Interview with Dirty Beaches by Silas of Monstrous
August 22, 2013
Dirty Beaches, real name Alex Zhang Hungtai, is a self-professed third culture kid. Home, he says, isn’t a location. It’s “just memories” - interpretations of the experiences a person has had. His music feels like an agglomerate of influences: Orbison, Presley, Reed, and Czukay jump to mind first, while further listens reveal moments reminiscent of Kid A and Angelo Badalmenti’s Twin Peaks. But Hungtai’s music is not pastiche. These elements are a vocabulary that is rearranged and subverted to reveal an attitude that his alone.
Alex connected with KXSC DJ Silas from Berlin, where he recorded his latest album, Drifters / Love is the Devil, which is out on San Diego’s Zoo Music.
I noticed that you make a lot of music while touring. Two releases this year were based on experiences you had abroad: The Hotel EP was built off of recordings you made of yourself playing piano in European hotels late at night, and you produced a cassette with the group Tonstartssbandht while on tour in Russia. How does your location affect the music you make?
I think every city has their unique energy and it kind of just pulsates, especially if you’re sensitive to influences. It’s kind of hard not to be affected by kind of general openness in Berlin. Prior to moving here, I hardly listened to electronic music. I’ve never really participated in rave culture or anything like that. But moving here - it’s kind of an eye opener. And it’s also a check on myself – on my likes and dislikes. We dislike things because we don’t know anything about them. Moving here really opened my eyes to that, and I’m really grateful to evolve. I find it a lot easier to accept things now.
Drifters / Love is the Devil sounds a lot more electronic than any of your previous work. Did you find a direct influence in club music?
The influence was a vague impression. I didn’t have the music vocabulary to pull that music off because I had no idea what kind of equipment they were using. That was very exciting for me because I was just trying to replicate a certain feeling. I’d never done that before, and it’s great because I’m not watching a rock and roll band and picking them apart. With electronic music, I have just a very vague impression. That experience was very liberating. It’s just like starting over, like a child, wanting to copy something and not being able to.
I think most listeners are detached from electronic music in that way. There’s not much to watch - it’s some guy in a dark corner of the club. So the music is less intellectual – it just has an effect on people. In that way, it reminds me of film music, which has a purity, free of the constraints of genre and style.
I saw Mykki Blanco performing in Berlin. Basically, a DJ just presses play on a CD, and that’s ok. Culturally, that’s accepted in hip-hop. But if you have a rock and roll band who do that and have someone sing, then it’s considered unacceptable. We have all these guidelines about what’s acceptable and what’s not. I think these lines are starting to blur, and eventually people will learn to accept new performances and new music.
I think Mykki Blanco is crossing over to something even bigger than his music. I can’t really put my finger on it, but it’s like, it’s just like he has his own crew of friends, you know – the boy child who looks like the transgender David Bowie of The Man Who Fell to Earth – she just looks like an alien, embodying masculinity and femininity and very futuristic and sci-fi. It’s all being pushed up into your face. It’s really beautiful and really awe-inspiring. I think they’re onto something really cool.
Do you think people need to be shocked a little bit to become acquainted with new things?
Yeah. We can also relate that to food. A lot of people don’t have a lot of exposure to different kinds of spices, different kinds of meats, different parts of animals. They would be shocked or have this general disdain towards this foreign meal that’s presented to them. For me, the more you see, the less weird everything seems.
Nobody can cook a foreign meal the way a local does, but maybe adaptation breeds synthesis. In another interview, you discussed the book Retromania by Simon Reynolds, which argues that our impulse to commemorate the past might hinder our originality here in the present. But aren’t we adapting the past, combining our influences to form new creations?
I don’t think the people Reynolds is talking about are aiming to combine different antitheses to create something new. They’re rejecting the present because they don’t have the confidence to do something that’s unsafe. So it’s a lot easier to reference something that’s branded “cool.” For example, the 70s in New York. That’s never going to go out of fashion, so it’s safe for those artists. Because it’s safe, because it’s already been proven that it’s influential. It was great for a reason, but none of us were born in the 70s, so what’s the point?
I think this has something to do with the crisis of authenticity that we face as a generation. We’re in dogged pursuit of our own individuality. But it’s hard to be unique, so maybe the next best thing is to default to something that’s already cool.
