Dustin Wong, post-Ponytail and in L.A.

Dustin Wong, post-Ponytail and in L.A.

I first met Dustin Wong when I interviewed his old band, Ponytail, for Giant Robot 57. It was in a parking lot as they waited to enter The Smell. The article came and went, but we've kept in touch and I've been waiting for an excuse to get him back into the pages of the magazine ever since. He was going to write My Perfect Day in Baltimore, but lost his camera when his apartment got robbed. A few times, he almost interviewed his mom, who is behind the Blythe doll revival. In the end, it took Infinite Love, a double CD of dreamy ad experimental guitar loops with an accompanying stoneriffic DVD (images below), to bring him back. This is an abbreviated online preview, released just before he hits L.A. on his solo tour.

GR: You just played Shea Stadium. What!?
DW: Oh! Well, the Shea Stadium I played isn’t actually the Shea Stadium. It’s a DIY space in Bushwick. The crazy thing is that when my partner and I drove up, a tornado hit the city! We had to pull over, and there was even a flipped-over truck on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge! The clouds looked really intense.

GR: Tell me about playing solo. Do you feel vulnerable or lonely? Or maybe it’s really empowering and energizing!
DW: It is a little bit vulnerable, but I think that’s a good thing, too. It keeps me on my toes, for sure. It’s definitely a lot more relaxed than Ponytail. I can sit down and take a deep breath, you know? Whenever I feel like I’m immersed in the music I’m playing, it feels very energizing, very blissful. If I make a mistake, it’s all my fault, too–which is really refreshing to me, because I’m completely responsible.

GR: Your solo material seems way different from what you were doing with Ponytail, but can you tell me some ways that the two are connected?
DW: My solo work is more loop based and layer based, so the movements of the sounds are vertical melodies with rhythms building on top. A Ponytail song would be more linear, with melodic parts moving onto other melodic motifs–although there are a couple of Ponytail songs where I incorporated my looping and layering. “Beg Waves” starts with my looping and layering. There is another song called “Away Way,” which will be part of Ponytail’s next record. It has those elements, too. I felt uncomfortable bringing those elements to Ponytail because I always thought our drummer Jeremy was being compromised because of the restricting absolute tempo.

GR: Is Ponytail the type of group where you talk about that sort of thing? Were there Some Kind of Monster moments?
DW: I’ve talked to Jeremy and the band about it a bunch. I’ve been self-conscious since the beginning of the band because, in my mind, I wanted it to be purely democratic in songwriting. I thought I was putting too much of myself in to the band, and felt uncomfortable about that. I would always try to refrain from bringing fully conceived ideas, because I don’t think that’s very exciting for anyone else in the band; it’s so much more fun when you get there together.

As for the Some Kind of Monster thing, we would actually have a weekly meeting during tours, and called it “Tea Time.” We normally had these at the end of the tour when everybody was grumpy and not talking to each other. So, to let the steam out in a more gradual way, we started doing it weekly. We would talk about fights that would happen in the car or things that somebody said that bothered someone else, and try to resolve the problems and laugh about them rather than get angry. It’s always so hard to balance that while traveling. We all cried a few times…

GR: Tell me a little about your guitar playing. When did you get into it and how did you learn? Did you ever want to be Eddie Van Halen?
DW: Ehhh, I never got into Eddie Van Halen, but I do like the story about Les Paul wanting to punch him in his face because he was chasing his daughter around. Yes, and Les Paul is the dude! He is the dude, for sure.

I started playing guitar in middle school–probably when I was 14. The Ventures were huge for me. They were gods in Japan so I was able to get a bunch of their records. When I was learning how to play, it was incredibly crude and chaotic, and I think one of the first things I did with my guitar was put chopsticks in (without any knowledge of John Cage). Then I started thinking of shapes, as if I were making dot-to-dot drawings from fret to fret. I’d be like, “All right, I’ll play the rectangle to the triangle to the bigger square.” I mean, I didn’t even know where F# was a few years ago! It’s been a slow but definitely significant learning experience.

GR: As a solo artist, did you ever consider coming up with a performing name like Final Fantasy or just use your first name like Prince?
DW: I never thought about having a different name, but I think I’m conscious about where my name comes from. I want people to know that I am an Asian American. Band names or project names can bring on a completely new persona or idea but also hide the person behind that name. That can be incredibly empowering, but I’m choosing not to do that. I want to present myself, as is–just like when I play live there are no secrets in the actual performance. My pedals are in front of me and I play my sounds through them.

GR: Tell me about growing up in Hawai’i and Japan. You seem totally at ease with being a guy with Chinese blood, and I wonder how those spots affected your identity not only as an Asian American but also as a musician who plays interesting stuff. You actually have to work pretty hard to find rad music in either location!
DW: I was born in Hawai’i. My parents met at grad school at the University of Hawai’i. I was there until I was 2, and we moved to Osaka where my grandmother lived. I think that really screwed up my talking and writing abilities. Apparently, I was starting to speak English, but when I got to Japan I had to learn how to speak Japanese.

When I was in kindergarten, my mom thought it was a good idea to send me to a private school but the kids there were pretty mean towards me. I was a year younger and I had a weird name, Dustin Wong. I was the only kid whose name had katakana when other kids had their names in kanji. The kids beat me up, so my mom sent me to a Catholic international school but I got bullied there, too.

In third grade, I started attending a school called Christian Academy in Japan. Most of the kids that went there were children of missionaries from America. It was a very interesting community–very conservative, mostly subscribing to Fox News, and the kids refused to learn how to speak Japanese because of their pride in America. At lunch, it would be pretty divided: one half ate at Yoshinoya and the other half would eat at McDonalds. The school itself was very Christian. We had Bible classes and chapel every Wednesday. It made me rebel in high school, and that’s how I got in to art and punk rock.

I grew up in a part of Tokyo known for obsessive otaku. There is a place called Nakano Broadway, where I used to buy erotic grotesque manga (Suehiro Maruo type) and read them while drinking coffee at Classic Caf