Wild Nothing Wants You to Stop Picking on Nickelback

After all, there are about a bajillion other equally awful bands out there. We talked to Wild Nothing's frontman, Jack Tatum, about Michelle Williams, and a bunch of other things that happen in the world.

May 15 2013, 9:24pm

Jack Tatum. Photo by Shawn Brackbill.

One thing I’ve never understood about musicians is how they can perform the same songs night after night for months, years, even decades. It makes perfect sense to me when a band wants to ditch their back catalog and just focus on new stuff.

Jack Tatum has certainly felt this way, but he also understands that people love all his old stuff. His band is called Wild Nothing, and over the past three years Jack has been steadily releasing newer and newer music. These days it is extremely new. It’s something he’s done to please his growing fan base, but also to please a nagging case of self-doubt. The Virginia-born musician has followed his two albums with transitional EPs done on quick turnarounds. It’s a strategic move that doesn't just keep the ball rolling, but keeps Jack motivated. After releasing his critically adored second album Nocturne last fall, Jack is back with a new EP and a new direction for his dream pop sound, one that introduces a strong electronic influence he seems quite excited about.

I got Jack on the phone from his Brooklyn apartment to talk about the importance of trying to love your own music, how the EP format gets a bad rap, and how Michelle Williams accidentally ended up in one of his videos.

Noisey: Your press release says you were "struggling with what it meant to be a musician, with what music in general means, and what part you could possibly play in it." What does that even mean?
Jack Tatum: I think it was particular to this record. I had a lot of frustration in touring Nocturne, kind of in my own head really, not to do with anyone else. I feel like I’m always struggling with insecurities and self-doubt about my music, I think because I take it too seriously. I hate that about myself, that I feel like I’m not doing good enough. I have this very quick turnaround with myself, where I’ll be extremely proud of something I’ve done, and then within a couple of months, it was not what I thought or wanted it to be. It’s really just this weird psychosis of self-doubt. If anything it’s what drives me to keep making music. So, I can’t say that I’m terribly unhappy with it. But with this EP, in particular, I was really getting down with touring too. It’s such a stupid thing to complain about and I am aware of that, but when you do it constantly it sort of deadens you to your own music and you kinda hate your own songs after a while. I started to realize that I wasn’t happy with what I’d been doing. Now I feel like I’ve accomplished in seven songs on this EP what I really wanted to do with Nocturne, which is to find a way to compromise all of the things I’m everything in musically. I think I did that more with this EP than I have everything in the past. And I’ve been talking non-stop for a while now. [laughs]

You mentioned how you got bored of playing the same songs every night. I've often wondered how musicians do it. There’s no way the Rolling Stones still enjoy playing “Satisfaction” after 50 years.
But I think the thing that ultimately drives people to want to do that, and even within my few years of playing my own songs live, you have these frustrations, but also it’s the truest form of seeing how your music affects other people. And so it’s one of the only ways you can get outside of your music and see how it can affect others. That’s obvious to say, but having your fans right in front of you, but think, “This is the song I’ve played 300 times, but it is still special to this person.” And it’s special to me too, but being able to see that in person is what keeps you able to do it.

Wild Nothing. Photo by Daniel McMahon.

Yeah, but it’s also your job too. I have a job where I have to do the same shit day in and day out, but you think about it and it could always be worse. Anyway, songs like “Ocean Repeating” and “A Dancing Shell” sound unlike anything you’ve done before. Were you listening to different music?
I’ve always been a huge fan of post-punk and shoegaze, and still am. It’s not I listen to, but it’s the rep that I get because of the music I make. Especially with Gemini. When I was 21, that’s what I wanted people to think about my music. Your tastes change though, even after a few months and where this EP is rooted is in this past year I got on this kick of rediscovering massive influential artists and digging deep into their records. Almost like researching why this person is so respected, like David Bowie, Brian Eno, and David Byrne. So I listened to a lot of Talking Heads, Eno’s rock albums, as well as his early ambient albums, and of course, Bowie’s Berlin trilogy.

So Empty Estate is about you trying new things with Wild Nothing. How did things change making it?
In terms of how Nocturne came together, that was a record that felt like it took a long time for me. I took my time and it was really spread out, with months in between writing songs. There was so much thought put into that record, so much of me being a perfectionist, like, “Okay, this really has to sound a certain way.” In a lot of ways, I listen to that record now and think I thought way too hard on this. To me, it’s sort of missing something… even though I so proud of that record and I think a lot of the songs are good. I mean, you should like your own music, otherwise why even make it?

Do you think every musician likes his/her own music?
I would like to think so. Probably not? Why else would you make it? I feel like you should make the kind of music that you’d like to listen to. I’m sure there are people in bands that they might not like. But if you’re the creative force, the songwriter you should.

