To write this with the care and respect it deserves may take me some time. I have the time, too much time. I’ll try my best. I’ve wanted to speak with Alex Zhang Hungtai (Dirty Beaches) for some time now. Many times I’ve read his blog and just thought “Email him..don’t be such a coward.” A month ago I stopped being a coward and emailed him asking if he would answer some questions. I always expect the worst. But, it is obvious that Alex is a good person who loves making music. I sent him some questions and now I am going to try type this up in a way I want it. As a fan; not as a Music Journalist/Writer. Even though I am one, I don’t really like them. They write in a way I don’t like. I’m not afraid to be a fan, so I might as well write like one.
All of Alex’s work is on his bandcamp page (http://dirtybeaches.bandcamp.com/) and for any emotion you are carrying around; there is a song there that will sum it up perfectly. More than likely it will be just instrumental. Sometimes words just don’t cut it. I was really intrigued as to how he manages to convey feelings of loneliness and desolation without using lyrics; how can you put across something so frail without using your voice, can it even be done? Of course it can.
“For better or worse, I’ve developed this way of making music as the only way I know how to make music. Instrumentals or not, it doesn’t really matter because it’s just a way of expressing how you feel. Like picking what type of brushes to use on canvas, for example. I am learning more techniques as we speak, and have developed some as well over the years.”
This is why it is so easy to love Alex’s music, because you know it comes from a treasured place. A place that is sacred, that not many can get into; the soul. The soul is deeper than the heart. It is easy to have a piece of music touch your heart, but when it really gets to your soul that’s it. The connection is firmly there. Irreplaceable and perfect.
Alex’s music has always sounded to me as if it was destined to be in a film. His music makes you feel as if you are on the run; escaping what has held you captive for so long. Last week I picked up a copy of the Water Park soundtrack. I’m not sure if I’ll ever take it out of the wrapper because it just looks so beautiful untouched and unopened. Or maybe I’ll just cave and listen to it later. I’ve heard the film scores he has done before, and have been left in awe of his talent. As I’ve listened to them, I was always curious as to how he went about it because music in films is all about capturing certain moments to reinforce specific things happening. I thoroughly recommend you listen to his music scores because they’re on a different level.
“I’m working with the directors research material and for me, first and foremost is to deliver the music that the director wants. I have my instincts too, but it’s usually over a lot of detailed conversations with the director to develop the pacing, rhythm, and mood of each scene where music is required. Sometimes they just background music, so I can write very simple non intrusive music that can be interrupted by dialogue any time. Kind of like furniture music. But every movie, every director is different, and it’s interesting to work with different people that intrigues you.”
His music is powerful, regardless of if it’s on his own record or if it is a soundtrack. It just touches you in a beautiful way. You can sense a lot of struggle in his music, that this is a pure way to release frustrations. Nothing ever comes easy, and you can tell Alex is one of the hardest working musicians around just by looking at his discography. We all have to struggle to get what we want, and if everything just happened instantly surely we’d never treasure certain moments or we’d just take everything for granted. Everything can be made up of false starts at times, it doesn’t work out. You stop to only start again. Usually it is the second time around that can make it all fall into the place the way it should. There is a beautiful sense of urgency in Alex’s music that makes you really believe in what he has created. You know it is everything to him, and I wanted to know what made him feel that he just HAD to make music, that nothing else would do:
“I quit music once in 2005, and worked in real estate. After 1 year, I quit my job and moved to Montreal and started all over. I think from that point on it was pretty serious. I quit a proper job to go work in minimum wage shit jobs just so I could pursue this dream. I got lucky. But I did work really hard for 7 years. Working countless dead end jobs, writing and playing on my spare time, playing to 5 people at some moody basement. This is the life of a lot of musicians in North America. I feel very blessed. Real glad to be here.”
I remember when I first heard Dirty Beaches. I honestly had no idea what I was listening to. I didn’t know if it was one person or a full band. I didn’t know, part of me at the time didn’t want to know because I created an image in my mind of what it was. I think part of me knew it was one person. I have a thing for duos and solo artists that have a “do or die” feel about their music. You just know that they work harder than most (that’s not a knock to bands at all.) It is like they have something more to prove. Maybe they do, maybe they don’t. But when it is just one of you on stage, you are a lot more vulnerable because you have no back up if it goes wrong. Same goes with duos, if one slips- you both fall. Yet you still carry each other. Anyone who knows me knows that The Kills are my favourite duo, and if they added more members it just wouldn’t sound or look right. It is quite voyeuristic in a way because the chemistry they have is just so rare. The same goes with powerful solo artists like Alex. He is pouring it all out, and we just take it all in. So why did he decide to go it alone?
“I moved to Montreal and posted “bass player, drummer wanted” ads for months, went to numerous meet ups with strangers and nothing ever came out of it. Out of frustration, I did everything on my own. My background is playing bass or guitar in the back of numerous bands, metal, noise, improv, indie rock what have you. I always like being in the back of the band just playing a guitar. But I didn’t find anyone that I connected with.”
