Alex Zhang Hungtai Shows His Scars

The Musician on Staying Consistent and the Advice He Got from David Lynch

  • Interview: Chris Blackmore
  • Photography: Rebecca Storm

When I see Alex Zhang Hungtai—the musician formerly known as Dirty Beaches—in Montreal, he’s wearing the same weathered leather jacket he was when we first met. That was in Taipei about two years ago, over dinner with mutual friends at a braised pork rice restaurant. He wore that same jacket on the third season of Twin Peaks, too, where he recently appeared as part of in-show R&B band Trouble alongside David Lynch’s son Riley. It’s this kind of constancy over time and space that indicates his essential character—drifting but always steady.

Zhang came up in Montreal’s late 2000s underground music community, playing among a cohort that included soon-to-be-famous personas like Grimes and Mac DeMarco, but his sound was out of step with the trends of that era. “Since I’m not part of the scene, I wasn’t contaminated or influenced by it,” he says. As Dirty Beaches, Zhang laid hyper-reverbed crooning over tape-warped lo-fi backing tracks, offering a version of 50s R&B that teetered on the edge between dreamy and nightmarish. In performance, he conveyed a sense of man-on-the-edge danger.

Having dropped the Dirty Beaches alias, his current project is a hypnotic drone trio called Love Theme. Their eponymous debut album, released in June on A L T E R Records, is defined by a feeling of low-lit, displaced romanticism. This fall, they’ll embark on lengthy North American and European tours.

Chris Blackmore

Alex Zhang Hungtai

Why did you abandon the Dirty Beaches moniker? What was the final straw?

There’s a lot of reasons—personally, artistically, emotionally, musically. Nobody wants to be stuck playing the same songs over and over again. Bruce Springsteen, for example, really has this kind of working class rock ‘n’ roll ethic where you play the songs for the people. The songs are not yours anymore. They belong to the people.

People expect to come and hear the classic numbers.

And people respect that and they love you for that. That doesn't work for me because I’ve never been the people’s person. I’ve never really fit in anywhere.

That’s interesting because you developed this persona that could be digested by people of a certain audience, because of the cinematic reference points. So, I guess you just felt like it was a self-nullifying thing to keep doing?

Any kind of mask is bound to be suffocating at one point or another. A mask is a tool, it shouldn’t dictate how you live. You know, I think people forget that the purpose of a mask is to hide. We’re all hiding something. But once you don’t have to hide anymore, you discard the mask.

So, the next question…

I like how here it says Twin Peaks. [Laughs, pointing to interview notes]

You can see what’s coming.

It was a hired gun kind of thing. It was Riley and Dean Hurley, who’s sound engineer for David—him and I are really close because we worked on stuff together. We kept in touch ever since I first met David a few years ago. So, Dean calls me up and says, “Hey, we’re making this song for Twin Peaks. We’re thinking about submitting it to David, but would you mind coming over and overdubbing some sax?” I didn’t hear back anything for quite some time. Then I get a call from Dean saying, “Hey, do you want to be on the show?” Since it’s not a real band, he’s like, “Can we put together a fictional band?”

“I don’t really care about aesthetics that have no point of origin.”

What was it like to be on set? Was it bizarre or kind of normal?

It’s kind of normal because it’s not the first time I met David. The first time I met him–I don’t want to sound like a snob or anything – I was really petrified, because I’d been watching his movies since I was a teenager. I was really starstruck.

That was how long ago?

That was 2011, I think. I met him in Paris at his club Silencio. He invited me to play there and I was really nervous. I was stuttering. He gave me some advice, like, “Keep doing what you do, doors will open automatically. Just keep doing what you do.” And I took that to heart. He’s a great artist but he’s also a human being, just like anybody else. I mean, thanks to him, since then I’ve never been starstruck. Doesn’t matter who I meet.

The Dirty Beaches look, the whole persona, was so tied to people like Lynch and Wong Kar-Wai. Do you still see them as a point of influence?

The physical look?

Well, or aesthetically, artistically—in terms of attitude.

Not anymore. I mean, I don’t really care about aesthetics that have no point of origin. If you think of your surface as a protection of some sort, as an exoskeleton, they’re formed and calloused for reasons. Let’s say if you got burned on your left shoulder, then it forms this scar tissue. It forms a pattern and that comes from somewhere. You can’t just wear a t-shirt that has burn marks or fake scars. That’s kind of meaningless, I think. The harder the exterior of a person, especially men, the more fragile they are inside. So, I’m in the process of trying to shed all that unnecessary false masculinity—or the idea of false masculinity that we’re all poisoned and indoctrinated with our whole lives, either through literature or people we admire, even, to cinema, movies, everything, TV, media, whatever.

“A mask is a tool, it shouldn’t dictate how you live.”

At a certain point you want to see new things, or absorb new culture. Wong Kar-Wai’s work, for example, is so hyper aesthetic. It’s amazing, but also I understand at a certain point you just need to find something else.

Films should be like real life–it shouldn’t be the other way around. I think [Rainer Werner] Fassbinder said that.

That does sound like a Fassbinder quote.

How we choose to present ourselves should come from our own lives, not because we like a certain movie or something. That’s for, like, teenagers.

I mean, a lot of people go through that 18, 19 years old watching French New Wave films phase, or something like it.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. I don’t have anything against that. We all did that.

Me too, it’s kind of natural.

But I’m 37 now, so it’s kind of silly if I just continue down that path. I think it’s an age thing, too. If you asked me that like 5 or 10 years ago, I’d be like, “Leave me alone, I just want to dress up like my favorite movie character!” But now it’s just like, “What’s the point?” You’ve already looked further, deeper into yourself. You’re no longer finding exterior things to validate yourself.

Chris Blackmore is a writer covering film, contemporary politics, economy, and history. He works with LEAP 艺术界 and Jon Rafman, and is based in Montreal and Beijing.

  • Interview: Chris Blackmore
  • Photography: Rebecca Storm