Interview: Dirty Beaches

July 25, 2013

In Rough Around the Edges, a Red Bull-produced documentary on underground electronic music in New York, one of the artists interviewed sums up the excitement of navigating the nightlife in that city with the observation that "There's this underlying secrecy, this underlying darkness, like, What's happening in the basement?" It's a pretty apt description of what feels like to stumble upon a subterranean music scene in any large metropolis, but in the case of Dirty Beaches, the (currently) Berlin-based project of Alex Zhang Hungtai, it's like that observation is coming to life as an aesthetic ethos. His recent double-album, Drifters/Love Is the Devil, spans pretty much everything from gritty, drum-machine pop to saxophone-accented lounge jazz, but it's united by the feeling that you're listening to a kind of extended, clandestine, emotionally untethered jam session reverberate through a wall. It is mutant, global, mournful music, as evocative of downtown New York legends Suicide, as politically minded as free-rock rebels as the Japanese psych band Les Rallizes Dénudés. When I got together with Hungtai in a bar in Greepoint, Brooklyn, recently, we talked about some of the below-ground environments he's traveled through, and how his music's stylistic hybridity is less a matter of looking back at the past than carving out a language for the future. Listen to a mix he made for us of songs that best exemplify this border-defying sound, and read our interview below.

And Now a Mix From... Dirty Beaches

Earlier this year, you released a collaborative recording you made with the defunct Beijing rock band The Offset: Spectacles. I know you spent some time hanging out in the underground scene there surrounding the venue D-22. What was it that you found interesting about those bands? There was a lot of social commentary for sure—that’s a pretty common topic. But I also find it interesting when bands choose to sing in Mandarin or English. The Offset: Spectacles were from Hong Kong, and they chose to sing in Cantonese in Beijing, which was completely isolating themselves on purpose, because people in Beijing can’t understand that dialect. I just think it’s interesting that there’s all these weird little pockets of people [making music in that part of the world]. Like Chinese rappers rapping in dialects that would never put them on a national level, because once you leave your province, people don’t understand what they hell you’re saying. It’s really interesting to see underground musicians and rappers in China—that spirit where you’re like, This is where I’m from and I’m gonna stick to this. Without ambition to cross over.

How’s Berlin treating you? It’s great. That city has no limits. You just have to know your own limits. A lot of people kind of just go, “Aaaaa”—like off the cliff. I think people who are not from Berlin, myself included—we’re all people that move there to escape our personal problems, kind of in the hopes of finding ourselves again. And a lot of people don’t—they kind of just go down the drain in a downward spiral. The cheap rent really helps. But the party scene is just insane.

Have you been going out clubbing a lot? After I finished the record, the first few months, yes. And it was just really dark shit. I mean, places that people told me about, and I was like, Yeah right! That sounds like a scene from a movie. But then I show up and walk into the wrong bathroom and it’s just these husky, big gay bears with chest hair, wearing a gimp leather mask and nothing else—like, naked—fucking each other. And other places where you just pass out underneath a table and wake up like two hours later and the music is still going on and people are still dancing. I’ve never been in a city like that before.

Did you have any experience with the club scene, prior to that? I have to say no, because I never really listened to electronic music before. Maybe some ’80s and ’70s disco stuff at the most, like the Ital-disco stuff, but that’s it. When I went there, it was very refreshing, because I had no idea how those sounds were made. Like you’re listening as a listener and not as a musician—not knowing how this music was made, and it’s really liberating. If I hear like an indie rock band, I get disinterested very fast, because my brain can kind of rip it apart. I know exactly what this guy’s doing, and what that guy’s doing, and in the end, it’s not even enjoyable for me.

Are you a voracious consumer of music in general? Actually, no. A lot of people think that, but I don’t collect music at all. I’m not a music connoisseur. It’s just what my friends recommend. I’m one of those guys who finds out about a band through a soundtrack or something. Like I didn’t know about Goblin until I saw Suspiria.

A lot of people have described the new album as a turn into more experimental territory, but it actually feels like an extension of the instrumental music you’d been making for years before Badlands, your last album. Yeah, the current album is kind of a consolidation of what I did before and where I am now, and what I’m going to be—like a hint at what’s to come next. Some people wrote me e-mails saying, Dude, welcome back—or back to form. We loved your old instrumental stuff. Those hipster girls that show up at the concert asking, “Why don’t you play ‘Lord Knows Best?’”—you just have to take it with a grain of salt. I just have to tell them, Sorry, I’m not gonna be a one trick pony.

Were there aspects of Badlands that you wanted to get away from with this release? That was a really special record for me, because I wrote it for my dad, and I didn’t have a music career before that—I was just working in a restaurant. So for people to know me just as that was kind of frustrating, too. Not to complain or anything—I feel really grateful. It’s just kind of unfair that they only know me as that one thing I did and they just completely ignore everything I did before, because it wasn’t hip enough, or it wasn’t reviewed, it wasn’t covered.

