Photos by Casey Catelli
Welcome to Noisey Next, our series dedicated to bringing you our favorite new artists on the verge of blowing up, breaking ground, or otherwise worth giving a damn about.
There is a room in Jackson Phillips’s Oakland home that’s full of instruments. His whole house is littered with musical stuff—drums, a piano, guitars, records—but this room, with its wood paneled walls, dark carpet and sole window is the room. It’s where Phillips, who goes by Day Wave, makes all his music. He doesn’t just sit down in front of a mic and do the thing, though. It’s a multi-layered and multi-faceted process that involves writing every musical part—including vocals— recording it all to tape, dealing with the post-production, then teaching his touring band the arrangements.
The room is dark when the lights are off—and in this case they are—save for the daylight spilling in through the window casting light onto the drum set in the far corner where Phillips sits. It’s a cozy space amid a house of five dudes. At any given time, a passerby can hear the sounds of piano emanating from the main living area or Phillips and his roommates strumming guitar on the porch.
Despite the quickly approaching release of a new EP, Hard To Read, out March 4, Phillips is at ease behind the drum kit—it’s the first instrument he learned how to play when he was nine. Sometimes he leans his stool back and rests his head on the wall. He doesn’t fiddle with the instrument at all, though by the way he periodically eyes the kit, you suspect he wants to. Phillips is casual, cool, a natural fit for Oakland—relaxed as if none of this really mattered, not actively trying to conceal the fact that it does matter, but simply a chill guy. There’s a thoughtfulness in his voice, though. The weight of choosing the right words to describe his music isn’t a heavy one, but an omnipresent and important force on the burgeoning artist. Here, he’s in his zone.
“I have to possibly branch out a little bit,” he says. He’s about to head to Los Angeles for some recording. It’ll sound cool, he mentions, but it might also sound a little different. There’s a bit of sentimentality as he shows off his domain. This one variance, the change of scenery, has caused him to change things up. “It’s really sad, but I’ll still make music in the room.”
Over the course of two EPs, last year’s Headcase and the upcoming Hard To Read, Phillips has managed to find a crisply defined sound here, merging sunny, hazy beach music and melancholy wordplay. Often straightforward and self-aware in his internal disinterest—traits of being a Virgo (his birthday is September 3)—Phillips douses lines like “I don’t wanna be a drag / It’ll just make you mad” or “I wish I would have been told only a fool would want me” in layers of lush, dreamy guitars in major keys, synths, and drum loops, a major departure from his first project, the electro-pop duo Carousel. Strategically interlacing his tenor lead vocals with higher-range background cooing, every aspect of Day Wave tracks have depth—from the words, their delivery, and the landscape that surrounds them. Less dense than Wild Nothing and more neo-new wave than Real Estate, Day Wave fits snugly in between heavy dream pop and jangly indie rock.
Headcase lead single “Drag,” which currently has over two million plays on Spotify, hit the blogosphere and airwaves early last spring, prompting steady support of big names including Mark Hoppus and, just this week, Zane Lowe. That buzz helped secure opening slots on tours with Blonde Redhead and Albert Hammond Jr. This year, Phillips and his live band, consisting of lead guitar, bass and drums, will hit the festival circuit with appearances at SXSW, Shaky Knees and Governors Ball, to name a few. Trendy, but not too trendy, it’s the sound of Oakland’s sanguine and laid back spirit paired with the insecurity of a chaotic New York City.
“Oakland is the most realistic,” he says of the Northern California vibe. “It’s easier to be like ‘Hmm, what am I going to do? I guess I’ll just make music and figure out what I wanna do.’”
Moving from the music room into the back living area, Phillips stops at a plastic-pocketed wall hanging of photographs, some polaroids, one American Apparel ad, a Miles Davis CD and a ticket from show he played with Cash Cash last year. “I don’t even know who Cash Cash is,” he says, flashing an earnest smile.
Upstairs, Phillips’ bedroom is suspiciously tidy, to the point he even seems a little embarrassed of it. Hats are hung neatly on pegs on the wall beside his bed; sunglasses and notebooks arranged on the desk. Handwritten pages of lyrics are pinned on the bulletin board on the wall, he’s posted the ones to “Drag,” “We Try But We Don’t Fit In” and “Come Home Now” to Instagram months ago, but the leaves of paper remain on the cork. In the closet, there are more drums.
In the backyard, Phillips has a mini basketball net set up. “Sometimes I stand out here and do this and Snapchat it until I get it and Snapchat it in slow motion,” he says as he shoots—and misses.
A true Californian, Phillips grew up just north of San Francisco, where his parents, serious music lovers themselves, encouraged him to pick up an instrument. He chose drums, and he continued with the instrument throughout high school, although he would often ditch jazz band to smoke weed. But when it came time for college, he made the choice to pursue music as a career and headed to Boston to attend Berklee College of Music where he studied drums and then switched to production, all the while teaching himself how to play piano after suffering from tendonitis brought on by extensive drumming. After graduation, Phillips, now 26, formed Carousel, toured, and bounced around from New York and Los Angeles before officially setting roots in Oakland, a city more conducive to his process.
“I feel less anxious when I’m here so I can take my time more,” he says. “When I was in a busier city, I felt not as grounded and it was harder to focus and do what I needed to do. But here, I feel way less anxious.”
