“It’s all about our lives, the stuff that I do, there’s music themes, there’s exploring music topics and things like that that I’ve seen done before and I always wanted that to exist.”
Cory Wong has a lot going on these days. The musician based in Minneapolis hosts his own variety show, has a podcast, and is a touring member of the funk dynamos Vulfpeck while being a full-fledged member of the spin-off band the Fearless Flyers.
He also has a prolific solo career with more than 10 full-length albums and he’s only in his mid-30s.
As part of the second leg of his “Power Station Tour,” Wong and his band will perform at the House Of Blues in Boston on Feb. 25. Jazz fusion legend Victor Wooten will play with Wong while folk-pop act Trousdale will start off the show at 7:30pm.
We spoke ahead of the show about how he got Wooten to jump on the tour, that variety show I just mentioned, keeping a to-do list, and an album he’s been working on that he’s really excited about.
How did you and Victor Wooten get connected ahead of this run of shows and what are your thoughts on sharing the stage with him?
Victor is one of my musical heroes. I’ve watched him since I was a teenager and my favorite band for several years has been Béla Fleck and the Flecktones. When I was 18, I saw them play live at the Minnesota Zoo in an amphitheater and it blew my mind in a way where as they played I felt a sense of permission to do what I do now. Before, I didn’t know and I thought it was kind of weird doing this instrumental music with a less traditional instrumentation and a different blending of styles.
I was asking myself, Do I have permission to do this? And after seeing the Flecktones live it was a resounding, Yes, you’re allowed to do whatever you want if it’s compelling. The first time I saw Victor it was there, it blew my mind and I have been listening to him for years. He’s a total legend and one of my absolutely favorite musicians on the planet. Eventually, I started to do my own thing and gain some notoriety in the music world, as what sometimes happens and I’ve been fortunate to have happen, and Victor expressed that he was a fan of Vulfpeck and what I do.
I have a music variety show on Youtube that’s like The Late Show meets Saturday Night Live if the musicians took over, he was interested in it, and he loved it. I said, Oh my gosh! I would love you on, I would love to interview you and I’d love for us to play together.
He said, Absolutely. Let me see when it fits into my schedule with touring. We talked over the phone and we figured out what we were going to do. I wrote a couple tunes to see which ones stood out to him and he pointed one of them out and said, Oh, I like that one. Let’s do that one. We met in person for the first time when he came on my music talk show, Cory and the Wongnotes, and that day he came to the studio where we filmed and we played and recorded the song. We did three takes of the song; the second take was dynamite, but we did a third take just to see (laughs) and it turned out even better.
I did an interview with him that’s an hour long. He was just spewing wisdom the whole time and he enjoyed the questions that I was asking because they were about things that matter to him and things that matter to me and we really got into it. Then it was, Hey, let’s do this again and let’s find a way to connect and when I was planning this tour I was thinking now that I have a platform and I have some level of success I now have the ability to invite some of my heroes to be a part of it. It was a dream to have Victor Wooten as a special guest on this tour, play bass in the band, be on the bus, absorb all of his wisdom and he said yes right away, which I was so surprised and so thrilled at. As much as I’m excited about getting to play with one of the best musicians who has ever lived and who is one of my absolute heroes, I’m also equally excited to just hang on a bus with Victor Wooten for a month and absorb all of the wisdom, knowledge and experience that he has.
It sounds very exciting, that’s awesome. I’ve actually interviewed Victor before and I totally get that wisdom aspect he brings, he’s also a very intelligent guy. You started out playing piano when you were nine, you then started playing bass in your teens due to being inspired by the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Primus and now you play a Fender Stratocaster guitar. What is it about that particular instrument that has made it your primary instrument for the majority of your time as a musician?
I originally wanted to be a bass player and I still at heart want to be a bass player, but I’m stuck playing the guitar (laughs). When I was in sixth grade, I wanted to play bass in a band. I had a bass and I was a bass player. Out of my friends that showed any interest in wanting to join a band, none of them wanted to play guitar. One of my friends, his name was Aaron, told me that his stepdad had a bass up in the attic and I played the bass but I knew my parents weren’t going to buy me a guitar to learn.
