Wild Nothing interview: "It's a much bigger sounding record, just in terms of how clear and crystal the production is."
On Friday, Wild Nothing released Indigo, the fourth album from Jack Tatum’s musical project. More than ever, the leap in sound quality is massive, especially when considering the lo-fi bedroom sound of his debut album Gemini from 2010. This is something that Tatum is especially proud of, and has aspired to for years, being a fan of maximalist pop music of the 70s and 80s.
We discussed this, and many other influences and thoughts about Indigo, as I called him in LA, where he was in the middle of packing up his life in preparation for another cross country move.
It's only been two years since the previous album, but there's been quite a lot of change in your life coming into Indigo, mainly moving to LA - how's that been treating you?
It's been good! I guess I moved to LA right around the time the last record was coming out. I'm actually already planning another move - I seem to move every time I release a record, I don't know why, it's just bad life timing. But I'm actually planning on moving back to the East Coast, to Virginia, in about a week. So I've been spending the last week and a half packing up my apartment.
Wow, crazy, are you sad to go?
Yeah, definitely! I've really enjoyed living here, but I just got married recently and we just decided we wanted to get back to the East Coast. I think the older I get the more I just want to be close to my family. I used to dread the thought of moving back to Virginia, because it's where I grew up, but since I've left it's gotten considerably cooler I think, and I like the idea of going back to where I started. I can romanticise it.
When you look back I guess Indigo will be your "LA album" - do you think Los Angeles influenced the sound at all?
Yeah, I do. I think living here shaped the way that I worked on this record, in a lot of sort of more day-to-day practical ways. But also just in terms of just the folk lore of Los Angeles. It's a really interesting city to live in for a while; it's a really hard city to figure out, I think. For the longest time I actually really disliked Los Angeles, and maybe that has a lot to do with growing up on the East Coast. When I was a kid I never had an interest in coming to Los Angeles, and I think that ended up changing a lot after I started coming out to California and playing shows. At first I couldn't connect to it, it seemed so sprawling. Everything felt so grey to me, it was like grey with palm trees on top. But the more time I spent out here, I really did like it. I had an outside studio for the first time, working on this record, just for the demo process. I wasn't working out of my apartment for this record, which I think changed the way that I worked on things.
It's a completely new personnel for this album, is that because they were local people?
It's always been the case that I record most of the instruments myself, I'll demo out the entire record, and there'll be pieces of those recordings that end up carrying over into the final record, but usually I'll demo things and then go into a studio and then track on top of the demos, and then it becomes this weird sort of hybrid. That definitely was still the case with this record, but there were more musicians involved in this record than in the past. Partially that was due to working with my producer Jorge Elbrecht, who I think really encouraged me to bring more people into the mix. It ended up being really good, we had a couple of people come in and kind of make a studio band, just for the record, and so we tracked basically the entire record live. I had a three-piece guitar, drums, bass, so we tracked live, which I had never done before on any of the past records, and then we tracked additional stuff on top of that. It was pretty old fashioned in a lot of ways, just a pretty old school record making process.
How do you think that has effected the final product for the listener?
I think for one there's more spontaneity on this record, and obviously I understand that's something I'm going to hear more than someone else because I was there and knew the process and knew what parts were written and what parts weren't. But I think through doing that and through playing these songs with these other musicians, I do think it gives a certain energy to the record, a certain excitement which is hard to do when you're just one person tracking over yourself.
One of the names I noticed in the credits is your wife Dana, who sings on 'The Closest Thing To Living', how did that come about?
We just thought it would be fun. I was closing in on finishing the record, there were maybe two weeks there where we were slowly working through the songs, tracking the vocals. We were working on that song and Dana came in and sang, and Jorge also sang on that song, and another LA musician Sasami Ashworth came in and sang on that one and ended up singing on a number of other songs as well. It was just for fun, it was a good time.
Dana shows up a lot of other times in the lyrics of the songs, there's a lot of devotional songs I guess are written about her?
Yeah, definitely. Some of them are very much direct love songs that are about her, and other ones are more about our relationship and the ebb and flow of being in a really long term relationship. In a lot of ways I think this is a very domestic record, it's a pretty honest look at being in this very grounded relationship and what that means after going through relationships that weren't that way. It's largely a record about learning to deal with that, and there's so many positives to that but there's also these moments of self-doubt and moments of "are we doing the right thing with our lives? What is really important to us?" It's a hard thing to describe, because I think the scope is large - at least in terms of what's going on in my own life.
You've found quite a lot of interesting metaphors to express it. Opening track 'Letting Go' is pretty much directly about that, right?
