Jay Watson on his time as GUM and the endless quest not to suck

Jay Watson has just released his second solo album, Glamorous Damage. Not something you’d expect from a guy who calls himself a “terrible singer.” The multi-instrumentalist is splitting his time between touring for Tame Impala, creating music for Pond, and operating as solo project GUM. We chatted to Jay about bogans, the death of Myspace, and his endless quest to “not suck”.

GUM glamorous damage

This sweet illustration of Jay Watson comes from Marney Anderson.

HAPPY: Hey Jay. How has your day been?

JAY: Yeah really good. We just recorded a Like a Version for triple J for Tame Impala. I woke up this morning after sleeping for three hours, so I’m having trouble putting together sentences, but I’ll try and garble a few out.

HAPPY: Sounds like you’re super busy. How do you manage everything?

JAY: I always used to say it was really easy, but the last week or so has been pretty hectic. Like stressful. But I’m lucky enough I don’t have to work because of Tame Imapla, otherwise I probably wouldn’t be able to do this [G.U.M] in my spare time. I’d only be able to do one band and then work four or five days a week. So because of that it’s not really that hard. It’s just the administrative stuff. You get a few emails for each project a day and it adds up. But I can’t complain. Like I said, I’m lucky enough that I get to have this fantasy job.

HAPPY: Fantasy job is a good way to put it – you’re kind of living the dream. Do you ever pinch yourself that you make a living off making music?

JAY: The only time I ever think like that is when we’re playing a crazy show in front of loads of people, or playing a special show in some weird part of the world. But mostly it’s so… the progression has been so day-by-day… You don’t just suddenly play at a big festival or something. I don’t know. It’s hard to explain. I mean I did find it weird to turn up in Japan or something, just because you or your buddy writes some silly songs.

HAPPY: What is GUM? Does it stand for anything?

JAY: It’s my nickname – my nickname used to be Gumby which I never really liked. The guys just call me Gum now, which I don’t mind so much. It’s from the green plasticine character – you know Gumby? But I like Gum. It’s like chewing gum… I like the sound of it because chewing gum is kind of gross and sticky but it’s also pink and sugary. You know what I mean? It’s kind of a good symbol for weird fucked up pop music – which is kind of what I’m trying to do now I guess. It’s a weird nickname, but it’s better than being called like Beck or something.

HAPPY: GUM’s new album Glamourous Damage is kind of hard to explain. It’s getting labels like 80s, synth, pop, futuristic, retro. How can you explain it?

JAY: Well, none of my songs are literal, which makes doing interviews hard. Some of my friends write more literal songs and it’s kind of easier to explain. I guess it was more an aesthetic thing than anything. I mean all those words you said, like yeah, I definitely referenced. It obviously sounds kind of 80s and you know, retro futurist and all that. I like to think of it more like… you know in Quentin Tarantino films he’s always referencing a deliberate kind of cinema and then smashing it with something else? Like a Samurai Western or something. I’m not shy about deliberately referencing periods and movements that I can cross together in a weird way.

HAPPY: Is that from being exposed to so much music?

JAY: I’ve always been a music obsessive who has thousands and thousands of songs on my iTunes. Someone like Kev from Tame will fall in love with particular songs and then just have those songs on his iTunes, where as I’ll troll the internet like a hopeless obsessive trying to find a bit of gold deep in Youtube. I’m not afraid to say that I rip off a lot of stuff, (laughs) or a lot of ideas off old records. Ever since I got the internet in my house I’d just be searching through it for sick music.

HAPPY: Since you got the internet? How long has that been?

JAY: I got it when I was like 16. I remember getting all the stuff, getting a Limewire…

HAPPY: Getting a Myspace?

JAY: Myspace! That was sick. I think it got out of hand when everybody made it flashing, you know? Like when you could customise it and it would all be flashing really fast. That was the death of Myspace; when it got visually overloaded.

HAPPY: Really? I feel like that was its height. Was your profile all crazy and flashing?

JAY: I don’t think I had a personal one. I think I had whatever band I was in at the time. But I’d always go in and change the influences or ‘what it sounds like’. You know, when you’re a kid and you care about all that stuff.

HAPPY: There are so many influences on the album, and you’re such a talented instrumentalist and singer…

JAY: I wouldn’t say I’m a talented singer! I’ll take instrumentalist. Nah I’m a terrible singer. I have to try really hard every time I need to sing in tune. There are people like Cam (Avery) from Tame, he used to be in Pond, who don’t need to think about singing. It’s just natural. But I have to force myself, like try really hard to pitch in tune. It’s what I call not being a natural singer.

HAPPY: How can you release solo albums if you don’t think you can sing?

JAY: If I was any more shy about it I guess I wouldn’t. That’s why I kind of cover it in lots of effects and layer each chorus and stanza. Eventually I’d like to mix the vocals right up and be loud and proud with the lyrics, but I guess I’m just trying to bury it in there.

HAPPY: Is GUM just an experiment then? Just seeing how you can grow with your music?

