It's been quite a year for Jack Tatum. Last summer, he fled rural Virginia to record his debut album under the moniker Wild Nothing. The result was Gemini, one of our favorite records of the year and the product of the 22-year-old's obsession with vintage indie pop. The classic sound is great, but let Jack tell it, and he's more than an "'80s revival band," which is actually right. The recent college grad has a story of his own. Non-stop touring, girlfriend problems, and impending career decisions all play a role. Read our interview with the rock rookie below and find out the rest...
LISTEN: Wild Nothing "Summer Holiday" from Gemini (2010)
Interview by Ernest Baker
Complex: You were making music in your bedroom less than a year ago, then you were playing shows all over the country. Is it disappointing to be back in Virginia?
Jack: No, it's been good. It's a nice change of pace after being on the road for a while.
Complex: Did you grow up there your whole life?
Jack: Yeah, I grew up in Williamsburg, Virginia, which is pretty close to Virgina Beach and Richmond. It's like right in between. I grew up there and Blacksburg and went to school at Virginia Tech. So I've been here my whole life.
Complex: You must have just finished school, right?
Jack: Yeah, I graduated in May.
Complex: Was music still your focus the whole time you were studying?
Jack: Yeah, it's always been my main hobby and what I'm best at and what I enjoy doing more than anything else. But that's also something I didn't even fully realize until this past year. Being able to make records and play shows for a living? Just a year ago that seemed so unrealistic.
Complex: What were your post-school plans had music not taken off?
Jack: I don't even know. It came at the perfect time because going into my junior year of college I didn't really know what I was going to do at all. I think I would have still ended up in a place like New York because I knew I wanted to get to a more urban area, but that was as far as I took it.
Complex: Were Facepaint and Jack & The Whale just fun high school and college bands? Nothing you were taking seriously as a career?
Jack: Oh yeah, exactly. Those were purely for fun. Especially Jack & The Whale. That was just high school stuff. It's funny to me that those names are associated with what I do now.
Complex: Where does the name Wild Nothing come from?
Jack: It's just one of those things. It doesn't mean anything at all. I feel like all band names are stupid when it comes down to it. You just have to pick one.
Complex: How was the transition to Wild Nothing? When and how did you decide you were going to make solo records with a sound reminiscent of indie pop from the 1980s?
Jack: Well, I guess it kind of started last summer. I was living in Savannah, Georgia with a buddy that goes to school down there. I went down there to live with him because he was a good high school friend who I don't get to see that often, and for a little break from Virginia. While I was there, I started writing these Wild Nothing songs and it didn't really feel that different to me. I didn't make plans for it or anything, but it just made sense to me. The bands that I was listening to and the kind of stuff that I was being inspired by at that time. It seemed to click for whatever reason and slowly started gaining attention.
Complex: Are there any records outside of New Order, The Smiths, and other '80s British bands, that influenced you?
Jack: In terms of what I have done with Wild Nothing, I think those are definitely the bands that I stylistically pulled from the most, but definitely not the only thing that I listen to. I'm really into Motown music and just general pop music. Pop structures. Stuff like Ariel Pink. I don't know.
Complex: Any surprises from other genres completely different than yours?
Jack: I'm interested in some hip-hop. Stuff like MF Doom or Dilla. Little Brother. I don't listen to a lot of intense hard rock or anything, though.
Complex: You told me you were moving stuff into your girlfriend's apartment. That relationship must be a big influence on your material. Have you been with her for a while?
Jack: Yeah, I've actually been with her since high school. Like my senior year of high school, kind of off and on. But yeah, that's definitely a source of inspiration.
Complex: Was last summer a rough time for you? The music sounds pretty sad.
Jack: I think it perfectly describes where I was when I was when I started writing these songs. There's this melancholy with some happy tinges to it. Last summer I was in a weird place with my girlfriend and just as a person, going into the last year of college. It felt like a big growing period. I was sort of lost and not totally sure where my life was heading. That played into it, but I don't want to say that it's a depressing album. It has a certain sadness to it, but I like to think it's fairly even.
Complex: Do all of your lyrics come from personal experiences or do you focus more on the style of the music and just go with whatever comes to you?
Jack: In terms of chords, and progressions, and general structure, I definitely want my songs to sound a certain way. Lyrically, I try to make it my own, but at the same time I'm not terribly interested in lyrics. They're always a second thought for me. I think a lot of my lyrics are intentionally vague and they might subconsciously pull from my own experiences.
Complex: Why are lyrics a second thought for you?
