Photograph by: Daniel Bond
Alex Zhang Hungtai – aka Dirty Beaches – has always been footloose.
Over his thirty-odd years, Hungtai has variously laid down roots in Taipei, Toronto, Montreal, Honolulu, and New York. His music is similarly peripatetic – happy to dart between genre, and always just out of reach. Hungtai’s musical activity extends back to the turn of the ’00s: a stint hollering in a metal band, a pair of shoegaze-leaning albums for Fixture, sporadic singles for low-key labels (including 2010’s ‘True Blue 7″). His breakthrough, though, arrived with Badlands, a loop-based collection of phantasmagoric doo-wop, schlocky rockabilly and deep-fried dub. Zhang’s vocals – part Roy Orbison croon, part Lux Interior histrionics – came over like a wail from the other side of the River Styx. It was one of 2011’s darkest and strangest records, and one that continues to bear bruised fruit.
After a series of short-form experiments and OST commissions, Hungtai’s follow-up to Badlands is about to arrive on Zoo Music. Drifters/Love Is The Devil is that great pop feat/folly, the double album, and it’s a very different brute to its predecessor. If Badlands saw Hungtai in a looping state of mind, Drifers shows him cutting loose, experimenting with ESG-style funk, shoegaze, pressure-cooked techno and EBM. Love Is The Devil, meanwhile, is a largely instrumental collection of drone and ambient, pitched somewhere between Angelo Badalamenti and Forest Swords. Considered as a single unit, Drifers/Love Is The Devil is Hungtai’s opus – ambitious, long and calibrated to spook.
With a new album and a UK tour on the horizon in the coming months, FACT caught up with Hungtai at his current base in Berlin. On the agenda? Andy Stott, Retromania and why you should think twice before writing a concept album.
Talk us through the decision to release the album in two parts.
“The initial decision came from the label. When they found out I was working on two separate records. they asked me to put it into one because economically it’s more viable. It’s cheaper, and they won’t compete with each other. So right off the bat I started changing and formatting the album – I mean, I was writing them both at the same time.”
Was there any crossover between the two in terms of tracklisting, or were they very much two discrete projects you had on the go at the same time?
“Love Is The Devil was really personal for me and I wanted to keep it separate. If people are curious about how I feel, what I’m going through in my personal life, they can check out that instrumental album. The other album was all focused on the surface world, our lives as musicians in general – living in and out of hotel rooms, working and travelling non-stop.”
I think that really comes across on Drifters in particular. Badlands seemed really interested in repetition and obsession, whereas this record seemed a lot more disorientated and varied. Is that a reflection of the fact you were travelling so much when you made it?
“With Badlands…it’s interesting that you brought that up, because I think subconsciously, throughout my entire adult life and childhood even, my life has been on a loop, in a way – leaving, and relocating, and readjusting, over and over. I think that went into the music. This new record is kind of an exacerbated version of that, because I’m leaving something on a day-to-day basis. We’re literally in different cities, different countries in a matter days. Even where I’m living now, we only find apartments for a few months at a time. We only live out of a suitcase – I have a suitcase full of pedals, my guitar and one week’s worth of clothing.” [laughs]
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That makes me think in particular of ‘Au Revoir Mon Visage’ – the idea that even your body is falling apart, or you’re being disassociated from your own body as a result of this constant displacement.
“I think ‘Au Revoir Mon Visage’ is the apex of going beyond the surface. Looking further into who we are, and who I am. There’s this book a couple of years ago by this UK author called Retromania, about where our generation is going, and what’s going on with the over-referencing in modern music. The reliance on aesthetics in general, the internet…a 16 year old kid can have really good fucking music taste in everything from all sorts of different cultures, but what does that mean about who we are as individuals? A lot of that’s getting lost. This album sees me slowly coming full circle. A lot of the influences are from high school – Wu-Tang, and weird post-punk bands which I hadn’t fully digested. It wasn’t made like Badlands, where I did so much research to meticulously put together this package and this fictional character. The album is just, let it out. Its more pure that way.”
It’s curious you bring up the Reynolds book, because on the surface Drifters feels like your most varied collection in terms of the styles it darts between. That’s an interesting comment on this post-everything internet culture where you can listen to a late 1970s post-punk record or a rap record from 1988 and not really be able to distinguish the provenance.
