When Dirty Beaches mastermind Alex Zhang Hungtai answers Exclaim!'s call, he's watching soccer in his current home base of Berlin, Germany. In the past couple of years, he's also lived in Montreal and Vancouver, and these experiences touring and traveling are chronicled on his new double LP, Drifters / Love Is the Devil. The first half, Drifters, is hard-hitting and noisy, with pulsing beats and cyclical bass lines that evoke the hedonistic lifestyle of traveling musicians; Love Is the Devil, on the other hand, is an introspective collection of spine-tingling instrumental dirges. These albums function as stand-alone statements, but the fact that they have been packaged together means double the pleasure for anyone who has been following Dirty Beaches' string of stopgap releases in recent years.
Were these songs written as part of the same session, or do they comprise two entirely separate bodies of work?
Hungtai: They were all written at the same time. I just kept writing during the conception. The label later on told me, "What do you want to do with them? Do you want to release them together?" I told them I wanted to release them separately, but they told me that financially, it's not very viable and it's not very smart because you'll be competing with yourself. The logistics, the bureaucratic stuff. In the end I was like, "Okay, well we can put it together and I'll just format it differently."
How did you thematically decide which song fit where?
They were written at the same time, but they were completed at different times. Love Is the Devil, I pretty much finished it all in Berlin. It was all recorded at my friend's studio, so it had more of a cohesive sound and it was easy to file together in one category. Whereas Drifters was written mostly on tour and then we recorded in Montreal and I finished the rest of it in Berlin with my bandmates [Shub Roy and Bernardino Femminielli].
So Drifters wasn't an entirely solo work?
Love Is the Devil was all done by myself. On Drifters, we worked really hard together and recorded it all because we had been playing the new songs on our last Eastern European tour. We tried to recapture that live arrangement.
Are the two albums thematically linked?
Yeah, they were all part of the same story. Originally, I was just writing these songs about traveling and touring for the past two years. They definitely tie together thematically. It wasn't separate stories, they were just written from different perspectives.
According to your press materials, Drifters is about nightlife whereas Love Is the Devil is more romantic.
On Drifters, we tried to present it as superficial, surface value — like how most people perceive our lives as musicians. Part of it is kind of true. We do live these kind of irresponsible lives. It's the only way we can stay sane without being fucking workhorses. Load in, load out, drive, soundcheck. We sell merch ourselves, sitting at the tables and talking to people. At some point, we need to have a drink or two and hang out and meet new people and chill out, have some fun — or else we'd just be working non-stop and play the show and not talk to anyone and then drive another 14 hours. So that's the superficial stuff, because there's a lot of debauchery in that kind of lifestyle. Whereas the other work is told from this different perspective. It's a lot more personal and private. It's definitely not as glamorous as what most people think touring is.
How do you convey those personal, private feelings in an almost entirely instrumental format?
I didn't want to write any lyrics for these stories because it would be too much information, and I don't think people want to know that aspect of it. It's like reading someone's journal. It would have turned out to be an emo album or something. It's just too much information, and these are very, very private feelings and experiences, and the last thing I want is people judging me from these words that I sing. That's one way of protecting myself: writing in an instrumental format and still trying to convey the story.
The songs on both albums sound quite different from Badlands. What did you do differently this time around?
It wasn't that different compared to the material I did prior to Badlands, it's just that everyone only knows me from Badlands, so they think it's such a shock. We met a lot of fans on our past Russian tour, people who have been following me since I've been releasing stuff in Canada, on Fixture, which is really cool because they all think it's really a return to form. I was really happy to hear that, because most people in Europe and in America don't know anything about the stuff I did in Canada, which always kind of makes me sad, because those are seven long years in Montreal, just writing and releasing EPs and LPs that no one ever heard about. It wasn't really different. It was just doing stuff that I've always done, but for those that don't know about my past material, it's quite drastic.
What setup did you use this time? Last time it was mostly sample-based.
This time we consciously avoided any kind of samples, because on Badlands I did encounter some legal issues. We didn't want to run into any of those problems, so we wrote everything. I did all the loops with my friend Shub. We just played with drum machines, synthesizers, wrote bass lines, programmed the drum beats, played the electronic drum pads. We made the loops organically, even though they sound like samples. We did everything from scratch, which is really fun, kind of like making a hip-hop record. Just making beats.
Were they performed live in the studio?
Yeah. We recorded Drifters in Montreal at our rehearsal space. It was all recorded digitally on ProTools, and recorded live. Then we tried to mix it differently and tried different techniques. Tried to replicate that live intimacy I used to have in my bedroom recordings, so it's not such a weird departure — like, all of sudden it's all hi-fi. We just worked with what we had with our budget, which was a couple hundred bucks.
Did you consider cleaning up the sound, or was it always going to be a laptop record?
Yeah, we did, because we weren't working with cassettes anymore. That's what I used to do — just record everything live onto a stereo cassette. This time we had multi-tracks and recorded with better microphones that aren't mine. [Laughs] Automatically it sounded way cleaner and had a really nice organic vibe to it, so we stuck with that. In the future, I hope we can have access to better equipment and hopefully we can make a proper, really clean-sounding record. As it is now, this is what we have access to, so we just went with what we have.
Were the songs on Love Is the Devil carefully orchestrated and composed, or was it more a case of improvisation and capturing an emotion in the moment that it was happening?
That's a really good question. I think it was a little bit of half and half. Most of it was recorded in Berlin, really late at night. I had access to my friend Anton Newcombe's studio and I didn't have any money or know anyone at the time, and I had this incomplete record with me in Berlin. The deadline was coming up, and Anton basically invited me over and said, "Dude, you can record here for free. You can use my shit, here's my stuff. Teach yourself how to use ProTools, man." His engineer pretty much came in and had a five-minute session: "Here's record, here's fast-forward, here's rewind. If you need to edit you can call me and I'll teach you more, but right now, all the mics are set up. We have these two channels for you, like how you like to record it." I'd just go in after Anton finished, because he works pretty much every day, and he finishes around nine p.m. or sometimes later, at midnight. I'd go in after midnight and I'd have the studio all to myself for free until he came in the next morning. I didn't really have time to meticulously write or orchestrate these grand ideas. Basically, I just went in and did a lot of writing and tried to record at the same time. It's really raw because I didn't have time and I just went in and did as much as I could and edited it afterwards on the laptop.
Do the titles refer to specific memories?
Those were the moments I was thinking about on tour. A lot of times I hum melodies into my cell phone when I'm on tour when I have an idea and I don't have access to instruments. I was looking back at a lot of those cell phone demos. Those melodies, I tried to rearrange them onto synthesizers or using Anton's mellotron. It's a pretty amazing machine that helped form the sound of the record.
Anton released your Water Park soundtrack, right?
Yeah, that's how I first met him. He's been really encouraging because he really likes the fact that I'm doing everything on my own. He was like, "Yeah man, you just do your own shit, that's fucking cool." He was like, "Is anyone releasing your soundtrack?" I said no, because none of the labels want to release an instrumental soundtrack. They think it's not bankable. They don't think it's going to sell. Anton was like, "Fuck that, man. I'll support you. I'll help you put it out.