I can scarcely remember what I was doing at the age of 21 (I’m guessing it involved bong hits in a dorm room), but I’m pretty sure it didn’t involve seeing my bedroom recording project blossom into a full-time career or suddenly finding myself on the receiving end of international attention for writing songs that I never intended anyone else to actually hear. Jack Tatum — aka Wild Nothing — did actually have this experience after a few of his songs drew the attention of a record label who kindly suggested that he might want to try making an album. The album in question, 2010’s Gemini, became a kind of sleeper sensation — a confection of shoegazery guitars and blissed out indie-pop — and would ultimately make Tatum’s final year of college a much more complicated endeavor. Later this month he will release Nocturne, the second proper Wild Nothing full-length, and prepare to once again hit the road. Having finished college and relocated to NYC, Tatum is apparently much more prepared to deal with the realities of being in a rock and roll band than he was just a couple of years ago. I called him up to talk about what has happened since the release of his last album and the perils of unexpected success.
NOTE: I actually spoke to Jack Tatum twice for this piece. Just as I hung up the phone after our first interview — a truly lovely conversation that lasted over an hour — my trusty digital recorder slid across my desk and smashed into a million pieces on the floor or my office. Jack was kind enough to call me back the next day and basically talk about everything all over again, which was a little weird for both of us. Luckily, our second interview was even more interesting than the first go-round.
STEREOGUM: So, what has happened in the 24 hours since we last spoke?
TATUM: Ha! Not much. I’m still drinking coffee, walking around.
STEREOGUM: You have some downtime now before the record comes out and the endless touring begins. Where is the rest of your touring band? Is everyone here in NYC?
TATUM: I’m the only one who lives in New York. We’re kind of spread out right now. We’re kind of a funny band in that way, because we don’t really need to be together because I write all the music. With this last tour that we just did, we actually met up in Athens because that’s where two of the other members live. We met up down there and spent a couple of weeks practicing before we went on the road. I don’t know if that’s gonna be the norm for now or what, but that’s kind of the only way we need to do it. But two of the guys live in Athens and two of the other guys live in Virginia, but in different places.
STEREOGUM: Can you just send them the record and be like “Here it is! Start learning these songs and then we’ll play them when we see each other?”
TATUM: Kind of. It’s kind of a funny position at the end, being the sole songwriter, especially having written all the parts. When the album is finished and we have the lineup solidified — because it’s changed a little bit since the last time we toured — we added a member and got a new drummer. I send everyone the album just to be like “here it is, let’s start getting familiar with it and that kind of stuff.” I tabbed out a handful of the songs just to get things moving a little bit easier. Which is kind of funny, to write out my own music for my bandmates. But anything I can do to make things go smoother I’m happy to do. For the most part it was just kind of a matter of us all meeting and being together in the same room and just starting to learn the songs in pieces. It started really slowly, but luckily we’re all used to each other at this point, so it comes together pretty quickly.
STEREOGUM: The songs that eventually made it onto Nocturne — were any of them songs you’d played live previously?
TATUM: Yeah. We kind of took this long hiatus and stopped playing shows in September, but we played a few new songs on that last tour. I think only one of them ended up on the album. I think it was “Disappear Always” we were playing live for a little bit. And there were a couple other new songs that were kind of in the works that didn’t end up on the album. But for the most part it’s completely new material in terms of the live setting.
STEREOGUM: The record was recorded with Nicolas Vernhes at Rare Book Room in NYC. Was everything done earlier this year?
TATUM: That was in March of this year. It was like two months after I moved to New York, once I got settled and moved in. I don’t remember if we had talked about this or not yesterday, but he was someone I’d been introduced to and we had done a single together. We were somewhat familiar with each other and I was trying to figure out who I wanted to do the album with, basically throwing around a lot of ideas about how the album was going to get made. But at the same time I was making this big transition — I had moved to New York after I had been in Georgia for the past year, so I just kind of had a lot on my plate. Once I got up here and got settled we kind of got in touch again and I decided that I wanted to do it with him. It just felt right, I felt like I’d been putting off the album long enough. I felt like I was just kind of dancing around the idea of beginning it and when we finally got in touch again I was like “this feels right. I want to do it with Nicholas. I want to do it in New York and just get things rolling.” It was in March when we finally booked the studio time.
STEREOGUM: Based on the amount of interest in the previous record, were you approached by a lot of people wanting to work with you?
