Musician keeps it personal

Musician Alex Zhang, aka Dirty Beaches, tries to stay true to what inspires him, writes Doretta Lau

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 February, 2013, 4:50pm

Alex Zhang Hung-tai, better known as the genre-defying recording artist Dirty Beaches, has had a tumultuous yet productive Year of the Dragon. The Taiwan-born musician quit a film project for political reasons, suffered a break-up, moved from Montreal to Berlin, and finished recording two full-length albums - to be released as a double album in May. He'll kick off the Year of the Snake with an Asia-Pacific tour that will bring him to Hong Kong for the first time on February 13.

"I recently gained a new viewpoint about life, about being an artist," says Zhang, who spent his high school and university years in Hawaii, before shuttling between San Francisco, Vancouver and Montreal. He had this revelation while speaking to his father about the new double EP, Drifters/Love is the Devil, which he says is "more electronic", and - he fears - perhaps less commercially viable than his previous works.

His father asked him if commercial success - which could require compromising his artistic vision - was what he really wanted. "I was like, 'I just want to make the music that I want to make'," he says. His father's response? "Why don't you just do that? If you're going to make music and be f***ing complaining about it, you might as well quit and come back to China and work in real estate with me. You'll make more money that way."

Zhang says: "[This made me realise] I am supposed to be making what I want to make and make other people accept it. This is the battle. I'm trying to survive. I'm not going to quit music - I'm not going to work in real estate ever again."

It's hard to imagine the charismatic Zhang, who has played in bands since 1999, abandoning his music - which The Guardian memorably said "veers between doo-wop balladry and garage rumble, with the occasional interfering guitar drone, like an incursion into this forgotten past from a future Sonic Youth" - to work as a property agent or developer. "I make music for very selfish reasons because it's the only way I can function," he says.

"It's the only thing I'm good at. It's the only thing I've ever been complimented on. My whole life I've never really been good at anything and as soon as I started making music, it was the first time I realised people actually liked what I did. I've never been encouraged to do anything my whole life. It's kind of like validation for me. I have to write music or else I feel like I don't really exist or something."

Zhang first started recording and performing as Dirty Beaches in 2005. "I moved to Montreal and I had trouble finding people to play in a band, so I just did everything myself," he says.

I make music for very selfish reasons because it's the only way I can function
Alex Zhang Hung-Tai

He later recorded his 2011 breakthrough album, Badlands, in his apartment. "In Vancouver, the lady that lived downstairs hated my music so much she banged on the door one day when I was recording and she told me, 'Whatever you're doing, it's not music'. She was so upset and so furious. I thought it was kind of funny. It made me feel I was doing something right in some way."

When writing a new song, Zhang says: "Most of the time it starts with an idea or image that I have in my head and I try to make sense of that image and what it means to me. And if I'm there, it's kind of like casting in film. I do a lot of research and then, for me, the sound is the leading man. That's why every Dirty Beaches record kind of sounds different, but the content is always kind of the same. Some people can recognise it, but I'm not really loyal to a sound because for me it's just a face I use for the movie."

During the past eight years, Zhang has drawn on numerous sources for inspiration, covering ground as disparate as the Albert and David Maysles documentary Grey Gardens, Taiwanese night markets and horror films. Yet the musicians, writers and filmmakers he first encountered as a teenager loom large in his cultural landscape.

"I'm beginning to realise my core influences all came from when I was 16," he says. "I haven't really changed that much, even though I've been reading more and listening to more music. But I think the core of who I am is never going to change. I still really like [author Charles] Bukowski; I still really like Wu-Tang [Clan rap group]; I still really like Wong Kar-wai. That never really changed, even though I've dabbled in other stuff."

Despite his love of Wu-Tang Clan, Zhang never made hip hop. "I really didn't like fake rappers," he says. "It's obvious that I can't rap, so I'm not going to try to rap. I'm more into the culture of the beats and how they construct them. I'm not really into the rap culture. I did graffiti and tagging and s***, but that's about it. I didn't really enjoy baggy pants and calling girls hoes."

The conversation soon becomes as expansive as his music. Zhang switches from English to Cantonese to talk about the food he wants to eat while he's in Hong Kong, then makes fun of my Putonghua. ("You're like one of those difficult Hong Kong people who tries to speak Mandarin.") His favourite Bukowski book is Love is a Dog from Hell. Since the break-up, he has had a new appreciation for Wong Kar-wai's Happy Together.

He left Montreal, he says, because "I got tired of everyone patting each other on the back for knitting sweaters and having garage sales - like it's accomplishing something, doing something creative. It's not healthy for me." As for why he stopped writing the music for a documentary on Taiwan, he says: "It's shot from a completely American point of view. Just like: 'Look at how weird these Asians are, playing Dance Dance Revolution and little girls giggling with their cellphones'; just that f***ing fetish portrayal of Asian culture." This experience, he adds, gives a quicker understanding of who he is than any discussion about his influences.

For his upcoming show in Hong Kong, Zhang will be performing with two other musicians. Although he'll include some songs from Drifters, he's unlikely to play music from Love is the Devil. "[The latter is] a break-up album," he says. "It's really sad. I put a lot of my heart, blood and tears into it. It's really emotional for me - I might end up crying on stage or something. I don't want to do that."

The rest of the set list will draw on his entire catalogue - he won't be sticking to his most popular songs. "I want the audience to know I'm not going to play Badlands exactly how it was when it first came out two years ago," he says. "They should just be prepared for that. It's been two years. Who wants to do that for over two years? I've moved on."

Dirty Beaches, Feb 13, 8.30pm, Backstage Live, 1F 52-54 Wellington St, Central, HK$230 (advance), HK$280 (door). Inquiries: 9709 2085