Interview: Wild Nothing

Annie Zaleski

By Annie Zaleski

on 09.04.12 in Interviews


Wild Nothing

Jack Tatum surmises that people might refer to the music he makes under the moniker Wild Nothing as “reference-pop” or “revisionist-pop.” Those phrases give short shrift to the scope of his music, though: Both 2010′s Gemini and the new Nocturne take cues from the past — the Cure’s gloomy fog, ’80s UK indie rock, whispery twee, Sarah Records’ melancholy jangle — but don’t use nostalgia as an emotional crutch.

Nocturne is much dreamier than past Wild Nothing releases — save, perhaps, for their 2009 cover of Kate Bush’s “Cloudbusting.” But the album also boasts stronger songwriting and a wider palette of inspirations — from the Go-Betweens (the string-laden “Shadow”) to plush soft rock (“Through the Grass”) and even early Tears For Fears (“The Blue Dress”). For a musician who started Wild Nothing in his bedroom while attending Virginia Tech, the rapid progression is impressive.

Tatum — a Williamsburg, Virginia, native who now lives in New York — chatted from his manager’s office about geographic disruption, loosening up his range of influences and Fleetwood Mac.

In the bio for Nocturne, you’re quoted as saying this: “I don’t think it’s going to be a secret to anyone that I care about pop music, but it’s definitely more my sense of what pop music used to be or even what pop music would be in my ideal world.” I think the challenge inherent in this is creating music that touches on the past, but isn’t mired in nostalgia. How much does that play into your process when playing or writing music?

It used to play a whole lot more into it. With the first record, I really was looking directly at older music — and even still, with this record, there’s a lot of references that I think are immediately noticeable, in terms of the sounds of the record and the stylistic choices that remind people of a lot of older music — in particular, ’80s UK indie-pop, that kind of thing. For me, this record definitely was an opportunity for me to loosen up my writing process a little bit and allow myself to let in contemporary stuff — but also worry less about what I’m trying to sound like and more about what comes naturally to me.

Did you feel a need to establish your own voice more?

I always try and do everything as naturally and honestly as I can. I didn’t sit down to start working on this album and say to myself, “You really need to work on your own voice, or establish yourself as your own thing.” But while I was writing, whereas before I maybe would’ve squashed certain ideas in order to keep within the confines of a certain genre or style, I definitely pulled from a lot of other things that I was interested in. If I had any natural inclination to go for a certain melody or chord change, I just did it, as opposed to thinking about what it would sound like in relation to something else. In a way, that’s somewhat of a deliberate choice — but I just tried to do it as naturally as possible.

In a Pitchfork interview, you described Nocturne‘s lyrics like this: “I wouldn’t say they’re all stream of consciousness, but they’re not necessarily overwrought. I didn’t try and say anything terribly meaningful.” However, I thought the record was very meaningful. Maybe even subconsciously, you were working through things; there’s a transitional theme to it.

I think it was pretty representative of a transitional period of life for me. Between the last record and now, a lot of things have changed in my life — geographically, but also in terms of what I’m doing and my goals for myself, and, of course, a lot of relationship stuff as well. It really was true when I said that [to Pitchfork], because lyrics have always been the last thing I put to my music. I practically wrote this entire album musically before I started thinking about what I was going to say.

I do that on purpose, because I never have words and then work on a song to go around [them]. I always have found that I work best if I try and fit words in afterward. [This method] allows me to not think too much about what I’m going to say. It’s very much more about the immediate thought I’m thinking or feeling.

It’s not stream-of-consciousness, because it’s not babble or anything. [Laughs.] It’s thought-out, but I’ll never spend more than an hour on lyrics — I don’t let it sit or revise too much. I don’t know if it’s a subconscious thing, if [Nocturne] ended up being particularly meaningful or representative. It’s just one of those things that kind of happens on its own — it’s referencing experiences and things that were happening.

So, your voice and the words are another instrument. It’s the last thing you layer on top of the music.

Yeah. The melody is there for me — I can hear the way that I’m going to be singing, I can hear how it fits into the rest of the music. I just don’t know what the words are yet.

In the last few years you’ve moved from Virginia to Georgia — and now you live in New York. How has that geographic disruption, along with all the touring, affected your music?