“I think what influenced me a lot in the way I’ve been approaching music is a book I’ve been reading called Utopia Of Sound, particularly a piece by Diedrich Diederichsen. The first few chapters really inspire me because it’s kind of a counter-anecdote to what Retromania was pointing out. It’s very optimistic, and saying how, thanks to the internet, we reference so much to the point where we become everything. We’re turning everything into hybrids, hybrids, hybrids, to the point where it’s no longer recognisable, it just bleeds out into a new and different form. In a way I think that’s what I was trying to follow. I didn’t really think about my influences or about my musical vocabulary.”
As you said at the top of the interview, it sounds like Love Is The Devil is filling a very different artistic function for you. What in particular have you been going through that comes out in the record?
“Aside from living out of a suitcase and travelling in general, I recently got out of a five year relationship. I mean, musically, Love Is The Devil is very similar to all the stuff I made prior to Badlands. But it’s probably also a reflection on living life, on pursuing this materialistic venture – what do we get at the end of it? Not to complain too much – it’s just a meditation and reflection on life. I didn’t want to put too many lyrics into it. Any kind of emotional content for me to be put into lyrics is very hard because you’re bound to be judged. That’s why I chose instrumentals, because they’re open to interpretation.”
Something you’ve talked about before is the influence of film on your work. It certainly feels like the more cinematic of the two halves of the record. Is there a narrative, per se, or is it just a series of sense impressions?
“I think the narrative for these two albums are talking about – if you think of it in a film perspective, it’s about the same story, but from two different perspectives. Drifters is following the protagonist from the outside, whereas Love Is The Devil is following the protagonist from what he’s thinking on the inside.”
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Love Is The Devil – and this may just be historical chance in terms of when it was released – feels like a companion piece to the Water Park OST – were they created at similar points?
“I think musically yes, because once I started working with the Water Park film score, it started opening my interest in electronic music and orchestration. Obviously, I don’t know how to read or write music, but I got really interested in orchestral music, but using software instruments, MIDI keyboards and stuff like that.”
Are there any particular electronic artists or genres that you’ve been listening to in recent months and years?
“I knew nothing about electronic music, but I was very curious. There’s one artist from the UK called Andy Stott. His EP, I think it was called We Stay Together, about a year or two ago? It’s a completely new context for me. That’s why I love electronic music – you don’t try and judge it by its location or its aesthetics, I’m really tired of that. When I heard his album, it really just opened up my mind. We all have stereotypes – I’ve met people who are very very prejudiced against rave music because they think it’s dumb dance music for dumb people. But there’s a spectrum of emotions, and you can hear it on that Andy Stott record.”
“I think originally for Badlands it was more like a conceptual idea to flirt around with sampling. To recontextualise old music and make it exist in our current time, just play with musique concrete and all these other ideas. And then there’s legal issues – legal fucking issues! [laughs] I tried to clear the samples only to realise, disappointedly, I can’t even afford to clear one of the samples. It’s way beyond my budget. I barely made any money off my record”
I suppose the only alternative is that tragedy where people have to partially remake their record with approximations – and it never quite works.
“I just think all the ideas, because I didn’t fully give Badlands out as if it was an art piece, so a lot of it was misunderstood. A lot of people thought “here’s a kid” – I mean, I’m 32, a lot of people thought I was 18 – “here’s a kid who’s sampling music and then just playing one chord over it and then made a fucking album”. I think a lot of people got it the wrong way, just took it on face value – like, “how fast can you shred?” [laughs]. “He can’t actually play his instrument”. And all the concept that went into Badlands was really widely ignored. So I realised the danger of doing a conceptual album like that, so it just moved onto doing something that’s more traditional – storytelling, no sampling, me writing all the music, you know” [laughs]
Are there any recording projects you’re currently working on?
“I’ve started working on the next record, and we’ve being doing some side jobs for short films that our friends are making, trying to get more into sound design and trying to learn more digital sound designing programs. I’ve been recording analogue equipment, and I’m trying to teach myself more.”
Have you got a gut feeling about where the Dirty Beaches album might go next?
“I was told recently, not only by my family but also from a lot of my friends, “all your music is very depressing. We’re worried about you, are you ever happy?” And it made me think a lot. I don’t think I’m a very unhappy person, I’m actually a very optimistic person. I’d like to maybe try something different – maybe document the happier memories of my life.”
So we can look forward to a bubblegum pop Dirty Beaches record?
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