TATUM: It was one of those things where we ended up reaching out to a lot of people. There were some other people who were interested in working on the record, but it was really just me being like who do I want to do this record with? That’s why I picked Nicolas, mostly because I really like a lot of the records that he’s worked on and after meeting him and talking to him I really felt it would mesh well together. I’m a really big Deerhunter fan and I liked what he did with their album, so that kind of ended up being the deciding factor.
STEREOGUM: How does songwriting usually work for you? Has your process changed dramatically since you started?
TATUM: Yeah. It definitely did because with the first album, I was able to really take my time. Not to say that I didn’t take my time with the second one, but the way I worked on the first album was to just do it all myself, in my own home, but I kind of took the approach that once I had an idea and once I started a song, I would see it all the way through. And so if I had an idea that I liked, I would start recording it and then kind of see where it went from there, and then I’d get more ideas. So I would spend like — I want to say a day a song — because I would just start it and I wouldn’t stop working on it until it was done. There are very few songs on that album that I took more than a few days on or that I would start working on and later come back to. For the most part they were all just done in one chunk of time. I think that this album was definitely a lot different in that I kind of allowed myself to work in parts a whole lot more than I did before. I would just kind of record as much as I could and come up, but I wouldn’t necessarily see everything through. I still did that sometimes though — some of the songs ended up on the album I had demo’d out completely and I pretty much knew the entire structure of the song, but there’s also another handful of songs on Nocturne that were just pieces when they started. It wasn’t until I was in the studio with Nicholas that we were able to flesh things out a whole lot more and work on specific sounds. I didn’t think about that stuff so much before when I was working at home. I was just kind of working on song ideas or ideas for certain parts, but I wasn’t necessarily thinking about the specific sounds. That was moreso in the studio, thinking of how the guitar tone is going to sound, that sort of thing.
STEREOGUM: I know you played everything on this record, except for the live drums. When you’re doing everything yourself in the studio, does that make the recording process a lot slower than if you’ve got four other dudes doing their parts?
TATUM: Every band is going to work differently, but for me it made everything go a lot more smoothly. It was a lot more streamlined than it would have been otherwise. I spent three weeks with Nicholas recording, which was a decent amount of time, but for some people that might seem like not that much time at all. And that was just five days a week, three weeks in a row. We just had to work really fast, and I think being the only person recording most of the parts allowed us to do that and allowed us to work through the songs really quickly and efficiently. I actually was helping Nicholas out during that time period, because I’m really interested in learning about production. Before we started working on the album I was going in and doing some random stuff around the studio while he was recording other bands and seeing how other bands work. I think in my eyes it kind of slows things down to have more people, because instead of being like “okay let’s move onto the next part” you’ve gotta get another person in there and it’s just a bunch of people sitting around waiting. I don’t want to say it’s an inefficient use of time; it’s just another way of doing it. But for me it’s like we really just worked through things quickly and I think that was largely in part due to it being just he and I.
STEREOGUM: Another thing I thought was so interesting about our conversation yesterday is that we talked about the difference between when you were first starting out and the way things are now. Partly what made the first record so charming to people was that there was a kind of naïve quality to it, due in large part because there was never an intended audience for those songs, they were just for you. Going in to make this record and knowing that you’re making this material for a much larger audience, how does that affect the music you make? Does it change things in some way?
TATUM: Yeah, absolutely. I think about the relationship between this album and the last album a lot. Just because at this point it’s been two years since Gemini came out, and even longer since some of those songs on Gemini were written. So for me it feels like such a different piece of my life, it seems like such a different person that wrote that album. It was definitely a lot different. I spent a whole lot more time kind of thinking about the audience for this record than I did before. Because, like we discussed, there wasn’t really an audience for the first one. I didn’t even really think about the impact that that album could have, I didn’t think about who was going to be hearing it, I didn’t think about anything like that. And it is true that I think that that’s what a lot of people ended up liking about that record because I think that it was a bit naïve. There are a lot of things that I like about that record and I’m happy that that record was made and that a decent amount of people have a personal connection to it — that means a lot to me. But at the same time, I almost don’t even like listening to that record anymore. To me it just sounds like a disheveled experiment in recording that was done by a twenty-year-old. I don’t mean to say it was experimental, I just mean I was experimenting with the act of recording and learning how to do it while I made that record. I listen to that record and am like “oh this is kind of a mess.” I don’t know why people liked it. But that’s part of its charm and I hope there’s a certain amount of that that isn’t lost in the new one. I think it’s just, if anything, hopefully the new one is more focused and done with more purpose. I definitely made a lot of conscious decisions with this album, whereas with the last one there was kind of a lot of stuff that was just left up in the air.
