Guitarist Dustin Wong is still getting a handle on how Japan is affecting his music. Born in Hawaii, he grew up in Tokyo and moved back a little more than two years ago after a decade in Baltimore, where he started his fertile, exploratory music career. He’s a guitarist who takes blues finger-picking’s painterly control and surf rock’s shimmer and pushes them into melodic clouds. It’s a sound he forged among the communities of young DIY artists in postindustrial Baltimore’s warehouses. Now he’s living in a tomorrow-land megacity whose metropolitan population tops 13 million.
He’s even speaking from the future; an 8 p.m. E.S.T. Skype video-call interview means it’s morning in Tokyo. “Japan, even to the Japanese, is a strange place,” Wong says. “It’s an island and people do things their own way here and there’s a mutation that happens with culture and personalities. I can feel my creativity mutating in ways that I’m not really self-conscious of . . .”
He may not be able to articulate how his music has mutated but it’s immediately apparent that it has on the retro-futuristic “Savage Imagination” (Thrill Jockey), Wong’s recently released second collaboration with Japanese composer/singer Takako Minekawa.
Minekawa sits next to Wong onscreen, the morning sun visible in the window behind them. They’re both wearing headphones and occasionally speak to each other in Japanese before Wong answers in English.
Now in his early 30s, Wong is one of the young veterans of Baltimore’s fecund first decade of the 21st century. He moved to Baltimore to attend MICA, where he shared classes with Jeremy Hyman, Willy Seigel, Ken Seeno, Michael Petruzzo, and Matthew Papich. In 2005 he teamed up with the first four to form Ponytail, which smeared rock into pop through agitated excitement. With Papich, he formed Ecstatic Sunshine, the twin-guitar duo that layered complex Hella-ish crotch-rock into brain-massaging psych. Both outfits chased endorphin release through spinning-class tempos.
Both also totally obliterated the heterosexual macho energy that typically accompanies guitars being played fast to unleash loud energy. They gelled with that tide of mid-2000s Baltimore DIYers that gave few fucks about conventional divides, be they music genre or gender identities. You could like punk and R&B, atonal modern composers and dance-floor techno, Crispin Glover’s “What Is It?” and Arnold Schwarzenegger movies. Just because something was arty, experimental, and avant-garde didn’t mean it couldn’t also be dance-friendly, poppy, and reach for unabashed glee.
Minekawa is a veteran of the intoxicating wave of Japanese artists that were dubbed Shibuya-kei, named after a district in Tokyo, who seduced American indie pop fans in the mid-1990s. These artists—Minekawa, the Fantastic Plastic Machine, Cibo Matto, Flipper’s Guitar, Pizzicato Five, the great Buffalo Daughter, and more—combined the lilting, groovy melodies of Brazilian and French 1960s pop with the rhythms and textures of electronic music and hip-hop, yielding a pop Rauschenberg combine.
“Savage” blends Wong’s babbling-brook rhythms and Minekawa’s impeccable touch for collage pop. A commotion of hand claps and finger snaps flowers into a rhythm for ‘Dancing Venus of Aurora Clay,’ on which Wong sketches melodies from swirling strings of guitar notes. Minekawa peppers this smiling groove with singsong vocal chants, creating a never-ending ice-cream party mood.
The entire album hovers in such a space, like you went walking around Willy Wonka’s factory and fell through a trap door into the really weird place. ‘Dimension Drive part 1: Aether Curtain’ begins like a lullaby cloud of voice and percolating synth notes before you realize that maybe somebody wants to anesthetize you for more nefarious reasons. ‘Ancient Aluminum Forest’ clicks along a splintering series of percussive noises that grow more and more squishy, like Mouse on Mars on a glue bender. And ‘Dioramasaurus’ feels like a six-hour mescaline grin condensed into a little over four minutes, escalators of snyth and guitar notes rising and falling into an increasing dense and woozy mix. Elation mounts and mounts as the song unfolds until the panic sets in that you’re going to spend the rest of your days with your face chiseled into a permanent drug smile.
Wong and Minekawa’s collaboration here is an impressive leap from the prettiness of their previous “Toropical Circle.” There’s more rhythmic variation, the songs are looser and more confident, and the elements that felt gentle and inviting are being sharpened into disarming moments.
The album aims for total bliss, gets there, and keeps going, suggesting that just beyond the cute-overload horizon is something that just might be unsettling.
Dustin Wong and Takako Minekawa play Floristree Nov. 17 with Co La.