Something Big: Wild Nothing
Technology’s impact on music can be measured in one undeniable way over the past few years: the huge proliferation of one-man bands, young (mostly) dudes working under some vague band moniker, who would rather make music on their own—thank you very much!—ensconced in their rooms and not playing well with others. That is, until a debut EP catches blog fire, and live shows must be played, requiring a proper live band. Those laptop artists-turned-bands have emanated from some of the usual indie outposts: Brooklyn, Austin, Portland, Southern California. But they come from less likely ‘burgs, too. For instance, Blacksburg, Virginia, a college town if ever there was one, utterly dominated by the sprawl of Virginia Tech.
It was at an off-campus apartment on the outskirts of Blacksburg where for six months last year a communications major named Jack Tatum fashioned a sublime collection of gauzy, nostalgic indie pop tunes under the name Wild Nothing. A year later and what do you know? That album, Gemini, has gotten a ton of pundit love, and will no doubt end up on plenty of year-end best of lists. In two months alone I saw them graduate from playing a packed-but-tiny Monster Island in Brooklyn, to headlining New York’s premiere mid-sized venue, Bowery Ballroom. It’s all been a bit head spinning for the normally reserved Jack Tatum, who I spoke with recently at the Music Hall of Williamsburg.
JOHN NORRIS: So Jack, in two months you go from Monster Island to headlining Bowery Ballroom. Does it surprise you things have progressed in the way that they have?
JACK TATUM: Definitely. Anyone who knows me would say that it’s been really strange for me, and I’m not a person who’s super used to the spotlight. So for all this to happen as quickly as it has, it’s been so wonderful but also really weird in terms of my personal life. That Bowery show was our first really big headlining show.
NORRIS: What you’re doing musically does fit, in a way, with the following that has built over the past year or two around bands like Pains of Being Pure at Heart or Crystal Stilts. All of a sudden people are talking again about Slumberland Records or C86 and they’re talking about a sound that hadn’t been on people’s radar in a long time. Did you expect that your record would find a similar audience?
TATUM: I didn’t think about it too much. I definitely think that the Pains or Crystal Stilts and others helped bring an interest back in that kind of music, but I was just doing what I wanted to do.
NORRIS: Over how long a period of time were the songs written and recorded?
TATUM: About six months, because I started it last summer, when I was still in school at Virginia Tech. I was recording in Blacksburg, and I finished it like last December.
NORRIS: Is Blacksburg much of a music town, apart from the school?
TATUM: There’s not a lot going on musically. Which in a way is an inspiration, because it gives you a reason to do it. If there were not a lot of that going on it made me at least want to give it some sort of presence there. Virginia Tech tends to take over pretty much everything there. But the great thing for me was kind of separating myself from that and really getting into the town itself, you know, on the outskirts, and really feeling more like a member of that community rather than the school community.
NORRIS: My only trip there was, sadly, in April of 2007, when as you may remember the media really descended on the campus and the town. I guess you were a freshman then?
TATUM: Yeah, a freshman.
NORRIS: How did the shootings affect you? Did you stay at school in the aftermath of that?
TATUM: That was a weird time for everyone there. And definitely the town just kind of cleared out right after it happened. And no one knew what to think. Everyone was kind of, obviously freaked out. I personally felt kind of numb to it, but it was strange so I got out for a little while.
NORRIS: And last year when you made the record you were living off-campus?
TATUM: The entire record was just done in my apartment. As cliché as it is, in my bedroom, on my laptop.
NORRIS: But now there is a band, for the live shows. As far as you’re concerned is Wild Nothing a “band”?
TATUM: There are two worlds to Wild Nothing. There’s the recording aspect, which is very much me and that’s where I want to keep it, at least for the moment. But to me the live band is a band. And I feel like it has a band dynamic, and I think our live show comes across very different from the recordings and that’s due to the input of the other members.
NORRIS: The songs definitely feel different in the live show. Anyone who thinks Gemini is maybe a largely wistful or melancholy record, some of the songs are just transformed in the live show. Some are actually rockin’!
TATUM: When we started I was super set on trying to match it as closely as I could to the album, then I realized very quickly that wasn’t going to happen. It’s impossible to translate that sort of delicacy to a live show. But once I got over that, then I definitely wanted that energy and was happy with that. To me it’s exciting when a band is different live. There’s reasons to listen to a record and there’s reasons to go to a live show.
NORRIS: You created one video for the song “Chinatown” and I have seen other fan made videos, some really nice ones. And they all seem to be in some way nostalgic, featuring little kids. You think the music just dictates that?
TATUM: I think there’s definitely something nostalgic about that and maybe along with that comes a longing for innocence, which in a way goes back to childhood.
NORRIS: Talking of nostalgia, people are constantly grabbing at different comparisons with your album, whether it’s The Smiths or The Go-Betweens or the Factory bands, or even The Cure which I know you have heard mentioned as well, though you don’t necessarily agree that it’s there?
TATUM: I have heard people say The Cure and I can see where they would get that from, but for me at least it wasn’t really a direct influence on the record. But it’s not a bad comparison; I’m not offended by it by any means. But I was definitely a fan of Factory and 4AD and Creation.
NORRIS: A lot of these reference points are British. Wild Nothing was in the UK for the first time this summer. How was that?
TATUM: It was really good over there, which wasn’t a huge surprise considering the genre. But yeah I loved it over there and the crowd received it really well I think. We even had a few people come up to us after the show that didn’t necessarily know us before and were surprised that we weren’t British.
NORRIS: You’ve said that you want to have live drums on the next record. Does that mean the full band will be involved this time?
TATUM: At least for now what I plan on is to get just our drummer and have him and me go in a studio and work on it because I really enjoy doing everything myself. As selfish as that might sound, but to me that’s how I am able to be more creative, I feel like I can try things out without having to second guess myself.
NORRIS: Well we’ve got a whole generation now, of one-man band…
TATUM: Exactly. It’s not like it’s an uncommon story but drums are the one thing I can’t really do on my own, pretty much. I think when you have just one person who’s doing the entire album, it’s a bit more cohesive in a way because you have that single vision.
NORRIS: I also hear that for the next record you may not want to do something that is so referential or an homage to a certain sound? Have you gotten that out of your system?
TATUM: No I wouldn’t say I’ve gotten it out of my system, I wouldn’t mind being rooted in that genre of music. For whatever it’s the thing I’ve enjoyed the most. But it’s not like it’s the only thing I am into and I definitely want to explore. I enjoy it when artists change on the next album instead of giving you the same thing over again. So I think I need to do that for my own sanity, but also to give people something new and hopefully something that they’ll support.
SEE THE VIDEO AT NOISEVOX.ORG