Whether he's performing a headline festival set overseas or tinkering away with a vintage drum machine in his home studio, Jay Watson has always found solace in sound. The Western Australian native has spent a lifetime tweaking knobs and sliders in the studio and onstage with Tame Impala and Pond, as well as amassing a loyal legion of fans through his own solo work under the name Gum.
If there's anything that proves Gum's sponge-like ability to absorb all these experiences, it's Out In The World. The fifth solo album to come from the Fremantle polymath, Out In The World sees Watson delve into new sounds and styles without compromising his own personality, tackling everything from wonky electronica and jangly indie rock to full-blown cosmic slop and even a hint of Afrobeat. On top of it all, Out In The World is delivered with a glossy sheen that seemingly defies the home studio environment it was recorded in - a testament to both Gum's toil in the studio and his own personal growth five albums in.
With the release of the new album, we caught up with Jay via Zoom to get a rundown of his creative process for Out In The World, as well as how he uses vintage gear, writing for Pond and the constant education that home recording provides.
Were you worried about how Out In The World would go being released amid a pandemic? Did it mess up any tour dates you had planned or anything?
No, it’s actually kind of perfect for me because I never have the time to tour my Gum records really, so I always put them out without being able to fully promote them. It works well for me, it’s the same as every record I do really - I just kind of do as many interviews as I can.
I’ve done a couple live videos for some websites, and I’m heading in to do a video with a full band at my friend’s studio later this week. That’s been really good practice for mixing and recording something all in a day to send in. Normally when you do those sessions its usually done by someone more professional and experienced who’s mixing it, but it doesn’t mean it necessarily sounds how you want it to sound.
Live streaming has obviously become the go-to for musicians in the past few months. Do you ever worry about music becoming delegitimised through this kind of practice?
Yeah, I actually think about that a lot. Back in the day, almost every song on my iPod was like a 64 kbps Limewire rip - all the top end was so metallic. I’m definitely not an old guy who remembers when things had headroom and everything was analogue, so I’m used to hearing stuff on YouTube that sounds weird and shitty. These days, I think you kind of have to mix stuff for people to listen to it on their phone or laptop - as shitty as that is, it’s kind of our reality.
I’ve sampled stuff off YouTube and even Instagram once, and you cant get much crappier audio than that. But, if that’s the only place where it exists, then it is what it is. I’m always fascinated by how people fetishize the mediums of a certain time - like you can get plug-ins to get things to sound 8-bit, like a ‘90s sampler. I bet those guys from back then would be so confused at the idea of that. Maybe Instagram live streams will be like coveted bootlegs in 40 years time.
For sure. Out In The World is a much more jangly album than I think I expected it to be. Did you get reacquainted with the twelve-string guitar for this album?
I think the first Gum album - which I can’t really listen to nowadays, it’s pretty amateur - the project started with a more jangly vibe - I was listening to a lot of The Byrds and a bit of ‘80s stuff like The Jesus and Mary Chain, more kind of guitar rock which I went away from for a few years, and now I’ve been listening to it again more. I love ’80s music where they were fans of ‘60s music, like Echo and the Bunnymen. It’s like jangly but it’s not… Almost like cold and jangly.
I’m just a product of what I’ve been listening to. I do my best to not overtly rip things off, but I definitely hear things and then go ‘I’d love to make something like that’. The older I get, the less I’m deliberately doing that. It’s all sort of on a database in my head. When I was younger, my friend would put a song on and we’d say ‘let’s do something like that!’. Now, it’s like everything that I’ve ever listened to stays in my head, and I cherry-pick different bits. I think you can hear that on the album - you can hear some sort of jangly pop song, and then the next one will be kind of hip-hop. I don’t think that exists on too many records like that. I think I get jealous of other artists that are doing that kind of thing and just want to have a crack at it.
I think it works well for you though, because it always sounds inherently Gum - the timbre of sounds and everything that you’re using across is the album is quite consistent, even if it might be from a different genre stylistically. Was there any major differences to the way you approached recording this album compared to the last few?
The first two Gum albums were made when I first got Ableton, and they’re really sort of… I just had no idea what I was doing and just waved the Ableton EQ around, so they ended up really harsh and amateur. When I realised how poor they sounded, I almost went too far the other way with the next two - I was obsessed with making everything sound puffy and warm, and ran everything through preamps and tube stuff.
This album is probably the first album where I just let whatever I was recording be. I would EQ or compress things if I had to, or I would do extreme EQ-ing or compression if it was for an effect, but in general I would just let things sit as they were. Some of the vocals are really effected, but a lot of them are pretty dry and open and big sounding. I wanted to just try record a mix naturally for once, which I’d never really tried doing before.
There’s a few songs on the album that sound like they could have been Pond songs - ‘Alphabet Soup’ for example sounds reminds me of something from Tasmania. Was there anything on this album that started life as a Pond song but reemerged as a Gum song?
It’s funny you say that, because I didn’t really have any lyrical inspiration for that one, and I thought the riff would be really good for Pond. In my head, it was kind of like Daft Punk meets Led Zeppelin, and the lyrics are just all train of thought phrases. But I loved the recording of the song I had, and I loved the sound of the drums and the multi-tracked keyboards - I don't even think there's any guitars on there - so I didn’t want to give it up.
Often if I think the band would like it, I’ll put it forward to Pond, or if I’ve had a crack at writing some words for it and they’re average or I can’t come up with a melody, I’ll bring them to Pond, because Nick (Albrook) is such a good lyricist. I think a lot of the best Pond songs have been written like that, where I’ll have an instrumental demo and Nick will do his thing over the top. Like ‘Sweep Me Off My Feet’ - that could have easily been a Gum song, but it wouldn’t have been anywhere near as good. A lot of them could have been saved, but I’ve learnt that saving stuff isn’t a good idea for creativity. In the past, I’ve had ideas for album covers or music videos, but by the time that record’s mastered, you’ve already got another seven ideas. I think it’s good to keep pushing on and use ideas when you have them.
