The 405 meets Dirty Beaches
"I've been making the same record over and over again since Dirty Beaches started. This is my fourth album and the content doesn't really change it's just always about what I'm going through, which is constant transitioning and assimilating to new environments."
Dirty Beaches is the work of 32-year-old Canadian Alex Zhang Hungtai, born in Taiwan, brought up in Honolulu, now based in Berlin. His breakthrough came in 2011 with the arrival of Badlands, longlisted for Canada's Polaris Music Prize, and this year he releases the double album Drifters / Love is the Devil.
In Badlands, Hungtai built and embodied a character, inspired after seeing a picture of his parents in their youth and imagining the wild life so removed from his upbringing by them. That character is the hard-living loner, always on the move, sheltered behind a leather jacket and biker shades. Its narrative was a voyage through Americana, and in sound and style the record was a DIY fifties pastiche, revealing a scuzzy underbelly of hot-rod and rockabilly paired with a very 21st Century sense of estrangement. The new record moves away from that and into the neon-lit atmospherics of a city at night. And it might be any city: the album was recorded in Montreal and Berlin, between which Zhang visited Copenhagen, Paris, and Zagreb, and song titles reference Belgrade, Lisboa, the River Danube. But underneath these contrasting aesthetics and all these different places lies the same restless spirit.
The first half of the record, Drifters, is the more song-based, and features a scattered variety of styles: from the dissonant blues strut of 'I Dream in Neon' and 'Casino Lisboa', to the spooky bare-bones techno pulse of tracks like 'Au Revoir Mon Visage' and 'Mirage Hall', tracks that sound like they're rattling around an echo chamber made of corrugated iron. For Hungtai, "style, or aesthetics, is just like fashion to me, it's a jacket, disposable. I don't think it's important at all, it's just another tool for me to express myself." I suggest that this variety of styles reflects his drifting lifestyle as a travelling musician. "I think that's definitely true because I'm always just trying to fit in to wherever I am and I'm very open to foreign cultures, I don't really reject things and I don't like to say no, I'm always willing to try anything once. So I guess that ties into the music as well."
"The Drifters side is a very superficial, surface, face-value look at our life, as musicians on the road and the kind of places we stumble into, it's all very superficial stuff, girls, partying, night-life, decadent shit." The second half of the record, Love is the Devil, is made up almost entirely of instrumental textures, some of them skin-crawlingly bleak, others heart-rendingly beautiful. Is it an attempt to answer the superficiality and decadence of Drifters?
"Yeah it's just two sides of the same story" Hungtai explains, as I speak to him on the phone from Berlin, his expletive-sprayed drawl quite possibly down to a 22-hour video shoot in Hamburg the previous day and a 5 a.m. drive back to the German capital. "It's the same story but told from different perspectives. Drifters is what egos are all about, about what the artist wants to control. The artist wants to be perceived in a certain way, and we try to write ￼ourselves into our work to justify any kind of shitty behaviour we have in real life. If you look at a writer like Bukowksi, he writes about himself fucking women all the time and fucking whores, and in a way it dramatises and glorifies this really shitty fucking life that he had. And in a way it makes it really romantic, and people like us who were sixteen back then and read his books think 'wow that's amazing, what a fucking badass', but the reality is this fucking bum working really hard and failing at writing or doing anything.
"And in a way Drifters is my version of that, yeah we're touring musicians and we're going to all these different places and we meet all these beautiful women and what have you, but in the end this is me trying to justify my irresponsibility. The other side [Love is the Devil] is just straight up, how it really is on the inside."
Hungtai explains that Love is the Devil "was made in very unordinary circumstances. I had left Montreal [where he had lived for seven years] and moved to Berlin, with the record unfinished, and I didn't know what I would do I just wanted to leave Montreal so bad that I sold all my stuff, gave it all away and just moved."
After travelling around Europe and setting up in Berlin, Hungtai began working on finishing the record in the studio of his friend Anton Newcombe, of the Brian Jonestown Massacre. "When he would leave around 9pm or midnight that's when I'd come in and work until the morning, when he comes back to the studio and I'd go to sleep. So I did that for one month. [...] Love is the Devil was not planned out at all because I was recording everything digitally and working with a lot of new equipment that I didn't have access to before so I had to learn everything really fast, like I learned how to use ProTools in five minutes with the engineer who was there and he roughly showed me how to do it. I didn't have time to learn how to edit on computer programmes, so basically I just recorded it live track by track. I wrote about thirty tracks just non-stop, whatever I felt I bled it out." These late night sessions of soul searching form the basis of the record's nocturnal feel, and an antidote to the scattered superficiality and street- life buzz of Drifters.
