By Jose Lopez-Sanchez of Billion Dollar Boy.
Things are finally falling into place for Jack Tatum.
“I feel like I’ve settled into it a little bit; it’s what I do,” Tatum tells me. “And that has its pros and cons: it feels more like a job than it used to, but at the same time, I’m very excited to be doing it.”
The creative genius behind Wild Nothing is at his home in the Mt. Washington neighborhood of northeastern Los Angeles when I reach him over the phone in mid April. The native of Williamsburg, Virginia (“the original Williamsburg”, per Tatum) recently relocated to California after four years in Brooklyn, and the move has brought about a welcome kind of routine to Tatum’s life: write, record, rehearse, repeat.
It’s another gorgeous Los Angeles day, and as usual, things are relatively quiet on Tatum’s manicured residential street. He and his band have just wrapped up the final rehearsal session before heading out on tour to support their latest release, Life of Pause. The space and relative tranquility of the surroundings seems to have infected Tatum’s sound: There’s an underlying sense of fluidity and ease where angularity might have been before.
“I think I’m at a crux right now,” Tatum says with surprising candor. “I’d like to be less of a niche artist, I’d like to keep feeling like I can explore things if I want to and don’t have to be stuck doing one thing or another, but you’re always tied to the work you’ve done before.”
Six years and three albums into his career, Tatum admits that this stylistic shift has been subtle, yet noticeable for those paying close attention.
“My aesthetic hasn’t really changed that much, but I recognize that I’ve been working within certain kinds of confines for a while,” Tatum adds, sounding more self-aware and mature than I have ever been personally. “I feel a little floaty at the moment. Where do I belong? Where does my music belong? Can I keep exploring things, or do I need to reel things in a little bit?”
Tatum takes a moment to let the seriousness of his words sink in, the soft hiss of the phone line reminiscent of analog tape filling the silence, before bursting into bright laughter.
You recently made the move to the West Coast after several years in Brooklyn. What was the impetus behind that change of scenery?
I was in Brooklyn for about four years, and I really liked New York. I think New York is amazing, and I have so many friends there that were really hard to leave, but at the end of the day I was just ready to do something new.
I’ve moved around a fair amount – not a ton, but you know, I was in Virginia for a while, and actually I lived in Savannah, Georgia for a year before I moved to New York. I don’t know if this was an “internal clock” kind of thing from being in school, and after four years in Blacksburg I felt really ready to move on.
I spent four years in New York, and it was just hard for me to see my future there; or maybe it was too easy to see my future. I just imagined myself in the same railroad apartment for the rest of my life. [Laughs] I wanted to do something different. My girlfriend had been in New York for almost nine years, and we’d both casually talked about living on the West Coast and what that would be like, so we just up and did it. It wasn’t super spur of the moment, but we decided to try it out.
Do you ever look back on your time in NY and think you have so much more time to breathe now?
[Laughs] It’s the little things. I can walk out of my house and be in a beautiful backyard. It’s having greenery around you, and it’s nice. That can feel like such a luxury in New York, and that’s sort of part of the charm of living there. You sacrifice certain things to live in the city. But after a while, it just wore on me.
That being said, I’m not one of those people to say that one city is better than another. That’s such a stupid way to be, because I love New York, and I’m excited to go back there on this tour.
You’ve talked about wanting Life of Pause to sound more organic than Nocturne, and this also seems to bleed into the song lyrics. The first two tracks, “Reichpop” and “Lady Blue”, feature metaphors that invoke natural elements. Was it easy for you to stick to that direction, or idea throughout the creative process?
As far as the lyrics were concerned, there wasn’t a conscious effort on my part to include organic references or anything. When I started making this record – saying that I wanted it to sound more “organic” was the best way I could think to say it. I wanted there to be more of a sense of space to this record, and for things to have a bit more room to breathe. Part of that was this desire to strip away the totally washed-out aesthetic a little bit.
But I’ve also realized that working in ambiance and textures and sounds is what I’ve become known for, in a way. I didn’t want that to totally disappear, but I wanted the instruments to have their own space. I used to want all of my recordings to be and feel like isolated tracks. I don’t really know how to explain it in laymen’s terms. but with this album I liked the idea that there would be a sense of room or space, and I think we tried to accomplish that.
Regarding lyrics, it’s a big of a mixed bag, but I feel like I took more poetic license on this record, and the two tracks you mention are good examples of that. I don’t think I’m tackling very big issues, but they’re about these little insecurities and little observations in my life, and how to talk about them in interesting ways. I’m trying to explore a sense of place, and where I fit in, in a more overarching sense.
