Alex Hungtai of Dirty Beaches
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If Dirty Beaches’ sound was somehow translated into physical terra firma, the result would still be a dirty beach—a strange, desolate place, where a man’s grand croon echoes off in the distance, and the wind carries the sound of primordial ’50s and ’60s pop as drawn by guitars and a few machines. In its current form, Beaches is only Alex Hungtai, a Vancouver resident who has also lived in Montreal, Toronto, Honolulu, and Taiwan, and whose music is affected by his sense of displacement. Originally working under the moniker Wong Kar-Wai, he became Dirty Beaches in 2006; Badlands, his debut LP, will be out in late March. On Tuesday, May 5, Hungtai will be playing the First Unitarian Church; The A.V. Club caught up with the 30-year-old while he was in China to discuss the idea of home, leaving lo-fi behind, and cars on fire.
The A.V. Club: Your life’s been spread out among so many different places. How has your music been shaped by those fluctuations?
Alex Hungtai: It definitely affects me as a person. I’m trying to exorcise these ghosts. I don’t really have a sense of home, so the protagonist in my music is always someone in exile or someone that’s removed from their comfort zone and just trying to figure things out, being a stranger in a new town. I don’t want to call [my music] therapy, but it definitely has something to do with my upbringing.
AVC: Is there a fictional narrative driving Dirty Beaches?
AH: Oh yeah, there’s a lot of fiction aspects involved, but I find it really hard to relate to [music] if it’s completely fictional, so what I discovered over the past few years is [that] I try to create a fictional character based on myself, so it’s a mix between fiction and my own experiences. That’s way more abstract and interesting than writing more confessional-based music.
AVC: Can you think of an example of how this plays into Badlands?
AH: [The album’s] all based on my own experience from touring—driving across North America, back and forth, and then going to small towns, encountering weird people and nice people and temptations, like girls that would come up to you on the road, and accidents. I saw cars wrecked on the roadside, engulfed in flames. You just drive right past it. All those things made it into that fictional character I built.
AVC: Writers have put out a handful of repeated comparison points for your music: Elvis, Jim Morrison, Suicide. What do you find it connected to?
AH: They’re all pretty accurate. I was obsessed with The Doors when I was a kid, but I was also obsessed with Wu-Tang. [Laughs.] A lot of stuff I was listening to when I was young crept into my subconscious. I don’t think I’m trying to emulate any person in particular. It’s a mishmash of all the people mentioned.
AVC: What’s something about Dirty Beaches that hasn’t been addressed by the media in the past that you want touched on?
AH: Now that there have been a few offers from labels and stuff, I’m hoping I can get out of this recording setup, because it’s all budget home recording. All the recordings are funded by myself. I don’t think the lo-fi thing [is] a necessity as an aesthetic. It definitely plays in, because I’m doing a modern take on old music—the ’50s influence. I think Dirty Beaches’ stuff works because it’s trying to recall a psychological landscape from the past. It has that punk flier “photocopy of a photocopy” feel. That works, but it’s not something I would want to keep doing if labels could give me more funding.
AVC: Mood and style seem like important elements to your sound’s rawness. How important are those factors compared to the content of the music itself?
AH: That derives from watching so much film. Because of my part-time job as a teenager working in a video store, I think of music as a film. I think of sound as an actor that I work with. The sound will become the look of the film—the surface part. But just making a film with stylish cinematography won’t fly. It’s very vacant, so I try to carve a piece of myself and paste it onto these characters to give them flesh and blood. I was heavily influenced by soundtracks and how composers work with filmmakers. The way directors use music, they create a mood, and it becomes ingrained in your mind. I’m writing soundtracks for films that don’t exist.