Alex Zhang Hungtai, aka Dirty Beaches, did what many of us wish we could do after a rough breakup: he moved to Berlin. Once safely relocated to the electronic music capital of the universe, the Taiwanese-born musician used his heartbreak and the unglamorous aspects of being a touring artist to inform an ambitious double LP aptly titled Drifters/Love is the Devil. Recorded half in Montreal (pre-breakup) and half in Berlin (post-breakup), the 16 track record explores the façade of fame and its gruesome underbelly. Never one to shy away from spilling his guts on Twitter, Alex tweets of the moody, atmospheric title track, Love is the Devil, “I’ve never been good at business. But this is my heart and soul. We always hurt the ones we love the most. I’m a rotten pice of shit. blast it LOUD if your heart’s broken.” We caught up with Alex about the downside of his profession, film scores, and crème brûlée.
You recorded half of Drifters/Love is the Devil in Montreal and half in Berlin. What’s the story behind that?
I did half of it in Montreal on my friend’s home recording devices at his recording space in Montreal. Before I finished it I left and sold all my stuff for personal reasons. I had a break up with my ex-girlfriend. I just wanted a change of scenery so I went to Berlin, not having the facilities to finish the album. I got really lucky, a friend of mine who had a studio invited me over. So I ended up finishing the album there, in Berlin.
So many great artists have come out of from Montreal recently. Are you connected to that emerging scene of musicians?
I don’t think I can relate to that because things didn’t really work out for me until I left Montreal. I’m not from Montreal, I just lived there for seven years. I think it’s worked out well for the Canadians that live there because it’s got cheap rent.
How does the new album differ from your previous EP, Badlands?
Basically it’s kind of a departure from character play, which I did a lot in Badlands. This new record is a complete documentation of the past two years of my life. I’ve been in Europe and travelling and not really being home at all. I wanted to present this worldview where there are two points of view, two linear stories. One is what people see on the outside, this surface lifestyle that we live and the other one is the inner world, what’s going on inside while we’re living the dream, per say. It’s two sides of the same coin. One is what we see on social media sites and how we wish to present ourselves as a public figure. The other side is way more personal and way more dark and private.
How do you specifically relate to these two views?
Everything you do, people are like, “wow, look at them, they’re travelling on tour,” but the reality is you’re not grounded at all with this kind of lifestyle. You have no chance of having a regular life… not that I’m complaining or anything, this is what I always wanted as a teenager. But there is a price you have to pay, you can’t have everything. You dedicate your life to your work, you can’t half-ass it. You can’t be a good husband or a good father or a good boyfriend if you’re out nine months of the year. It’s just impossible.
Was it a challenge translating your production to a live show?
What I used to do was I wouldn’t compose anything I couldn’t play live by myself, but that’s changed over the past year because I started playing with other friends. We’ve expanded to a three-piece. During the writing of this album, we’ve switched everything to pure electronics, without ever having a drummer. So we went with all electronic drum pads and drum machines and programming drum beats and playing guitar and synthesizers.
You’ve scored films in the past. Can we look forward to more of that?
I just finished this one I did with Evan Prosofsky, who’s a Canadian filmmaker. It’s a documentary film he did about an indoor waterpark called Waterpark.
How do you approach a project like that?
I try to cooperate with the director. They give me their research and their ideas about what the music should be and I give them my first impression. Of course I want to give them something they’re happy with. A lot of it is digesting the information and the research they’ve done and working out the details of how to achieve the sonic landscape that they want.
Are there any score composers you are drawn to?
There are so many. Jonny Greenwood is really amazing.
And what musicians are you into at the moment?
I’m really in love with this female solo artist called Grouper, I think she’s fantastic. There’s another solo artist based in New York under the moniker Heathered Pearls, he’s really good.
If you were to do something professionally outside of music, what would it be?
I’d probably be a cook. That’s what I used to do. I’d be a sous chef, making desserts. Making crème brûlée. It is a lifestyle though. You need to be really dedicated. You get arthritis.
So what’s next for you?
So far just a bunch of tours coming up. We’re doing Russia, Western Europe and then going to the states in the fall. We’re just trying to travel as much as we can. We’ve been getting some offers from Israel, so hopefully we can make it there.