Yeah, absolutely, 'Letting Go' is a fairly direct song. It can be interpreted in a number of different ways; I think I initially wrote the song as a relationship song, but it could really be about exiting a horrible relationship or giving into the acceptance of entering a long term relationship too - because that has its own stress involved. It's largely good stress, but it's still this giving in to making important decisions about the people that are in your life.
On 'Partners In Motion', I'm interested in the perspective, because it seems to be being sung from someone on the outside of the partnership.
Basically the way that song got started, at least in terms of the lyrics, was that we have these friends that have two small kids, and I guess it was Christmas and I was helping them build this doll house for their daughter. It was so intricate and so complicated to put this thing together, so I was spending a lot of time just looking at this doll house and there was something about it that struck me, this idea of creating a miniaturised world to play pretend life, I thought it was really interesting, so I kept thinking about dollhouses.
So I wrote the song as the idea of looking in on someone's life, on someone's mundane day-to-day. In some ways it became, for me, a making fun of these things, but also in a lot of ways making fun of myself. It is sort of like an outside perspective, and it an be interpreted as looking in on myself, or looking in on another similar situation, looking at all these things that I worry about unnecessarily. It's kind of a self-doubt song in some ways, but also a song about the minutiae of day to day life, and these little details of obsessively placing picture frames - all these little things that don't matter, but somehow we end up stressing over. At least me, I always stress the details of things, whereas Dana my wife is much more of a big picture person, and it's so frustrating to me sometimes that I get caught up in these obsessive details of things.
That's interesting, and you named the instrumental 'Dollhouse', so I guess that image was really on your mind.
What was the inspiration for 'Wheel of Misfortune'? Not something bad, I hope.
No, no. I actually think of that song as a positive anthem.
Yeah, I was unsure if it's cynical or sympathetic.
I view it as sympathetic, because for me the chorus being "everyone takes their turn at the wheel of misfortune," it's trying to kind of be sympathetic to the fact the we all have moments of getting our teeth kicked in. That song is kind of an interesting song on the record just because it's one of the few songs that I wrote start to finish just on the guitar in one sitting, which I very very rarely do. That song started off as a very plain, modest song in some ways, but in terms of the style of the song and how we ended up recording it, it's definitely a play on Fleetwood Mac or Prefab Sprout.
Yeah, it's definitely come a long way since just the guitar. The whole album sounds lush, but 'Wheel Of Misfortune' is one of my favourite sounding songs.
Yeah it's one of my favourites as well. It is interesting, you're the first person to talk about that song and question whether or not it's cynical or sympathetic, and it's interesting because I always thought of it as trying to be an uplifting song, but it's more depressing than I realised!
Yeah, there's things like "heartache 2.0", and it seems quite cynical about modernity; "all fools in traffic."
Yeah, I mask my sympathy in cynicism I guess.
The "fools in traffic" music must come from living in LA.
Yeah, it's so stupid that it becomes a thing that defines your life, but it really does here. You have to plan so much of your day around whether you're going to have to sit in traffic or not. It becomes part of your life. That is definitely something that it's easy to be cynical about.
We mentioned 'The Closest Thing To Living' briefly, but I want to go back to it. It seems quite angry, particularly in the guitar, which seems like the harshest guitar we've heard in a Wild Nothing song.
I wouldn't call it angry, but it's intentionally dramatic. I've always been a huge Kate Bush fan, and there's a lot of great moments in her songs where things will be very pretty, but then get ugly very quickly, or there'll be moments in her songs that can be interpreted as being pretty aggressive, intentionally aggressive; that was something that I've always liked, so I wanted to work that into a song. Originally 'The Closest Thing To Living' was pretty mellow, the vibe was more like on the verses where there's fretless bass, but then I liked the idea of introducing these really ragged guitars - I think especially towards the end it really propels the song, with all the group vocals and everything like that. It was a fun song to work on, at least from a production standpoint, and trying to get that mood right.
Do you ever get to a point in adding stuff to a song when you feel like you've gone too far and have to scale back?
Yeah, absolutely; I have a tendency to do that, for sure. So much of the end process is trying to figure out where I did that, and how I can fix it [Laughs]. It's kind of my crutch in some ways, to just continue to add more and more layers of things. I say it's my crutch, but it's also such a large part of my music, and such an important technique for me because I do like pretty dense music. I like music that has a lot of layers and I love listening to songs and not even hearing certain lines of instruments the first few times, and then being able to unwrap it layer by layer - that's something I really value in music, so I always hope there's an element of that in the music I make.
