Sept. 18 2013 03:23 PM

Indie-noir act’s moody experimental sounds come from a life on the road

Alex Zhang Hungtai of Dirty Beaches
Photo by Daniel Boud

Moving to a new city is hard work. You have to pack up your shit, drop some coin to move it and hustle to set up new digs once you get there. You have to say goodbye to your friends and loved ones, and, worse, you have to reconcile with your biggest regrets—“Why didn’t I tell her I love her?”; “Why did I let them all down?”—while holding onto fond memories for dear life, lest they slip away forever.

Alex Zhang Hungtai, the creative force behind experimental rock project Dirty Beaches, knows how hard it is to move from one place to another—he’s been doing it his whole life. Born in Taiwan, he grew up in Honolulu before moving to cities like San Francisco, Montreal and Berlin. For every city he’s passed through, he’s amassed new friendships, memories and associations, only to eventually break from them out of necessity or personal choice.

“I’m a very nostalgic person. Not in the sense that I’m only obsessed with things that were around prior to my birth—no. I mean nostalgic as in, I miss the places I grew up in, and I miss all the food that I’ve eaten. I miss all the friends that I grew up playing with,” the 32-year-old musician says in an interview from a tour stop in Philadelphia.

In recent weeks, Hungtai’s made the road a temporary home as he and his bandmates tour in support of their latest album, Drifters / Love is the Devil, a beautiful double LP—which came out on Zoo Music, the label run by Crocodiles’ Brandon Welchez and Dum Dum Girls’ Dee Dee Penny—whose song titles (“Greyhound at Night,” “Like the Ocean We Part,” “I Don’t Know How to Find My Way Back to You”) emphasize gray-streaked vibes and transitory themes.

On the first section, Drifters, Hungtai roves the sonic highways on a bed of synth loops and drum-machine beats, singing in a guttural croon while his bandmates—guitarist Shub Roy, electronic artist Bernardino Femminielli and, occasionally, saxophonist Francesco De Gallo and drummer Jesse Locke—help whip up murky grooves, ghostly saxophone howls and gritty keyboard wails. On the other hand, the slower, more cinematic Love is the Devil finds Hungtai exploring minimalist chord sequences, distorted harmonic overtones and sonic flickers and moans of mysterious provenance.

Fans of Dirty Beaches’ 2011 breakthrough album, Badlands, might prefer Drifters over Love is the Devil—both Badlands and Drifters are more traditionally rocking, in their own peculiar ways. But with repeated listens, Love is the Devil proves to be incredibly nuanced and emotionally rewarding. In the title track, Hungtai conjures a billowing cloud of synthesized strings and Mellotron chords, delivering a stunning performance that’ll rip the heart out of any lovesick pilgrim.

“This is my heart & soul. I need to get this off my chest,” Hungtai reportedly wrote on Twitter when the track came out. “This title track has blood & tears all over it and is the sound of my empty self. I need to share this before it becomes something else.”

True to Hungtai’s roving nature, Dirty Beaches—who play with SISU and Chasms at The Void on Saturday, Sept. 21—hits at familiar sounds from a worldly angle. On Badlands, Hungtai mined rockabilly, rock ’n’ roll and doo-wop not as a way to capture the indierock zeitgeist (since “retro” was stylish at the time), but as a poignant tribute to his father, who’d played in a doo-wop cover band while growing up in China.

With a distant, spooky croon reminiscent of Suicide vocalist Alan Vega, a pomaded Hungtai sang over loops of twinkling piano (“Lord Knows Best”) and sentimental guitar strums (“True Blue”). But everything was caked in lo-fi grime, giving the songs the feel of a weatherbeaten Polaroid.

Drifters / Love is the Devil also has a gritty, late-night tint, but the production is a bit more polished. When I mention to Hungtai that his songs sound like they’ve been dragged through the dirt, he corrects me, saying it was the other way around.

“We’re trying to bleach it and make it clean,” he says. “We tried really hard to make it clean. You have no idea. We tried really hard.”

As it happens, the wanderer’s life isn’t one Hungtai’s always led by choice. When he was in his mid-20s, he had to leave the United States after he dropped out of college and his student visa was nullified. In interviews, he’s emphasized that it was no fun getting cut off from his bandmates and friends.

But in the time since, he’s embraced his inner nomad. And as long as he stays single—“free as a bird,” he says—he probably won’t settle down any time soon.

“It’s hard to get a new job in a new town, but I’ve done that my whole life,” he says. “Every time you do it, you just develop the confidence that, ‘Yeah, I can actually move to a new city and get a new job and get a new apartment. I can do that. It’s not that hard.’ And once you develop that kind of confidence, you can go anywhere.” 

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