Day Wave’s Jackson Phillips on His “Surreal” Rise

In a new interview, the Day Wave songwriter discusses his rise to success and work on a new LP

day wave interview

Photo by Pooneh Ghana

Jackson Phillips makes melancholy, ethereal dream-pop under the moniker Day Wave (stream ‘Gone’ from Day Wave’s addictive Hard to Read EP below). Within just one year, Jackson’s swift rise has brought the California native from his first performance as Day Wave to international stages and an upcoming slot at Lollapalooza on July 29th. Last Friday, I caught up with Jackson over the phone to discuss his recent successes, the experiences that informed Hard to Read, and his work on a new LP.

Dan Redding: You performed live as Day Wave for the first time just last year, and this year you’re performing at Lollapalooza. How would you describe the experience of watching Day Wave grow so rapidly?

Jackson Phillips: It’s definitely pretty surreal. I haven’t really thought about it that much – especially the fact that we only played our first show last summer, so it’s been about a year since I played my first Day Wave show. A year in, we’re going to be playing Governors Ball [editor’s note: Governors Ball’s Sunday lineup, featuring Day Wave, was cancelled due to weather] and then a month later playing Lollapalooza. I definitely wouldn’t have expected it. Now I just have to keep this pace up, you know? (laughs)

It’s really amazing, congratulations on your successes.

Oh, thanks.

It’s gotta be a rollercoaster, it must be so fun.

Yeah, it definitely has been. The last two months, I’ve just been on tour – we did Australia, the U.S., we did Europe, I just flew in from Amsterdam yesterday morning. It’s been really cool, to play in places like the U.K., small cities like Leeds and Manchester, and there are all these people at the show singing along – that to me is the craziest part. I wouldn’t have expected that a year ago (when I was) recording the EPs in my house. Crazy.

Your first instrument was the drums. What are your first memories of learning to play the drums?

The first song I learned was Smash Mouth’s ‘Walking on the Sun’… Then the second song – I told (my instructor) I wanted to learn Nirvana, ’cause I was really into that. I learned ‘In Bloom.’ I had a good teacher, and he taught me to play all those songs… I started to learn Led Zeppelin, some Jon Bonham drum parts, and that was really fun… My drum teacher started teaching me how to read music, and how to play with better technique.

‘In Bloom’ was my first song that I learned at bass guitar lessons. It’s a great song to start learning with.

Yeah, it’s a great song, and it’s got a really interesting drum part, too.

What about the first song that you wrote? Were you dabbling at all in writing music at that time?

Not really, no… When I got to Berklee, I started playing piano, and started teaching myself piano. I started writing chord progressions and little song structures, but I wasn’t singing at that point. I was playing almost neo-soul-style piano… I recorded my first song, I put my voice on it, I think it was a Carousel song [note: pop duo Carousel featured Phillips and Kevin Friedman]. The first Carousel song I made was the first song where I actually recorded my voice. The whole thing was weird because I hadn’t really ever made a song where I was singing, so for that to happen, and then for the song to get picked up on blogs really quickly, I was like, ‘Woah, what is this world of music blogs?’ It was a good experience to ride out that Carousel thing for a couple years. To learn the ways of the modern music industry.

Yeah, I guess in some ways you must’ve been prepared for the successes you’ve been having now because although Day Wave is new, your career as a musician is not new.

Yeah, I’d done it for a couple years, just sort of learning the ropes. I knew the whole time that I didn’t want Carousel to be the project that I did for a long time. At the time, it was the only thing I could do – was make synthesizer-type stuff. I was kind of just learning to make pop songs. I knew that I wanted to get better, and then start a new project. I think I always had that in the back of my mind.

It sounds like Berklee was extremely competitive. What was the atmosphere like – was it very cutthroat?

The people were very cutthroat, a lot of students weren’t very welcoming or nice to each other. They were very clique-y, they would hang with just a small group of people that they knew were really good musicians. People were pretty competitive. That kind of turned me off from playing instrumental music and jazz. At that point, I put down the drums and said, ‘Okay, I’m gonna really do my own thing.’ I started taking production classes and learning how to record. Feeling like you weren’t good and trying to be something that you’re not – it was kind of the worst feeling. I think that’s what pushed me to make my own songs and do my own thing. I’m kind of grateful for that kinda weird, horrible Berklee experience (laughs).

It’s ironic, isn’t it? I went to design school, and some design schools are similar to some music schools in that way – it’s ironic that that kind of atmosphere would squash creativity.

Yeah, it totally does. I think I’m kind of lucky that I figured out how to put all that music school stuff behind me a little, and just make songs and not think about it. Part of it is that while I was there, I was a drummer, so I wasn’t learning super-advanced music theory. I kinda just did the basics. Some people there were taking classes in songwriting. I’m really, really happy that I didn’t do that. I think that can mess up your intuition. People who make the best music, it’s all intuition with them.

“People who make the best music, it’s all intuition with them.”

I guess for you, it must still be a process of using your intuition, in combination with your formal training.

Yeah, one of the greatest things was learning some recording techniques. That was really helpful.

When you moved from Los Angeles to Oakland, you started working on the project that would become Day Wave. According to your bio, you immersed yourself in recording, and you became ill with Cyprotoxicity and neuropathy. What can you tell me about that illness that you were struggling with?

What happened was, I already had the idea to start the project, and I moved to Oakland, so I could be in a place where it was easy for me to focus on music and not be distracted. I got sick with a sinus infection. I didn’t want to take antibiotics, but I was like, ‘I wanna get rid of this.’ The doctor prescribed me a fluoroquinolone antibiotic – Cipro is one of them – they’re really strong antibiotics that are made from fluoride, which is toxic to the human body. Most people don’t have a bad reaction but a lot of people do… Doctors don’t really understand what’s happening… I took a couple and started getting really sick and having a bad reaction. I stopped taking it, and went to my doctor. They were like, ‘We don’t know anything about what you’re experiencing.’ I went online and found groups of people who had the same thing.

