and interpret them, and try to play along with them, that was hard for me, but I was also so happy to see it happen."

How did those experiences influence —or not influence— Nocturne?
"Knowing what I was getting myself into with the second record —that I would be recording it, touring it, thinking about how the songs would translate live— definitely influenced Nocturne. I tried to make songs simpler. There's still quite a few moments on the record where I dropped those boundaries and added some extra things that we wouldn't be able to do live. I just feel if I have the urge to put something on the record, I shouldn't fight that urge."

Did you have any thought of making this a more band-oriented record? Or did you want it to feel solitary, still?
"I was still really wanting to work on it as myself. To write all the parts, still. I got a drummer to come in to the sessions, but I play everything else myself."

The first album felt very filled with specific reference points; was Nocturne the same, for you, in working on it? Or did you try and escape that?
"There were definitely a lot of things we used as reference points for this album, and we were pulling from a more eclectic field. In the studio we'd listen to the Beach Boys, David Bowie, Tones On Tail, The Church, tons of Fleetwood Mac. There was a lot more that went into this album, whereas the last album was looking, pretty specifically, at this classic handful of bands: The Smiths were huge, Cocteau Twins were huge, Joy Division, New Order, The Cure; all those big ones that people spotted pretty obviously. They were all the big ones; the first 'cool' bands I ever loved, and they influenced my first-ever attempts to approach making that kind of music."

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