STEREOGUM: You’d mentioned that part of the reason that record even existed at all was that a label randomly asked you if you wanted to make a record.
TATUM: Exactly. I was recording songs but it wasn’t with the intention of doing anything. The idea of releasing a record was to me at that time such a foreign idea that I didn’t even think it was a possibility. I maybe would’ve eventually had a collection of songs, but it wouldn’t have been because I had decided to make an album, and if it weren’t for the fact that Captured Tracks asked me to do a record, I wouldn’t have made Gemini. I maybe would have made something else at some point that probably would’ve taken a lot longer, but it definitely gave me a goal to reach for, having someone else ask for it.
STEREOGUM: At the time that that happened, were you in school? What else were you doing then?
TATUM: I think when Captured Tracks got in touch it was the summer before my senior year of college. I was studying and not really sure — it was kind of entering that point where I really needed to start thinking about what I was going to do after school, and of course I had no idea. I wasn’t even enjoying what I was doing in school.
STEREOGUM: What were you studying?
TATUM: I was studying communications, because originally I thought I wanted to be a journalist or something, and then I ended up kind of hating all my classes and I started taking mostly just film studies and creative writing classes. But even then I just felt like I was going through the motions. I was tired of being in an academic environment. It just felt really stale to me. I had been in Virginia for twenty years at that point. It was bizarre and lucky timing to have a label be interested in my music, which at the time felt thoroughly like a hobby and didn’t seem like any possible sort of career choice.
STEREOGUM: So when that happened and you were like “OK, I’m gonna make a record,” did you stop doing school and just do that right away?
TATUM: No, that summer was when Mike from Captured Tracks asked if I was interested in doing a record. I said “Of course!” and I spent that fall into the winter recording stuff. I think I was still going to school. I remember recording “Chinatown” at my parents’ house in Williamsburg, Virginia during winter break and I was like “okay, I think the album’s done now.” And I just sent it over like “Here it is, do you like it?” And that was it. I was still in school, just trying to finish everything up and kind of skating by to be perfectly honest.
STEREOGUM: Did you finish school?
TATUM: I did finish school. I’m really happy that I did. I don’t know what I would have done with my degree, but I’m glad that I have it. I invested a lot of time and my parents invested a lot in that experience for me, so I’m glad I did it.
STEREOGUM: I can relate to that. I got multiple useless degrees and then went to grad school to study poetry. I don’t regret doing it at all, but it sort of qualified me for nothing, except maybe for going to school more. When the record was done and Captured Tracks liked it and things started to happen, how difficult was it to put together a band to tour with?
TATUM: I guess it was about the time that the album was done, I had a few friends in college that I played music with sometimes, but not in any serious sort of capacity. I had a band with my friends Jeff and Max, and we played around town, around Virginia every so often. It wasn’t something that I took all that seriously, but I had been working on the album and all my friends knew that it was happening and were excited about it. We started getting a lot of show offers at that time — things were popping up on the Internet about the band — and it all kind of weirded me out. I was like “oh I guess people might want to hear this music live.” I hadn’t thought about a live band. So I was kind of able to convince my band friends to switch gears and then brought on another friend from school. Since then the only people I went to school with that are still in the band are the guitarist and bassist, Nathan and Jeff, and the other two guys are new. It wasn’t terribly hard, but none of us were experienced or professional musicians at the time. I think we’ve all grown a whole lot since the beginning period of Wild Nothing. I wouldn’t blame anyone who thought we were a horrible band at first. We were just inexperienced. It was also one of those situations where you’re just forced into something that’s so completely foreign, and I think when we first started playing shows and once the album came out, people had these unrealistic expectations of what the band was capable of. I think it just takes time to fall into who you are as a band.
STEREOGUM: One of the unfortunate things about the Internet is that things blow up so fast. People don’t always have time to organically create a fan base or have the experience of playing a hundred shows badly before they start to get big.
TATUM: That’s definitely a blessing and a curse about the Internet for young bands. Because it used to be that you didn’t just put a song on the Internet and people would be like “this is pretty good, let’s go see this band.” You started as a band and the recorded material came after. Being from Virginia, I didn’t really have any personal relationship with live music. I could count the amount of shows I went to growing up on one hand, and so I never had this personal connection to live music. I was always more involved with the experience of listening to a new record or buying a new record you hadn’t heard and obsessively going to the record store. That was still alive when I was young, and I feel sad that it doesn’t really exist anymore. It was starting to die as I was growing up. But I still was able to get that experience of going to the record store and looking around and seeing the cover to a CD that looked cool and just buying it without knowing anything about the band. I’m really happy that now people have the capacity to record because I think recorded music is such a beautiful thing. That sounds so obvious and silly, but you know what I mean?