Along those lines, the title track, specifically, expresses a feeling that resonated with me, and I think many people of our generation – that of putting some significant part of your life on hold to complete another, and the inherent tradeoffs in that decision. Was that a difficult feeling to put to music?
It was very much a literal reflection on my life touring. That song started off as a simple love song, very much just a song about missing this person. And in many ways, it still is the most straightforward song on the album, lyrically. But it’s also got little things that go back to what I was mentioning before: I find myself flipping things a little bit, not necessarily on purpose. It’s a song about missing someone, but it’s also a realist song – those times in a relationship when you thinking “is it crazy that we’re doing this? How can we want love?” It’s a reflection on that.
The idea of a life of pause is relatable to everybody, but because really all it is is this idea of having your life and not having all the time to do the things that you want to do. It’s very human to constantly worry about what you’re accomplishing, and whether you’re focusing on the right things in your life. Should you be prioritizing your relationships more, or your work and creative ambitions, or whatever they may be?
The album artwork invites us to peer inside the room where the music is made, or at least a representation of it. Are we looking at a real place or is this an idealized version? How did you decide what is in that image in that room?
It’s definitely more of an idealized vision. The initial idea with the album art started off with the simple idea of wanting to create a room for there to be a physical space for the album to live in. I was talking so much about “space” as I was making this record, and then it became very literal. I kind of liked that. I enjoyed turning the album art into a real space, and it gave me an opportunity to be in it, which I had never wanted to do before. I never really wanted to be featured in the album art before, but it made sense for this record for some reason. [Laughs] I don’t know if I’ll always feel this way, but I felt this way while making this one.
It’s half a stylization and half trying to set a tone. I was joking around Shawn Brackbill – the photographer who helped me conceptualize the album art – about how you can go a bit deeper if you want. We like the idea that it’s almost like an old-school record cover. We looked at a lot of old covers, and saw this documentary about Hipgnosis, a design firm responsible for tons and tons of classic album covers. There are certain things that reference lyrics on the album, and the whole thing tells a whole loose narrative in a certain way, and ties in with the video we made, as well. To be honest, at the end of the day it was just fun for us to sit around and conceptualize this imaginary space. [Laughs]
You spent a great deal of time in Sweden in the process of recording Life of Pause, after making your first two albums stateside. Obviously, the way they approach making music has some kind of appeal to you. What specifically, if anything, drew you to the sounds of Swedish pop/rock?
It was kind of one of these things that wasn’t totally planned. Originally, Life of Pause was going to be recorded entirely in Los Angeles, but then this opportunity came up. Tom Monahan, the producer I worked with, had some connections in Stockholm. Some way or another he started talking to some of the people he knew there, and he’s worked with Peter Bjorn & John before, and Jon Eriksson, who plays drums in that band invited us to record at their studio in Stockholm and offered to play drums on the record. I was like “Ok!” [Laughs]
I was excited to go there because we’ve toured through Sweden a couple of times, and I’ve always been infatuated with Scandinavia on a couple of different levels – design wise, but also musically. They have a rich history of interesting pop music that I feel kind of drawn to.
There’s a fluid assessment into what falls under the “pop” categorization over there.
Yeah, I’ve thought about that too. There are so many songwriters and producers in Sweden that people don’t even know about that write and record mainstream pop music.
You look at Max Martin and a handful of other dudes in Sweden who are churning out mega hits, top ten hits all the time. A lot of people know about it, but a lot of people don’t! And that’s not necessarily what I’m drawn to personally – there’s a lot of good independent music in Sweden – but I do think that for some reason there is something about a lot of Swedish pop music. It might relate to the design aesthetic; to just be totally stereotyping, I get the sense that Scandinavian people are just totally disciplined in certain, and there are some parallels between Scandinavia and Japanese culture in that sense, and I do think it takes discipline to write pop music. It’s very structured, and formulaic in some ways, but also a lot harder than a lot of people realize. Writing good pop music is kind of tough, and they’ve figured it out. [Laughs]
Has anything surprised you about the country? Did you have any prior misconceptions that have been debunked?
To be honest, I didn’t have a ton of time to explore as much as I wanted to, which was a bit of a drag but comes with the territory. I expected that, I guess, because I was just holed up in the studio the entire time I was there. I will say, being in Stockholm recording during the dead of winter allowed a pretty intense level of concentration. It was freezing cold and snowing the whole time, and you pretty much just wanted to be in the studio the whole time.