Gear Talks: Jay Watson of GUM

Subscribe to Mixdown Magazine


Gear Talks: Jay Watson of GUM

GUM jay watson
Words by Winter McQuinn
Edits by Mixdown Staff

Jay Watson of GUM chats his influence on younger generations of Australian musicians, go-to gear picks and how his new LP differs from his previous output.

Many fans first became acquainted with Jay Watson through his earlier work with the now megalithic-ally famous Tame Impala. However, if you haven’t heard the wonderfully scuzzed out pop-psychedelia of his solo project GUM – you’re severely missing out.

Read up on all the latest features and columns here.

The multi-instrumentalist has recently released a string of singles from his forthcoming album Saturnia, an 11-track record showcasing the sonically explorative, otherworldly sounds you might expect from a GUM record. However, these visions have coalesced into the richest, but also the most coherent work of Watson’s career to date. Ahead of this massive release, Jay sat down with Mixdown for a chat about everything from his influence on younger generations of Australian musicians, to his go-to gear picks and how this LP differs from his previous output.

Talk to me about your studio space?

There’s a lot of stuff packed in here! It’s 3 meters x 5 and a half metres, it’s really crammed in here. It’s good though, more than I’ve ever had before.

Yeah right! I’ve listened to previous interviews where you mention not having a permanent home studio setup? 

I’ve had little setups over the years, just in my room at a sharehouse, a little table in the corner. Little lunchbox and an interface. It’s the first time I’ve had drums since I lived at home. That’s why there’s heaps of real drums on this new album.

Woah yeah, I’d love to talk to you about drums. I feel like you have such a signature drum sound across your records. 

Yeah I think I’m getting a bit better at recording drums.

What’s your mic / plugin setup for recording drums?

For this one, I used an SM57 on the snare.

A true classic

I’ve got this AKGD12, that classic Beatles kick drum mic. It’s an 80s one though, so it was cheaper. It’s great, although I can’t tell if it sounds really good or if I just think it sounds really good because it’s the one that everyone used. It sounds like a finished kick drum, I just do a tiny bit of EQ and don’t compress the kick drum really.

I’m not really good at phase stuff, I usually just use some kind of Ribbon mic, like above it all. Then I’ll put a mic close to the rack toms. I like close rack tom sounds and having a Ribbon mic as an overhead. They have a natural squish / compression / softness in 1-5k. I don’t have to scoop out the harshness of cymbals, I can leave it bright. I’m not a big condenser guy, I own one but I don’t really use it. I like Ribbons and dynamic mics.

Yeah cool, your drums sound so tightly mic’d, particularly the toms.

Yeah it depends on the song, sometimes I’ll have it ages away like if I want it to sound more 60s or something like Mitch Mitchelly, I won’t close mic them. If it’s more of a Disco vibe, I’ll mic them close. I used to use random different preamps but I don’t think different preamps are that much faster or slower. When I was getting phase issues and stuff, I just wanted to rule that out. So I’ve got this 4 channel Sebatron valve preamp thing. That’s now what the 4 drum mics go through. It’s just handy that they each go into the same box. LIke I can rule that out as a phase variable. I don’t like to compress drums while recording them, I think it just limits what you can do later when mixing. If you’ve squished it already. On vocals though I like to record with a bit of compression, same with bass. With drums though I like to have big spikes to work with. You can always flatten it but it’s harder to reanimate it.

I feel like you have such good tom moments in your previous single ‘Race To The Air’. 

Oh cheers, that’s all a bit over compressed, not because of compression just cos I put that through a tape machine.

Oh cool what’s the tape machine?

It’s like a TEAC, not hi fi, just a quarter inch. Medium FI.

Moderate FI

Yeah, If it was any nicer sounding I wouldn’t bother. It’s crusty enough that you’ve gotta send it in treblier to get it back out normal. Basically that really flattened it but I liked the overall texture.

