When we meet with Dirty Beaches mastermind Alex Zhang Hungtai, his thoughts are somewhere else — and for good reason. He has a show the next night at Brooklyn venue, Glasslands and has no idea what he'll be playing. "We haven't practiced yet. We're going to write the whole set and play it tomorrow. It's either going to be really good or really bad," he laughs. Yet, that's just the sort of spontaneity that has defined Dirty Beaches' music—and life—over the years. Hungtai had lived in cities such as Taipei, Honolulu, Montreal, and many more, before adopting his current residence of Berlin. He carries with him the easy cool of a guy who could get along with anyone, anywhere, in any time period.
After posting ambient work on his Bandcamp and releasing numerous singles, split records, and EPs, Hungtai had a minor indie hit on his hands with his 2011 album Badlands. Fusing rockabilly and proto-industrial beats, he created dreamlike soundscapes that feel cinematic in their scope. For his follow-up, however, Hungtai hasn't played off the success of his past album. Instead, he's just released a double LP, Drifters / Love Is the Devil that returns to his older, ambient work while taking his penchant for pop experimentation in exciting new directions. While Drifters chronicles the perceived glamour of a career as a peripatetic musician, it's counterpart displays the loneliness that comes from life without a home base. "You're surrounded by strangers most of the time," he laments. "You don't get to stay at one spot for over a day or two. Your life is like a loop." We met with Hungtai in a Greenpoint bar where we talked his new record(s), his style icons, and prospects of settling down.
So, where are you based these days?
"I've been living in Berlin. I'm more primarily based in Europe now, so we've been touring very extensively there. It's great. It's similar, but it's also different. I think it's just a new chapter. It's always good to go to a place where you don't know exactly where you're going and can't really understand the signs...just start over."
Has moving to Berlin changed the way you make or listen to music?
"I'm really open to electronic music now because I have no idea how it's made. In my head, I'm enjoying the music. I'm not picking it apart, like, 'Oh, this drummer is playing 4/4 or 4/6 or they're using this equipment, this guitar, this pedal...' I can just listen to music for what it is. It's very liberating."
Have you been going to the big techno clubs, like Berghain?
"I've been to Berghain a few times. It was really dark. It was also great. It's a nice place where you can get lost. The last time I went there, I danced until 2 p.m., took the U-Bahn back, got home around 3:30 pm, and just crashed."
There's really nowhere else in the world like that.
"The crazy thing was, when I left at two, my friends were like, 'Hey, do you want to go to the after-party?' I was like, 'No man. I'm going home.' That's where I draw the line."
I liked the new video for "Dream In Neon." Was that a Firebird you were driving?
"Yeah, a Pontiac Firebird. The director found this random drunk guy and paid him a hundred euros to use his car. He agreed. It was actually really problematic because the car died constantly; the engine would just shut off. During the shoot, me, the director, the cameraman, the intern, and I had to push the car to jump start it. We got pulled over by the German cops."
Now that you're playing the new album live, do you approach your show differently, considering how many styles of music are on the record?
"We've been playing Drifters more. I think Love Is the Devil is not meant to be played live. We did play a few tracks from it, but I think it's a very intense, personal kind of music. I don't think that it would translate well in a public sense. It's music that you'd listen to on your headphones when you're taking a walk or on public transit going to work. I don't want to bum people out."
You have a really strong sense of personal style. When you're the road do you get to do much shopping?
"Yeah, sometimes. Like this shirt I have on now was bought in Berlin for three euros. I like the idea that I don't have to contribute to new companies that manufacture new clothes. I can just buy cheap thrift store stuff that's been recycled, that's already been made. I haven't bought anything that's brand new in three years. I just go to thrift stores."
Who are some of your style icons?
"I really like Tony Leung in Wong Kar-wai movies. He, personally, has no style. But I find him to be such a chameleon when he plays these roles. He completely transforms — it's what I really love about him. I also really like Jean Genet. He's a French writer. He's got a very classic sensibility: long-sleeve dress shirts, rolled up. Black trousers. Very simple."
For your last album, Badlands, your style was very specific — almost like you were playing a character.
"For Badlands, it was definitely a character. It was a caricature of what my father could have been, or what he wanted to be, for one summer, when he was 16. For me, it was about trying to capture that fantasy figure, with the hair and everything. But the character follows a lot from Elvis, rockabilly singers, and Johnny Cash."
The new records return to the sounds of your earlier work, especially the ambient stuff on Love Is the Devil. Are you hopeful that people who discovered you with Badlands will check out your earlier records?
"It was a really difficult decision. Realistically, I had a career after Badlands, but it was very different from everything I had made before. This new record is not that record from what I did before. When people think that's strange, I think that's really funny. But at the same time, it's a risk when you want to do what you want to do. Ideally, none of us wants to go back to your day job washing dishes."
When's the last time you had a day job?
"Two years ago. It's great. I feel very lucky. But you can't please everyone."
People have made a lot of the new record being more difficult than Badlands. But there are a lot of tracks that I think are really catchy, as much as anything on your last record even.
"I think it was the idea of presenting one story with two perspectives. Drifters was obviously the more fun, egotistical side of myself. How I want to be portrayed as a musician. The image, the romance, musicians on the road living irresponsibly. Hedonistic, shitty behavior. Romanticizing it — and it is true, it is very romantic. But I wanted to tell the story from of the opposite side. You're away from your family. Failed relationships. That's the reality of it too; it's not all just glamorous and hunky-dory."
You've lived so many places in your life — Taiwan, Hawaii, Canada. Do you imagine yourself staying put in Berlin for long?
"I'd like to stay somewhere I can speak the language fluently, so somewhere in Asia or North America. I'd like to stay in Berlin for another year or two so I can really explore Europe. It's so convenient. You can take a train to Warsaw. It's less than 100 euros to Paris. There's so much to explore."
What's surprised you the most about living in Europe?
"The major cities — like London, Paris, Berlin — are very metropolitan, population-wise. They're not as homogenous as other European cities, but for the most part, it is predominantly European. Me and my band get stared at a lot. One band member is from El Salvador and the other guy is from India. So when we show up with our dirty clothes, people don't expect us to be a band, they just think we're some dirty immigrants or something. There's a reason why they're called the 'Old World' and we're the 'New World,' in North America. We're way more open in terms of that kind of stuff. There's people that come up to me and are like, [adopts a German accent], 'I want ask you about your recommendation for a good Chinese restaurant.' I'm like, 'Just go on Google, man. I just moved here.' Just because I'm Asian doesn't mean I know the best Asian restaurants. I mean, I'm okay with answering that, but sometimes it's so redundant that it gets kind of annoying.
So, what's next for the rest of the year?
"More touring in Europe. We're going to Cannes in France, Portugal, Spain, Denmark, and Norway. Then back to the States and Canada in September."