Guitarist Dustin Wong brings singer Takako Minekawa out on a ‘Toropical’ journey

by Patrick ST. Michel

Special To The Japan Times

Guitarist Dustin Wong hesitates for a split second. It’s a pause that would go unnoticed during most other sets, but Wong has spent the last 40 minutes seemingly in a trance while playing guitar and looping the notes via an array of pedals in front of him. The flurry of interlocking sounds he’s produced at Tokyo venue Eat And Meets Cay in early February came out rapidly, as if Wong plotted them out on graph paper beforehand.

But then, Wong wakes from the trance, turns his head and picks up a drum machine.

“It’s the first time I’ve ever used a drum machine live before,” he admits after the show. “I just started practicing with it this week.”

Wong, 30, is accustomed to new challenges. He spent the 2000s mostly in Baltimore, playing guitar in the bands Ecstatic Sunshine and Ponytail. The latter, a quartet that played noisy but upbeat rock, achieved critical acclaim behind three frenetic albums. After Ponytail disbanded in 2011, Wong focused on his solo work, which is built around guitars and pedals. It’s a more mellow sound than Ponytail, but he has still managed to impress critics.

In fall of 2012, Wong moved to Tokyo. He’s kept busy since, playing a lot of shows and trying to find his niche in the city’s labyrinthlike music scene. He’s working on a new solo collection and says it should be out in August. Recently, though, he teamed up with Shibuya-kei mainstay Takako Minekawa for the album “Toropical Circle,” which was released last week.

It’s not Wong’s first time living in Japan, though. He was born in Hawaii, is of Chinese-American descent, and moved here at age 2.

“I remember our first apartment we lived in was in Nishiochiai (in Shinjuku Ward), and it was right next to a factory with all these steel drums filled with toxic waste,” he says.

The challenges went beyond location — Wong says he had trouble, especially in kindergarten, because of his younger age and nationality. “I got bullied a lot.”

After a classmate rubbed ground-up chili pepper in Wong’s eyes (“it was excruciating”), his mother moved him to an international school. He ended up at Christian Academy in Japan. “They had Fox News, they didn’t teach evolution … just creationism.” Wong rebelled through music. He started playing bass and guitar in middle school, forming bands with like-minded classmates to play in talent shows. “The other students thought it was weird.” During his teenage years he saw shows by Rancid and Keiji Haino … and Japanese rock titans Mr. Children.

“I was 13. I didn’t know what to do,” he says. “I remember recognizing the hit songs, ‘I know this song … great!’ But I wasn’t moved. It was like, ‘I’m here, I’m observing this … I’m kind of bored.’ ”

More appealing was his father’s record collection — “Frank Zappa was a huge go-to guy for me” — and American surf-rock band The Ventures.

“They had this universal language. Maybe it’s the scales they were using, or the rhythms, but there is an interconnectedness to their music. I love that.”

Wong’s solo performances aren’t aggressive affairs. He sits on a chair, perched over his pedals. His music comes together delicately — during one show held at live house Soup, cameras were set up to capture the intricacies of his live performance.

This is unlike his days in Ponytail. After high school, Wong moved to Oakland for college, but transferred to a school in Baltimore. Ponytail formed as an assignment from a professor, but became bigger than a classroom project. Channeling sonic whirlwinds similar to those of Deerhoof and Boredoms, Ponytail played energized rock loaded with unintelligible yelping. Whether headlining Brooklyn DIY spaces or playing the Pitchfork Music Festival, the band was like a cartoon tornado come to life, and Wong was always on his feet and hollering.

His solo material initially appears totally different. The two albums he has released on American label Thrill Jockey — “Infinite Love” (2010) and “Dreams Say, View, Create, Shadow Leads,” (2012) — are meticulous constructions. But that’s how he played in Ponytail, too. Now, however, he’s isolated and easier to put under a microscope. Wong has always been a very precise guitarist, and playing solo has given him room to show that off and multiply his sounds as much as he wants.

Wong’s skill is on full display at Aoyama’s cozy Moon Romantic venue in early April. He might surround himself with pedals, but he’s still just a man playing a guitar. Yet he creates a buzzing rainbow out of his limited means, guitar lines zigzag over one another. It’s hard picturing the entire Walt Disney animation department creating something so colorful. The drum machine comes out again … this time for a longer stay … and Wong seems more accustomed to it. He plays new songs, one sounding like a stab at heavy metal. It’s all generated from a single pair of hands and feet. His set ends the way all his solo shows do — with a final note that serves as a musical bow. The crowd, silent through most of the set, applauds.

