I have an addiction problem, which makes people around me quite miserable. They start bitching something like “one more time and I will kill myself” or “they should make this video unavailable in your house”. At those moments I’m all like “Hey dude, chill out, I watched this stuff for only 546 times, so it’s not like it will hurt you to listen to this for the fourth time. ” They don’t listen, they never do.
And that’s the problem. In my opinion, if you find something interesting/splendid/freaky, which is so good that it hurts, you should stick to it for at least some time. Today it is not easy to find great things in a stream of mediocrity. So it’s important to try and squeeze the best out of the best; observe every detail, each nuance, till you truly experience something deeper. And that’s not possible without concentration and repetition. In a nutshell, that is why I put on repeat every interesting video/song for forever, not because I like to piss off my flatmates.
The moment I saw the video above, I was hooked for at least a few days. It’s a perfect fit of Dirty Beaches sound and Tsien-Tsien Zhang visuals; melancholy, secret, loneliness, waiting, longing for something you’ll never get. And of course, there is a solution for all of that — drinking in your underwear till it gets better. Well, maybe that was not the idea which was hidden in the video, but it kind of made sense to me at that time.
One more great video from Tsien-Tsien Zhang. The guy looks a bit like Lynch, doesn’t he?
And even though I would be more than happy to talk more about myself, this text is about Dirty Beaches. Alex Zhang Hungtai, the performer hiding under the title, leads a nomadic life (he lived in Taiwan and USA, and now he resides in Canada), touring intensively most of the time. That is projected in his music, which unites various influences, from rockabilly to noise, from Elvis-ly sounding vocals to psychedelic music.
Ilona Klimaitytė: Hey, Alex! For me, Dirty Beaches somehow sums up nostalgia for the road. Am I considering something wrong here? Most of your life you were/are traveling. What is a journey for you and how does traveling impact your music?
Alex Zhang Hungtai: Like all things we do in life, they tend to lead you from one place to another, from one string of events to the next. Nostalgia is in my blood, based on my immigrant background in North America, perhaps it’s because I long for a place to call home after all the moving experienced in my childhood. But like most nomadic lifestyles, once you leave home for an extended period of time, home no longer becomes valid anymore. You become in constant search of something that no longer exists, perhaps something that only exists in memories.
Alex remembers, that when he was living in the USA, he played in numerous bands. After he moved to Montreal, Canada, he started a solo project, because, well, he didn’t actually knew anyone around, so it kind of came naturally. Dirty Beaches is a project which now is a concentrated experimentation and searching of five years.
Dirty Beaches is a solo project. Could you name the best and the worst part of creating and performing alone?
The best part of playing alone is that it costs less, when you travel, and the expenses are kept at a bare minimum, and you keep the paycheck all to yourself haha. The worst part is when you are having a bad night, and you have no one to lean on. When the car breaks down, you’re alone. When you’re tired of driving after 10 hours, you’re alone. When you encounter trouble or hostility from racists or drunk assholes, you’re alone. There’s no one there to help you. Which is why the first opportunity I got to have a budget to have a friend come along, I invited them immediately. Touring alone is very hard. I don’t recommend it, especially if you can avoid it.
With which artist/musician, dead or alive, you’d be interested in collaborating with, if you had a chance?
There’s a few artists that I’m very fond of and wish to collaborate with. It would be great to work with Christopher Doyle (cinematographer for Wong-Kar Wai, etc). He is very inspiring and free form. It would be great to work with him and see how he improvises and make decisions on the film set.
Most of the time Dirty Beaches music is described as cinematographic in one or another way. He agrees with that and adds that his taste in film is “kind of all over the place” — from sci fi to detective noir, to documentary, comedy or action. At some interview Alex mentioned that in his early years he used so work in some adult video shop, which hopefully also helped him with developing his taste :) Most of his albums contains carefully picked songs, which tells you a story (you’d easily see that while listening “Badlands”) and has a strong character. Alex agrees, that his music is changing all the time, and he sees genres as a limiting thing, which invite challenges. Probably that are some of the reasons why Dirty Beaches music is most of the time accompanied by great visual sets by really interesting video makers. Alex himself has ambitions of creating movies, he has already made some soundtracks and directed several shorts.