I ended up teaching Aaron how to play bass and I saved up my shoveling money, because that’s what we do in Minnesota to earn money as kids, to buy myself a guitar. I’ve been stuck on the guitar ever since, actually in the most thrilling way but I also love playing bass and I play bass on my records sometimes in the studio. I had a crappy guitar that I got at a pawn shop and then as I was starting to take it more seriously my parents recognized it. I was begging to get a better guitar on Christmas and on my birthday, just something nicer and easier to play that stays in tune and my dad said, Alright, it’s time to go get you a strat. I was like, Oh, what do you mean? Isn’t there a bunch of different types? and he said, Well, yeah but you love the Red Hot Chili Peppers and John Frusciante plays a strat.
Then he mentioned all these other guitar icons like Stevie Ray Vaughan, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Eric Johnson, and Mark Knopfler from Dire Straits who all play or played a Stratocaster. I then said, Yeah, let’s get me a strat and the versatility of it was pointed out to me so early on and it just became my instrument. I’m very comfortable on it, but also at a certain point when you develop a certain sound and a certain voice on your instrument you’re going to sound like it kind of no matter what. There are certain instruments and things that draw your voice out in the most pure and effortless way and the Stratocaster has always been that for me. It’s just always felt like I’m at home, this is my voice, this is who I am and how I can express myself in the most pure way.
You’re right about the versatility of it, you play funk and jazz music but guitarists in punk bands, metal bands and blues bands play the Stratocaster as well. You mentioned earlier about having Victor Wooten on your variety show on YouTube called Cory and the Wongnotes. The past two seasons have been unique in how they’ve culminated in the release of two albums, one named after the show that came out in 2021 and another that shares the same name of the current tour you’re on that came out last year. What inspired the idea to do this unique form or entertainment? Do you take cues from other talk show hosts when it comes to segments and how things are presented or do you try to keep it as original as possible?
I’ve been fascinated with late night TV since I was a kid. I probably shouldn’t have but I had a TV in my room that had me staying up way too late watching late night talk shows and late night TV. I was just fascinated by the format, there’s a live band, there’s a show energy to it, it talks about current affairs, it has guests on that have interesting things that are just happening in the zeitgeist and there’s bands that come and do performances. It’s a cool variety thing that I’ve always been fascinated with and I used to have this dream of wanting to be a late night bandleader, that was always such a huge dream of mine. How do you get that gig? You don’t really audition for it so I figured that I’d audition for my own gig, make my own show and be that guy.
I’ll also be the host so I can show that I have the presenter and entertainer chops but also the music director chops. Then I thought if I’m going to do this I’m not going to do it live because no one is going to watch it live on TV and I’m not going to have the kind of guests where I can just bring them in because it’s not feasible for me to do it on the day of. This means that I can do it on my own time and nothing needs to be relevant to the day that it’s playing where in late night TV and talk shows it’s all about what’s happening in the now. I’m able to focus on things that are more timeless or evergreen in the concepts and I film everything live on set, it’s all done on the set and everything is recorded there. Then I’ll go do segments of sketch comedy that I worked on while exercising that part of my creativity and showcase that part of my thing that I do and am interested in.
Is it influenced by late night TV? Absolutely. Is it influenced by things like Saturday Night Live or Key & Peele or Chappelle’s Show and all of these other incredible shows? Absolutely. It’s all around the premise of music and it’s all music topics as if it’s like I said, The Late Show meets Saturday Night Live if the musicians took over. It’s all about our lives, the stuff that I do, there’s music themes, there’s exploring music topics and things like that that I’ve seen done before and I always wanted that to exist. I came to the point that if nobody else is going to do this and no network is interested then I’m gonna do it myself.
I pitched the idea to plenty of streaming platforms, TV networks and things and they were like, Who are you? No, you’re not going to be able to do this. You have no idea what you’re doing, you have no idea what you’re talking about, we’re not interested. I was like, OK, fine. Screw it, I’ll do it all myself independently and I did it, it was great and now I have it as my audition tape for hopefully someday being able to do it on a large level while partnering with a network or a platform. That could be cool or it also could be cool to just do it independently and my way forever.
