Calling Dustin a school buddy doesn’t quite capture it. We attended together, what some would attempt to describe as, a five dimensional time warp that’ll remain forever subdiluted in memory. From elementary through to high school, we were students in an international school in Tokyo, Christian Academy in Japan (CAJ). It’s a place I’ll inevitably fail trying to describe in all it’s intricacies. Most chalk it off as a insulated missionary school.
It was that too.
American Eastern time of 9pm ended up being Tokyo’s 10am, backwards or forwards, I still can’t remember which. We were on a Skype appointment. Though I’d known Dustin the last years through touring, when I asked if he’d be interested an interview for our Sept Issue, he knew what I had in mind. He immediately wrote, “Should we talk about CAJ and Japan?”
No place else in the world will you find a strange mix of children with botched identities. So much so that the term, “Third Cultural Kid” (TCK) was invented for shrinks to deal with the traumas MK (missionary/military kids) had, having to move cross-continent sporadically and chronically. Dustin, born in Hawaii, raised in Japan as a Chinese/American– is almost identical to myself, born in Louisville, raised in Japan to Taiwanese parents. Our classmates ranged from Swedish embassy kids, to half-Dutch half-Japanese, to Canadian-Russian-Brazilian upbringings. That was normal. Being at CAJ by default made you a freak. Add on top of that rigorous academics (benefiting from a truly international pedagogy) and the systematic, Jesus indoctrinating-inventiveness (plain ol’ brainwashing)– you get a damn good picture of the pressure laid upon us younguns.
So to say you’d survived the CAJ regimen almost feels like saying, you’d survived… ‘Nam? Or Woodstock. Those who left the nest were always recorded. Who’s out, and who’s still in. But no matter the “faith status”, I found that the sights and sounds of youth seeped into our thought-processes. It caused us chronic nostalgia. Affected our perceived selves. Affected our forms of expression.
I hadn’t spoken to Dustin since supporting his band at the Talking Heads club in Baltimore in 2008– but it’s been truly exciting seeing the jump-start of Dustin’s solo career. Not only as a fellow CAJ alum, but having witnessed the development of his insane talent from early on. Since signing onto Thrill Jockey last year, he’s also received much deserved press– from a piece in The Village Voice, touching on his background and support for Akron/Family, to lots of music channels running videos of his loop mastery and pedal fetishes; putting his signature warm, soft, trance-like improv sessions on the map. Dustin’s experience further comes from recently retiring in bands Ponytail and Ecstatic Sunshine (Hoss, Cardboard Recs, Carpark), all friends from his former city of residence, Baltimore.
Today, I finally got to catch up with Dustin’s much-welcomed homecoming, as he had just resettled back in Tokyo. In Nakano-ku, to be exact. “How is being back in Japan?” I ask. He tells me, “Its nice, relaxed. Been playing a few shows here and there, and writing music for the next record.”
I ask him about the demise of Ponytail, since I last saw him.
–“Well, when we’re writing for the last record it was taking a really long time. Like months just to write one song. And everybody’s taste were changing. Ken wanted to make new age music, Jeremy was getting into electronic music. It was harder to make a compromise where everybody was happy. We wrote you know, maybe five songs– and the two songs written after that were written in the studio and improvised, kinda like filler.” He says with a smile, “So after that, I couldn’t really see us as sustainable.”
It’d been around that time I started catching Dustin’s name in the paper, and to my delight, a small review in Wire Magazine for some solo tracks. To this, he agrees, “Well I had the album Infinite Love already done, and I was thinking of shooting pretty low. But my friend, Jason, who put records thru out Thrill Jockey forwarded it to them. I think after I sent it to Jason, they got back to me in 2-3 days. And they said wanted to release it.”
Do you have a 20 record deal with them?- I joke.
–“Ha. I think its… um… Ok, now I don’t remember the contract (laughs).”
I take this opportunity to dive into our CAJ background– ask him if he discusses it with many people.
–“Yea, I guess so. But it’s really brief, like I put in a nutshell. Like you’ve said, it’s hard to understand. It’s confusing.” It’s a strange stigma, indeed, with small circles or religious communities. I ask him, “Do you still identify with the feelings you had in high school?”
–“I’ve changed a lot, but I was always in opposition. There was a point in middle school when I was going with it, but it was very limiting for me, personally. But that was the kind of fire, proving something, that allowed me to be creative. Without the limitations I don’t think I could have gone further. If I was in a more liberal community, it would have inhibited me from being passionate about creating… because I had that opposing nature I wanted to make things more and more.”