Jack: I don't know. It seems weird since I was interested in creative writing in college, but I just feel like the music is more important than what the lyrics have to say. When I listen to music I'm more interested in how the song sounds and how everything works together. Lyrics are just a bonus. I don't judge lyrics too harshly when I listen to music. If I was writing a story or poetry or something, I don't have to fit any type of mold, but in a song it's a lot more constrained. I think that's why I have a hard time with it.
Complex: So working in your homemade studio, how did the Wild Nothing sound begin to take shape?
Jack: I would record little pieces of songs or ideas that I had and go from there. That's really how most of the songs on my album started. I never really start with a fully fleshed-out idea.
Complex: How did things start to take off? I remember "Confirmation" was the first song I saw, around October .
Jack: When I first started recording the songs, I put maybe like three or four of them up on MySpace and I honestly did not expect anything to come from it at all. Then I just started adding a bunch of people and a bunch of labels. Mike from Captured Tracks said he was into it and asked me if I wanted to do a record. It was just weird because I hadn't even considered doing a record. I was just recording songs for the hell of it, but because of that I really buckled down and tried to make the best album that I could. Captured Tracks did a great job of getting the word out and then the Pitchfork review happened and things really started to pick up.
Complex: Are the songs on the Evertide EP that came after Gemini new? Are they home recordings also?
Jack: They're newer than the other songs for sure, but they're not terribly new. Those are home recordings as well.
Complex: Do you think you'll stick with that method of recording as new opportunities open up for you?
Jack: I think I'll always be interested in home recordings as a way to get ideas out because it's quick and easy, but I'm still super-interested in recording in a legitimate studio. That's something I would've never thought I had the means to do, but if I can then I'm definitely going to. I want to see how my songs would translate.
Complex: Do you have any records from recent sessions that we can look forward to or will everything from here on out be completely new material?
Jack: I still have a few unreleased songs that are even older than some of the stuff on Gemini. We might end up releasing those at some point, but honestly, I just like to keep pushing forward. I'm hoping that with the next album I'll be able to do all new material in the studio and try to make it real legit.
Complex: Do you think you'll revamp your sound? When you hear "Wild Nothing" you think of the '80s and reverb and layered vocals. Do you plan on toning down some of these effects, or are you pretty comfortable with your style and plan on sticking with it?
Jack: I'd like to reach some sort of happy medium between what I'm doing now and trying to glue that together with all of the other things that I'm interested in. I think the sort of textures on the album and the use of reverb and stuff helps my sound, so I'm not necessarily trying to get rid of that, but at the same time I have other ideas and musical influences that didn't really get to come out on this album.
Complex: What are some of those ideas?
Jack: I think my goal for the next album is try to make a solid pop record. I never really anticipated Gemini getting as much press and coverage as it has. I'm happy with how it turned out and I love the album and the style of music that it pays homage to, but I'm not interested in being an '80s revival band. I'm just interested in writing good pop songs. Songs that are catchy, but not in a cheap way. I don't want my next album to sound exactly the same. I don't think any artist or musician does.
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Complex: There are artists who take the safe route out of fear of alienating the people who loved their previous work.
Jack: Yeah, that's true and it's something to think about, but I don't get the feeling that I would alienate anyone by trying to change stuff up. If anything I would hope people would interested and psyched about that.
Complex: How has the transition to regularly performing live been?
Jack: It's been weird. I have a specific sound. You know, really hazy at times and really layered, and there are a lot of tracks happening at once. You can't possibly produce that live unless you're going to be a laptop band, which is something I didn't want to do. I've heard a lot of people call my music synth-pop but I think live it's definitely more guitar-driven and it has live drums and it's really becoming a band with a straightforward, honest rock set-up.
Complex: Did you play everything on the album?
Jack: Yes, I played guitar, bass, and synthesizer. And all the synthesizer stuff wasn't programs. It was like an actual vintage synthesizer.
Complex: So the drums were programmed?
Jack: Yeah, the drums are the only things that are programmed. I didn't really have time to record drums because I had these ideas coming quick and just wanted to get them out. And recording drums is kind of hard to do, especially if you're working with a limited budget and set-up. It just wasn't something I could realistically do. At the same time, it kind of helps give it the feel that it has.
Complex: How do you feel about playing live now that you have more experience? Which one do you prefer between recording and playing live?
