Born in Taiwan, where he lived until moving to North America at the age of 8, Alex Zhang Hungtai, better known by his stage name Dirty Beaches, has since drifted everywhere from Honolulu and Vancouver to, most recently, Montreal. On his murky debut album, last March’s darkly ethereal Badlands, the 30-year-old crooner both soothes and disturbs the soul with his scuzzed-out, ’50s-inspired tribute to isolation and Americana.
BULLETT: You had somewhat of a nomadic childhood. Has it affected your definition of “home”?
DIRTY BEACHES: I think home is just a bed that I sleep on or a collage of spots that I like from each city.
How do you think your itinerant youth has affected your music?
I mean, I’m obviously obsessed with the road and a man’s path to… manhood. Growing up without my father around was really difficult to navigate because I was raised in a house full of women: my mother, my two sisters, and my two cousins who are also girls. I was the only boy, and I was the youngest. So it was really hard for me to grasp what masculinity meant being raised by all these women. But I think I came up alright.
What about temporal displacement? I know you’re really influenced by the ’50. Do you ever feel like you were born in the wrong decade
I’m really happy to be a product of this generation where everyone’s cool and there’s not a lot of bigotry. The ’50s are more a reflection of my desire to make an album dedicated to my father—this was the kind of stuff that he listened to. I wanted to prove to him that I could make his music. This is my attempt to create a father-son dialogue, but very indirect, very passive. I think he got my message when I put his photo on the seven inch, and I sent him the whole record. I wanted to do one album just for him—and tour all over North America, and now I’m touring Europe as well, just to show him that whatever dreams he had that died have somehow made their way to me.
It’s a kind of reincarnation.
Yeah, it’s really weird. Dreams never die. They just get passed on.
Aside from honoring your father, why the ’50s? Is there something about that time that speaks to you?
Sincerity is now treated like a cliché. I’ve had so many occasions where I talk to people, and I’m really sincere about it, but they think that I’m mocking them. They think I’m being sarcastic. And it’s the same thing with music: back then lyrics could be very simple, very direct. Nowadays people think it’s really cliché to talk about love or emotional things. The only way people do it is with those Emo bands. It’s always a guy with his head up his ass, but it’s not supposed to be like that. I wanted to revive sincerity.
Do you remember the first time you were exposed to the music of your father’s generation?
Yeah, when I was a kid he used to listen to old soul and R&B and doo-wop and Elvis Presley. He’s obsessed with Elvis. I mean, everyone else in the world was from 1954-1958—even into the early ’60s. Everyone, at one point, was obsessed with Elvis.
I read you’re a huge David Lynch fan. What it is about his work that speaks to you?
I didn’t want to create a plastic, fake, happy-go-lucky, all-is-dandy ’50s. I wanted to underline that shadow. There was a lot of fucked-up shit that happened during that time, so it was important to have that element of darkness, and I think David Lynch perfected that balance between pristine beauty and the rotten shit underneath the carpet.
Your artistic vision is similar to that of a filmmaker’s. Have you ever though about going into film? Why did you get into music initially?
I think it’s because when I started it was really expensive to buy a camera. It’s a lot cheaper to buy a guitar instead. Nowadays, it’s so much cheaper. You can just film digitally. That’s what I want to go into eventually. I haven’t told anyone this, but Christopher Doyle, the cinematographer, shot my next music video, and he’s a childhood idol of mine. I’ve been watching his films since I was 16, and then I got a message from Jim Jarmusch wishing me best of luck. And he has my record. Just all these things, I’m kind of daydreaming. I have to slap myself sometimes.
I’m assuming you’ll probably learn film the same way you learned music, which was by teaching yourself. Do you regret not having any formal training, or do you relish the fact that you’re self-taught?
In hindsight, I wish I knew how to play the piano. I wish I was classically trained, but I’m not. But I’m happy to be the way I am. It doesn’t matter really which route you take. If you set you’re mind to it, you’ll fucking get where you’re going.