Dustin Wong [Ponytail]: Interview
“I think I said something like, ‘I’m gonna go give birth.’ ”
Anyone familiar with the guitar stylings of Dustin Wong (Ponytail, Ex-Ecstatic Sunshine) knows the near-limitless extent of sugar-charged glissandos, zigzag arpeggios, and pogo-stick riffs at his disposal. But if you haven’t looked into his latest solo material and performances, you simply haven’t scratched the surface of Wong as composer. It’s easy to get blindsided by the bottomless, energizing fun on albums like Ecstatic Sunshine’s mathy Freckle Wars (2006) and Ponytail’s breakthrough sophomore release Ice Cream Spiritual (2008), but the current passages off his new Thrill Jockey release Infinite Love shed light on a musically transcendental side to Wong. Manipulating a modest amount of loop and effects pedals, Wong brings his tunes to life with finely articulated segments that build upon each other like fine architecture. But instead of creating a wall of sound, the guitarist allows these repeating worlds to breathe and inhabit the listener’s space before the exploration reaches a convoluted pinnacle — all before being stripped down to begin again.
Having never heard his voice before — aside from the manic, non-sense jabbering on ICS’s “7 Souls” — I was reasonably surprised to find Wong a mellow-voiced, considerate speaker who enjoyed a laugh or two. He also had plenty to say about psychedelic awakenings, salvia, art school, the much-speculated Ponytail hiatus, and “becoming the music.”
You have a new record coming up called Infinite Love, and the title refers to a psychedelic experience you had. What’s the story behind that? What exactly happened to give you that title?
Well, on my birthday last year, my friend gave me a bunch of mushrooms and I took a lot of it that day. A couple handfuls I ate. I just kept on eating it and it started out great. Really fun and everything. It turned into a really bad trip, really heavy and everything was kind of closing in on me. I decided that I should start chanting. I was, like, psyching myself up — no pun intended.
[Laughs] And I think I said something like “I’m gonna go give birth…” And I went on my bed and I just felt I was in labor. I was kind of pushing. I guess I was trying to push a baby out. And then, […] I just felt the love, y’know? I just kept on repeating, “Infinite Love. Infinite Love.” It was very significant for me, personally. And that’s where the title’s from.
That’s pretty far-out. Is chanting, in particular, something you’ve adopted as a regular, meditative practice?
Like, psychedelics, you mean?
Not necessarily psychedelics. But just chanting, in general. I was asking because a little while ago, I interviewed Katrina Ford of Celebration, from Baltimore. She mentioned meditation as something to keep her focused when in the middle of writing — to take a break from what she’s doing. She never really mentioned chanting, per se, but I was curious if that’s something you’ve adopted as a practice over the years.
I do some meditation but I do mostly reading. I get a bunch of books. I really like to read on ancient philosophy. […] I just sort of like religious texts. I like reading those a lot just to keep my mind flowing. Also, I did a little bit of salvia, for a couple months this year, and that was really interesting. That became very insightful and interesting. It adds to the symbols, you know.
I’ve never tried the stuff. Some of my friends have shown me these bizarre YouTube videos of people on salvia.
[Laughs] They kind of get a kick out of it, but I don’t know what it’s like.
Yeah, those YouTube videos don’t do it justice at all, I don’t think.
Yeah, I’d assume so.
It can be very meditative and a lot of playful thoughts.
“… We [Ponytail] actually recorded a new record a month ago. Everything’s mixed and ready to go. The artwork is being made and it should be released either later this year or early next year. It’s just that we were kind of in a hiatus-mode.”
Since you touched on being interested in religious texts, I understand you grew up in relatively strict and conservative Christian school. I also read there was an important moment for you when you first watched the film Easy Rider, where Jack Nicholson describes alien life and all that. I know a lot of people who had similar reactions to that scene. For whatever reason, it sticks with you. How old were you when you first saw that film?
I think I was about 16 or something like that. Like, high school. So, that age, things have a huge impact. So, that was one of the first moments I was like, “Ah! Finally, something outside this conservative realm.” And, y’know, many things after that kind of let me break through. Even yesterday, I went and saw Daniel Pinchbeck talk at the Baltimore Book Fair and his books have been a huge impact on me, as well.
Daniel Pinchbeck, you say?
Cool, I’m not familiar. Is there a particular book that you’ve been digging?
There’s a book called Breaking Open the Head, with a subtitle: A Psychedelic Journey, or something. It has a lot to do with shamanism in South America and Africa, talking about iowaska and ibogaine, these herbs that shamans use as a kind of cleansing ritual for sight and even foreseeing the future.
