Dustin Wong “If we have the ability to hear, it’s like seeing a face without seeing it.”

“Dustin Wong: Pedal Maestro.” I don’t know if such a title exists, but ex-Ponytail guitarist Wong certainly deserves it. Wong is a virtuoso in both technique and in exuberant composition; surrounding himself with effects pedals, Wong pulls out soaring guitar leads and arranges intricately layered sound narratives. This is not to suggest that his sound is overly clinical, mind you. Take his recent collaboration with Takako Minekewa, Toropical Circle, which is an excursion of pure pop whimsy.

Wong’s upcoming solo record, Mediation of Ecstatic Energy — out September 17 on Thrill Jockey — caps off a trilogy of solo guitar ‘n’ pedals albums, finding him pushing his loop-based technique to new limits. As made especially evident with tracks such as “The Big She” and “Out of the Crown Head,” Mediation finds Wong exploring shifting time signatures and key changes, dense syncopation, and a further expansion of his sound palette. Oh, and you can hum these melodies immediately, too — just listen to “Cityscape Floated.”

Wong talks to TMT about his new albums, guitar pedals, live performance, and being torn by nostalgia.

We may as well just get right into this: it’s a busy year for you. Two new albums, and you’ve moved to Japan, where I’ve read that you spent most of your childhood. How has the change in scenery been for you?

It’s still very familiar — nothing’s changed too much. I can speak the language, so it’s really easy to assimilate and “go with the flow” here. There’s no friction or anything, so that’s really easy.

Do you find your surroundings — do they influence your music at all?

I mean… I remember growing up here, especially in Tokyo, you rarely see the horizon because there are so many buildings. Also… whenever I look up at the phonelines, electric lines, the buildings, there’s always something interesting. There’s always an interesting composition to be seen — it’s very geometric. There are a lot of shapes, and the negative spaces have interesting things happening in them. I feel that really stuck with me in the type of music I make, or visual things I make.

Thrill Jockey describes Mediation of Ecstatic Energy as being the third part of a trilogy. Were you envisioning your albums as a trilogy to begin with? Do you see them as linked somehow?

They are linked, but it wasn’t conceived that way at first. When I put out the first record, I just put it out because I made a bunch of music and I wanted to have people hear it. When I got to Dreams, y’know, I didn’t wait a minute to write this third one. Right when I finished Dreams Say, I just started writing, and kept on writing, and Mediation kind of… it kind of created itself, in a way. But then when I finished Mediation, it was, I didn’t really see myself going any further, like I’d reached a limit. With each album I’m working with different ideas, trying new things and musical ideas; with this one I’m trying different time signatures, and new key changes within one loop. I feel like it’s time to kind of… OK, this guitar loop, loop music ideas — I think, for me, I’m satisfied and ready to move forward.

Part of why I jumped at the chance to talk with you is because I also make solo, guitar-pedal looper music, and if your press photos are to be believed, it looks like we also use some of the same pedals — the Boss RC-2, and the DD-3. I know how limited the RC-2 can be, especially in comparison to some of the loopers that are available now. Have you ever considered using a looper with more functions? Or do you find a kind of appeal in the RC-2’s limitations?

What I like to do is, I like to get gear that does two or three things really well — like, the DD-3 has four wonderful settings. The loop station does what it does. I like to keep it simple — what I do is, I buy multiple pedals, I buy the same pedal, two or three of them, because I know what they do, and I set them up — I haven’t really done it too much publicly, but I’ll experiment with having maybe an A/B switch go to two delay pedals, so there’s two signals, and two loopers going into one RC-3, and out into the mixer, that kind of thing. Playing around. It’s getting to know a tool really well — then I can have multiple uses for it, with three of them at my disposal.

This new album definitely finds you pushing your sound palette even further — the bass sounds are thicker, the looper’s drum machine appears a bit more often, and there’s an increased vocal presence at points, notably on the opening and closing tracks. I’ve read before that you tend to think visually when creating music; do you visualize the voice differently than the guitar?

Hmm… I mean the voice is so… there’s something about the voice that really catches your attention more than any other instrument. It has a timbre, no matter beautiful or ugly, a voice really — it’s something we relate to the most. If we have the ability to hear, it’s like seeing a face without seeing it. A guitar, it’s harder to do that with a guitar. It becomes more peripheral and ‘background’ when it’s just guitar. I hear a lot of people tell me, ‘I listen to your music when I study,’ or working. It’s ‘good background music.’ (Laughs).

