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Tame Impala’s Jay Watson talks fame, drugs and tennis

Dan Webb
Jay Watson is a prolific 27 year-old singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist best known for his work with Tame Impala and Pond. He has also released four solo albums under the moniker GUM, the most recent of which, The Underdog, was released earlier this month.

Three years ago you were quoted as saying you were trying to create “weird fucked up pop music” on your second album, Glamorous Damage. Has your intent changed at all in the years since?
I’ve probably for better or worse, probably for worse, I kind of just don’t really think about the kind of music I’m trying to make anymore as much. I’ve kind of just – it kinda sounds really cliché but I kinda just do stuff and then whatever it is, it is, you know. I like just record like lots of different sorts of music kind of all of the time and more often than not I end up putting it out. There’s not too much stuff that I like, don’t put out, you know. I don’t have much of a filter for what I release. But I think that’s quite good, I like doing it like that. But yeah sometimes it’s really poppy sometimes it’s just really like, you know, noise. And all the best stuff is usually when that’s kind of crossed together, I guess.

I think I could probably make better music if I had more patience and was less kind of hyperactive.

I’m guessing you have quite a diverse list of influences in that case.
Yeah, I kind of just listen to like, every good thing that’s happened in music since I dunno, you know, jazz (laughs). Like, you know, it’s kind of – there’s just like limitless stuff on the internet and one week I’ll be really into house music and the next minute I’ll, you know, find it really boring and just listen to like, you know, Motown or whatever. And it kind of just changes a lot, and then if I go through a phase for long enough it’ll come out in the music I think.

So you mentioned jazz there – is jazz something that you listen to?
Little more the older I get. I don’t really like kind of, traditional jazz. I don’t mind sort of bebop sort of stuff. But I think I listen – the jazz I like listening to is kinda like – they’re called spiritual jazz, you know like Alice Coltrane… I mean I hate the word, using the word, but quite like sort of psychedelic, blissed-out jazz. I also like kinda like when Miles Davis and those guys you know, like On The Corner and stuff, when they got into Hendrix and that sort of thing. Probably like jazz blasphemy, but I dunno. You can only like what you like.

Let’s talk about your new album, The Underdog. How long did it take to record, given you’re obviously juggling a few other projects?
Yeah, I don’t really know to be honest. I guess I’ve been doing it for like, two years or something. But I kind of just do bits and pieces when I have free time at home and then I kind of mix it when I have free time on tour, just on like on planes or in vans. Yeah, I think I just – I’m just mucking around and then I’ll get to the point where I kind of like have to finish it or I’ll go insane. I tend to rush things a bit, I think I could probably make better music if I had more patience and was less kind of hyperactive. But I don’t know, I can’t be bothered (laughs). At a certain point, you know, I still care what everyone thinks about it but I feel like I care less and less each time, slightly. Which helps you just put out more stuff, you know. Cos it’s like ‘stuff everyone’.

Is there an audio plugin you can’t live without?
I quite like using – I mean man, I’ve only recently kind of feel like I half know what I’m doing. I used to just be awful at kind of using compression and EQ and stuff. I just kind of dragged the dots around and see what happened. I think I’m getting a bit better, but what have I got, I’m sitting here now. I like the Soundtoys plugins. This guy, a friend of mine, Dan told me about this plugin called the Vulf Compressor which is really cool I’ve been using. And I just got this new spring reverb plugin called the PSP SpringBox which I really like. Sounds really realistic, sorta like dub, you know, spring reverb. But I kind of don’t – I don’t use too many plugins. I use – it’s probably 50% weird old gear, you know, half broken stuff that you record if it still works. And 50% like, plugins and stuff that’s really reliable that doesn’t break. I find if it’s too much either way, if it’s too much just like old synths and guitars and stuff it sounds too retro or something. And if I use all software it just sounds like kind of like a cheeseburger to me… I think it’s silly not to use the best of both worlds, you know. But it took me a long time to get to that point. For ages I wanted to record purely like, to tape. And then for a while there I was like ‘fuck that, that’s for, you know, rich people’. I can like, make a whole album on my iPad. And now it’s sort of like splitting the difference.

You tend to just like, be embarrassed by the whole thing really.

GUM performing at By The Meadow festival 2018. Photo: Liam Brownlie

You’re still young but you’ve obviously got quite an immense back catalogue already. Looking back on everything you’ve recorded so far, can you single out a song or an album which you’re most fond or proud of?
I mean man, you tend to just like, be embarrassed by the whole thing really. I mean there’s moments in songs which I like think are really cool. And there’s maybe entire songs, I really like that song “Sitting Up On Our Crane” from the second last Pond album, I think that’s a really nice song, like simple song. But mostly it just makes you cringe, like the way you’ve like, recorded it, the lyrics, the like, way you’re singing it. I dunno. I still feel like a hack and I think I will feel like a hack forever really. You know, you work for like two years on something and then you put it out and then half a day later you’re like, ‘oh that’s rubbish’ (laughs), you know. You just have to hope that some people don’t think it’s rubbish and then you know, that validates it existing.

