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It’s appropriate that Badlands, the debut LP from Dirty Beaches, plays out like a soundtrack to an imagined ’50s road film. After all, the man behind the recording, solo performer Alex Zhang Hungtai, has spent most of his life in motion, whether it’s calling various places home in Canada or consistently touring overseas. This sense of disconnection, of not having one single place to identify with, is part of what makes his debut such a compelling and unique listen. Hungtai took some time out of his schedule to answer a few questions about that complicated sense of identity, as well as touching on the purpose of lo-fi recording techniques and the connection between cinema and music.

You were born in Taiwan but have spent most of your life moving around Canada and extensively touring all over the world. You’ve often said that you have no real home, only fragments of places. How much does this affect your music, both sonically and lyrically? How do you turn such feelings into a sound, and a unique one at that?

Trying to piece together abstract feelings that are mostly circumstantial based in regards to my upbringing ties in to my attitude with working around my limitations on recording equipment, budget instruments and Craigslist hunting. I work with what I have and it influences the writing as well. It has to be thoroughly planned out in advance, ideas of grandeur in composition…won’t work as well, being a solo performing artist.

You obviously draw off of many classic rock ‘n’ roll influences, including Link Wray and Johnny Cash. Is it difficult for an artist to remain authentic, to create personal tunes, when they draw and even sample from a collection of already well-established artists?

I don’t think there are original ideas in rock ‘n’ roll, or music in general, because if you look at how rock ‘n’ roll began, a lot of people stole chord progressions, riffs…to covers. The Rolling Stones kick-started their career ripping off old blues artists. Bowie ripped off Lou Reed and Iggy Pop to create Ziggy Stardust and it’s genius. He also returned the favor and produced their best solo albums. Fundamentally, I think what makes an artist interesting, is to see how they piece together their influences and as they progress, come into their own form.

When you first started releasing music under the Dirty Beaches moniker and experimenting with looped sounds and vocals, was it immediately understood that you would perform these songs as a one-man live show?

No, back in 2005-2007 I actually tried to expand my ideas into a band, but it was never fully realized. After failed shows playing with friends who were busy in other bands, and failed live attempts at recreating my multi-track recordings, I began working and writing under the idea that they would be performed alone LIVE. From there on, I never looked back and have embraced live recordings on my recordings from 2008 – and on. From that point on the writing became simplified in form and structure; condensed.

How does being a one-man band change your writing and recording process?

Minimal compositions allow the performer to maximize…their performances. After doing research on old blues artists like Howlin’ Wolf, Lightnin’ Hopkins, et al, I wanted to create something that had as much heart and soul as them and douse that spirit with gasoline and set it ablaze on stage. That’s a metaphor, by the way.

Your debut full-length, Badlands, revels in an atmosphere of distortion and vocal obscurity. Is this distorted approach to melody a conscious decision or something that has grown and presented itself organically as you have developed your sound?

In my opinion, Badlands sounds a lot better than my past recordings, and is an improvement and progression, in my personal opinion, because I do everything myself. I recorded it without having anyone’s professional aid and mixed it myself. Badlands is the only album where I could afford to have it mastered, thanks to the courtesy of Zoo Music. Billy Childish once said in this interview I saw, where he explains his motive behind lo-fi productions where he wondered why his recordings didn’t sound as good as the artists he admires from the past and the answer comes from those old machines. I believe these tape machines have ghosts in them and there’s an unworldly sound that you can only get from those machines. I like tape saturation. I don’t like people that distinctly sabotage and put distortion on their clean GarageBand recordings to the point where it’s completely overblown. In my opinion, they are completely different.

I managed to catch/review your show in Toronto with Dum Dum Girls about a month ago. You had an immediate stage presence that bordered on intimidating, part Cash, part Fonz. Do you construct your live act, engaging with a persona that isn’t exactly you? How much of what we see live is Alex Hungtai and how much is a fictional creation?

It’s a fictional character based on myself and a lot of other sources, such as my father in his youth, Willem Dafoe in Loveless and Nicolas Cage in Wild at Heart. The hair combing on stage is an act I stole from Montreal one-man rockabilly legend Bloodshot Bill. He’s amazing. I didn’t know what the Fonz is or who, until I Google-searched it just now. I must have failed really badly if you feel that way.

Am I crazy, or do you have lots of love for Wu-Tang Clan? Your sample building and love of cinema has RZA written all over it.

I love RZA and I was obsessed with Wu Tang in high school, back in 1996.

You’ve cited the films of Wong-Kar Wai as a major influence on your music. What is it about his films or aesthetic that connects with you? How does this transfer onto Badlands?

I connected with the characters in his films because they were often displaced figures in a new town. And when I was 16, his films hit me really hard and left a really strong lasting impression in me. I became a smoker that summer. Thanks to his films.

Do you see yourself changing your sound at all as your music career takes off? Or will the lo-fi recording techniques of Badlands still be a major centerpiece of future Dirty Beaches records?

That depends on the budget I’m working with. Who wouldn’t use a proper studio with amazing reel-to-reel tape machines? Who wouldn’t use antique microphones that cost thousands of dollars with producers and sound engineers on boards that are there to make your life easier? That’s if you can afford them. Unless there is a third party-sponsor involved, it has to come out of my own pocket. I accept donations if people would like to aid in my process of recording.

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