With different sounds… well, right now I’m making music with Takako Minekawa, and we’ve been using this sampler keyboard that Korg put out a few years ago, and it’s amazing. It comes with a mic, so you can record anything, and the keys — it turns the sound into notes, so you can play chords of anything, like flicking a glass or crumpling a plastic bag. The other day I was trying to make a trumpet sound with my mouth into the mic, and it just turned out sounding like farts. But it’s been really fun.

It actually goes back to Ponytail; when we’d play live, we always wanted the songs to kind of meld into each other — like once the song ends, let’s go into the next one, or how the end melts into the intro of the next one. That’s something I had in mind when Ponytail ended and I started writing my own music — I liked that idea of ‘one thread.’

How did Toropical Circle come about, and how did you start working w/Minekawa?

We started working on it last summer — we started writing the songs last summer. She’d been wanting to make music but hadn’t been able to; like didn’t have the catalyst, or enough people around her to make it happen. And so, we decided to work on it together. We talked about how we wanted to make it, what kind of tools we should get. Because, at first we jammed together, earlier that year — in 2012, and it was more of a drone type of deal, where she was looping her voice on one loop pedal and I was playing on my own set-up. It became really cloudy. I was fine with it, but she was like, no, I want to make actual songs, something that has a shape. So, we started writing together, we came up with a set-up where her voice can be fed into the loop pedal, and we got an ABC switch so I could put my guitar, drum machine, and keyboard into one loop. So we had four signals in one loop. That’s how we were able to layer all the sounds.

I get the sense that memory and imagination are important to your music, and these concepts seem especially present on Toropical Circle, both explicitly and implicitly — like how much of the album possesses a whimsical, childlike sort of feeling, from the instrumental and timbral qualities to how the “Mary Had a Little Lamb” melody surfaces. Do you have any thoughts about a term like “children’s music,” or how one might reconcile it with memory and imagination?

(Thinks for a while) Nostalgia… There’s something about nostalgia that really… I’m torn by nostalgia. Because it’s something that gives me pleasure, but at the same time, almost feels like escapism. I feel like there’s a nostalgia that goes beyond something like, you know, Care Bears or My Little Pony, or your favorite candy or something. It goes beyond birth, something that goes to a kind of ‘pure innocence,’ where a lot of times… where we hope that still exists. There’s a lot of imagination, and the attempt, the effort to try and remember that. I feel like if we’re not allowed to access those things, or if we’re not allowed to be nostalgic, or to be able to escape, that means we are prisoners. To be an escapist is kind of — I’m not saying I am (laughs), but it is a sort of freedom. An aspect.

Leading up to this interview, I was thinking about your albums, and the notion of the trilogy. Listening to your records, if I may put forward what I’ve gathered as “themes”: the liner notes of Infinite Love suggest a more hallucinatory, drugged-out psychedelia; Dreams Say View Create Shadow Leads and your Dream Sound project take us into impressionism and dreams and the unconscious, and with Mediation, I feel like it’s your busiest-sounding album. Not just in terms of musical syncopation and rhythm, but also in an internalized sense, concerning aura and surroundings. The cover art is even a photograph of your aura, which strikes me as especially fitting given your musical approach — I find that creating music by looping layers is often a very internal process, like simultaneously drawing from within oneself while also stepping outside of themselves, if that makes sense. Do you relate to this kind of idea?

I feel like Mediation, especially, is working with those ideas about internalized and external — like the aura, it’s an energy within, it’s something you can see outside. I don’t know if you’ve read the story inside the album, I’ve included a short story with the album…

I’m sorry to say I’ve only received a digital copy of the album so far.

Ah, OK. Well, it’s a fiction, but it’s based on some things that I’ve done. It’s about this kid who goes and gets his aura photographed at this studio. He goes and meets his friends who have a youth group called the Liberal Christian Youth Ministry, which is based on a school that I went to from third grade to senior year high school here in Tokyo — a Christian school, lots of missionaries from the states, a lot of missionary kids. These three kids are trying to figure out the essence of Christ. And, the color of the auras is interesting, where it’s like — it’s red and orange, which is actually their group’s solar plexus; the butt and the stomach. It’s kind of an earthier color, more like ‘earth energy,’ if you interpret the colors. So, I feel like with Infinite Love, that’s kind of this heady, psychedelic, um, “whoo-hoo boopy-doo” kind of thing, where Mediation is more about getting back down to earth, in a way. There’s like, in the story, in the end, there’s a scene where an astronaut actually un-tethers herself from this satellite, and rests herself back down to Earth. It’s kind of like a slow descent. That’s the image I had, outgoing.

