GUM's Organic Saturn Return
“I had fun recording percussion and acoustic guitar and glockenspiels and other real instruments, just having fun with recording in spaces, rather than in a computer”
Image credit: Grant Spanier
A bit over a year ago we caught up with longtime fave & W.A. mainstay Jay Watson AKA GUM to find out about some of Pond’s recent antics (at the time), as well as the remasters (courtesy of Kevin Parker) and reissue of his first two studio albums, 2014’s Delorean Highway and 2015’s Glamorous Damage.
During the chat the topic of new music arose, with Watson at the time explaining that he was close to finishing a new record, but just couldn’t quite get it finished at the time - which when you consider his busy schedule as an artist, father and human being is more than understandable and makes his prolific output all the more impressive.
The good news is the-at-the-time unnamed album has now been released to the world in the form of his sixth solo album, Saturnia (that was preceded by a number of awesome singles, including the awesome live version of Would It Pain You To See? that we premiered).
Across 10 tracks, Saturnia sees Watson touching on a range of different styles and influences, from pastoral 60s folk to cosmic disco, 70s psych to new wave, and even a bit of sultry r&b and electro pop sounds. Tying it all together is Watson’s approach seeing him place a larger emphasis on recording and using acoustic instruments - including “real drums” for the first time on a GUM record.
“I really wanted to make a record that all sounded the same,” Jay recalls. “It would have different sounds on it, but I wanted it to feel organic and have acoustic guitars and real drums on there . Most of the GUM records haven’t actually had many real drums on them.”
On first coming across the latest GUM record, you’d be forgiven for thinking the title is a reference to the planet in our solar system, but that’s not the case, with the name of the record alluding to something more sinister. During the early days of the record coming together, Watson and his young family having moved into a new house that had lead paint on the walls, leading to a spiral of worry.
“I became obsessed with it being damaging to the kids to the point I had to get on medication and go to see a psychiatrist,” says Watson. “When I was writing the lyrics, I was looking up lead poisoning on the internet and found this archaic word for it – Saturnism – which I thought was so much more poetic than just calling the album ‘I’m Scared Of Lead Paint’ which was basically what the vibe of the record was for a while. It wasn’t literally about lead paint or asbestos, it’s about how easy it can be to lose the plot. It’s a fine line between having your shit together and that happening, and that’s what most of the lyrics on this record are about.”
With Saturnia now out to the world, we jumped on the line with Jay to find out all about it, including how he managed to get the record finished, real instrumentation vs “in the box”, short attention spans and the volume of music being released daily, the album as a format, how the album is feeling live for his tours and more!
How’s it going, Jay?
Hey mate, how are you?
Yeah good dude, good. Good to chat again, I was actually just revisiting the last time we spoke which was July last year when you put out the remasters of your first records, and as I was re-reading it, something in particular jumped out at me. We were talking about new music and you said “I’ve basically been sitting on an album that I just can’t finish”, and talked about having two kids now and life in general… but the good news is it is finished, so how did you get Saturnia across the line?
Oh, I just chipped away at it, I think. Yeah, just little bits here and there. It goes in waves, my stamina for recording - sometimes I just come in every night, even if I’m knackered and do a couple of hours, or just doing it on my laptop on tour. And then I’ll go a couple of months or weeks or whatever where I just don’t do it, I can’t be bothered, so I think I just went nuts on it for a couple of months, like on days off on tour and things like that. The longer you sit on it, the kind of less into it you can get so it’s good, it’s a balancing act between making sure it’s as good as it can be and just not mucking around with it until it’s bland.
So when did you actually start working on the original ideas that would become the album?
I mean, some of the stuff was written like ten years ago, all my albums will have songs from years ago that I dig up. I’ve got, I don’t know, hundreds and hundreds of voice memos and old demos and stuff like that. Sometimes stuff just slips through the cracks and I won’t think anything of it at the time, then I really like it later. And vice versa. Sometimes I put stuff on and I’m loving it, then two years later I don’t like it at all. But yeah, most if it started during COVID, I guess 2020. I just had an acoustic guitar and this little electric piano so the songwriting was probably a lot more traditional than sitting on Ableton and playing with synths and drum machines and samples and stuff.
So real drums this time, let’s talk real drums.
Real drums, yeah.
And live instrumentation in general, so yeah, I read about some of the Nick Drake influence but what made you go like “cool, let’s go live instrumentation for this one” as opposed to more computer sequenced stuff?
It was a little bit just that ‘d been listening to more organic sounding music and being inspired by it, but then also just having this space [motions to studio space Jay is recording the interview in with all manner of synths, a drum kit and other recording equipment], I hadn’t had my own home studio setup. I’d had little corners of rooms and stuff but I’ve never had a room like this with a drum kit permanently set up and sound proofed. Now that I’ve got really nice gear and nice microphones and stuff, it makes you want to record things with microphones rather than just directly, so I had fun recording percussion and acoustic guitar and glockenspiels and other real instruments, just having fun with recording in spaces, rather than in a computer.
