Dirty Beaches Talks Film, Hip-Hop, Home, and Performance Art

Dirty Beaches is the work of Alex Zhang Hungtai, a 30-year-old born in Taiwan before spending time in Hawaii, San Francisco, New York, China, and, currently, Montreal. To call Dirty Beaches a band would be a misnomer. What Zhang Hungtai does is more akin to performance art, with live performances consisting of him singing over backing loops, occasionally strumming surf licks on a cream white Stratocaster. His U.S. tour finds him at The Trunk Space on April 29.

The music on Badlands, his third full-length (but first to see wide distribution), is equally amorphous, equal parts '50s greaser nostalgia, ambient sound, and hissing sonics. Zhang Hungtai took some time to talk to Up on the Sun about the cinematic scope of Dirty Beaches, the oft-neglected hip-hop connections to his work, and his father, who played rockabilly as a young man.

Up On The Sun: You've often spoken about the music of Dirty Beaches being cinematic. I wonder if that extends to your live performances -- when you perform sans band, often just singing over a drum machine and backing tracks, the guitar hanging idly -- are you attempting to create a unique image, something more akin to performance art?

Alex Zhang Hungtai: It was a progression from my experience performing as a solo artist over the past six years. When I first started, I had friends that played all the parts I wrote on my first release, Old Blood, but it never worked out, and everyone was in another band. If you try to play every part of the song live by yourself, not only would it be nearly impossible, but it would also make it a very boring live experience as you bury your head deep into re-creating note for note what your record sounds like.

In essence, the minimalist approach in my music, allows me to maximize as a solo performer that's more akin to performance art. If the music were to be very complex live, the live performance result would be the polar opposite. These are some of the unfortunate limitations of a solo performing artist.

UOTS: Do you prefer playing alone, alternating between vocals and guitar, or do you have any plans to integrate a band into your sets?

AZH: I do have plans to play in a band, but not for the purpose of re-creating past Dirty Beaches material live, because it would be uninteresting to re-create something I did all by myself with other people. It would be more interesting to explore elements of new sonic territories in a band, as a band, together. As for now, I prefer to play by myself. Especially for the materials on Badlands.

UOTS: How much are like (or unlike) the character you play in Dirty Beaches, the badass, smokes rolled up in the shirt sleeve greaser with a comb? Is it completely a character you are playing or something in between yourself and the construct?

AZH: It's a character I built in the image of my father in his youth. I do smoke, but for the record, I've never rolled smokes up the shirt sleeves. It's impractical and they fall out. Pockets were made for a reason. Hair-combing on stage was something I stole from Bloodshot Bill, a one-man rockabilly band from Montreal. He's the real deal. Not only is his music high-energy and mesmerizing, he plays everything himself, drums and guitar, singing. He's fucking amazing.

UOTS: In terms of directors, Jim Jarmusch, David Lynch and Wong Kar-Wai are brought up a lot in relation to your music. What are your favorite films by each of them?

AZH: Jim Jarmusch -- Mystery Train, David Lynch -- Wild at Heart, Won Kar-Wai -- Days of Being Wild

UOTS: A lot of people focus on the '50s element of your music, the Roy Orbison/Elvis/Link Wray elements, but you were a hip-hop head in high school, correct? Beyond sampling and minimal live performance, how has hip-hop influenced your work? Do you still listen to hip-hop? Who are your favorite rappers?

AZH: It's similar in essence and structure on Badlands, because it's loop-based, which is what hip-hop music is based on. Whether it's programming drum machines or sampling, it revolves around that aspect. The only difference is that I don't rap. I still listen to hip-hop, but my tastes in hip-hop mostly remain from my adolescent era. Some personal favourites are: Gangstarr, Wu Tang, and Madlib.

UOTS: One of my favorite songs of yours is "Goodbye, Honolulu." Like many of your songs, it speaks to a sense of displacement (without having any lyrics). You've lived all over the world. Is there a particular place you consider home?

AZH: I'll always think of Hawaii as home, because I lived there the longest out of all the other places. From age 14-24. Everyone just looked brown. A nondescript mix of Pacific Islanders along with Asians and Portugese. Everyone kinda had the same skin tone regardless of your race due to the sun. Also because no one ever asked where I was from the whole time I lived there. People just assumed I was from the island. It's a nice feeling to feel like you belong.

UOTS Your album covers often feature the image of your father. How has he influenced Dirty Beaches. I read that Badlands was your attempt to create something he could sing along to. How has he reacted to the record?

AZH: My father influenced the past few 7-inches and along with Badlands, but I've never said it was created as something he could sing along to. In terms of earlier Dirty Beaches work from 2005-2009 they are void of this particular aesthetic choice. I've not heard any comments he made about the record yet, but my mother told me he choked up when he received the "True Blue" 7-inch I sent them. And I think in a fundamental way, he understood what I was trying to relay back to him. That his adolescent dream lives on through this album I've created in his honor.

True Blue by ZOO MUSIC
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Jason P. Woodbury is a music and pop-culture writer based in Phoenix. He is a regular contributor to the music blog Aquarium Drunkard and co-host of the Transmissions podcast.