Exactly, yeah. I think you can always tell the people who are borrowing something just because it’s trendy or it’s cool. They’re just borrowing for the moment. But then, there are people who study it and love it and have full respect for the past because they want to move on and they want to create something new. And I think it’s a really interesting time we’re in now because there’s so many new things mixed in with technology. The one key is to accept the past. Once you fully understand and accept the past, then you can move on.
Our technology allows us to make combinations that were never possible before. But it also makes it easier to make judgments about things in less time and with less information than ever before. What’s your take on that?
I think that people who have the mileage don’t have to care. It sucks that people judge you on surface value, in five seconds. I find it a double-edged sword, because it doesn’t matter if you’ve lived a very interesting life. You’re being judged at this breakneck speed. You have to impress people in 30 seconds. That’s a lot to live up to.
Our generation is so different from previous generations. In the past, if an artist decided not to read their reviews, they didn’t. But we’re on Facebook and Twitter - people can directly contact you and send you a message. It can be encouraging or it can be a direct insult. There’s no hiding away from it. I could have good reviews but some guy will tweet at me and be like “Yo your record’s fucking bullshit.” I have to read that because it’s sent directly at me.
So whose opinion matters to you? Whose encouragement do you seek?
I think we all seek encouragement. But I think once you get to a certain point in your career and as you mature, you realize that at the end of the day you’re just battling with yourself to continue and to challenge yourself. The only person I’m trying to please now is myself. Because I think I have a pretty good bullshit detector. If I was being a dickhead or doing something insincere I’d be able to catch myself instantly and feel really awful about it.
You made music for a long time while receiving little public attention. What does it mean now to be recognized for your work?
I understand both sides of the spectrum; there’s good and bad. The good thing about nobody paying attention to you is the pursuit of the craft. You have to do it, you will do it, no matter what. It’s kind of a validation of your existence. I didn’t really think about it when I was washing dishes and making records and selling 5 copies in one year, you know? It didn’t really matter. You just kind of do it because you love doing it and it makes you feel good.
Then, on the other side of the spectrum – to be recognized. That’s great because you don’t have to wash dishes anymore, and you can live off your art and travel and do whatever you please. It’s kind of a dream come true. But there are these expectations – pressure from all sides, mostly exterior. And they can be really unhealthy because they will ultimately influence my art and how I make my art. It’s a really hard battle that every artist has to go through today. Once you’ve been on both sides of the spectrum, then it’s a lot of soul searching.
Did you feel that fame took away some of your independence?
No, I just felt obligated to deliver what pleases people or deliver to people who support me, but at the end of the day you have to establish this relationship with your fans to be human enough to understand where you’re coming from. They understand that you’re not just a one trick pony who’s going to deliver the same show like Siegfried and Roy. You have to trust your friends.
So is the trick is to emphasize your humanness so the fans can understand your evolution?
Yeah, and I think, the fans have their own evolution. I just got a really thoughtful email. The author was talking about how two years ago he was in college and he discovered my last record, Badlands, and he has been playing it nonstop. Then he graduated and he had to think about where to get work and he was thinking about moving. His girlfriend was thinking about moving to a different city. In the end he had to break up with his girlfriend and he had to go through all these life changes. Then, he found out about the Drifters / Love is the Devil, and he just wrote me to be like, “Thank you so much for the records that you’ve put out in the last 2 or 3 years because I can identify with all these changes in life. It’s kept me company.”
He’s driving from fuckin St. Louis, Missouri to Chicago. Long, just long commutes in the car just being alone and unsure of what he wants to do and unsure if he’s going to get a job. That email really moved me. I felt really touched. All of a sudden, you can put a face and an identity to one of your fans. And before that it was kind of just like 50 or 200 people but they’re just a sea of faces. You can’t even put a name or a personality behind any of them. But all of a sudden, that one person. And it just makes you realize how big the universe is. And every one of them at the show, they each have their different story. They’re all there for all different reasons. You can’t make generalizations.
Catch Dirty Beaches at The Echo on September 20th. Tickets available here
Silas is the host of Monstrous Wickedness, which airs 11pm-late every Tuesday on KXSC. Learn more at mwickedness.com.