Two of a Perfect Blare
Ecstatic Sunshine is Two Men, Two Guitars, And About a Million Riffs
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“I think we started taking it more seriously when we stood up to play,” Matthew Papich says while sitting down, on a couch, with partner Dustin Wong on a warm late March evening at Wong’s house in Mount Vernon. One of those sparsely furnished yet somehow pleasantly cluttered postcollegiate art pads, the house also serves as the duo’s practice space. They’re sipping coffee, topping each other off until they work through a whole pot perched on a nearby table. It’s certainly the beverage you’d expect given the highly caffeinated music the two make as Ecstatic Sunshine.
“I think it was right after we recorded our demo—We should stand up,” Papich continues. “It was a strange transition. It was really strange to stand up at first. After playing these songs for so long sitting down, it was weird to suddenly try and rock hard.”
Anyone who’s seen Ecstatic Sunshine live probably can’t imagine the experience confined to a couple of folding chairs. Papich and Wong’s guitars fire off neon surf-guitar leads that suddenly fold at origami angles without warning. They hammer down on a single riff with the intensity of a couple of speed-metal kids practicing in Mom’s basement, only to break off with a flurry of googly-eyed bent notes. A triumphant rock fanfare makes a giddy 180-degree turn into bluegrass picked by 1984-era Eddie Van Halen. A silvery cloud of amplifier fuzz hangs in the air throughout, speckled with glinting overtones. There’s no more aptly named band in Baltimore at the moment.
Papich is 22 and grew up in Lancaster, Pa. He does most of the talking. Wong is 23 and grew up in Tokyo. He’s more reserved, and when he does talk his voice is soft enough to get swallowed up by tape-recorder hiss. They met a few years ago when they came to Baltimore to attend the Maryland Institute College of Art. Both were on the sculpture track, but it sounds like little sculpting got done. “The department is called General Sculpture Studies, but it’s more like a conceptual art department,” Papich says. “It was a really open curriculum, but that’s changed recently.”
The two have been a band for about a year and a half now, and in that time they’ve fashioned a sound that stands slightly outside of Baltimore’s rock and experimental fiefdoms. Ecstatic Sunshine’s guitars are too unpredictable, and too happy, to be hardcore. (Plus there’s the whole no drummer/no singer thing.) At the same time, though they’ve shared stages with Baltimore’s stars of bang-on-whatever’s-around, building their music out of standard rock riffs—however jumbled—means they don’t quite fit in with the extreme noise heads and free-form improvisers either.
“It’s experimental,” Papich says of Ecstatic Sunshine’s music. “I mean, obviously there are bands who are far more ‘experimental’ than us. It doesn’t have to be negative, the experimental thing. It’s weird how it usually is.”
“I think a lot of times [rock audiences] see it as a novelty,” Wong says. “‘Oh, that’s interesting, two guitars. Oh, you did that finger-tapping thing.’”
“There’s a different expectation when you’re into experimental music and you see two guitarists onstage,” Papich says. “We have a little bit less convincing to do.”
The speed—“I think it’s our personal tempo,” Papich says—and intricacy of the duo’s music means the words “prog rock” or “math rock” are bound to come up when discussing Ecstatic Sunshine. The 21st century has seen a small army of riff worshippers—usually the dreaded two-man guitar/drums team—piling up as many notes as human fingers will allow, apotheosized by the maniacal anti-repetition of Orthrelm’s Mick Barr (who wound up with carpal tunnel syndrome for his trouble).
Papich and Wong have played guitar since they were kids, and though they both say they take it seriously, they’re more into having fun than displaying flashy chops. Wong points to his love of the Ventures and the deceptively complicated simplicity of surf music. “You can take guitar playing really seriously by yourself forever, and I think for most people it doesn’t really get them anywhere,” Papich says. “We just watched, on YouTube, Michael Angelo [Batio] . . . he’s supposed to be the world’s fastest guitarist. I think that’s where you go with that.” They both crack up at the image of poodle-permed and ambidextrous Batio, maniacally hammering on his custom-made double guitar.
“It’s as technical as like . . . ‘Chopsticks,’” Wong says of their skill level.
“I think having a good sense of play is really important to us,” Papich says. “The thing we’re trying to figure out with the new songs is how to get them to flow a little bit more, to not be so chopped up. We make a lot of right turns.”
So far, the Ecstatic Sunshine discography stands at two self-released EPs, the four-song Dot and the six-song Swirl. They’re fun records that don’t quite capture the grinning racket the band makes on stage. The guitars sound thinner and lack the fizzing ginger-ale carbonation that rock-club volume imparts. This is partly to do with DIY recording budgets, of course, but it’s also a product of leftover art-school baggage.
“I think now we have a better idea of how we want the guitars to sound [on record],” Papich says. Ecstatic Sunshine recently signed with Washington, D.C.-based Carpark Records and plans to release its debut album this fall. The record will likely feature overdubs, studio effects, and other tricks the two initially abjured, designed to capture the overload of Ecstatic Sunshine’s live shows in unforgiving 1s and 0s.
“At first we were being real purists, like we’re just going to plug directly into the amps and only use the foot pedal for distortion,” Papich says of their earliest recordings. “A lot of that had to do with our training in conceptual art, being really pure and devoted to a specific idea and to not decorate it. And we’re a lot more relaxed now.”
When asked what kind of conceptual art they were exposed to at school, Papich deadpans, “A description of a chair, a chair, and a photograph of a chair. Black and white. There it is. I think we both had that pounded into us.”
“It’s pretty old-fashioned conceptual art,” Wong says.
But it’s that tension between overmediated concept art and just rocking out that makes Ecstatic Sunshine so much fun. Instead of deflating or mocking them, juxtaposing a huge range of familiar electric guitar techniques—surf chords rubbing up against metal solos butting heads with emo arpeggios—only heightens their impact. Some things are clichés for a reason, in other words.
“If we play a big postrock riff, I think it sounds cool and I love to play it, but I also know it’s kind of a cliché,” Papich says. “I think we push those clichés into new places, though, and [are using them] to, maybe, be a little ironic, too.”
“I’m totally in love with those clichés, though,” Wong counters.
“Oh yeah, totally,” Papich says. “I wouldn’t be being honest with myself if I avoided cliché.”
“Whenever I go see High Zero, it’s like, man, if they just put in one melody from, like, ‘Day Tripper,’ that would make that jam so good,” Wong laughs.