In the interview you did with Pitchfork’s Larry Fitzmaurice, you said you were trying to strike a balance between commerce and art with Drifters/Love Is The Devil, but that you failed? As soon as you even think about that, you fail. Because that’s when you are strategizing about how your art is going to be marketed. I think what I learned was, it’s supposed to be two different beasts: you make the art, and then you get involved into pushing the art as it is, marketing-wise. The game is the PR, the marketing, but that doesn’t have to affect how you make your shit; what you make should not be included in the strategy. I think in past history there’s a lot of weird shit that was been marketed and became really popular. Like Purple Rain for example—that’s a really fucking weird album, and that was a top Billboard album. If you listen to that album, it’s really bizarre. That’s Prince’s fucking strategy. He got out there, and everybody bought it: they bought the image, the story, the movie. And the music was amazing, too.

On Badlands, you sampled a song by the ‘70s Japanese psych band Les Rallizes Dénudés, and I can hear a similar, blown-out, free-rock aesthetic coming through on Drifters/Love Is The Devil as well. Those guys were really political. Would you describe your music as politically motivated as well? I think it’s better to set examples by doing and living a certain way instead of talking about it. I do complain sometimes when we encounter racists in Europe or other places, but the best thing is just to survive and be successful, because my band is like me, [guitarist] Shub Roy, whose parents are from India, [synth player] Bernardino Femminielli, whose parents are from El Salvador. When people look at us, we’re kind of just dark and brown, and some people give us dirty looks all the time. That’s why I love North America: there’s a reason we’re called the New World, and over there’s the Old World. There’s people that we’ve met, like kids from Morocco or Lebanese kids or Asian kids that come up to us and they’re like, How do you guys make a living? How is this possible? You guys don’t really look like the traditional rock bands. That’s when I was like, So you mean because we’re minorities, we’re deemed to not be successful, is that what you mean? And they’re like, No no no, I’ve never seen an Asian guy fronting a band, that’s all.

Do you think people are sometimes stoked about that? I had this lady from Iraq who was an English teacher ex-pat in South Korea—she just came up to me after the show and was like, I’m very, very intrigued by your band. I’d never heard of you guys, but I just watched you guys and you guys don’t even know what you represent; there is a lot of hybrid [stuff going on]. And we’re really obsessed with all these hybrid theories and stuff, and I was like, Oh man. It’s really interesting to meet people like that, and then to hear what they think of us, just looking at us and listening to the music and being like, You guys are really strange, but I like it, cause it’s a hint of what the future could be, or something.

What do you mean by hybrid theories? In press for Badlands, a lot of people were asking me if I’d read this book called Retromania [by Simon Reynolds] which is talking about how our generation of musicians is just kind of useless and all based on references and not really creating anything new. I was reading this other book called The Utopia of Sound, which kind of counters that theory. It’s talking about how eventually, because it’s referencing so much, music will just encompass everything. It will embody all music. The more hybrids that we create, the more consolidated it becomes. The hip-hop music sample brought classic rock, jazz and classical music into this weird new thing, and then people who grew up listening to hip-hop, like me, [use sampling] to make music that’s not hip-hop. Like this new album I made, even though it doesn’t have any samples, the way I did it is very much like a hip-hop record. I make a loop, I play the drum machines, drum pads, and then a bass line, loop it, then have keyboards–stacking stuff, like a grid. Every record I’ve made is kind of like that. I think eventually I’ll create something new.

When you say you’re working on creating a new language, are you saying that appropriating sounds from the past can actually be a way of looking toward the future? Yeah, I think in all fairness, Retromania, that book, has a lot of strong points, because there are bands that are like, Oh I want to look like a ’70s post-punk band, and they only dress like that. Those kinds of bands, they’re not bringing anything new. There’s no hybridity to it; it’s just copying something, formula by formula. I think that book is describing those bands. But there’s a lot of interesting musicians in this generation, like Hype Williams and Dean Blunt. Andy Stott—what a great musician. This weird electronic producer called Todd Terje. People are kind of taking out the parts they don’t like in a genre and then combining it or replacing that with genres that they like. I don’t think anything is original, it’s always building off of something that existed in the past. And chairs, too, I think. Is having a chair retro? Chairs have existed for so long, and what have we done with it? We’re just making it better and better, like more comfortable or more stylistic. That’s it.

Parallel Pyres - Wo Yao Ni De Ai (I Want Your Love)
Boubonese Qualk - Decide
Charanjit Singh - Raga Bairagi
The Offset: Spectacles - Can't Quit Your PR Face
Kweysha Seta - Untitled 4 & 5
Omar Souleyman - Shift Al Mani, La Sidounak Sayyada
Group Doueh - Kar Labyad Doueh

Interview: Dirty Beaches