While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong
Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.
19 September 2020
Joe Wong had arrived at what felt like a crossroads. He'd been making music, both as a touring drummer and as a film and television composer for 20 years. In 2012, Wong moved west from Milwaukee to Los Angeles, but with work coming in at a slow drip, and with it getting harder and harder to survive financially, he couldn't help but wonder if it had been worth it.
"I was feeling that I was sort of in a loveless marriage with music," he says. "The thing that I loved the most and had spent the most time on and invested my life in, I wasn't getting the same visceral joy as when I started. I asked myself why I was doing this. Was it only because I consider it part of my identity, and I've spent so much time doing it, and I'm too scared to leave and try something else? Is there something I could do to work through it? In some ways, I was at the height of my powers from a craft perspective when it came to playing drums, and I was still playing out with lots of different people, but I wasn't getting the same emotional response that had brought me into this world."
Wong had been reared on math rock and Dischord Records as a teenager in Wisconsin but nurtured a love for jazz. He was in a touring band before he finished high school. Having settled on music as a career, he enrolled in Boston's Berklee College of Music in 1999. Berklee helped him set his intentions, he says now and decided to seriously study music and figure out how to make a living playing it. "One of the things I love about jazz is the dedication to the craft," he says. "I wanted to explore people who were pushing as hard as possible to say something profound in a virtuosic language. Berklee is associated with people who achieved empty virtuosity, but I was more interested in people like John Coltrane, who had a mastery of the craft and the art, in an emotional sense."
He left Berklee after two years and soon returned to Milwaukee. There he began scoring films professionally after working with friends on a project that became the 2003 movie Yes Men. "[Yes Men] was relatively low stakes," he says, "because it was our friends who hired us, they didn't have much money to pay us, and we had absolutely no idea what we were doing as far as the standard practices of scoring. But, we just figured it out, we made our own method, and it worked out fine." The film got a distribution deal through United Artists and became an unexpected success.
Wong can remember working as a waiter at a restaurant located in the same complex as a theater showing the film. He took it as a sign that he was on the right path and sought out scoring work on as many projects as he could. "It was a fun way of learning how to work in multiple genres and how to develop a thick skin," he says, "which is a prerequisite for working in this world. And making things to fit in and pacing over a 30-second, or 60-second, or 90-second spot, and learning to deal with difficult people and turning around things really quickly." He resumed touring and performed with Mary Timony on a run of shows opening for Spoon before joining the New York band Parts and Labor in 2007.
After Parts and Labor disbanded, Wong moved to Los Angeles to focus on his scoring career but struggled for years to build a steady flow of work. He taught drum lessons, played gigs when he could, and toured as part of Marnie Stern's band. His biggest success came when he was hired to score the show Master of None. "That was a great project and kind of boosted my notoriety a bit," he says, "but it wasn't like the jobs started flooding in." Now in his mid-30s, he wasn't finding it any easier to make ends meet. He'd been working at music non-stop for 20 years, and from the best he could tell, it looked like he might have landed himself in a pit.
He addressed the problem the way he seems to address every problem; he took on more work. In 2015, he started the podcast The Trap Set. He'd fallen in love with the early episodes of Marc Maron's WTF podcast while touring with Parts and Labor, in particular with the way Maron and his guests seemed to have an immediate rapport because of the common denominator of being comedians. "Even if they didn't know each other very well," he says, "there was an instant familiarity there because they both practiced the same art form."
The idea was to interview drummers about the art of playing drums and how to navigate a life in music when so many of your contributions are set in the background. "The talk about craft is less interesting to me than the fact that both of us being drummers is a jumping-off point into a substantial conversation about what is behind the craft," he says. "If I was an author and had a podcast and I only had other authors on, I would talk about ideas. I wouldn't talk about what typewriter they use, or their use of syntax and grammar, because that's not interesting."
The Trap Set stands out largely because it spends so little time with concerns over technique and gear. Instead, Wong talks about childhood regrets with Phil Collins, the joys of family life with Wilco's Glenn Kotche, faith with Low's Mimi Parker, and overcoming substance abuse with studio legend Steve Gadd. "Nobody needs to cover the ratamacues that Steve Gadd did on [Steely Dan's] Aja, again. That's already there ... it was there on record, so if you had enough patience, you could figure it out for yourself, but it's already there in his tutorials. And nobody needs to cover what he was doing on [Paul Simon's] '50 Ways to Leave Your Lover' again. My interest is always, 'Wow...this is an original thinker.' You can hear it in his music. I wanted to know the emotional life behind those decisions he makes as an artist. I'm not interested in anything salacious or personal for the sake of being personal. It's more like, 'If we strip back the artistry, what's driving it?' To me, at that stage in my life, that was more important information than to know what licks he was playing on a record."
Wong ended up working out his neuroses, he says now, with his musical heroes. "I was genuinely curious," he says, "as to whether these people had experienced some of the same things that I had, and how they had emerged from it and how they had navigated through their lives." Ultimately, he says, making the podcast was a ladder out of what had felt like an impossibly dark hole.