A bit more about collaborations — most of the videos for your music are great and really “catches” the idea of the sound. Are you involved in the process of making them? Many of your songs have several video versions made by fans. Do you create official videos?
Yes, I make all my videos, with the exception of a few, which are made by my friends. I like fan videos, because it is interesting to see, what images they have in mind, when they hear the music, and most of the time its very different from what I have in mind, which is interesting for me. It would be very boring, if everyone had the same reaction. Differences should be celebrated :)
Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems that you do not use any visualizations during your life performances. Knowing that film/video is quite important to you, it seems that there should be an interesting reason hiding under that. Is there any particular reason, or it’s just easier this way?
It’s easier, and also it’s distracting from the performance, because I do think of it as somewhat related to performance art. For 1 hour I hypnotize myself before the show, so I would be completely immersed inside the music, there’s something inside of me, that’s reflected in the dark themed music that I make, however, I am an adult and functional person in a regular society, it is not my wish to behave weirdly in everyday life. However, for 1 hour of the show, I can completely loose myself to the music and let what is unknown within me come out. Everyone has that side, its just the matter of reaching it and calling it out. Its good to be in touch with ALL sides of your psyche. Achieving “balance” is the most important aspect in my life.
Video shot and directed by Alex Zhang Hungtai, song from the album “Badlands”.
Dirty Beaches music has a mesmerizing quality, which is, as wise people told me, is even more obvious in his live performances. I guess, the best thing which you can expect from a concert is when the music takes you to places, when you don’t need any additional materials (let’s call it alcohol, but we all know about what I am talking about) to achieve some kind of harmony with everything around you. The best concerts I ever been had this thing; after the greatest ones I had an unavoidable need to spend some time alone, walk around the venue and just enjoy the perfect feeling of equilibrium. In this way, music is like meditation. So here comes the obvious question:
Psychedelic music is usually related to various spiritual practices and influences of something bigger. I guess one can say that Dirty Beaches, among other genres, is a psychedelic project (right now I am listening to “Dune Walker” and it’s a great example of that). What is your relation with spirituality? Religion?
Yes, I do think there are psychedelic aspects in DB’s music, because a lot of it is about landscapes, and landscapes change with time, and that imagery alone is quite trippy and warped and sad all at once. Spirituality is very important in my life, because I do believe in things that cannot be explained by science. I think our mind is a very capable tool to help us understand our surroundings and beyond. It saddens me, when I see people, who cannot accept other religions or cultures simply because its different than their own.
“The Lord knows best /when it comes to you /but you know well that I /don’t give a damn /about anything /but you”
While reading DB blog, you can spot that from time to time, he talks about various social issues, which he encounters while traveling. Ar the end of article, let’s move to the practical side of being a musician.
This question might be a bit out of the blue — do you have a strong opinion about copyright protection laws (ACTA, SOPA) and movement against them? Would you say there is a solution to all of this mess?
This is a very good question, a lot of my peers and I are really concerned about this because we feel information and ideas should be free and accessible to anyone. I experienced what it’s like with censored Internet in China and its not encouraging or fun at all. It’s very frustrating. Property protection is impossible to protect because piracy will always be around. I think if the music no longer makes money for the artists they should adapt and perhaps figure out a new way to survive, like touring a lot more extensively. Because of the Internet, people from Russia or South Africa or Greece have heard of my music. And to me that’s the greatest feeling ever. To know that you have made a connection with people outside of your continent. And that’s is why I enjoy being on the road so much — because I want to play for them and meet different people from different background, eat different food, and experience new cultures. The world should not be isolating, as we all share this space together. Pushing each other forward.
Photos from Dirty Beaches blog.