Cory Wong speaks the same way he plays the guitar. Rhythmic and energetic, and with purpose and intent. It’s no wonder he’s become a next generation guitar hero, a go to player for Vulfpeck, and a popular podcaster with his show “Wong Notes.” Not to mention, he’s working on a recording software plugin of his favorite tones. He also has a good contact list of artists who want to make music with him, including singers Kimbra and Phoebe Katis, guitarists Tom Misch and Joe Satriani, all of whom appear on his latest solo release The Striped Album.
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The Striped Album is a slamming 10-song record filled with funky rhythms, precise and infectious guitar riffs, in the pocket tight performances, horn-fueled jams and stop on a dime breakdown sections. This record pops through the speakers and begs you to not move your body.
It’s not just for music geeks either. “Design” features pop singer Kimbra while “Synchronicity” continues his working relationship with London singer Phoebe Katis. Wong pays his respects to unsung musicians of the past by recording a track with guitarist David T. Walker, who’s guitar playing can be heard on many Motown and R&B classics. The album’s showstopper, “Ellie,” is a joyous and majestic tour-de-force work of art named after his young daughter.
A prolific artist, The Striped Album is the eighth record Wong has put out in 2020. There have been two live albums – The Syncopate & Motivate Tour, Set 1 and Set 2, two contemplative acoustic records – Trail Songs: Dusk and its sister record, Trail Songs: Dawn, an ambient album, Meditations, with Jon Batiste, who he’s performed with on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert. There’s also a live album with The Metropole Orkest, Live In Amsterdam; and a jazz-funk album, Elevator Music for an Elevated Mood. Whew! Suffice to say, the current lockdown hasn’t slowed him down.
We caught up with the guitarist while he was grabbing a few moments of relaxation in a warmer climate, away from his home state of Minnesota, where snow had already started falling. While he may have been resting, rest assured, he still had his portable recording setup with him, should inspiration hit.
You went to a respected local school in Minneapolis– McNally Smith College. How important was going to school for music and what did it teach you?
I had a wonderful experience. I went to Minnesota University prior to music school, for science. You get out of a class what you put into it, whether it’s chemistry or physiology, or music.
There’s a big debate about whether you should go to a music school or not. There are certain professions you have to go to school. If you want to be a doctor you have to go. With music, you don’t have to. But for many of us, myself included, we need that structure, that accountability to get us to the next level and beyond. And that is exactly what I needed and got out of it.
But the biggest thing you get out of music school is the community, which I didn’t even consider. Seeing what it’s like being around other musicians, talking about music and concepts. You’re exposed to so many artists and styles. Had I not gone to music school, I wouldn’t have known about Bill Frissell or Mahavishnu Orchestra.
The other side of the community is getting started. You get recommended for gigs, filling in for shows and helping each other out. You learn how to become a professional musician by being around people who are professional musicians. You don’t get that in your basement. Many of us need that and that’s what I got out of it.
How would your parents describe you growing up?
Driven. Passionate. Mischievous. And a little wild. It was one of those things where… when I was a kid there wasn’t as much knowledge about dealing with someone who has my personality or brain type as there is now. I know this because I have a daughter now who’s also mischievous and it can come across as being a troublemaker, but she’s really bright. She’s testing the limits. And I always wanted to test the limits. What’s possible? What can I get away with here, in a respectful way? I wasn’t trying to cause harm. I just wanted to know what the boundaries were so I could stay within them and know what’s appropriate. I’m testing the boundaries because I don’t want to break the rules. I think that carries into my artistic and business perspective. I want to respect and stay within the rules. I just want to know what they are.
How was your experience in Nashville and backing singer/songwriters? It’s very much a within the rules town.
I grew up in Minneapolis, which is a player’s town. It’s not a business town. In Nashville, it’s much more of a global and big picture mindset. There’s so much awareness of industry and what’s doing well, for better or worse. When I started playing with other artists, they were referencing different things and looking at it in a different way. It was an experience in learning what’s good for the song and why- coming up with parts and being creative and not getting in the way of the song.
Some of the producers and artists I was working with picked me because I had something different than other session players who were doing stuff that sounded like it came out of Nashville. One response I would get would be ‘that sounds so cool. It doesn’t sound like what you would hear out of Nashville!’ I wanted to do something unique on a session, so it was finding a balance between unique and serving the song.
The good thing about Minneapolis is that it’s a player’s town and there are so many insane players in town. There’s so much musical exploration because it’s not as focused on the business side. Musicians want to play exciting stuff and explore for themselves. The flipside is it doesn’t always get out of the area, with some exceptions of course.
In Nashville, a lot of the times the music or art can suffer for the business side of it. A cool guitar part might fit the song well but a radio DJ might not like it so it doesn’t go into the song.
