Breaking Apart The Sky: Dustin Wong Interviewed
, September 12th, 2013 05:24
Using just guitar, effects and a loop pedal, Dustin Wong conjures up hypnotic and immersive instrumental psych-pop. He speaks with Tristan Bath about new album Mediation Of Ecstatic Energy, musical dualities and drawing inspiration from Tokyo
Dustin Wong's maturation from the manic youthful fervour of his former bands Ponytail and Ecstatic Sunshine to the somewhat more delicate and intricate world of his solo recordings has been a gradual one. His catalogue of loop-and-effects-pedal solo guitar albums has steadily improved, and the latest release, Mediation of Ecstatic Energy - out this month on Thrill Jockey - is his finest and most varied to date, propelling the man's seemingly boundless ability to make epic instrumental psychedelic pop miniatures to new heights – or, indeed, new depths. Recently having moved back to his childhood home of Japan, and on the brink of a solo tour of his American homeland, we caught up with Dustin via email to find out what lies beneath the tangled web of loops and interleaving guitar lines.
Mediation of Ecstatic Energy is a pretty vivid title, and it pretty well defines the mood of the album too. Would you say that this is the first album where you've tried to mediate, rather than give in, to ecstatic energy?
Dustin Wong: Last summer I was flipping through a book in Providence, Rhode Island, a book called Magus, a book about magic, written in 1801 by Francis Barrett, an English occultist. I opened the book and the phrase 'Mediation of Ecstatic Energy' popped out. It repeated in my head for days and weeks, like a loop. After a few months I decided to look this up, and found the chapter that included this passage. It was actually talking about the ecstatic energy that mediates between a flesh wound and magical herbal medicine. This healing energy is a kind of gravity, like seeing the toxins fall up.
I feel like it's not necessarily giving in to it but wanting to be immersed in that energy, but at the same time being observant and sane. As I was recording this album it felt like the sounds were trying to represent this type of energy. We are also seeing/hearing the toxins. The Fukushima radiation leak definitely has a part in this as well.
Every single one of your titles feels as if they're hinting at or unlocking some of the meaning behind the music – 'Windy Prism Room' or 'Triangle Train Stop', for example. How and when do you go about naming a piece?
DW: The sounds remind me of a certain image, most of the time. 'Triangle Train Stop', I came up with that name partially because in the middle of the song these three bass notes activate the rhythm and change the song completely. It was also a nod to Reich's Different Trains. But while I was listening back to the song (I normally name a song weeks/months after its written) I could see and imagine these three trains, going around and around this triangular train station. I was seeing this in my mind from an aerial perspective, like a satellite image.
Mediation of Ecstatic Energy comes with a short story included in the artwork. How does this story relate to the music on the album? How does it reflect your beliefs?
DW: I wanted to put this short story as a context – like a translucent filter for the music. The song titles themselves are actually words carefully chosen out of the short story chronologically that both felt interesting and reflect the actual sounds of the song. I mentioned gravity and the action of falling up earlier. Towards the end of the story we see an astronaut who decides to untether herself from the thing that keeps her from floating away into space, she pushes herself towards earth. From her perspective there is no up or down, so she falling up to earth.
The sounds in these songs use a lot of counterpoint, where melodies cross into each other, going in between each other. The movements of the melodies are going up and down at the same time too.
Back on Let It Go you performed a version of Erik Satie's Gymnopédie No. 1 made up of multi-tracked vocals and guitars. Satie reflects an approach to counterpoint and interweaving melodies that seem to permeate much of your solo work. Did this naturally evolve from working with loops?
DW: It has all been very organic, I feel. There were a lot of experiments just based on curiosity, like what would happen if I played a triplet on top of a 5/4 time loop, that type of thing. The wonderful thing about the loop pedal is the function of it continually recording as the loop keeps repeating, so you can get these wonderful overlaps of notes that are very difficult to perform manually. I think that is why creating music with this tool feels organic - there aren't any unnecessary brain knots.
On Mediation of Ecstatic Energy, some of the tracks ('Speeding Feathers Staring') sound particularly influenced by 1970s West Berlin and the delay-driven soundscapes of Manuel Göttsching, Klaus Schulze and kosmische music. How do you think the process of making this kind of music has changed in recent years?
DW: Totally, I am a big fan of the kosmische movement. It was on heavy rotation at home and on the road when Ponytail was on tour. Ken Seeno - a good friend and fellow Ponytail member - was a big kosmische fan too. He turned me on to a lot of great music too.
I think the big, big difference comparing the times back then and today is the size of the hardware. Back then the equipment they were using was enormous! Now the gear is a lot more compact, all my pedals fit into one briefcase. For a lot of the people it's not hardware anymore either, its software, it all fits in a laptop.
The thing I really want to point out is that I'm really trying to use the full spectrum, that goes from low frequencies to the high frequencies and everything in-between. What I'm worried about these days is that when I hear pop music now, the frequencies are becoming too dynamic, big bass and crisp highs. I'm not saying I don't like it - I actually really enjoy it - but it's reflecting the times. With music becoming simpler and its sounds just being lows and highs, it reflects the current political situation and class system. Where is the middle class and where did the mid-frequencies go? It's a frustrating duality, and that why I want to include everything.
