Jack Tatum is fascinated with a computer scientist. The press material for his latest album as Wild Nothing leads with a quote from Ray Kurzweil – a man so about tech he’s been named “the ultimate thinking machine” by Forbes. “What is unique about human beings,” Kurzweil says, is “our technology” and how we use it as a means to extend ourselves. By this, per a search of the source material, Kurzweil means we’ll one day live in a transhumanist future, with our intellect enhanced by clever robots. You know: Real Sci-Fi Shit.
But what does Real Sci-Fi Shit have to do with Indigo, the fourth Wild Nothing album, and a dreamy project ostensibly rooted in 1980s nostalgia? Not a lot, really, though Tatum has been getting bang into technology. We meet at London Modular: a nerd haven in east London that sells loop pedals and such, sometimes to Thom Yorke and more regularly to archetypal Aphex Twin fans. The idea, like Kurweil’s quote in the album biog, is to add some paint blushes to Tatum’s story – a choice I’ve probably forced on him. But after looking at synths for as long as it’s possible to look at synths (15 mins, max), we leave. Like his legacy artist heroes, Tatum’s music as Wild Nothing doesn’t really need to be rooted in a place – the songs are bursting with enough colour as it is.
Tatum released the first Wild Nothing album in 2010, while at uni in Virginia and studying communications. A dream-pop sound blossomed that year and Tatum’s debut, Gemini, joined Beach House’s Teen Dream and Beach Fossils’ self-titled debut as the genre’s modern landmark albums. Follow-up Nocturne polished up the lo-fi, debuting at number 1 on the Billboard New Artist and Alternative New Artist chart. Then, with 2016’s Life Of Pause, things became unstuck. “I feel like with the last record I didn’t want to make a Wild Nothing record,” Tatum says, sipping on a beer outside an east London brewery. “There’s a strange crux in your career of making a third record. You have a sound and identity at that point but it’s easy to struggle. ‘Is this the identity I want to have?’”
Indigo is Tatum’s return to the Wild Nothing moodboard. Some might even say it’s a crowd-pleaser, which isn’t a bad thing when it comes to the rich, lovelorn textures for which Wild Nothing is most known. “I wanted to reference my old records, for there to be this very direct line,” he says, before making sure to state the importance of pushing things onward. “Some of the songs on Indigo sound more like my old music than things I’ve done in a while, but some of the songwriting is more forward-looking.”
Opening track “Letting Go” is the perfect example of what Tatum means by having a direct link between this album and his previous work. A rush of a chorus, a splash of guitar, a golden bath of sun-flecked reverb – it explodes in a carousel of sound that’s just like listening to Wild Nothing for the first time all over again, except now in ultra high fidelity. It sounds more alive than anything he’s done before, the result of a new recording process. In the past Tatum multi-tracked everything himself, bringing in the odd drummer, but Indigo was recorded in the classic sense – a bunch of musicians playing together in a room, produced by Jorge Elbrecht (Ariel Pink, Gang Gang Dance, Japanese Breakfast). The result is a record that literally breathes. It could only be more alive and as much like Wild Nothing if it became sentient and wrote a perfume scented postcard while listening to the infamous C86 mixtape.
Tatum is unashamed of his influences – as he should be, since he’s always worn them on his sleeve. He loves the 80s, a decade he describes as “timeless”. The Smiths and The Cure were “the most important bands” growing up, as they were for a lot of teenagers. But Tatum stuck with the decade, its textures now bleeding into Indigo; the brass instruments on “Through Windows” or the atmospheric, guitar-led introduction to “Oscillation”. “I get scared I’ve created this false narrative in my head that the 80s was the best time for pop music,” he says, laughing. “But I consider myself a pop artist. I write pop songs. The reason I put them in an 80s framework is because I feel like you could write pop songs but have them be really interesting pop songs. Like write pop songs but produce them in a way that was grittier…”
He trails off, perhaps scared say the wrong thing, potentially hyper-aware of the nit-picking armchair commentariat culture that now goes hand in hand with being a musician. An idea can turn into a pull-quote that then passes around the internet like Chinese whispers, resulting in a cancellation of some kind (even though, in this instance, Tatum is talking about his love of 80s music). Or maybe I’m reading into it too deeply and he experienced a brain freeze at that moment, like one of these cats. A malfunction of some sort as he paused to consider things, between speaking thoughtfully. In either case, Tatum loves the 80s, and he wants his music to possess a similarly eternal quality. “I want to listen to this record in five years and enjoy it. There are going to be things about this record that still ring true to me in ten years.”
Already from his last album to this one, he’s pushed himself. “With the last record I was fighting against [the idea of Wild Nothing], wanting to inject it with other things, wanting more of myself in it. But it was hard putting that record out.” And so, on Indigo, he’s leaned into both his and the public perception of what a Wild Nothing record sounds like. He thought, “‘these are the parameters. This is where it starts and ends as far as it can be, so let’s do as much within those boundaries I’ve inadvertently created for myself.’ And I did that. And that also becomes a fun challenge in itself.”
As for the technology stuff? The Real Sci-Fi Shit? I guess there is a blend of music technology and organic sounds on this record, whatever that means. The album name, Indigo, was also inspired by the glow of a mobile phone screen on a human face in the night. But none of that should matter, really. Wild Nothing hasn’t ever needed to be about an overriding concept, it’s more about the whole package of sound, the combination of melody and instruments, and how that feels. So, to go any deeper is to overcomplicate its purity. Each song might be about a specific thing, but this is also dream-pop – a genre that, in its name, literally asks the listener to dream, even if some tracks might have a darker undertone to them. Thankfully, when working in the framework he knows so well, Tatum has written a record that allows for the space to do that. For long-term fans, it picks up nicely where second album Nocturne left off. For first-timers, it might be a bright introduction to a back catalogue that’s slowly beginning to shine as bright as any of Tatum’s influences.
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