Last week I had the pleasure of chatting to GUM following the release of his latest album The Underdog. For the uninitiated, GUM is the solo project of Tame Impala and Pond member, Jay Watson. Since 2014 he has treated us to four LPs, each with their own distinct personality. Watson describes The Underdog as “A soundtrack to a day in the life of GUM,” the tacks narrating the emotional rollercoaster of life on tour with Tame Impala and Pond.
The emotional highs and lows of the album will have you boogieing on down to tracks like S.I.A and The Fear and floating away in the lush introspective soundscapes of Serotonin and Rehearsed In A Dream. Watson spoke to me about what inspired these more melancholic introspective tracks.
“Serotonin’s just an anxiety song I guess. Going out but not really for any reason, drunk but not really for any reason, and then feeling awful the next day – thinking that you were really awful but you hadn’t actually done anything. We call that the douche chills, like ‘what did I say?’ and everyone says you were fine – you didn’t do anything. That’s why I don’t smoke weed anymore because that’s kinda what that does to me permanently.”
“Couldn’t See Past My Ego is a similar thing but it’s more about being so self-absorbed with that kind of stuff and constantly thinking about that sort of stuff. I think I used to be a bit of a hypochondriac and I’m a lot better at that. I used to think I was dying or I had cancer – scared of asbestos or whatever. I think it’s better now but I think realising that a lot of hypochondria, anxiety and paranoia comes from you caring about yourself too much and thinking that you and yourself is the whole world. When really it’s good to remind yourself that you’re not a big deal as an entity and that ends up making you enjoy life more. When you stop caring about that kind of stuff you can have more fun. Trying to be less ‘woe is me.’”
The first couple of songs gave me some real Tame Impala vibes with the intro reminding me a lot of Nangs or Be Above It from Tame Impala albums Currents and Lonerism.
“I was just saying on the radio then how the first two songs of the album kind of sound like Tame Impala more so than my other songs. But it kind of fit with the narrative of it being before a show and then at a show, and then going out, and then crashing, and then being real anxious the next day, and then getting up and playing another show. That being my psyche when touring. So I think it kind of fit that it sounded a bit Tame, I think even Kevin [Parker] said ‘You know people are gonna think the intro sounds like they’re Tame Impala songs’. But I think people forget that we’ve listened to a lot of the same music as each other and also a lot of the things he likes I’ve played him and vice versa. “
Since the album is meant to chronicle a day in the life of GUM, I was wondering whether or not the title, The Underdog was a reference to himself or somebody in his life.
“Well, the titles not really about me. But also I did think it was kinda funny to call myself that as well. It’s a bit precocious and up myself to refer to myself as an underdog. It was more about the feeling you get when the underdog wins – kind of super happy but also weird – I don’t know why but a weird bittersweet. That kinda feeling when you’re crying at the end of the movie but the movie is Forrest Gump or something. I don’t think the whole album is supposed to sound like that – just a few moments kind of have that. It’s not really about me but I do think it’s kinda funny that people think it’s about me.”
Since his debut in 2014 Watson has now released four LPs under the GUM moniker, each with their own personality, blending flavours from across the decades, ranging from spaced-out ’60s rock to funky synth-heavy grooves. Watson explained that the changes in his sound was a reflection of his personal tastes evolving.
“I think around the time I did Delorean Highway I was really into a very specific kind of rock’n’roll, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Spaceman 3 and Echo & the Bunnymen. I know all those bands are quite different but they’re all sort of English kind of ’60s, kind of ’80s psych-rocky I guess. Then I got out of that a bit and I got really into Michael Jackson and Prince – really jangly ’80s pop and that was kind of a big left turn from that other stuff and I guess that’s where the second album came from. Now I kind of just listen to everything again. I still listen to heaps of Prince and jangly ’80s stuff and heaps of ’60s music and jazz, I’ve started listening to a lot of house and ’90s and ’80s dance music and heaps of modern stuff too. Heaps of rap.”
Following up on his response, I was curious what instruments and production methods he incorporated to create his retro yet modern sound.
“I don’t know if it’s a retro aesthetic that I’m particularly after but there are certain things I like about drum sounds and there are things I like and dislike about vocal sounds from across the years. There’s lot’s of modern music with those things I like but there’s a lot that I don’t. The songwriting is retro but the sounds are just a blend of what I like. My album probably has a lot more bass than what you’d hear on a ’60s record. I just like taking bits and pieces from different eras.”
“For ages, I struggled with things like recording entirely on analogue or trying to record entirely on the laptop. Now I just kinda use the best of both worlds. On the next one, I’m just gonna use midi and layers and just switch stuff over – which is kinda what I did on this one. Even let’s say, if recorded with an acoustic guitar song. I try to think of it more like making an electronic song – the guitar I’d recorded at someone’s house and the drums I got off the internet. There’s bits that people would think are real drums but aren’t and there’s bits people would think aren’t real drums but are – I’ve just chopped them up to high heaven. Even if it’s say a ’70’sish sounding song but I recorded it in a very modern way.”
The visual and compositional aesthetic of GUM was founded in a science fiction vibe, referencing sci-fi classics such as Day Of The Triffids and Back To The Future. I was curious as to where this influence came from and whether or not it was a big part of his life outside of music.
“I mean I don’t even read much science fiction or watch movies or anything. I guess I just like the music that sounds like that. I guess I like interesting chord changes and a lot of that you hear in sci-fi music. I’m not inspired by space as a physical actual thing. I’m kind of more inspired by how insignificant it makes us feel. I don’t care about comets or whatever – it’s more about how it makes me feel about my life. Like a cosmic apathy, it makes me feel better about life.”
One of my favourite aspects of the music industry is seeing the connections and friendships between artists – none as entertaining as seeing Watson on stage, goofing off with Mac Demarco and Kirin J Callinan.“I’ve met heaps of people around the world now. THey’re just two guys I know from different festivals and hanging out. I think for every one of those guys in the public eye that I’ve met, there’s I think five or ten people in their gang that I’m equally as good mates with. They’re kinda like the cartoon characters that you see. I’m really lucky to have made so many friends. They’re sweet guys.”
If you haven’t yet listened to The Underdog I absolutely implore you to grab the best headphones you can get your hands on and let GUM take you through the highs and lows of being on tour with some of the biggest bands in the world.