Wild Nothing’s Jack Tatum: “I've never really understood the argument against doing something that has been done before well”

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(Image: © Andrew Benge/Redferns/Getty)

On his fourth record, Indigo, Jack Tatum – better known as Wild Nothing, the moniker of his one-man indie rock project – has made the most complete, distilled and near-perfect record of his career thus far.  

The best records seem to come at the tipping point where an artist understands themselves, but before they slip into that rut. Tatum is currently balancing on that pivot. Having cast the net wide on previous album Life Of Pause, this time he’s managed to hone his work as Wild Nothing to it’s most concentrated form.

It is a record notable for its clarity: flying in the face of the ‘rough and ready’ analogue edict that has defined indie music since the advent of grunge. Instead it’s full of satisfying melody, crisp FM synthesis and flanged jangle, strung through with an underlying tension that seems to draw a parallel between 2018 and its Cold War-era touchstones.

“It permeates everything,” says Jack of the tension. “But I think that's something that's always existed in my music. I think there's always this underlying dichotomy in my music. Whether lyrically – you can sometimes read some songs as being hopeful and romantic. Or, coming at it from a different direction, very cynically, as well. I think that's an important emotion or mood in my music. This idea of the bittersweet."

Early singles Letting Go and Partners In Motion set the tone. You can hear the likes of Tears For Fears and Roxy Music in the mix, but they’re just the fringe of Indigo’s rich tapestry – one that is uniquely personal to Wild Nothing.  

"With this record, I don’t know if it had something to do with getting older, but I felt very reflective about the things that I’d done,” says Jack. “I felt comfortable being self-reverential. And I was really trying to boil it down as best I can… It was about getting to the bottom of it.”

Roxy Music’s Avalon is a notable influence on the sound of Indigo. Why did it become such a touchstone?

I've made records in a number of different ways from all-analogue to recording my first record on my own in GarageBand, so I've really run the gamut at this point

"For a number of reasons. I see it as this shining beacon of this sound that I was aiming for, which was very crisp and modern, by way of 30 years ago. It was this studio-orientated, crisp, hi-fi record. Through the process of making this record, that became very important to me. That was the sound I wanted.

"I think part of it was maybe the challenge for myself and the people I was working with to see if we could do that. It was a personal challenge, too, because maybe I'm wrong but I feel like, for a lot of contemporaries of mine, that's not been a sound that people go for: to make a record sound as clean as that. A lot of times it ends up going in the opposite direction.

"I think there was this realisation at some point as I was listening to Roxy Music and Kate Bush and Tears For Fears and on and on. At a certain point, I was like, 'Why am I so attracted to this music?' and I realised that they're really well-made, clean-sounding records and so that became the underlying intention for this whole thing."

How did you go about capturing crisp sound? What was key to creating that in your approach to writing and recording?

Whereas before, I would take all this time mic'ing amps and trying different stuff, there's a lot of DI'd stuff on this record

"It's funny, because I've made records in a number of different ways from all-analogue to recording my first record on my own in GarageBand, so I've really run the gamut at this point. It is funny, because there was a lot of attention paid to the mixing process, so I can't stress that enough, but at the same time we weren't that fussy throughout the recording process. Whereas before, I would take all this time mic'ing amps and trying different stuff, there's a lot of DI'd stuff on this record, which is appropriate to the era, too.  

"So there's a decent amount of DI guitar that we would then manipulate afterwards, but also we did really, for the bare bones of the record, try to do it old-school. We rented out Sunset Sound in Los Angeles for four days and hired some studio guys and basically just played the whole record live.

"We would play each song maybe six or seven times and I was playing bass and there was a guy Benji [Lysaght] playing guitar and another guy, Cam [Allen], playing drums, so the three of us tracked the entire record live in the main room, which I'd never done before. I'd always thought 'What a headache!' But it ended up being not as crazy as I thought and I was like, 'Man, I don't know why I don't do this more often...'  

"Then my friend Jorge Elbrecht, who I worked with on the record, mixed it largely in the box. There was hardly any external processing, which definitely had not been the case on other records that I made. But he has an interesting way of working. He's not hung up about how you get somewhere, he's much more concerned about where you end-up. That was a new way of working for me."

What are the practical principles you could offer for those at home, without access to Sunset Sound?

"With this record we really wanted to keep our options open, so it was more important to record everything very well and very clean and then figure out in the mixing process how we wanted to treat each instrument.

A decent amount of the effects on the record are plugins. That might have weirded me out in the past, but for some reason it just seemed less important this time

"Really, a decent amount of the effects on the record are plugins. That might have weirded me out in the past, when I was more of a purist, but for some reason it just seemed less important this time.

