Freedom is a luxury most musicians will never know in their lifetime.
Freedom is a luxury most musicians will never know in their lifetime. Of course, one instantly thinks of financial freedom and it is truly a major aspect that hinders artists struggling to reach the next level while also trying to just simply live. But the freedom that most people never think about is the musical freedom to truly do what you want. Sure, there are plenty of artists who do this — Beyoncé and Radiohead instantly come to mind with their recent work — but there are just as many who carry a specific burden on their shoulders when it comes to their music.
Slayer, for instance, is never going to run contrary to hard rock even if they wanted to. Katy Perry is never going to record a rock album (or gospel one again) even if she wanted to. At some level, your success in a style becomes its own detriment, hindering you from moving forward and alienating your devoted following for even trying something new in even the most subtle manner. Music history is riddled with bands and artists who “tried something new” and were forever damaged by it making it almost a cautionary tale for artists striving for something different.
Through no design of his own, Blacksburg artist Jack Tatum has experienced this first hand now under the guise of Wild Nothing. Since the beginning of this decade, Wild Nothing has been held up as a shimmering continuation of the late 80s dream-pop explosion with majestic compositions that immerse the listener in a world full of sonic beauty. His first two records — 2010’s Gemini and 2012’s Nocturne — established him as an expert in this style and a true leader for the ethereal sound. It’s all well and good, except that Jack Tatum has always been more than the solitary genre even if the world wasn’t ready for him to shy away from it.
On his new record Life Of Pause (out this February on Captured Tracks), Tatum took on a different aesthetic than the one that brought him success. He traded the singular dream-pop sound for a much more fleshed out and diverse grace, one that deftly travels from song to song and could best be described as an ode to Philly soul. “There was a lot of things I was trying to pull into the fray a bit more than I had in the past,” Tatum revealed. “Honestly, there’s just so many different kinds of music I’m interested in as a fan of music and I think it just crept its way into my music after putting it on the sidelines for so long.”
As natural as this change in sound came, Tatum still admitted that it was something he was very conscious of after becoming almost synonymous with the dream pop genre. “I definitely wanted to experiment more with sounds on this record,” he detailed. “Just not have everything be so one-sided like it was in the past. I don’t feel like I’ve abandoned the past though, but rather let my tendencies come through more. I didn’t need to introduce this thing or that thing — it was all in the air around me because it’s what I was listening to and I’ve always been so directly inspired by whatever is my current obsession.”
Tatum is far from the point of disowning his first two records though. Gemini in particular is one he’s still proud of to this day even if it’s not a current representation of his musical interests. “[Gemini] was extremely personal in a lot of ways,” he said. “It’s still the only record I’ve done entirely myself. I truly played and recorded everything and put it all together in isolation. The lyrical content is very personal too as it is mostly a relationship record, but this new record feels personal too. In a different way. It’s much more honest about what I’m interested in and who I ultimately am as a musician. I was very much interested in that sound in the past, but it’s very rooted in a particular genre and I think this record feels more true to myself because I’m letting other things into it.”
Tatum admitted it was a challenge for him to attempt to bring in all of these sounds to the new record. Daunting at times, the work seemed too scattered to make cohesive, but Tatum’s own personal confidence helped consolidate it all into a single entity. “You have to faith in yourself as a songwriter and who you actually are at some point,” he remarked. “No matter what, you’re always bound by your own abilities and sensibilities. I could talk about this record being vastly different, but at the end of the day, it still sounds like a record that I made. That’s what kept me grounded and helped me bring it all together. I had to keep this thought in the back of my head: Even if I’m trying to do all these different things, it’s still going to sound like me.”
