By Ethan Shanfeld
Photos by Devon Spungin
7 Feb 2019
Cory Wong doesn’t take himself too seriously.
Through dynamic visuals, goofy stage antics, and explosive funk music, the producer and guitarist is effortlessly captivating, despite the vast majority of his music being void of words.
He ran on stage at Lincoln Hall like a starting quarterback coming out of the locker room before erupting into the NFL Sports Intro with drummer Petar Janjic, bassist Kevin McIntire, keyboardist Kevin Gastonguay, and legendary brass ensemble the Hornheads.
The band, all sporting pizza-themed black jumpsuits, immediately grabbed the audience’s attention and then moved into some live favorites and cuts from Wong’s two studio records.
Wong weaves comedy bits and pre-recorded skits throughout his setlist, telling jokes that are so bad they’re funny and shamelessly plugging his merchandise in between songs. At the beginning of the show, he insisted the crowd let “all that tough guy stuff right out the back” and promoted audience unity (even between Android and iPhone users).
The way the band seamlessly slid from one song to the next made the show feel less like a concert and more like a fluid entertainment experience, complete with special guests like Antwaun Stanley contributing vocals on “Pleasin’” via internet broadcast. Stanley, despite not being physically present, dominated the room with smooth R&B vocal runs.
“Welcome 2 Minneapolis” was a highlight of the show, complete with an entire bit about peanut butter being brought into an American venue in 2019. “I don’t know how they do it in New Zealand…” Wong joked as Kiwi opener Emily Browning dangled a jar of Skippy over the crowd from the balcony.
Wong, a self-proclaimed “Millennial Ambassador to Smooth Jazz” whipped out the silky, flute-driven “Cameron” and paid homage to smooth jazz veteran Dave Koz, with whom Wong has collaborated. Wong also taught the crowd how to count in a 25/8, a time signature common in Janjic’s native Serbia but almost never heard in American music.
Wong and Co. played with such cohesion and feel that even when it seemed like Wong was drifting off-script, everything soon snapped into place, making it apparent that the show was tightly rehearsed.
The solo-filled “Encore E Jam” showcased each member’s incredible musicality while songs like “Jax” relied more on fast repetition and groove. The show reached almost two hours but never once lulled.
Wong not only bends genres but also entertainment formats, delivering a multimedia show filled with humor, education and of course hard-hitting, hip-shaking funk tunes. Long-term fans and unfamiliar newcomers alike are guaranteed to enjoy being a part of Wong’s endlessly fun experience.
As the Minneapolis-born producer and Vulfpeck guitarist closes his North American winter tour and prepares to make his way to Europe, bringing gags and groove along the way, WNUR had the chance to speak to Wong about touring, technology and the future of funk.
As a guitarist who doesn’t sing at his shows, how do you manage to keep the show so entertaining and the crowd so engaged?
Well it is definitely the number one riddle that I am trying to solve as an instrumental band leader. I have a lot of shticks that I create and bits that I use to divert the attention in different ways. It’s not just like, “Hey look at me shredding on the guitar for 90 minutes,” because that gets old to me. I like to showcase the other guys in the band but also bring in a nice element of humor and lightheartedness to the thing. The way that I set up the show in the beginning is just having some fun, zany, different things happening, and then also amongst hopefully what people think is some dope music. Bringing a multimedia element to it is fun and helps a lot with having guests up on the projector or video content that people can watch while the sounds are happening. And bringing special guests up as well.
You had Antwaun Stanley up on the screen during the show, and you’ve also said in previous interviews that a lot of your musical ideas exist on your phone in the form of voice memos. What are some of the pros and cons of the prevalence of technology in the musical process nowadays? Has technology ever failed you in a major way?
Technology only ever fails when it fails me. And what I mean by that is like, “Why is my computer all of a sudden frozen? It’s worked every show this entire year.” We did a show in Boston and live-streamed it. What happened? The computer froze the second we got on stage. And I’m the only one who knows how to fix it, so I had to give the drummer a solo for three minutes while I reboot my computer and got all the programs back up and running. And it was fine, but that’s the only time technology has failed me. There are a lot of pros and cons. I never rely solely on technology, so it doesn’t fail me very often. I use only its pros, which are things like, “Wow, at any time, I can pull this device out of my pocket and record the idea that I have in my head and be certain that I don’t forget it later.” If somebody in Japan is like, “Hey man, how do you play that guitar part on ‘Starks and Ewing’?” or whatever song, I can just say, “Oh, well here’s a quick video of me doing it. That’s how.” And I can just send it over. It’s incredible that technology is able to grant us those opportunities. Also, I can tune my guitar by putting my phone in front of it, and it’ll tell me whether I’m in tune or not. That’s pretty cool. I’ll sometimes do songwriting or production sessions with people on the other side of the world through Skype or FaceTime. That’s pretty incredible. The other plus side is the relationships and the community that it builds. I met a bunch of people in the guitar community through Instagram or Facebook. It helped me to meet my friend Ariel Posen. I just put out a video of us hanging in a studio together and playing. I met Emily Browning through the internet, and then we met in person at a house party and stayed in touch through the internet. When it came time for me to pick an opener for my tour, I just thought, “Oh! Emily would be great!” And sure enough, I could send her a message all the way to New Zealand, and she could just say, “Yeah, I’m in,” and fly over and do it.
