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