Long road between Dirty lo-​fi and psychedelic Beaches. Short interview with Alex Zhang Hungtai

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.

http://​vimeo​.com/​2​5​4​7​3​984

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.

DB band­camp.

Ilona Klimaitytė
About author:
Ilona Klimaitytė
From the very beginning, Ilona had a passion for event management, writing and a cold glass of beer. These three forces fit perfectly together with interests in postindustrial music, anthropology and weird cinema. At the moment, she is finishing her cultural history and anthropology studies and is writing thesis on the subject of industrial elec... Read further >
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