Dustin Wong's Restless Life

The musician takes a free approach to playing the guitar

It's a noisy world, particularly on this Saturday night at the sold-out 285 Kent, where Dustin Wong is opening for Akron/Family. Most of the crowd can't see Wong—sitting alone on the stage with a guitar and a half-dozen pedals—at all. He leans over as he plays, layering single-note guitar lines into sparkling arcs, Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd mirrored to infinity and beyond. People dance and occasionally clap along. There are no words and, until the end, no singing. Even with the crowd and the din, though, the music is unmistakably intimate, a language of changing cloud patterns and strange, though hardly displeasing, rhythms. Every now and then, Wong stomps on a pedal, seemingly impulsively. The music vanishes, and, without pause, he starts again.

"The writing itself is very improvised," observes Wong over tea in his Bushwick apartment a few days later. He is slight, extremely soft-spoken, and layers a cardigan over another cardigan over a T-shirt. "I don't really think about it; it has to be intuitive," he says of his writing. Wong can't read music, and he doesn't use tablature. (He looks mildly mortified at the suggestion that he might.) Instead, he records, plays the results back, and reconstructs his playing. "Sometimes you need a photograph to remember a family trip," he says of his setup at home, where his guitar is wired into his laptop and ready to go.

The results are songs—16 of them on Dreams Say, View, Create, Shadow Leads (Thrill Jockey)—with titles such as "Feet Prints on Flower Dreads" that build and spiral according to plan, until a considered jump-cut pedal-stomp. "When the arts were developing in Russia the '20s, the cut was really important when two images were juxtaposed," Wong says. "I've always loved that shock. You can have two images and just convey this idea. It's born in the viewer's mind or the listener's mind."

Wong is a recent New York resident, though he might not be for long. Last year, he'd started coming up from Baltimore a few times a week to play various DIY bills around Williamsburg; he started dating a local and eventually moved. "That didn't really last," says Wong, who will turn 30 this year. "I'm that kind of person. I just roll with things."

One can sense his restlessness easily. Ponytail, his art-school quartet from Baltimore, announced its last show in the summer of 2010, then put out an album in April of last year and officially issued a breakup notice in September. Ecstatic Sunshine, a brilliant guitar duo with Matt Papich, put out two albums of tightly wound, telepathic free flight before evolving into a looser outfit, and Wong exited.

Wong was born in Hawaii, but he grew up in Japan. The discovery of punk as a gaijin teen attending an international Christian school was a revelation. "But I thought every song was written through improvisation, on the spot, at the moment, and that's why it's so incredible, that's what they're geniuses," Wong says. "When I was practicing with my punk band in high school, it wasn't 'practice.' We were trying to write songs in the moment every time. But we didn't have any background. Extremely naïve."

While attending art school—first in California and then Baltimore—Wong returned to music over and over again. "It just got too heady and critical," he said of the workshop discussions. "When you think about it, art should be the place where you can make mistakes."

Wong has remained as naïve as practically possible. "I remember Dan Deacon coming up to [Ecstatic Sunshine] and being like, 'The tempo changes and the key changes you do!' and that kind of stuff, and we were like, 'What are you talking about?' With the solo stuff, I really started to understand the geography of the guitar. . . . There are a lot of things I'm doing that I still don't exactly understand: time signatures or what chord names are."

"It's definitely visual," Wong says about his method for accumulating fret-board knowledge. "I'll think about geometry. I'll start with shapes within the fret board—this little square goes into a little rectangle, and I'll play it with a triangle. The melodies are shapes. There's a triangle that's breaking up the square, and within that, there's an oval."

Wong's bedroom has a small L-shaped workstation in the corner, and a 12-string Yuri Landman Home Swinger table guitar leans against one wall. He can't find the metal rod needed to play it, but it would surely sound rather cosmic through his pedals—perhaps even reminiscent of the celestial monochord that the alchemist, filmmaker, and Anthology of American Folk Music creator Harry Smith believed to be the guiding force of the universe.

Wong is not unfamiliar with such ideas. One wall of his bedroom has a bookshelf filled with titles about spirituality and the occult. "I was bombarded with Christian morality," he says of his decade at the international school in Japan. "There was a point where I was, maybe, an atheist for a year or two afterward. Then, during college, I decided I should start studying other religions and spiritual beliefs." Wong's metaphysical travels seem of a piece with his music's intimacy, an audible expression of the connection between the conscious, the unconscious, and the universe beyond. The guitarist happily talks of his experiences with psychedelics; Dreams Say was partially conceived during a period of salvia use. In the tradition of Delia Derbyshire and the Olivia Tremor Control, he is at work setting music to people's recordings of their dream descriptions. In one, the dreamer describes falling into the water, Wong's guitar rippling sympathetically.

There are some tours coming up. Not long ones. "I'm thinking of moving back to Japan," Wong says, and in the moment, he sounds less restless than simply committed to going where he wants to go. "I've been away for around 11 years now, and since the earthquake and tsunami, I really miss it." One imagines that, wherever he goes, the rectangles, ovals, and flower dreads will follow.

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