In the midst of a sizable European tour, Alex Zhang Hungtai was able to do a little Q&A with Impose while trekking through France. We hit the basic topics – life on the road, the mesmerizing new Dirty Beaches double LP, Drifters/ Love Is the Devil – before getting on to somewhat heavier stuff, like the artistic possibilities of social media and question of aesthetic influences versus personal inspiration. Hungtai was typically candid as he touched on humble beginnings, his wariness of working with larger labels and the experimental live set he’s currently working out
How’s the tour going? Where are you right now?
We are currently in Dijon, France staying with our friends Chantal and Jean Pierre. It's been going great we are a bit tired but the days off are making the difference.
What’s your new set like? How have people been reacting to it?
It was developed in Russia so it's really heavy and focuses on improvisation and mostly new material from Drifters. Most people are either repulsed by it or really love it. No in-betweens so far.
Drifters/Love Is the Devil is obviously different from Badlands in a lot of ways, and the songs you released leading up to the new album are especially far removed from the prior sound. Was this a conscious effort on your part to show that you’d moved on?
No, it’s more a return to materials I did pre-Badlands. To a lot of the early Dirty Beaches fans, it’s a return to form, and picking up where I left off and what's to come in the next album.
When Zoo Music announced Drifters/Love, they alluded to the idea that a lot of labels wanted to work with you after Badlands. Why did you make the decision to stay with Zoo?
Sometimes it's best to just work with friends, as Zoo doesn't interfere with my vision and with what I want to do with the album, from art work to music videos, Zoo let's me take care of it. Whereas I haven't really encountered a bigger label that was in my interest. They just want to milk me and hinted that they want more songs like “Lord Knows Best” or “True Blue,” and suck me dry and dump me off the label after 2 albums. At least that's what their contracts all look like to me.
Drifters/Love makes an excellent case for the endless possibilities of lo-fi recording – it feels like a whole world that can be inhabited by the listener. But have you considered working in a big studio with a producer? Or recording under the Dirty Beaches name with a full band?
If there were money or grants involved, yes, that would be possible. But this album was recorded and engineered by a close friend, Pierre Guerineau, in Montreal and the rest was finished at Anton Newcombe’s studio in Berlin, which he let me use for free over a one-month period. If I can afford it and not be in debt, yes, I'd like to record something in a nice studio and engineers of my choice.
Your recent score for the documentary Waterpark was the third soundtrack (that I know of) you’ve done in the last couple years. Did your film-scoring work impact the way you approached Drifters/Love?
Not really, as its primarily working closely with what the director wants and to deliver something that serves as an accompaniment to the film, to make the best we can for the film as a team.
Is more soundtrack work something we can expect to hear from you in the future? Or directing? You’ve already helmed some of your own music videos.
Yes, I'd like to be able to pursue this as a day job if possible. It would be my dream day job.
In addition to the Waterpark OST and the new double album, there’s also a pretty long EP that comes with the Japanese release of Drifters/Love. Plus you just did a split with Tonstartssbandht… I’m not sure there’s even a question here that just seems like an insane work ethic/drive/amount of creative energy…
Yeah, there's a lot more too as I write and record constantly whenever I can, the most difficult part is filtering yourself and controlling what you think is worth sharing and what to just leave on your hard drive for jokes with your friends… But I take full advantage of this life and free time I have now as this was what I always wanted when I was washing dishes or other shit minimum wage jobs: to have time to just work on your shit. I feel very fortunate to be able to do this now. My prayer was answered and it is my duty to see through it to the end.
In the past, you’ve regularly referenced filmmakers. These cinematic influences seem more pronounced than ever, though you’ve made it clear that your new music is intensely personal. Can you talk a bit about that balance – between the art that influences you, and the ways your own life informs your music?
Excellent question. My friends and I have been talking about the question of aesthetics a lot lately because due to the vast spread of information and culture on the Internet (a good thing). Everyone from a 16-year-old kid can have the best taste in art, culture, cinema, music, fashion etc., but where does this take us? In some cases (not all) most people focus a lot on aesthetics and the surface. So much so that the creator loses sight of the story or content. And we are all guilty of that in some point of our lives, but me and my friends have moved on artistically and are focusing primarily on finding ourselves, in which our core influences (the unique combination of it) makes us who we are. Also, continuously adapting to new things and culture, and to keep growing and learning, instead of folding our arms scoffing at something. I love trying new food and new culture and learning new languages, because I am not ethnocentric. And I think this attitude helps me when it comes to my work, because one-sided perspectives are really boring to me. Hybrids, hybrids, hybrids. Your influences will eventually become digested and turn into something else entirely. You just have to find what's within the core of yourself. Then repeat all that all over again your entire life, hahaha.
It's the pursuit of the craft and the path in this life. It's painful and nothing ever makes sense but there's a sense of excitement in the air because the world feels a lot more open then let's say 20 years ago.
You’ve been super open about subjects a lot artists tend to avoid – influences, the fact that you’re making a living off of music, even the idea that you were sort of playing a manufactured character during the Badlands era. Is it weird to say that at this point, the personal aspect – interviews, social media – is almost like another pillar of Dirty Beaches, alongside the visuals and music?
Totally. Because the media is a direct way to manipulate how you want people to perceive you. It's another tool with which a lot of artists attempt to shape or control their “image,” whether it’s David Bowie or Grimes. I think it's great but also a dangerous tool, to blur the line of the public self and the private self. It's dangerous in the sense that when you don't hold back or go too far, people will read certain things about you, and perhaps misinterpret it, and approach you to seek something out from you (from fictional characters to a single line you said in some interview that you don’t remember cuz you just played a show, exhausted, drunk or high). Which is why I chose to tear the mystery from it all. Just some dude making music and his trials and tribulations. Boring real talk shit. Life itself is the most interesting thing for me.
I know you’ve spoken about writing songs around characters. Is there also maybe a visual aspect to the songwriting? The imagery of the narratives…
To some people they can see and read what I went through. And I hope these shitty humble beginnings can serve as an encouragement to some people because I never thought I'd be able to live this life.