A follow-up conversation with Cory Wong at Thalia Hall

By Ethan Shanfeld

1 Feb, 2020

I dare you to go to a Cory Wong show and not move your body. I dare you to keep your feet untapped and your head unbobbed. In fact, I bet it’s impossible to keep a straight face. 

Throughout Wong’s two-hour set at Thalia Hall on Saturday Feb. 2, I was laughing at how good he is and uttering unconscious “oh my god”s and “holy shit”s without even noticing. Dressed in his signature striped t-shirt, the guitarist tore through blazing funk jams and chewy pop grooves from his solo discography.

I saw Wong last February at Lincoln Hall. Almost exactly a year later, he returned to Chicago playing a bigger venue and with two more albums under his belt — 2019’s Motivational Music for the Syncopated Soul and its 2020 counterpart Elevator Music for an Elevated Mood — his strongest, most cohesive work to date.

Wong’s stage presence is unmatched. No other instrument-based act can draw as much energy and captivation from a live audience. Wong’s show blends the spirit of live jazz with the power of rock ‘n’ roll. The band is tight and loose at the same time.

A day before the Superbowl, Wong and Co. got the crowd adrenalized with the NFL Sports Intro, then soon launched into “‘91 Maxima,” a staple in Wong’s live show. Bursting into the anthemic, horn-driven chorus, Wong hit a foot pedal that gave life to two enormous green inflatable air dancers, like the ones outside car dealerships.

“That’s Larry and Jerry,” he said nonchalantly after the tune’s grandiose ending, killing the tube men with another stomp of the foot.

During fan-favorites like “Jax” and “Airplane Mode,” the entirety of Thalia Hall was bouncing and waving its hands along with drummer Petar Janjic.

“Petar gets one K-pop gig and thinks he can try out all the moves everywhere he plays,” joked Wong.

On “Cosmic Sans,” keyboardist Kevin Gastonguay perfectly emulated Tom Misch’s wah-guitar sound on the synthesizer while bassist Kevin MacIntire and Janjic drove home the deep groove.

During an extended version of “Companion Pass,” a song that has long been a part of his live set but just recently released on Motivational Music, Wong delivered a speech about Facebook analytics and social media validation. Teetering between satire and genuineness, he encouraged the crowd (70% of whom are self-described “creatives,” he claimed) to seek affirmation not from likes and followers but from self-honesty. The electronic screen behind the band then started to display negative YouTube comments such as “Wong sucks” and “John Frusciante did it first.” 

“Lastly, don’t be a jerk on the internet,” Wong said with a smile.

Besides mid-song remarks and the occasional motivational speech, Wong was silent for most of the show. Yet he brilliantly channels voice through his blue stratocaster, utilizing volume and attack techniques to convey intonation and emotion. His melodies are so catchy that during songs like “Frogville,” the whole audience sang the guitar part.

Toward the end of the show, Wong invited Phoebe Katis onstage for “Treehouse” and “Starting Line,” his collaboration with Emily C. Browning. While “Treehouse” sounds like a theme song to a kids show and lacks a lot of the musical nuance found elsewhere in Wong’s catalog, “Starting Line” got the crowd singing in falsetto, “Now I’m chasing a feeling!”

Wong also debuted his vocal chops on “Today I’m Gonna Get Myself a Real Job,” the only song of his on which he sings. With a hopeful story arc, it’s an endearing tune that would fit nicely in a musical. The melancholy “I’m gonna quit guitar and get myself a real job” turns into the encouraging “This passion’s burned inside since I was twelve” by the end of the song.

The most magnificent part of the night was the last two songs. On “Meditation,” Wong displayed a masterful understanding and control of his instrument. The song, slow and glimmering, is fittingly titled. I could have floated peacefully in its soundscape for hours. “Winslow,” played as an encore, was equally as impressive, but for completely different reasons. As Wong’s left hand danced across the fretboard, his strumming hand kept a fast, steady rhythm. Infusing much more energy into the live version than on the recorded one, the band flaunted both technical and performative skills.

