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Interview: Jack Tatum of Wild Nothing

*Jack Tatum* of *Wild Nothing*
13 November 2019

Photo by Cara Robbins

Jack Tatum calls from Richmond, Virginia, where he is on a short break from the latest string of tour dates with his acclaimed indie dream pop band, Wild Nothing. A native Virginian, he and his wife returned there about a year ago after living in Los Angeles for a few years. “I’ve still got family here, and I really like it,” he says. “It’s so much more mellow. For where I’m at right now, it’s what I needed. I feel quite calm most of the time.” But not at this precise moment, where he is momentarily startled to report that there’s a sudden hailstorm happening outside his window. “That’s really weird,” he says, before returning to discussing Wild Nothing’s decade-long evolution. Originally, Wild Nothing was just Tatum, writing and recording all of the music by himself. After a debut release, Gemini, attracted significant critical praise and fan interest, Tatum realized he’d have to hire other musicians to make touring possible. He has subsequently brought in other band members to play on three more studio albums, three EPs, and just this past September, their first live album, Live from Brooklyn Steel. Through it all, Tatum has remained the band’s primary songwriter. But even now, coming up on a decade of leading Wild Nothing from one success to the next, Tatum still seems surprised to find himself in this “professional musician” role, especially as he contemplates the next album and beyond.

How are people receiving your new-ish material on your latest tour dates?

JACK TATUM: We’re a little over a year out from the last record Indigo being released, so it’s cool. You notice the changes: when you first start playing songs, there’s always that little bit of a learning curve, where people are getting used to them. So for people that are fans, they’ve been living with this record for a while, so now they’re really familiar with it. But we’ve never really been the type of band to bash people over the head with our new material. I’ve always thought of this band as looking at my catalog as a whole. The more shows you play, the longer you do it – and I’ve been doing it now for nearly ten years – you know what people want and expect. And so that’s how I approach the live show. I make these records for myself, and then I tour for other people. It’s not like I don’t enjoy it, but I do it because I want to have that relationship with the people that listen to the music. They have a very different relationship to the material than I do. For them, it’s about the whole thing. So we like playing a lot of older stuff, as well. I feel like sometimes people are surprised when they see us play, just because the live show has always been very rock-centric. I think it’s a stereotype that this band does very chilled music.

And now you’ll have new studio material coming out pretty soon?

JACK TATUM: Yeah, there’s some stuff on the way early next year that I just haven’t really been talking about publicly quite yet. I’ve got an EP we’re probably going to be releasing at the top of the year in 2020. I am always working on material. I feel like I’m in an interesting position, being 10 years into this band. I feel like I’ve had this very long career already, but at the same time, I’m only 31 years old. I’ve been in a strange reflective mood recently! [laughs] I’m trying to figure out what I want to do with Wild Nothing for the next record, but I’m also very interested in trying to do more collaboration and more production work over the next year, and seeing where that takes me. When I started this band, I truly had no idea what I was doing. When you’re 20 years old and finding yourself with this little bit of surprise success, it’s a weird position to be in, because you just have to go with what’s happening without really being able to process it. With every record and every tour that I’ve ever done, it’s like you gain a little bit more confidence and understanding of what it is that you’re doing. It’s a weird career.

How’d you know you wanted to be a musician in the first place?

JACK TATUM: It was really the only thing that I was ever passionate about, really. I grew up in a musical family – my dad plays guitar. It was never pushed on me, by any means, but it was sort of understood, in a way, that this was available to me if I chose to take it. And so I started to learn guitar and get interested in composition at a pretty early age. I’ve always been a very practical person, in a lot of ways, so when I was in college, I didn’t really think that music as a career was an option, even though I was simultaneously consumed with it. I was studying communications. I still view myself as more of a fan of music than a musician in so many ways, because obviously my life is consumed with playing music, but it’s also consumed with an almost academic obsession with music, too. So I thought that I wanted to write about music, for the longest time. But then, as I was writing and had the first record come out, it slowly morphed into, “OK, well, I guess I’m a musician now, this is what I’m doing,” but it took a while to get used to that fact. I really didn’t feel comfortable accepting it for a long time.

Is that why, when you started, you used a band name, instead of using your own name as a solo artist?

JACK TATUM: Yeah, I think so. Especially at that time, in the late 2000s, I think it was much more the norm and a desirable thing to hide your identity behind a band name. People were much more interested in this idea of anonymity in association with the music. Whereas now, it’s the total opposite. I think it has a lot to do with social media being very different than it was 10 years ago. I feel like the majority of the people that I see that are coming up, it’s just their name, and they’re like, “This is me, here I am!” I think that’s cool, but it’s very different.

How did you pick the name Wild Nothing? I don’t remember ever reading anything about that.

JACK TATUM: Probably because there’s not a good story behind it! [laughs] I was just a 20-year-old trying to come up with a band name. Everyone had the two-word band names at the time, so I’d throw random words together and see what sounded good, and Wild Nothing is what I landed on. I liked that it felt vague and open-ended, and there seemed to be a dichotomy between the words “wild” and “nothing”: the openness of something being wild, and then nothingness.

After starting out doing everything yourself, you’ve gradually brought in other people, in the studio and on tour. What’s it be4en like to open up your work to others like that?

JACK TATUM: It’s been good for me. I think, ultimately, collaboration is a really key part to having a healthy creative life. That’s something that’s taken time for me to learn, and come to some sort of peace with that idea. For the longest time, I really felt like if I couldn’t do it all myself, I wasn’t talented enough. I put so much weight on myself to be in control of every aspect of my music. Sometimes that is good: you hear about people doing things on their own and oftentimes, it is better in some ways because there’s this more defined intent, there’s a clear vision because it’s a singular vision. But at the same time, you get into the very practical things that go into making music – it’s a lot of hard work, so putting all of that on yourself is kind of crazy. And you miss out on certain ideas and opportunities when you don’t allow collaboration. With the first record, where I did everything, I hear it. Then listening to my other records, I can pinpoint the places where that was somebody else’s idea, that was them shifting and shaping what I was trying to do. I like that. I like being able to recognize that in my own music.

Your albums are known for being so polished, if that’s the right word, in contrast to the lo-fi approach so many of your peers take. Why do you like it to sound that way?

JACK TATUM: I think of my records as pop records, in so many ways. I become really obsessive about the production, and I have a tendency to want things to sound pretty clean and pristine. I like records that sound really polished. That’s not the only kind of record that I like – there’s plenty of ramshackle records that I love and have deep connections to – but in general, I really like shiny records. That can be hard, because it involves a lot of microediting and detail management. It’s easy to let that become more important than other things. But whenever I start thinking about that, I have to step away from this tendency to self-criticize. After I put out a record, I’ll keep listening to it for months, just like, “I wish we had worked on this snare drum a little bit more!” [laughs] It’s so dumb.

Why do you do that to yourself?

JACK TATUM: I don’t know! I live for the creative torture. But part of it is that, as harsh as it is, I find it to be one of my greatest creative forces. It’s what keeps me wanting to make music, this pursuit of perfection, trying to get to a place that I know realistically I’ll never get to. But whenever I feel like I could’ve done better, that keeps me writing and working on records and becoming better.

Upcoming tour dates:
November 13 – Richmond, Virginia – The Broadberry
November 15 – Washington, DC – 9:30 Club
November 16 & 17 – Philadelphia, PA – Johnny Brendas
November 20 – Brooklyn, NY – Elsewhere


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