Do you have examples of albums or artists whose layered music inspired you?
I think there's a lot of albums that came out in the late 70s and 80s, art rock stuff, people like Kate Bush or Peter Gabriel even. I think some people have mixed feelings about Peter Gabriel's music, but I really love Peter Gabriel, and I think he's someone who did a really good job of that, using textures and studio techniques to really stretch pop music and the expectations of rock pop music during that era.
Was 'Canyon On Fire' inspired by driving around the Hollywood Hills?
Yeah, that's the most LA-driven song on the record probably. It's really fun to drive around certain parts of LA, it's like people watching but on a large scale; it's geography watching and house watching. It's fun because of how jarring it is; I hate to call it fun, because really what it is is that it's so clear in LA, this wealth disparity; the line in the song is "let's drive around and see how other people live." It's so bizarre living in Los Angeles and being able to drive round and see these ridiculous mansions that people live in. At a certain point it all blends together, and even though it's not these McMansion type homes, you start to realise that the dream is all the same; all these people had the same dream, which is to get a house in the Hollywood Hills. It's a weird feeling, I think it's really easy in LA to see things for how they are in terms of wealth and the way people live, and things start to seem really excessive.
The last song on the album, 'Bend', was co-written with Mitski, how did that come about?
Since I've been living in LA, I signed a publishing deal, and since doing that I've been doing a lot of co-writing things; the publishing company will say "you should meet up with this person and work on some stuff." It's been weird, I've done some pop song writing stuff since I've been out here, I've worked with a handful of different people, and a lot of the times it feels like a weird blind date and nothing really comes of it. But Mitski and I got set up to work on some stuff together, and we hit it off, and we ended up opening up a few songs that I had been working on, and that was one of them. So basically when I was working with her the music was more or less done, but there were no vocals - no vocal melody or lyrics - and she just helped me spitball ideas for vocal melodies. It was great! It was really really fun working with her. It's kind of rare that I open myself up to working with other people, at least in terms of the writing side of it, but it was really actually so beneficial to that song. It really helped open up that song in a lot of ways.
There's so much sax on this record, it's quite a characterful instrument on here, what is it that makes you like to use it so much and why do you think it works so well?
I think it's just another colour, another texture. I think it adds something very human to my music. I don't think of my music as being synth-driven music; I think a lot of people, when they talk about my music, gravitate towards the synths because they're there and present, but I don't think of my music as synth music. I always think of my records as rock music with keyboards and other instruments. I think especially on this record I made more of an effort to go back to using guitars in ways that I didn't on the last record. But anyway, as far as the sax, it's a human element, it's another instrument that feels organic but is also very easily manipulated, so it's a really fun instrument to kind of fuck with and alter and strangle and do all these things to it, to kind of make it sound different. I like that it can feel very natural and organic, and I like that you can also just screw with it. Like the saxophone sound in 'Partners In Motion' for instance, using this reverse reverb on the saxophone, it sounds slightly otherworldly but it's still very much a blaring saxophone solo - there's no mistaking it.
When people listen to Indigo, what do you hope they take away from it?
I think it depends on who's listening to it; I tend to think a lot about the people that are potentially going to hear this record and it might be the first time they've ever heard my music, and so there's that, but there's also people that may have been listening to me for years. It's always interesting to consider how different people might approach this record, and if they're approaching it as a fan or just a completely new listener. I do think in a lot of ways this record was an attempt, at least on some level, to really reach for something a little bigger. I think it's a much bigger sounding record, just in terms of how clear and crystal the production is - as much as we could make it. I really did want it to sound like a pretty pristine studio record, so I hope that comes across. I hope that people can relate to the songs in the way that they have in the past; there's much less heartache on this record, but I feel that there's still things on this record that'll hopefully be universal for people. At the end of the day I can't worry too much about how people respond to this record, I have to be proud of the thing that I've made, which I am.
And lastly, I always like to ask if there's any other media like books or films that you'd like recommend or maybe had an influence on the record?
The last song on the record, 'Bend', the lyrics for that song are based pretty directly on Wings Of Desire, the Wim Wenders movie, and if people haven't seen that I definitely recommend that - that's a film that had a pretty big impact on me. I've been reading a lot of sci-fi stuff and also just futurology kind of stuff, people talking about technology and what to expect in the future, so I've been reading a fair amount of Ray Kurzweil. I read Thomas Dobly's biography pretty recently, that was fun.
Wild Nothing’s new album Indigo is out now on Captured Tracks.
This article was originally published on The 405 - 4th September 2018.