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Sun May 26, 2013
Music Interviews

Dirty Beaches: A Nomad Musician Starts Over (And Over, And Over)

Originally published on Tue June 4, 2013 3:09 pm

Alex Zhang Hungtai is a musician who has spent his life drifting from home to home. His parents were children of communist China, and since setting out, he's lived in places as far-flung as Honolulu, Montreal and most recently, Berlin.

Under the name Dirty Beaches, Hungtai makes washy, dreamy rock music that often feels nostalgic. Hungtai's whole last album was dedicated to his father; he was inspired after finding out his dad had been in a doo wop cover band during his youth in China.

"What was left of that was only a picture," he explains. "There was no recordings; he didn't tell me what songs they played. It was just a photo that I found."

But seeing his father in that photo was magnetic.

"He was wearing a suit. And he was surrounded by three guys — two backup singers and one guitar player. And he was the one in front, standing in front of the microphone," he says.

The experience moved Hungtai to look back at the rock music of the 1950s and '60s. The resulting album, Badlands, was at once disconnected and intensely personal.

Hungtai's new album as Dirty Beaches is a twofer: a double-disc set called Drifters / Love Is The Devil. He spoke about it with NPR's Jacki Lyden; click the audio link to hear more of their conversation.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

If you're just joining us, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. And it's time now for music.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LYDEN: Alex Zhang Hungtai is a musician who spent his life drifting from home to home. His parents were children of Communist China. Born in Taiwan, he's lived in places as far-flung as Honolulu, Montreal and most recently, Berlin. Under the name Dirty Beaches, he makes layered, dreamy, nostalgic rock music. His new album is set in two parts.

The first half is called "Drifters," and the second half is called "Love is the Devil." It's an intensely personal album borne of his experiences moving about, and he spoke to us while on tour in Europe. He says that even after spending more than a decade in the U.S., it was impossible to put down roots.

ALEX ZHANG HUNGTAI: I moved from Hawaii to San Francisco with my band. And just like any other North American young adults, we were just really naive and working (bleep) jobs and not really thinking about anything. And then my visa in the states ran out, and all of a sudden, like, overnight, I lost my band, my apartment and, like, all my high school friends.

So I had nowhere to go. I went to China, worked in real estate for a year. That didn't really work out. So I wanted to play and pursue music again, so I moved to Canada, to Montreal.

LYDEN: Yeah. And I think that you are 30, so these different places, how would you say so many different values from east to west, from Europe to Canada, you know, what does that make you think about who you are or what we call home?

HUNGTAI: I think it just makes you less ethnocentric and just focus on just being human. It forces you to reassimilate and readapt and readjusting due to displacement. And that way, it has made me the person I am today instead of just complaining about not having good coffee or complaining about, you know, luxury things like, you know, things that we're used to. And I just embrace whatever that's around me and just kind of take it as it is.

LYDEN: How long have you lived in Berlin?

HUNGTAI: We just moved there, like, in December, actually.

LYDEN: What's the experience of living there been like?

HUNGTAI: It's kind of like being deaf again because you know, you don't understand anything. And it's like watching a foreign movie with no subtitles. But I've went through that as a kid, so it's not, you know, it's not so strange.

LYDEN: The whole concept of drifting, you know, I think of that as an American concept because we are such an immigrant culture here in the United States.

HUNGTAI: Yeah, totally.

LYDEN: But, of course, you have been an international drifter, and so that seems to really be important to your songwriting.

HUNGTAI: I think as a child, it wasn't more of a choice. It was more just like out of situations and scenarios, family problems and stuff like that and you're kind of placed with relatives or, you know, whoever. But then as an adult, it's just more kind of like a way of life, I guess. Whenever I can't figure something out, whenever I feel stuck, I just restart. I just move to somewhere else.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LYDEN: In this album, there's lots of tracks that are named for places - Belgrade, the Danube River, Berlin. Let's listen to a track. This one is named for a place in Macau called "Casino Lisboa."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CASINO LISBOA")

HUNGTAI: Yeah. I went to Macau with my father for his 70th birthday. It was kind of like a father and son kind of reunion, get together, you know, went to the casinos and went to the sauna together. And it was really weird to kind of like party with your old man, but it was nice.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CASINO LISBOA")

LYDEN: Hungtai's relationship with his father features prominently in his music. Indeed, his last album was dedicated to his father. Hungtai was inspired after finding out that his dad had been in a doo-wop cover band during his youth in Communist China.

HUNGTAI: What was left of that was only a picture. There was no recordings. And he didn't tell me what songs they played, but it was just a photo that I found.

LYDEN: But seeing his father in that photo was magnetic.

HUNGTAI: He was wearing a suit, and he was surrounded by three guys - two backup singers and one guitar player - and he was the one in front, standing in front of the microphone.

LYDEN: The photograph moved Alex Zhang Hungtai to look back at the rock music of the 50s and 60s. The resulting album, his first full-length, is called "Badlands." It launched Hungtai onto the international music scene. And while it's very personal, "Badlands" also evoked the music of his father's generation, washed with Hungtai's signature ambient style.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LYDEN: And what did he have to say about it?

HUNGTAI: He didn't say anything. But my mother did tell me that he cried when he was listening to it. So that was good enough for me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LYDEN: I want to go back to Macau. What did you guys do when you were in Macau?

HUNGTAI: Let's just say what happens in Macau stays in Macau.

(LAUGHTER)

LYDEN: You know, I had a feeling you were going to tell me something like that, and I can't say I blame you. That's Alex Zhang Hungtai of the band Dirty Beaches. And his new album is out now. It's called "Drifters/Love is the Devil." Alex, we're glad you made time for us. Thank you.

HUNGTAI: Awesome. Thanks for having me, Jacki.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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