Alex Zhang Hungtai handles every aspect of his music project Dirty Beaches: performance, production and even PR. Born in Taiwan and raised in Canada, he has spent the past decade releasing a mixture of EPs and full length albums. “The best cities are where you can hone your craft and work minimum hours per week, Iike Montreal, Berlin, and Lisbon” he says, commenting on his own wanderlust. “They are all different and bring forth different qualities in me as a person”. Having joined his first band at 19, he started Dirty Beaches “probably around age 25, after I quit working in real estate”, although it only became a full-time job in 2011 when he was able to support himself. “It requires a lot of backing, and dedication and passion, to sustain itself as an operation,” he says, regarding his decision to run an entirely independent operation. “But I’m not in a hurry, I’m slowly learning the ins and outs of the business, but there are many things waiting to be learned.”
Dirty Beaches’ signature sound is quite unlike anything else. The characteristic combination of loops, samples, distortion and guitar riffs is an experience in itself. And it is an experience which is meticulously crafted – “A lot of research goes into the albums,” he laughs, “anything from fi lm to dance, personal experience, literature, life and love”, but his live performances are “like a revolving evolution that change with time, and have to be sharpened and maintained”, while the records “a frozen documentation much like the idea of a time capsule that is set in stone”. His influences are similarly drawn from a diverse pool – “Films and auteurs have the capability of creating a world in which viewers can dive into. I find that aspect very inspiring.”
Profound indeed for a musician who has a reputation for not caring about perceptions or pretence. “It’s as important as you let it be,” he says when I ask him about the importance of image. “It’s man made, so it can be sculpted. It’s important to remember that when constructing one’s image to remain human. Aesthetics are just like fashion, they are the surface. They all expire over time. Not everyone looks good in a leather jacket, it’s the man that makes the jacket. A snake might shed its skin, but it will always be a snake.” As well as his sophistic insights into essence over superficiality, he doesn’t mind other artists imitating him. “They say imitation is the best form of flattery: what other people do is not my business, and I have no right to judge them, as I’ve imitated other artists before me.” However, regarding DRM, he says that while he wants things to be as open as possible, there is a fine line, citing a fan who had crossed the line by “improving” one of his tracks.
It is his nonchalance, genuine character, and honesty about his past and future which mark him out. “For people like us sent away as kids overseas, the idea of a country can seem severely distorted, outdated even. I’m learning more and more of my own culture and history as I grow. I hope to make films one day, or just write film scores as a living, to be a loving husband and father, son, brother, friend to the people I love, and to support them. I’m not too greedy, that’s all I want in life.”