It’s been strange. [At] the very end of last summer, we made the conscious decision to stop touring for a while. I was in [Savannah,] Georgia, until January [2012] and then I moved to New York. I haven’t really been in any one place for terribly long. And even though I lived in Savannah, I didn’t feel that I was my home. I didn’t really feel it was where I wanted to be, necessarily. That’s something I’ve dealt a lot with — just constantly being in a new place, there’s not this sense of groundedness that I used to feel when I was younger. It’s something that troubled me at first, but at the end of the day, it’s like, “Why would I be troubled about this?” If anything, it’s awesome I get to travel. [Laughs.]

What did you miss about living in Georgia or Virginia? The South is such a different animal than New York.

I miss the space. I miss the feeling of not really having constraints. I lived in Blacksburg [Virginia] — it’s a very small town, and there’s so much to do in terms of the outdoors and just being in a really peaceful environment. I miss that a lot. I miss having a lot of living space for cheap. And I miss having a lot of places to go. I’m very happy to be in New York, but there’s always things you miss about where you’re from. For me, that’s the big thing in Virginia. Also, because I lived in such a small town, there really was a sense of community — [and] you don’t get that where I live now. I would walk around and see five people that I knew every time I went out to get a drink. I don’t think you get that as much in other places.

You can feel very alone in a crowd in a big city. I lived in Boston, and it was a similar thing — I’d go out and not see anyone I know. It’s weird.

It is weird. That’s why it took me so long to move to a place like New York — it was a feeling that I wasn’t necessarily ready to let go of. I think I was smart about it — I think if I had moved straight from Blacksburg to New York, I would have felt fairly isolated. But it’s been long enough now that I feel good about it.

You also mentioned Rumours-era Fleetwood Mac as a bit of a touchstone on this record. And they feel like the current band everyone is rediscovering. Is that your favorite era of Fleetwood Mac? I could easily see their ’80s stuff being an influence on Nocturne, too.

My music definitely relates more to Mirage — I think Mirage is my favorite record. And there’s a lot of stuff on Tango In The Night that I like, too. But Tango In The Night can get pretty…well, you know.


Yeah — but I kind of dig that, so…They’ve had a lot to offer over the years. And production-wise, there’s things I liked about Rumours. It’s a record that feels really organic, as opposed to a record like Mirage, which feels a little bit more mechanical. I love Fleetwood Mac. They’re a huge inspiration for what it means to write a pop song, and the idea of hooks and harmonies — the idea of a refrain — is something that really inspired me on this album.

It’s funny, you generally hear people talking about the lyrics and the drama surrounding the band. But musicians like yourself and others are actually deconstructing the music, which is nice to see.

They’re one of my favorite bands. I don’t know — hopefully, I’m not cashing in on a recent trend, but I don’t really think of it like that. [Laughs.] I actually unironically love Fleetwood Mac.

How did you get into them?

It’s one of those things that’s so pervasive in pop culture. Everybody knows who Fleetwood Mac is, and everyone knows the history of Fleetwood Mac; even if you’re not a fan, it’s one of those stories that’s always floating around. I don’t know when exactly it was that I started listening to their music and realized, a) it’s actually really good and b) I have a lot to learn from it. It was probably just because I had Rumours inherited from my parents’ record collection. You started with that, because everybody has that record. And from there, I started listening to their other records.

Do you have a favorite member or songwriter?

Actually I like Christine McVie…Well, I don’t know. I think some of her songs are my favorite songs — like, if I had to list my favorite songs, hers would definitely be towards the top. But overall, Lindsey Buckingham is obviously the one who kept it all together. I feel like he was the real powerhouse of Fleetwood Mac. He wrote a lot of good songs and a lot of bad songs, but he was the big force in the band — at least in that era. And Stevie Nicks, too — I don’t know. It’s so hard to choose. I’m a little bit more “whatever” about Stevie Nicks than most people.

I mean, I would still say “Dreams” and “Gypsy,” they’re some of the best singles they’ve had. And those are Stevie Nicks, obviously. But I still feel that Lindsey Buckingham played such a large part in putting those songs together, and so that’s what I think is more important to me, how the songs sound as a whole. It doesn’t really matter to me necessarily that Stevie Nicks wrote the lyrics. I don’t know. [Laughs.] I could talk about Fleetwood Mac for a while.