Unlike other artists branching out though, Tatum’s fanbase wasn’t a factor when creating the music. It was only later when the record was completed did he begin to realize the implications the new record’s sound could have on his fanbase. This wasn’t a blind indifference to his following though. At this stage of the game, Tatum found himself still struggling with the concept of having “fans” when it comes to his music because ultimately, he’s just one himself. “It still seems slightly absurd to me,” he laughed. “I have a fanbase? I’m still coming to terms with it. I do love it though and I greatly appreciate any support anyone has given me over the years, but at the same time, you can’t let that sway what you want to do. I just want to be an honest musician and this record was me being that. Hopefully, my fans will see that and it will resonate with them.”
In making Life Of Pause, it wasn’t just a different sound preference that Tatum noticed had changed, but also his appreciation of technical skill in regards to musicians. Tatum stated he considers himself a guitarist first and foremost, but he also had “no interest in ever becoming extremely good at it.” But Tatum has discovered that the more music he listens to, he finds himself appreciating proficiency and understanding its inherent value to classic recordings. “My younger self is laughing as I say this, but I do value technical work a lot now,” he elaborated. “You listen to soul music and older R&B and there’s just incredible music all around. The players are all so good because you just had to be an amazing musician in that era. You didn’t have any room to fuck up. You just had to be good in the time you were allotted.”
As much as proficiency deserves to be praised though, Tatum shied away from the so-called “hero worship” that goes on for some of the greats of the past, particularly in regards to guitarists. He’s not alone in this line of thinking as this generation of musicians seems much more driven to become excellent songwriters or unified units than they are to become the best on a single instrument. “I really could care less and I think a lot of people today do as well,” he reasoned. “I’m much more interested in the people that put the pieces together as opposed to getting really good at just one thing. It still goes on today though. People gush about St. Vincent as this amazing guitarist so that’s a thing. She definitely is, but luckily it hasn’t reached that mythic level. Honestly, the idea of a guitarist rock God like Jimmy Page is kind of dead. Why be known for just one thing when you can be known for everything?”
Don’t get him wrong though — Tatum still plays favorites when it comes to instruments, but he’d rather talk about specific concepts with those instruments than the players behind them, such is the case with the bass guitar. “More than any instrument, it can just weave in and out of things,” he said hardly masking his enthusiasm. “Most people don’t even notice it that much. It’s just there in the background, but if you want, you can pay attention and it’s doing its own thing with its own melody.” His love of bass aside, it’s still piecing together a song that gives Tatum the most joy as a musician. “It’s always been about how things for me,” he stated. “I always try to make it so it all works and gels together which I guess is also part of the dreamy nature of my music. That aspect of my work will never truly go away.”
Something else that will never go away is Tatum’s admiration of Richmond, even if he’s rarely played here in his time as Wild Nothing. “Honestly, that  Strange Matter show might be our only proper show in Richmond which is just a shame,” he mused. “I’ve always loved Richmond and any time I come home to visit my parents, I always spend some time in town. Honestly, I’m rarely in charge of where we go to play. Usually we come through Charlottesville which is great too, but there’s something about coming back to Richmond now that’s got me really excited.”
For fans going out to his show at The Broadberry, it won’t be an extravagant performance with dozens of musicians on stage frantically trying to flesh out the vast arrangements Tatum created on his latest record. Described by Tatum as a “a straight forward rock set up,” Wild Nothing’s music will come through from just two guitars, a bass, and drums something that Tatum says is something he always strives to continue no matter where his sound takes him. “A lot of contemporary bands try and figure out their group so they can use certain backing tracks or something else and it all gets convoluted,” he demurred. “That just seems like a complete headache to me. There’s something appealing about trying to interpret the songs the best way you can within the confines of real people playing the music, especially when it’s just four or five people doing so. Doing that keeps me grounded as well and might just be something the fans can look forward to. I may have tweaked things here and there with the sound to show you a more honest me, but the live show? That foundation is the same so people who saw me in 2012 won’t even notice a different. Give and take I guess.”
Wild Nothing plays The Broadberry tonight alongside Charlie Hilton. Tickets are $15 and doors open at 7 PM. For more information on the show and where to buy tickets, click here.