Alex Zhang Hungtai is effusive in his gratitude for psychomagic, a transcendent strain of self-help created by legendary director and mystic Alejandro Jodorowsky. "It is how we perceive reality, and project [cultural and personal narratives] onto ourselves and others around us," Hungtai tells me over email. "Sometimes we inherit virtues and strengths, at times we inherit hatred and prejudice, and all this inheritance is actually having a proxy war through our bodies with one another." On Divine Weight, the devastating new solo record from the 37-year-old musician, Hungtai manifests those tensions into cosmic ambient assemblages.
It's another reinvention for Hungtai, who left the brooding sample-heavy surf-pop of Dirty Beaches behind in 2014 and moved on to a number of remarkable and very different projects. There was Last Lizard's saxophone-driven free jazz, and knotty drone with Austin Milne and Simon Frank as Love Theme. Divine Weight's five tracks are composed of three years worth of recordings described as "failed" compositions in a press release. These saxophone tracks and other sonic sketches become raw existential marble for Hungtai to craft and process into death, and eventually, rebirth.
The FADER is proud to premiere the record's title track, a stunning and raw climatic dirge. Listen to it below, followed by an interview with Hungtai about how he defines failure, the weight of history and social currents, whether travel can really bring humanity together, and much more.
I am everything and everywhere I have lived and all those places are within me, and they live and talk through me.
Your press release describes Divine Weight as stemming from "failed" saxophone compositions. How do you define a piece of music as a failure, and how did those compositions lead to the finished album?
The word "failed" in the press release was presented in quotations to highlight the significance of a over-dominating cultural narrative that drives all of us: what is successful? how is excellence measured? By who? How is it measured? That was the social narrative I battled against for 4 years post-Dirty Beaches because I wanted to be free from my musical past. But simply reacting to your past does not resolve anything, and picking up a saxophone and train for 4 years in attempt to play free jazz definitely does not solve that problem nor does that make you "FREE."
What I learned was responsibility for what I play, and by doing so my music became proactive, my compositions guided by devotion and to persist in a state of consciousness where the divine choreography presents itself with infinite possibilities. To not limit myself by imposing values that are already defined by the status quo. As a result through that process, Divine Weight is a bridge that connects my past to the future present state I am currently in musically. It was all composed and recorded on my laptop, through digital manipulation: stretching, exaggerating frequencies through excessive EQ, sampling my own saxophone recordings through granular synthesizers, through improvisation, and by trial and error it became a projection onto an old projection. Perhaps it is best described as an album as, when human beings resist to change their narrative, the only way to understand you are entrapped in a self-imposed narrative is to destroy it. When the new projection began I saw through the holes and wreckage of the previously destroyed version that it was merely projections of realities that can no longer confine me. Hence the cover art: The EYE becomes conscious of the projections, and stares coldly through the mirror of all projections.
Unfortunately, this album still can't escape the trappings of a narrative. I wish to eliminate myself as the observer by knowingly surrender to what I can't predict as an outcome, and who knows what that would entail?
Why did you decide to release this record under your given name instead of an alias?
The name "Alex Zhang Hungtai" in itself is an attempt to bridge between politics, of family, and history between nations. In Chinese, the family name "張" (Zhang) comes before the personal name, so it would be read in the order of ZHANG HUNGTAI. But since Mao's Communists defeated Chiang Kai-Shek's Nationalist party, the Sino historical and cultural consciousness shattered into "China", "Taiwan", "Hong Kong", "Singapore" et al, along with other territories. My father is from Shanghai, so the family name "張" in China is spelled "Zhang", in Taiwan its spelled "Chang", and in Hong Kong its spelled "Cheung", etc. Mind you, this is all the same family name... Having been raised and assimilated to the west for 30 years, my name became Alex Zhang, Alex Chang, or Alex Cheung, depending on what version of "CHINA" I was from. HUNGTAI remains in Taiwanese spelling. Otherwise I would be HONGTAI, or HEUNGTAI. In this order: ALEX ZHANG HUNGTAI, I am read the correct way from either side and in between these territories that try to eliminate one other. The trinity of these three words ALEX ZHANG HUNGTAI contains my wishes and prayers that Taiwan and China can coexist without hostility, a naive thought on my behalf, yes. But it is a prayer.
Of course, not everyone is held accountable to be knowledgable of other countries historical and cultural politics so I never took offence until people started to shorten my name for sheer laziness. And for that, I'd like to make it public and hence release this album under my own name. If you don't know, now you know.
