Local lo-fi solo act Dirty Beaches—aka Alex Zhang Hungtai—has one foot in the past. The singer’s latest long-player, Badlands, has captured plenty of attention for its mix of sinister surf licks, song samples from bygone eras, and out-of-control juke-joint crooning, the latter recalling a time when there weren’t many things more dangerous than a rock ’n’ roll singer. The project’s retro feel reaches beyond the sonics, however. Musically, Hungtai definitely takes influence from the likes of Link Wray and Dick Dale, among others. His stylish greaser aesthetic, however, comes from a more personal source: his father.
“Not only do I channel the spirit of his youth, but physically as well,” Hungtai says, leaning against the tiki-themed bamboo fence outside the Waldorf Hotel just moments before a performance. “I’m in his image. The hair”¦ I look like him.”
Decked out in a black leather jacket, with his hair slicked back into a pseudopompadour, he explains how both his music and his look were shaped by his dad’s experiences in Taiwan.
“He was a singer in his adolescence, but that dream died really fast for him. He was working and joined the military later on, and then he married my mom and had my sisters and me. The dream of pursuing music was born in one summer and died that very summer. He just gave up.”
The younger Hungtai, meanwhile, has managed to stick to his artistic vision. After spending time in Taiwan and Hawaii, he started Dirty Beaches following a move to Montreal in 2005. After releasing a handful of albums, seven-inch singles, and cassettes, he made his way to the West Coast a year and a half ago.
While he once used a tape machine as his backup band, Hungtai has since moved on to a loop pedal to help him get his message across. Badlands’ opener, “Speedway King”, puts his sampling skills to use as a haunted, one-second loop of thudded six-string clatter and snare drum sets the mood. Soon after, Hungtai begins yelping like a man possessed about the allure of the open road, crying “It’s taking over me” before lunging into a passionate junkyard solo.
“Horses” maintains a sense of nervousness with its steady, minimalist spy-rock riff, blasts of white noise, and Hungtai’s sneering swagger, which is equal parts Elvis Presley and Lux Interior. The rest of the album follows suit through a narrative focused on splitting town and leaving loved ones.
“He’s going down the road to god knows where, leaving everything behind,” the singer says of Badlands’ antihero. “This man is hell-bent on leaving his home and all his possessions—any kind of ties—behind to go down this path. The story’s about what he encounters.”
While he’s a little loose with the details, Hungtai says that while the first half of the record is about abandoning the trappings of life, the latter portion is a woefully nostalgic look back at what was left behind.
Though seemingly blasting through a fading AM signal, the sentimental doo-wop ballad “True Blue” is still powerful. In it, Dirty Beaches sings a couple of bars in a swoon-worthy falsetto, remembers what it was like to lie in his lover’s sweet embrace, and drops some spoken word mid-song about how he’ll always stay true.
More devastating is “Lord Knows Best”, which is based on the openingmeasures of French songstress Francoise Hardy’s 1967 number “Voilí ”, and finds the singer betraying Badlands’ early tough-guy feel with lump-in-the-throat singing. Hungtai desperately croons atop a snippet of the original’s melancholy piano twinkling as if he were teary-eyed and halfway finished a bottle of Old Crow. “You know well that I don’t give a damn about anything but you/Oh, yes you do,” he sings sullenly.
Interestingly, Badlands isn’t the only Dirty Beaches project to deal with loneliness and abandonment. Hungtai recently composed a score for his girlfriend Zoe Kirk-Gushowaty’s film Practical ESP: Sensory Perception and the Horse Sanctuary, a documentary about her aunt Bobbi’s therapeutic horse farm in Sooke. While spending time at the farm, the musician observed the interaction between a 50-year-old woman and a penned-up male horse.
“She was really bossy,” he says of the woman. “She was in that round pen for about 40 seconds before the horse bolted out. Later I found out from Bobbi that the lady had gone through four divorces. I don’t know if that’s some sort of weird irony. Was it coincidence? You tell me.”