The More You Make, The Better You Get: The Prolific Jay Watson of GUM on 'The Underdog'

Monday, 23 April 2018 Written by Helen Payne

Jay Watson is the epitome of chill. His voice crackles through the phone from 10,000 miles away, where he’s in the pub. “The kitchen closes at 9, so I’m just getting some food,” he says. The Tame Impala-via-Pond multi-instrumentalist has just touched down in Melbourne, where he’s due to to play a sold out show at the intimate Yah Yah's club. There’s also the small matter of his new solo record, ‘The Underdog’.

Watson appears to be treating his fourth album as GUM as if it were a Sunday afternoon stroll through the park. But it’s not really that simple. “You have to maintain a kind of arrogance and self-hatred,” he says. “You have constantly be aware of the line. If you go too far either side, your music is going to suck.”

Fans at the Melbourne show will have had only hours to wrap their ears around his new material, while he will have to recalibrate after bouncing between his day jobs in much bigger rooms. “I like playing live but its very stressful,” he says. “It never gets any less nerve wracking. At a big festival the people are just little dots, you know? Whereas the shows I play are to like 40 people. You can see them standing in front of you, their facial expressions and stuff. When you can see the people’s faces, it makes it more nerve-racking.”

He chats in between sips of what I assume to be a nice cold beer, and with his relaxed Australian drawl and constant “umm, uhh” fillers while he’s thinking, you can almost picture him reclining and propping his feet up on the opposite chair. Despite telling me he’s nervous, he really doesn’t sound it. “It’s the same with songwriting, it never gets less stressful,” he says. “Like every time I put an album out I freak out about bad reviews and all that […] you can’t tell if your stuff’s rubbish or not.”

Despite Watson’s concerns, ‘The Underdog’ doesn’t suck. As an album it’s clever, tapping into a huge range of genres and influences while still sticking intently to the psychedelic indie-pop that he does best. “Everything I listen to makes it in there,” he says, citing, among others, punk and hip-hop as influences. The title track, with its shimmering brass section, funky bassline and almost bluesy backing vocals, could easily be the soundtrack to a Marks & Spencer summer food advert: cue smiling thirtysomethings cross-legged on a picnic rug, dipping pittas in hummus and drinking champagne during a British heatwave. In slow-motion, naturally.

The record then takes us on a journey from that summer afternoon, through the sunset and into the night. The listener is transported to a rowdy party on S.I.A, where disco-infused house beats take over in full force, and then to the late night funk-filled rhythms of the opulent Blue Marble (complete with matching psychedelic stop-motion video). Production-wise, ‘The Underdog’ exudes personality with reverb-heavy vocals and smooth synths throughout, exemplifying the fun nature Watson emanates. The songs are trippy, colourful and brilliant.

“Half of me wanted to make a really electronic, sort of disco and house album, and half of me wanted to make a really organic ‘70s guitar album,” he says. “It was kind of hard to fit them together.” He manages it through a distinct narrative arc that follows a day in the life of a touring musician.

It’s about getting hyped up, raring to go, the hedonism of the party scene, and the inevitable crash that follows, before setting yourself up to do it all again. In true Jay Watson style, that happened by chance, too. "It just kind of came together when I was doing the tracklisting, to be honest,” he says. “That narrative helped flow from the start to the end.”

Even his songwriting process is laissez-faire. “I do this thing where I kind of write melodies and sing gibberish, and then turn the gibberish into words,” he says. “More often than not it works out and the words make sense.” He falters, contemplating whether he tried harder lyrically on this album than the last, 2016’s ‘Flash In The Pan’. “I didn’t put more effort into the lyrics, but I feel like maybe I’m getting better at writing them,” he concludes.

Often, the completion of a record can be a laborious, daunting task that takes over the entirety of a musician’s psyche. In the past, Watson has often mentioned his creative avenues as being an endless pursuit of perfection, but he muses: “I guess it’s impossible really. If you want to put [albums] out semi-regularly, you have to let go.” And, with his prolific output, (he's in double figures albums-wise, including his work with Tame Impala and Pond), it’s clear he’s unfazed by the outcome, as long as it doesn’t drop the ball. “You could work on something for 10 years, but you’re probably just making it worse,” he says.

Even so, he’s got mixed feelings about the record. That’s often the way when an artist is confronted with their own work. “As always, there’s a couple of bits that I wish I did better, or that make me cringe a little bit,” he says. “I don’t know if it’s perfect. There’s lots of errors in my music. I mix it myself. I don’t really know what I’m doing…” He’s proud of it, though, and that balance is important.

GUM is a creative outlet, a fun practice session for playing around with production techniques, mixing, samples and lyrics. Watson's solo career won’t overtake the dizzying heights of Tame Impala, and he doesn't want it to. “If I can just make a record a year, and a few people hear it, and do a few interviews, and play a few shows, that’s enough for me, I guess,” he says. GUM is moving forward, each album surpassing the last, and ‘The Underdog’ is some of Watson’s best work yet. “The more you make, the better you get,” is how he signs off. He’s right.

'The Underdog' is out now on Spinning Top/Caroline.

GUM Upcoming Tour Dates are as follows:

Tue April 24 2018 - LONDON Oslo

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