Yeah cool, what would you say is your fave piece of gear at the moment?

I’ve got a problem. It’s not like I hoard stuff, I buy and sell at almost the same rate. If I don’t use it in a year I sell it. I’ve got this old rack thing, which are two old 70s CARLSBRO pedals, one was a delay echo and one was a ADT (Artificial Double Track). They sound really good but they were super bulky and needed an adapter. So I went to sell them but realised they weren’t worth that much and thought they were too good to sell for cheap. So I got this real good tech here in Perth to put them into a rack setup and put in a bypass switch for each unit and a link so I can join between the two and a mix knob! It’s kinda amazing that I’ve met this guy, it means I can buy gear that’s kinda broken and I know there’s a fairly good chance he’ll be able to fix it.

Those people are so important, hey.

I know! I’ve used techs before that are kinda hit or miss but this guy is amazing. Now I’m just thinking about what I can do with what I’ve got. Instead of looking for new gear. I’ve got this weird old Tube Limiter, this compressor I like to use and he’d be able to mod it to put in attack and release knobs. It’s just fun thinking about what you can make.

I love the idea of making what you got work.

Yeah, I’m a bit gross with music gear, I’m like what some people are like with clothes. I mean you don’t need any of this shit, you can sit there with your Macbook. For me, it’s kinda like the fun and inspiration of it. On the other hand too, if you use a tape echo and make it go all fun and squiggly, you can do that with a plugin, but it would take you ages and be weird. For some things it seems redundant but for things like that, I couldn’t be bothered using Ableton Echo and drawing in the waves.

Yeah totally, it’s more experimental maybe. 

Yeah, I’ve got heaps of stuff that’s broken, like this old Volume Wah pedal, neither section works properly but the distortion on it is really cool. Me and Gin (From Pond) do remixes together and run stems through it, it’s really cool. It kinda sounds like a Big Muff Pedal.


Yeah totally, so things like that, I don’t know if there’s a plugin for that.

Yeah it wouldn’t be the same. Wouldn’t be broken. Maybe AI will start making plugins that are a little bit broken.

I mean yeah there are some plugins, I used Sketch Cassete a bit. I find its shittiness really accurate.

How does this album feel different to your previous records? Sound wise. 

I think that it was a bit more deliberate. With the old ones it was more trial and error. I’d just record a bunch of stuff and go with however it turned out. Now I go, I want it to sound like this and I’ll make it sound like that. I’m a much more confident mixer / recording engineer.

Yeah totally, feels like it’s really elevated.

Thank you! Yeah like I said that guy Gin (Drummer from Pond), is a really good producer and mixer, doing heaps of cool stuff. He’s just really handy, he’s one of the drum techs for when Tame Impala go on tour and we would just go to studios on day off and he would help me finish this record.

So nice to have a friend from another band on tour with you in a different role/way. 

Oh totally, and he’s one of the best I know. Like Him and Kevin. I would rather them mix my stuff than anyone else.

Yeah so special to be connected in that way.

Really special.

Yeah of course, are you excited to bring out a live band on this solo tour?

Yeah so it’s him (Gin) and his partner Scarlett (San Cisco) playing drums.

Cool! Talk to me about that. What made you bring a band for this tour? I know you’ve previously toured solo right?

Yeah I’ve just never really had time to commit to doing it with a band. Pond had a recent tour canceled due to VISA issues, so we’re making something now and then Tame is on a break. So I’ve just got time to rehearse with other people.

I guess that’s a silver lining?

Yeah totally and I can’t really afford to have a big band. In the past, I would have had a big band If I could or had backing tracks. I feel like, having seen bands over the years whenever there’s only a couple of people, it kinda sounds bigger or heavier and I can hear the parts clearer. Like I don’t want it to be soup.

Live drums are the biggest thing for me.

Yeah for sure, so on this tour the only backing track will be drum machines. Almost every song I make has a drum machine on it. I’ll have a drum machine part and then record live drums over the top of it.

