How often do we look inside our own imaginations? Granted, if you’re anywhere north of 12 years old, the idea itself feels laughably silly, impossibly trite. For Dustin Wong and Takako Minekawa, the imagination is a fickle friend; wondrous, baffling, and at times even frightening. Still, even in adulthood, it’s a path towards unprecedented creativity.
With their second collaboration, Savage Imagination, Wong and Minekawa truly break free. Wong, who was born in Hawaii but raised in Tokyo, used to play in Baltimore band Ponytail. He’s since moved back to Japan and become well known for his loop-based guitar experiments. Minekawa, an artistic jack-of-all-trades, has a storied background in J-Pop (and even scored an early ‘90s hit with the curious “Fantastic Cat”).
After meeting at one of Wong’s shows, the duo soon embarked upon a fruitful partnership that resulted in 2013’s kaleidoscopic Toropical Circle. A year later, Savage Imagination takes their collaboration one step further: served in quick, easily digestible bites, their sonic experiments are impossibly vivid. Minekawa’s breathy, childlike vocals intertwine with tinkering, glitchy noise, playful melodies, and of course, Wong’s intricate guitar work. Traditional Japanese sounds are also explored, which makes the journey of Savage Imagination feel like a fairy-tale soundtrack. Tenacious but never static, it’s brimming with miniature electro-pop gems that dazzle across a colorful landscape.
Savage Imagination blossoms at every turn, a prime example of what happens when a golden collaboration reaches full maturity. I was eager to learn more about the ideas that drive their music-making process, so via Skype from Tokyo, Dustin and Takako graciously acted as my spirited guides.
What first drew you to experimental music?
Dustin: I was always interested in weird music in general, since I was about 12. I was going to school in Japan, and it was a school for missionary kids. It’s a school for missionaries from America and all over the world, built in the 50s. All the teachers are American. It’s a very conservative school. Everybody subscribed to Fox News and really enjoyed the whole mega-church scene. Every Wednesday we would have that, with typical youth group music. I really wanted to get away from that as much as possible.
When I was 12, I first started getting into Frank Zappa. That was really my first weird music. Anything weird tickles my interest, anything different. My interests change too, every few years.
Now that you’re living in Japan, how has that changed your approach? Are you trying to create new connections with that culture?
D: It’s such a different environment. Even two years ago, when I moved back here, it was a culture shock. It’s so different from the states. The people are different; the things that are okay and not okay, those are very defined. And it’s very quiet.
Japan is an island, so there’s a self-mutation with almost anything cultural here. It’s like one of those chemistry plates where you grow bacteria, what are they called…?
A petri dish?
D: A petri dish, yeah. I’ve been noticing how I approach music is now a mutated approach. The sounds are becoming stranger; I feel like there’s constant insular feedback going on.
How did you and Takako first start working together?
D: We met in the summer of 2011. Takako came to my show, and I was a big fan of her music, so I was really surprised that she had heard of me before she came to the show. She had my album Infinite Love.
Was it her intention to try and set up a collaboration?
Dustin (translating): She didn’t have those intentions. She was actually surprised that I knew her music.
So it just happened organically when you guys met.
D: Yeah, we were writing each other for a few months after we met. We sent each other sounds, but email collaborations don’t really go well. So after about six months, we met again.
They have rental studios here, where you can rent by the hour. We got in, I brought my own setup, and Takako brought her loop pedal and microphone. It wasn’t structured at all. It was very safe at first. Very ambient, very droney. Six months after that, we wrote our first song.
Savage Imagination is your second collaboration. How was this approach different from the first?
D: We started writing Savage Imagination right after [Toropical Circle]. When we finished recording and mixing, we were already jamming. One song called “Pastel Ice Date”, which is the last song on the record, was the first song we wrote for Savage Imagination. It’s kind of the tamest song out of the whole collection. And as we kept writing it became weirder and weirder.There are more samples, more drums. Takako brought a lot more weird and interesting sounds.
We also bought an auto-tune pedal. That changed everything.
Was that Takako’s idea?
Takako (in English): Dustin’s idea!
D: I think we might have been at the music shop and decided together.
Savage Imagination is extremely whimsical. Was that intentional, or did that come together accidentally?
D: We love whimsical things in music. I think it came naturally. But the one thing that we do think about when we’re writing music together is that we don’t want to get too heavy, too serious. When we’re writing songs, I might ham it up a little. It can become heavy and cheesy. So we want to include that humor and lightness.
There’s interesting sequencing on Savage Imagination: stopping and starting, a definite ebb and flow. Sometimes it’s subtle, sometimes it’s abrupt. Is there a story that the record is telling?
Dustin (translating): In [Takako’s] vision, we’re kind of entering a different realm through this… there’s like a world of frequencies. In her particular place, we’re departing this wi-fi realm, this aurora borealis of wi-fi signals. Kind of like a roaming spirit swimming through these different realms, meeting goddesses, tiny creatures…
We also often talk about realities and different frequencies. Not just the spectrum of sound, but the spectrum of radio, and electromagnetism. It’s something that we can’t see, but there is something inside that must be very real, and very alive, and strange. It’s kind of that world through imagining. Often it’s a discovery through imagining.
That’s the next thing I wanted to bring up. The word “imagination” evokes ideas of feeling light and free and easy, but combining it with the word “savage” almost implies a sense of danger. So I’m wondering if that’s how you feel– is there be a dark side to the imagination?
D: I don’t think it’s dark, necessarily, but it might be sinister. I don’t know if you’ve had any experiences with voices in your head—I’ve had experiences where different voices have talked to me. Some of those voices are kind and not aggressive, but at times they can be very typically villainous. These are voices that I can actually hear. But I know subconsciously that they won’t be able to hurt me. And I can speak to them, and they will respond back. I can tell those voices to go back where they came from, and oftentimes, they comply.
Dustin (translating): [Takako’s] been very interested in quantum physics recently. So whenever she thinks that way, she imagines all these objects in front of us. When she imagines herself in a certain reality, those particles can disintegrate and dissipate from one place to the next. We’re just particles moving from one place to the other. That thought might be scary for some people, and there’s a certain amount of violence in that. Imagining things just being… there’s violence in the active movement of particles. And that might be the savage aspect. There is a certain violence, like giving birth: there’s pain, and it’s scary, but it’s creativity.
What do you hope people get out of the experience of listening?
That they could listen to it freely, on their own terms. That they can take it anywhere they want.
Dustin Wong & Takako Minekawa’s Savage Imagination is out now on Thrill Jockey.