Dustin Wong's Recurring Loop Dreams

January 10, 2014
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Live-looping pedals are all the rage, with some of the fancier models functioning as automated multi-track recorders capable of rendering complex musical arrangements via vast programming capabilities coupled with plentiful footswitches. So, it is refreshing to find a live-looping artist that evokes maximum magic from minimal technology simply by virtue of craftiness and innate musical creativity. Equipped with only an entry level Boss RC-2 Loop Station, a handful of other relatively modest pedals, and occasionally an old Kawai drum machine, guitarist Dustin Wong emits colorful, intricately layered, continually evolving waves of sound that coalesce into aesthetically satisfying compositions.

Wong draws inspiration from sources ranging from German experimental musicians such as guitarists Manuel Göttsching and Michael Rother to innovative English loopers Robert Fripp and Brian Eno to American minimalist classical composers Philip Glass and Steve Reich. “I remember listening to Steve Reich for the first time,” says the decidedly cosmic Wong. “His music had this speed, like I was zipping through fields, or astral projecting across the planet.”

That’s not a bad description of Wong’s own music, especially the compositions comprising his latest album, Mediation of Ecstatic Energy [Thrill Jockey], during the making of which he made considerably more use of studio wizardry than on his previous releases.

You’ve been in a few bands in addition to playing solo. Did you begin as a regular guitar enthusiast, playing other people’s music?

I played in some bands, but not doing covers. To me, the guitar has always been very mystical and part black magic. I remember opening up my first guitar and putting little chips of metal inside thinking that it would help energy-wise.

So sort of like an internal tin foil hat?

Yes, exactly [laughs].

How did that work out?

It became a shaker. That’s pretty much it.

Were you attracted to looping early on?

I was recording my own songs before I actually began looping, and they were all repetition based, where I would repeat a melody and just add things on, building up layers until I had something that was completely different than what I started with. And then, when I did begin experimenting with looping pedals, it was on a recording basis more than performance based.

So, live looping was a way to adapt that compositional style to live performance?

Yes.

What looping pedal are you using?

I use the Boss RC-2 Loop Station, which is a small pedal with only one loop. I layer all of the parts onto that single loop.

Have you experimented with old school, Fripper-tronics- style looping, where new parts are layered on as old ones fade out?

Yes, and that’s a very different approach. It’s kind of a wave of ideas that accumulate and decay at the same time, whereas with a loop the first idea is always still there underneath everything else. I feel like Robert Fripp and Brian Eno’s music is more about entropy, or the beauty of something ending. Pieces like “Evensong” and “Wind on Water” are beautiful, but there’s a tinge of sadness.

Describe the signal chain for your live-looping rig.

The first pedal in the chain is a Boss TU-2 tuner, followed by a Foxrox Octron, which is an analog pedal with three knobs that blend the direct sound, an octave up, and an octave down. Next comes a Boss DS-1 Distortion that has been modified by Analog Man to have a wider frequency range. When I combine it with the low octave on the Octron, it produces a really creamy and synth-like sound, and combined with the octave up I get a Les Paul-like sped-up tape guitar sound. I use the Octron alone, too, but combining it with the DS-1 and changing the blend of the dry and octave levels is how I get most of my synth-like and other weird sounds. After that comes the ISP Decimator noise gate.

You use that to reduce the noise from the distortion so that it doesn’t build up in the loop?

Yes, because the background noise when I’m not playing is quite prominent.

What comes next?

Next is a Boss DD-3 Digital Delay, followed by the RC-2, then a Digitech Synth Wah, and then another DD-3.

So, you use the second DD-3 and the Synth Wah to process the loop once it’s recorded?

Exactly.

And you manipulate the controls on the pedals as you are performing?

Yes. For example, I frequently change the settings on the two delay pedals, and usually I adjust them in equal amounts, because the delays that come after the loop have to correspond to those that come before. One thing I’ll do is to sync them so they produce a sound that repeats four times, with no regeneration, to get a sort of double slap-back rhythm effect.

Are your moves always planned out, or do you sometimes improvise on the fly?

The songs are all composed, and the timing throughout every song is choreographed. Once one part is recorded to the looper, I have to change settings very quickly so the next part will be on cue. If a loop goes on too long before you add new ideas it will test the patience of the listener.

Other than the risks of repetitiveness, what is an example of another limitation of the looping medium?

Another limitation with my setup is that I can only play in one key at a time because I have only one loop. I can blend different timbres and textures, and even layer different time signatures, but I’m basically stuck in one mode.

Have you considered getting a looping pedal with more than one track?

Yes, I feel like I have gotten everything out of my current setup that is possible. I like that it is really simple, and that it is just a single straight line from the guitar to the output of the final pedal, but I’m ready to branch out.

The music on Mediation of Ecstatic Energy wasn’t done simply by recording your basic rig was it?

My second album [Dreams Say, View, Create, Shadow Leads] was recorded straight through live from beginning to end as a single performance with only a few minimal overdubs, but for this record I dissected the parts into different tracks, and there were lots of overdubs. In most cases, I would use the RC-2 to create a master loop track, and then build the piece up from there. For example, I might create a phrase that repeats three times per loop, and then play another melody over it that is slightly longer or shorter, so that the interlocking lines produce entirely new melodies. That is very difficult to do manually, so I’d use the looper to do it, and then that would become the master track. From there, I would layer additional parts by playing all the way through the piece on separate tracks, and then blend them together while mixing.

Did you add any additional processing or effects while mixing?

I added compression and reverb and things like that to give the sounds more space—but the thing that really created space was that I played the basic mix over a P.A. in a large room in Tokyo, recorded it, and then blended that ambient sound in with the studio sound, like a giant acoustic echo chamber.

What are those drum sounds on the album, and how did you sync them with the loop?

Originally I just used the drum machine built into the RC-2, but then I began using a 1980s-era Kawai R-50e drum machine that I got from my dad, which has a great vintage sound. I just run it into the looping pedal and record it like I do my guitar.

Speaking of which, describe your guitar.

It’s a Japanese-made Fender Telecaster from the ’80s that my dad bought me about 15 years ago. The only modification I made was to switch the plate around so that the volume knob is closer and the pickup selector is farther away, which makes it easier to do volume swells.

Do you use the pickup selector a lot, too?

Yes, I switch pickup settings constantly when I’m looping because by using different tones you can layer a lot more phrases than you could with just a single tone from a single pickup.

Do you play through an amplifier?

I was a real amp guy at one time, but now I just go through a DI directly into the P.A. or recorder. Since I play solo, I think of the P.A. as my one big amp.

Are you getting those great percussive sounds on the album using palm mutes?

Yes, that’s a combination of palm muting and fingerpicking using my thumb, forefinger, and middle finger. I love John Fahey’s style of fingerpicking, but I can’t do it gracefully, so it winds up sounding more like hand drums than guitar. It’s like my fingertips are the drum-heads and the guitar strings are the sticks.

You also use a pick in addition to your fingers, right?

Yes.

What’s the significance of the album title?

That phrase “Mediation of Ecstatic Energy” comes from a book on magic called The Magus that I found in a bookstore in Providence, Road Island. I opened up the book and that phrase just popped out and really stuck with me. I think it has to do with magical herbal remedies and healing and invisible forces. It ties in with my short story in the CD booklet, and the photo of my aura that’s on the CD cover. It’s sort of about things that you can’t see, including the book, actually, which went missing. I’m still searching for it.

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