Oh really? Cool!

Yeah I just like the texture. The last 3 Pond albums have had that setup too. Even if we start with live drums we’ll wanna add a drum machine into it. It’s cool because you can filter it to work harmoniously with the live drums like for example if you had a big live kick and snare you could filter the drum machine in to be the hi hats and percussion of the song. It can go through fills you know? If you side chain the drum machine to the kick and snare it doesn’t matter if it’s a bit Flammy or out cos it dips in and out.

That’s a good tip.

Yeah, It doesn’t really work if you have a big punchy drum machine but lots of the ones I’ve got are real thin ones. Like an old Maestro, that one’s on this new single. Or this old Electro Harmonix one, kinda looks like a guitar pedal. Pretty cool, you’ve got 15 rhythms. I like not having to come up with the pattern myself, just going through presets. Most of them you can press multiple buttons which makes hybrid patterns. Like Bossanova and Rock.

That’s the GUM Sound, Bossa Rock.


What’s your live setup for this upcoming solo tour?

It’s Drums with SPD SX, Bass and Keys on a KORG Kronos which I’vem making all the patches for now. They’re really cool because they have six outputs which you can split to make it sound massive on stage. I’ll just play guitar and sing.

Love that.

Cool thing about that KRONOS is, say you have three different sounding patches in your right hand, you can send them out as separate lines to the FOH person and suddenly you’ve got 6 keys sounds on separate stems. My idea is that it sounds quite big but there’s only three people with minimal backing track. The less people you are the easier it is to improvise too. My music hasn’t been very improvisational for a while but when there’s only 3 people you can make stuff up on the spot, we’ve been making live versions of the tracks.

Cool! Love that. Are you bringing that band to the US as well? 

Yeah slightly different band in the US so that’s the one with Scarlett (San Cisco) on drums, in Australia she can’t do it so my friend Chris is playing drums.

I’m just tryna make it as stress free as possible. You know, use what I’ve learnt from touring over the years. You just get all these grand ideas about all this crap you’ll bring and set up on stage. Half of it doesn’t work haha. I’m just tryna make it fool proof and easy. People don’t actually care what gear you’ve brought, just how it sounds.

On this new single, you’ve said that lyrically this track is more meaningful / literal that previous GUM tracks? Regarding the theme of apathy vs caring about something.

Yeah I mean, I’d say none of them are literal. Like Nick from Pond can write lyrics from personal interactions he’s had. I can’t do that. They’re all ephemeral thoughts which I try to turn into real words.

Do you start with the melody first?

Yeah usually, sometimes I’ll start with song titles. Like this song on the new album ‘Muscle Memory’ which we use all the time when we’re learning parts etc. I just thought it was a cool name for an electronic song. Usually I just do melodies with gibberish and then occasionally that will sound like a word which I’ll then go with. It’s not like the front of my brain being a try hard tryna write lyrics, it’s just my subconscious coming up with stuff. When you do that the phrasing feels natural, even if the lyrics are a little odd. Like everyones different and I love wordy songwriters like Bob Dylan or Nick Cave but for me I’m not concerned if a lyric sounds funny if it fits. Like it has to be a really good lyric to be shoehorned into the phrase. By doing the gibberish method, you guarantee that the phrasing is sort of natural, even if the phrase itself is a bit off.

I feel like you’ve had such a big impact on influencing a generation of music makers through your solo work, Pond and Tame Impala, do you feel like you’ve had that influence?

Only when people mention it, because I was never the figurehead like Kevin is of Tame Impala. It’s hard to acknowledge it at all. Especially when people often hear your stuff via that.

You never know if people are being polite or if they genuinely like it. I’ve been playing for long enough now that you play with bands who say stuff like, ‘I used to listen to you in high school’. I’m like ‘oh what you don’t now’?

Yeah like, I used to listen to you, I kinda grew out of it. 

