Interview: Wild Nothing Talks "Nocturne," Escaping Fame, and Recording in Brooklyn

Jack Tatum shares insights on his sophomore album, Greenpoint's Rare Book Room, and touring with DIIV.

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Complex Original

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Three years ago, Jack Tatum was living in an off-campus apartment in his hometown of Blacksburg, VA where he recorded a number of indie pop songs that would later become his debut Wild Nothing album, Gemini. The record went on to catch fire with music critics, launching Tatum into a sort of indie fame which he later escaped from in Savannah, GA, where he spent a few months writing his second album, Nocturne.

Wild Nothing has come a long way from the days in that off-campus apartment. With Nocturne out today, Tatum spoke with Complex on the time he spent holed up in Savannah, recording at Rare Book Room in NYC, performing with a live band, and his tour with DIIV that set off earlier this month. 

Interview by Lauren Nostro (@LAURENcynthia)

I saw your show with Grimes and DIIV earlier this month at Pier 84, what did you think of playing such a huge venue?
I definitely prefer playing club shows to big outdoor shows, but it’s fun, it’s great. I prefer club shows because I feel that it suits my music better. There’s something that’s more intimate about it and it’s different than looking out and just seeing a giant crowd of people.

The last album was so all over the place in terms of instrumentation, which was largely due to me not knowing what I was doing and not thinking about playing shows.

I know that when you record it’s mainly you, so what’s it like playing live with a band?
It’s great. We’ve been playing as a band since the beginning and two of the guys who are with me now have been there since the beginning. We’ve seen a few people come and go but the core of the band is still the same. It’s fun. It used to be frustrating a few years ago when we first started, especially because the last album was so all over the place in terms of instrumentation, which was largely due to me not knowing what I was doing and not thinking about playing shows. We’re a five-piece band now so it's been fun. It’s different, everyone puts their own spin on it and it’s not just five versions of me playing the song. Everyone has little vague things they change.

Was the writing behind Nocturne different because you did anticipate going on tour and doing live shows?
Yeah, it was a lot different. I wasn’t super strict on myself about it, but I was thinking about it a lot. We spent almost two years on the road playing songs and it was something that was on my mind after that. When I was working on the next record, I wanted to think about how the songs were going to be written and how they might be translated later. There’s a certain sense of trying to do that on this record and having live drums on the record was one big aspect of that. I'm trying to bridge that gap of Wild Nothing as a band versus as a recording project. I think that’s something that’s really going to help.

I read that you did a lot of the songwriting down in Savannah, Georgia. What made you choose to go there?
I was living in Blacksburg when the album came out. That’s where I went to school. We started touring a lot so I was just on the road. I didn’t even have an apartment. I was just floating. When we finally had a tiny little break, we had two months where we weren’t going to play any shows, I knew people in Savannah so I moved down there. I wouldn’t say it was on a whim but I had this window of time so I moved down there. I liked the place. It was cheap so I was there for about a year and was on and off tour. I started writing the album down there.

I thought I wanted to be down there as an escape to get away from music, but I was around music all of the time and I started hating it.

This was right after you got a lot of recognition for Gemini and went on tour for a while. What was that experience like for you?
It was crazy. My life took this unexpected turn and I was traveling way more than I thought I was going to be. In a lot of ways, I wore myself out. When I stopped touring and went back to Georgia, it was the first time I had a few months to myself to just relax and think about writing again. There was a lot going on and I think I started getting restless down there. Initially I thought I wanted to be down there as an escape to get away from music, but I was around music all of the time and I started hating it. After a couple of months of being down in Georgia and just not doing a whole lot musically, I started to miss it and I started to squirm in my own skin because I didn’t really know what to do with myself.

What were you doing instead?
I was working on music and just recording. I wasn’t working or anything when I was down there. I think that was a large part of it. I started going crazy and there was nothing else to do but worry about what I was going to do musically. It was stressful at first but it ended up being okay. I was able to find a comfortable pattern of writing and working on music while I was down there. It ended up becoming a bit obsessive because I didn’t really do much else than work on music. I wasn’t particularly social or anything. I would pretty much hole myself up and work on music.

Are you happy with the final product?
Yeah, I am. There were a lot of times when I was bored as shit and I didn’t know what I was doing.

So then you moved to New York?
I moved to Brooklyn. It’s been good. That definitely went into the album. I did most of the writing in Savannah when I had so much time on my hands and I wasn’t really social at all. Then I moved up to New York and I found my place and peace again and recorded the album up here. I’ve been enjoying living here.

With the first record, there’s moments that when I look back now, I wish I had done things differently.

Where did you record the album in Brooklyn?
I recorded it at this studio called Rare Book Room which is run by Nicolas Vernhes, who is a producer. It’s in Greenpoint, which is where I live. I had met him before and when I moved up here, I was trying to figure out who was going to do the album. It felt really comfortable to do it there. We spent about three weeks in the studio.

