Alex Zhang Hungtai’s most crucial idea for Dirty Beaches didn’t originate in a bedroom, studio or other conventional station of creativity. Instead, he found inspiration while washing dishes and prepping appetizers in Indonesian and Vietnamese restaurants in Montreal during a particularly dull period of his life. “My head chef had dialed in on this really weird techno/dance music [on the radio],” says the former sous chef and now lone musician driving Dirty Beaches’ burnt-out, deeply nostalgic sound. “It was really poppy music, but all the signals were fucked and that gave me the idea of trying to manipulate music through radio.”
First using what he calls “live radio manipulation” for 2008’s Horror, the kitchen radio’s tumultuous transmissions set the foundation for the vibe of Hungtai’s project. The average Dirty Beaches song is so purposely crummy-sounding that it feels like it’s being pumped out of an oldies station whose radio tower is 1,000 miles away. His tunes owe a serious debt to doo-wop, pop, surf rock, rockabilly and post-punk sounds linked to the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. Hungtai is very careful with what artists he samples (on 2011’s Badlands, it’s The Ronettes, FranÃ§oise Hardy and Les Rallizes Dénudés), how he plays and arranges his sparse guitar lines, and the style in which he croons and barks his desperate, sentimental lyrics. (Imagine Hungtai’s voice as the soundtrack of a cocktail party after Buddy Holly, Jim Morrison and Elvis have spent the evening raiding the liquor cabinet.) Hungtai himself can’t possibly be older than 35, but his music is so seriously reverential of times past that he comes off as a now-aged man who adored his life most during the above-mentioned decades, and he keeps trying whatever he can to return to those years.
Dirty Beaches’ sound is half of what makes it such a special-feeling project. The rest is wrapped up in Dirty Beaches’ narrator—a character modeled on Hungtai’s experiences as a perpetual outsider. The voice you hear on “True Blue” and “Lord Knows Best” is that of a stranger who keeps drifting but finds himself in hard times no matter where he goes. The person behind the music feels a similar lack of comfort, having lived in cities as dissimilar and spread apart as Toronto, San Francisco, Taipei, Honolulu, New York, Shanghai and Montreal. This instability has made Hungtai feel a general sense of alienation, which is a quality he’s transferred to his character.
Despite Badlands sharing its title with a 1973 Terrence Malick film, Hungtai is more of a fan of auteurs David Lynch and Wong Kar-wai. “Most of [Kar-wai’s] main characters are always someone in exile or some kind of weird displacement,” Hungtai says. “They’re always not in their most comfortable zone, and he loves this motif of the passage of time—how time distorts everything—which was really relatable for me because of all the different places I lived in. As time passes, all these memories kind of blur into one, so I definitely borrowed heavily from that.”
Hungtai has an intriguing, complex relationship with his character. Sometimes, he feels burdened by portraying him. While doing press for Badlands in Amsterdam, one outlet wanted to do a photo shoot where he would sit by a hotel window smoking cigarettes, drinking whiskey and looking depressed, but since Hungtai was in a good mood, he didn’t want to do the downtrodden thing. The outlet campaigned hard for their shoot, arguing that the public’s image of him was a dark one, but Hungtai eventually sabotaged their plans by playing goofy and lively. At the same time, that narrator resides at the heart of Dirty Beaches. “The aesthetic’s always changing. What’s important is that central character,” he says. “Maybe the next one will be a sci-fi record—super spacey and clean, and all synthesizers—but it would just be [about] someone feeling disconnected and displaced.”
w/ Xiu Xiu, Father Murphy
The Urban Lounge
241 S. 500 East
Thursday, May 24, 9 p.m.