We reminisce on the “cool kids” and the “mean kids”. I recall one of the first punk bands I’d ever seen live was probably his, at a battle of the bands. But he corrects me, and says, “Wasn’t that the Christian ska band?” I can feel myself already blushing. I say, “You mean Quayle? Didn’t they have Robert Sweet from Stryper guest drum?” “No, it wasn’t Quayle. It was Big Dog Small Fence.” He tells me a portion I hadn’t known– “Yea, I remember that because I got suspended. I had a glass of wine before I came and my face was red, and Mr. Postema the math teacher said, ‘ARE YOU DRUNK?'” He laughs. “I got suspended for a week.”
I then quiz Dustin on another memory of mine. Although being in the class above him in high school, I still recall his very artistic nature, from incredible sketches to colorful, abstract paintings. One particular thing that always struck me was his sort of the Basquiat-ian iconography, and a consistent trademark in all his art– an eye. Or eyes. I ask him if he remembers this at all, or still draws them.
–“No, I don’t draw them anymore, but in my sketchbook the eye still comes back in different forms. I’m still trying to figure out what that’s about. After college I did a lot of research about my own spirituality. You run into freemasonry, the Illuminati, and eye. That eye is really singular, a monotheistic eye…but I was drawing eyes everywhere.”
I ask him why that is. –“I remember in third grade in CAJ, I had Miss Engel as our teacher. She was talking about the perception of God being everywhere, in every space. Within this three dimensional space– God is present and contained everywhere. I remember as a kid trying to think what that looked like. You know, what it would look like to have an eye or perception in every space– if you covered this whole room but seeing every- thing. An all-encompassing perception of the room…”
I ask in half-jest, “When was it you first knew what the word, psychedelic meant?”
–“Well, there’s an imagined definition, then the definition you realize after the fact…” He trails off, and we both laugh.
“I remember in middle school listening to Jimi Hendrix. It’d be like, WOW, he smoked a lot of weed AND probably did a lot of acid. Is that why he can play like that? (laughs) I thought smoking weed was a visual drug…. but its actually bout your perceptions changing. Auditory things sound better. You get a fuzzy feeling, etc. So yea, when I tried it the first time it was really intense, putting on Music for Airports. I think I was 18, first semester into college.”
The humor suddenly occurs to me– “Maybe it’s becoming like this universal trend. Isn’t it weird everyone remembers exactly where they were when they first smoked to Music For Airports? I do at least. I wonder how many other people lost their weed virginity to Brian Eno…”
Indeed, Dustin’s brand of experimental guitar work has definitely developed with his biological investments. “I’ve done mushrooms and salvia. Salvia divinorum. It’s a legal drug. I think the government is trying to illegalize it because its so intense, and only lasts 10 mins. You know the time stretch effect? Like with recording software. Its like that perceptually and visually, ah ah ah ah—a certain emotion comes out. When I did it, it felt like this Ferris wheel of myself of a lot of versions of myself. Like I’m sitting in a meditation pose and i can see lots of up upu p pp pp uh puh maintaining a circle. One is getting close and you realize its yr turn to get swept up into the wheel…”
Just as he says that, the internet connection slows, so his upp uppp uppp actually comes to visual form and stutters. But he finishes what he’s saying with, “..so yea, I did maybe once a day for a month. Since my music is loop based and circular based, I wanted to understand music like that…”
I relay this to him this real-time trippy effect, and he replies, “Coooool. Haha.”
I move on. How was it, to be in an institution where everything revolves around Christian doctrine, I ask. Are you angry, bitter?
–“It bothers me, but I’m still interested in Christianity within the realm of religions. The psychology of Christ, the symbolism and how they are related to symbolism of other religions. That’s what I’m really interested in, not really proving whether its “true” per se– which is not really interesting.”
What kind of symbolism do you mean with Christ, in relation to other religions?
–“Like comparing Christ to Buddha, their differences make them very different from each other. Buddha’s the type of character that doesn’t get angry, but a sad character, sad, because he embraces suffering. That’s how he copes with suffering, by accepting it…. Christ gets angry and even shouting at the rabbis, and like, going crazy in the marketplace.”
I chuckle. Going crazy? You mean, going bonkers?
–“Yea, Jesus going ape-shit.”
I pause, let out a huge laugh, and our discussion continues. “You know the blood of Christ? It’s just like the Japanese creations of a god slaying other gods with a sword, there’s one story of a god killing another god, and the splash of his blood becomes another god. It’s all connected, the Old Testament with other prophets and the Babylonian gods, destroying those idols and telling the Babylonians their gods are false… Those names of those gods are now names of demons within Christianity.” Dustin’s passion for the subject comes through, as he trails on through a genealogy of religions.
