Dustin Wong is a horticulturist of experimental minimalist sounds. With his guitar strings, pedals, and loops, he navigates an undergrowth of dreamy auditory development that is ethereal, yet lives, breathes, and sprawls in various directions, opening the listener up to new ways of experiencing sound.
Wong’s new record, Dreams Say, View, Create, Shadow Leads, out February 21 on Thrill Jockey Records, is an extension of his acclaimed solo debut, Infinite Love (or maybe fungi growing out of it, or a part of a growth-death-growth cycle—think the time-lapse transformations of Planet Earth). I spoke with Wong via email about his work and what influences it—including Sneetches, jump-cuts, and girl groups from the early ’60s.
Lori DeGolyer I read about your process on Thrill Jockey’s website, but I found myself especially confused when you started to talk about envelope filters and dye, as poetic as it is. Can you express your process in layperson’s terms without losing the poetry?
Dustin Wong The envelope filter is definitely a hard one to explain, but it has this ability to change the color of the sound that is going into it. It mutates the sound, in a way. It’s kind of like the ooze in Ninja Turtles. Do you remember that Dr. Seuss story about the Sneetches? There is a machine that the Sneetches go into and gives them a star on their belly. Also like the computer app that allows you to mess with a photo of your face by twisting or bulging it, the envelope filter can do that. It synthesizes the sound like a chemical reaction, like when lemon makes baking soda bubble up and your volcano science project is ready to go!
I don’t use this pedal too much when I perform. It gets used once in a while during a set, and sometimes it doesn’t get used during a set, but it’s a very important pedal to me. He (I guess he’s male) is like a pinch hitter in baseball. He doesn’t play all the games, but he shows up when he’s really needed. There is this Japanese pinch hitter for the Japanese baseball team, Hanshin Tigers, Hiroshi Yagi. He was called the god of pinch hitting. He was amazing. I’m not really a baseball fan, but whenever I saw him play on television, I was very impressed. My envelope filter is my Hiroshi Yagi.
Each pedal has its own specialty, and they are all in need of each other to make the music work. They all have interesting characters. The two stoic pedals, the tuner and the noise gate pedals, are all about efficiency. The tuner makes sure the source (the sound) is consistent, like a fact-checker in journalism. The noise gate is the proud janitor; he makes sure there is no build up of dust (noise) on the floor and the corners of the room. The octave pedal and the distortion pedals are the poetic ones; they add texture and choose the right type of words to fit in a sentence or the type of paint to apply on a canvas. The two delay pedals are the thinkers and analysts; they take the source, put them on a wall, and move things around in a different order … put elements on top of each other. They might be like Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. The loop pedal is the busy mother, or the printing press; she consistently has to keep giving birth to the alchemy between these different people lined up before her. Then the envelope filter sits on the side waiting for his time to give his two cents, giving the situation a twist and a new perspective.
LD I YouTubed the Sneetches. It all makes sense now.
DW Oh good, I’m glad it makes sense now!
LD How do you feel your new album, Dreams Say, View, Create, Shadow Leadscompares to Infinite Love, your first solo album?
DW I actually haven’t listened to Infinite Love in a while. The process in itself was very different, as you may have read. To me it’s a refinement, and the interactions between me and the pedals are a lot more involved. I’ve explored more what these pedals could do and have really tried to get more honed in with their potential.
The album is recorded completely differently than the last one so it’s going to have a different feeling in that way. With Infinite Love I was just discovering this type of working and performing live, so there is this naivety in Infinite Love, which I like. Dreams Say is a development from Infinite Love.
LD It’s interesting that Infinite Love, which was divided into two parts, “Brother” and “Sister,” was recorded as many separate pieces … yet Dreams Say, which is divided into 16 different tracks, was recorded altogether. Did I get that right? I’m trying to wrap my head around it.
DW Yes that is pretty much it. With Infinite Love a song would be recorded layer by layer, melody by melody, one by one. But with Dreams Say the whole thing was recorded live for the most part, except for when I would make a mistake, then I would start from there. A few elements were recorded on top too. But for the main part, the whole process was flipped upside down.
With Infinite Love the whole album is presented as a whole. Like Brother and Sister are 15 songs each, but they are presented as one. Dreams Say flows the same way, but it’s presented in 16 sections or songs. There is a distinction of that. It might sound strange to be talking about formats, and people might wonder why we are talking about something like this, but I think it’s a really important aspect to making a collection of work. The artist should curate his own work, no?
LD Of course. I think it’s totally relevant to your work. You’ve worked with bands in the past, including Ponytail. How do you find working solo?
DW It’s really relaxing. Working by myself is very therapeutic. It feels like a craft that I’m just working on, that I’m refining. Just like any craft, like ceramics or painting.
With collaborations things work on a different axis. There is a line that shoots horizontally. Working alone, it’s internal and vertical. It shoots up from within. But maybe it isn’t working alone; my pedals might be my band members.
LD Maybe your pedals are a whole baseball team. Hiroshi Yagi has some company. And you’re the coach?
DW That’s really nice! I really like that. Or maybe we are billiard balls on a pool table and I’m the cue ball? Life is the cue?
LD I really like how you compare your work to a textile factory and cake building. A lot of your process descriptors seem to exist in tangible forms as matter. Do you feel connected physically to the sound you produce?