Another side to Hungtai's ambient experiments came in providing the soundtrack for Waterpark, a beauty-amongst-mundanity short film from Evan Prosofsky, the man behind the cinematography for Grimes's 'Oblivion' video. Dirty Beaches always seems to be tied up with film, from the narrative and character-construct of Badlands to the cinematic atmospherics on Drifters / Love is the Devil; what's the attraction?
"I never really had a band that changed my life, it was always films that changed my life as a teenager. I remember before I started watching the directors that I love - Wong Kar-Wai, Jim Jarmusch, David Lynch - before that my perspective was very mundane, I hated going to school or taking a bus, transport and everyday mundane shit. But ever since I started watching movies all of a sudden you see how they frame it, like with romantic music and suddenly someone just sitting at a bus stop looks really fucking amazing, you know? And it just kind of woke me up to this whole new world, kind of like a filter, this dream state where everything is hyper-romantic.
￼"I keep thinking back to when I was sixteen because that was when things really started to change, before that I just played basketball and listened to Wu-Tang. Things really start to change once you start looking at your environment more and paying attention. Then I bought one of those discman, the portable CD player, and I was just on my headphones all day every day. Life turned into a movie."
Dirty Beaches is Hungtai's way of presenting that life-as-movie, dramatising his own experiences and impressions and playing a character of himself. "I lived through all this, this is all real-life experience that I've over-dramatised in my music. But it's not just stuff I've made up it's things that I've lived through, otherwise it wouldn't be fleshed out."
Can he imagine creating something entirely fictitious? "For me personally it has to come from somewhere, something I've experienced, or else I don't even feel like I have the right to come up with something like that. It's hard to say, fiction is very dangerous."
The drifting nature of the Dirty Beaches character's story generates much of the sadness that surrounds the music. To never be in one place for long enough to properly call it home and put down roots, and yet looking back on those short stays as a false ideal, a happiness that we failed to recognise in the present moment; because everything has the ability to look far more perfect in the past than it really was. Hungtai explains, "all these landscapes kind of blur into one, it becomes a collage of landmarks. Instead of one precise city map I have random memories and random cut-outs of cities, it's not very accurate but it's an impression." And the connection with all these different places helps solidify the identity of whatever Dirty Beaches might be: "or else I think I would just be this sort of drifting ghoul... All these things are really important to me because they've made me the person I am today. Those places and the people I've met and that I've grown up with. I embody traits of all these different places, it's all a part of me."
Hungtai takes issue with the divide-and-rule way in which he suggests Western culture, and the way we listen to music, operates. "This whole world is cool because there's all these different things happening and if everything went the way I'd like it to be I think it would be very boring. Asian culture is very accepting, it's about enduring and it's not about changing what other people. I find Western culture very aggressive and the way that everyone must voice their opinions and separate 'us' from 'them'. Our independent identities are constructed on, are based upon, separation, where 'I'm into this' and 'I'm not a part of that'. I was never a part of any scene, I was never a punk or a rave kid or whatever, I just kind of drifted in and out. I find it really funny when people like to talk shit and criticise these bands based on this blank criteria, like where does this taste, this metre of taste and reference and criteria come from, because I find it very limited and very narrow-minded and it's very boring to me. I find it really funny that people will have to go out of their way to bash something just in order to separate themselves, so that in the end it's not really about the band they're bashing it's about them feeling they're not a part of this, that they're better than this."
￼Even when he's adding a cinematic gloss to his everyday experiences, Hungtai goes closer to the bone in exposing the raw stuff of life than most musicians dare - in conversation and on record. In the world-view of Dirty Beaches, life, fiction and their frequent intersections are just a series of different possible perspectives and impressions. And the ambitious Drifters/Love is the Devil goes some way to proving that, matching the exterior experience of the first side with the internal monologue of the latter, evoking a world of fleeting thrills and midnight wanderings. Hungtai says, "I don't like it when everyone sees everything just from one simple perspective, you know, any given matter, no matter how cheesy or benign it is, in reality there's so many different perspectives and different angles and it changes the way you look at it dramatically.''
Drifters / Love Is the Devil is released on May 20th via Zoo Music. Head to his official site for details of his forthcoming UK dates.
Purchase and listen
It would be very easy to mistake the output of Alex Zhang Hungtai as being from the 50's & 60's. His recent LP Badlands, which was recorded live with a F99 Sony dynamic mic revives early rock 'n' roll over an eerie and evocative lo-fi aesthetic. It's unlike anything you've ever heard before, with its raunchy reverb, haunting industrial drones and Hungtai's whooping vocals. It's stylised nostalgic minimalist rockabilly and veers from creepy and awkward to fuzzy and brilliant. [read more]
After the experimental follow up to Badlands, a double album entitled Drifters/Love Is The Devil, Dirty Beaches (aka Alex Zhang Hungtai), is set to hit the road in support of the album hitting North America this month and then again in September. [read more]