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Conversations With People We Like #5: Dirty Beaches

Post by: Kris Hartrum


“Life is short, yolo. Don’t give a fuck. Live, love, drive. When the nights are set ablaze you will be laughing with the gods.”

Beginning in 2005, Dirty Beaches is a musical project created by Taiwanese artist Alex Zhang Hungtai. His music, which has been described as lo-fi, grime, noise, rockabilly, no wave, etc… is often draped in a warm fog of cool, not unlike the man himself who appears as a sort of “lost one,” always on the move and seemingly in love with it all. Heavy distortion over 50′s rock n roll and a smooth, crooner’s voice, Dirty Beaches has amassed a loyal following over the years. His beloved 2011 LP Badlands was on the receiving end of much critical acclaim and was also part of the catalyst for said mystique which has attached itself to Alex Zhang, who is Dirty Beaches, a man with no regrets. Less than three months before his anticipated 2013 album Drifters/Love is the Devil  is set to be released, Dirty Beaches will top off his Asia Pacific Tour in Tokyo, Japan on February 18th at Astro Hall. TYO was lucky enough to exchange a few words with the man, Two days before his last show of the tour.

TYO: It’s great to have Dirty Beaches here. What’s your connection to Tokyo, personally and as a musician?

Dirty Beaches: I always thought of Tokyo as a sci-fi metropolis that stems from anime and movies, but in reality it’s more a childhood memory as it was the first time I traveled to a foreign country as a young child on a family vacation.

TYO: What do you think of the Tokyo music scene & audience compared to places like Hong Kong or Taipei? How do creative circles in the East differ from those in the West?

DB: I don’t really know the Tokyo scene as I’ve never played there, but almost everyone I’ve met in Fukuoka were incredibly nice to me when I first visited and jumped on a show before Dirty Beaches was conceived. Hong Kong was a great experience for us as a band. The crowd was a lot more responsive than I thought and we talked to a lot of the local bands there. Global family.

TYO: Has your creative process changed over the years since beginning Dirty Beaches in 2005? Do you try different things with each project or do you have a sort of comfortable formula?

DB: I’m really into the idea of disposable aesthetics, because its the surface, like fashion or anything that’s not permanent. I think it’s a reaction from our generation’s over-reference of all things cool to a point where we forget about content and why we make music in the first place. For me, every record I make so far has been about the same theme: displacement, exile, no home, no country, drifting, etc. The genre and sound changes just like my clothes as accent. I adapt and assimilate to wherever I move. But at the end of the day, I’m just a pacific island boy, who grew up by the ocean, and that will always be who I am. My core will never change, as its the only thing holding me together, guiding me like some internal compass.

TYO: I’ve read in a few of your other interviews that your “sound is your leading man” and that you do a lot of research. You’ve said that you edited and storyboarded Badlands as if it were a piece of cinema. Why is that important to you?  Do you do that with all of your work?

DB: It’s not important. It’s just the way I work. Like how certain painters have certain habits. Was dust important in Francis Bacon’s work? Who knows. But his studio was a result of his habit. And in a way, our habits dictate our work methodically.

TYO: I know that stories about your father were a big part of Badlands and that the album was a mixture of fiction, your father’s youth and your life on the road. Who or what has been the inspiration for your new album Drifters/ Love is the Devil?

DB: This ones the real me. Shaved head, lost in the labyrinths of Berlin, and countless other cities that I drift in and out of. It’s a study of myself over the past 2 years, one of the surface and of internal existential shit that’s almost masochistic.

TYO: I was listening to some gritty tracks like “neon gods and funeral strippers” which you noted on your bandcamp site were for a documentary about Taiwan. Could you tell us more about this documentary, how it got started, how it ended, and your relationship with Taiwan generally?

DB: I dropped out of the project because I didn’t want to partake in that which depicts the country where I was born from the perspective of a westerner. It’s that same old “oh look at how quirky these Asians are and how weird their culture is.” I’m just exhausted from that one way portrayal and didn’t want to contribute to something like that.

