Make no mistake; Jack Tatum is an amiable guy. The Wild Nothing frontman and chief songwriter can hold his own in conversation, from early R&B touchstones to the weather of his newly adopted Los Angeles home. (Given that he’s just moved from New York City—which on the day of our chat is deep in snow—he’s big on sunshine.) But he’s also not afraid to gently call you out, particularly when it comes to a controversial topic like “artistic progression,” which can often come off as a dirty word in the music community. Somewhat surprisingly, he embraces the concept.
“I feel like I can’t help but have a tendency to distance myself from what I’ve done in the past every time I create something new,” he says conspiratorially, taking a long sip of his coffee. “It’s almost like I don’t feel like I’m the person who made it anymore…It’s hasn’t been until now, six years later, where I’m sort of pulling the screen back a little bit. ‘Okay, you’re allowed to come in now, all these other things that I listen to.’ They can be a part of my music now in a way they haven’t been able to in the past. I think part of that is just getting older and feeling more confident. And also just in terms of growth. I don’t want to keep making the same record over and over again.”
Although, to hear Tatum tell it, he’s just grateful for a chance to release albums at all. In a plot point likely to raise the ire of unsigned artists everywhere, Wild Nothing was nothing more than a bedroom recording moniker, until Captured Tracks contacted him in 2009 after hearing a handful of online demos. Encouraged to look at music as more than a hobby, the Virginia Tech communications student dedicated himself to finishing what would become his debut, Gemini, recording the final tracks over Christmas vacation. Although professing a taste for the C86 slate, and the 1980s era as a whole, Tatum admits signing to the iconic indie did end up altering the final product.
“The entire record was born out of the fact I got signed to this specific label,” he recalls. “I got extremely lucky in that sense. There was this feeling that I did have to cater what I was doing. Because I was really young. I made these songs in a specific style.”
Wild Nothing’s 2012 follow-up, Nocturne, further teased out the musician’s dream pop tendencies, albeit it with a significantly looser grip on the reverb petals. Lithe and lovelorn, with both fidelity and songwriting skills sharpened, the release felt like both a logical progression and sequel. Which is exactly what Tatum hoped to avoid with Life of Pause.
“I imagine that people who liked the very first record can hear that it’s me,” he clarifies, lest any fan think he’s after a total reinvention. “It’s not going to be a total leap of faith that it’s two disparate entities…I’m definitely someone who is interested in straightforward song forms. And really in keeping with the mold of a traditional pop song.”
Recorded in both Stockholm and Los Angeles, Life of Pause unspools like an ode to intellectual play. During the four years between albums, Tatum spent a sizable amount of time amount of time studying iconic musicians and movements, and trying to determine just why they’re so well-respected. The results of his self-prescribed education are evident in his intimate guitar pop, from the Detroit soul flourishes of “Whenever I,” to the Todd Rundgren undertones of “A Woman’s Wisdom,” to “Reichpop”—a track that Tatum actually named after composer/inspiration Steve Reich.
“There’s a similar story for a lot of the songs on the record,” he explains. “I’ve always been that way. It’s rare for me to sit down and write a song out of nowhere. There has to be this starting point or this spark for each song to happen…Sometimes I feel weird about it. I feel almost embarrassed that I need these kinds of sparks to get my ideas going. But I think eventually it’s sort of null because the songs that I start out being influenced by, my stuff doesn’t end up sounding like that.”
Tatum can see where he’s going—even if a part of him realized he’ll always be grouped in with decade-worshipping acts like The Pains of Being Pure at Heart and Radio Dept. But that’s the risk in exploring. Sometimes no one realizes you’ve veered off the main path.
“It’s hard,” he admits. “I don’t think I’m ever going to be able to shake the 1980s tag. That’s sort of the nature of what I started doing. I don’t think this record is particularly ‘80s-sounding. But people are going to say that about it no matter what…I think my biggest goal is to make music that sort of feels almost like it doesn’t fit anywhere.”
With that, Tatum smiles and doubles back on his statement, acknowledging that the genre slotting doesn’t really bother him all that much. After all, he’s already come further than he imagined. And who knows where his musical inclinations will progress to next?