Sad-Ass Music #9: A Chat with Dirty Beaches' Alex Zhang Hungtai

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 recently got back in touch and shared this lovely, intimate interview with each other.

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.

VICE: First off, I would just like to know your general definition of music, as something that reaches people on an immediate, emotional level?

Alex Zhang Hungtai: Music should be something that's free from aesthetics. Just pure immediate emotional reaction.

How do you think emotion and music correspond on the most basic level?

I think as humans we respond instinctively to rhythms, harmonies, minors, and majors, as they effect our moods in varying effects. Its very relatable to our core.

How does music interact with you or you interact with it, personally, on a day-to-day basis?

It's more like a protection of some sort. For example, if its cold outside, I would wear a big warm coat, and if my mood is feeling towards that, I like to listen to something that serves as a partner of some sort that keeps me in company. From there on, you have music for commuting, driving, walking, working, dancing, cooking, sleeping, etc. [Erik] Satie once described a certain type of music as furniture, and in a sense, I agree with it completely.

What does "sad music" mean to you? How do you define it?

What people think of as sad music is usually just music for me. 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?"

Is sad music something you find yourself reaching for more than other types of music?

I think "sad music" is just a default mode for me. Because it makes me feel calm. In fact it makes me feel neutral. Neither sad, nor happy. Just here. Taking the world in. It's not sad, it's just the way it is, and the way I see the world. I just choose to see the world as is instead of a sad world. I hope I'm making sense.

What are some of the saddest artists, songs, records you've found? What do these say to you? Say about you?

The music that I find very sad, are ones that reach this emotional cocktail between the sounds and the words. For example, when Chet Baker sings "I get along without you, very well, of course I do" it makes me tear up. When Billie Holiday sings "Strange Fruit" about people getting lynched, that fucks me up, too. Or like 10cc's "I'm Not In Love" or The Cars' "Drive" all these songs have this alchemy of chords and melodies concocted with the right amount of information that automatically makes me think of my own life, and naturally, I get muhfucking sad and depressed. I don't know what that says about me, though. I don't want to know.

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?

This comes to mind of a conversation I had with friends about aesthetics and genres. Our current generation is so obsessed with aesthetics that we forget what's the most important thing. For me, aesthetics and genres are just mere tools, they are fashion, and a jacket—a look, if you will—to get people to pay attention to you. Very similar to when you meet someone. You're attracted to them because of the way they walk, they look, or smell. And then when you talk to them, most of the time that's when I become bored and disappointed. The surface can only take you so far. Deep inside, I know who I am, and where I come from deep inside my very core. That core in me will never change. Because it's all I have left, after surviving through 24 years of relocation. The genres and the aesthetics are disposable. It's not the leather jacket that makes the man, it's the man wearing it that makes the jacket.

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?

Each different location has its personal story, but mostly they are just impressions. Some are immediate reactions that spark ideas, some just kind of sit there in your head until one day, after you've left for the fifth year, you wake up and cry about the Pacific Ocean and how much you miss the simplicity of life on an island. But you're awake in Montreal with -36 Celsius weather outside your window, and it's all too late now.

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.

How important do you feel heartbreak is to an artist? For making art? Certainly, it's circumstantial, but how much grit can you possess without having felt loss?

I don't think grit should be an aesthetic that people pursue. If life deals you shitty cards you kind of just have to roll with it and play the hand right, as best as you can. A lot of times I try to be as pleasant as possible and just want everyone to have a good time and chill. The grit only comes out when people try to fuck with you. And then it's like, "Ah, hell no, you ain't gonna fuck me over on this." Grit is more of a defense mechanism than a way of life. People who act mean all the time are really annoying to be around, and I definitely wouldn't recommend that.

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.

You've recently begun to shift to working with film music, doing scores for pictures. You've made personal videos to give a visual aspect to your music throughout the years... So, do you think music creates the same sort of reaction and dialogue that can be taken from literature or film? What are some things, from a land outside of music; books and film, that have inspired you to create, or that have affected your style, be it musically, but more so in just life in general?

Film really changed how I look at the mundane things in life. Perhaps it's similar to psychotherapy where when the patient hears the problem relayed back into their own ears from their own mouth, suddenly a context is created—a perspective or filter is created. It no longer looks or feels the same. A world can be created within a world. But maybe that's where the problem is with modern music is that the listeners are distracted from what is really important. When they listen, they no longer hear the true emotions, all they see are the ever confusing layers of context or templates that's been created for them to navigate through this confusing postmodern world.

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?

Experience is everything to me. To live and cumulate experience is very important in what I do. Or else I would have nothing to say. Nothing is more inspiring than to take risks and learn how to progress along the way. The right way to think is that: THERE IS NO RIGHT WAY. THERE ARE NO RULES. Rules were always meant to be broken anyway. There is no wasted time, if you're someone in the pursuit of this for life. It's a constant journey that's fucking painful, but when you see a higher plateau that you want to be on, first you must climb down from the plateau where you are standing right now. And NOBODY WANTS TO DO THAT. I say call your homies together and say “fuck that, we gonna get off this rock and climb to the next.” I'm ranting right now. But it's very important to always remember where you come from and bring your friends and homies along the way with you. When y'all climb up to that new plateau, y'all can chill and smoke a cigarette and cheers each other with a drink in hand and enjoy the view. They say say the top is lonely, well I just solved that problem right there. BRING YOUR HOMIES AND CREW WITH YOUUUUUUUUUUU.

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.