Making Music as A Cultivation: An Interview with Alex Zhang Hungtai


Photo Credit: Sven Harambašić

From Dirty Beaches, Last Lizard, and Love Theme to Alex Zhang Hungtai, Hungtai's music, as well as his stage name in different periods, is constantly changing. In 2019, he collaborated with Kuo-hung Tseng from Sunset Rollercoaster and recorded the experimental album
LONGONE together released the following year. Hungtai also participated in the compilation A Pure Person, inspired by the theme song of the film Millennium Mambo directed by Hou Hsiao-hsien, was also released in the same year— which makes us can't help but relisten to his past works, and be able to see the music he has been making nowadays from different perspectives.


Music as eerie as dark night and the morning dew. The first time I really got to know the music of Dirty Beaches was at a show at the music venue The Wall in Taipei in April 2014 - the broken,  gloomy, nourish, and low-fi somehow sounded cold in a way, with the extremely fierce vocals who was from the performer on the stage, holding the microphone tightly sang and shook his body most intuitively as if trying to pour out all the emotions of the music and penetrate into the last cells of the audience.

Dirty Beaches was the alias of Alex Zhang Hungtai (who has also worked under his first stage name
Wrong Karweis). Born in Taipei, Taiwan, in the 1980s Hungtai immigrated to Canada as a child. He used to work in a video store in high school, immersing himself in a world of movies daily, and thus came upon the films of Wong Kar-wai and Hou Hsiao-Hsien. The artistic background accumulated in his youth has shaped his music with a unique and strong visual texture. Most of his life has been in a state of drifting and moving. The meaning of “home” is like a collage of fragmented landscapes in his music. Because of this, there is always a strong sense of diaspora and nostalgia in the Dirty Beaches period—with montage and cinematic soundscape expressing the beauty and sadness of things flowing in time.

Although Dirty Beaches was disbanded in 2014, he continued to make music with his name Alex Zhang Hungtai and gradually transformed into different sound forms. Most of the long-format pieces he released are to run through a kind of sound swirling like an infinite continuation and loop. He also participated in the scoring of the film "August At Akiko's" and "Mountain Woman," and made a guest appearance in season three of  "Twin Peaks" with the trio Trouble formed by Dean Hurley, Riley Lynch, and him. The way that Hungtai approaches music seems to constantly explore the meaning of existence in this world. Now most of the pieces of nostalgia in his music are gone, but he has integrated his own cultural and traditional heritage into his body and continues to apply his musical language expressing subtle feelings about being in different lands and the ever-changing world. As Ryuichi Sakamoto wrote in the anti-biographical experiment book "Skmt, who is Ryuichi Sakamoto": "Moving in a new land. Be alert. Language, color, habit, and smell. Alone in a world where everything changes. Nerves and body, no matter how small things are, pay attention to them, not to be missed, little voices, etc., sensitive to small changes in the outside world."

Swimming Bird was inspired by the recording of the world’s last Kauai O’o singing his courtship song (recorded in 1987). Can you share with us why it serves as an inspiration for your music?

I think this story can be supposed on different levels; the basic is that the male Kauai O’o makes me feel so sad—when he sings the courtship song, he does not know that he is the last Kauai O’o in the world. The title of “Swimming Bird” is derived from a sobriquet to Spike by the gypsy old man Laughing Bull in the animation “Cowboy Bebop.”

What I find interesting about it is that it is like a metaphor—a bird that was initially flying in the sky was shot down, so should it survive in a way that is contrary to its nature? The idea of this concept and the form around this idea, maybe it tells us that we should not do what we should do—the birds in the sky should fly in the sky and should not swim in the river? So I want to deliberately resist it, but it is not a rebellion. The older I get, the more I feel that rebellion is a bit dull.


click in for listening "Swimming Bird" by Alex Zhang Hungtai


—It can be seen from your blog that many of your inspirations come from filmmakers, such as Wong Kar-wai, Fassbender, Chantal Ackerman, and Alejandro Jodorowskywho you mentioned in the concept of one of your albumsand others. What magic do movies have for you personally?

Movies had a profound influence on me when I was young. I left Taiwan when I was 8 years old. Although I went back to visit my family every year, [I missed out on] some memories that many Taiwanese friends shared in common such as beginning to ride a motorcycle after entering junior high school or high school. This kind of life experience never existed in my adolescence. There is so much Taiwanese life that I can only imagine through watching movies such as Hou Hsiao-hsien or Wong Kar-wai. When I lived in Canada and the United States back in the day, I watched many films about Asian Americans, but most of the narratives made me feel disconnected and detached. Most of the themes revolved around “I am an American, why don’t people see me as an American?” I don’t have this issue. I am Taiwanese—I consider myself a Taiwanese [person] who speaks English well.

I remember watching Ang Lee’s early films when I was a kid, such as “Eat Drink Man Woman” and “Pushing Hands.” The Mandarin dialogue in the films sounded very familiar because of the Taiwanese accent. I used to work in a video store when I was in high school and watched a lot of movies during that time. I remember that Wong Kar-wai’s “Happy Together” and many French movies with erotic scenes were categorized in the “porn” section. It’s still funny to think about it.


—Does using a pseudonym give your music a particular character/texture? Or do they have other meanings?

It can be said that there are two meanings. The main reason is the opportunity to play in a band when I was young; I didn’t dare to publish my own personal works and use my real name, so I usually used a pseudonym to hide part of myself. Using an alias is like forming a band, eliminating the idea of “individuality” to people.

—Do you think your works are biased toward the past, present, or future, like taking out certain states or landscapes from memory circuits? Or to record the reality of the moment? Or a kind of timeless imagination?

