Bands generally come back from tour with some crazy stories, but Dirty Beaches founder Alex Zhang Hungtai has a yarn up his sleeve about a ledge-plummeting that threatened to can the noir-pop crew’s current North American trek before it even began.
“Basically, I was locked in this old German sublet apartment where you require a key to leave the building,” he tells the Straight by cellphone as he and multi-instrumentalist Shub Roy drive along a desert highway en route to a Los Angeles tour stop. “I was locked in the building at 4 a.m., trying to catch a flight at 6—this was after I returned the keys to the sublet. I took the escape route from the second-storey window.”
The fall left Hungtai with a hip injury, but after taking some painkillers he sat through an 18-hour flight, only heading to an ER after landing. Fortunately, he was deemed well enough to go ahead with the trip. “I was really worried and stressed-out, not knowing if I could make it out on tour, but everything’s working out fine now.”
Drifters/Love Is the Devil, the impressive and ambitious double LP that Dirty Beaches issued this past spring, explores a deeper kind of hurt. Drifters focuses on the debauched highs of road life and was recorded in Montreal with a group of musicians who shared some of those times with Hungtai. Love Is the Devil, meanwhile, was recorded solo in Berlin and deals with the crippling isolation that comes from travelling nonstop.
“Drifters is very egotistical,” he explains, “basically, how we want to look as musicians: the kind of lifestyle we want to live, the irresponsible behaviour, the glamour side of it. Love Is the Devil is the reality of it: you’re constantly on the road, you’re far away from your family and all your friends. Any relationship you have is bound to be doomed.”
Fittingly, the first half gets all kinds of freaky. Hungtai’s distorted baritone whoops confidently atop the minimalist drum-machine punches and slinking bass lines of “Night Walk”, but the artist steadily becomes unhinged as the narrative finds him stumbling through city streets and various late-night scenes. He drops to his knees underneath the overpowering neon glow of “Casino Lisboa”, which delivers a claustrophobic collusion of conga drums and snaking organ lines. He later howls in tongues to the menacing John Carpenter–styled synth patchwork of “Mirage Hall”, while “Landscapes in the Mist” closes out the first part of the diptych with a hallucinatory, ether-soaked sax arrangement.
The ruminative back half of the project, meanwhile, plays out almost entirely as a series of instrumental drones. While it features some of the most gorgeous work of Hungtai’s career, it’s pretty clear that the weeping faux strings of “I Don’t Know How to Find My Way Back to You” and the spacious, melancholic six-string plucks of “Alone at the Danube River” come from a place of hurt. Though Hungtai admits to adopting a greaser-type persona on his 2011 breakthrough, Badlands, he’s quick to point out that this time around he’s shooting straight from the heart.
“This is what you get when you live this kind of life,” he says. “That’s all I’m trying to say.”
Happily, Hungtai admits he’s learned from the mistakes that helped shape the double LP. As for the isolation of the open road, he can always look to brother-in-arms Roy to help him cope with the loneliness.
“He’s the cocaptain of the band now. He does everything with me,” Hungtai says. “I always wanted to be in a band, I just hadn’t found the right personnel. Now I have a chance to work with someone I really get along with. It’s a great feeling.”