On the drive home, my foot still tapping and head still bobbing, I couldn’t escape Wong’s beautifully infectious funk universe. I didn’t want to.

I chatted with Wong before the show about his recent projects, songwriting process and thoughts on elevator music. The following dialogue has been condensed.

So, I had the pleasure of speaking with you about a year ago when you were touring for your record The Optimist

Yeah when we were over at Lincoln Hall.

Correct! Now you’re playing a bigger venue. Last time we ended our discussion talking about an upcoming Fearless Flyers album, Cory Wong album, Europe tour, and some Vulfpeck shows at Red Rocks and Madison Square Garden… so how was your year?

It has been a crazy year. Vulfpeck played our biggest shows yet; we sold out Red Rocks and Madison Square Garden. I did two albums since then. It’s kind of one album cycle, but two parts. Motivational Music for the Syncopated Soul was part one, which is like the flagship of them, and then the part two is Elevator Music for an Elevated Mood, which just came out a couple weeks ago. I’m really excited about both of them, but they kind of ticked different boxes for me.

They have similar titles and album art… can we expect a part three? 

No… great question, but this is the end of the record cycle after this tour. I feel like those two fit together, and if I took that message any longer and extended it into a part three, it would be like, “okay, we get it.” Even people were asking why I have some of the same sounds and musical ideas in Elevator, well because that was a through-line that I wanted through it. It’s very common in the visual art world to have reoccurring motifs. I’ve done that in the last couple records; I’ve tried to have something that calls back to a previous song from a previous record. So, the main chorus melody of the tune “Frogville” is a motif from my tune “Starks and Ewing” from a couple years ago. “Takeoff” on Elevator Music is just the pop song version of “Companion Pass.” Actually, “Takeoff” came first, but when we started doing it live, it became instrumental and worked really well like that. So “Takeoff” is the vocal version of “Companion Pass.” And then on the tune “BBC News,” the main chorus melody line is the instrumental hook from “Today I’m Gonna Get Myself a Real Job.” There’s a couple musical motifs that I just wanted to bring back to give a through-line through some of my catalog.

Some of these songs on the two albums like “Frogville” and “Airplane Mode” have been part of your live rotation for quite a while now. Last time we spoke, we talked about The Beatles who are very self-referential and have their own universe. Is that something you’re trying to create with your music?

Yes. Vulfpeck too will reference itself in songs and do a similar thing from one song to the next, some very obvious and some very subtle. And The Fearless Flyers is our side project, and we play some Vulfpeck or Cory Wong tunes and reimagine them for that ensemble. Just because an idea is used once doesn’t mean it can only be used once.

Last time I saw your show, I noticed that you incorporate things that fans pick up on, like Wong’s Pizza Shop and other comedy-inspired motifs, into your brand. Is that something you thought of consciously? Do you have any comedic influences?

It is definitely intentional, but I don’t think I’m drawing from any specific comedians. I just think of fun ideas and try to do them. With merch, it feels a little weird to have people walking around with a shirt that says “Cory Wong” on it. Euuugh! It’s awesome to see people wearing Vulfpeck or Fearless Flyers shirts, but it’s kinda weird for me to see a shirt that says “Cory Wong” on it. [laughs] I like the idea of a Wong’s Pizza shirt more because it could very well be a pizza joint, but it’s a fictional place that I’ve made up. People in the know know, but it’s also just a cool design. And who doesn’t like pizza? C’mon. And my family has restaurant ties. My grandparents started the first Chinese restaurant in Minnesota. Ever. Back in the late ‘40s. The lettering from Wong’s on my shirt is actually an exact copy of what the Wong’s Café logo was from my family’s restaurant. So it does have a personal touch to it.

On a lot of songs, you’re working with lots of different instrumentalists and sometimes vocalists. What does your songwriting process look like? Do you come in the studio with a fully formed idea or do you guys kinda work it out together?

