Sad-Ass Music #9: A Chat with Dirty Beaches' Alex Zhang Hungtai
Mar 1 2013
I mean there is a general sadness to most music that I love, but I don't think of them as sad music until my roommates or friends ask me, "Are you ok?"
I “met” Alex Zhang Hungtai, better known as Dirty Beaches, in a very obvious and appropriate way back in probably 2008 or 2009 on... Myspace. We were both solo musicians, hacking away at our personal projects, moving and manipulating minimal, loner music. While our music was quite different sonically, our aesthetics rode a similar wavelength, and we connected through ideas of style and approach.
Alex crafts a very specific sound, whether he's doing a psychotic and gritty romp stomper, such as a “Lone Runner,” a keyboard-heavy, almost electronic-based recording like the work of Night City, or something as blissful and refined as the stark ballad, “Golden Blonde.” Alex has absolute control of his art, even with all its ragged, frayed edges and nostalgic, tape-hiss dirt; the effect is defined clearly. The mood is brazen and undenaible.
I met Alex in early 2010, when he played in a city I was visiting. We sat around, drank booze, and chatted quietly among a group of friends and acquantinces. I had a new girlfiend at my side, and Alex was road worn; so we stayed mellow and had a nice time. At the extreme tail end of 2011, Alex and I teamed up to curate a nice year-ending mixtape to blow out 2011 and suck in 2012. It was nice to have Alex back in my Gmail chatbox, working to make something really killer for people to enjoy.
Alex is a genuine soul, with a beautiful heart, adventurous mind, and a passionate stance on life. So in 2013, while I've got this opportunity to speak to people about music I love, I knew I wanted to speak to Alex about his ideas on “Sad-Ass Music” and how music influences his life. I knew his responses were going to kill long before I reached out to him, but I didn't expect his answers to essentially be this telling—or become a basic manifesto on life. Beautiful stuff.
How do you think emotion and music correspond on the most basic level?
How does music interact with you or you interact with it, personally, on a day-to-day basis?
What does "sad music" mean to you? How do you define it?
Is sad music something you find yourself reaching for more than other types of music?
What are some of the saddest artists, songs, records you've found? What do these say to you? Say about you?
Your music walks the alleyways between a lot of different genres and styles, moving around influences of rockabilly and no wave, to minimalist electronica, and even more ambient-type atmospheres. There's always a real sense of honest, turgid emotion in the music. It sounds, regardless of technique, to be wrapped in from-the-heart, boundless feeling. What's your mindset regarding the ability of different methods of music-making and genre-balancing to obtain that real emotional grasp and pull?
Location has no doubt been an influence in your music. You were born in Taiwan and have spent time living in disparate locations like Hawaii and Montreal, and most recently you've been in Berlin. For you, personally, how does location and change of scenery affect the sound of your music, but more so the actual impact of it, in how it comes out of you, from an emotional and mental realm?
How have the places you've lived and been, through living a life of moving and shuffling, affected you as a person, a musician, and an avid listener and fan of music?
It makes me not judge things from the surface. It also makes me more sympathetic towards people who are displaced. If I see a dude from Peru selling flowers in Paris at 3 AM amongst drunk French people, chances are, if I have spare change, I'll buy a flower and give it to my drunk friend. And same with music, I don't judge people from aesthetics, it's more if I can feel where they are coming from. Sometimes I'll hear a band with really really cool aesthetics, like, amazing references, and an amazing look, but if I don't connect with them, I can't help but feel like this person or band is making art for the sake of making art, which is really boring of me. I can't relate to that idea at all. For me, I can tell when I listen to someone's music if they've cried or lived or laughed or bled. I'm not talking about pop either, I'm talking about experimental groups, too. Sometimes, it's all just a showcase of how much I know and how cool I am, and nothing turns me off more than that. Just make the music your heart feels. Who cares if it's not cool? If you're for real, other people out there who are like you will connect with you.
Experience is important. But suffering should be avoided at all cost. After all, the meaning of life is to pursue happiness. Whether we succeed or not, that's a different story. That being said, I'm always attracted to artists who have lived through everything, and you can almost see the sheer mileage on their face. Versus say, someone who has never had a real job and wants to be an artist. They can do that of course, it's a free country. But I'm less attracted to them because I'm jealous of them, how easy everything is for them. But that's all. We always hate what we can't have, especially when it seems so effortless for others.
Lastly, to you, how important is it that a musician examines their personal station in life, their mindset, their heart, and their locale before they dive into creating their art?
Dirty Beaches' new double LP, Drifters/Love Is The Devil, will be out May 21st on Zoo Records. Below is the first track released from this monster, and believe me... shit's excruciating.
Dirty Beaches just completed a number of Asian dates and will be heading to the UK in May.
5/5 – Newcastle – The Cluny
5/6 – Dundee – The DCA @ Soul
5/7 – Glasgow – Nice & Sleazy
5/8 – Dublin – The Workman’s Club
5/9 – Liverpool – Shipping Forecast
5/10 – Chester – Rope Presents @ The Compass
5/11 – Manchester – Soup Kitchen
5/12 – Leeds – Brudenell Social Club
I'd like to send a vast amount of gratitude to Alex for casting miles and miles of golden knowledge upon both myself and you. The man has knowledge, experience, and a personality to boot. Can't thank him enough for stopping by.
And to all my avid readers, I express to you most sincere warmth and affection. LOVE YOU ALL.
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