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Scrooged: An Interview with Dirty Beaches

By ; March 14, 2011 at 1:38 AM 

Inspired by the 1988 Bill Murray movie of the same name, we bring you the fifth in a series of interviews called Scrooged.

Past

One Thirty BPM: I read you were born in Taiwan and moved around a lot when you were young. When did you come to the states?

Dirty Beaches (Alex Zhung Hai): That wasn’t until later-on, in high school. That wasn’t the U.S. though, I’m a Canadian citizen. I didn’t start living in the U.S. until 1994 and I was in Hawaii for ten years. Then I lived in San Francisco and New York for a little bit, but not long enough to say that I really know those places well.

Where I’m going with that is that your music sounds rooted in a very traditional American sound. Your youth in Asia or living in Hawaii, do those musical traditions inform your music as well?

Yeah, I mean, they are all a part of me. I just chose to embrace the aspects living in Hawaii and listening to the great American bands of the past. Also reading American literature with my friends… we were obsessed with the beat generation. But we were living on this plastic little island and weren’t going anywhere, so we dreamed of going on road trips from New York to Los Angeles… I’m glad as an adult I actually did it. But yeah, in a certain aspect it is like fulfilling a childhood dream.

And now you kind of travel for a living, huh?

Yeah -laughs- it’s nice.

What was the first music that you remember connecting with?

There is a lot, but the first cd I ever bought was Janet Jackson, Rhythm Nation. I must have been 9 or 10 I think. That was the first time I ever used my own allowance money to buy music… Like, I bought it. Out of my own pocket.

Mine was Eric Clapton Unplugged. Was there a feeling when you started to consuming music that you wanted to create music as well?

That didn’t come until later. I didn’t start playing music until I was 20.

How does someone get into making music at 20? It seems kind of late to realize you want to be a musician.

Well, it really wasn’t a life choice. It was more by accident when I was playing in a metal band. Eventually I just started doing my own stuff and ten years later, this is what I’m doing now.

Ten years seems like a long time, I mean, this is your first full-length album, right?

No, it is my third.

Oh, okay. Pitchfork lies.

Yeah, it’s the first record that Pitchfork is covering. But, I’ve been around since 2005.

So, Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis are two of the names that people who are writing about you are associating with you, as far as your sound. Are these conscious reference points or when you started singing, you just happened to sound like that?

I appreciate all the comparisons. They are all very flattering. So, I don’t mind it one bit.

In a way, it is kind of true, because I am a mishmash of all the names they dropped. Not one in particular, but all of them combined. So yeah, I don’t mind it at all. It’s a great compliment.

Another one that I hear, but I haven’t read as much, is Springsteen. And especially, just the title Badlands, that’s the first thing I thought of, well first the film Badlands, but then the song “Badlands.” And especially the intensity with which you sing, is very Springsteen-ish. Is Bruce also a reference point?

With Springsteen, it’s more a thematic influence. I really like the album Nebraska.

It’s one of my favorites.

Yeah, it’s one of my favorites, too. I really like how he constructed the whole story. I wanted to do something more… more like David Lynch. More abstract.

How old were you when you first saw Blue Velvet?

I was probably in college.

Yeah, me too. I was late coming to that game.

It was probably like 2000, I think.

With reference to film, or even the name Dirty Beaches, it kind of evokes something more sinister beneath the surface, like Blue Velvet and Lynch. Do you think of your music as dark?

Well, I don’t think of anything as one thing. Like, nothing is black or white.

Right.

So, to answer your question, no. I don’t think it’s dark. I think it’s a lot of other things. It’s very complicated. There are aspects of darkness, but it’s not completely dark.

Well yeah, going back to Lynch, I don’t think of Blue Velvet as purely dark either, but there is a definite darkness to it, below the surface. I mean, everything has multiple levels. Is there anything else, as far as Lynch goes that comes across in your music?

Well, my influences come mainly from film… Like I don’t stick with one sound, I consider sound like a casting call. Like the cast, the lead, that becomes your sound. Sound is your leading man. The sound is the look and soul of the film. That’s kind of how I look at it, but that’s only the aesthetics. You have to have characters that are fleshed out and story… But, I dunno, I think my approach to music is very cinematic.

Present

Describe the recording of Badlands.

Musically, it was a natural progression. Thematically, it was a result of touring and driving from coast to coast. So those were the main influences. Literature, my father, a bunch of other stuff, too.

The whole story behind Badlands is about a man who is possessed by the road. He is leaving his home behind. He has seen temptation and evil that come in all forms… That’s pretty much the gist of the album. The recording process was pretty similar to my previous recordings, in that they were 95% recorded live, in my apartment.

The lo-fi element, I read that it’s not so much that you want to sound that way, but more because of necessity, money, equipment, and that kind of stuff. Is that true?

Mmhmm.

For this project, the idea of being on the road… it kind of sounds like it could have been recorded on the road, because it sounds so homemade.

Yeah, it is definitely homemade.

Do you think that adds to the theme of the project, the way it sounds? Or do you wish it was recorded better?

