"If I Could, I Would Tap-Dance For You, But I Can't": A Conversation With Dustin Wong

Musicians today have more options than ever before to max out a solo performance: pre-recorded backing accompaniments, cooperative electronic hardware, live laptop processing. With some technological assistance, a single person can build a piece of music that contains more sounds and textures than he or she could ever produce alone. Dustin Wong demonstrates the potential of maximal solo performance perhaps more fully than any of his contemporaries, though he does so with only a Fender Telecaster and a small semi-circle of pedals. After collaborating with j-pop goddess Takako Minekawa on Toropical Circle earlier this year, the former Ponytail guitarist returns to solo sessions for the third entry in his trilogy of guitar-focused albums, following 2010's Infinite Love and 2012's Dream, Say, View, Create, Shadow Leads. The expansive Mediation of Ecstatic Energy, due out September 17 via Thrill Jockey, showcases his most developed compositions to date, layered sky-high with melodies and rhythms that interlock against evolving backdrops of looped guitar. Though his brain and hands can function with ridiculous speed in live performance, Wong moves through our conversation at a measured pace, taking time to ponder each point before articulating aspects of his creative process with remarkable clarity and self-perception. I talked with him over Skype about loop-based composition, motivation, guitar tones and coming home to Japan, where he grew up.

Ad Hoc: What's life like these days?

Dustin Wong: Right now, I'm just kind of working on music with Takako, and working on a music video for the new album. I just got this video projector, and I went to a hardware shop and got little turntables. I've been putting these prisms on there, and then playing video through them. It's really nice to just have in your room-- it's like a disco ball with video.

Ad Hoc: What prompted your change in location back to Japan?

DW: A couple years ago there was the earthquake, and I was away. I was in Baltimore at the time. I remember being really glued to the computer screen, just checking updates. That was definitely a pretty big reason. And meeting Takako, and starting to play and write music with her. Those two things were a pull back.

Ad Hoc: When did the idea of a trilogy of guitar-loop-based albums fall into place?

DW: It kind of fell into place when I was working on this record. When I was doing Infinite Love and Dream, Say... I felt like I could keep going. The day after I finished recording and mixing Dream, Say, I was ready to do the next one, so I kept on writing and finished Mediation. But I felt, when I finished Mediation, that I didn't have the same drive as I did with the last one. I felt like now I can sit with these songs for a while and work on other projects.

Ad Hoc: To what degree do the studio recordings on Mediation capture "live takes"? I know Infinite Love had more of a studio layering recording approach, while Dreams Say caught live output only.

DW: Yeah, with Infinite Love, I was mic-ing an amp and doing different takes. On Dream, Say, I was trying to capture a performance from the beginning of the album to the end of the album, and it was all direct input, but it was one track. I divided it up into different tracks eventually, but it was all going DI into a mixer into a computer. But there's some things [on Mediation] that I can't replicate live. You know, when I'm looping something that's in 4/4 over 3/4, there's overlapping stuff that's harder to figure out in a live setting. So Mediation has a combination [of live takes and overdubs]. There's a master loop session and melody. If I'm going to start recording a song in that way, I'll play the first loop on the loop pedal and keep it going. If there's something in the middle that's a little more complicated-- the overlap stuff-- I'll still have the loop going, and then if I know when the timing is when the more complicated idea arrives, I can punch it into the loop.

Ad Hoc: How would you describe the general vibe of Mediation, compared with the earlier albums?

DW: I feel like it's a lot more aggressive, personally. I feel like it embodies the idea of returning, coming back to Earth. A kind of humbling process. [This direction] was being hinted at toward the end of Dream, Say. There was a song called "Space Tunnel Graffiti" that had more lower, distorted guitar-- you hear more of that in Mediation. Even in "Toe Tore Oh," like at the end when the bass frequencies come in. I feel like these ideas are being explored again now.

Ad Hoc: Can we talk about your composition process? Do you write melodies and phrases individually, or let them evolve organically in a live session?