We could nerd out here and talk convolution reverbs and stuff but that might alienate some people… what about the strings, there’s some big sweeping passages of strings on the record?
So all the strings my friend did, he’s amazing. He did all the strings on the last Pond album too. He sort of just multitracks himself like 20 times, playing different parts and like pitching it down and up, and he can make it sound like a real sort of string section or orchestra.
Yeah dope, I definitely thought it was a string section!
Yeah, just one guy with a violin. He’s a producer and stuff too, he’s clever and he knows how to make it sound like that before it even gets to me, then I just sort of blend it in. But yeah, that’s one thing that’s quite different about this record is the strings are all over it.
You talk about blending them in which reminded me of a quote from the press release - you talk about being a self-described “potential lazy arranger”, so I’m curious if having so much more time this time around changed that at all? Like did you enjoy this longer process at all or would you rather get things finished quicker?
I’d rather get it done quicker, but I think the songs, with the songwriting, were better because of it. Because at the time no one was going to the pub or anything, or on tour, so I would just sort of work on things all day, often just in my head. I think I’ve got quite a good memory for music, so I feel like I can work on it - and I have a shocking memory for other things - but with music, and my songs and other songs, they can sit in there and I can work on them, like parts and stuff when I’m doing the dishes or whatever, which is I guess why I got into music so much when I was younger, because it was natural. You know, I would have loved to play cricket for Australia but I just naturally wasn’t very good.
I’ve got a son now, and you see it in him. I’ve got two kids - the youngest is too young but my son, it’s like a chicken and egg thing, like they really get into things but they tend not to get really into things that they’re not good at. They do a bit of drawing or they do a bit of a puzzle and you’re like “wow, that’s pretty good!” and then that’s like their new thing. So anyway - that was basically me talking myself up - but basically I worked on it inside for a lot longer, rather than just as soon as an idea popped into my head, I used to record it and then like copy, paste, copy, paste or whatever it was on. It if was on tape I would just play it identically, each verse or each chorus, so this time I could just flesh things out a bit more.
Do you reckon that had anything to do with it potentially being your most diverse sounding record?
Yeah, it was supposed to all sound the same, but I get too excited - like there’s a bunch of songs you can tell are the same album, but then there are others that could have been for Pond, or like for an electronic thing, and I’m not really into the idea of saving ideas. I’m a big believer in if I’m into it, or it’s entertaining to me or amusing or moving to me, use it now, chuck it out - even if that makes the album a bit all over the place.
I don’t think it’s all over the place per se, like it makes sense sonically after a few listens. Something I’m curious about is sequencing the running order of an album like this, cos on first listen when I hit ‘Saturnism’ I was thinking “surely this should be the closer?!” Then when I got to ‘It Lies a Lifetime’ I was like “ohhhhh yeah, this makes so much sense”, so how much thought goes into the track order?
Quite a lot, actually. Yeah, quite a lot, I do the Pond albums - well at least started off and like our live setlists and that sort of thing. I’m quite passionate about it, I mean I have different versions right to the end where the last song was the first song, but I tend to end on things that are pretty triumphant or something. Yeah, I don’t know, you just do your best to make it flow well and be a bit of a journey - knowing full well that most people won’t listen to it all the way through. I think there’s different approaches, like things can be jarring or things can be cool in the way they suddenly go bang out of nowhere, and that’s kind of how I find it’s easy to make stuff flow, like the tail end of one song to start the other, but it’s hard to figure out when to make things go bang or to go out with like quiet ending and not be off putting.
For sure, like too shocking and it might make someone turn the record off *laughs*
So you say most people won’t listen to it all the way through…
I mean I don’t *laughs*
Yeah, sure, but that’s your relationship with your own art?
Oh, sorry, not my music, just in music in general. When I’m doing the dishes or something I’ll put albums on sometimes, but in general I’m a real skipper and listen to playlists, just random stuff, you know.
Has this always been the case?
Sort of, yeah. I mean, a long, long time ago when it was like, my discman and Blood Sugar Sex Magik, but certainly since Spotify and stuff, yeah, and just less into individual artists. It’s rare that I’ll really be enamoured with a particular artist, it’s more just songs or even bits of songs, but I think that’s just because I make music, and you don’t tend to listen to it for sheer relaxation or enjoyment quite as much as you do as a kid, you know?
Oh man, I can relate even just working in the music journalism world…
I find myself listening to a lot more podcasts over the years, too.
Yeah. Which is so funny, because I never thought listening to people just chat would be anything other than like, kind of annoying, going to sleep to. But yeah, I do too.
So I want to go back to something you said and use it as a segue when you talking about finishing on a triumphant note - speaking of triumphant notes, the worlds feeling a tad more triumphant than June 2020 when you released Out In The World, so how does it feel to have this new record come out in relatively more normal times?