During the show, you briefly touched on the millennial computer generation of music-makers. Where do you fall on that line of traditionalists who don’t think a computer should serve any purpose in music production and new-era DJs who don’t use any real instruments, producing solely from their laptops?
I don’t mind the computer era of music that much. I think it’s important that you can fall back on something. Can you show me something that shows that you have musical ability? Great. I think the best use of it is for when it helps you express your art. For me, when I’m making demos, I’ll put a loop together, but I’ll build the loop and I’ll program it myself to the groove that I want and make it feel how I want, and I’ll play instruments on top of it. So I don’t mind using computer instruments—I do on all my records, and I think it’s great! There’s ways to use it artistically, but then there’s also people who don’t get how to do music or write music or play any instrument, and that’s kinda lame.
Gonna switch gears a little bit. Who came up with the peanut butter bit?
[Laughs] That was me, I just dragged Emily along with me. I just said, “We should have somebody in the crowd with peanut butter,” and she was the only one of our crew who wasn’t on stage, so naturally she drew the short straw. She’s down, so that was nice. She thought it was genuinely funny, so that helped.
What’s your favorite song to play live and why?
Wow, that’s a hard one. On this tour, I love playing my tune “’91 Maxima” the most because I got to fire off my inflatable air men. A lot of guitar players get excited about guitar pedals they press. The most exciting pedal for me to press all night is the one that turns Larry and Jerry on. And yes, that’s their names.
The stage looked like a car dealership.
Do you notice significant differences in terms of stage dynamics or even crowd dynamics when playing solo, with Vulfpeck, Fearless Flyers or any other projects that you’ve been involved with?
Fortunately, they’re all pretty similar crowds. The main difference is how big is the crowd. The second difference is whether Antwaun Stanley is on stage. [Laughs] For whatever reason, when he’s on stage, the place is just hype. And he is such an insane, hype guy. It’s incredible. So with Vulfpeck, obviously the scale to which the crowds are is so much larger than what I’m doing with my solo thing, but that’s fine. And my solo thing will continue to grow, and that’s great. But the crowds are very similar.
How was working with Nate Smith?
That was a dream to play with him and to continue to play with him because I think he’s the best drummer in the world right now. He has all the chops that you could want and all the groove that you could want, and he knows how to artfully and musically use those skills. A lot of guys have a ton of chops, but not a ton of groove. Or they have a ton of groove, but not a lot of chops. It’s fun to play with a guy like that who’s just got all of it but knows when to harness it and when to let it loose.
As an aspiring guitarist growing up in Minneapolis who looked up to Prince, what was it like getting to work with Michael Bland, Sonny Thompson and the Hornheads?
Those guys I’ve worked with for years because I cut my teeth and grew up playing in Minneapolis, so from early on, I was playing with those guys and learning from them. Now having them view me as one of their peers is pretty fun and exciting. But my first times playing with Michael and Sonny, I got pulverized and tenderized through his school. I went to college, but I feel like my formal training was from Michael Bland and Sonny Thompson. That’s where I really honed in the musicality stuff.
So do you think a certain level of intensity is necessary when playing with new people? Or is there a balance, and where do you fall on that spectrum?
I think there’s a balance. It depends on what the future holds, what the relationship could potentially be with that person. But also, how much does that person care? If everybody is playing for keeps, then yeah, there’s a certain level of intensity, and that’s great. I’m a high-energy, high-intensity person in general, so I think I will draw that out of people who can bring it. But I think also I can use it to bring the energy of something up if it’s lagging. I like having a good amount of intensity, but an appropriate amount.
Tell me about “the hang.” Can somebody achieve it, or are you born with it?
Some people are born with it. Your natural schmoozers in life are born with “the hang,” you know? “The hang” is basically just all the off-stage. Some guys have all the on-stage musical stuff together but their “hang” is terrible. So what happens is they get hired for one tour and they don’t get asked back. Even though they’re the best one for the job, if their “hang” sucks, they’re out. I’ve seen that happen dozens of times. “The hang” is all about your interpersonal stuff off-stage and your professionalism. It’s more just how you are as a person. I had a keyboard player sub with me once, and literally 10 minutes after we got off stage at a festival, he was like, “Yo, I need you to pay me right now.” Like wait what?! We just got off stage, give me a freakin’ second. The guy was great, but I’m just not gonna hire him again. Bad “hang.” Do this guy’s feet stink and every time we get in the van, he takes his shoes off? You’re losing some “hang” points there.