On the topic of psychedelic culture, I was at the Fillmore last night and looking at all these crazy pictures of Ken Kesey at the venue — I’d recently read The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and I was thinking of some of the stuff that went on. Have you ever been to that venue and seen the posters and stuff?
Ah, no, I haven’t.
If you ever get the chance, you should really check it out. The art — the stuff people were drawing and meticulously taking their time doing — is inspiring. Speaking of visuals, I’m excited to see the visual aspect of your upcoming release. What does it entail?
There’s a video — it’s a video I made with a friend. It’s the whole album, like a 40-minute video of a lot of accumulated footage that me and my friend accumulated over the year. So, we kind of approached that footage as sound footage and put it together as montage. So, the first half of the film is [a] montage-y aspect and, from then on, there’s some narrative aspects that come in.
I also understand you can listen to the album two different ways. There’s a similar beginning, goes a different path and then meets up at the same ending, sort of, if you listen to the two sides?
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Exactly.
“Also, I did a little bit of salvia, for a couple months this year, and that was really interesting. That became very insightful and interesting. It adds to the symbols, you know.”
Sounds really neat. How did you come up with that concept? Was that something that just naturally happened?
Yeah, it all naturally happens. I feel like there’s different ways of approaching making things. Some people can conceive the idea from the very beginning and then go with that idea, and then materialize it. Or some people might just think about it while they’re making it. Or somebody will make it and then think about it later. I’m in the middle where I’m thinking about it while I’m making things. So, things were made and then everything just got placed in that way. With the two choices, I wrote the first set — which will be the first version — and I didn’t want to get in this weird rut where I had to play the same set over and over again so I made another set — which is the second half, which is the second version. Thrill Jockey was super awesome about it and totally up for releasing both versions and then also the video too, in one package. So, it’s awesome.
I know you use a lot of looping. When you’re working on it, is it a lot of editing and refining each layer until you’re happy with the transitions? Or do you ever allow room for improvisation when you perform the songs in the live setting?
I guess the writing aspect of it is the improvisation. There is a lot of editing involved where I would start with an idea and build on it and then come back the next day and tweak it. I write in blocks where one song goes into the next, into the next. So, I kind of treat it as film where I would record, for reference, 30 minutes of music that I’ve written in one take. And then I would listen to it and I’d be like, “That doesn’t make sense there. It makes sense more in the beginning.” So, I’m thinking more as in the movement for songs as a whole […] With Seasons it was years and years of songs accumulated. So, just like how I work in video, I use this as found-songs. So, it’s initially like making a mixtape.
That’s a cool way to think about it. You mention doing video —
Yeah, like editing video. Like constructing a narrative.
That’s what you went to school for, correct?
Yeah, I went to school for film for a couple years in the Bay Area, actually.
Oh, really? Where at?
It used to be called CCAC but I think it’s just CCA now. It was at the Oakland campus near Rockridge.
Okay, cool. I didn’t know that.
Piedmont, Rockridge, that area.
A while back, a little over a year ago, I interviewed Molly Siegel [of Ponytail] and she said that one of the goals for going to art school, at least for you, was the Talking Heads thing of starting a band in school.
Oh, sure, sure.
Was that band, in particular, a big inspiration early on when you just developing?
I think all the bands that formed in art school, like Lightning Bolt and I guess the […] Beatles, too, are in that category [Laughs]. But […] because I went into art first before I went into music — painting and drawing — and while you’re doing that, you’re looking at these bands and you’re like, “They’re so much cooler than [artists]!” Y’know? [Laughs]. It’s like, “I wanna do that, instead.” So, I’m sure every artist wants to be in a band.
Yeah, I think probably vice versa too.
I’m making a pretty general, generalization. [Laughs].
I think the more overlap that I see, the more I get excited about art and music, in general — when you see painters that do music and musicians that do painting. When I was in high school, I first saw some of Wayne Coyne’s paintings for the Flaming Lips and I was like, “Man, this is great, too.” So, I was kind of encouraged by the idea that you didn’t have to do just one — if it’s all one thing.
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
I know you formed Ecstatic Sunshine, in art school, with Matt Papich — is it pronounced “Pa-Peach”?
“Pa-Pitch,” [Laughs] Yeah, that’s exactly how I pronounced it when I met him actually.
I was like, “Is it ‘Pa-Peach’ like the peach?”