This irrational childhood fear of causing inconvenience to the hosting country of my residence, like when they abbreviate it or misspell it or mispronounce it, I never dared corrected them, because it would bring upon further ridicule at school. What's in a name? At a very young age we are forced to deal with dysmorphia culturally, from Jose to Joe, Mahmood to Mood, Shubhayan to Shub, HUNGTAI to ALEX...Anything that will make us less of a target at school. From a very young age we have already learned to bend to the reality FORCED upon us. You wanna live in this country? Well make sure your goddamn name is convenient enough for us to roll off of our tongue.
In the film Lucy (2014) directed by Luc Besson, Scarlett Johansson's character is in Asia and shoots an Asian cab driver after she asks him "speak English?" His penalty was that he didn't. Watch the scene here.
What can you tell me about your decision to leave the United States permanently last year, and did it influence the record at all?
I've since returned after one year and am currently residing in Los Angeles again. I'm a loser and still believe in the American dream. Maybe I came back to this country to die. The mind works in mysterious ways...
There's a prevalent belief – at least in North America – that an authenticity linked to a place is necessary to become a fully formed person: "Don't forget where you came from," etc. What are your thoughts on this, as someone who's talked a bit about being Stateless?
I think authenticity is in the process of being obliterated as a social construct due to technology, instant gratification and accessibility. People create alternate egos, false identities, anonymous identities, fluid identities, and more and more it's pointing towards a future where people will attempt to break free from social constructs of identities and labeling. I do think it is important to understand where you come from, the history, and cultural context. It is essential in the genetic make up of mutations. Otherwise it will be an exasperated recycling of surface values to the point of nullifying itself and deconstruct to the point of nothingness. Perhaps that's the fastest way to reach anarchy or an accelerationist's fantasy where everything is governed by nothing, no god, no country, no gender, no flesh, just imprinted memories and a neural network of consciousness. But since the hoverboard never made it to our current future, I'm gonna guess we just devolve into fat consumers with no legs to walk, addicted to sugar and substance and augmented realities.
What countries/places hold a special place in your heart and why? What's a special memory you have of them?
Honolulu, Montreal, Lisbon, and Taipei, because in those 4 cities, I've met so many incredible people that became my family, and they took me in, in different phases of my life, and prepared me for the next. I once took LSD and rode on a moped with my Taiwanese brother Kuo Kuo in Taipei around 5am and the whole time I stared intently at the empty streets, imagining traffic and ghosts from my childhood as the neon lights shimmer and blur across the night and thought to myself: "Wow, this is what I missed out on when I left Taiwan as a child, if I had been raised on this island, if I had never left." I imagined an entire existence of my adolescence riding on mopeds and felt as if it we were one moving object, chasing the tropical night wind. Then I came back into my senses and felt incredibly grateful for that experience and the amazing life and all the people I've met in my travels and I started to cry.
In this blip of existence in this body for 37 years, I've never felt younger, and more optimistic simply because I wouldn't change a thing. I know I will continue to fuck up my life in some way and continue to grow and expand beyond my wildest dreams. I've forgotten who I am because I held onto him for so long and didn't want to lose him, I broke him and suffocated him to death. I am everything and everywhere I have lived and all those places are within me, and they live and talk through me.
Is "Yaumatei" on Divine Weight named for the district in Hong Kong? If so, what is its significance for you?
In Chinese, we have an expression called "鬼打牆“ (literal translation: ghosting hitting a wall) and philosophically it's close to the idea of "The Eternal Return" where you encounter the same things and same events over and over again onto eternity. Yaumatei felt like a space where there is absolutely no space for anything to survive between the neon, molded wet cement buildings that's pumping smog with cars honking, people yelling, where delicious food and drinks are made, consumed, and then tossed into alleys or thrown onto the street and trickle down into the sewer drainage. Yet life persists, and thrives between the walls of the living, and the dead, where ghosts and spirits are forever entrapped and perhaps even walk amongst us, or perhaps they were residual projections from the past that linger on to the present, as the two projections intersecting creating alternative focal points of reality. I felt deranged for living there for 3 months. I was completely uprooted and didn't know where I belong.
How did you appearance on Twin Peaks come about? Did you learn anything from working with David Lynch?
I owe it all to my dear friend Dean Hurley, along with Riley who invited me to play saxophone on the recording of "Snake Eyes" which later was featured on the show, and we formed a fictional bar-band solely for the TV series. What I learned from watching David work is that, the self exploitation of pain and suffering and abstraction is a celebration on life, the acceptance of what we don't understand. It is a direct collision into death/life. Whoever tries to sell you salvation, in any form, is a charlatan selling snake oil.