In 2018, Wong was hired to compose music for the show Russian Doll. It helped put him, for the first time, in a stable enough position to be more selective about which other work he took on. It was also in 2018 that he began working on the songs that would become Nite Creatures, his first solo album. "Songwriting is something that I always wanted to do, and I think I was frustrated because deep down, I needed to put out a statement, and I needed to get the songs out of me, but there were some blocks there. When you're scoring for somebody or playing drums in somebody's band, it's a creative endeavor, but you're often facilitating someone else's creative vision, so it's less vulnerable in a certain way. I think that I was probably scared of the vulnerability that comes with making your own statement. But, on the other hand, I really wanted to do it. I asked myself what was holding me back because I realized one year that I'd written hundreds of hours of music, so why was it so hard to write an hour of my own material?"
Photo: Priscilla C. Scott / Courtesy of Grandstand Media
Wong again solved the problem through a combination of dogged optimism and a relentless work ethic. He set songwriting deadlines for himself, booked time at Gatos Trail Studios in Joshua Tree, and convinced Mary Timony, who had first encouraged him to work on his material as far back as 2004, to act as his producer. It was something of a leap of faith and something of a dare with himself. "Even though I have a studio," he says, "I wanted to create separation from my normal workspace and where I was going to be making this really personal statement. And I also wanted to spend the money and put my intentions out there, to make it clear to myself that I was doing this. Once I did all that, I began writing the songs. It worked!"
"I had been talking to Joe about him making a solo record for a long time, and I was so happy when he started to work on it, and even happier that he asked me to be a part of it," says Timony. "When he played me some of the tunes he was working on, I knew it was going to be really great. Working on the record was one of the most fun and inspiring recording experiences I've ever had. Joe is such a wiz at playing and recording, and I learned so much from being involved. The way the record came out is pretty mind-blowing. Very, very proud of and excited about the record that we made."
Nite Creatures is an ambitious and ornately appointed album, with shifting layers of harmonies, bells and percussion, rolling drums and bass, and grandly stated guitars set amidst the sweep of a 24-piece orchestra. On one of the best songs, "Minor", Wong's baritone hovers over plucked strings before the songs crash against the orchestra's full weight, finally dissolving into almost a minute-long hypnotic pattern of linear hi-hat, snare, and kick drum. "Nuclear Rainbow" shifts time signatures almost imperceptibly, roiling strings leading into the album's most memorable chorus. There are hints of Scott Walker, the Zombies, and Love, but the overall feel is never retro. "I wanted to make something that felt like it could have been recorded yesterday, or it could have been recorded 60 years ago," he says.
The mood below the instrumentation is dark, but never oppressively so. On the album's opening song, "Dreams Wash Away", Wong repeats the lines, "All things dissolve in time," and "All of your dreams will wash away." It's a grim rumination on the inevitably of time, but just as age weakens our will and steals our minds, with it, as he sings, "fears subside," too.
"I didn't even know what the album was about until I zoomed out after it was done, and then I knew it was about losing my dad. The orchestral session that we did was in January of last year, that was the last recording session for the album, and it was a high point. It was seeing this thing that I'd struggled with come to fruition. Then, the next month, my dad died. He had been sick for nine years before that. He had a major stroke in 2010 and was living as a shadow of himself and was losing more of himself every year. That was weighing heavily on my psyche for years, so obviously, when I went deep and wrote the lyrics, that's probably why that came out."
"Existential threat is definitely being brought to the fore by this pandemic, and our society, or at least our economy, is designed to distract us from that essential part of our existence; that it's finite. It's something I've thought about for a long time, but when you're holding somebody's hand as they're going to the next place or the next plane of existence, it feels very natural. In this case, this was somebody who was ready to go, but similar to birth, it felt like a natural process. And it took death off of the pedestal that it had been on for me."
Wong signed with Decca Records and put together a dream lineup of musicians to perform the album live, including Timony on guitar, Pearl Jam's Matt Cameron on drums, and harpist Mary Lattimore. The group had plans for a run of summer shows in multiple cities, but COVID has scuttled everything. Wong, unsurprisingly, remains optimistic and has already begun work on a new batch of material. "We had the tour all figured out, and it seemed like there was decent interest in it," he says. "It's a bummer we can't do that, but you know, we'll do it next year. When I had Phil Collins on my podcast, he suggested that it's best to make two solo albums before you tour, which is what he did ... and it worked out for him."
Wong also remains hard at work on The Trap Set and is rapidly approaching his 300th interview for the show. "I'm in a drastically better and different place in my life than when the show started, in part because of the show itself. I'm asking myself the question, 'What's going to keep it exciting moving forward'? In the same way that we opened it up to non-drummers after the first couple hundred episodes, what is the equivalent of that so I can keep it scary and exciting moving forward. I remember the first dozen episodes I recorded; I was so nervous in a productive way. It reminds me of what Sheila E. told me on one of our early episodes, that she always heads for this feeling of butterflies in her stomach. This nervous energy is her compass because it indicates something that's slightly out of her reach creatively, and it represents the next frontier."