DW: It's all organic. Normally, the only thing that's preconceived is the first melody-- or it's the second melody, and the first is switched in. After that, it's about letting it all go, and then making sure to remember what you played later. At this point, a few songs have left the room. [Laughs] I kind of think of [the songs] as films, so I prefer to use one continuous thread, so it gives it that narrative for when someone's listening. But at the same time, it's not like I'm shying away from the cut or the break. There is actually a tiny break in Mediation, before "Japan."

Ad Hoc: Have you ever encountered any sort of stigma around loop-based music? I feel like I've heard terms like "loop pedal jams" used derogatorily more often than positively.

DW: I haven't encountered it directly, but when you're online looking through forums and threads, you see that all the time. Any type of structure-- if you're a band, or a duo, any unit-- will have some sort of cynical criticism. I remember reading a live review where this person was complaining because I wasn't doing enough audience interaction or something. She wanted me to dance on stage or something, like something more than play my guitar. But it's like, I have enough on my hands already. If I could, I would tap-dance for you, but I can't.

Ad Hoc: What's your mindset like when you're on stage?

DW: I can't be too relaxed or too nervous. There's this perfect, tiny target that's the balance of both, and that's when I can really perform well. I've definitely played too comfortably, when I felt like I was at home. That's fine, but it doesn't give it that feeling of suspense. I have to be excited, but at the same time be really internalized and meditative.

Ad Hoc: Very shortly after Dream, Say came out, I remember seeing tracks that ended up on Mediation incorporated into your live performance.

DW: If I finish a song, I'll try it the next day at a performance. But the song changes. Even if I have confidence, I'll try it out at a show and realize it doesn't work. It's weird how you have to play a show to figure that out: the audience really helps to reveal what the song is actually about. So I'll go back and revise.

Ad Hoc: Are there any challenges you still face when you're performing live?

DW: There are some songs on Mediation that are really difficult, actually. It's still a challenge to perform these songs live-- even some of the Dream, Say stuff. I mess it up sometimes when I'm performing. The loops go more and more off-kilter.

Ad Hoc: I know you've expressed some love for Terry Riley before, like his "Rainbow in Curved Air." What other guitarists or loop-based performers have inspired you?

DW: Papa M's Live from a Shark Cage. It's a perfect record. All the German musicians, like Michael Rother, Cluster, Manuel Göttsching. And then I'm really interested in Les Paul, and the BBC Radiophonic. I feel like Les Paul created guitar looping.

Ad Hoc: And the chipmunk, hyper-high-pitched tone, which you employ a lot.

DW: Exactly! He's really influential, actually, because he's so playful with his instrument. The way he layers the melodies and harmonies and stuff-- it's really whimsical. And I feel like the BBC Radiophonic is similar in that way, but they use samples instead.

Ad Hoc: What draws you to certain guitar tones?

DW: I'm really into my Telecaster because it's so simple. I don't even use the tone knob on that guitar. In the beginning, I was really into the more creamy, soft tones like the Gibson SG has, like Santana or something. Singular notes, but they're really thick. But with a Tele, it just cuts through. Even with no effects, even if there's all this noise around you, you can just strum the guitar and it still has presence. Being able to switch between different pickups allows me to do a lot. I want to use every frequency and sub frequency, like piercing highs. Even if I'm playing the same melody in the same range on the guitar, if I change the pickup, the frequency range shifts. [The tones] lay on top of each other, and it's really nice. By using the octave pedal and the distortion pedal in combination with those pickups, I can really maneuver around from the lows to the highs really easily. Then I can really work from the blackest black to the whitest white.

Ad Hoc: Now that your trilogy project is over, is there a new project or a new incarnation of your solo music on the horizon for you?

DW: Being in all of these different projects has been like being in a class or a school. Hopefully I'll be able to utilize what I've learned recently on something else, because I'm trying to figure out this new thing. I had a show about a month ago where I was using three loop pedals with different setups; it was all improvised, looping guitar and vocals. I was actually running my vocals through an Auto-Tune pedal and putting them through the same sequence as the guitar. I was letting it all phase, and nothing was really locked in. I can work in a more stereo field, too. I'm working on it slowly-- nothing yet, still experimenting. We'll see!

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