Yeah, like years ago, i was 17/18, it was our first Big Day Out and I was chatting to this guy by the pool and he was like who are you here with and I said ‘oh this band Tame Impala’ and then I asked who he was with and he said “Groove Armada” and I was like ‘oh cool my mum really likes you guys’ and he was immediately like ‘you dickhead’ haha

I didn’t realize why that was an idiotic thing to say and of course now people say that kinda thing to me like “Oh when I was 10 I liked it”. It’s just funny.

Has that happened recently on any tours?

Oh all the time, there are people from which, our music is the weirdest stuff they listen to and then there are people who only listened to us when they were 14 and by the time they’re 18 they’re into noise music. So we represent a certain pop-ness.

Yeah for sure, I think you definitely sit in the middle of that venn diagram. 

Yeah cool thank you, I mean yeah all you can do is make stuff you want to listen to. I spent half of my life listening to stuff that was pretty left of centre and then the other half listening to classic pop music.

Feels like you guys and bands like King Gizzard are the original psychedelic revivalists in that way. How was it collaborating with Ambrose on that recent split seven?

Oh it was really fun, really easy. He’s used to having to do stuff so quickly with them (KG).

Was it completely remote?

Yeah completely remote, we’ve almost finished an album.

It’s really cool, it’s been really easy. It’s insane how quickly I’ll send him something and then how quickly he’ll send some vocals back. So I’ll just spend a couple months fiddling with the production and mixing on it and then it should be done… I don’t know how to describe it, it’s kinda like an Electro Soul Rock record.

Yeah I feel like he (Ambrose) has a soulful edge on his vocals which you have as well with an electronic edge. 

Yeah there’s like synth and stuff, it’s quite heavy. It’s gonna be awesome!

I will say, the biggest thing that’s changed in here are the monitors I’ve got. I’ve always had cheap monitors, like HS5s and I recently bought these Neuman KH310s and I’m obsessed. The rooms not treated or anything and they just sound so true and flat. I bought them because all the reviews said that it doesn’t matter if you’re in a shed or if you point them the right way. They’re really great for mixing. I highly recommend it, they’re a lot of money ($5,000 a pair) but they’re really good. They’re not like the ATC monitors that cost the same as a new car. I reckon they’ve made my mixes twice as good. Not that you need flash monitors, they just pick up on details. I pretty much used headphones for the past 3 or 4 records.

I didn’t trust what I had. I was always using just random speakers, like whatever you had in a sharehouse lounge room. Or like $500 speakers, which are fine but just wanted to step up a bit. I would spend money on synths and guitars and rubbish but that stuff doesn’t matter if your monitors are cheap. I’d always put the expensive vintage stuff into things like a cheap interface, monitors etc. I’ve recently tried to prioritise the boring stuff and it’s made a big difference.

It is the boring stuff.

I’ve got one of those UAD interfaces, the Apollo 16. I’ve never had any issues with it like no latency. You don’t have to worry about it. I was always mucking around with half broken interfaces for years.

When the latency’s out and you question if you’re just terrible at your instrument. 

Oh Yeah! for ages I never realised there was software console that it runs through. Using that is how you don’t get latency, for years I would record and would always have to move stems back in time… with this new setup I haven’t had to once. Not even a smidgeon of latency. Someone had to teach me that though, I’m really terrible with computers and software.

Once you get it it’s fine. In general, I’m really shit technically. I would love to learn a little bit more about how gear works. So when stuff breaks slightly I can fix it.

For now you’ve got your wonder tech pal.

Yeah he’s amazing. At the moment, I’m building a kit pedal (see photo), I’ve got 2 kids though, so I never really get a chance to build it. I’d be very surprised if it works.

That looks gnarly

People do these all the time, I just didn’t realise how hard soldering is. 

Jay Watson’s Saturnia will be available on all good streaming platforms on Friday, September 15, 2o23. Keep up to date with Jay here.