At the start of your career, you were recording most of your music at home. What were the sessions like in the Greenpoint studio?
It was a lot different. The process of recording was far different. I still wrote a lot of the songs in the same way. When I was in Georgia, I was demoing a lot of stuff and had tons of sketches of songs. When I finally went into the studio, most of the material was there but it was just a matter of fishing through it and finding the good pieces and figuring out the sounds. It was really good for me, we would spend 10 hours a day working on the record for three weeks. It was really productive, it was nice. There was so much that I was able to do there that I don’t think I would have been able to do on my own and just having another person there was great.

What was it like recording in that studio as someone who is used to self-editing all of your own music?
I think it was a lot better. Having Nicolas to bounce ideas off of, he was a good gauge to see when it was appropriate for me to indulge in certain moments and when it was not appropriate to in others. Especially with the first record, there’s moments that when I look back now, I wish I had done things differently.

Anything specific?
There’s certain songs in parts that I wish I had taken more time on or I wish I had done more takes to get things smoother. Nicolas was really good in terms of that and just trying to get the best takes possible and editing my ideas to make them more concise.

This album is really not an attempt to separate myself from what I had done before.

Do you think your sound has changed a lot on the new album?
This album is really not an attempt to separate myself from what I had done before. It’s very much still in the same world. The important thing for me was to find a place for the people that like my music, that can still find that thing about it that they liked on the last record. I think that’s still there, in the melodic sense and songwriting it’s still there, but I was able to change it up so it would be interesting for me so I didn’t feel like I was just doing the same thing over again.

I think the instrumentation is a little bit more cleaned up and less reliant on certain techniques. It’s still very much an ethereal record at certain parts. I think Nicolas was huge on this too because there were so many moments when I just wanted to bliss out on the way that it sounded and he would be like, ‘No we have to keep this very simple, as simple as possible.’ That was definitely a part of it.

You took inspiration from '80s music and you spoke with us a few years ago on some of your favorite albums from the '80s. What inspiration did you have going into this project? Anything new?
There’s a lot of stuff that we were listening to when I made the record. it was actually pretty fun because Nicolas and I would grab lunch and take it back to the studio and listen to records as we ate, talk about different production techniques and sounds and things we liked. We basically enacted this library of ideas where we can pick certain things that we liked about each thing. It’s still a record that’s still based in 80s guitar pop and it delves into early 90s alternative music a little bit too.

There’s also a lot of references on the album that maybe wouldn’t be immediately noticeable. We were listening to everything from The Beach Boys to David Bowie and even the first Madonna record. We would pull that up sometimes and listen to it just in terms of the production. That record is such a bright record, EQ-wise, it’s crisp and bright, and we were just trying to figure out what we wanted to do with our record. We were listening to a lot of Tones on Tail which is a Bauhaus side project. A lot of things that people maybe wouldn’t expect to be part of the process but I think we were really looking at sounds and figure out what would be appropriate on the record.

I don’t think it will ever get to the point where I release a record and someone says it’s a New York record. I don’t think of myself as a New Yorker yet.

Moving to New York and being surrounded by so many other indie bands in New York, what separates Wild Nothing?
I guess I don’t really think of it in terms of that. I’ve never really been one to associate myself geographically very much. I still really feel like Virginia is my home. I have so much history there and I grew up there. I think I’ll always feel like that’s such a huge part of me. Even being in Georgia, I don’t think living in Savannah influenced the record necessarily as a place. I don’t think it will ever get to the point where I release a record and someone says it’s a New York record. I don’t think of myself as a New Yorker yet. I’ve been here for six months, I don’t think I have the right to say that at all. [Laughs.] I don’t feel like Wild Nothing will ever be talked about as a Brooklyn band because I don’t think that’s the way that it is.

What are you looking forward to right now? The album is dropping, you’re going on your first major tour, there’s a lot ahead of you in the next few weeks.
We did a tour with Beach House in July to sort of gear up for everything but the tour we’re doing with DIIV in September is the first tour that we’ll be doing in support of this record. I’m excited to tour with a band that I really like and to hit a lot of spots that we haven’t been in over a year now.

Are you performing at home on the tour?
The thing about Blacksburg is, I love Blacksburg to death, there’s a lot of things I like about it but it’s not a music town. There’s no where to play in Blacksburg unless it’s a sports bar or someone’s basement so it’s not really something that we can do. Even though I still have a lot of friends in Blacksburg, there’s only so many people that would come to a Wild Nothing show in Blacksburg. It’s not like I ever had success in Blacksburg.

I haven’t been to Blacksburg in a while, actually, a lot of my friends there have moved away. There’s still definitely a handful of friends that live there but Virginia, everything is close enough, we’ll still play Virginia every time we come through, but not Blacksburg. We just played Richmond and we’re going to play Charlottesville in September, so anywhere that we play in Virginia, it feels like a homecoming show and we have friends that will come. We are, in a sense, playing home.

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