Exclusive Song Premiere and Interview: ‘Liberal Christian Youth Ministry,’ Dustin Wong
ABOVE: DUSTIN WONG. IMAGE COURTESY OF HIROMI SHINADA
On the twitchy, vibrant “Liberal Christian Youth Ministry,” the fulcrum of Dustin Wong’s third LP, Mediation of Ecstatic Energy, mounting layers of guitar build in equal parts bliss and mania. Alongside the split of his Baltimore art-punk group Ponytail, Wong put forward a hefty, expressive solo catalog of material that exhibited the mastercraft of his production and his ability to manipulate effects pedals to the height of the frenzied, ecstatic sound they can generate. With his third full-length to be released on September 17, the conclusion to a solo trilogy, Wong aims to give the listener something more to think about than just technical workmanship and the spinning cuts of his elemental guitar.
The first of his albums to come paired with a short story written by Wong, Mediation of Ecstatic Energy is an inherently deliberate and fine-tuned listen. Pairing the narrative with the record’s cover, a photograph of his deep burnt-orange aura, Mediation sheds the former mystery and finds pleasure in experimental direction. Mediation is Wong’s first record made in his home country of Japan, and the ethereal quality of its tracks gives the greatest insight so far into the musician’s persona. As he launches into a long US tour with The Dodos and beyond, his talisman from home will surely be this record and its thoughtful metanarrative. If Wong’s first two solo records were somewhere up in the air, this final contribution is about seeking a worthy anchor.
DAYNA EVANS: This is the conclusion in a trilogy of records you’ve put out. How do you feel this one differs, or how does it feel conclusive to you?
DUSTIN WONG: I didn’t know at the time when I was making the first two records. The thing with working on this record is that I started working on it right after I finished the second album, Dreams Say, View, Create, Shadow Leads. Right when I finished mixing it, I just started writing, and I was developing more of the ideas that I’d been working on, like using different time signatures, and even in recording, just trying to use every frequency range: the lower frequencies to the higher ones. I feel like I pushed myself to the point where if I pushed myself any further, it would just become too grandiose. It would become [maximalist]. It’s like using steroids.
EVANS: Do you have people to listen to early demos and give you feedback?
WONG: I do work in a vacuum, but I always pay attention to what my friends are doing, my peers and the people that I respect. A lot of times they’re working on music at the same time, so I’ll go and listen to their stuff and I’m always impressed because they do things that I don’t. Like my friend Co La, he put out a record a few months ago called Moody Coup, and we used to meet a lot when I was on the East Coast, and he would play me the songs, and his production—the way he produced the songs—he uses every range of the stereo field. It was really inspiring.
EVANS: Something new for this album is that you’re putting a short story you wrote in the package. What was the motivation to have a literary element to the record?
WONG: I’ve always wanted to put a context to the music, because it’s mostly instrumental; there’s no lyrical content. On the first one it was pretty hidden—I had song titles, but they would only come out if you searched for it on the Internet, and it was kind of like a prayer and a poem. The second record, the song titles, if you read them from the beginning to the end, they become one poem. A person who I became good friends with in New York, he started a website called Stadiums & Shrines. He asked me if I could submit a track for their project, where they would choose a geographic area in the world and an artist would write a song about it. They wrote a short story to that song, and that song was called “Japan.” That’s on this most recent record. They wrote a really beautiful piece about a man who was a tourist in Japan going to a little inn in the countryside that he’s heard so much about from a touristy book, but there’s nothing special there. But when he waits, the drawings on the walls and the paintings start to come alive. I was really inspired by that and thought it would be great to do something like that where I’d write a story to accompany the songs.
EVANS: When somebody buys the record, what would be the ideal listening situation for you? How do you see this working?
WONG: They can do whatever they want! But ideally, you know, when I would buy records as a teenager, I would already have my Discman ready to go. I’d buy the record, I’d take it out of the package, put it in my Discman, and then I would try to read whatever information that package has to offer. I would love for people to read it and listen to the record at the same time in that way.
EVANS: Does this album capture a certain feeling for you?
WONG: Compared to the other records, it feels more aggressive. The bass comes through more, so the pace is faster. It has a little bit to do with something that happened to me in the past two years, but it’s not specific to that negative time and the emotion that was coming up, but it’s kind of that general feeling. It also goes back to my angsty youth of growing up here [Japan], when I attended a Christian school from middle school to high school, which is sort of an angsty time. But at the same time, in my periphery, there was always this kind of Christian, Protestant, conservative environment around me, so it also kind of takes ideas from that. Well, not ideas, but feelings.
EVANS: Did the two prior records have those ideas flowing through them as well?
WONG: I feel like it’s been addressed more now. I feel like the other two are more blissful and a little bit more naïve. In a way, the music is always going up, where the sounds are being layered, but I feel like the direction from the first record to the third record is kind of a descent from somewhere higher to someplace lower. I don’t find that to be a negative thing at all. It’s coming back down to earth.
EVANS: Does that mean your next output will start in a totally different place?
WONG: I’m going at it on my own pace. Right now, I’m making music with Takako Minekawa, a project of just the two of us, which is a completely different direction for me. Two people are using one loop pedal, and we’re using different instruments like keyboards and samplers and drum machines. That’s a completely different trajectory. It has already inspired me, but hopefully it will continue to inspire me to go in a different direction.
EVANS: You’ve been working with her in Tokyo—was there an impetus behind coming back to Japan?
WONG: It was building up since the earthquake a couple years ago. When that happened, I was in Baltimore, and my brother called me and told me what was happening, and I was glued to the computer. I was really, really concerned. Then the Fukushima thing happened soon after, and I got even more worried, and some time passed and a lot of things happened here. Relationships ending, new relationships beginning. Endings that traumatized. I met Takako and we started talking and communicating and playing together and putting sounds together and when that started forming and becoming more concrete, it was like, okay, that was convincing enough to come back. To have somebody to work with and being in a place that I grew up in. It’s a home that I care about, so even if everything is still happening in Fukushima, I feel better about being here.
EVANS: The cover of your album is a picture taken of your aura. What’s the significance of that?
WONG: It’s kind of like a self-portrait plus alpha. Not only am I showing you my face, but I’m showing you my energy. It also relates to the short story inside. It’s about a Christian who is searching for something more significant within the Christian structure. But in his going to get his aura photo taken, he’s starting to search outside, it’s more raw. I guess that’s what I’m loosely trying to convey with the cover. It’s somebody who is searching. It’s somebody who is trying to reveal everything.
EVANS: Do you think that idea comes with an encouragement factor? As if you’re asking the listener to search as well?
WONG: I think it’s kind of, “This is who I am, this is where I come from.” When I was going to college and starting bands, whenever I’d tell people I’m from Japan or I grew up here, I would always get a sense of envy from the other person, or the conversation would just end there, even though somebody might be like, “Oh well, I grew up in so-and-so, Pennsylvania.” But that’s a completely unique experience that I never experienced. Pennsylvania is an amazing state where many amazing people are from, like Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons, Keith Haring. It’s like, to encourage the feeling of realizing that unique experience, I guess. Exploring that. Everybody has that unique upbringing.
EVANS: Do you think you’ll be doing more fiction writing on tour?
WONG: Yeah, that’d be great. I’ve always had this idea for a science-fiction story where a group of people can create with their minds. It’d be about a band that just jams telepathically. It’s all their minds, Professor X-style.
DUSTIN WONG’S MEDIATION OF ECSTATIC ENERGY IS OUT SEPTEMBER 17. FOR MORE ON WONG, INCLUDING HIS EXTENSIVE LIST OF FALL TOUR DATES, VISIT HIS WEBPAGE.