Dustin Wong: Melody Isn't Dead

Former Ponytail guitarist Dustin Wong's latest album, Dreams Say, View, Create, Shadow Leads, a blur.

A focused, impressionistic one, yeah, but a blur in an almost literal sense, with legato stretches of melody bumping into spiky, angular tones, kosmische rhythms gently pulsing beneath the surface, and constant melody dominating the 16 tracks.

"I always use painting as a metaphor, because you start with a color, and use a different color to compliment that color, and that becomes a shape, and that's how you get an image for a painting," Wong says heading to SXSW in Austin. "That's how I want to approach the way I write."

I spoke with the self-taught guitarist about his unique approach to instrumental sounds, the way we communicate with the Internet, and why he doesn't think melody is dead.

Up on the Sun: Are you looking forward to seeing anyone particular at South by Southwest?

Dustin Wong: I try not to have any expectations. I just try to enjoy it as it comes, so...you know. I'm ready for some fun for sure. [laughs] I'm more excited to be surprised, more than anything, by bands I've never heard of.

You don't read music, but would you define what you do as improvised or free?

The building of it is; that's how the songs begin. I'll try and come up with a melody, and improvise and build from there until it feels like it's a song.

I assume that some times you start working on stuff and it doesn't lead to anything.

Sure, sure. That definitely happens, but that's a part of the process. There's a lot of songs that were omitted from the album that were too similar to each other. I'm just working with the ideas that have worked so far. I'm just trying to keep it interesting, and tweaking it with different melodies and rhythms.

I don't show every step of the way. I mean, you hear and see what's happening on stage, but there are some things...people don't need to see everything, so I edit those things out. [Laughs]

Obviously there are no lyrics on the record, but there are lots of colors and shapes in the song titles. Do you draw from specific visual sources when you write?

I could tell you a lot of my favorite painters, but I never really have those in mind when I'm playing. The influence is more engrained. But I feel like Surrealists are a major influence, not just the extremely realistic ones like Dali, Yves Tanguy, or Magritte...but also visionary artists, like the Art Brut movement of painters who were self-taught. I definitely relate because I'm a self-taught guitarist.

So much abstract or impressionistic guitar music is harsh, and abrasive. What you create has a peaceful, pastoral sound.

I really love melodies. When I moved to Baltimore, the prominent scene there was the noise scene, with bands like Nautical Almanac, and Tarantula Hill, and those people hated melody. I remember talking [with a noise musician] and he said, "You need to work with concrete sounds, textural things. Melody is done for." That's pretty much what he said in a nutshell. But I really don't believe that. I think there's a lot of potential for melody. Especially in this day and age, where information is being applied on top of information, information is being linked from multiple places, coming from different sources. I feel like when that's applied to melody, these things can happen. I think the problem melody has is the traditional ideas that people have about melody, but there can be so much more, and it can be very direct.

You're not a pop artist, but there a lot of pop references on the album, and melody, and two-minute 30-second songs.

Melodies themselves have a reference to a certain time or niche. A quality of recording or certain quality of reverb. When you hear a Fender Twin [amplifier] reverb, you're like "Oh, I know that sound from the '60s." Now, there's so much cross referencing of different times within music, where people are incorporating different technology and different ways of projecting sound, that in a way kind of makes sense of what the whole history of music has been. Intentional or not.

Especially with, like Tumblr, where people are using images of every aspect of cultural and different time. People are in, in a way, consolidating their interests, and trying to find the essence of who they are. That's kind of what's happening in music.

You maintain a blog as well, Influenced by Something.

I maintain it very poorly. [Laughs]

But reading it in preparation for our interview...it's still a little strange that I can pull up that person's blog, and learn so much about them. it's almost like, why ask any questions?

There's something about physically speaking - there's an immediacy that the internet lacks. The conversation you can have though a song or face to face. You can see someone's expression, you can hear textures and sounds. With emails and message boards and comments on a blog post, there's a lot of miscommunication. People take it the wrong way. There's strange quarrels about which candidate is right, and that kind of thing. That is one thing the Internet lacks, a certain human aspect. I'm glad I'm talking to you on the phone, instead of email.

Tone of voice is pretty important. No amount of smiley faces after a sentence will ever replicate a genuine laugh. There's been a lot of discussion of how we present ourselves via the Internet though, a worry that Tumblr is building people who define themselves by experiences and images that they don't actually know.

We're all trying to figure out ourselves all the time. Who knows who we are? It's fine that we pretend to be someone we're not, because we're a lot more complicated that we think. That person we might want to become is already within us. I don't think it's a negative thing; it's an exploration of individualizing. I mean, why did the hippies dress like hippies?

Dustin Wong is scheduled to perform Sunday, March 18, at Trunk Space.

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Jason P. Woodbury is a music and pop-culture writer based in Phoenix. He is a regular contributor to the music blog Aquarium Drunkard and co-host of the Transmissions podcast.