“We’re always asking questions about information. ‘What did you do?’ The better question is, ‘What did it mean?'”WESLEY CHUNG
I met Wesley Chung in the mid to late 2000s when I was a middle schooler and he was a youth mentor a bit older than me. He was the lead singer and songwriter of the indie pop collective, Boris Smile, at the time. Wesley recorded audio of various curated conversations from his life that sometimes made it into the music. Recently, as I reflected on my own artistic influences, I realized that my desire to ask people open-ended questions and document the answers was partly based on what I had seen Wesley doing in those years before I called myself an artist. I wanted to hear what he remembered about that time and how he would describe his own creative influences.
Caryn Aasness: I think a lot of the work that I’m interested in is just asking people questions. I started thinking about how, when I was in junior high, you were asking people questions that were interesting and recording their answers. And in my memory, I think you had a tape recorder.
Wesley Chung: It was a Dictaphone. Yeah.
Caryn: Okay. That’s what I was gonna ask, because I don’t know. What is it? What is a Dictaphone?
Wesley: It’s like an old fashioned thing. It has a small cassette, but it was for people to take notes or minutes. For lawyers, that’s what they use. It’s like the more grown up thing of the Talkboy FX, you know, from Home Alone 2. But the same idea, it’s just a simple recorder, but I like the sound of the tape. There’s a nice nostalgic sound to it.
Caryn: Where did you get the idea of using it for music?
Wesley: I think the band Bright Eyes would do some things where you hear some recording. I always like tracks where suddenly the curtain is lifted and you can hear the band talking a little bit. I think it was the band, The Books. That was the first time I stopped in my tracks at Fingerprints and I was just like, “Who is this?” Because it’s all field recordings— the sounds of footsteps, and then another recording of someone humming. Not in the way that hip hop would do that in a really creative way of turning it into the beat, which I also really like. I like sampling in hip hop and now when I think about it, probably the very first time I heard it was in what I think is one of the greatest albums of the 20th century, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. If you listen to that album, there’s one song where at the end, they’re just in a classroom. It’s some older person asking kids questions like, “What do they think love is?” It’s this snapshot of a certain time. It feels very 90s but it could be any time. There’s no pretense to it, because it’s just whatever people said, whether it’s dumb or funny or profound. It’s kind of wildly exciting because you don’t know what people are gonna say. I was just like, so you’re human.
Caryn: And so then where did you get your Dictaphone?
Wesley: My dad had one. For the first album I did, I just randomly recorded people speaking and then put music underneath. By the second album, called Young and it Feels so Good, I was asking people questions that were kind of connected to the theme of the album: Why do you like being young?
Caryn: I remember.
Wesley: I was a young adult, working with young people, and it’s still close enough for me to remember the time and age and the awkwardness of that period of time. But I was just curious how different it was for people that were younger than me experiencing youth compared to myself. It ties to the theme of the album, just hearing young people’s voices. That album,, if I listened back to it, which I haven’t in a bit, will be a snapshot of my life and the people that I was around. I was spending so much time being a youth leader. It’s like old family movies or something like that. I think the question is broad enough to still be kind of interesting, and even talking about it now will make me want to listen back to it. What did people say? How different is it now?
Caryn: I think I was in middle school when that came out. There’s a song on the album about middle school that felt very real to me in the moment.
Wesley: Yeah. I think it’s rare to find the artists who are able to create a piece of work that’s still self-reflective enough both for themselves as well as the culture they’re living in.
Caryn: Do you have a favorite question to ask people?
Wesley: Well, I guess whatever question gets to what’s important. I’m always trying to figure out what people’s opinions are and what makes people tick. We’re always asking questions about information. Like, “What did you do?” “We did this.” But that’s only half. That’s like one aspect of it and it’s not the most important thing; it’s not what moves people. The better question is, “What did it mean? What did you do, and what did it mean?” It reveals a bit about that individual or maybe a bit about the community they’re a part of.
Caryn: You said before that you hadn’t listened to Young and it Feels so Good in a long time. How often do you go back to things that you’ve made in the past?
Wesley: Probably more often than other artists revisit their work. Some people are really shy, but like, to me, I made it for myself and for other people to enjoy. I have to listen back to stuff to go, does it still hold up? As I’m writing new work, sometimes I’ll reference back to stuff I’ve done previously and go, “Am I just repeating what I’m doing? Has it gotten a little bit better?” Because if I’m doing a song that’s quite similar to another song that I’ve done previously, that’s fine. That’s just called having a style. But if I’m not improving on it, or if I’m not getting closer to something that I find a bit more interesting or adding some twist to it, then I feel like I’m getting bored of my own songwriting.
Caryn: Do you currently have a tape recorder or Dictaphone now?
Wesley: Yeah, I’m using my phone a lot, but also something called a Zoom recorder. It’s digital and it’s much better for sound recordings. I have a recording of my nephew and my mom and me because we were trying to get this dog to howl and I just started recording it. And I used it for one of the tracks because I like the ending. It’s something just for me. I’m just like, that’s three generations of the Chung family all howling together, and the song title is “Rumspringa,” that idea of sowing your wild oats in the Amish community. So I like the idea that it’s the Chung wolf pack. There’s something that has all these layers of meaning for me, but for other people it might just be like, “Oh, that’s a cool sound.”
Caryn: Do you have the desire to share that information in any way with the listeners who want to dive deeper into it?
Wesley: No, but I guess that’s the way I approach albums and songs. If people want to dig deeper, oh there’s plenty. There’s plenty to find, but if people want to hear it just on the surface level then I just like to make sure that the melody is something that is pretty or it’s catchy, or something that people can enjoy from a lot of different angles.
Caryn: Do you have any final thoughts?
Wesley: It’s nice to re-meet you again as an adult. We’re so much further on in our lives. It’s just really cool, what you’re doing. I think that’s a great place, the intersection of art and how it reaches out of gallery spaces. That’s more punk rock.
Caryn: Yeah! More punk rock, that’s the goal!
Caryn Aasness: (They/them) is a Social Practice artist living in Portland Oregon. Originally from Long Beach California. When they were in middle school and Wesley asked why they liked being young, they said “You can move faster.”
Wesley Chung: (He/him) is a songwriter and musician living in Scotland now with his family. Wesley works at Flourish House, which is part of the Clubhouse movement that aims to support people living with mental illness outside of a medical model. He also writes and records music as a solo artist as A. Wesley Chung. You can check out his music here and here and here.
The Social Forms of Art (SoFA) Journal is a publication dedicated to supporting, documenting and contextualising social forms of art and its related fields and disciplines. Each issue of the Journal takes an eclectic look at the ways in which artists are engaging with communities, institutions and the public. The Journal supports and discusses projects that offer critique, commentary and context for a field that is active and expanding.
Created within the Portland State University Art & Social Practice Masters In Fine Arts. Program, SoFA Journal is now fully online.
Conversations on Everything is an expanding collection of interviews produced as part of SoFA Journal. Through the potent format of casual interviews as artistic research, insight is harvested from artists, curators, people of other fields and everyday humans. These conversations study social forms of art as a field that lives between and within both art and life.
Sponsored by the Portland State University Art and Social Practice MFA Program