Picking Brains At Pitchfork: Dirty Beaches

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Dirty Beaches

On Sunday, June 15, Kerri O’Malley and Kayla Wroblewski battled their way to Alex Zhang Hungtai, a.k.a. Dirty Beaches, who snuck our picnic party from the main lot into the (not so exclusive) VIP area. Forsaking our Port-O-Johns for less nourished grass, we spread our zebra-patterned picnic blanket behind the green stage to work through the weekend with Alex, chatting about just another day at “the office,” that one pair of lips, and why Alex will probably never read this.

Check out our other Pitchfork interviews with A Lull and Thee Oh Sees, and check back tomorrow for our final Fest conversation with Milk Music.

Kerri O’Malley: So lo-fi rockabilly…is that how you would describe your sound, or is there another way you would define it?

Well, that’s just the writers and music reviews…I’ve been putting out music since 2009, so all everything before that album wasn’t rockabilly. I just wanted to do that album for my dad.

KO: Is your dad really into that kind of music?

Yeah, he’s really into old American music.

KO: Like the blues, spirituals…does he go that far back or just the rockabilly, birth of rock kind of stuff?

Yeah, he really liked the gospels and stuff, blues albums like that.

KO: What’s your relationship to your dad like – are you close?

I don’t see him that much.

KO: So where are you from exactly?

I’m from Taiwan. I immigrated to Canada when I was eight with my family. I moved around a bit.

KO: Seeing American culture from that angle, is there a weird, kind of cool lens on it or has that become distorted by hanging out here and seeing it’s really not that cool? [Laughs]

I grew up in Hawaii, so it’s a weird, removed American perspective. I spent ten years there, went to high school there. I watched the same TV shows as you guys do. I spent the same cash…but it’s different, it’s not the same as the mainland U.S. Hawaii’s very much its own. But me and my high school friends all romanticized the desert and road…when I finally got to do it and be on tour with a band, it all just came with the music, and it made sense.

KO: Yeah it seems like whether you’ve got some distance from it or not, there’s this mystique to that old Americana, like rockabilly. Back then, it was weird and contentious with all these racial issues, but now it’s sort of…

It’s a ghost.

KO: Yeah, exactly. It loses its controversy and can be recycled into something new.

Well, I mean, it’s just out of time. Everything has its own expiration date. It wouldn’t really make sense to try to recreate it. I mean for me, I was just doing an homage to my dad.

Kayla Wroblewski: What you said about rockabilly being a ghost…everything’s based on the blues, right? So everything starts as someone wanting to copy someone else’s thing. Is that something you feel when it comes to your music?

Yeah, totally. You take in all of these things, and it’s not real until you put yourself into it, and that’s what I try to do.

KW: It seems unavoidable to put yourself into it.

Otherwise it would be just living it for the fashion of it, I guess, like the Stray Cats, you know.

KO: From the 80s? [Laughs]

From the 80s. The dude with the huge pompadour [tries to explain who the Stray Cats are to Kayla]…He’s a great musician, you know, but they’re acting as though they still like in the 50s, whereas I wear regular clothes, I don’t try to play it like, ‘Hey, look, I’m from the 50s, man.'

KO: [Laughs] ‘Rollin up my cigarettes in my shirtsleeve cause I’m bad and stuff.'

[Laughing] Yeah that’s very unpractical. Shit’s falling out. You fucking lose your cigarettes.

KO: Look cool for five seconds, then no more. So what music are you really interested in? You seem to kind of shrug off the rockabilly stuff, so what really inspires you?

Oh, everything…Talking to you guys…having a fake picnic.

[All laugh]

KW: Sitting on a blanket, you could call it. I mean, that part is real.

I mean, sitting on a zebra printed…carpet…uh…But yeah I’m just happy to be alive, not working in a kitchen or a job that I don’t want to do.

KW: Is that what you want from your music: financial success?

For sure, to get out of it in any way. I mean, I had a good day job at one point working in real estate. That was the highest paying job I ever did. I just wanted to fucking kill myself every day.

KW: God, that sucks. So what’s your daily life like doing this?