It’s been exploring the creativity and the different sides of who I am and that’s really great because I am more than just a guitar player or just a musician. I have these other things that go around in my brain and it’s fun to get them out.
It definitely sounds like it. Where do you film the variety show? Do you rent out a studio somewhere or do you do it from home?
I worked with a set designer, we built a set and that set gets stored in Nashville. We did batch filming, so I rented a soundstage in Nashville for five days and we filmed season one. Then I rented a different one in Nashville that was bigger, because we needed more space, and for a week we did the filming for season two. We recorded everything, the album, the show, right there on set. The set unfortunately doesn’t get as much use as I’d like it to get, but it’s a lot to put together.
I can totally imagine. You also host a podcast called Wong Notes along with being a member of the Fearless Flyers, a touring member of Vulfpeck and teaching online music courses. How do you manage your time to do all this stuff? Do you often schedule yourself months in advance or do you try to take it one day at a time so you don’t get overwhelmed?
I do it all at the same time, but I have a great to-do list method. I have a wonderful way of compartmentalizing and organizing things while estimating the amount of time that certain things take. At this point, my main job is my music and my band with my other two things being a member of Vulfpeck, which only takes up 20 days a year of commitment and that’s what we’ve chosen to do, and the Fearless Flyers. I help coordinate that band, I’m a member of that band and that project maybe takes up 20 days a year so although there’s a lot happening, stuff gets batch recorded and batch produced over a couple of months. It might look like I’ve worked on something for a long time when I was only in the studio for a week doing the last Vulfpeck album.
Then I was in the studio for a week doing Cory and The Wongnotes episodes and the album. Of course there was a lot of work leading up to that doing the arranging, writing and producing and all that, which does take time but I’m very efficient, I’m a Pro Tools wizard, I’m very fast and I can work a lot more seamlessly than a lot of other people. I’m not saying that I’m the best or that I’m the fastest, but I just know from being around a lot of studios that I work a lot more efficiently than a lot of other people. That’s OK, that’s fine and that’s part of my skill set, but I think a big part is that I can balance things with a great to-do list and a great structure of priorities. This is what needs to get done this week, this is what needs to get done within the next month, within the next year and kind of seeing the short of what needs to get done while also having a great team of people around me.
There’s certain things that I need help with. I can go to certain people who are experts in those things who are part of my team and we tackle them together.
It’s great that you have that structure and keeping a to-do list is very important, I can definitely relate to that. After the Power Station Tour, what are your plans for the rest of the first half of 2023? Can we expect any new recordings from you or will you just be focusing on touring and performing?
I am working on a new studio album that’s under my own name and it is straight fire, I’m feeling so good about it. There’s some incredible collaborations and features on it that I’m really stoked about with some people who I’ve been wanting to work with for a long time, some great friends and it’s turning out to be an incredible album. I can’t wait to work on it every day that I’m able to work on it because I’m so stoked about some of these tunes. I recorded some of my best guitar work ever on this record and I feel like I’ve written some of the best songs I’ve ever written on this record. I feel like I’m exploring a sound, a space, my voice on the guitar and my voice as a producer in a way that I haven’t always been able to do.
Also, recording a studio record is different from recording an album live on set because live on set you don’t have overdubs. Now there’s just one Cory Wong on the thing but I can make a stack of six or seven guitars for something really exciting, new and different. Clearly you can tell that I’m very excited about it. I’m doing a bunch of festivals, and doing some other touring. With Vulfpeck, we’re trying to figure out what the year looks like for us and we also have some festivals we’re doing.
The Fearless Flyers are playing some festivals. There’s just a lot of really fun activities happening.
Rob Duguay is an arts & entertainment journalist based in Providence, RI who is originally from Shelton, CT. Outside of DigBoston, he also writes for The Providence Journal, The Connecticut Examiner, The Newport Daily News, Worcester Magazine, New Noise Magazine, Northern Transmissions and numerous other publications. While covering mostly music, he has also written about film, TV, comedy, theatre, visual art, food, drink, sports and cannabis.