Let’s talk about your new record, The Striped Album. I love the song “The Pinky Harp” and the fact that you’re shining a spotlight on unheralded artists. In this case, it’s David T. Walker, who has played on many Motown and soul records going back to the ‘70s.
Exactly. To me, it’s like ‘why he is not like Bernard Purdie?’ Everybody knows Bernard’s name. David is one of those cats. You listen to Aretha, Michael Jackson, so many iconic songs and he’s there. Plus, he pioneered a classic guitar style, which is the pinky harp. I really wanted to write something that would honor him because he’s one of my guitar heroes. He’s done so many sessions and not a lot of people see his name on credits. He has a couple of albums that are incredible. It was fun to bring him on the song.
With instrumental music you don’t get to tell a story with lyrics. You tell it with vibe, the music and how you produce it. The music- chords, melody, rhythm- that’s the person. Now what kind of clothing do you put on the person- that’s the production and vibe. The type of clothing I was dressing the song with, I wanted it to feel like you’re cruising down the Pacific Highway at sunrise or sunset. There’s the coast on one side and mountains on the other as you’re driving down these curvy roads. That’s the vision and I wanted to get out of “The Pinky Harp.”
Did you write it with him in mind? How did you hook up with him?
I was going to do the song with or without him. I wrote it as a tribute to him, but I knew it would work on its own as a tribute. But how cool would it be to get him to actually play on it? He’s played on a couple of Vulfpeck albums, so I had his contact info. He had a little recording studio at his home and sent me back a couple of takes and that was that. It was great.
You have some creative song titles. How important is a song title and is it necessary for instrumentals?
I used to hate song titles because it takes so long to decide. I would get too serious and put too much weight on it. Then I realized I don’t get to share that much of my personality through lyrics. It comes through in my playing hopefully, which is what you strive for. But as someone who mostly does instrumental music, my personality can only come out so much. It’s fun to have song titles and give a little deeper glimpse into who I am and what I’m going for as an artist.
A lot of instrumentalists take it too seriously. ‘Look at what I can do. Check out what I can play on the guitar!’ You see so many of them focus on the guitar solos and how incredible they think they are. I’m like, ‘woah, dude, ok. You’re good on guitar!’
I don’t care if you think I’m an amazing guitar player. What I want you to think is, ‘wow, this is fun! I feel better after listening to this music.’ If you think I’m an amazing guitar player by the end of the album, that’s a fringe benefit. The main thing I’m looking for is if you connected with it, did it make you feel better? Was it fun and bring joy to you? I take the music seriously, but I don’t want people to take me too seriously. It’s fun to be able to tell people that through the song titles.
How do you decide what song might have lyrics?
Sometimes when I’m writing I’ll just know it’s a vocal tune. Or when the melody itself I’m singing a certain type of word and the music doesn’t do it justice for the lyrical message I’m hearing in my head. In that case I’ll bring someone in to sing.
I had an instrumental version of the Kimbra song “Prototype,” but it wasn’t doing that thing for me. She’s one of my favorite artists of all time and to have her down to collaborate, that was like, oh my God! I sent her the instrumental track with my leads muted. She came up with a couple of ideas together and then met in LA and wrote the song together. It worked naturally. But most of the time when I’m writing music, I’m thinking in song form and if I decide to put a singer on the track, it’s not that much of a paradigm shift where it changes the song.
I like the vibe of Boardwalk. To me, that was begging for a lyric. It has a nice melody.
Thanks! I felt the same thing. There’s something inherent about my music that feels like video game or TV show music. Boardwalk feels like that to me. If I had a singer, it wouldn’t feel like video or TV music. Maybe someday I’ll add a singer to that song.
There’s a definite ‘80s vibe on “Synchronicity.”
Yes! “Synchronicity” is an ‘80s thing- a fastball down the middle, straight up Minneapolis funk.
That Minneapolis funk sound is in my blood and to me it’s like playing softball. I grew up on Morris Day and the Time. All my mentors were basically the New Power Generation. The band I was playing with straight out of college- I was the only one who wasn’t in Prince’s band. As a guitar player, I worked around fitting in the song. All the cats around me were schooling me on the Minneapolis thing and of course they’re telling me their preferences and how Prince or Morris Day would play it.
And, of course, the title itself is a classic ‘80s song by the Police.
Yes! Nothing to do with it! And I didn’t even think of the fact that they had a song called “Synchronicity” until someone pointed it out after it was mixed.
How did you connect with Phoebe Katis to lay down a vocal track for the song?
