Published Mar 26, 2011Alex Zhang Hungtai is a Taiwanese transplant and world traveller who has called Canada home for the better part of his life. Incorporating disparate influences, including everything from his father's dream of becoming Elvis to black-and-white cinema to Suicide's avant-punk, Hungtai has been refining his music since the gritty soundscapes of 2008's Horror. By issuing limited edition cassettes and singles, he's reached a defining moment with Dirty Beaches that culminates with his first full-length to receive a wide release. Recorded in Montreal and Vancouver, Badlands isn't directly linked to Terence Malick's 1973 film of the same name, but they share the same rebellious nature and '50s-inspired milieu. Using the thrust of early rockabilly and the ominous undertones of David Lynch's soundtracks as a handbook, he's crafted this kind of creeping, anti-heroic music that's amplified further by the filthy production value. But unlike his previous records, he's taken enough of the edge off his lo-fi practice and upped the listenability with the kind of palatable ditties Alan Vega always dreamed of writing. He's called Badlands a "love letter" to his old man and judging by the end result, dad should be very proud.
What was it about the songs on Badlands that made you release it as an album proper? Do you see it as a creative leap forward?
No, it's all part of the learning curve with DIY home recording. I wanted to try something different. All the past releases led up to Badlands, and I'm ready to experiment with other genres and want to keep making records.
You favour minimalism on your recordings. Is that because you're working on your own or because you like the sound?
Minimalism is part of the design of a one-man project. If the music was too complex, it would take the movement and soul out of the performance because you're focused on playing all the parts by yourself. Thus, minimalism in composition allows me to maximize [being] a solo performer in a live setting. It's circumstantial, too. If I were in a band, I would try and write something a lot different. But if you look at all the old blues guys on YouTube, like Lightnin' Hopkins and Howlin' Wolf, they fucking douse their soul with kerosene and set them hearts ablaze. And it's just one person with their guitar, stomping their feet, and it's amazing.
You've been receiving Alan Vega comparisons and there is an uncanny similarity. Are you a fan?
In 1999, my first initial introduction to Suicide was exactly like all those scared people in the '70s when they first heard them. A friend of mine in college was an avant fan and played "Frankie Teardrop" for me. I did not like it at all and was terrified by the music. Fast forward a little to 2004 and I rediscovered their music and I felt like if my friend had played "Ghost Rider" or "Rocket USA" or "Cheree," I might've reacted differently. But that was the first song I heard and I wasn't ready for it. It explains the natural reaction in which when people don't understand something they naturally have a distaste for it because it's not familiar. I've been a fan of Suicide since then, and if it wasn't for Alan Vega and Martin Rev, I would not be here.
You've discussed how important cinema is to your music. How has it influenced you?
It has influenced me more in terms of conception and delivery, more so than any other musical influences. Musically speaking, I want my guitar playing somewhere between a dada artist and someone I admire, like Link Wray or Rowland S. Howard.
Would you say Badlands was inspired by any genre or film in particular?
It definitely has elements of a road movie, along with film noir and elements of folklore, et al.
Did working in a porno shop influence your songwriting?
It was a graveyard shift back in 1996, in Honolulu. They had a massive foreign film section, along with porn, lubes and dildos, of course, but I stayed up watching movies all the time throughout the night. It made time pass faster and easier. It was also when I first discovered Wong Kar-Wai, who has since influenced me beyond words. I became a smoker that year as well after watching his films. There are a lot of weird, juicy tales from the store, but mostly just plain verbal harassment and joking around. Like Mahus that tried to pick me up and take me home, but I know they are just kidding around. People are really friendly in Hawaii. The culture there raised me well.
You've used images of your parents as artwork for your releases, which complement the music well. What is the supply of those photos like?
There are a lot of those old photos lying around, but I never use them for aesthetics alone. It has to tie in with the music; I would not make a noise drone album and put their photo on it. Utilizing their photo on the cover art was a tribute and love letter to my parents on the "True Blue" seven-inch because I thought they would actually enjoy that song, and the gesture as well.
I read that your dad was once in a motorcycle gang. Your musical style lends itself well to '50s gang culture. How much of your dad's life has had an influence on Dirty Beaches?
My father had dreamed of becoming a singer like Elvis Presley, like so many other 16-year olds of his time. But he joined the military, married my mother and started working immediately. I wanted to tell him that his dream lives on through me. I might not have been the son he wanted me to be, but I wanted him to know and understand that this shit is important to me, and that dreams never die. They continue in some weird, bizarre way, somewhere, somehow. My mother called me and said he choked up when they received my seven-inch in the mail. Tough guys never cry in front of their children and that was my way of saying "I love you dad" because I know it's hard for old-fashioned men like him to say these things or show any kind of emotion. But I love him and I wanted him to know that. (Zoo)