Dirty Beaches draws from Serbian film on new album

by Patrick ST. Michel

Special To The Japan Times

Alex Zhang Hungtai is constantly in motion. The Taiwanese-born artist, who performs under the name Dirty Beaches, has said in interviews the idea of “home” doesn’t mean much to him. He’s lived in Taipei, Honolulu, Shanghai and Montreal, and is an avid traveler on top of that. This feeling of always being on the move is something Hungtai says comes across in his performances.

“I think it’s important to always play what your heart feels,” he says from his current home in Berlin. “If I feel like there’s a sense of obligation, I might as well quit music and go back to kitchen jobs as a cook, or be a real-estate agent.”

Appropriately, Hungtai talked to The Japan Times while in the process of moving into a temporary hotel before he embarks on a tour of Australia and Asia. He will play Astro Hall in Tokyo’s Harajuku district on Feb. 18 and says he’s excited to play his first show as Dirty Beaches in a country he’s visited several times in the past.

Hungtai started Dirty Beaches in 2005 and has released a steady stream of songs and albums since. His earliest works feature a wide range of sounds, jumping from ominous instrumentals to sweeter numbers accented with strings that would likely feel at home on a film soundtrack. Hungtai has said previously that cinema shapes his work heavily, citing the films of David Lynch and Wong Kar-wai.

Lynch’s films in particular inspired Dirty Beaches’ 2011 breakthrough album, “Badlands.” That LP found Hungtai singing more clearly on songs, evoking a 1950s American rock sound filtered through fuzzy lo-fi production. Critics brought up comparisons to Elvis Presley and Suicide, but Hungtai says he took just as much inspiration from hip-hop, as he made heavy use of looped samples.

One sample, anchoring the doomed shuffle of the song “A Hundred Highways,” comes from Japanese psychedelic band Hadaka no Rallizes’ ’70s cut “Night of the Assassins.” He says he first heard the song, which cops the bass riff from Little Peggy March’s 1963 hit “I Will Follow Him,” at a friend’s house in Montreal.

“I thought it would be funny to turn a Japanese song, which was originally a mockery of — or just plain-old bass-riff stealing from — ‘I Will Follow Him’ and turn it back into an American rhythm-and-blues song.”

Don’t go to Astro Hall necessarily expecting Hungtai to play it, though, “At live shows I almost completely stopped playing ‘Badlands’ material and instead play mostly new songs.” That should make for a good preview of what’s in store for his forthcoming album, “Drifters/Love is the Devil,” due out May 21. He says it’s his most ambitious recording to date — a double LP clocking in at 75 minutes and partially inspired by the 1984 Serbian film “Pejzazi u Magli” by Jovan Jovanovic. Hungtai recently uploaded the haunting, Mellotron-powered track “Love is the Devil” online, which offers a preview of the all-instrumental second half of the album.

“Although stylistically the two LP’s are very different, theme- and content-wise they are connected in a way portraying two sides of a coin: the surface and the inside,” Hungtai says. “This album is very personal to me, as I’m also not playing a fictional rockabilly singer of some sort.”

Before that, though, is a tour that will take Hungtai to Australia and South Korea for the first time in his life, along with stops in Hong Kong and Tokyo. Hungtai says he has been to Japan several times, on early family vacations and as an adult to see friends. “Fukuoka was my favorite city, perhaps because it was closer to the sea,” he says. For this trip, Hungtai says he’s also making local cuisine a priority.

“In Japan, the obvious choices will be tonkotsu ramen, gyūdon … I’m also a fan of the convenience stores like Lawson’s and 7-11,” he says. “I’m a very adventurous eater, and I believe the first step in accepting or appreciating a culture, is to start with the food.”

Dirty Beaches plays Astro Hall in Shibuya-ku, Tokyo, on Feb. 18 (9:15 p.m. start; ¥3,800 in advance; 03-3402-3089). For more information, visit