Was there any bits of outboard gear or even new synths or guitars that made a difference on this one?
Yeah, I had a lot more access to what I had on the previous ones, just because I couldn’t afford it last time. The first two albums were literally me with a Focusrite interface and a quarter inch lead and an XLR cable, then me and my guitar and a microphone. In fact, all the bass on the first album is just a Boss Octave pedal with a guitar! By the third or fourth one, I had a lunchbox full of stuff and that was it, and now I’ve got heaps of stuff.
I got really into dub music, so there’s quite a lot of spring reverb on this one - most of the reverb on the album is spring reverb, and I think the jankier the spring sound the better, you know? There’s a lot of tape echo stuff on there too, but nothing really outrageous.
I find with outboard gear, because I use so many plug-ins, the more unattainable the sound of a piece of gear is with plugins, the more appealing it is to me. I have no problem with using plug-in compressors and EQs to record a whole album, but tape echo and spring reverb is different. I use an old MuTron filter was - even just the drive on them. I had an old Watkins Copy Cat Echo, but the tape delay part didn’t work, but the preamp was so good that a lot of the bass was through that. I really like recordings that sound - homemade’s not the right word, but electro-mechanical or something - you feel like you can hear wires crackling and tape fluttering, as pretentious as that sounds.
Yeah for sure. It’s kind of like people liking vinyl for the snap crackle pop it gives, or even all the trap producers using the RC-20 Retro Color plug-in on all their stuff to make it sound all wonky and weird.
I genuinely don’t like old equipment because I think it sounds warmer or better or anything. Like, I don’t think vinyl sounds as warm as everyone says. I think it’s more that I like the sound of things that don’t work properly. Even recording to tape doesn’t accurately give you back what you’re recording - it takes a bit off the top end and has a weird bump in the midrange. I think the inaccuracy is what appeals to me. I like sending stems that sound great and natural, and then make them abnormal or interesting sounding, whether it’s through plug-ins or some box I found on eBay.
You used to play an older SG bass with Pond for a while, and I remember when I last saw you at Gum show in Melbourne, you were playing some kind of old Yamaha Les Paul copy. Have you kind of gotten out of that phase where you think vintage is better?
I used to buy old guitars because i like the feel of the necks when the stuff is worn off - I definitely don’t think a brand new jazz bass sounds any different to an old one. It might do to an aficionado, but I’ve never really been concerned about that. Guitars and basses are tactile to me, which is why I’ll buy a Greco Les Paul or something. I probably kill all the old mojo by running it through all the weird stuff I record with. My Pond bass I use now is some old Fernandes Power Bass or something!
I don’t think I’m obsessed with either analogue or digital for any reason other than it giving me a sensation that I’m after. I really like the Vulf compressor plug-in, which is based off the sampler that J Dilla and Madlib used. It’s not really about quality or lack thereof, it’s more about how it makes you feel when you’re using it.
You also used to treat a lot of stuff through old semi-modular synthesisers - I remember reading something about you using a Korg MS-20 to treat a lot of one of your earlier albums. Is that something you still do a bit?
I think that was just the second album, which is terrible sounding, because I didn't know what I was doing while mixing. But all the guitar was recorded through that synth. I was trying to make electronic music that had big guitar solos and riffs, but every time I’d use a fuzz pedal or distort the preamp it’d be weird. I didn’t want it to sound like rock music, but I wanted it to have the attitude of rock music, but sound like synth-pop. But yeah, it was all through the filter of the MS-20, and use each oscillator to make it sound like a POG… I could have three octaves of synth guitar and just stack them up to sound like Robert Fripp or something. I just went so overboard with it.
Did you ever get into the Robert Fripp open-tuning thing, or get weird with tape loops or anything?
No, not really. I think for me, I’ve always been really passionate about recording and mixing, and getting better at it. But I’m really still so amateur. I know what sounds good, but I need to remind myself every time I use a compressor about how it works. I’ve always had a poor scientific mind. Once anything requires a bit more effort or nous, I just don’t do it.
My style of recording is much more basic than how the recording sounds. I basically treat Ableton like an eight track. I don’t really do that much automation. Every time I see someone else’s Ableton session, I’m blown away with how they’ve deactivated clips or used an effects bus. I’m almost printing stems how I go, purely out of not knowing how top operate it properly. The only way I’ve learnt how to use a DAW is through watching our sound guys or watching Kevin, or other people around me who know more.
Has Kevin ever given you much game in terms of recording or mixing techniques at all?
Yeah for sure! We recorded a few Pond albums with other people and he’d mix them, and I’d sit there and watch him mix them with him and watch him do stuff. James, who plays in Pond, is a really good mix engineer and producer, and I’ve learnt a lot of stuff of him. At the moment, I’m trying to learn how to use multi-band compression - both those guys are really good at that, and I always just end up ruining my mixes when I try doing it.
I actually finished recording Out In The World around two years ago; it’s been mastered for almost a year now, and I’m still really happy with it. It always kind of takes a while to get it done, and then we were touring with Pond and waiting for the Tame Impala record to come out. The fact that it’s been done for so long and I still find it listenable is really good though. I think no matter how amateur or professional you are, everyone looks back at the things they did two years ago and goes ‘why did I do that’. But that’s all part of it. I think that’s the only shame of the digital age - it’s way too easy to bounce something straight from Garageband and upload it straight to SoundCloud. I’m really happy with this new album though. It’s how I wanted things to sound.
Out In The World, the new album from Gum, is out now via Spinning Top Music.