She and I have worked together before. She’s in London and Vulfpeck were on tour there. We connected and said if you need a singer let me know. I liked her voice. It has a cool thing to it. I produced her last couple albums. We wrote the song together, so it was easy to have her record it.
Who’s playing bass on the tracks on the album?
Me! That was fun. I did most of the bass on the album. I first started on the bass when I was learning. I don’t get to play bass on most of my albums because we usually record all at once in the same room, and I’m playing guitar.
For this album, so much of it was done remotely. I felt it was my chance to play bass for real on my album. There’s an interesting thing that happens. I know exactly what the bass part should be when I’m playing guitar. I know where to fill in the gaps and where not to. There’s a certain type of locking in that happens when you do that. I was happy to get all my kicks out playing bass! Most people hire me to play guitar not bass. So maybe now, people will find out I played bass on the record and hire me!
You have great rhythmic technique and your lead playing is pretty exceptional. Eddie Van Halen is another guitarist who concentrated on both parts of the guitar. I’m curious for your thoughts on his passing.
So many people focus on his lead playing because it was so compelling. But what many don’t realize is if Eddie Van Halen had zero of the lead chops he had, he would still be one of the most legendary guitar players of all time. Because of his rhythm, his musical sensibilities, his time feel and his incredible sense of energy and rhythmic momentum. That’s the most amazing thing to me. He had both and both were so compelling. Great lead playing is overtly impressive. Great rhythm playing is covertly impressive. The songwriting, the parts he played, the tone. He had it and is in a class of his own.
Joe Satriani is another guitar hero and he plays on the song “Massive.” I know you’re thrilled. But you haven’t met in person yet, correct?
Score! We have not met in person. I met him when I started my podcast. He was my first guest and I interviewed him in February, pre-Covid. He said I was the funkiest player he had heard in a long time and loves what I’m doing. At the end of the conversation he said, ‘we have to do something together. Your rhythm playing and my lead playing would go so well together.’
I thought he was bluffing and sent him a track a couple of days later. The song had been sitting on my hard drive for a while and I couldn’t solve it. It was like a math problem sitting on the chalkboard that no one could solve. Satriani shows up like Will Hunting, solves it in the middle of the night and blows it out of the water! I sent him a first bounce and he loved it. He said, ‘I love the chord changes and there’s lots of room for some guitar swaggering!’ Those were his exact words. It was insane. I was crying laughing because it was so good.
Have you been able to play any of these songs live, with a band?
It’s all been since the lockdown started, except for “Massive.” I tried playing it live once a couple years ago, but it was in a different form and wasn’t feeling right. I was trying to figure it out. So, I changed a couple of parts and then sent it to Satch and he made it work.
You don’t sing much but you sang lead on one of your older songs, “Today I’m Going To Get Myself A Real Job.”
I asked a bunch of my friends to sing it. I sent it to three of my singer friends exactly the way it appears on the album. I meant to mute my voice and turn their voice on when I sent them a mix. Every one of them wrote me back saying, ‘I didn’t know you were a songwriter’s songwriter. I thought you just wrote instrumental music. It’s cool that you write songs too. I would love to sing it, but it has to be you. It’s too personal and it fits way better with you singing it.’
I’m not going to win American Idol or go on The Voice. What’s important to me is that it’s unique and has character to it. My speaking voice is pretty loud and high energy, but it doesn’t translate when I sing. It doesn’t work or sound iconic and lasting. But when I do this Kermit the Frog meets Ringo Starr meets the guy from Cake, when I blend those three ingredients, that’s what has character. I’m glad that I did perform the lead vocal part on that song.
I love the humor and songwriting in the song. You rhyme ‘critics’ and ‘Spotify statistics.’ Give us the writing process for this one.
It actually started as “Someday I’m Going To Get Myself A Real Job.” I was looking through a bunch of videos online trying to figure out how we did a live arrangement of a particular song. Of course, I broke the cardinal rule of ‘don’t read the comments section.’ There’s haters out there! They’ve had a bad day and just want to take it out on an innocent guitar player!
We go through these juggling moments of thinking we made our best work ever and then crippling self-doubt and is this music thing going to last? Surely, the bubble is going to burst and I’ll have to get a job at Wells Fargo or something. I was thinking of that concept.
As artists, we go through these bouts of crippling self-doubt. but the fact is, for many of us, this is what we’re meant to do in life. This is our calling. The song was meant to go through getting all the complaints out. But at the end of the song, recognize that, to the average person, being a musician might not seem like a career option, but this is what I’m meant to do with my life. And it is a real job. This is the only career I’ve ever had. I’ve only paid my mortgage, filled up the gas tank, bought groceries and paid my cell phone bill with music money. How insane is that? Sometimes I forget that. If this is what I meant to do in life, then I better stick with it.