Photo via Scott McDonald
Darkened highways. Pocket combs. Battered Gibsons. The vein of Americana imagery drawn upon by Dirty Beaches runs deep. The Taiwan-born, Vancouver-reared Alex Zhang Hungtai is the man behind Badlands, a fleeting, evocative record that tours through the back roads of David Lynch films, Duane Eddy. I chatted with Hungtai via email about analog, film and the perils of rating music. — Aaron Matthews
Your music draws on lyrical motifs of horses, cars and highways. They’ve existed for years but why do they still resonate with you?
Anything and everything in popular music have existed for years, everything we hear now from pop to indie music are all repeating motifs of a format that have existed: sex, violence, emotive diary-esque story telling, tongue in cheek references to popular culture, etc. and in the tradition of past artists, it’s how you personalize and combine the influences. Popular music is alchemy. No one has invented a new substance entirely on its own. It comes from a mixture of borrowed source, and from there, you create something new.
Prior to Badlands, you’d recorded a number of small release cassettes, EPs and 7 inch records. How do these releases tell a narrative versus an album?
EPs and singles are like short films or promo films. [They’re] shorter in length, so the release is based on a different aesthetic than a full length album, which gives you more room and space for details and story-telling.
What do you see as the benefits of those analog mediums?
The analog format is just a reaction to the deflating value of compact disc and digital download. As everything gets uploaded to computers and iPods, what’s the point of buying a CD if you’re just going to upload it anyway? I think certain crowds of consumers are interested in collecting the physical body of the work. Vinyl also sounds superior to mp3s. The packaging, the artwork of music is very important, which is why I’m interested in these analog formats because they have more value than CD jewel case designs. Who knows? Maybe when CD becomes obsolete, people will start fetishizing them.
You moved around a lot growing up, how do you feel it has informed your music?
Traveling is a BIG motif in my music, as you mentioned previously. If there’s nothing to hang on to, then you create something that will bind them together.
The photography on your blog Analog Beach, in an odd way, feels like it illustrates your music. I also seen you reference David Lynch and Wong Kar Wai in relation to your music’s aesthetic. Why is the visual component important to your music?
It all goes back to film related aesthetics. The sound and visual aspects in film are crucial to one another, and only certain directors pay as much attention to both aspects, because when they work well together, it creates magic. Icons are created this way.
Describe your writing process.
Living is a big part of writing, no time is wasted time in my opinion. Even when you’re working shitty jobs. Which is why I constantly seek out opportunities of adventure and new experiences as a person and making new friends. I’m a collector of experience.
What is “True Blue” about?
You know there’s a part of the ocean where shit is real dark and hard to see? It’s about being in those depths and looking back at the one you love that’s calling you on the surface.
Top 5 rock n roll records of all time?
I don’t like ranking things because they are just assigned values of particular tastes. It doesn’t make them any more or less significant. Music exists with or without us. As all those amazing world music comps from Sublime Frequencies demonstrated. When I hear shit like that, it makes me feel like a frog inside a tiny well. There is so much music out there. Rock n roll is just one of them. The only critique I have of rock ‘n roll is that it should remain somewhat dangerous and unpredictable, as how it was intended in its original form when it was born.