DW What you mentioned are physical manifestations, but the textile factory and cake making are all in my head. So it’s not really physical I guess. I guess what I’m saying is that it’s not literal. You know what I really like to imagine is when Edison thought about the light bulb. His thought bubble actually had a light bulb in it and he went out and made it! With me the things that I make create images in my head and it just stays there. So I make this thing, then an image comes to mind, like the textile factory. With music I don’t begin with an image, but I want to challenge myself now with the Say Your Dreams, Create a Sound project.
LD What is this project exactly?
DW I’m getting submissions from people to send in their accounts of dreams. I’m going to then record some music on top to try to match the mood and illustrate some of the things happening in the dream. Ideally I want them to narrate their own dreams, but if not I’ll have to record it with my voice. I’ll probably pitch it down or up to mask my own voice. It’s going to be a fun challenge, since I normally don’t write music to narratives.
LD How does one go about submitting their dreams?
DW People can go on my SoundCloud page, and by going to the dropbox, you can either upload a recording of your dream or record it in real time on the site. The page is here. I’ve gotten a lot more text than audio. Have about two audio recordings at this point, and I’m hoping to get more recordings from people!
LD Readers, take note! As trite as it sounds, listening to your work really is like going on a journey, where many paths lap, converge, and find new routes. When you begin creating sound, do you hear it first or is it more an exploration that gets organized later?
DW I never know what it’s going to sound like at the end. I might have an idea for the very beginning, the seed for the idea, but I have no idea what that seed is going to grow into.
LD It also reminds me of meditation, as different trains of thought meet into consciousness, and new trains of thought emerge. Does it feel meditative for you?
DW Yes, for sure! Especially when I’m beginning a new idea or building a new song. That is the most meditative. I think playing with Legos is extremely meditative too.
LD Do you still play with Legos?
DW I wish! Don’t have it at home right now.
LD The track “Feet Prints on Flower Dreads” on your new album ends rather abruptly. It has a startling effect since the rest of the song layers so fluidly. Any words on that decision? How do you formulate your timing?
DW I like cuts because I used to study film and video. The little shocks of cuts that the old filmmakers used allowed a new meaning through montage. Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein was a huge influence when I was studying film and video.’60s Bay area filmmaker Bruce Conner was incredibly huge. His work Report, an abstract thesis on the JFK assassination, was incredibly influential.
There is also this funny video of Hitchcock explaining montage. He explains how if the camera cuts from his face to a lady with a child he’ll look like a nice man, but with a young lady in a bikini he’ll look like a pervert. But on both occasions he looks like a pervert!
LD The track “Tea Tree Leaves Retreat” feels very nostalgic to me, like it’s connecting to the past. When you begin developing a piece, do you contact specific memories, images, feelings?
DW When the piece does start to develop, it definitely does. It’s a feeling that’s hard to explain, like a time of childhood or the feeling of seeing the sun go down when you’re out playing outside. The music is also a way to tell myself that things are going to be okay.
LD “The feeling of seeing the sun go down when you’re playing outside.” That’s it. That’s the one.
Your track titles overall seem very inspired. At what point in the process do you name your tracks?
DW The songs don’t get named at birth actually. I guess Native Americans have naming ceremonies where they name the child 20 days after they are born. Some people name their babies before they are born or at the moment of birth. I guess I sit on the songs until I fully know what it is, for me anyways.
Titles are a bit strange to me for some reason. They can really guide the listener to another place but can also stifle the imagination of the experiencer. Like Jackson Pollock’s “Lavender Mist”. That title is a bit much for an abstract painting. It doesn’t allow the viewer to take it anywhere else. It’s a really good painting. Don’t get me wrong!
I wanted each title to go into each other, but still them being their own thing. For example, ??Ice Sheets on Feet Prints”” going to “”Feet Prints on Flower Dreads”” is a way of going from Winter to Spring. Alliterations started happening with the titles like “”Tea Tree Leaves Retreat”” and the next song after that “”Triangle Train Stop, Pink Diamond and Purple Slipped Right”“. I don’t want to go through all the songs, but thematically the structure of the words themselves are kinda attempting to work together with each phrase or title. To put it simply, I just wanted all the titles as a whole to work as a poem since I don’t have lyrics.
LD I read some of your blog, Influenced by Something, and it seems you’re influenced by many things, including UFOs and tarot cards. Who and what are your biggest influences when it comes to making music?
DW One out of many artists I’m really influenced by is Hans-Joachim Roedelius. His solo work and work he did with Cluster are really fantastic. His ideas about music are something that I really relate to too.
I really love surf bands like The Ventures, girl groups from the early ’60s like the Paris Sisters and Leslie Gore. The list can go on. There are so many people I’m influenced by musically.
The hugest influences are the people I worked with in bands. I learned so much from the other band members. Ecstatic Sunshine member Matt Papich, who does Co La now, still influences me to this day. We talk a lot about art and music and share ideas all the time.
LD Leslie Gore would be so proud. Do you see yourself collaborating again in the future, or staying solo?
DW I really do love jamming with people in a very casual way. I am up for that. The only thing is that I don’t want to do anything that’ll get too serious or long term. For my main project right now, I really want to focus on what I can do alone.
This playlist really took a turn, and I got a bit carried away while I was looking through my favorite videos on my YouTube account.