It totally depends, it’s very different song to song. Sometimes I will make demos that are really clear on what I’m looking for, and it’s just like, “how do we bring this to life?” Sometimes I’ll be pleasantly surprised, and sometimes I’ll be like, “ehhh let’s stick to what’s on the demo, just play it better than what I can do.” [laughs] A lot of times it’s like, “here’s the groove, here’s the melody idea, here’s the form I have in mind, let’s see if it works.” With singers it’s a little bit different because there’s lyrics involved. For example, I wrote “Starting Line” and recorded the rhythm section and band, and then Emily and I wrote the lyrics together and recorded the vocal at our writing session at my home studio. With “Takeoff,” I recorded the whole band first… I was actually gonna sing that song myself. I recorded myself doing it, and then halfway through I was like, “I dunno, I’m not the right guy for this.” My voice is fine for “Today I’m Gonna Get Myself a Real Job” because the way my voice fits into that song is kind of endearing. But I don’t have the right thing in my voice, at least yet, to sing “Takeoff.” So I thought it’d be better with a female vocal because it fits more in that range. In my range it feels like I’m stretching more, but in my friend Rachel Mazer’s range, it feels very comfortable. For the collaborations with Tom Misch and Charlie Hunter, we just worked that stuff out in the room. I had some ideas I brought in, we started to develop them, and then within 45 minutes, the recording was done. So, it’s totally different depending on who it is and what the songs are.

Do you feel that your mission in terms of the music you’re popularizing is similar to that of people like Tom Misch?

I think to a certain degree, yes. I think if you were to look at the analytics, you would see that our fanbases are a similar age and similar as far as occupation or major in college. It’s a lot of creatives and musicians. Obviously we’re both guitar guys, so that means something. But he’s more in the “beats” world, so that’s a little bit different. It’s a different scene all in its own. But I do think that we are doing a similar thing where we’re carving a path for the guitar and being ambassadors for the guitar within our respective fields. With all of those things combined, it does make sense that we would work together.

Do you think that your audience is more educated in music than other audiences? I saw Vulfpeck this summer, and it’s not often that you see thousands of people singing along to a bassline like in “Dean Town.”

Yeah, a 32-measure, through-composed bassline. Yes. And that’s not to be condescending towards any other band. I think the reality just is that a lot of our fanbase is musicians, whether it be professional or aspiring or hobbyist, which are all great levels to be at. There’s a lot of people who aren’t even musicians but are music nerds. Like my dad doesn’t play music but he grew up just taking in all the heaviest and deepest music he could. There’s a way to interpret my answer as condescending, but it’s not meant to be at all. It’s just that a lot of our audience is a lot of musicians. It doesn’t mean that we are better or our audience is better than audiences that listen to pop music that’s on the radio. It’s just what the reality is.

You said in an interview with Guitar.com that you’re trying to bring rhythm guitar to the front, almost in the style of a lead guitar. Is it a deliberate creative choice to not go for the flashy guitar solo even though you are obviously capable of doing it?

Well, on my records I don’t showcase it as much, but what you’ll see in the live show is there is a lot of that. Yes, I can do it. And yes it’s fun to do… but what I’m finding is that the thing that feels most magnetic and most fingerprint about what I do is my rhythm guitar playing. That’s what makes my playing unique, and that’s really my voice in the instrument more so than lead guitar. I feel like I have a voice with lead guitar, and I can do it well. But there’s plenty of people doing that thing, and there’s a lot of guys who just do it way better than I do, or they have a very distinct voice with the lead guitar. My voice is just much more distinct as a rhythm guitarist, and it’s the thing that people seem to latch onto most about my playing.

With funk music, it’s definitely a lot about the right hand, which I see a lot in your playing.

Yes, it is about the right hand because you hear the attacks on that, but there’s also so much nuance that comes from the left hand that often gets overlooked.

One of the most unique songs on Motivational Music for the Syncopated Soul is “Today I’m Gonna Get Myself a Real Job” because you sing on it, and it’s also kind of sad. I love that it has this very hopeful ending, but was this something you heard a lot growing up? That you couldn’t succeed in music and you should just work in finance or something?

