Wong plays both with a flatpick and fingerstyle. When plucking the strings with his fingers, he was intent on developing a unique approach. “It was more a way to get percussive—to make the guitar not sound like a guitar,” he explains. “I palm mute it and mainly use my fingertips rather than my nails. That gets more of a hand-drum sound.”
Photo by PSquared Photography

Guitarist/loop-master Dustin Wong likes to keep it simple, although that isn’t obvious at first glance. His music is an intricate fabric of complex interlocking rhythms, multiple looped layers, and subtle timbral contrasts. But simplicity is his music’s dominant feature, which explains its accessibility and tunefulness, as well as its swirling, repetitive, mantra-like feel.

Simplicity also explains Wong’s penchant for low-tech gear.

Wong relies on a handful of off-the-shelf pedals—mostly Boss, and with only one mod—and an inexpensive guitar to craft his futuristic, multilayered music. He takes his time learning each effect’s inner workings and limits his purchases to about two a year.

Wong first garnered attention as one of two guitarists in the Baltimore-based, experimental pop group, Ponytail. Ponytail was a band hell-bent on positivity and pushing the artistic envelope. It was also a band—like Talking Heads and A Place to Bury Strangers—that was formed in art school. “I went to the Maryland Institute College of Art,” Wong says. “I studied sculpture, performance, and stuff like that. Willy [Siegel]—she sang for the band—developed her own language. She would chant along with the music. But music was more of a hobby when I was in college.”

But that hobby took over and music became Wong’s primary focus. He left Ponytail in 2011 and released several critically acclaimed solo projects. Those albums chart his development as an original voice in contemporary guitar. They also demonstrate his unique spin on looping, tone generation, and delay manipulation.

In addition to his solo work, Wong began a collaboration with the Shibuya-kei artist Takako Minekawa, who sings and plays keyboard. Their third release, Are Euphoria, came out in June. It’s an obvious addition to his canon and weaves a complex fabric that—at least at first glance—seems simple. It’s like a kaleidoscope, but minus the psychedelics.

Premier Guitar reached Wong at his home in Japan via Skype. He spoke at length about his use and choice of effects, his composition and collaborative process, different ways to tease rhythmic figures from synced delay pedals, and why—after a string of not-so-happy accidents—he almost never uses an amp.

When did you start playing guitar?
I started playing guitar at a fairly normal age, like 14 or 15 years old. My dad was a real classic-rock fan—this was during the ’90s and he was rebuying his favorite records on CD—and his favorite artist was Frank Zappa. Zappa became huge for me. I would listen to a bunch of his albums in middle school—Hot Rats, The Grand Wazoo, Apostrophe ('). Of course, I started with The Best of Frank Zappa and then it unfolded. On that album, I think my favorite song was “Peaches en Regalia.” That’s how I got into Hot Rats. And then Beefheart.

Anyone cool has gone through a Beefheart phase.
[Laughs.] If you keep listening to music you run into him eventually.

“In the middle of the song, I can change the delay settings, turn the delay on after the loop, and it will change the rhythm of the music.”

How did you get into pedals and loopers?
When I began playing in a band. Before Ponytail, I was in a guitar duo [Ecstatic Sunshine] and back then we’d only use the footswitch to turn on the different channels of the amp. But then it started with one pedal, like, “We should get a delay pedal.” And then it was, “We don’t have enough low end, maybe I should get an octave pedal.” When forming Ponytail, towards the end I had five pedals—octave, distortion, envelope filter, two delay pedals—plus the looper. With the band, I would switch off different pedals sequentially, but with the looper, I would play by myself and think, “Oh, I can change settings on the pedals while I am looping. Or while the loop is going I can shift the octave pedal to a higher octave or a higher gain distortion. Or I can even change the delay settings.” It opened up a lot of options when I was working with the loops. That’s how I really started figuring out how to use pedals.

Looping artists are often loners, but you’ve done a lot of collaborations. How does looping work with a band? Do you drive your drummers crazy?
I think about that a lot. There is weird lingo with music equipment, like how when you’re syncing up MIDI, there is, “This is the master. This is the slave.” When I’m dealing with loops, I think, “I am enslaving the drummer.” That’s how I feel sometimes. When I play with a drummer I try not to do rhythmic loops. Instead, I try to do loops that are more flexible for the drummer so that it will be easier to collaborate.

Do you do more textual soundscapes and that type of thing?
Yes. It could be a drone. It could be percussive, but not rhythmic.

What are the advantages or disadvantages of working solo versus working with a band?
I love working in a band so much. It’s a lot more spontaneous. You can wait. You don’t have to play all the time. You can let the band unfold, as in, “I can come in now or I don’t have to play at all.” It gives you that breathing room in a band setting, especially if it’s improvised or it’s a jam.

In your current collaboration with Takako Minekawa, how much of that is composed and how much is improvised?
The songwriting is very improvised. When we’re making the songs, it’s all free flow. What we do is we record it, memorize everything, and then perform it—and at that point it’s completely composed. The way you hear the record—the songs—that’s the pace, how we perform it in a live setting. Once I place one melody, I’m getting ready for the next one. It’s very [snaps fingers], you have to be on it.

Of course, there are little subtle changes, “Maybe I’ll try this one part different.” There is a little bit of flexibility, but it’s mostly composed with the two of us.

But when you’re writing, anything goes?
Right. We start with a melody or a rhythm that we both think, “That’s interesting.” We keep that loop going and we jam on that for a while. Then, if we find something interesting that goes on top, we loop that and then jam more. We might jam for half an hour to figure out maybe half the song. Then we start over, go forward, refine.

Your composition process is more like editing.
Yeah. We’ll record it and there might be some unnecessary sounds that are butting heads. “That frequency is already taken. I don’t have to play that part on guitar.” So I won’t play it. I’ll cut the fat out.