The timeless quality to Dirty Beaches‘ music is no accident. Filled with ’60s surf-rock guitar work, deadpan Roy-Orbison-meets-Jim-Morrison vocals, and thick Spector-esque production, the band’s catalog feels like the result of endless hours spent listening to oldies radio. It’s not surprising then that Alex Zhang Hungtai, the soft-spoken man behind the Vancouver-based outfit, has done plenty of thinking about the past. We caught up with Hungtai outside the Rock and Roll Hotel in Washington, DC to talk about travel, movies, and how our relationship with the music by-gone generations can be central to our creative output in the present.
How’s the tour been going?
Actually, we just started. This is our first stop.
Are you looking forward to it?
Yeah, of course. It’s fun.
A lot of your music has a preoccupation with travel, being on the road, moving through space. Does touring feed into that at all, or does that come from a different spot.
Yeah, I think it definitely fills in the whole spectrum. It comes full circle. Whereas before I was writing about my upbringing and was somewhat influenced by that, you know, from just living in different places. Now, I’m always going through different places for work. So yeah it definitely feeds back, like full circle.
Do you do a lot of writing on the road?
No not really, unfortunately.
There’s a heavy influence from past music in your work. Are you trying to make any arguments about our relationship with the past, or is it more of a personal nature?
That’s a very good question actually. I definitely think our generation falls into the category of ‘record collector rock’ where everyone is so knowledgeable about everything because of the internet—you have this entire archive of shit that’s accessible to us. So basically what everyone is doing is making this ideal combination of the music they like. “I really like this band but I didn’t like this stuff that they did, so I’m going to fill that in with this other band that I’m influenced by” and so forth. It’s sorta like this Frankenstein. But where does that go? I think that’s what our generation is facing. Where as past generations were trying to do some new shit, we’re the only generation that constantly looks back and tries perfect the past where as previous generations were about obliterating the past. I think all of us—everyone that’s playing music right now—is going to just reach this apex.
Do you think there’s some dangers in too much nostalgia?
Of course. I mean, I’m a nostalgic person but only to the places that I’ve lived in. A lot of the music that I listen to that I like, it wasn’t even around, it was from before I was born like 20, 30, 40 years ago. I’m 32; I’m pretty old. But we just have so much access now. There’s a bunch of obscure music that wasn’t even popular in the 60s, or 50s, or 70s—we have access to all of that now. I don’t know, it’s just endless. The music is endless.
Does that have anything to do with your approach, the fact that you’ve released a lot of work on cassettes? Is that just a practical thing, or is there something about having the physicality of it?
That’s another good question. I think the cassette thing is a reaction just to the disposable nature of CD-Rs and mp3s. I don’t actually think it’s a good format, personally speaking, because a lot of the tapes get played at different speeds on different cassette decks. It’s not the optimal listening format. I hear a lot of bootlegs of my tapes where people are copying them or recording them off a laptop because they don’t know how to re-dub it, or copy it, or transfer it to a digital format. So a lot of times they’re played at low speeds and stuff like that, so it’s definitely not a good format.
Sort of an unintentional remix there.
Yeah, for someone—I don’t know how old you are.
So pagers were around before you went to middle school. I grew up with pagers. For someone like me it’s really easy to use cassettes as recording devices—it’s just record, play, fast-forward, rewind—versus the computer programs which I’m trying to learn right now. I’m naturally drawn to the user-friendliness of those old tape decks. But format-wise, I don’t think it’s a wise format for musicians or listeners.
Is that the root of a lot of analog feel to your music?
Yeah. I tried using a computer program but I would be spending more time trying to figure out how to use it than actually recording music. It’s just a lot easier to press record and record it, transfer it, and mix it.
Changing subjects a bit: Solid State Gold, Badlands, and a lot of your other output has a cinematic quality. Do you have any plans to do film soundtracks?
Yes! I’m scoring three films this year. One is a documentary, a Canadian film, about this water park inside a giant shopping mall in Edmonton—that’s in Calgary, the west side of Canada. It used to be the world’s largest shopping mall. This filmmaker was from Edmonton and contacted me about a year ago.*
Do you have any particular film soundtracks you admire? Does anyone’s approach to music in film resonate with you.?
There’s so many. All the Italian masters like Henry Mancini and Ennio Morricone . I also listen to a lot of Asian composers—Ryuichi Sakamoto is one—they’re all great. Brian Eno, too.
*The film is called Waterpark. It’s being directed by Evan Prosofsky, the fellow best know for creating the dreamy, feel-good video for the Grimes song “Oblivion.” You can find out more and help support the project here.