The SPECifics: Wild Nothing’s Jack Tatum on Empty Estate EP, Japanese Culture, Bowie
Photo by Shawn Brackbill
Three years ago, Jack Tatum was attending college in Virginia, recording music on his personal computer as a hobby. This hobby turned career when his demos gained online attention and he was signed to Brooklyn-based label Captured Tracks under the moniker Wild Nothing.
To date, Tatum has four well-received releases under his belt — Golden Haze (2010), Gemini (2010), Nocturne (2012) and more recently, Empty Estate in May 2013. Wild Nothing is currently touring in support of Local Natives and will make an appearance at Marquee Theatre on Sunday, Sept. 15.
Read The Spec’s interview with Tatum to find out more about his newest EP, love of Japan, thoughts on being in the spotlight, and more…
The Spec: Where did you draw most of your inspiration from while creating Empty Estate? Were there any particular themes that intentionally (or unintentionally) came to be in this newest release?
Jack Tatum: I wouldn’t say that I had any specific thematic intentions. That hasn’t really even been something that’s come into play with the music I’ve released. Even with Nocturne, which to me seems to have the strongest semblance of any sort of discernible theme, it was something that found itself falling into place after the fact.
Empty Estate was inspired by the feeling of becoming stale. I felt the need to try something different for myself. It’s still very much rooted in my infatuation with “pop” music, whatever the definition of that might be. It’s hopefully pop music for people that like their pop music slightly skewed. It was also an attempt to combine my interest in more ambient or instrumental music, like Cluster or The Durutti Column, with what I’ve done previously.
TS: Brian Eno and David Bowie are artists you note having explored around the time of making this EP, what about these artists’ music or career is most intriguing to you?
JT: Their longevity is certainly intriguing to me. With Bowie in particular, I’ve always been amazed at his ability to never quite burn away. Most people had their moments and that was that, but he found innumerable ways to reinvent himself and place himself within the current context of popular music, often by way of his own fringe interests. The best example being Bowie’s interest in what we call “krautrock” leading him to create some of most interesting records of his career. There’s a lot to be intrigued by. While Eno’s own music has had more of a cult appeal, I feel like he was very successful in doing the same thing. Anyone who relies on texture as part of their songwriting process owes quite a lot to him.
TS: What is your favorite track on Empty Estate? And why?
JT: My favorite moment on the record is the combination of “A Dancing Shell” and “Hachiko“. I feel like they both display some of the most interesting music I’ve ever made. When I made “A Dancing Shell,” it was all meant tongue in cheek. In one sense it’s among the most pop/dance heavy songs that I’ve written, but it’s also a song that’s meant to criticize the audience’s expectations of performance. It’s a robotic statement of how it sometimes feels to be on the road playing shows for months at a time. At the time I thought it would be slightly humorous, but I don’t think anyone really picked up on it. It was sort of my way of being like, “you guys want something more exciting? Here you go, it’s a pop song but it’s weird and awkward and has a completely ridiculous squawky saxophone solo.” With “Hachiko,” it was almost like a complete stripping down of all of that though. That song is more like a confession of how I really felt, which was bittersweet. It seemed important to me that the songs would become one another.
TS: You’ve called yourself a Japanophile, can you share with our readers some of your favorite things about the country and its culture? Furthermore, any memorable experiences or stories from touring in Japan worth sharing?
JT: I do love Japan. It’s a combination of things, I guess. Initially I became interested in Japan from a stylistic and artistic standpoint. I studied film in college and we watched numerous Kurosawa films. I’m obsessed with Tadanori Yokoo who is a Japanese graphic designer. I love YMO and Ryuichi Sakamoto. I mean, these are just some examples, but I was always intrigued by the culture too. I think if you have a curious mind then you become attracted to what you don’t fully understand. I love the contradiction within Japanese culture that you see as an outsider. The calm versus the overstimulated. There is a sense when you are there that everything is similar to what you know but slightly off. My time in Tokyo was brief, I mostly walked around and soaked it in. You almost don’t feel able to participate in what you see the first time you visit. I did of course in some ways, the food was amazing and I ate things I’ve never dreamt of eating before, horse meat and pig intestines among them. But mostly I just observed. One fun thing we did was to take the train to Koenji and just walk around. It’s off the beaten path a bit from where we stayed in Shibuya and it felt good to look around and be the only foreigners. It was kind of like being ghosts, like we weren’t really there.
TS: Over the past few years, your life has largely been about making music and touring. When you have Jack Tatum time — what things do you like to delight in?
JT: Lots of movies, I try to watch something I haven’t seen every other day usually. I studied film, like I said, so I have a real interest in it, in the history and technique. Of course it’s not like I’m always watching enriching or important films. I watch complete garbage too. It’s part of the full spectrum. I also like to cook, but that’s one of those things that almost embarrassing to say. I feel like it’s such a cliché for people in bands these days. It’s like either you’re a party animal or you come home from tour and cook and watch movies. How else are you going to spend your time?
TS: You used to produce your music exclusively on your own computer, what was it like working with Al Carlson on the latest EP? In what ways do you think working in record studios with professional producers has improved or changed your work and/or creative process?
JT: It’s been fun for me to work with producers. I view it as a learning experience. I’m constantly watching to see how things are achieved. I hope to be a producer of sorts eventually myself. It’s invaluable to see how different people approach the same problem. There are tried and true solutions in the world of production, but no one ever does things exactly the same.
TS: Wild Nothing garnered a lot of attention in a short time — what have you learned most about yourself since this acclaim?
JT: I’ve learned that I’m not really someone who enjoys being in any sort of spotlight. I desire attention but fully for my music and not for myself. I’ve also learned that I’m extremely hard on myself. I always feel like I could have done better, that the music I’ve made so far isn’t representative of what I hope to achieve. It’s been difficult trying to balance the pretty intense discomfort that I have with putting myself in front of people but also wanting to push my music to a place that is bigger than what I’ve accomplished. It’s a slightly strange place to be in.
TS: You’ve stated in previous interviews that the live performance of Gemini is very different than the album version. Is this the same for Empty Estate? How so?
JT: I think I’d probably take some of that back now. I’d say as a live band everything is based off the recordings and trying to emulate what is happening to within a certain degree. There are elements that are different. Certain liberties are taken, but as a whole, it’s centered around getting to the song to a place that feels familiar. “Ride” has been a notable exception, though recently, as we’ve extended it quite a bit and the instrumentation is pretty different.
TS: What can fans in Phoenix expect from your live show? You’ve played in Arizona before, anything in particular you’ve come to enjoy about the state and/or its fans?
JT: Yeah we’ve played in Arizona a handful of times now. I have an extremely intense memory of the last time we played in Arizona at the Crescent Ballroom in Phoenix just because it was the hottest day of my life. It was the kind of hot that suffocated you. Regardless though, we had a good show. I’d expect to hear some new songs. It’ll be a bit shorter set than normal since we’re opening so it’ll be more of a “party” set. That’s what we call it when we just play all the songs that we’ve found people respond to live, much more upbeat than the usual Wild Nothing set.