INTERVIEW: Dirty Beaches

As Alex Zhang Hungtai announces the end of Dirty Beaches following new album Stateless, we catch up with him to discuss next project Last Lizard and the difficulties of growing up with two national identities

If he’s in the midst of a glorious act of self sabotage, Alex Zhang Hungtai is wearing it well. Recording and playing as Dirty Beaches for the past decade, Hungtai announced via a string of tweets last week that he was calling time on the band. As outlined here, he may also be drawing a line under aspects of his own past.

Born in Taiwan and raised for the most part in North America, Hungtai formed Dirty Beaches in 2005 but it was only with the release of the album Badlands in 2011, featuring stand-out songs such as the swooningly mordant ‘True Blue’ – a foggy creation redolent of Roy Orbison chained to a radiator – that he was able to bin his job as a chef and dedicate himself entirely to music. With a Kerouac-like love of the road, he also switched sound for last year’s Drifters/Love Is The Devil album, taking in the thumping oscillations of ‘I Dream In Neon’ and the doleful strings of the title track.

This past summer he announced a new, all-instrumental album entitled Stateless would be released in November, and now, on the eve of its launch, the 34-year-old has declared Dirty Beaches finished, tweeting that while it was a painful – and possibly flawed – plan, he needs to "move on".

He makes it sound as though he’s finally getting out of his own way. New music, under a different name, is due next year, and within minutes of tweeting the end of Dirty Beaches, his Twitter account had been renamed Last Lizard. Something was always bound to crawl off that beach…

Dirty Beaches is over – why?

Alex Zhang Hungtai: The decision doesn’t really have any logic behind it, but a more emotional and impulsive move. In hindsight, yes, I do hate being pigeonholed musically, as it reminds me of my childhood where people were constantly asking me, "What are you – Chinese or Taiwanese, American or Canadian?" and because I lived in all those places, I’m not authentically any of them. I’m a collage of all those places, and I’ve accepted that. Now it’s just whether other people will accept that about me, or look at me and say, "Of course you are" with that smirk on their face.

It’s arguable that by going in so many different musical directions over the past decade, that Dirty Beaches couldn’t really have been boxed into any style. Is it simply that people might become too accustomed to a band name, or what that band may or may not represent musically, and that you saw this as a possible constraint?

AZH: The band format is very constraining. As a culture, ‘bands’ are obligated to constantly play ‘the hits’ – even though I never had any ‘major’ hits – but it’s very limiting. You wouldn’t ask a painter or writer or film-maker to make the same thing twice. But as musicians, we are obligated to repeat the performances, over and over, until the end of your career. I’m hoping to evolve and move on.

You referred to the decision as "a painful one" and express sadness that you have to do it. In general, do you feel that sometimes there is a disconnect between what a musician wants to achieve – with a band name as simply a ready identifier – versus the way a music fan consumes the music made by that band? I’m thinking here of someone like James Murphy in LCD Soundsystem – he was obviously the main mover in that band, yet still felt the need to drop the moniker and move onto something else.

AZH: I think people are attracted to things for different reasons and it’s out of your hand once it’s public, and it takes on a life of its own. Which can be interesting but also terribly frightening as well. But I’m very proud of Dirty Beaches fans. The vast majority of the DB fan base are all very thoughtful people with their own experiences, memories that they had with the music. After reading some fan e-mails today, it’s heartwarming to see how far you’ve reached out to certain people. And it’s important to know that and acknowledge that and appreciate that. But nonetheless, all banquets come to an end.

With new tracks like ‘Dickie’s Theme’ and ‘Displaced’, from Stateless, you don’t seem to be compromising yourself in relation to what you do or how you do it. When you refer to moving on to something new, what do you have in mind?

AZH: It’s more of a rebellion against the industry templates they now cast on bands, so we all come out of the box in the same format and shape. That is highly annoying to me when the consumers consume it tagging it #indie, when it’s not independent at all. It’s become an ornament of some sort. I hope to advance further into the idea of independence and see how far I can take this. This will be my primary focus for 2015.

I was struck by a tweet you sent out in the summer of last year: "Ever heard of the bird with no feet? It flies it’s entire life & sleeps in the wind." It, alongside a whole other raft of song titles and materials, suggests a need to not be trapped in any one place, to idealise physical as well as mental or creative freedom. To what do you attribute this, when looking at your own life and your own music?

AZH: How you were raised, and your accumulated experiences ultimately shape you into the person you are today, including whatever creative endeavours you pursue.