Luckily, I got pointed in the right direction to find some help and heal from it. Some people take the drug and it damages their nervous system to the point where they never really can recover from it. It does a lot of damage to the nervous system. I couldn’t really function at a hundred percent for about a year. At first, all my tendons hurt, and my nerves in my hands and feet… You’re dizzy, and headaches, and neuropathy. Eventually, I started to find stuff to help me feel better, but at the time, I was really anxious about it. Regular doctors don’t really know what’s happening, so you don’t get any answers. That feeling of not knowing if you’re gonna be alright or not was causing me all this anxiety.

In order to not think about it, I was working on music all the time. When I was working on music, I would feel better, because I wasn’t thinking about the fact that I was sick. Luckily, I found a naturopath that helped me heal from it. I was pretty much feeling mostly better by the time I had to start playing shows about a year ago.

What impact do you think the illness had on the music?

It just helped me focus. In order to feel better, I had to get my mind off of it. But also, lyrically some of the stuff is related, because I was feeling so bad. Some of that stuff was coming out lyrically.

That’s what I’m wondering, if some of that melancholy mood came from being sick.

Yeah, definitely some of it, because that’s how I was feeling the whole time. Sometimes I tend to feel like that anyway, but definitely I was [feeling that way then].

How would you describe the room your Oakland home that you use as a studio?

It’s all wood paneling, very seventies-looking. It’s a small, square room, and I’ve got a tape machine, my monitor speakers, my drum set, amps, guitars, synthesizers. Very minimal, not too much. Just the right amount of stuff. It’s pretty cool. It’s not my bedroom, which is great.

I saw a photo of the room – something about that wood paneling is really evocative.

Yeah, it’s very seventies-looking. When I found that house, I saw that room, and I was like, ‘Okay, I’m getting this place, this is the room.’ I saw it and I was like, ‘That’s what’s gonna happen.’

That’s awesome that it sort of called out to you like that.

Yeah, totally.

You recorded Hard to Read directly to tape. Can you describe what that means, and why it’s important?

Essentially, recording to tape puts the music in a physical form. The recording becomes physical, and at that point, it’s not just ones and zeros, it’s not just digital… I was looking for some way to make it sound different than just a guy recording into his computer at his house. Sonically, I think it’s important to think about that. Not only to have the music be interesting, but have the way that it sounds be interesting. Texturally, the recordings that I really like have that sort of vibe. Older stuff that was recorded through more analog gear – it gives you a whole different element to the recording. It’s not just music. When you listen to a new piece of music, it’s really pristine, there’s not a whole lot of character to it. It seems like it’s lacking something. That’s how I use tape.

Because you do record your own work, and you have production and recording skills, would you be open to working with an outside producer?

That would definitely be something that I would do. It would just have to be the right person. As long as it can add more to what I want it to be. If it’s something that could really help what I’m shooting for, then yeah, I wouldn’t be opposed to it.

Since Day Wave started as a solo project before you turned it into a full band, what were the challenges that came with turning it into a touring rock band?

Just getting everyone on the same page. I still record and write everything by myself. The difficulty of having a band is sometimes people don’t always get along, you have to get everyone to focus on one thing… It’s interesting, but it hasn’t been hard because it’s my good friends and they’re happy to do it. It’s fun for them.

Some Day Wave songs take on a more muscular quality when you perform them live with the full band.

Yeah, it definitely has a bit of a different vibe. It’s very similar because all of the parts are the same. To me, it’s just a little more beefed up, and a little more energy to it, maybe. You’re bringing all these other people, and they’re putting a little bit of themselves to it, so it definitely changes it a tiny bit.

You have released two EPs, and your songs seem to work very well as singles. Do you have plans to record a full-length album, and what does the LP format mean to Day Wave?

I’m working on the album right now. It’s cool to work on an album, because you’re working on it as one piece of work. Whereas before, I was just kind of doing song after song, you know? With the EPs, it was a collection of songs, but with the LP, it’s just one thing. I look at it like, ‘I should have songs in this tempo, and then I should have contrasting songs, and maybe an instrumental.’ Something that works together as a whole. With the EPs, I wasn’t as concerned with that, as much as I was solidifying a sound for the band.

That sounds like a whole new realm for you to explore.

Yeah, definitely. Some of the songs are a little different from what I’ve done in the past. I’ve been recording through a nicer tape machine, so it’s not so lo-fi. It’s really cool, yeah. I’m having a good time working on it.

Wow, so that’s already underway.

Yeah, it is. I’m playing all live drums too, so it’s less programmed-sounding.

Your recent EPs were colored by all these experiences we’ve just talked about. You’ve been through so much change in the past year – do you have an idea how that’s going to impact the new album?

I don’t know, I’m not sure. I’m always gonna be very picky about the music I make, and make sure it’s a certain way. Maybe lyrically, since I’m pulling from personal experience, things may change as my experiences change. It’s hard to say what it will be like because I haven’t experienced it totally yet.

Of course. I guess in my head, I have this narrative of this insular time you spent in the studio in Oakland, and now you’re out touring the world – it’s such a different environment.

Yeah. It’s all about finding some sort of feeling that’s strong that’ll come out when I write music. The way I do it is I write a guitar part, or something, and I let that evoke the lyrics. Whatever feeling I’m getting from the chord progression. We’ll see.

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