Minneapolis guitarist Cory Wong is having a CD release show for his debut album, Cory Wong and the Green Screen Band, at Icehouse on Oct. 20. The album, which he released at the end of September, was no easy feat: it features over 20 different musicians and seven of the tracks are accompanied by music videos that spotlight Wong’s colorful, 90’s-infused aesthetic.
You may be familiar with Wong’s funky guitar riffs from Vulfpeck’s music; Wong is a session and touring guitarist for the band. His name is also the title of the last song on their 2016 release The Beautiful Game.
Cory Wong and the Green Screen Band features no shortage of talented musicians, including fellow Vulfpeck collaborator Antwaun Stanley. After sharing an Airbnb on tour with Vulfpeck, the two began ruminating about recording on one another’s solo projects. “It was fun to be able to have those two worlds collide,” Wong said.
When Vulfpeck played at First Avenue this May, the two stopped at Wong’s Minneapolis studio to lay down a couple of tracks. The album, however, was recorded over the span of several months in various locations as Wong toured with Vulfpeck and Nashville singer-songwriter Ben Rector.
Some songs emerged spontaneously — such as “McKinney,” which was recorded in two takes during an afternoon on tour with Rector. Others, such as “Work it Out” and “Pleasin’,” involved diligent planning and communication with Stanley through e-mail and voice memos. However, Wong never abandoned his improvisational approach in recording. “There’s always a spontaneous aspect of it,” he said, “but there’s different levels of arrangement involved.”
Wong has released music videos before, but the visual aspect of this album is especially salient. The seven songs on the album that have accompanying videos were recorded against a green screen, with the audio and video tracked simultaneously. “If you’ve ever made a video or ever made a record, you’ll know that both of those are not necessarily easy independently, and it’s not any easier doing them together,” said Wong.
Recording against a green screen is far from the typical studio experience. Performing in front of a camera influences the recording environment, but Wong wanted to make sure that this setup didn’t pressure the musicians to “look cool.” His whimsical videos, like his music, have a sense of humor.
“It’s all centered around just fun and sharing joy and happiness,” he said. “That’s like the main message of a lot of the stuff, is just for somebody to perk up and smile.” Like his music, the videos are created with an air of spontaneity. “Nobody knows what it’s gonna look like — I don’t even know what it’s gonna look like in the end!”
The video for “Dial Up” opens with an image of a modem squawking as it makes a connection. The musicians float around the screen playing against backdrops of the AOL login page and a pixelated Windows desktop. Wong says that the ’90s aesthetic, “plays a role in my music subliminally, and it’s always going to whether I want to or not, just because I grew up as a ’90s alt-rock kid.” He listened to rock heroes like Weezer and Green Day, who not only sparked his interest in music, but also in visual art. Wong recalled watching the Smashing Pumpkins’ music video for “Tonight, Tonight,” enraptured by its surreal production. “The music was cinematic and pop at the same time.”
To fund the album, Wong turned to Kickstarter. He got the idea from Vulfpeck’s Jack Stratton, who used Kickstarter for the pre-sale of Vulfpeck’s latest three albums. In addition to selling digital downloads, CDs, and t-shirts, Wong’s Kickstarter campaign offered rewards including guest spots on fans’ own musical projects, guitar lessons, and video cameos. “A lot of my fanbase is other musicians,” noted Wong.
One of the other prizes that fans could pledge for was a pizza with Wong and his band. Wong will hang out and eat pizza with his backers before performing a private concert for them on Oct. 21 at Modist Brewing Co.
Wong’s playing is inspired by local guitar legends Prince and Dean Magraw, as well as Jeff Beck and Pat Metheny. However, it is on this album that Wong hones his own voice as a musician. One song in particular that showcases his signature sound is the dreamy, cinematic “Clouds.”
“That’s the song that I feel best about on the record because I feel like that song really represents me as an acoustic guitar player and as an electric guitar player,” Wong said. “It’s like happy funk. A lot of funk music is minor [key] based, but this one’s really kind of happy.”
“Happy funk” is a perfect description of Wong’s style. His songs are rhythmically and harmonically dense, drawing inspiration from jazz to funk to ’90s alt rock. At the end of the day, though, what ties it all together is Wong’s humble demeanor and infectious excitement. Behind the punchy guitar riffs is a 90’s kid, eager to share a slice of ‘za with his friends.
Colleen Cowie is a student at Macalester College. She hosts the show Locally Sourced on WMCN.