TYO: A lot of your music certainly has a soundtrack quality. For me they conjure up heated visions back in Hong Kong ducking neon at night. Are the images playing behind your eyes when you write, or even when you perform live?

DB: Yes, always.

TYO: I always hear the influence of noise music (something akin to early Sonic Youth or a doo-woped Swans) grouped into what many call lo-fi. Do you chase after the noise intentionally or does it happen naturally?

DB: Violence, anger, frustration, and cruelty are part of everyday life. It’s on TV and it’s in movies. It’s a part of our human consciousness and that sound is not a reference to a band but an expression of negative emotions. And of course they won’t sound like Mary Poppins, hunky dory, everything is a beautiful world kind of music. Noise for me is a representation of our shadow which is a part of us. To suppress it is very unhealthy. There should some kind of balance and outlet. Someone once said, “the brightest light casts the darkest shadows,” and I sincerely believe that. They have to coexist with one another.

TYO: I love the video and music for WHITE SAND that was done a year ago with director Tsien-Tsien Zhang and the cinematographer Christopher Doyle. I’m a huge fan of their work. What was it like work with those two?

DB: Qian Qian was really sweet and real easy to work with. I had not known about Chris Doyle’s involvement until it was finished. And it was a pleasant, shocking surprise and fan boy moment come true for me. I’ve been watching his movies he made with Wong Kar Wai since I was 16. It meant a lot to me

TYO: Are you interested in becoming a filmmaker yourself?

DB: Yes. If time and opportunity abides, I would love to pursue this dream one day.

TYO: I think photographs of your father have appeared on some of your music. How does he feel about being so “out there” in terms of his image and parts of his personal history?

DB: Those were all during the Badlands period, as it was inspired by him and about him in some aspect. It felt right to use his image, as it was purely an attempt from a son simply trying to reach out to his old man and to pay homage to his youth. Everything pre/post Badlands has no family photos involved.  I’ll emphasize again, it’s not about the retro-aesthetics. If there’s no story or content behind these images, it becomes disposable and meaningless to me.

TYO: You’re a well-traveled young man and we know you have lived in a number of places. How did you end up in Berlin & what do you find is the most influential or inspirational city?

DB: I’m 32, so old enough to know what’s behind me and young enough to know what I want and the importance of being able to pursue what others call “a dream.”
Berlin is a very nonjudgmental city that embraces people who are akin to orphans. If your broken-hearted or a displaced person, the city holds you with her open arms, as the very nature of Berlin is one of a transient place. People come and people go. I’m just another story amidst thousands of other foreigners that stumble onto this nocturnal city.The best cities are ones that don’t remind you of anything you’ve ever seen before.

TYO: I heard you’re going to be playing all new songs at the show on Monday. Will the majority of your set come from Drifters/Love is the Devil?

DB: Yes. I believe in my fans as they will grow with me. Those who want to listen to Badlands and slow songs forever can dwell in the past. I’m moving forward.  And to be honest, I don’t give a fuck what anyone thinks.  In this world, the only people I care about are my family, friends, and the people I love.  You can’t win all the time and you can’t please everyone in this world no matter how hard you try. There will always be someone who doesn’t like you for the very reason why others love you.  Life is short, yolo. Don’t give a fuck. Live, love, drive. When the nights are set ablaze you will be laughing with the gods. Because that’s the only fight worth fighting for. Thank you Hank Chinaski.  I will take this with me to my grave. Mileage is everything. Accumulate and accumulate. Our experiences define who we are. That is what makes us unique. Art for arts sake was never my cup of tea. I always root for the underdog, that old slugger slugging it out old school style.  They may break my bones but they will never break my spirit.

Like the wind,



TYO: Thanks for the words, Alex. You rock.

Dirty Beaches will play live at Astro Hall on February 18th, 2013 in Tokyo, Japan. Tickets can be purchased at LAWSON convenient stores, online or at the venue. 

Dirty Beaches- Love Is The Devil 

Interview questions conducted by Kris Hartrum & Sadie Starnes.