"Midnight Gospel" Composer Joe Wong on Removing the Conscious Mind From Music-Making

Netflix's The Midnight Gospel is a heavy trip. From the minds of comedian Duncan Trussell and Adventure Time creator Pendelton Ward, the show features conversations on deep existential themes superimposed with epic inter-dimensional travels through a neon cartoon prog-scape seemingly inspired by Roger Dean's Yes album covers.

Each episode is an emotional journey, and Joe Wong's soundtrack helps guide viewers through the action via a brew of lo-fi synths and psychedelic grooves assembled into carefully constructed earworms that will keep you streaming the soundtrack album well after you've finished binge-watching the show.

Joe Wong - Nite Creatures

Wong may be best-known for his outstanding work as the host of The Trap Set podcast, an ostensibly drummer-centric podcast that manages to appeal to a wide audience of drummers and non-drummers alike by focusing on how his guests—who range from up-and-comers to legends—"run their lives," as he describes.

During a recent interview with Jim Keltner, Wong explains, "We were talking about how you can't play like somebody else, so it's kind of pointless to talk about their techniques or their approach because they arrived at that though their life experience, so I'm interested in knowing what is unique to their life experience that informed their work rather than how it was conveyed mechanically."

Podcast host is just one of the several hats that Wong wears. He brings loads of touring and studio experience to his work, informed by years with his former band, Parts & Labor, and from gigs with artists such Marnie Stern, Mary Timony, and more.

Behind the scenes, Wong has been a prolific film composer for much of the last two decades, working on films and TV shows, with credits including Russian Doll, Master of None, and The Pool. Now he's decided to bring his collective experiences to a new role as he's donned the cap of solo artist and bandleader with the release of his album, Nite Creatures, out on Decca on September 18.

We caught up with Wong to discuss his work as a soundtrack composer, The Midnight Gospel, and Nite Creatures.

Joe Wong - "Dreams Wash Away"

How did you get started doing soundtrack work?

I had played in bands for many years and some of my friends made a film called The Yes Men and I scored that. At the time, I was working with a partner [Didier Leplae] composing, and we scored that together. We had absolutely no idea the "right way" to score to picture and we just figured it out as we went, DIY-style.

That film ended up screening at Toronto International Film Festival and Sundance and getting a distribution deal in theaters. At the time I was working as a waiter, and the movie theater next to the restaurant where I was working screened the film and it was kind of an indicator of the direction I chose to take.

Thinking back on it, how did you do with a DIY approach?

I think we did OK. I don't think there is a right way, but I think there are certain industry practices that streamline the process, make it more efficient, make it quicker and easier, and those are all things we learned as we went along.

How did you continue to find work as a composer after The Yes Men?

Shortly after that, I ended up joining a band [Parts & Labor] in New York, but I was concurrently scoring films and commercials because one of the people who directed The Yes Men, Chris Smith, became a nationally known entity as a commercial director and helped us get our foot in the door. I was working on these major ad campaigns from a basement! The money involved in that world at the time was much higher than anything I've ever experienced playing in bands and it enabled us to make a living while I was scoring more indie films for free or very little during that time.

We did that for six years or something like that, and it was positive in the sense that you had to learn how to do this work really quickly, get out of your own way, remove conscious thought from the process as much as possible, work in several different styles, and deal with some really difficult personalities—and all of those skills have been really useful in the scoring world in film and television.

The next film we scored was called The Pool, and that one was shot in India. We hired a Bollywood orchestra in Mumbai to record it with us, and I worked with an arranger/producer called Kersi Lord who's a legendary musician/arranger/composer in the golden era of Bollywood music in the '50s, '60s, '70s, and '80s and had done lots of our favorite Bollywood scores. He got all of his old friends out of retirement. Most of them were in their 70s and 80s—and they played on it. When that film was mixing, I met a guy who was mixing a television series that needed a composer and he recommended us.

Essentially, that's the way my scoring career has progressed, through people I met along the way, through natural connections and one thing leading to the next.

What are your strategies for removing conscious thought from your process?

For me, when I'm making music, I find I get the best results if I'm not consciously thinking about it and I can get lost in it and kind of use my emotional mind instead of my critical mind to make decisions. In order to do that, I have everything in my studio set up in such a way where I can just turn it on and record without setting up new tracks or mic'ing things up or EQing things. Everything is already set to go.