JAY: Yeah, I guess so. I record it and mix it all myself. I’m a very, very amateur engineer and producer. I do it all at home on cheap gear. It’s terrible to talk about an album like this, but it [Glamourous Damage] just seems like practice. We’re always like that in Pond, saying “The next one’s going to be amazing!”. We’re always just trying to move onto the next thing as quick as possible.

HAPPY: How can you be so down to earth when you’re so successful as a musician? Actually maybe you wouldn’t say this… but maybe that’s a key to yours and Tame’s and Pond’s success; you’re just trying to improve and make the best for yourself. Is it more about personal growth?

JAY: To be honest, this again sounds kind of cynical, but it’s just an endless quest to not suck. (laughs) I know that’s the opposite of saying it’s an endless quest to make amazing music, but I love music, I love making it, and I hate the idea that I wouldn’t like my own music if I heard it. That scares the shit out of me. If I made something and it came on the radio and I thought “Oh that’s kind of crap.” There’s a kind of fear – not of ruining my reputation – but failing to pleasing myself. That’s what I care about.

HAPPY: So you’d rather make music you were happy with then sell out and make a shit load of money?

JAY: I’d love to make loads of money! (laughs) But Pond has turned down acts before for loads of money. We haven’t really made much money from Pond. We got approached to use one of the songs in an ad, and I turned it down. It was my song so I had the final say. I kind of regret it now because it was a lot of money, but I just thought it was cheesy. Now I look back and I’m like, “I could have just dealt with it being cheesy” but I’m glad I stuck to it.

The Tame Impala records are getting more pop, and Glamourous Damage is definitely more pop. It’s kind of weird, but it’s definitely more pop then the last [GUM record]. We’ve had a few people saying “You guys are trying to be played on the radio or sell more records”. But I think it’s genuinely like – in the last year or two we’ve just been listening to loads of MJ and Prince. We’ve been creating like 15 minute improvised free jazz dishwasher solos you know.

HAPPY: Anesthetized Lesson is so good to dance to. Is that your goal – to get people dancing?

JAY: These days it is. I was always really into funk and disco, especially when I was quite young. And then it became all rock and guitar riff heavy music, which became quite hard to break out of smoothly. Pond and Tame used to do such guitar riff heavy music, then we all got a bit older and decided none of us really listen to riff, or even guitar heavy stuff anymore. The stuff we listen to is dance, more hip hop, and disco. It was just a natural thing. We’re trying to make loose dance music. Wait, that doesn’t make any sense. We want to attain the same spirit that we had on the weirdo rock records, but just translate that to the d- floor.

HAPPY: Are you planning on doing a tour with GUM?

JAY: I played a show last night, (at Ding Dong Lounge with Mini Mansions) which was solo with backing tracks. It’s pretty much karaoke. I don’t really have time to do a tour, but I’d love to one day. Once I get a big chunk of time off from Tame Impala I think I’ll get a band together to do a tour. Most of the time I just do little support shows for people where I can, when I have the time, but I don’t even have a coupe of days to spare to rehearse with people. But then there are the big breaks from all of it.

HAPPY: Is the song Canarvon named after the town in Western Australia?

JAY: Yeah, originally I’m from Northam.

HAPPY: Northam! Woah, I’m from Rockingham so I think I’m super rural and so far out from everything, but Northam’s next level.

JAY: We’re different types of bogan. There’s like Rockingham bogan and a Northam bogan, which is slightly different. But more rural then Subiaco none the less. Sorry what were you saying? You’re not a bogan by the way, I was just trying to make a cheap joke.

HAPPY: You know what it’s all good. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being a bogan as long as you’re a good person.

JAY: I don’t think the term is derogatory really. I use it in the kind of Castle sense.

HAPPY: So Canarvon is named after the banana town in WA?

JAY: Yeah, that’s where I was born. It’s just had this really distant memory. It’s a really short, blissed out sounding song. It’s just all vocals I think, and synth and lots of reverb.

HAPPY: It sounds like a kind of gospel choir, all dreamy and floaty.

JAY: Yeah, I did that with the laptop mic, which is pretty amateur but it turned out okay I guess.

HAPPY: In an interview ages ago – not holding this against you – you said you didn’t like playing in Perth because everyone in the crowd knows you. Is that still true?

JAY: I’ve been to Perth once this year now, I live in London now. I was there when Pond supported Mark Ronson. It was crazy because you want to hang out with all your buddies and all your friends want to see you but you’re there for like 48 hours. No one ever recognises me. Kevin actually lives in Freo, he’s the one who gets stopped. People ask him for photos and stuff. I dunno, that’s the beauty of being a backing man. We’ll be back in WA soon. Pond is recording the next album in January. It’ll be recorded in Kevin’s new home studio. We’re gonna be the first thing recorded there which is exciting.

HAPPY: You’ve had some pretty sick outfits onstage and on album covers. Do you have any style icons?

JAY: I just wear boring stuff, pretty much always, except for doing photos or an album or something. I usually just wear a t-shirt and jeans. But you don’t want to be on your album cover in a t-shirt and jeans – you’ve got to make an effort. Who has my favourite looks ever? I dunno. Shit. Prince? All the obvious freaks. Just good looks, strong looks.