It obviously stands out in my catalog because one, it’s the only song that I sing, and two, it’s a ballad. The thing about it that feels more… I hate to use this term, but “on-brand” for me is that it has this sort of cheeky element… it’s kind of making fun of itself. But the sentiment of it is something that most creative people will hear at some point, whether it be from a guidance counselor in high school or their parents or their Uncle Todd, or whoever [laughs]. But for me, it was actually more of an inner dialogue. Music wasn’t as much of my natural talent; it was just something I was really passionate about. It was like, “I really feel like this is something I’m supposed to do, but I’m not as good at music as I am at understanding business.” My dad was a businessman, and those principles came very easy to me. But also science was very natural for me. I was enrolled at the University of Minnesota for science, and actually my last year there I was enrolled in the nursing school. I was going to do all that because I was just good at it, but I realized that this whole “I need to get a real job” thing was all in my own head. My dad was the one who was encouraging me, saying, “Look, it’s pretty obvious, you’re supposed to play music. It might be harder for you to do than other things, but it brings you the most joy.” Obviously a lot of people’s families are not as encouraging, so for me that was an advantage. Also, the business stuff coming natural to me helps me in my career. If music came fully naturally to me and I had to work harder at the business side of it, I think I’d be swimming upstream a little more. So, I feel like I have an advantage because I have a background in those other things. I have a more well-rounded way of running my business as a musician. So I’m very fortunate and very thankful for that.

The song reminds me of this Jim Carrey quote, which is “You can fail at what you don’t want, so you might as well take a chance on doing what you love.” I think the song captures that spirit.

Yes, totally.

The term “elevator music” is typically used to describe rather boring or generic-sounding music. Your album, on the other hand, is anything but that. Was your goal to kind of flip that negative connotation?

Yeah, because last year I was doing this whole bit about smooth jazz. I had this experience where I saw this band that would be considered smooth jazz, and I thought it was gonna suck. The records are wack… they sound overproduced… just obnoxious… I don’t like the sounds. That was my preconceived notion of what I was in for. And I think a lot of people think that way about smooth jazz. The show was banging. The band was tight, it was funky. It reminded me of some of the live Prince recordings. Of course not all smooth jazz acts are this great live, but the one in particular that I saw was just dope. So I can’t believe everybody hates on smooth jazz. It’s like the laughing stock of a genre. It’s considered elevator music because they play smooth jazz in elevators and casinos and hotel lobbies. I wanted to use the term “elevator music” for my own record to kinda flip the script. There’s not a defined elevator music in 2020. So, I’m putting my name in the hat.

Maybe you’ll get a brand deal.

That’s what I’m looking for. I’m looking for that Hampton Inn exclusive.

On the other record, Motivational Music for the Syncopated Soul, you have this song “Companion Pass” which is sort of satirical but very much sounds like a motivational speech. Did you come up with the concept for that song after deciding on the album title or visa versa?

It’s kind of all-encompassing. I was starting to do a little bit of that at my live shows, so I just figured it’d be fun to do it on a record. It’s one of those things where you’re like, “That’s actually really funny, and it’s really stupid, but it’s also very cool and heartwarming at the same time.” It could be interpreted as cheesy, it could be interpreted as heartfelt, or it could be interpreted as complete satire. And I wanted to blur the lines of all that. That’s why I added some effects to my voice. It’s all stuff that I stand behind and really mean. But I wanted to deliver it in a way that if somebody was not ready to hear the message, they could at least laugh at the idea of it.

Tonight is your last show in the US, and then you’re going overseas, right?

Yes, this is the last show, and then we go to the UK, Ireland and France. And that will conclude the Syncopate Motivate tour cycle. 

What’s next for you? Maybe rest a little?

Uh, you would think so. I have a bunch of projects coming up. I just finished producing a project. We recorded another Fearless Flyers album, and I’m producing that one with Jack Stratton [of Vulfpeck]. We haven’t decided on a date yet, but the Flyers have a couple shows on the calendar, and I have a bunch of festivals in the summer. And I’m just gonna keep writing and recording and doing what I do. While I have the creative and physical and emotional energy to do these things, I’m gonna do them.