No, I mean, for example, if I had access to a real studio, I would have done it in a real studio. So, it would probably sound a lot different. So, no, I don’t think the way it sounds adds anything to it. It was just the result of circumstances. Whether that works in my favor or not, we’ll have to see.

You work with what you have, you know? And if you are dealt a really bad hand, you ride it out until you get the right cards, you know?

Are you surprised that people are paying attention to it, even though you have these things working against you?

I think I’m surprised, in a way, that people like us can have a career in the internet age. Ten or twenty years ago, people like us would be non-existent. I don’t mean non-existent as in we wouldn’t exist, but I mean non-existent in the forefront. No one would ever hear about it. How would people ever hear our music? We would just be making home CD-R’s. But, I think the internet has changed a lot of that and it’s no longer a necessity to record at home for a lot of people. To record in a studio is a lot cheaper than it was ten years ago and a lot of people can do it on their computer because of these really powerful programs. So, I think we are going to be in for a lot of changes in the next five or ten years, in terms of what kind of music we create and how music is being created, too. I think this is kind of a turning point, which is really exciting. It’s like a golden age of internet music, right now. Everything is free. We are the archival generation, you know? We have access to everything. It’s pretty amazing, but I think it’s going to change pretty soon and people are going to start asking us to pay for it. -laughter- But, it’s all free right now, it’s fucking great.

Yeah, going into that, I heard about the project for the first time twice in the same day. I’d never heard of Dirty Beaches and one friend hit me up in an email about how I should check out Dirty Beaches and then that night I was out and I was talking to a band and they said they were really into Dirty Beaches right now.

That’s crazy… That’s really crazy.

When thinking about this road concept, to quote you, “an abstract narrative about someone being possessed by the road,” how rigid were you with this concept when you were creating the album and how successful do you think the album is at achieving your vision.

Well, I think the album came out exactly as I wanted it. I think everyone has a very different take on the album and there are a lot of different reactions, a lot of strong reactions, which I really like. Because I hate it when people are like “meh, it’s not bad but it’s not good.” There are really strong, divided opinions about this album. Some people have absolutely loved it whereas some people hated it. They were like ‘this is the worst shit I have ever heard.’

That’s good, though

It’s interesting, though. That people are so angry about sampling, whereas sampling has been happening for so, so long. Our whole generation grew up with hip hop on the radio and my whole production value is similar to traditional hip hop. Like, I make beats. I don’t know how to play drums, so I make beats at home. Then I program them, with, you know, computer programs or I try to make beats on a drum machine or I try to sample a drum beat from a song. Then all these people say, “oh, it’s just a sample” or “he can’t play his instrument.”

I was really happy when I was reading those comments, because people were defending me. And all the reply were “dude, have you ever heard of fucking hip hop?” -laughter- And then when the guy was saying I can’t play my instrument, another person wrote “dude, have you ever heard of punk?” -laughter- And, it was just really funny to me, because it was really nice to have people defend me and to know that these people get it. I’m just trying to have fun and work with new music ideas. It’s pretty much hip hop in essence, but I’m not making hip hop music and I’m not rapping. Everything I do is very similar to hip hop production, though.

How does this come across live? Does it work, live? I mean, obviously it has to work to some extent or else you wouldn’t perform live.

I think it is a mixed reception. Some people really enjoy it, but others expect something traditional and are like “where is your fucking drummer!? Where is your band?” They prefer that, and I don’t blame them. They are entitled to. They want to be more traditional.

Yeah, but even if you are getting these adverse reactions, at least it is a reaction. Ambivalence is the worst response you can have to music, in my opinion. It’s supposed to make you feel something when you hear music, so even if it like this horrible disdain, at least it is something, rather than someone listening to it and not feeling anything.

Yeah, that’s true.

Future

So, I know Badlands isn’t out yet, and it is hard to look beyond the support of this album, but what are your musical goals beyond this?

I’m actually doing a lot of recording right now. I have some 7″s coming out, and I just recorded a track yesterday at my friend’s studio in Bushwick, it was like a dub track. I’m gonna try to do a dance 7″ inch with a friend of mind, this band called Cosmetics from Vancouver. But yeah, we are going to see if that works.

I’m gonna try to put together a full band to work with me on the next record, it’s going to be all my best friends. Just musicians that I really, really want to work with that I’ve met over the past five years.

That kind of leads to my next question. Are there any artists you want to collaborate with? Or any producers?

Hmmm. That’s a really good question. I’ve never really thought about it. I don’t think I’m up to that scale yet, where I would require a famous producer. I think that is later on. I’ve never really thought about it, it hasn’t really occurred to me.

I like fantasizing about that stuff, though. I always think about who I would want to interview if I could interview anybody.

It would be really interesting to me to have Brian Eno. He does a lot of cool shit. I think it would be interesting to talk to him, and he seems really nice, you know. I’ve seen his interviews on YouTube and he seems like a really pleasant person to talk with. Whereas some of my other heroes I would prefer to never meet them.


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