“…Its like how gods can transform thru death, also how Christianity is so obsessed with duality of darkness and light… There’s a tribe in Iraq called the Yahrzeits… who’re Lucifer in freemasonry, and who’s the benevolent one because he introduces free will into humanity. For Yahrzeits, he doesn’t bow down to Adam because he’s an arch angel, and the Yahrzeits are like, ‘Of COURSE, he’s better then Adam, why should he bow down to him. That like, totally makes sense!!”
Totally, I say, almost giggling. “But…” I feel like I keep pushing, “Don’t you ever find a kind of ominous, dark side to Christianity this notion of debt? That you’re born with inherent sin and born with a debt you didn’t ask for, and you have to eternally swear to this guy.”
He quickly answers, “You know the ‘Last temptation of Christ’, the Scorsese movie? There’s this scene towards the end where he actually doesn’t get crucified and leaves the cross through the tempt of the demons– its like a trance sequence. Then there’s a scene where Paul is doing a sermon, saying he saw Jesus get crucified. Like, I killed a lot of Romans, I’m going to change my life, now I’ve seen the light. Then Jesus comes and says, I didn’t get crucified, I’m here now, what’s your problem??? (laughs)…And then Paul says I don’t worship YOU, I worship my own version of Christ.”
He pauses and makes his point. “I feel like that’s a ‘Christ-consciousness’, the archetype Christ became. An idea that exists in the world, that exists in everybody, the idea of who we think Christ is. This all-loving self sacrificing man who got killed… post-protestantism, I guess. There’s this Christ outside the body, but within the soul, could be Buddha, or what’s that kernel… the pineal gland. Ha.”
I take a moment to soak this in. “Is there anything you’ve read in particular that’s had a big impact on you?”
–“Yea. All kinds of books. Manly P Hall, is this Freemason guy things, his Secret Teachings of All Ages. Books on Hinduism, Upanishads and Bhagavad Gita. Books on magic. Shamanism. Psychedelics……”
We return to discuss an older band. I’d been a fan of one of his enchanting early demos with a fellow CAJer Yutaka Houlette, called Onsen. I ask, “There were a lot of pieces to become what you have now. Seeds growing that’s still progressing. What was pushing that along the way?”
–“It was very naive when Onsen started, I didnt really know how music was made. It was a challenge to make music make sense, harmoniously. But we knew what we liked. I’m starting to understanding the rules of music more and more as I’m doing bands, and my own thing. Finding what do I essentially love musically.”
And what’s that?
–“I think it’s that kind of transcendental feeling in music. It kinda lets you feel liberated and blissful. Something that’s coming from within you.”
A quality I’ve noticed in his solo work that remains consistently true– like fluid wafts of fresh air built amidst layers upon layers. This perhaps creates the nostalgic feeling distinct to Japan, and reminiscent to the dreamy electronic sequences of Squarepusher, or the innocent flush of guitars of Jesus and Mary Chain. His main influences however, are traditional Japanese music, as well as surf music. The affinities, although seemingly disparate in territories, may be, as Dustin chides in, the scales and minor keys. In his early band Onsen, I recall hearing the guitar played almost like a koto, a very traditional wooden Japanese instrument, on wheels. I remind him that the melding of blues and surf are not foreign to Japan, and he notes, “the kids in Yoyogi park have been sporting rockabilly styles since the Eighties”. But with regards to the current indie scene in Japan, he tells me the scene is particularly small. Like small towns in the States, it’s a tight community. Dustin also relays a kind of folk singer songwriter revival that he calls, “particularly Japanese. Carefully crafted, and you know, carefully twisted.”
We also discuss the differences in culture– he tells me, “What’s so different from the States, is in Japan they practice a lot. Carefully craft songs. It’s careful…you see lots of Japanese artists performing with music sheets, which is of course not something I do at all.” I agree, it’s hardly something you’d see in the States.
“Academic types maybe, they would,” he says. I make the joke that most US bands using music sheets would probably have it drenched in beer within five minutes.
As we wind down, I ask about future plans. He tells me that his lease in the States has ended– but that this move to Japan has been anticipated for sometime. He also tells me his plans for touring the States in September, supporting fellow Baltimoreans, Beach House.
I then ask him how he feels his own music has changed him, especially from the days as the rebellious teenager at CAJ.
He pauses to reflect before responding. –“I don’t think I ever thought I would be able to make music like this. There was always music I wished I could make. I had an idea when I was younger, like singing while I was walking. Singing songs I never could play at the time.”
“But now my skills on guitar are better, and I’m getting closer to that. Maybe its just I’m getting closer to what I’m imagining… and that’s a nice feeling. Hopefully I can get to the place where it’s unimaginable.”
Dustin Wong’s 2nd LP “Dreams Say, View, Create, Shadow Leads” is out now on Thrill Jockey. Catch him from this month onwards on tour!
(title photo credit: Joyce Kim)