"I feel like the big creative stuff was really done in the mixing. Honing in on each instrument and deciding what we wanted that sound to be. I feel like we really did accomplish an extremely crisp, hi-fi-sounding record without breaking the bank.

"Obviously, recording at Sunset Sound was the biggest expense, but otherwise we did everything in my studio space and we actually mixed the record at Jorge's parent's condo in Denver. We were detail-orientated and obsessed with finesse but we weren't so fussy about the way that we got there."

So it was more about spending time playing with it in-the-box rather than having a certain rig...

"Yeah, it was much more important to allow ourselves the time. That's such a hard thing, especially for a lot of young musicians and people starting out. It's more important to give yourself the time to make things sound how you want, rather than saying 'I have to rent a studio for a week and do everything in that amount of time.'

“Most bands and artists these days are finding ways to do both and figuring out like, 'If I go into this studio, I can record drums for a few days and then take it back home and I can record this or that at my house.' It's all a hotchpotch now and I think that's the way most people work. The baseline is so much higher. It's a lot easier to make your stuff sound really good."

What was the main gear you used?

When most people think of a flanger they think of it at its most extreme setting, but it's basically a chorus effect and you can set it as delicately as you like

"Most of the guitar on the record is my Telecaster and my Strat. They're on a good bit of the record. My studio-mate had a Les Paul that I used quite a lot for certain lead lines and there's a lot of Robert Fripp-style EBow on the record. There's a handful of textures and sounds that pop up again and again that I think help to give a bit of cohesiveness to the sound of the record.

"Keyboard-wise, I was using a lot of '80s digital synths. Stuff like a Roland D-50 and I found this rack-unit Yamaha that's kind of like a DX-7 in a box. A lot of those sort of sounds and FM synthesis.

“I feel like 99 per cent of the guitar tones I go for are a clean Fender Tele or Strat through a Twin or a [Roland] JC-120 with some chorus and some delay. A lot of times for these lead lines I was using a flanger that I liked quite a lot. The A/DA Flanger is on a pretty big chunk of the record. Sometimes as a chorusing effect, or sometimes on lead lines with a fuzz.

"It's weird because I feel like flangers get a bad rap. When most people think of a flanger they think of it at its most extreme setting, but it's basically a chorus effect and you can set it as delicately as you like."

What about on the DAW and software instrument side?

"I demo everything in Logic. Logic is the thing I'm most comfortable with, but we kind of used everything on this record. So I demoed everything in Logic and then Jorge and I took all those files and threw them into Ableton and continued working on structures and then from Ableton we took everything into Pro Tools and that's where we tracked and mixed the record.

"I don't know why we did that. It's mostly because I work in Logic but he doesn't, so we ended up jumping around. I don't tend to use a lot of software synths. There are a few that I like. I think there a couple of instances of Omnisphere on this record or some of the Arturia stuff, like the DX7 or the Prophet [model] that they've got, I use sometimes. I'll usually hop around presets and then tweak but there are certain compressors or EQs that I know how they work and how I want it so I'll set everything myself."

(Image: © Cara Robbins)

We've talked about the clarity of the record. The press sheet discusses the balance of human touch and technological precision. What’s the secret of that interplay?

"I don't know if I have a secret. Most of my songs, every instrument is very much a played and real instrument, except there will be like a synth line – and my music still gets called 'synth-pop' all the time.

"It's weird, because there's really nothing programmed about any of this. But I think the reason I come back to synths and synthesised sounds is that there's a different textural quality that you can't get out of organic instruments that you can out of synthetic ones.

If you can get digital sounds to emote in a way that feels even remotely like a real instrument then there's something really special about that

"It's just part of the fun of it. Part of the challenge. Especially with some of these more digital, FM sounds that have popped up on this record. Some of them are sounds that have been so taboo for so long or immediately remind people of a certain time or sound that might be considered cheesy. But, for me, if you can get those sounds to emote in a way that feels even remotely like a real instrument then there's something really special about that. It's always a balance for me.  

“I also love treating acoustic and electric instruments in a way that sometimes you can't tell what's going on. One of my favourite things when I'm playing my music back to people is when there's a part where they go, 'What is that? What am I listening to right now?' I get a kick out of that. Layering and trying to combine instruments in a way that people might not figure out on first listen."

That's essentially what you try to do with a traditional band anyway: layer the instrumentation in a way that makes something cohesive and new...

"Definitely. I think people are always trying to figure out what they can do differently, but sometimes you don't have to drastically alter things. I've never really understood the argument against doing something that has been done before well.

"I'm not always so interested in music that is 'wholly original'. I think there is a lot of 'wholly original' music that I would prefer not to listen to. Just because something hasn't been done before, doesn't mean that it's going to be good! Beside, it's human nature to vary things. As much as you might want to be a direct copy of somebody else. It's hard to do that!”

Indigo is out now via Captured Tracks.