ALEX ZHANG HUNGTAI
The art of moderation
Alright, imagine the following scenario. Let’s say you’re dedicated to a specific craft, and after years of trying your very best to get your name around, you slowly but steadily get your well-deserved breakthrough - up to the point where you suddenly become the talk of the town. Life is sweet and it becomes pretty obvious that this journey actually has just begun. It would be easy to branch out, you don’t even need a masterplan to do so. But instead you quit. Sounds crazy, right? But that’s exactly what Alex Zhang Hungtai did. Alex Zhang Hungtai is probably better known as the mastermind behind indie darlings Dirty Beaches - the former lo-fi solo-show turned band, which combined 60s sleaze with menacing basslines, ambient textures, heartbreakingly sad instrumentals and a nod to Alan Vega in unrivaled fashion - who called it quits around a year ago. A lot has happened since then. He started a new solo project titled Last Lizard, as well as two new band projects in Lisbon and London. He moved back to the States again, Los Angeles to be precise, not necessarily because he was yearning for that place, but because he had to leave Berlin due to his visa situation and the country’s absurdly complicated tax system - an intuitive decision which proved to be solid gold since he not only got approached by two major global players that were heavily interested in using his music, but got contacted in terms of acting jobs as well. He quit playing guitar and bass and stopped singing in favor of sinking his teeth into the art of playing sax and piano (“Man, I never felt so satisfied playing these instruments, even though the high might be based on these three seconds where I actually played it right“.). He developed an almost unhealthy car fetish, suddenly went Facebook, and got his entire Dirty Beaches catalog back from Zoo Music. Not bad at all, considering the fact that he was already preparing himself mentally to wash dishes again as soon as he relocated to LA. Or in his words: “I think it’s the first time where I’m feeling completely free“. Lodown had the chance to catch up with the multi-talented Alex Zhang Hungtai in early November.
Alex, how does it feel being located in Los Angeles again, after having lived in Berlin for a year?
You know these annual rings you see inside a tree trunk, right? The Native Americans believed that each circle is a second chance to see and do and say all these things you didn’t the first time around. And every time you complete a full circle you see a lot of the same things you’ve seen before. Unresolved symbols and issues that suddenly reappear into your life, coming at you when you’ve reached a full circle. After having returned to the States, I really felt like that... as if I’ve just completed one. It’s been ten years since I’ve lived in the States, and when I returned I suddenly started to treasure the things I didn’t when I was younger... simple things like playing pool. Eating delicious Mexican food. Or driving in a particular car.
But that’s the thing, right? Everybody is aware of it, it’s not an elaborate puzzle that you need to decode... regardless of how much you yearn for whatever symbols you think you need to make you happy, in the end it always comes down to the simple things.
True. For me right now it’s about cultivation. And dedication. I think I’ve lacked these kinda things when I was younger. When you focus on these two things, you then might reach execution - executing things freely. And eventually accurately. (laughs) This sounds as if I joined a cult or something, as if I’m suddenly enlightened. I’m usually a mess, so maybe I’ll be stumbling in the dark again anytime soon. But seriously, I believe that a moderation of many different elements will eventually balance things out. (laughs) I think that’s my word of the year: “Moderation“.
So what’s happening in the acting department?
I got three offers for acting in total... and I already did one of them. I’m off to Montreal next week for the second, and the third is going to happen next year - if they like my audition, that is. It’s kinda strange, isn’t it? Three offers that basically arrive at the same time? There’s definitely something weird going on... but in a good way. I think I just go with the flow and see it as an experience where I’ll try to learn as much as I can. I know the director from the first one, a short film actually, she’s an old friend of mine. It’s about a woman being strangled by the man she loves. It’s serene but violent, one of those films where reality becomes slightly blurry. (laughs) I basically had to strangle this actress in different places for three days in a row. One setting was at the ocean and I was in the water for six hours in a row until I couldn’t even clench a fist no more by the end of the day. But it was a positively surprising experience for me, as some scenes demanded heavy, complex emotions, and I was capable of delivering them. One of the aspects of the film is showing the reasons behind violence, the complexity of what triggers the impulse to physically hurt someone you love. It enters a very dark side of human nature, and obviously there is lots of remorse involved. We shot parts at the AFI, the American Film Institute, a proper studio where we were able to use a water tank and whatnot.
“The template of the music industry sucks. Now, that I’m not bound to a label no more I just would love to get on tour when I really feel like it. If I wanna release an album, I do so... and if I wanna change to acting, I do exactly that. I should be free because this is the career I chose instead of doing an office job.”
Plus you must keep in mind that being in a band already involves lots of compromises since at the end of the day it’s a team effort... this is then potentially multiplied an infinite number of times when it comes to making a film. Do you think that’s something you’d feel comfy with?
I’ve been observing that big time when I was on set. But I also experienced that it actually has a lot in common with being in a band. Means: you wanna have the people you trust the most around you. Really close. It’s a bit like a family, and that’s why a lot of directors tend to work with the same crew behind the camera for many years. (laughs) What I also learned: you can’t speak your mind all the time, it makes people feel uncomfortable and creates unnecessary tension. So, yeah, at the moment I’m learning a lot about filmmaking... and I really do hope that eventually I’ll be able to realize a feature film myself. Being open to the idea that there’s more than just music to express myself.