I was saying in the last interview I did that I find it’s hard to discern what it’s like putting out albums or putting out music is like these days, or what people think of it. I mean, obviously before I was doing it but when I was younger, bloggers would write about stuff, there were a lot of blogs and lots of street press everywhere. Every day there’d be little articles and interviews and reviews, where now it’s sort of like, a couple of bloggie things or social media things like Pilerats and a few others, then it’s pretty much just Instagram, and that’s the way people interface with your album. Which is usually fairly overwhelmingly positive feedback, but I also find with albums, it doesn’t matter how great the thing you’ve done is, or even necessarily how popular it is, people move on so quickly. I think people, like friends of mine or other musicians are often getting a bit down about how much work they put into albums, or time and money or whatever - then they put it out and it’s like two weeks of people maybe chatting about it on the internet and then that’s it, and they’re like “oh, is that it?”.
You just have to sort of accept that you can make your absolute magnum opus, but unless it’s like - well, even still, I was gonna say unless it’s like a Frank Ocean or something, but even still, I remember when Blonde came out and everyone was loving it, then like two months later everyone had moved on to something else, like Travis Scott or whatever. I remember thinking this is crazy, like if this was Thriller or AC/DC or some record when I was a kid, like we were listening to and going on about Chili Peppers or Rage Against The Machine stuff for years after. So it’s just different, it’s just more hyper, and short attention spans, so once you accept that you might do something and put everything into it and then people sort of don’t care, because even if they do care, they move on quickly - I find it quite liberating, because you’re just doing it for yourself and the handful of people that are moved by it. Then you can go and make something else and I don’t think you’re entitled to have a career out of it or make heaps of cash or play to lots of people. It’s hard to sell out shows at the moment for all sorts of artists. Yeah, it’s a funny one, I’ve been thinking about it recently compared to how much I used to sort of mull it over.
Oh man, so many thoughts there! The short attention span thing is compounded by just the sheer amount of music being released coupled with the instant access to it all… I forget what the number of songs hitting spotify daily is but it’s just overwhelming.
Yeah, it’s something crazy like 80,000 tracks a day. We don’t really need anymore music *laughs* It’s too late for me, I started so long ago and it’s my passion, but yeah, it could all stop now and we’d have plenty to listen to for the next 100 years, that’s for sure. Every now and then new stuff comes out and it finds little pockets of excitement or originality. I can’t really think like that, all I can do for me now is try to make stuff that entertains me and my taste, and I think I’m getting better and better at it. I’d like to make some more leftfield stuff, but it’s hard. There’s two ways of doing it - there’s constantly making leftfield turns and changing up your lifestyle and your songwriting. Then I guess what I’ve done is just tried to get better and better at the thing that I do, and hone that in. I haven’t wanted to make any left or right turns for a while because I’m still trying to make the record that I’ve always been trying to make.
So that means that albums will always continue to be a thing for you?
Oh yeah, for sure. I’m not concerned about the packaging of music enough to change the format, I’m not a visionary in that sense - someone else can figure out a more appealing and convenient way to present music and I’ll join, I don’t know. I still think that sort of half an hour to an hour is a great amount of time to be switched on to something. I feel like that even with TV versus movies. So yeah, I think it still works.
I fully agree. Even if I’m maybe listening to less albums frequently, the ones that are on high rotation have cut through for a reason, I guess. So finally Jay, how’s the new record feeling live and how are you bringing the album to the stage?
I’ve only played a couple of songs so far. I think you’ve just got to accept that it’s not going to sound the same and I’m trying not to have heaps of stuff on backing tracks. Basically just drum machines, no music, so it doesn’t have the strings and all that, but we’ve got keyboards and stuff covering it. It’s kind of a small band, it’s a three piece band going around Australia, and then a four piece band going around the States. Part of that is cost and part of it is cos when I’ve seen bands - especially in smaller rooms - and there’s heaps of stuff going on, you can’t really make out the individual parts, I like the idea of really hearing the synth bass and really hearing the guitar and the sick drumming and being able to almost sound bigger than a three piece.
And that’s Scarlett [Stevens, San Cisco] and James [Ireland, Pond]?
Yeah, in America, plus another James. Then in Australia Scarlett couldn’t do it, so it’s my friend Chris Wright, who’s an amazing drummer, plays in Methyl Ethel.
Sick, I love Chris!
Yeah same, so both great bands.
Awesome dude, that’s some tight lineups!
Yeah, it’s gonna be good - we’ve been rehearsing a bit and it’s pretty nerve wracking, like I haven’t sung in front of people in so long. The first show is this big festival in Jakarta, so it’s kind of a baptism of fire, but I think if we do get through that we should be all right around Australia.
Yeah awesome, no doubt you guys will kill it! Sick Jay, awesome to chat dude and congrats again on the new record!
Thank you, appreciate that.
GUM's new album Saturnia is out now via Spinning Top