Cory Wong’s multifaceted career began with his guitar. Or rather, his flexible right wrist. With this added bit of dexterity, the funk guitarist has secured the limelight in jazz clubs throughout the Twin Cities, where he is based. He’s established himself as a producer, a touring band member of L.A.-based group Vulfpeck, and a founder of Minneapolis independent record label Secret Stash Records.
But that’s just a fraction of his résumé. Raised in Minnesota—and a graduate of St. Paul’s now-closed McNally Smith College of Music (R.I.P.)—he’s best known for his fast-paced improvisational guitar bravado and happy-go-lucky performance spirit, which he has expressed in appearances with the house band for The Late Night with Stephen Colbert. Vulfpeck’s 2016 album, The Beautiful Game, reached No. 10 on the Billboard Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart, and the band has nearly sold out Madison Square Garden for their Wisdom of Crowds tour.
On August 2, Wong released his third solo album, Motivational Music for the Syncopated Soul, part of which he recorded in Minneapolis. The record includes seasoned guitarist Charlie Hunter and Late Show bandleader and pianist Jon Batiste, with funky guitar rhythms and Minnesota-isms (he includes a song titled “St. Paul”).
We sat down with Wong to ask him about his musical upbringing, finding a “real job,” and the new record.
Describe your upbringing. How did music play a role in your childhood?
I grew up in Fridley, Minnesota. I grew up in a computer family, I guess. I’ve never said that out loud, it’s funny to think about. There were a lot of computers and technology in the house, but I was always fascinated by music. My dad always had records in the house; he was a huge music fan. A lot of times when people meet my dad, they’re surprised that he’s not a musician, just because he knows so much about music. I started playing music in a punk rock band when I was in 7th grade. I was obsessed with bands like the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Green Day, Blink-182.
How did you decide to pursue music?
I went to college at the University of Minnesota to study science and realized that I had this pressure on myself to have a so-called real job. This is reflected in my upcoming album in a song titled “Today I’m Going to Get Myself a Real Job” and “Starting Line.” Those songs are about the artistic journey of knowing that you’re being called to do something, but kind of holding out because of this idea that you have to have a real job. It’s the creative endeavor. It’s my passion, and it’s this thing that I love so much, and I realized it could be my real job. Eventually, I went to McNally Smith Music School in St. Paul. It’s weird to say that my college went out of business. I started playing and it all led to where I am now. It’s cool because once I decided to do music, it’s all I’ve ever done. In my adult life, this is the only job I’ve ever had. I feel very fortunate to be able to say that.
Why did you stay in Minnesota after college?
That is a question that all of my industry friends ask me. There was a while where I was touring and doing session work in Nashville. Probably a third of my time was spent in Nashville. And with Vulfpeck, we are an L.A. band. I also play with Stephen Colbert on the Late Show quite a bit in New York. All my industry friends ask what’s taking me so long to move. There’s something about Minnesota and growing up in Minnesota. I don’t feel the need to move to those places because in Minnesota I can take an easy flight. The main thing is that my family and my wife’s family is in Minnesota. My entire support system is in Minnesota. There’s a great art and music scene around town. It’s fun to be able to bloom where I was planted.
I kind of cut my teeth playing at Bunker’s and playing on combos. I really learned a lot from playing with Michael Bland and Sonny Thompson, who are mentors for me in the realm that I play in now. I played in a bunch of different scenes; I had a weekly gig at the Artists’ Quarter for seven years, which is a jazz club that’s no longer around. I played in a bunch of bands and did a lot session work for artists in town. The tough thing is as I’ve started to grow and as Vulfpeck has grown into a larger band, and for my solo career to take off so well, what happened is I’m kind of away from the Minnesota music scene because I’m on the road a lot, which has been a bummer.
How do you describe the Twin Cities music scene?
The one thing I always say is that it’s kind of a double-edged sword. There’s a good and bad side to the fact that Minneapolis is not really an industry town. It’s not necessarily a town where tons of national touring artists are coming from, but there are a handful. We have Hippo Campus, Jeremey Messersmith, Owl City, Prince was here. It’s not known as an industry town. Every major metropolitan city in the U.S. has a handful of nationally touring artists. But there’s industry towns like Nashville, L.A., New York, and those are on a larger scale. Sometimes it causes a lot of people in Minneapolis to be close-minded about their audiences. A lot of artists don’t think very global about their reach. Nowadays, you can live in St. Cloud and have a global reach because of the Internet. Vulfpeck is an Internet band, and now we’re playing Madison Square Garden. But the plus side of not being an industry town is that there’s not so much pressure from labels and managers. There are artists that are curating their own scene. It’s based on what artists want to do creatively. I see a lot more artists doing what they want to do because they’re allowed, they give themselves permission to do that.
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Who are your favorite Minnesota artists? Why?
Hippo Campus is my favorite Minneapolis band. I may be transparently biased because I played guitar on their last record and I’m friends with those guys. Oddly enough, in 2015, there was a time when Jake from Hippo Campus and I were playing in a wedding band together. Hippo Campus has just taken off since then. We used to have conversations on how to figure out how to get on the road, use the Internet. Here we are, five years later, and Vulfpeck has just sold out Madison Square Garden. It is just insane to me; it is just so crazy how the Internet in this age can be so helpful to artists if they take advantage of it. It’s been fun to see Hippo Campus grow. I also grew up as a huge fan of Happy Apple.
Can you explain the reason for the name of the album, Motivational Music for the Syncopated Soul. What messages are you trying to convey?
It’s kind of this funny and cheeky thing. My music is very rhythmic, very syncopated, but there’s also this fun, borderline cheesy, motivational element to it. It’s about finding your calling. If I never gave it 100% and just gone for music, my life trajectory would be much different. I could have a great life, but it wouldn’t necessarily be the life that I was really called to do. For me as a guitar player, I’m known as rhythm guitar hero instead of lead guitar hero, although I can do that role. I feel like I give the most compelling representation of what I want to say through the music I play. It’s not necessarily the norm for the rhythm guitar to be the lead, but I’ve found a way to do that. It’s an underdog album.
Motivational Music for the Syncopated Soul is now available on streaming services. Cory Wong will take his Syncopate & Motivate World Tour across the U.S., starting from the West Coast, from fall 2019 to spring 2020. The first part of the tour will feature Vulfpeck.