Have you ever seen that movie Fallen Angels by Wong Kar Wai? There's this ending scene with a girl and a guy who are riding this motorcycle out from a tunnel in downtown Hong Kong and as the motorcycle passes, the camera pans up with a puff of smoke that fades into the on-high. That's the visual I have when I think of Dirty Beaches - that sprawl from the urban contortion that goes into something pure. Like that song "Alone at the Danube River" on the double LP Drifters/Love is the Devil. A slithering guitar spirit creaking out above a lingering river that creaks through Europe's painful, haunted past. There's something worldly (maybe inter-worldly, maybe intra-worldly) that winds through Dirty Beaches' music just like that trans-continental river.
Dirty Beaches recently announced a new instrumental LP called Stateless, which will be made available through Zoo Music. Dirty Beaches has made a lot of instrumental music from cassette releases on labels like Night People to the Love is the Devil part of his most recent double LP. He has played many countries and I highly recommend following his instagram account for insider looks at places far from the United States. It's one of my personal favorite accounts to see, and one that strikes my fancy as a man who would love to travel more.
I literally was just at Permanent Records before I got this interview and mentioned to Robert (who runs Moniker Records) that Alex had just sent back answers to the questions I asked him. Immediately Robert said, "Oh, he's a great dude." And yeah, man, he is. It shows in his sounds, his earnest work ethic, and the things you hear about him. As Alex and I shot e-mails back in forth, he kept mentioning how Chicago had always been good to him and he loved the city. And he really answered my questions thoughtfully, which means a lot to me, so thanks, Alex.
We talk through a lot. Projects on the horizon. Movies. Geneses. It's a great interview and I'm proud to publish it.
Jordan Reyes: You seem to travel a lot and also keep documentation of where you go through photographs and writing. Have you ever thought of making a book about your travels?
Alex Hungtai: Eventually it would be great to put out a photo book. At the moment, I'm just collecting them for personal documentation.
JR: How much of traveling is for your music career and how much of it is for fun? I'm sure the two overlap a bit.
AH: They definitely do, although it's a hard balance to maintain. Ideally, you want to explore the city and walk around and get lost but realistically staying an extra day or two costs you: extra hotel fee, food and expenses for your band, etc, which is why most bands prefer the econo run-and-gun tour. But eventually it's good for the soul to spend a few days in one city and explore and hang out with new friends you've met in that city. Some of those places can be a life changer. You never know.
JR: This is a bit of a loaded question but do you seek out music from different parts of the world? If so, what parts of culture do you think impacts the unique music that is made?
AH: In general my interest for western music (popular music, indie rock, etc) waned a bit after 2011. I think independent music really changed over the last decade for better or worse. More power goes to the OG bands that slugged it out DIY style as they've earned everything they've achieved. But if you switch around the scenarios and put a really young band that has never really toured on their own and you see them become this cookie cutter band that fits in the industry template and it all starts to sound the same and even look the same. Labels like sublime frequencies really played a integral role in my life when I discovered it in 2010. And you realize all these incredible talents that are out in the world are doing exciting things, which, in turn are quite exciting to hear.
JR: Do you feel as though you belong to any particular culture?
AH: Not really, or else I'd be very happy to be a "genre band," but Dirty Beaches is all over the place because I struggle with this idea.
JR: In 2011, there was an article posted with your favorite movies: Days of Being Wild, Rebels of the Neon God, Stranger Than Paradise, Buffalo '66, Wild at Heart, Alphaville, The Naked City, Happy Together, and Soul Brother no. 1. Are these still your favorite movies? Have there been any additions to the list?
AH: Of course. To be honest I don't have a list. But when answering those questions in interviews you force yourself to come up with a list. I personally don't really like lists, but at times it is a good way to introduce your fans where your music comes from, and those movies definitely influenced me from a very young age in my teens.
JR: Many of those movies come from very stylized directors like Jim Jarmusch or David Lynch or Wong Kar Wai. How important is style to a film in your opinion? Is there a balance between substance and style or should a director just go full blown on both?
AH: That goes with out saying. I think ultimately there is no right way of doing things. Just your way and what you passionately believe in. Everything else is secondary considerations and calculations that come later and it's here to serve a purpose: doubt. It's important to keep your ego in check but sometimes it can cripple you. It's definitely a dangerous one.
JR: Was there a specific film in your life that you can remember sparked your interest in film as a whole?
AH: Happy Together by Wong Kar Wai. That movie made me cry. And it still resonates with me.
JR: Do you have a favorite children's movie?
AH: Not really, but as a kid my favorite cartoon was this Japanese anime called Fist of the North Star. It's like if Bruce Lee starred in Mad Max. I loved it so much as a kid in the 80's.
JR: Have you thought of directing short or feature length films?
AH: I would love to and eventually I will when there's more free time.
JR: Your 2013 double album "Drifters/Love is the Devil" is incredible, first off. The first 12" has more vocals than the second, though. When you write instrumental songs do you go into the process knowing that they will be instrumental?
A: Thanks man. To answer your question, no, but I do follow my instincts. If a track was born without any vocals in mind I wouldn't try and squeeze vocals in it to make it a proper song. I'd just leave it be. And it just came out that way. The hard part is editing it and selecting the track listing after you're done!
JR: What about your songs with vocals - do they begin as instrumentals and get words put on top like whip cream, or is there more of a coexistence with instrumentals and vocals?
AH: Whatever comes first. Sometimes it can just be a few words with melodies. Sometimes it's the music first. There's no specific formula. I like switching things up to. Working with new equipment and instrumentations can be frustrating at first but it's also highly rewarding.
JR: Have you been writing or recording anything new?
AH: Lots! Expect some OSTs for two independent films I'm currently working on. More info will be shared as the production goes further but other new projects as well. I'm thinking of taking an hiatus for Dirty Beaches next year and just focus on other projects.
AH: Yeah I think not as Dirty Beaches, but I wanna hit the old touring routes I did back in 2007 with some old friends, play solo sets for a new project, travel and take my time in North America. Really explore the landscapes and camp instead of just blaze from east to west coast with a dip in the south. Ideally, I'd like to explore both Canada and the USA again and hopefully with more time to stop, enjoy the country, and hopefully catch the things I missed when I was younger driving non-stop from town to town. I think it's that time now for me. To really connect with where I come from and pay respect to the folks that helped me out in the early years of Dirty Beaches, playing those basement shows to 5 people, being broke.
AH: I don't ever wish to be broke again, but I wanna take the time and stop by those towns and play music for those folks that housed me and fed me. If it wasn't for them, Dirty Beaches wouldn't exist.