I spend a lot of time honing my templates, and then the templates indicate where everything else in the physical space is set up. Everything is mic'd. I've gone through and picked my favorite preamps for each instrument and don't have to think about which I want to use. It's all set and ready to go.

On specific projects, I take it even further. The first major milestone on a scoring project for me is to find the sound of that project, of that world.

What was your process like to discover the sound of The Midnight Gospel?

It started when I went in and met with Duncan and Pen, who created the show, and talked about music and their vision for the show, and I was able to check out Jesse's [Moynihan, art director] art. Seeing what the show was gonna be and hearing their vision for the music and talking about the overall aesthetic was the first step.

Duncan really likes things that feel somewhat lo-fi and handmade, and I think we were talking about this film The Source Family and how they had a band and the music was so great—and he liked that kind of a feel and he liked Daniel Johnston. I wanted to bring a little bit of that to what was happening.

They also love synths and early consumer Casio keyboards, so I started building a palette of those types of sounds. We found a way to use tape machines and old Casio keyboards and Buchla synths, and drums, bass, guitar, and organ.

Are you playing all the instruments?

I play lots of the instruments, but there are some special guests. We had Wayne [Coyne] and Steven [Drozd] from the Flaming Lips on one track and Steven also plays double drums with me on one of the songs on my album. We had some guest vocalists like Will Oldham, Anna Waronker, and Johanna Warren. I had Mary Lattimore play harp on a couple of the tracks.

There are some tracks that Duncan made himself too. Lots of the ending credits are Duncan's own lo-fi experiments, and some of them I added to and some of them I mixed.

Who wrote the lyrics?

Some of it we developed the lyrics together, some of it they had lyrics done already. About half of the time, they'd send me the general idea and I'd help make it fit into a musical cadence, but sometimes they just had something that worked. There was even one cue that this guy [actor] Steve Little sang freeform and I had to write the music to his vocal, which was not necessarily in tune because he wasn't singing to an instrument—that's called "Captain Bryce Song."

Joe Wong - "Captain Bryce Song"

Nite Creatures is your debut album as a solo artist. Can you tell me how that came about?

It's something I had wanted to make for a long time and I didn't know what it was going to be about when I started making it. I never found a time to do it until I started treating it like any other scoring project, where I booked time in a studio that was not my home—so that I'd be on the hook to pay for it—and I hired Mary Timony to produce it so that I'd have someone else to be accountable to.

Musically it draws from psychedelic artists from the '60s and my love of bands like The Zombies and the Walker Brothers, things like that.

Once I got over the hump of crippling self-doubt, I was able to engage a lot of the muscles I've developed as a composer and get out of my own head and be outside of the music.

I played lots of the instruments on the album. Mary Timony played guitar, Mary Lattimore played harp, and we also got a chamber orchestra on it that we recorded afterwards in LA at Jim Henson Studios, which used to be A&M, which has a magical energy to it.

I used lots of the players that I'd use on scores and I worked with the great string arranger Paul Cartwright and mixed it with Dave Fridmann in Fredonia, New York. Dave is the genius who produced most of the Flaming Lips albums. I thought he'd be the perfect person to mix it, and he turned out to be. He has kind of a supernatural ear and makes things bigger and more interesting than I could imagine.

On The Trap Set, you host guests that range from people who are peers to people who are presumably your heroes. What did you seek to learn from that?

In the first couple-hundred episodes, I spoke to most of my living heroes. Everyone from Steve Gadd to Sheila E. to Airto Moreira to Tony Allen, it just goes on and on. I started the show at a time when I had been touring a lot. I started touring when I was young, around 17, and this was 15-plus years later and I was starting to feel disconnected from music.

I didn't feel like listening to music during the day when I was traveling from place to place on tour, so I'd listen to podcasts. One thing that I liked about early WTF episodes is Marc Maron was just this desperate guy working out his neuroses with other comics, and I found it really relatable.

I was touring with Marnie Stern and at the end of that tour, we were invited to a taping of SNL and Brendan Canty was also backstage, and Brendan and I had a night together where I was basically asking him how he lived a life because I felt lost at the time. I saw him as somebody who had it all figured out. He's been in two of the best rock bands of all-time —Rites of Spring and Fugazi—and scored films and television shows, directed concert films for bands like Wilco and Pearl Jam, had a family. He had a lot of wisdom to share.

We went to this afterparty and I just cornered him the whole time asking him questions and it occurred to me that it probably would have made a good podcast. He was playing in a band called Deathfix at the time and when they came to LA, I recorded the first episode of the show.

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