You mentioned that you didn’t waste any time after Dreams came out, and just jumped right into making more music. I’m curious about how often you create new material — I heard a recording of you playing “Liberal Christian Youth Ministry” on WFMU earlier this year, and the track “Japan” has been on Soundcloud since 2012. Do you draw a distinction between making tracks and albums, or do you just sit down with your tools and go, “Let’s see what happens today”?

Yeah, it’s really intuitive. I never have a melody in mind, like, “I want to use that melody, definitely” — I never have that, I just sit down and see what I can come up with. That’s how I like to work. Rather than making music on the computer, I’d rather make it live so I can play it live — there’s a direct translation. With albums, I just write and write — y’know, yeah, “Liberal Christian,” I wrote that in January 2012. Since then, I’ve just been writing, making more songs — I mean, in between touring and stuff. Through that collection of songs, I weed out things that I think are better than others. I try to make a composition out of all the songs, first to last — I pretty much make a mixtape, or a playlist of all the songs I’ve written, see how it flows. But this one, Mediation actually took a long time. I thought I was done, but that was five months before I was actually done. (Laughs)

I was going to say, your albums have a kind of live energy to them, especially in how tracks flow together, like “Liberal Christian Youth Ministry” and “Cityscape Floated,” or “Evening Curves Straight” and “Back Towards Night” from Dreams. Does this emerge out of live performance, or is it from spending time sequencing your tracks after writing them?

It actually goes back to Ponytail; when we’d play live, we always wanted the songs to kind of meld into each other — like once the song ends, let’s go into the next one, or how the end melts into the intro of the next one. That’s something I had in mind when Ponytail ended and I started writing my own music — I liked that idea of ‘one thread.’

There was an album by the High Llamas called Hawaii; the whole album is one thread, and there’s no pauses between. It’s all — the way they do it is with crossfades, but that’s something I was really into. Something that just kind of continues.

Yeah, yeah. I get that entirely. That connection, the live sequential energy. It’s interesting that you mentioned mixtapes earlier; I often feel like, well, I spent all this time as a teenager making mixtapes, now that I’m making my own music, why not apply the same rigor of sequencing?

Totally. That’s, I definitely find that when you make mixtapes, it feels like a craft. Pause it at the right time, get it to the right rhythm and tempo… speed it up a little bit. (Laughs)

I feel like there’s a nostalgia that goes beyond something like, you know, Care Bears or My Little Pony, or your favorite candy or something. It goes beyond birth, something that goes to a kind of ‘pure innocence’, where a lot of times… where we hope that still exists.

When thinking of guitarists and live performance, I think one often has this image in their mind of “practice.” With music as meticulously layered as yours, re-created live, I sometimes think of rehearsal, as opposed to the approach of a guitarist like say, Loren Connors, who refers not to “practicing” but to “playing” — something more free improvisational in nature, where the instrument is regarded as a direct outlet from the mind. However, your music strikes me as somehow in-between — it sounds meticulously rehearsed, but with an intuitive directness that implies that sort of improvisational playing. Do you ever do any live improvisation? I mean, beyond compensation for when, say, the looper pedal inevitably glitches out, or a patch cord becomes loose?

That’s definitely happened. (Laughs) It’s weird, when the loop pedal glitches, it kind of repeats… it doesn’t repeat the whole loop, but just a portion of it. When I’m in those situations, I just go to the next song. I just skip it, cut it out. But, I have played shows where it’s fully improvised from beginning to end; I did the one a couple weeks ago here where I used my guitar, a completely different pedal sequence, voice, and autotune. It just went along. But, that’s how I write — it’s just showing the process of how I write anyway, since it’s all improvised. Those improvisations just become condensed into a recognizable shape.

I’ve also noticed that you prefer to surround yourself with pedals, rather than fixing them to a board. I prefer it this way myself, too — it feels less rigid, and more like a sort of canvas — there’s also the freedom to re-arrange pedals more easily, I think. Again, it’s visual, it’s spatial — is this merely a performance preference, or is there more to it?

It’s a performance preference, but it’s also very meditational. It’s like, to put each pedal down on the floor, patch it up — it’s very relaxing. It gets rid of the nerves before playing a show, because you’re doing something, and it’s better than having the pedals on a pedalboard because it’s like — alright, done! And you’re waiting, you’re nervous… and, when you’re patching something one thing at a time, if something goes wrong, like a cable is dead, it’s easier to figure it out, I feel like, than having it on a board. And you understand how, I feel like every time I do it, I’m starting to understand how the effects are affecting each other more and more. Every time I do it, I can imagine different, other sequences that are possible. It’s for the meditational purposes of the creative process, I think it’s a lot… better.

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