Q&A: Dirty Beaches’ Alex Zhang Hungtai On Confounding Expectations (Mostly His Own) And His Musical Future
There is no denying that Alex Zhang Hungtai is an intense dude. As the heart and soul behind Dirty Beaches, he makes music that is equal parts beautiful, heartbreaking, and (occasionally) terrifying. After the success of 2011’s Badlands — a breakthrough album nearly a decade in the making — Hungtai returns this month with the release of Drifters/Love Is The Devil — a double album that vacillates between more straightforward songs (“Drifters”) and a batch of devastating instrumentals (“Love Is The Devil”). The tumultuous nature of the new record is apparently a fairly accurate barometer of Hungtai’s state of mind for the past three years or so — a time that includes seeing his career take off just as his own private life seemed to fall apart. I called him up just before he and his band took off for a tour of Russia to discuss how the new album came to be and what happens next.
STEREOGUM: Well I have to say I was a big fan of Badlands but I think I love this record more. I particularly enjoy Love is the Devil, which has been soundtracking my spring and summer in a really intense way. It’s really beautiful.
HUNGTAI: Thank you so much. I appreciate that.
STEREOGUM: Was it important to you after touring Badlands to make a conscious left turn with this album? Or did that just sort of happen naturally?
HUNGTAI: I think the funny thing is that I just got really upset with people who only judge me from Badlands because they just completely ignored everything I had done before. And for me it’s kind of unfair because i’ve been around for over ten years. For me that early material is the bulk of who I am – so people telling me ‘Oh this is such a dramatic change’ seems silly…if you look at the stuff I did before its not really that different. I’m really proud of this record because it’s a consolidation of the past and where I am now and what’s to come in the future.
STEREOGUM: I have to admit, I’m not even totally familiar with your entire back catalog. You’ve made a lot of music. I can see how it would be supremely annoying for people to not even acknowledge that all that material exists.
HUNGTAI: I have all of it on my Bandcamp…but nobody really goes to my Bandcamp (laughs) and that makes me really sad. I have it all there, so its not like it’s really hard to access, you know?
STEREOGUM: Its kind of depressing sometimes when you realize that technology allows to have the entire history of recorded music at our fingertips at all times….and yet people don’t take advantage of it. I’m guilty of that as well.
HUNGTAI: I mean for me it’s OK because I don’t think have to know everything I’ve ever done but it’s mostly annoying when they speak with the tone of authority – especially music journalists. They write about artists as if they know everything about them and that’s what I don’t appreciate because everything they write about me is like “Oh the debut album and Badlands” and they speak with such conviction like “Oh yeah he’s gone crazy and into left field this album came out of nowhere and blah blah blah he’s angering his fans!” I’m just thinking there are a lot of people that wrote me since 2006 and they were all like, “Man we are so stoked about the new album you are going back to what you used to do!” and its encouraging to hear that and then sad to hear the opposite from music writers…and there are really good music journalists out there also that do research but the majority of them, they just Google you and then read what Pitchfork says about you and then basically copy and paste.
STEREOGUM: Sometimes bands will ask me to write their press release or bios and I always tell them ‘be sure that you 100 percent love everything that’s in this because you will be hearing this quoted back at you every day for the next year of your life”.
HUNGTAI: Yeah, seriously.
STEREOGUM: From your point of view, did the response to Badlands change your life dramatically? Did it feel like a break out to you?
HUNGTAI: Yeah it did because I had just turned 30 and I was still working shitty jobs at restaurants and to be honest I was thinking of quitting music again — for the second time, seriously — and going and getting a real job. But then Badlands happened so I’m happy and lucky and happy to be here. There are good things and bad things–compared to most of my friends that are still slugging it out working dead-end jobs in their 30’s, I feel lucky. Everybody is bummed and happy for me but putting stuff out and nobody really gives a shit. So I feel really fortunate.
STEREOGUM: You are 30 now?
HUNGTAI: Yeah, 32.
STEREOGUM: It is a weird time in one’s life – especially if you make art or music. It’s like, am I gonna keep doing this forever, even if no one cares? It makes you reevaluate – what am I really getting out of this? Things that are sort of a novelty in your 20s – sleeping on couches, etc. — are much less of a novelty as you get older. It makes you have to be very cognizant of why you are doing this and what your expectations are. So its nice to have that reflected back at you and see that people really love it.
HUNGTAI: There was a lot at stake this time around because I got what I’d always wanted with the release of Badlands. Which was to tour and go to all these different countries and not have to work a day job. But, the best part is now I have so much to lose. Before I had nothing to lose because of that I could just make whatever record I wanted to — I could make a 45-minute drone album if I wanted and just put it out and go back to work the next day and not really think about it. But now it’s like people are telling me…journalists are telling me….“it’s really brave what you are doing, have you ever thought this could be the end of your career?” But you can’t please everyone. You really can’t or else you will go crazy. When you read about how bands and artists have meltdowns on stage – I can totally see that. I was heading that direction and I had to do something to change that.