[Laughs] Sounds kind of cool that way, though.
Do you guys still stay in contact with each other? I don’t know if you’re still in the same area.
Oh, yeah, yeah. I hung out with him a few days ago. We hang out maybe every week or two weeks, just talking about music and laughing. It’s good.
That’s a good thing. I’ve listened to some of the stuff — the stuff that you were on — but, apparently, the newer stuff is really good too. Someone was telling me about it.
Oh, yeah, it’s fantastic. Yesterday’s Work — incredible. He just showed me what his next record’s gonna be, I guess he’s working on that. He sent me a demo and that’s fantastic too, that’s going to be amazing as well. I think he needs to be known more, I feel. People need to listen to his stuff because it’s amazing.
Obviously, a lot of the stuff you’ve done — especially the solo stuff — is instrumental in nature. I’ve heard the belief tossed around that instrumental music, in particular, can often express what words can’t. I don’t know if you ascribe to this belief at all or have similar feelings. Do you ever think that’s one of the reasons you play the kind of music that you play?
I don’t have any bias toward language or no language. What I like about instrumental music, especially through an individual listener — through headphones or earphones or earbuds or whatever — I feel like when somebody’s speaking to you, you’re listen to them but when there’s no one speaking to you, you can become that music. Do you know what I mean?
” Some people can conceive the idea from the very beginning and then go with that idea, and then materialize it. Or some people might just think about it while they’re making it. Or somebody will make it and then think about it later. I’m in the middle where I’m thinking about it while I’m making things.”
It’s like the listener owns it, y’know? Like, he or she becomes what she’s listening to and, I don’t know, I find beauty in that in instrumental music.
[Laughs] … I sort of hesitate to ask the question, but I also wanted to find out — I know you’ve been focusing on the solo stuff — what’s the status of Ponytail right now? Are you guys looking at a hiatus?
Well, the thing is we actually recorded a new record a month ago. Everything’s mixed and ready to go. The artwork is being made and it should be released either later this year or early next year. It’s just that we were kind of in a hiatus-mode. Molly’s in Phoenix and Ken’s actually writing his own songs which is terrific, he’s got a new album coming out called Open Window and it’s fantastic. It’s really good. Jeremy is drumming for the Boredoms.
Yeah, I heard about that.
Yeah, he’s gonna be in Australia with them soon, very soon. I’m sure that’s, like, the dream job.
You guys are all very busy but it’s exciting though. I’m glad to hear that another record was recorded. I’m very excited about hearing that, for sure.
You’re doing a couple Skype performances, I believe, for people who pre-order new record.
How’d you come up with that idea and what’s the deal with that?
Actually, I’ve done it for friends before — friends that are far away, like who’re living in Europe, who can’t see me here. It was just really nice, kind of special — like cooking dinner for your friend kind of gesture. And it just felt nice. You just talk about life and what you’re doing in life. What your thinking, what your ideas are these days. Then, y’know, I’ll play them what I’ve been working on and it’s just kind of a nice interaction.
Definitely. Kind of gets at what you were saying before about the potential intimacy of music, in general — becoming one with it, expressing ideas, interpreting, etc. I think that’s putting technology to a nice use in a real natural way.
Yeah, I feel like I’m also an embarrassed, shy fan at shows. If I like a band, I’m afraid to go up to them and talk to them. Even to tell them that I enjoyed it, I’m afraid to do that. I’m such an awkward person, I guess. I don’t do well with groups of people, maybe six or more people, I kind of shut down. But in a one-on-one basis, I can talk fine. So, I don’t know, I guess I’m dealing with that issue, I guess. [Laughs]
[Laughs] Yeah. I know exactly what you mean. It’s been my whole experience growing up. So, you’re doing a couple shows before the album comes out?
Yeah, I’m gonna do a tour for the record in November, November 1. I’m going to be touring with two bands from Baltimore: Avocado Happy Hour and Holy Ghost Party. They’re really great bands and Avocado Happy Hour has a venue in the Copycat Building called Soft House. I think there’s a lot of amazing musicians coming up in Baltimore — a lot of awesome soul musicians, actually. Holy Ghost Party are these two from this band Dope Body in Baltimore, which is another amazing band. I don’t know, I think that even after one city, there’s a flourish of new people making exciting stuff. It’s awesome. It’s really good.
Kind of redundant to say it, but that’s a really fertile scene for a while now.
Yeah, I think it’s due to people moving here, too — being excited about the place and it feeds itself in that way.