The multimedia renaissance man accesses all the experiences he’s had for his solo debut.
MD readers who have seen the name Joe Wong in the credits of Netflix shows like Russian Doll or Master of None may have wondered, is that the same Joe Wong that hosts The Trap Set? It is. Not only has the Milwaukee-born, Los Angeles–based Wong created one of the best podcasts for drummers—where legends like Bill Bruford and Clyde Stubblefield have opened up about their lives and their drumming—he’s also an in-demand TV and film composer, providing pitch-perfect scores to series like Awkwafina Is Nora from Queens, Ugly Delicious, The Midnight Gospel, and those aforementioned Netflix shows.
And now, after serving stints as drummer for Mary Timony and Marnie Stern, and with the noisy Brooklyn band Parts & Labor, Wong can add “solo artist” to his C.V. The adventurous creative spirit Wong brings to his TV and film scores can be felt throughout his debut solo album, Nite Creatures, a collection that unapologetically recalls the kind of late-’60s psych-pop that bands like Love, Pink Floyd, and the Zombies circa Odessey and Oracle specialized in.
By marrying baroque-pop touches like strings and harp with a touch of bombast (courtesy of Dave Fridmann’s mix) and brilliant drumming that stretches dynamically and conceptually beyond what most psych-pop drummers were laying down in the late ’60s, Wong’s sonic journey amounts to much more than just an “in the style of…” retro trip. At times it’s dark and meditative, like the headphones-friendly “Minor,” a trance-like composition that’s upended with a booming drum entrance and menacing strings in the latter part of the song. “Nuclear Rainbow,” which glides effortlessly from 3/4 verses to a big, groovy 4/4 feel in the chorus, feels like a trippy coronation ceremony as brass, strings, woodwinds, and harmonies swirl all around. And, being the Trap Set guy, Wong gets a drumming assist from one of his guests, as Flaming Lips multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd contributes guitar and a second drum track (hard-panned to one channel, with Wong’s drums in the other) to the swirling “In the Morning.”
MD discussed the record, whose initial release date and tour were scrapped due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with Wong.
MD: Drums are such a big part of your world and what you’re identified with. Did that factor into how much or how little drumming you wanted on these songs?
Joe: Speaking to all the great drummers and artists I’ve spoken to over the years [on The Trap Set] almost freed me up to stop trying so hard as a drummer. To be honest, when I was recording these songs the drums were done in one or two takes in most cases without too much thought. I don’t say that flippantly. I say that as someone who, on previous albums that I’ve made, obsessed about every detail of the drumming. And I think that since I was also the songwriter of this material, I was just thinking melodically, and I was uniquely suited to play drums on the songs as I was hearing them in my mind.
MD: Had you considered making a solo record before? Was there a particular reason you did it now?
Joe: I had long wanted to make a record as a songwriter, but I was too hard on myself. I was paralyzed creatively in that regard. I was starting to ask myself, “You’re writing hundreds of hours of music a year for all these movies and shows for other people—what’s the obstacle that’s preventing you from doing what you want to do most?” By talking to so many people about their creative obstacles and how they overcame them, and just the act of engaging with other people, regardless of the subject matter, it helped me finally make a record on my own.
MD: It seems like talking to all these other drummers for The Trap Set is so much more than “podcast content” for you. It’s like a driver, creatively.
Joe: Just the act of making something every week and putting it out into the world and having the opportunity to talk to so many great artists is a freeing experience. It definitely was the main creative activity that allowed me to even make a statement on my own.
MD: You play almost every instrument on the record. Did you consider bringing in someone else to play drums, or were you married to the fact that you were putting this together top to bottom?
Joe: It was just a matter of practicality, because that’s how I usually work when I’m scoring. I’ll play drums on the stuff that I score. I wasn’t trying to challenge myself as a drummer when I was making these songs. I think that’s healthy. It was like, “What’s the easiest way to get from point A to point B and service the song in the most compelling way possible?” I didn’t have to overthink it. I could just get that immediate reaction on drums.
As far as the other instruments, it takes me a little more than one take—especially with vocals, which I’d never done before. It was a nice contrast to be able to lay that foundation without too much thought and then move on to the other stuff. I find that I can lock in with myself on bass easily because I have the exact same rhythmic sensibility. I don’t have to think about it at all.
Joe Wong plays Keplinger snares, Camco drums, and Istanbul Agop cymbals.