By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Mar 14, 2024 at 9:01 AM

If you’re someone who watches the credits on TV and films, you’ve likely seen drummer Joe Wong’s name scroll past on numerous occasions.

In addition to recording two solo albums – the latest of which is the brand new “Mere Survival” – and performing in bands and as a sideman, the Milwaukee-born Wong has scored many movies and TV shows, including “Russian Doll” and ABC’s “Will Trent,” among others.

Wong, who is now based in Los Angeles, also has recorded nearly 400 episodes of his popular, drummer-focused podcast, The Trap Set.

Joe Wong's Mere SurvivalX

Catching up with Wong seemed long overdue and so I took the opportunity to ask him about all this while he was out promoting “Mere Survival.”

Most interesting of all is that he told me, “Every professional opportunity I’ve had is the circuitous byproduct of playing in basements in Milwaukee.”

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OnMilwaukee: Let's start with your Milwaukee credentials for folks who don't know? Where did grow up, go to school, etc.?

Joe Wong: I was born at St. Joseph’s Hospital. Coincidentally, my mother worked there as a nurse in the ER at the time. I grew up in Wauwatosa and went to public schools there. I attended UWM for a year before transferring to music school on the East Coast.

That’s going way back! You were in a number of bands here, too, right?

I started playing in bands when I was 14. My first show was in the basement of a since-demolished “hourly motel” called The Camelot Inn on Bluemound Road. Several high school-aged bands rented the space and threw a show.

Soon after, we were playing at clubs like The Globe and The Unicorn. When I was 17, I co-founded a band called Akarso, which was the first band I toured with. At the time, there were a number of houses in Riverwest and on the East Side that hosted basement shows. We played in many of these spaces and met bands from around the country, some of whom later became famous.

When I was 18, I moved into The Bremen House; and we hosted shows up to four nights a week. The house was burgled three times during our tenure, and–years after we’d moved out–the house was featured on the first episode of Hoarders.

Later, I played with some great jazz musicians. I worked in a trio with Neil Davis and Billy Johnson. We played at clubs like The Estate and Caroline’s and hosted a weekly session at Jaimie’s Place on 25th and Capitol. Some of the folks that sat in with us include: Manty Ellis, Berkeley Fudge, Dan Nimmer, George Braith, Harvey Scales, Charles Davis and Jasmine Song. Concurrently, I had short tenures with De La Buena and Sindoola, which was a Senegalese fusion band.

So, of course everyone wants to know the secret to transitioning from drummer of the local music scene to scoring music for "Russian Doll," having a successful podcast like "The Trap Set," and making solo records with the likes of Jim Keltner and Money Mark. Walk us through that path a bit.

Every professional opportunity I’ve had is the circuitous byproduct of playing in basements in Milwaukee. In the ‘90s, there was a lot of crossover between the basement scene and the experimental film community at UWM. The first several films I scored were co-composed with Didier Leplae, who played in bands like Competitorr, whom I recorded when I was in high school).

The drummer of Competitorr, Sarah Price, was one of the filmmakers responsible for “American Movie.” Didier and I scored the subsequent few films by Sarah, Chris Smith and Dan Ollman (“The Yes Men,” “The Pool,” “Summercamp,” “Collapse”). Through the course of working on those films, we met Christy Karacas who hired us on a few of our first TV series (“Robotomy,” “Superjail!,” “Ballmasterz”).

“Ballmasterz” starred Natasha Lyonne, whom I’d also met through Fred Armisen. I first met Fred in the ‘90s when I was playing in Akarso and he was playing drums in a Chicago band called Trenchmouth. We reconnected in 2013 because Fred was a fan of Marnie Stern, with whom I was touring. Fred also became a fan of my podcast.

Because of the podcast, Fred asked me to help produce his Netflix special, “Standup for Drummers,” and during that time I got to know Natasha a bit. Soon after, she asked me to submit some music when she was looking for a composer for “Russian Doll.”

The podcast served as my bridge between working as a supporting player – as a drummer and film composer – and releasing my own work. I met Jim (Keltner) and Joey (Waronker) through the podcast, and Joey became my neighbor and one of my closest friends. We hung out in my backyard many nights during Covid.

After I released my first album, Jim Keltner emailed me to tell me how much he liked listening to the album in his car. So, when I was writing “Mere Survival” I wrote two of the songs with Jim in mind. Everyone loves playing with Jim, so it was easy to enlist Nate Mendel and Money Mark –  both of whom I’d met years earlier when we recorded a Bill Dolan album together – along with Drew Erickson. Joey was at my house the night before the session and offered to come play percussion, mostly so that he could hang out with Jim.

That session was at the tail end of the pandemic, after the vaccine became available; and it was life affirming to get to play music in a room with other human beings!

As a drummer I have to ask, were you surprised that a drummer-focused podcast has been as popular as The Trap Set has been? After all, the repertoire of drummer jokes is pretty long and even guys like Ringo have been dismissed by those who think drummers don't really contribute.

To be honest, I’m not surprised at all. The fact that drummers are often overlooked meant that they were an incredible, untapped source of wisdom. Although most of the guests are drummers, the podcast tends to focus on non-drumming topics, like how folks move through life as artists.

I was a big fan of Marc Maron, who at the time interviewed other comics exclusively; I was struck by the fact that – even if he didn’t know his guest – they had an immediate intimacy, given their shared vocation.

I was going through a bit of an existential crisis when I started recording the show, and the opportunity to engage with other people who had successfully navigated through the challenges I faced was a gift. My hope was always that, by focusing on a small subset of people but talking about universal human themes, the podcast would resonate with anyone interested in living an artistic life.

It’s hugely rewarding when I hear from non-musicians who feel like the conversations on the show can be applied to their own lives.

Your new solo record is out and has contributions from Jim, Joey and Money Mark but also Pearl Jam's Matt Cameron. It's a really interesting and lush-sounding record. Tell us a bit about making it? Is it something you sort of did piece by piece over time or did you have a very specific vision and make it kind of all in one go?

From a logistical perspective, I’ve learned to treat my own records just like my scoring projects; I’ve found it really helpful to work with a deadline and to have someone else in the room. In the case of my first two records, I collaborated with co-producer Mary Timony – I was her drummer over 20 years ago – Dave Fridmann and arranger Paul Cartwright.

Since I was busy with other projects, I scheduled non-negotiable periods during which I wrote and recorded the album. If, for example, I knew I was going to Seattle to record a song with Matt, I would write a song with him in mind. Even though I have my own studio, I’ve also found it helpful to record my own music elsewhere. I feels more deliberate and focused.

Do you get back home much?

I get back to Milwaukee a couple times a year.

What do you miss most about Milwaukee?

I miss my friends and family most, and the general Midwestern kindness. I miss summer by the lake. I also miss restaurants like Apollo Cafe, Zaffiro’s Pizza, Barbiere’s, Royal India, African Hut (RIP), La Merenda, Beans and Barley and East Garden.

You always have great projects in the works, it seems. What's next for you?

I’m working on “Krapopolis,” which was created by Milwaukee native Dan Harmon, as well as “Will Trent” on ABC. I’m working on some new projects with the folks that created “The Midnight Gospel.” I co-produced an album for Mary Timony, and I’m producing a couple other albums for some other artists. My band has some shows coming up this summer. And, of course, I’m starting album No. 3.

Thanks Joe!

Thanks so much for having me!

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.

He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.

With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.

He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.

In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.

He has be heard on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories, in that station's most popular podcast.