There are so many horrible bands out there, I just can’t imagine them listening to their own music.
Like Nickelback or something?

Ha, it’s funny, because Nickelback always comes to mind first whenever anyone talks about shitty music. It’s interesting that you say it because you’re American. But being Canadian, I feel like they’re just a constant target in their home country. They are the default shitty band with everyone I know.
I think they’re the default shitty band for anyone in the world. It might be unfair to pick on them though, because there are so many shitty bands out there.

You mentioned how you felt after releasing Nocturne. You tend to release EPs in between LPs. Is that a way of dealing with those feelings, to return a few months later with an EP to kind of redeem yourself and write something you feel better about?
Right. I think there’s a certain level of that. I also feel like the EP is a fun format. You can do whatever you want with it, like it’s a free pass. People don’t really expect as much from an EP, so you’re free to do what you want to do. And that is what was so empowering about this particular experience for me. I never needed to take a step back and obsess over what kind of music I was making. I didn’t think that some people might think it’s weird that I’m making this electronic pop song or I’m making this really ambient, droney song. I just did what I wanted to do and it felt good not to think about the outside perspective. I do that so much. I spend a lot of time worrying about what other people think. But this EP was the most fun I’ve had writing and recording in a long time. Gemini was fun, but for a different reason, because it was all so new. And Nocturne was fun in that I was finally able to record in a studio and have a lot of things at my fingertips that I didn’t have before. But it was still painted with worries and insecurities. Empty Estate was very open. And Nocturne didn’t come out that long ago, so not many people are expecting to hear new music from me in a while. This doesn’t even need to happen. It happened because I was inspired to write songs and I did it. I’m particularly happy with it because it’s not a throwaway EP. A lot of times bands put out EPs with the leftover tracks that didn’t make it onto the album for some reason. But this was not like that for me.

The EP is terribly underrated. There are some amazing EPs that have been released.
I agree. I feel like it was a format that was utilized really well in the ‘80s. Like Cocteau Twins, how many EPs did they put out? There’s the fact that it’s an easy way to put something out, and also battle my own boredom. But it’s also a valid format, and I believe it’s a format that’s worth exploring. A record doesn’t need to be ten songs. This is a longer EP too.

The packaging for Empty Estate is pretty special. How involved are you with Captured Tracks’ limited edition releases?
Not so much other than to just find the initial idea for it. With this new cover design, I found this New York artist Eric Shaw, who’s a friend of a friend. I sent the record to a friend of mine and he said, “This sounds a lot like what my friend’s art looks like.” So I browsed through tons of his paintings and really fell in love. It really fit what I was trying to do with this EP. I almost feel like while I was making it I kind of thought of it as pop art in a way. Some of the songs are very poppy but I tried to make them stranger, awkward or weird at certain points. That was one of the things I liked about the paintings, that it was this surrealist pop art. That was the basis for the whole thing, that I liked his art. So we got in touch and he gave us full access to whatever we wanted. From there we talked with the graphic designer about what images we wanted to use and went wild with it. Some of the crazier elements were just thrown in there, brainstorming wise, and a lot of them ended up happing. So, it’s a little over the top, but to me it’s what a limited edition should be, full of ridiculous stuff.

Like a slap bracelet?
Yeah, the slap bracelet I think was maybe a step too far. That was something we had joked about doing and I never thought it would actually happen. And then when they showed me everything that would be with the [limited edition], I was like, “Alright, fuck it! I guess we’re doing the slap bracelet.”

I noticed someone at Captured Tracks put the slap bracelet on the office dog.
Oh yeah, the dog is a big fan of the slap bracelet!

Captured Tracks feels like a close-knit family.
It is, it’s sort of strange. The office is in Green Point, and a lot of them live in Green Point. I live there. So you tend to run into the same people often. It’s nice though. I don’t really know another label like Captured Tracks in that sense. I feel like we are all friends outside of the label, which can be difficult at times when you have to have conversations about business-related things. But it’s really nice.

Finally, how on earth did you get Michelle Williams, of Dawson’s Creek fame, to star in the video for “Paradise”?
She was a friend of the director. I had about nothing to do with that video, other than just giving him the idea for the video. He had mentioned she was interested in doing the video for one of the songs. Initially I felt weird about it. To me it seems sort of like a weirdly bold move to have such a famous, notable person in a music video for one of my songs. But ultimately, it seemed like something I couldn’t pass up. And I’m happy with how the video turned out. But again, I didn’t have much to do with it.

Coffee milk is Rhode Island's state drink, and it's delicious. It's like chocolate milk, but made with coffee syrup. Cam Lindsey is on Twitter - @yasdnilmac