As Tokyo-based artists Dustin Wong and Takako Minekawa were recording their second album, they struggled to find the right title for it. They had some ideas, but they didn't settle on a name until they started working on a diorama for the cover art.
"Takako brought in this wooden board, and she wanted to paint on it," Wong remembered. "We decided to put [on] more than paint by choosing papier-mache, clay and aluminum foil. While we were doing this, she started making these Venus of Willendorfs—they're kind of these motherly deities from ancient times from Europe."
These figures tied in with their interest in indigenous cultures and Carl Jung's belief in an "explicit, non-censored subconscious." The two musicians started thinking of the album as the product of a "savage imagination" or "this kind of violent beauty of creativity."
"[It's] like a well—the things within us that we ignore," Wong told Boise Weekly.
Wong and Minekawa's music hasn't gone ignored. Pitchfork's Nick Neyland called Savage Imagination (Thrill Jockey Records, 2014) "a jubilant, uplifting work, taking on several shades of happiness as it turns through its 43 minutes." Stereogum premiered the album's single "She He See Feel" on July 30, and the album has also received coverage from The Japan Times, Brooklyn Vegan and other publications. Boise music fans will get to hear Wong and Minekawa's various "shades" when the duo plays The Crux on Thursday, Dec. 4, with local one-man experimental act Paper Gates.
Despite Minekawa's and Wong's ideas about creativity, Savage Imagination doesn't sound particularly violent. Instead, there's a playful, hyperactive quality to the album's lively beats, quirky samples, serene tunes and dexterous guitar picking. Reflecting the duo's freewheeling approach to music making, each song feels like it could fly off in any direction at any given moment.
"The songs themselves are written pretty intuitively," Wong said. "Since it is loop-based and layer-based, we can go anywhere. If the songs were written on a different day, it would've probably been a different song altogether."
Wong's intuition has served him well. Born in Hawaii, he spent most of his childhood in a conservative Christian school in Tokyo. It didn't take him long to find his own way, though: He started listening to Frank Zappa when he was 12 and experimenting on guitar when he was 14 or 15.
"There might have been a friend or two who showed me some major chords or a pentatonic scale; after that, it was just trial and error," Wong said. "Even doing the band stuff, I didn't really know what I was doing. I didn't understand music theory. I didn't know what playing in a key meant."
Wong stuck with it. Before going solo, he performed with guitar duo Ecstatic Sunshine and art-rock band Ponytail, whose albums Kamehameha (We Are Free, 2006) and Ice Cream Spiritual (We Are Free, 2008) received A-minus reviews from critic and former Village Voice Music Editor Robert Christgau. Wong pursued other artistic endeavors as well, studying film for two years in San Francisco and sculpture in Baltimore, where both Ecstatic Sunshine and Ponytail were based.
Eventually, concern for his family persuaded Wong to move back to Tokyo.
"The earthquake in 2011 and the Fukushima disaster definitely got me concerned," Wong told The Quietus in 2013. "My parents still live over here, they experienced the whole shake."
Another reason for moving was Minekawa, who met Wong at one of his solo shows in 2011. Although she hadn't released any music in more than a decade—she'd gone on hiatus after marrying musician-producer Keigo Oyamada, aka Cornelius—Minekawa had already enjoyed an impressive career. A former child star, her blend of '70s electronica and '60s French pop made her one of the most prominent artists of Japan's Shibuya-kei movement during the 1990s.
The two became friends and began collaborating, releasing the album Toropical Circle in 2013. Wong credits Minekawa with adding fresh and unexpected elements to their music.
"I think Takako's more in touch with timbre and texture—more so than I am," he said. "She can really pick out a sound and be, like, 'I like this sound.' And I'm always intrigued by that because before then, it's always been, 'What can I do with a guitar? What kind of interesting sounds can I make with a guitar?' But then with Takako, you can just start with an interesting sound."
Ponytail fans might hear some especially interesting sounds from Wong in the future: He recently discussed making an album with ex-Ponytail vocalist Willy (formerly Molly) Siegel. Wong has also started making videos and painting, approaching them with the same spirit that he brings to his music.
"You kind of have to take a break and connect to that pure place again of making things because you want to, rather than making things because you want to please people around you," he said.