So he set up shop about a year ago, eager to get out of the synth-pop box he found himself in with Carousel and wanting to build his confidence as a solo songwriter. He bought a guitar and a drum machine and started learning former by ear. It was just time to take on something new. Layer by layer, the songs started to form. First a drum loop, then some chords, a bassline, some synths, a melody.
“I would go on YouTube and watch Future music videos because they show producers and people making songs, and I’d be like, ‘Well, they must be doing it right!’” he remembers. “You eventually learn that everyone just does their own thing and that’s what works out best.”
Although he took a trial-and-error approach with his process, ready to change up a whole song in a moment, the one detail Phillips was sure of is such: Day Wave is an independent project. While it’s a collaborative effort in a live setting, the songs’ compositions are all him. He’ll be uninhibited in his playing and writing styles, he vowed. It’s got to be real. Insecure and introspective, many of Phillips’ lyrics pose some sort of self-inflicted or induced problem. “I don't want to let you in / When I'm sinking to the ground for nothing,” he wistfully sings on “Stuck.”
“It’s something I’ve thought about a lot: if you make something that’s more honest, it’ll connect with people you don’t know,” he says. “You almost have to be kind of embarrassed by what you’re making for the people you know to hear it. It’s kind of embarrassing for my parents to listen to the music. I’m like, ‘Oh god, you’re reading my lyrics?’”
Phillips’ lyrics are an interesting juxtaposition from the sweetly lethargic instrumental compositions, grounded by intricate guitar work—and a departure from his day-to-day demeanor, which is pretty silly for a guy who has songs titled “Headcase,” “Stuck,” and “Total Zombie.”
“Sometimes I like to go to the movies just for the candy,” he says. “See some shitty movie just so I can eat candy.”
After shooting mini hoops, Phillips suggests going out for a snack. We hop in his car, where one of the SiriusXM presets in the car is 50s on 5, an all 50s channel. Another is SiriusXMU, one of the first radio stations to play Day Wave. He switches between XMU—Lower Dens is on; he enjoys the androgynous sound of Jana Hunter’s vocals—and Howard Stern as he drives.
GPS directions to a local coffee shop glow in the reflection of his sunglasses from the phone he holds near his face. The place is painted entirely white inside, an aesthetic combining One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and an art gallery. He orders a tea, asks if anything is gluten free—not because it’s “hip” but because he’s gluten intolerant and hasn’t eaten the stuff since he was about 14—and gets “My fist” as a response from the owner.
“Are you serious?” he exclaims while walking back to the car. It’s the only part of the day Phillips has sort of lost his chill. “It’s better if you’re blunt in a nice way.”
Back in the car, he alters his course and starts toward CREAM, a spot for make-your-own ice cream sandwiches. Phillips has switched from the radio to his phone, and The Flamingos’ “I Only Have Eyes For You” is the song of choice. He loves and is deeply inspired by 50s, 60s and 70s pop and rock like the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, Pink Floyd, and Crosby, Stills & Nash. So he started buying a bunch of tape machines on Craigslist, experimenting with each until he settled on a reel-to-reel that he uses on his recordings. It was especially important for his songs to have “character,” he says—a departure from the glossy and slick Carousel tunes. In between the uber lo-fi sound of the cassette tapes and the seamless sound of digital, Phillips found his sweet spot.
“Sonically, the way it sounds, how it’s all recorded to tape, the older equipment has more of a vibe-y sound,” he explains. “Whereas now things sound so perfect and slick and well mixed, they lose some character. That’s why a lot of those older albums have more of a timeless quality.”
CREAM has gluten free cookies for the ice cream sandwiches. Phillips opts for the classic chocolate chip with vanilla ice cream and devours the heavenly creation in minutes. Briefly, he pulls out his phone and begins to chuckle at a video on Facebook, but he soon ping-pongs to talking about the time he received Ozone therapy—in which ozone is introduced into the body as a treatment, for a bad reaction to a sinus infection antibiotic—reminiscing about when he didn’t drink, secluded himself and ate a ton of almond butter, and discussing nervousness.
“Do you ever get anxiety where you can’t do anything?” he ponders aloud. “Sometimes I have, not a panic attack, but [anxiety] at a pretty high level and it’ll last for a few days.” He likes acupuncture to alleviate moments like that and has been using such forms of alternative care since middle school. He’s also tried chiropractic solutions and meditation. Though sometimes the best method is the old-fashioned way, he’s found.
“I think you have to wait for it to pass. For me though, it comes and goes and it’s usually if I’m super stressed out or something, I’ll induce it by drinking or something.”
No parties for Phillips tonight, though. Soon he’ll be heading to his mom’s to visit before his trip to LA and the whirlwind that will come with the the EP’s release and festival season. He’s had numerous photoshoots and interviews just this week promoting his projects, but at the end of the day he’s still just a twenty-something guy looking for a home-cooked meal and a chance to play with his mother’s cat and dog. Day Wave’s music aims to be timeless and comfortingly relaxed, and it turns out that’s a pretty good way to live, too.
Casey Catelli is a photographer based in San Francisco. Follow her on Instagram.
Allie Volpe is a writer based in Philadelphia. Follow her on Twitter.