Takako Minekawa & Dustin Wong - 'Party On A Floating Cake', taken from the Toropical Circle album
On several occasions on Mediation you've introduced wordless vocals to your music. What made you choose the voice over another instrument when recording these particular tracks?
I use vocals in 'Speeding Feathers Staring', and that choice was actually made by the song itself. If you listen closely to the section before my vocals come in, around the three-and-a-half minute point, in the background it sounds like a voice is singing "ahh ahh" from high to low. This isn't actually my voice, but a phantom. All the sounds working together created a soft voice, and the weird thing is that it sounds like my voice. When I play this song live it happens too. So I listened to this phantom, and just kind of traced it with my own voice and elaborated. I do that with my guitar as well on other songs, different melodies layered on top create new melodies, and I play those phantom melodies and bring it out.
Bruce Russell - guitarist for The Dead C - has described his instrument as being the amplifier rather than the guitar. What is it that makes your noise? What do you see as truly being your instrument?
DW: Anything that makes a sound you know? It's just that I feel really comfortable with the guitar. If someone wants to use a quarter inch cable or lead as an instrument to create sounds, that is great. The guitar is just my paintbrush of choice. I can quickly whip up some colours and textures with it.
Have you seen Bob Ross and his painting tutorials? Really amazing stuff. Whatever you may think of his paintings, he is painting in a dark room with no windows and he's painting landscapes. I think there is a quote by him where he says something like, "paint the landscapes from your heart".
Surely you're a guitarist for whom the actual instrument matters relatively little. What do you think of 'guitar' culture, and brand- and model-worship? How much of a difference do you think top-of-the-range gear makes?
DW: It's really similar to cars; I mean, Fender is referencing a part of a car. Electric guitars have that finish, that curve that really reminds you of an old Dodge or Chevy you know? It's probably in our subconscious. When it comes to top gear stuff, it really comes down to what the artist wants to do. I sometimes type in to a search engine a description of what I want from a pedal. That's how I found my octave pedal, "octave pedal, low octave, high octave, versatile". There are also times where the equipment chooses me, I try to deny it most of time saying, "Oh no, no, I can't, not right now", but if it's really pulling me, I'll give in. That how I met my loop pedal.
I'm not a guitar-phile or a pedal-phile (no pun intended). I'm actually more interested in how gear interacts with each other. How do the pedals effect each other in combination, and how can these things be routed. So, right now, I'm actually more interested in mixers and AB switches. If you can imagine the music as a train moving in a constant, by switching the AB switch we can change the course, like shifting the rails. It's like Sim City! Really fun.
Something particularly special about your music is the way in which you seem to compose with specific sounds and timbres in addition to composing with melody and rhythm. How do you go about selecting your sounds?
DW: I have a palette of sounds that I use, and it's all there so it can fit in the full spectrum. The crucial thing is actually my pickup selector on my guitar. Mine has three settings: one is the pickup that is close to my bridge (butt); two, the lipstick pickup which is closest to the neck; and three, a combination of one and two.
When sound is picked up from the butt area of the guitar, it's the sharpest sound you can get, and the one closer to the neck the sound gets rounder. By using different combinations of these pickups and effects the sounds sit together well. The same effect settings on pick up #1 and #3 sounds subtly different. Believe it or not I learned this from Johnny Sierra from The Death Set, when he was helping Ecstatic Sunshine record.
You've moved around a lot in your lifetime, growing up in Japan, and living in America. What impact have your surroundings had on you as a musician? Do you hear the places you've lived come through your music?
DW: Even as a kid, I saw the city of Tokyo as geometric. The electric lines creating different compositions, breaking apart the sky. Unfortunately, in Tokyo it's really difficult to see a straight horizon. Actually the thing that I was excited the most about when I went on tour for the first time was to see a clean straight horizon. Cityscapes and landscapes, the shapes definitely have an influence.
You recently moved back to Japan. Where have you been staying? Why did you return? And how has it been?
DW: I have an apartment in the Setagaya ward, next to some train tracks. It's not loud at all, since the train only has two cars, so the sounds are actually really soothing. The earthquake in 2011 and the Fukushima disaster definitely got me concerned. My parents still live over here, they experienced the whole shake. Also meeting Takako [Minekawa, friend and musical collaborator] and getting to know her was another reason.
It's been pretty nice, really quiet here. But I'm still really concerned about this country. I feel like the political propaganda machine has been revving up for the past two years. I was cringing the whole time when the PM spoke for the run for the Olympics. He said that Fukushima is completely under control, and that is a lie. There is also a popular TV drama here that is set in the northeast region. The poster for the show has a girl coming up out of the ocean and holding a sea urchin, and the caption says something like, "I love the ocean". Even now, when polluted water is streaming out of the power plant into the ocean.
Dustin Wong's Mediation Of Ecstatic Energy is released on September 17th via Thrill Jockey