You cannot force a connection, and life is too short to make compromises. A strong DIY work ethic may take longer to achieve what you want, but the end result is always worth more because you know you worked yourself to the ground to get it. The more you see and the more you expose yourself to; it just causes you to gain inspiration and to grow. When you listen to Alex’s work, you really get a sense of this. He has travelled and has lived everywhere from Montreal to his current location, Berlin. At the start of this year he toured Australia and Asia for the first time. Cultural diversity makes the world a better place. Although I love books, seeing things with your own eyes is a lot more powerful than reading about it. To experience it all for yourself can do so much for a person, only a fool would turn their nose up at us all being different and making our own contributions to society. No matter how big or small. As I read Alex’s answers to my questions, this was the one that really meant a lot. I’m trying to figure out why, but I suppose if I keep going over it the answer will just miss me. I asked him what stand-out moments there were on this tour:
“It’s mostly non music related, like swimming in the pacific ocean again was a huge thing for me as I was raised near the ocean in Honolulu. It made me realize how much I miss swimming in ocean water. Other things were food, predominantly food, and bizarre adventures like going to hang out with lady boys in Bangkok. That was rad. They were super cool. People in Thailand taught me a lot of things, as they are very peaceful culturally, and there’s no bullshit stereotypes of masculinity or femininity. The body and the mind seems to be separate over there. Trans gender people and homosexuality is not a taboo at all over there. It was cool to see and experience that.”
If we lived in a world where we all accepted each other, it’d make life a lot easier for most of us. But alas, that won’t happen. Not in my lifetime. I live in hope but you know. To be in such a peaceful environment like Thailand and to swim in the ocean- these are moments that will stay with a person forever. You have to travel around to find a place that you belong in. I remember a few weeks ago I was wandering around Oxford Street in London on my own. I think at one point I took a wrong turn and got lost. So I went in the first bookshop I found and spent an hour in there. No one knew who I was and no one wanted anything from me. I was just another person. It’s alright to spend time on your own to just be. To just be at peace and to just do what you want. It is important for people to spend time alone and to not talk. Silence is beautiful. Getting lost in a place is wonderful. You turn corners and you have no idea what is there; going into the unknown can be scary but it is also one of the best things you can do. Alex has lived everywhere. Places where he knows no one, places where he knows someone. Is it hard for him to find a place to settle? Does he want to? Why should any of us settle somewhere? I’ve never called a place “home.” I don’t know if I ever will. Some places you feel a connection to, other places can be quite soulless. You create your own state of mind and what it is to “belong.”
“Everyone has their own unique path, there’s definitely some places that made it harder for me to adjust to based on the language/culture barrier, but after a while, you get used to everything. I’m pretty open to new things. New food, new culture, new clothes, I don’t really care. I prefer to blend in with the crowd.”
I learnt a lot more about Alex just by asking him the questions I wanted to ask. Interviews can be boring and you can ask the same thing over and over. I love music, and I just wanted to know more about how he makes music and the places he has been to. There are some musicians that you can instantly tell are so passionate about what they do, and that is what draws you to them. When I look at the music that I own, every band/singer is someone who is truly passionate about what they do. That’s how it should be. If you’re not going to give it your all and do it with heart; then don’t bother. The last thing I asked Alex was about how he writes lyrics. Writing words down..the words that you feel at that moment are extremely personal and there comes a time where they are no longer private (this is why I never show anyone my lyrics/poems ha!) but if your livelihood is making music, you have to cast that fear aside and just expose yourself. I could quite happily listen to Alex make an album filled with his voice as I could just sit and listen to his instrumental compositions. Both are equally as beautiful, and filled with pure and raw emotion. You can just tell he has worked insanely hard to get it right. I love his lyrics because they are not filled with pretentious imagery or what have you. You don’t ever need to go over the top to make your point.
“I actually really loathe writing lyrics. Partly because I suck. Partly is also because it’s not really pure. I think music is pure in a way that it kind of just comes out of you. But the process of writing lyrics is a chore to me. I go with simple rhythms and try to stick to the impression of the mood of the music when it was first conceived, then try to find the words that match the music. I’m not a poet so it doesn’t come naturally to me. A lot of it is me sitting there for hours working my brain to death just to squeeze a few words out of it. Kind of like constipation, I guess.”
He doesn’t suck at writing lyrics, far from it. But like I said above, whether its instrumental or he uses words- he still manages to convey so much emotion. Alex was actually one of the very few musicians I heard that I loved based on just hearing an instrumental. I love words, but sometimes a piece of music can sum it all up much better. A key change can cover you in goose bumps more than a catchy hook.
In a few weeks Alex is releasing two records via Zoo Music. Drifters/Love Is The Devil. One is instrumental, the other is vocal. In January, the song Love Is The Devil was uploaded. I remember sitting and playing it over and over. Just through headphones. Nothing else could hold my attention. I just had to listen to it and over and over. I heard sadness and I heard hope in the music. It’s a song that will leave you with a lump in your throat because of how gorgeous it is. Without words we can say so much. When I listened to it (and it still has the same grip over me) I knew that these two records Alex is about to put out would be something truly special. I’ve listened to his music when I’ve been at a bad place and when I’ve been content. I wandered through a city and I’ve stared out to the sea as I’ve listened to his music. I’ve rested my head against the windows of a train as I’m transported from one place to another. I’ve said I’ve never felt at home anywhere, truth is..I found my home in music. In his music and a select few. We all have our own battles and fears to conquer, but music like this makes you feel less alone.
I just want to thank Alex for taking the time out to answer my questions. You’re a rare talent, and I honestly cannot thank you enough for this xx