Musician Dustin Wong returned to Japan five years ago and, despite having grown up here, he encountered a few cultural differences after coming back.
Sipping on a strawberry milkshake at a cafe near Shibuya Station, the composer and guitarist speaks carefully, but candidly, about those differences, one of which is a general lack of critical expression among his Japanese peers.
“Artists here aren’t really encouraged to explain their work,” Wong says, adding that as hard as he tries to coax it of them, many remain guarded when it comes to their motivations. “Whenever I’m talking to musicians in the U.S. or Europe about, say, politics, we’ll dive straight in. Here, I’ve spoken to artists and said that I want a space to talk about these things and I just got ‘Why?’ That’s a huge problem.”
Wong says he has always been encouraged to speak his mind. He was born in Hawaii to a Chinese-American father and a Japanese-Italian mother but grew up in Tokyo. He returned to the States for university and while there joined bands in Baltimore and New York. He saw a considerable amount of success, particularly with critics, with his band Ponytail and the duo Ecstatic Sunshine. After the latter disbanded, he went solo and moved back to Tokyo in 2012. Being fluent in Japanese, he was able to make inroads into the indie rock scene here, releasing “Mediation of Ecstatic Energy” (2013).
Things changed when he began collaborating with singer Takako Minekawa, who is known in Japan for her central role in the Shibuya-kei scene of the 1990s. After working with her (“Toropical Circle” , “Savage Imagination” ) he says he now has a better grasp of what it means to be a musician in Tokyo.
“It’s a very lonely music scene. Even people who are doing brilliant new things are dismissed; the amount of acknowledgment here is far less than in America or Europe,” he says. “In a way that’s a good thing because you’re not influenced by (popular) opinion — because there is no opinion [laughs]. You’re in a bubble, so as an artist you come to understand exactly what you want.”
Wong and Minekawa recently released their third album together, “Are Euphoria,” via the imprint 7e.p. It comes after a three-year break following the release of “Savage Imagination,” and Wong attributes the gap to spending more time on fine-tuning the songs at concerts and his own anxieties about the material.
“We spent maybe a year after the last record just composing and composing, and we really took our time playing it publicly,” he says. “So when we were going to record it we knew the exact tempo and the feeling (we wanted). … And then a fear of failure set in … and then you should be recording, but you’re afraid to. That took me a while to get over.”
Recorded and mixed by Wong, “Are Euphoria” is a refined version of what the duo has become known for. Exploring loops, samples and layers, the album paints a quirky otherworldliness. Minekawa’s vocals, which possess a serene transparency alongside Wong’s intricately constructed and ever-fluid sonic support, together present an album that is interested in creating atmosphere rather than any sort of conventional verse-chorus-verse structure.
“We were listening to a lot of Japanese and European fusion from the 1980s,” Wong says about their influences. “Yasuaki Shimizu is getting a lot of respect now overseas, and there’s a particular space he works in. Susumu Yokota and Hiroshi Yoshimura as well, the space they use has a serenity. It’s clean and surreal.”
Music wasn’t the only thing that inspired the sonic fluidity of “Are Euphoria.” A part of it came from unfortunate hearing problems Wong says he suffered during recording.
“When we had just started recording, my right ear couldn’t hear the low end (bass). The doctor didn’t know what caused it … maybe stress? I couldn’t trust my ears after that,” he says. “It actually changed my way of mixing. Every element had to be moving because if one thing was stationary it felt off, because my ears were. So I needed to move everything, just so it didn’t sound crazy to my own ears.”
Matthew Papich, who now records as Co La and was Wong’s other half in Ecstatic Sunshine, joined his former partner and Minekawa as a producer on “Are Euphoria.” Wong says Papich became more like a third band member, adding to the tracks he and Minekawa had already constructed. The three met up in Hawaii for two weeks at Wong’s parents’ home to work on the album.
Touring ahead of the release, however, didn’t prove to be as easy. Wong and Minekawa set out on tour in China, which ended up being one of the hardest things they’ve ever done. Not only did they have to haul their equipment and luggage around on their own, beholden to sometimes unforgiving train schedules, some of their shows only had three or four people in the audience, which was “a hard hit on the ego.”
“There was one show in Xian, nobody would come up to listen to us. I’d play a melody and someone in the back would maybe come up close to the stage and listen … and then they’d get bored and return to the back. Tough crowd!” he says with a laugh. “When you experience something like that, you see that the crowd’s stance on music is that it’s a commodity, decoration for their lifestyle. Music is becoming that all around the world, it’s color for whatever someone is doing when they’re doing something else.”
Despite these concerns, Wong doesn’t fret too much over how people experience his own output.
“What I want to believe is that the audience is coming to see the artist’s vision, what the artist really wants to express,” he says. “If you start pampering the audience, it becomes a service industry. You can be an artist and still be an entertainer, but if you’re just an entertainer … I don’t necessarily think that’s being an artist.”
Wong stresses that doesn’t mean he believes the people on the stage take priority over the people on the floor.
“We’re all in it together. The performer needs the audience and the audience needs love,” he says. “The more people are enthusiastic, wanting to explain what they’re feeling when they go see this music, the better. Critical thinking needs to be more a part of the education system here. To be able to look at a work of art and derive your own meanings from it.
“We argue and debate because it’s fun,” he says with a smile. “If we’re going to solve the world’s problems, it should be fun.”
“Are Euphoria” is in stores now. For more information, visit www.7ep.net.
Dustin Wong and Takako Minekawa are currently on tour promoting their third album, “Are Euphoria.” Check them out at the following venues:
April 26: Navaro in Kumamoto (8 p.m. start; ¥3,000 in advance; www.navaro.info/home)
April 27: Utero in Fukuoka (7 p.m.; ¥2,500; www.utero.jp)
April 28: At Hall in Oita (7:30 p.m.; ¥3,000; www.athall.com)
April 30: Bar Mojo in Kagoshima (7:30 p.m.; ¥2,500; www.barmojo.jimdo.com)
May 2: KD Japon in Nagoya (Dustin Wong with Teen Daze; 7 p.m.; ¥4,000; www.kdjapon.jimdo.com)
May 3: Soto in Kyoto (Dustin Wong only; 7 p.m.; ¥2,000; www.soto-kyoto.jp)
May 15: Fever in Tokyo (with Why?; 7:30 p.m.; ¥4,500; www.fever-popo.com)
June 9: Tokuzo in Nagoya (7 p.m.; ¥3,000; www.tokuzo.com)
June 10: Urbanguild in Kyoto (7 p.m.; ¥3,000; www.urbanguild.net)
June 11: Freakyshow in Shizuoka (3:30 p.m.; ¥3,000 freakyshow.net)