That’s the thing, you already proved that you can make music that actually is important. But what does that mean for Last Lizard? WIll this new project of yours then drift more in the direction of making soundtracks?
Yeah, that actually is a really good point. It’s been a year since I ended Dirty Beaches - I actually just received the last album on vinyl yesterday, and it was a lot more emotional than I expected it to be, to be honest. The thing is: as Last Lizard, I already experienced so much more freedom than I ever did before... maybe because it’s instrumental and jazzy and I’m playing piano and sax instead of guitar. And maybe that’s why it will take me a lot longer to release an album under this moniker, because I’m a bit scared that this freedom a) will then be gone, and b) won’t translate to an album. It’s not song based, and not necessarily fluid... the shows I played already proved that. There’s also a lot of training required to present this kinda music... it’s not good enough yet, I feel that. It’s too limited in terms of the spirit, it doesn’t feel right at the moment to release it. To be honest, maybe I’m just expanding a bit too fast right now. I’m writing something and within one month I’m completely dissatisfied with it. It doesn’t represent me anymore. In Dirty Beaches I had at least the feeling that the songs will represent me for around six months or even a year.That period certainly has shortened. I always feel as if certain expressions on my recordings are so outdated. That I already have a new outlook. But I don’t wanna limit myself no more... because for the first time in ten years I feel as if I grow a lot, so I’m trying my best to absurd everything that’s coming my way as much as I can.
What about the other musical projects you have besides Last Lizard?
Right, there’s this free jazz trio in Lisbon... and another project with friend from London under the name Love Theme. It’s kinda unfair to say that but this project in particular sounds like the music I wanted to make with Dirty Beaches. Dark, instrumental big city music. Two tenor saxophones and synths and drum machines. It has this really cool vibe to it, very modern... not necessarily jazz. (laughs) I would listen to it non-stop if I wouldn’t live in California at the moment. It definitely has a bit of Berlin in it as well. You know what, it feels great to be in this band, because it´s not MY band, you know what I mean? It takes the pressure off and I’m actually really easy going when I’m in a band where i’m not the center of attention. With Dirty Beaches I over-thought too many things.
“People that refuse anything bad, these are the people that scare me the most. Because when they snap, things get really fucking dark.“
Especially after people took the character you created with “Badlands“ for real?
Right, that’s when I started to be really careful with how I present myself through music. It’s weird being public. Now I’m trying to overlap the different aspects of my life, and the more they do, the more healthier it feels... because you don’t have nothing to hide. You can show who you really are. People usually want you to be this one-dimensional human being, even though that’s a contradiction in itself.
You had just arrived in Montreal the last time we spoke, where you played this one festival. I know you’ve added a few more weeks... was it a pleasant trip down memory lane?
It was turning into a weird deja-vu trip. And depending on your condition it’s sometimes easy to live with it, and sometimes it’s just terrifying. It was Montreal, followed by Toronto followed by NY followed by a few more days in Canada. It was intense, it kinda kicked my ass and shook a lot of things up. It was supposed to be about catching up with old friends... but in the end there was a lot of redemption involved, because it made me realize - again - that touring for five years basically damages your psyche. Well, at least in terms of being a responsible human being. When I returned to LA I decided that my holiday is finally over, so to speak. I was relaxing just a bit too much when I moved back to he States, I think, living like a 20 year old. My priorities have definitely shifted, and as hard as it was, it definitely felt good to get some things in order while I was back in Canada. (laughs) Maybe it’s time to live like a hermit for a while... no more house parties.
How does it feel to own your own back catalog now? Any dramatic lessons you’ve learned in terms of working with a label?
Yeah, I’m able to self-release my own catalog now... Zoo Music isn’t in charge no more, but I never was legally tied to them in the first place... it was of these deals that got sealed with a handshake basically. Well, obviously it would be great being able to use my own music to pay the rent. I mean, I’m not too interested in making much money, I just wanna pay the rent and live a bit of a happy life. Being able to eat whenever I feel hungry. The template of the music business sucks. Now, that I’m not bound to a label no more I just would love to get on tour when I really feel like it. If I wanna release an album, I do so... and if I wanna change to acting, I do exactly that. I should be free because this is the career I chose instead of doing an office job. And as soon as your music feels like doing an office job, you should stop immediately. From the outside it hardly ever looks like that... but touring sometimes feels like being a traveling salesman. I don’t want to sound as if it’s a soul-sucking thing though. You know what I want? I never want to peak... I just wanna keep going. A natural slow progression. I’m scared of the peak because there is no way else but down. The way I see it, there are two different types of musicians, and every way is valid to make a living from music. I really like that idea of a blue-collar working class rock’n roll band. Because they play music for their fans. Springsteen still is playing three-hour concerts, and it’s actually pretty amazing. Everyone in the crowd knows the words. The same with the Ramones... they toured until they physically collapsed. There’s an ethic behind that, and I’m really amazed by it. Other musicians want to move on, because they don’t want to do same songs over and over again. (Laughs) Unfortunately I belong to the second category.
photos by Loic Zimmermann