Takako Minekawa says she first encountered Wong’s music on YouTube: “I then saw him at a show in Tokyo and met him. A few days later I went to see him again. His effects pedals were on the ground in the shape of a bow, and I thought the way he used them was wonderful. His energy and sounds rained on me.”

Minekawa spent the ’90s as a prominent figure in the Shibuya-kei scene, releasing a handful of albums and working with artists such as Kahimi Karie and Cornelius (who she later married and just recently divorced). Yet, save for the occasional compilation contribution or cover, she remained quiet during the 2000s (“I spent a lot of time at home. I did make some time for music but it was a pretty short amount of time”).

Wong has pulled her back in, though. The two kept in touch over e-mail, and Minekawa recalls a show they played together in August, her first in quite some time. They wrote four songs for that performance.

“The songs began to grow, and around November we had about a whole album’s worth. We recorded them, and now we have ‘Toropical Circle,’ ” she says.

Wong is still looping his guitar on “Toropical Circle,” but he has had to make room for Minekawa’s whispery vocals. Lead single “Party on a Floating Cake” highlights the change clearly — the song starts with Wong’s familiar plucking, but then Minekawa’s voice comes in and the two elements dance around one another. Soon enough, though, they merge into one loop … for the duo to build on further. More drum machine and keyboards appear on the album, and the whole project has a youthful vibe (the melody to “Mary Had a Little Lamb” pops up several times). It’s a playful outing, but one that’s still focused on enveloping the listener as Wong’s solo material does.

“It came out really easily, there was no suffering involved in the songwriting process,” Wong says. “I laid out my pedals in a way completely different from my solo recordings. We use a loop pedal where her vocals go into it, too. It was tough getting into the groove at first, it was like new homework.”

The result sounds like anything but a school assignment. At times the album veers closely to Wong’s solo sound, as on the quiet-start-to-pulsing-climax, “Mirror Underwater in a Magic Lantern.” But “Toropical Circle” also sounds unlike anything he or Minekawa has done before evident in the thumping “Enneagram Journey,” which proves Wong has been studying his drum machines, and the gossamer, multipart “Windy Prism Room.”

“For the album, we wrote on the spot,” Minekawa says. “I wrote the songs organically with Dustin.”

Wong says he had several reasons for moving back to Tokyo, including being with his partner after years of being in a long-distance relationship. He says the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11, 2011, was also a factor.

“My brother called me, and told me there was an earthquake,” he recalls of the day. “I was in Baltimore at the time. I had an NHK Ustream on and all I could do was watch. This is a home, where I grew up, and I felt guilty for being away. It was heartbreaking. Then the whole Fukushima (nuclear catastrophe) happened, and that was even worse. It still is.”

For Wong, coming back to the place he grew up presents some challenges that haven’t changed since childhood.

“My foreign name puts me outside of things,” he says. Friends call me a gaijin (foreigner), and that can hurt sometimes. I just started not caring.”

He’s also trying to discover where he belongs in the Tokyo music scene. Wong opened for Baltimore band (and friends) Beach House at the venue Liquidroom in January, and he’s also played between singer-songwriter types at restaurants.

“I constantly feel like I have to win people over,” he says. “There are people who know me from Ponytail, but that’s a fairly small group, so I’m playing to a pretty new crowd.”

Wong and Minekawa play their fifth gig together on a Tuesday night in April, at Kichimu in Tokyo’s Kichijoji neighborhood. “Toropical Circle” is set to come out a week later, so it is a chance for fans to hear songs on that album for the first time. Unlike a typical Wong solo gig, though, there are kinks. Both artists slip up a few times, and the microphone seems to give Minekawa the odd electric shock.

The crowd is silent throughout, but they’re listening for the details. Wong and Minekawa have an interesting chemistry on stage and the applause at the end means they’ve made a connection. Wong may still be looking for his niche — and prepping to go on tour in Europe this summer might delay him finding it — but he’s definitely moving in the right direction. Plus, he can now wield a drum machine like a pro.

Takako Minekawa and Dustin Wong’s “Toropical Circle” is on sale now. The album’s release party will be held at O-nest in Shibuya-ku, Tokyo, on May 26 (7 p.m. start; ¥3,000 in advance; 03-3462-4420. Wong will perform a solo set and a set with Minekawa. Nisennenmondai are also set to perform. For more information, visit http://www.artuniongroup.co.jp/plancha/top/dustin-wong/toropical-circle-release-party/.