STEREOGUM: Yeah, I do. I’m sitting here at my desk and looking at your record. I was always a nerd for buying records based on the packaging of records and the overall aesthetic. I think that’s something that’s so nice about your releases and it’s also really nice about Nocturne. I like that you are releasing all different cover versions. There’s something really well considered about all the Wild Nothing records, all way down to the fonts and the packaging. It’s a reflection of the music as well.
TATUM: It’s something that’s personally really important to me.
STEREOGUM: Do you do all that yourself?
TATUM: I came up with the design for the album, but I didn’t do the layout. That was something I was considering with this last album — I really wanted to have this classic, elegant, simple look for the whole thing and for there to be a series of different cover images. It was just something that was fun and something I felt like was missing from album packaging these days — a reference to bands like like Pulp and the Stone Roses. The physical copy of the record should still be something that people want to have, you know? I’m not really one of those people who get down on people who are only downloading the music, because it’s pointless. But I collect records, and that’s something that’s important to me and something I wanted to reference with this record and the packaging.
STEREOGUM: People always talk about your music in reference to the records that it reminds them of — ‘80s shoegaze bands, dream pop, etc. What do you think of as being the music that really shaped your aesthetic and what were the most important records to you when you were younger?
TATUM: It’s funny because the records I listened to when I was younger … I kind of grew up at a time when pop punk and all of these kinds of awful music were really popular. Actually, I won’t say awful because I don’t want to pass any judgment necessarily — but when all that stuff was really popular and I was in middle school I loved all those bands like Blink-182 and Saves The Day, bands that I can now look back at and laugh about it a little bit. I still have kind of a soft spot for all that stuff. But definitely when I got into high school I listened to contemporary indie music and stuff. I was definitely very much into the current whatever-was-sort-of-cool-and-indie. I was reading Pitchfork. I was very much current, very much about what was new. When Arcade Fire put out their first album, that was an exciting time for me. I was just developing an interest in alternative and underground music in some way. Once I got to college I gave up on current music a little bit and started digging backwards. Which I think, as a musician, is something that you are obligated to do. If you’re a fan of music and you’re someone who makes music, I think it’s inherent that you should be curious about where what you like comes from. That’s when I got really into digging back to the 80’s, starting big with the Smiths and New Order and the Cure and then just digging deeper, finding other bands that sounded like them, and going even further back and listening to ‘60s music or whatever. Directly, the music that I make is very reminiscent of UK ‘80s indie pop. My music isn’t like post punk at all, but I do listen to post punk music and shoegaze music.
STEREOGUM: All the shoegaze bands were happening whenever I was at the end of my high school, beginning of college. I know I perhaps unfairly idealize that time because it was also just a really fun time in my life — I was in college and had few serious responsibilities other than having fun and going to school — but I will always be obsessed with those bands.
TATUM: For some reason when I discovered that era and that genre of music, and the whole aesthetic that came with it, I just felt like I’d struck gold in terms of finally having a personal connection with music. I think I’ll always hold that kind of music the most dear, you know — shoegaze records and indie-pop from the UK. It’ll always be my main thing, I think.
STEREOGUM: You mentioned that when you made your first record you were twenty. And it’s been a couple of years now and you live in a different city. Things are radically different. Having gone through that whirlwind experience, how do you feel looking towards the next year of touring and doing this as your career? Do you feel more prepared for it now?
TATUM: Definitely. It helps so much that I had two years of kind of fumbling around and figuring out how to do what it was everyone thought I was supposed to be doing. The first record was a huge learning experience — even though Gemini was such a small little operation and Captured Tracks was a much smaller label when that album came out. It was all about just being a really young kid that didn’t really know what I was myself getting into, and having to face all the repercussions that came with it and suddenly being on more people’s radar much more than I was necessarily comfortable with. To suddenly having people that like my music or that haven’t decided yet if they like my music coming to my shows and expecting me to create a picture-perfect replica of what I did on record … it was hard. It took me a year to get used to. I feel so much more prepared and excited for this record than I ever did before. I don’t feel that sort of nervous energy that I experienced before. I definitely feel more ready to hear what people think about it, whether it’s positive or negative. I’m just less scared, less worried.