Have you ever had a moment of feeling completely starstruck?
I saw Bono once in Ireland. I mean I’ve met lots of sort of famous people I guess, you know, but at this point you kind of stop caring to a point, you know. It’s like ‘oh there’s like, there’s the guy from, you know, I don’t know, whatever, The White Stripes’ or something. And you’re like, you know, you’re starstruck in the sense that you know who it is but you’re not like, it doesn’t seem like – you’re not flipping out. But I saw Bono watching Tame Impala at this festival in Ireland, holding like a can of cider (laughs). And it was – I couldn’t believe it. And he was ages away, but I could – I knew it was him. He had like the purple sunnies and gumboots on. And so I ran over to Kevin (Parker) like, in the break in the thing and I was like ‘Bono!’ and he was like ‘what?’ and I ran over to the monitor guy like, mid-song. I was like ‘check it out, it’s Bono’. He was like ‘yeah I’ve already seen him’. That was pretty crazy. Cos he’s so – when people are so famous that they’re like kind of a cartoon of themselves. That’s when you get kind of starstruck I think.

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Or in Bono’s case, he was literally a cartoon character on South Park.
(Laughs) Sure, I guess everyone’s been, yeah. But those sort of people who are like, kind of like trademark of themselves, you know. Like him or I dunno, Bruce Springsteen or, those sort of people where they’re like their own kind of brand and entity. I think that’s when you get starstruck. Maybe not necessarily because you’re impressed or amazed by them but just the sheer like, cultural footprint of them existing makes you kind of like ‘woah’.

I once met Herbie Hancock and I practically wasn’t able to speak to him.
Oh yeah, cool. Well yes I guess I’d probably be more – yeah I dunno if I’d be starstruck any more, but I’d be more stoked to ask him about stuff, you know. I met Bryan Ferry once, very briefly when we came to Jules Holland and he said something to me, he said something nice and walked off. And I was like ‘fuck, I’ve got to actually say something to Bryan Ferry’. So I asked him about what like, flanger Eno used on some album, (laughs) you know what I mean? I said ‘what flanger did you use on this song, “In Every Dream Home A Heartache”‘ and he’s like ‘oh I think it was Eno doing the tape flange or something’. And that was pretty cool cos he said like Eno to me. Bryan Ferry said the word Eno at me. Which is like a highlight, I think.

I thought everything had asbestos in it for some reason, for a few years there.

Kevin Parker has openly stated that he changed musical direction for Currents after listening to the Bee Gees on mushrooms and cocaine.
(Laughs) Is that what he said? That’s pretty ‘lol’.

Is drug use something you’re prepared to talk about in relation to your music?
Yeah, I mean I haven’t like, I kind of haven’t done any drugs whatsoever. I don’t even drink coffee now, for ages. Because I have like, high blood pressure or something. So now I like, play heaps of tennis and don’t do any drugs and don’t – try not to drink too much and all that. Like I’m having a rose hip tea right now. It’s the like, classic cliché of like, the rock guy and he’s like, in his 40s or 50s but I’m 27 so I kind of stuffed that up. But I think it was important to some extent when I was young, however I think a lot of my lasting – I blame a lot of my lasting anxieties on smoking too much weed when I was younger. So if I could – I wouldn’t change much, but I would probably change that to some extent. Cos I still, you know – I feel like 17 to 21 sort of thing, your brain’s still developing, I dunno. But then again everyone I know that was that age, I dunno what kids are doing now, but was like, everyone in our crew was getting lit (laughs) as they say, for like all those years, you know. But I dunno, I dunno, I wouldn’t – yeah if I could go back, I’d probably have done less of that because I think that I’m prone to kind of paranoia as it is. I was very paranoid for a long time, man (laughs). I was definitely afraid of – I thought everything had asbestos in it for some reason, for a few years there. I was, yeah, I dunno. No good. I guess that’s a fairly good like, anti-drug message isn’t it (laughs). Don’t do too many drugs or you’ll think that like, there’s asbestos in your sandwich (laughs).

You mentioned tennis – do you follow professional tennis? Do you have a favourite player?
I watch the Australian Open. I don’t know why – I mean I’m nowhere near as obsessed with that as I am with the AFL. I just like tennis because it’s like, it’s kind of like, it feels relaxing but you’re actually doing heaps of these tiny little sprints to get everywhere and you’re really buggered by the end of it. But it doesn’t feel like you’ve gone to the gym and just like doing – on like, the cardio. But favourite player, I like um, I dunno. I kind of just like the really like, tall guys who slam serves in. And sometimes aren’t much good at much else (laughs), you know. Like Mark Philippoussis, I like Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, he’s like that, kinda – I mean he gets around the court but he’s like – I like seeing like a six foot six dude just like smack it down.

If you could collaborate with any artist, in any medium, past or present, who would it be and what would you ideally create?
Oh, I dunno. I don’t know. I don’t read very much, but I think it would be – I would love to be a writer. I have the worst temperament I reckon to do that. But I would loved to have written novels or something. Maybe I dunno, something really long and kind of like a whole world. You know, like worked on Lord of the Rings or something. (Laughs) I don’t know, I don’t know. I wouldn’t want – I mean, like if I had the opportunity to go and meet and see anyone work I wouldn’t want – I don’t think I would want to be a part of it myself, you know. I’d go and watch Michael Jackson on his Bad tour or something, you know what I mean. It wouldn’t be Michael Jackson and me up there, playing like the bongos, in my fantasy, you know (laughs).