Is a lot of the restlessness conveyed in your music, and the way you change direction, linked to a sense of personal displacement you felt as a youngster? I’m thinking of a book by journalist Ed Vulliamy, The War Is Dead, Long Live The War, on the experiences of people from Bosnia who grew up in the United States, where there can be difficulties in adapting to AND being accepted by a new country.

AZH: I’ll spare you the details as it’s painfully complicated, but all immigrant experiences are tough. You go through the process of knowing/not knowing why you left, or worse, not having any concrete memories to hold on to this "imaginary homeland" due to young age; you grow up living, hoping, looking to fulfill this void. This need to return to where you come from. But the sad reality is, that place doesn’t really exist, as evidently proven in so many diaspora communities worldwide. That homeland has moved on, politically, culturally, linguistically, and this memory from twenty, thirty years ago, this strong spiritual support, can break when you realise that homeland did exist, but not anymore. So what happens after that? In a way, Dirty Beaches was an oasis for me to cope with all this. And I feel like I need to move on from this one dimensional way of storytelling. Although every release I’ve made is different sonically, the theme has been identical. It’s always been about the same thing. I wasn’t even fully conscious of that until this year.

On that same topic, I see you’ve just tweeted that you will always be North American AND Taiwanese. Is there an underlying struggle to be both in both places?

AZH: Ostensibly, yes. You can see yourself however you see fit, it’s when it comes into conflict with those that reject your identity.

You seem to have lived and recorded in various locations over the past while, including Beirut, Berlin and in Portugal, which seems to get reflected in the new material, like ‘Displaced’. What was the genesis behind this, and the experimentation with oboes, synths, tape loops, etc.?

AZH: I didn’t live in Beirut, just played a concert there in a basement and stayed with my buddy Khodor for a week. It’s beautiful there, and probably the only place in the Middle East where I could play a concert. The rest of the region is quite intense, but Beirut is a city of itself. ‘Stateless’ is a reflection, or rather a meditation, on the idea of restlessness due to lack of an identity. It’s this constant notion of being displaced, attempts to integrate, homesickness, but past the point of return, a sense of loss in the process, and repeat… it’s heavy. I mean, the initial idea of Stateless as an album was to cram an entire lifetime of experiences into single compositions… obviously that is impossible [laughs], but it has a lot of that in it. Like seasons – these emotions come and go, and resurface again, but each time around, you see something different. It might also be an age thing… I’m 34.

The set-up came natural, just saxophone, viola and synth. It didn’t feel like it needed anything else, so i stopped adding other instruments. Plus, it’s already dense and heavy. Adding anything else would be like adding condensed milk onto a beefy stew. Not worth it.

It’s all quite far from the equally beguiling ‘True Blue’ from Badlands. It seems that if you stuck on that path, you’d have made a mint. Yet you steered away from that direction and have kept driving down different roads since. Would you ever think of going back to that kind of plangent style?

AZH: Not anytime soon. Maybe in my 50s? Washed out has-been never-was wedding singer for hire? [laughs] Nah, I’d rather be a cook and work in a restaurant, maybe go back to my old job as a sous chef.

How important is the need to be on the road, to soak up different cultures and experiences? You seem to tour places that wouldn’t necessarily be top of everyone’s itinerary.

AZH: To see as many different places and play for as many different people is the top of my agenda. I mean, yeah, Switzerland pays well, but I’m not gonna play there every fucking three months just because they pay me well, know what I mean? I’ve played the Middle East now, and I’m hoping to play Africa, South America, Central America, and as many remote places as possible. I’m curious to see how many people I can reach and connect with through this music. Since a couple years ago, I’ve stopped making friends through mutual love of things, taste, etc. Sometimes you connect with people because of certain qualities, and you love them for who they are, not because they read certain books or are knowledgeable in music or cinema. That don’t mean shit to me. So I’d like to think and hope my music can be like that. If people in Lebanon, Taiwan, Japan, the USA, France, etc. like my music, I think I’m on the right path.

What now? Is Last Lizard the new project, or a nom de plume for a short time? Where, musically, might you be taking it now that you have drawn a line under Dirty Beaches?

AZH: Wait and see my friend. Who knows, maybe I’ll go to Thailand and learn Muay Thai and get my nose and face broken and audition to play Asian villains in Hollywood blockbuster movies for the next ten years. I’d rather play a villain than laundromat, corner store cashiers. Fuck you Hollywood.

Stateless is out on November 10 via Zoo Music

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