Now I have a really strict schedule actually because I treat this as a job, even when I’m at home. I go to the jam space that I call “the office” and I bring my briefcase that’s, like, full of my music and stuff, and I go there from 9 to 5. Even when nothing comes out, I just stay there and play all day. Cause I’m finally doing what I want to do, instead of imagining it when I was, like, cutting meat and wishing I could be doing something else. I like being disciplined.

KW: You’re lucky man, it’s a lazy world out there. It’s a good thing to have naturally for sure.

KO: Do you think giving yourself that kind of structure makes you more creative, or do you get yourself in trouble sometimes by boxing yourself in?

I think it’s just healthy to have self-criticism. I remember times when…I mean everyone wants some time off when they come off tour, but I remember a time when I was just sitting at home watching Netflix, eating ice cream, laying around in my underwear…

KW: That sounds amazing.

Yeah, it sounds great, right, but I felt like shit. I felt really guilty, like I should be doing something, not just laying around, eating ice cream, getting fat.

KW: So how long have you been doing that, living that regiment?

Since last year. I also got hired to do film soundtracks and stuff like that, so now it gives me even more of a reason to actually go in and treat it like a job.

KO: What kind of film?

Some documentaries, and my current project is an Italian horror film.

KW: Do you know the name?

Yeah, it’s called…something I can’t pronounce.

[All laugh]

KW: Try hard.

La Donna…shit, I wanna say juice-ta? Giusta Perme.

KW: What does that mean?

I don’t know.

[All laugh]

I know what the movie’s about, I just don’t know what the title means.

KO: What’s it about?

It’s about this rich sociopath who is also hopelessly romantic…which means he kidnaps women and forces them against their will.

KO: Aw, romance isn’t dead. [Laughs]

Very dead, in this case.

[All laugh]

KO: Well now seems like a good time…we were talking to people in the crowd and some cute girl wants us to ask if you have a girlfriend, so…

My heart belongs to the owner of these lips – the two on my left wrist [points to tattoo].

KO: That’s a really good tribute.

Yeah, I look at it when I’m away from there, so…

KO: [Mimics kissing wrist] Do you do that?

No comment. It kind of defeats the purpose of having them there if I don’t…

[All laugh]

KW: So things are going really well for you now. Do you feel like you’re getting bigger?

Um, I don’t know. I try to not pay attention to the press stuff. I just do them and then I don’t try to, like, look it up because I did that last year and it really traumatized me. Just like the shit people say or internet trolls and stuff like that…I didn’t realize that before. It’s almost like suddenly you become an ad at a bus stop and anyone can take a shot at your face. They can draw a dick on your forehead, they can draw a piece of shit coming out of your nose…you’re in the public, and anyone can fucking say whatever they want about you, how you look, the way you talk, how you dress, and most hurtfully your music.

KO: That’s really hard.

Yeah, you have to just kind of zone out…I know my friends, and my friends have pretty good judgment, and if I doing shitty stuff they would tell me, ‘Hey, dude, that shit you’ve been working on is fucking whack.’

[All laugh]

Everyone is really supportive, so I should continue to do what I want to do. And it’s not about those guys. It’s weird because now it’s not like someone would actually come up to you and be like, ‘Dude I fucking hate your band, man. Your fucking music sucks.’ Now it’s like an unknown face with an alias, not even an avatar. Most of the time it’s anonymous, and anyone can say whatever the fuck they want with no repercussion.

KW: Yeah, that’s crazy. How do you keep yourself separate from that stuff, from the negative aspects of your job?

That actually reminds me of this girl that was reading my charka earlier. She said, “You just take in all this abuse and say, ‘That’s life.’” And that’s just how I grew up, which is why you appreciate the good things because you expect things to be shit, but when good things happen you’re like, ‘Fuck yeah!’

KW: How does the fact that this is your art play into that? For me, art is how I get away from life, but for you art is your whole life.

It’s like having dental coverage that comes with your job. It’s nice. There’s other shitty stuff that comes with it, but when you love your job, which I do, then it’s worth it, in my opinion. That’s what we all want, right? To have a job that we love.