You cite Pat Metheny and John Scofield as major influences. As jazz seems to be having some sort of rebirth, especially in the context of hip-hop music, do you see funk ever coming back in a major way or will it remain this niche genre that artists like yourself continue to spearhead?
Groove is groove. Groove-based music will always be around. How people decide to express that sometimes is more funk, sometimes R&B. You can throw a funk guitar part on a hip-hop song and all of a sudden it just is funky. You’ve got guys like Bruno Mars and Justin Timberlake and Emily King playing funk. There’s all kinds of people doing it on different scales. Even like Niall Horan from One Direction has some kinda funk tunes on his solo record. I think it’s fun to see it’s coming back more in the pop culture.
You’ve cited Rivers Cuomo as an influence for how you organize your unfinished projects. So, are you team Blue Album or team Pinkerton?
I’m team Blue Album all the way, 100 percent. I like Pinkerton, but Blue Album is it for me. That might be my favorite album of all time. Definitely in my top three.
What’s your guilty pleasure music? Or is all music guilt-free?
I think all music is guilt-free as long as the message of it is fine. I’m fine listening to “basic music” and feeling great about it. I love Katy Perry’s PRISM record. I think it’s a brilliant freakin’ pop record. Anybody who has something negative to say about me because I like a Katy Perry record—screw them. I don’t care, it’s good pop music. And I can get down with a Cecil Taylor avant-garde solo piano jazz record. A lot of my friends who are into pop music would be like, “How can you stand listening to that?” Fine. Whatever.
Speaking of pop, you’ve referred to Continuum as one of your favorite pop records. Have you ever gotten the chance to meet or play with John Mayer?
I have not yet. We have a bunch of mutual friends. We have a bunch of times that we intended to connect, but it has not worked out yet. Hopefully that will happen very soon [laughs].
How do you name an instrumental song?
That is the hardest part about music for me. It comes from all over the place, but it is the hardest thing for me to do. It will take me less time to write, record, produce and mix an instrumental song than it will for me to name it. Although I’ve got a buddy who’s got the gift of naming things. He’s got a certain type of synesthesia where he’ll hear things and visualize them. It helps him name things. I’ve thought about putting him on retainer and having him just name things in my life.
Your song “Upstream” is available as downloadable content for Rock Band II. Did you ever play Rock Band or Guitar Hero?
I did, and I was never as good at it as the real guitar.
Interesting. Did you play guitar before playing the games?
Yeah, because I started playing guitar in sixth grade, and I think the games came out when I was in high school. So I figured, if I wanna play “Symphony of Destruction,” I’m gonna figure out how to play it on the real guitar.
When did you figure out you were a Strat guy? Did you start off on one and never stray or was it a discovery process?
Day one. I was a Strat guy from day one. My dad convinced me. He was like, “So, you wanna play the guitar? Let’s look at all the guitar gods. Hendrix, Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughn. What do they all play? Stratocaster.”
If you could work with any artist dead or alive, who would it be?
You’re pretty popular in Peru. Are there any noticeable differences between performing in South America versus playing in the States?
I have not been there for a while, but the audiences in South America are generally more attentive audiences to musical nuance. The way that some other cultures respond to musical nuance is very different than in the United States. In the United States, I know what gets the crowd to go wild: the loud, the fast, the high, the super exciting. In Europe and in South America, that stuff gets them excited, but also, they’ll respond the same way to a very musically nuanced thing.
What’s the most useful touring tip that you’ve learned while on the road?
You never need as many clothes as you think you do. You’ll find a way to do laundry. Also, you gotta eat clean. It’ll help you feel better and healthier. Life will be easier for you if your body is working properly.
Where do you think you’d be without music?
I would probably be doing something in architecture. We had a really good drafting program at my high school, and by 10th grade I basically finished the whole program. So I got a job with an architect as a drafter drawing all the blueprints and everything. I did all the residential projects.
Do you have any upcoming plans besides touring?
Fearless Flyers just finished recording a new record. Super stoked about that. It’s gonna be insane. The album turned out great. I am almost halfway done with a new Cory Wong record. I’m going to Europe next week to do some touring. Fortunately, the entire tour is sold out, so that’s gonna be fun. Vulfpeck is doing a Red Rocks show that’s sold out. Madison Square Garden with Vulfpeck and the Fearless Flyers, which is gonna be insane. I’m excited to see what this year brings.