STEREOGUM: Well, one gets the feeling even listening to these new records — especially the instrumental one — that its coming from a very raw, emotional place. Were they difficult records to make?
HUNGTAI: Yeah. It was very punishing and masochistic. I’m glad I didn’t write any lyrics for Love Is The Devil because it’s very personal. I think I would be a fool to write these really sad, personal songs with lyrics and put it out there in public because your basically, you know, after you become a public figure you become a bus stop ad. Meaning that a lot of people will see and check you out — and that’s a good thing, but the bad thing is that anybody can take a shot at your face. People can draw a dick on your forehead they can draw balls on your nose, whatever, like you’re subject to being ridiculed in public and you have no choice because this is the price you have to pay for having people know about your music and having your music be written about. I made a conscious effort to go back to what I’m most comfortable with, which is writing instrumentals and not try to make an album that’s like “Hey this is my breakup album! Check it out!” I think would be crushed to read any kind of review of that.
STEREOGUM: It’s impossible not to take it personally when the work itself is so outrageously personal. And the idea that you would have to go out and perform those songs in front of other people…seems a little torturous.
HUNGTAI: Yeah totally.
STEREOGUM: I like to look at your blog, which is so thoughtful and very honest. You have been very transparent about your motivations and how you are feeling. Does that ever start to feel…I mean, is that ever a double-edged sword for you?
HUNGTAI: Yeah, I think it definitely is. Ever since I took the “existential classes” in college I became a big fan of existentialism. Because then I realized “oh, ok I’m actually not crazy for thinking these things” Staring at myself in the mirror and having these horrible thoughts is not insane. It’s great in a lot of ways, but I also feel like my whole life has been this really long constant existential exercise where I’m trying to erase the gap between personal life and public life. I’m like that with all my friends and family I try not to hide anything. But then with this break up with my ex girlfriend I realized like, there are things that you don’t share. There are things that you can never share, no matter who it is, or no matter how close you are with them. That was a huge blow for me personally and having to be forced to face yourself at age 32 and made to acknowledge that you are a shitty person and you’ve done some shitty things and you are not going to get away with it…I don’t know its almost like I’m punishing myself for putting everything in public and now I’m forced to acknowledge myself.
STEREOGUM: That kind of behavior becomes a way of processing things…
HUNGTAI: I think it creates a different context. In psychotherapy sessions I think that’s why people think it’s so effective when the patients talk about their own problems because the words that are coming out of their mouth are relayed back into their ear. It’s creating a different perspective sometimes – like a third person perspective. There is definitely a downside to it though. People will judge you and it doesn’t matter how hard working you are or how nice you try and be, all it takes is one failed Youtube comment and people will think I’m an asshole. Just me on a really bad day and then reading this comment and being like “Oh my fucking god I cant believe…” then you reply and regret it later. That’s all it takes, you know?
STEREOGUM: You took a lot of heat for your YouTube comments that were a response to things people had posted about “Love is the Devil.” Now that some time has passed since that happened, do you regret it? I mean in some ways I think that was just a really honest response. I don’t know…
HUNGTAI: I overreacted. That’s all.
STEREOGUM: Since you made Drifters/Love Is The Devil…have you thought about what you want to do next?
HUNGTAI: There is a lot of stuff. I really want to pursue writing film scores. Other than that, I want to make a dance record or some music with a dancey beat–who knows how it will turn out. If it sounds really bad I probably wont use it, but I am going to make one. I make a lot of music and a lot of it never sees the light of day. I’m a fan of just doing it instead of talking about an idea. Like, I always actually make it and then if I think it sucks I’m not going to show it to anyone. But yeah, I’m gonna make a dance record and see how that sounds – if it sucks then yeah I wont put it out. I also want to make a jazz record actually.
STEREOGUM: What kind of jazz record?
HUNGTAI: I’m a big fan of the hard bee-bop stuff but I also like the really sentimental sad instrumental stuff.
STEREOGUM: That’s cool. That’s very cool. I’m jealous of that. I’m not a musician at all but I like the idea of being able to try and make whatever sounds fun or interesting on a whim.
HUNGTAI: Well you should try it, Cole! Seriously, because I’m not really a musician I just have ideas…
HUNGTAI: Until this day I still get shit because I’m not a technician – I cant like, shred. Id like to but I cant. I just have these ideas and I taught myself how to play and this and that…and this the only way I know how to make music. But every now and then I’ll get comments about like “He can’t even play a chord.” And I’m like, “Yeah it’s the chord I made up, you know?” I didn’t read it in a book or take a lesson, I just played it and I thought it sounded nice. You should try to play music man because it’s never too late.
Dirty Beaches’ Drifters/Love is the Devil is out now on Zoo Music.