Jack: I definitely prefer recording. It's just what I feel most comfortable with. Songwriting and producing are also the most rewarding for me creatively. You don't have as much room to do what you want to do when you're playing live, but I'm getting used to it. At first, I honestly hated playing live, but recently, over the last tour, I finally started to realize, "This is fun and this is something I can get excited about."
Complex: What makes live shows more tolerable now?
Jack: Just getting used to playing together. We've gotten a lot tighter. Being able to see people react more positively. Now that the album is out, people know the songs and kind of know what to expect. Before, it was just like we were playing to crowds and no one knew who we were and it didn't help that I'm pretty shy. Being in front of an audience has never been something that I'm super-comfortable with. It's still kind of overwhelming for me to deal with.
Complex: Yeah, I saw a show and you seem comfortable performing from an artist perspective, but that shyness does come through. Do you go out or anything when you're on the road?
Jack: I'm not totally reserved in all aspects of my personality and my social interactions. When I'm touring, I'm just hanging out with my friends because the guys in the band are good friends of mine, so we're all sort of still stuck in that college mentality. We drink and try to have a good time while we're in these different places, but a lot of times it's a necessity because you're in a new place every night, around people that you don't know, and it's one way to loosen up and not be so freaked out. Sometimes I would get super-overwhelmed or stressed out or something. Like, if I'm thinking about the big picture and everything that is going on and the scope of things. I party, but there are also the nights I don't and don't really feel like talking to anyone.
Complex: I know you're heading to Europe soon. Have you been there before?
Jack: No, I've never been overseas at all. So it'll be interesting. [Laughs]
Complex: How long are you there?
Jack: About a month. I think it's like 27 or 28 shows we end up doing all together.
Complex: Does your girl have a problem with you traveling so much now?
Jack: She's super-supportive, but at the same time I can tell that she's kind of bummed about it. And I'm kind of bummed about it, too. I mean, it's hard to be super-upset about touring Europe and stuff, because it's still crazy to me. I can't even believe I'm getting the opportunity to do all this stuff. It's hard being away from her, but I think she'll be fine. I know she wishes she could come with us.
Complex: What's your label situation? Captured Tracks released Gemini, but then I just saw this new Warmest Chord label released Evertide.
Jack: I'm on Captured Tracks. They put out the record and I'm going to be putting out the next record through them as well. The Warmest Chord thing is just like a one-off. They asked me if I wanted to do an online single EP a little while back, so I agreed to it. That'll probably be the only thing I do with them. I honestly do not know that much about them as a label.
Complex: Do you have a target date for when the next record or at least some new material will surface?
Jack: I really don't know about the next record. It probably won't be for a while, to be honest. I hope to do another EP, at the very least another single, in the fall or winter. I'm actually going to move up to New York in the fall and I really doubt I'll start working on the new album until I'm settled up there.
Complex: It's easy to assume, but why the move?
Jack: It's something that I've been thinking about for a while. I don't want to say I'm sick of Virginia, but I'm definitely ready to get out for a while and live somewhere a little more fast-paced. [Laughs.] My girlfriend has been wanting to live there for a long time too. It just makes sense. The label is up there and I've already met so many people and made a lot of connections there. It just seems like a natural decision.
Complex: How do you like New York from the times you've visited?
Jack: I mean, I love it, honestly. It's a great place. I've been up there many times before and I have a good amount of friends from Virginia that live up there. It's cool. I've definitely started feeling way more comfortable there as far as getting around and getting to know places in Brooklyn. I haven't really explored Manhattan too much.
Complex: That's funny. It's usually the other way around.
Jack: Yeah, basically. We still haven't played a show in Manhattan and I don't think we will until like August, at Bowery [Ballroom]. All the shows we've played have been in Brooklyn, so that's where I've spent the most time.
Complex: After touring with a band, do you feel like that's an element you'd like to bring into the studio?
Jack: That's something I haven't really decided yet. It's been strange because the album was entirely me, but we have been playing together and we mesh well, so I've thought about trying to get them into the studio with me and stuff. At the same time, I'm kind of a control freak about my songs. I'm just so used to recording by myself. It's comfortable and how I work best. It kind of sucks because you don't have anyone to check your bad ideas, but because of that you have free range to creatively do whatever you want. But I definitely want to have live drums, at the very least, on the next album.
Complex: Since there's no one to check your bad ideas, do you freak out when you see criticism online?
Jack: I don't take it to heart. It was kind of hard at first, but at a certain point you just don't give a shit anymore. Some people are going to say good things, some people are going to say bad things. Sometimes the bad things are good because they make you aware of something, but for the most part I don't take it too seriously.