I was more inclined to memories and memory-related themes in the past. I wanted to make everything neat and pack memories into beautiful works—writing a song for others to appreciate like it is placed inside a frame. I don’t do that anymore. My current creative idea is elementary, turning life into a “cultivation”; living it as a “practice,”; and making music that is not deliberately to create cool concepts but just the results of practice accumulated day and night. I would go to the studio to record something when I had collected enough to feel I had improved. These recording works present some of the accumulated bits and pieces.


—Are collaborations with different artists a musical activation so you don’t feel limited? Or does it make you feel different personally?

Hungtai: We are all individuals, and “collaboration” is tantamount to connecting two different realities. If the frequency matches, it will be a good fit, and there will be a feeling of hitting it off without saying much. What should you do if you encounter an artist with whom you feel off? I found that we will often criticize others with our own prejudices or past experiences, but we rarely use this way to discipline ourselves. So it is indeed a kind of cultivation to collaborate with others. The ultimate goal is to be able to express myself and do something constructive, no matter the situation I’m in. Therefore, I can convert it into a mutually beneficial idea and opinion when I feel that I have reached a specific state of practice, no matter who I meet or what condition I’m in.



—Do you think that your current status is as flowing as water?

Hungtai: I haven’t reached that level yet. I am prone to disputes with others because I have a terrible temper and am too straightforward. My practice is to “cultivate” this lousy temper.


—From Dirty Beaches to Alex Zhang Hungtai, your performances have continued transforming. So what is performing to you?

Hungtai: When I performed in the past, I felt like “khí-tâng” (起乩; spirit possession)—like the feeling of something processed me. I would interpret that I was full of depression at that time, and I released it all in one breath through music and performances, so it became wildly exaggerated or very violent, almost all of which were related to negative emotions. At the current stage, playing music is also like practice. When performing with others, you can feel their rhythm of breath and whether every move is friendly. For example, if the other feels uneasy and wants to turn up the volume more than yours, and if my cultivation is not good enough, it will easily arouse the mentality of wanting to compete. As a result, it becomes more intense. And the audience who doesn’t know the actual situation might think, “It’s so loud and so good!” However, the performers are arguing with the music. It can also be said that through “an exchange of blows, friendship grows.” [laughs]


—Were you happy when you performed?

Hungtai: It’s tough to say; maybe 80% are unhappy. Growing up, no one ever praised me for anything I did. Until I started playing music, many friends or fans would encourage me, and I met like-minded artists. At that time, for the first time, I felt like “I finally found something suitable for me to do.” When I first played in a band, and it was heavy-metal style, I only listened to Chinese and pop songs and rarely listened to alternative music. The way I sang was to yell and scream loudly. It felt similar to khí-tâng and continued until the Dirty Beaches period. That’s how I used this violent way of performing.


—Speaking of Dirty Beaches, why would you want to distort the sound into something dark and obscure, including the vocals?

Hungtai: It’s hard to describe. Like there is a life form full of unknowns or an unknown individual. Sometimes I even feel like I have fallen into a hole when performing, and the whole performance is trying to climb out of that hole. This may also be related to my family relationships. At that time, my family objected to my playing music. My father once said that I had to support myself if I insisted on making music. At that time, I was also very stubborn. I had worked and studied simultaneously since I was young and adapted to a state of independence. I have lived alone in a foreign country since I was 16. The central creative axis of Dirty Beaches may be “diaspora” and living far from home.

I received a lot of feedback from fans expressing similar feelings. I remember a kid who was only about 16 or 17 years old wrote to me and said that he had a fight with his parents, so he ran away from home and drove the car all night, listening to my music. I was despondent when I read it, and I replied that he should go home and tried not to be too sad.


—Your life is in a state of moving around the world. You also mentioned
in an interview with The New York Times that you are not afraid of “moving.” However, your early works also make people feel delicate nostalgia. When you move to a new land, do you still feel nostalgia due to different languages, smells, sounds, and scenery? What is nostalgia for you?

Hungtai: I often had this feeling when I was younger. Even sometimes, when I go to places I have never been, I feel a sense of déjà vu, probably because the local architecture or the plants I see remind me of Taiwan. When I went to Lebanon for the first time, some buildings on the road looked very similar to Tianmu [in Taipei] in the past; the exterior walls of buildings were a bit moldy, black, and dirty. As a youngster, I strongly felt nostalgic because of my identity.

When I was in the United States, I wanted to return to Taiwan. When I returned to Taiwan, everyone said I was a foreigner, making me very uncomfortable. Now I don’t have much nostalgia. Because I don’t carry identity doubts anymore, and I don’t feel like I want to be American, I am who I am. Moreover, I know the Taiwan in my memory no longer exists, and now Taipei is an entirely different place. But I am also very fortunate that in 2014, because of the Dirty Beaches tour in Taiwan, I met some good friends and established a new connection with Taipei through them, and that connection has nothing to do with my childhood memories.

—Continuing the above question, does living in no fixed abode make you feel like an “outsider”?

Hungtai: Yes. Because I belong nowhere, neither a native Taiwanese nor a true American, I will be an outsider all my life. So I don’t have that kind of loyalty to a place. Maybe moving to New York is a little bit affected now, but the people I’ve met in New York are also not from the city. No New Yorker is born and raised in New York. I used to feel sad because of the feeling of being an outsider. At that time, I didn’t know why I was sad, and I didn’t know what “diaspora” meant. It was an abstract, indescribable, and unspeakable feeling.


—For you, is music an amorphous language?

Hungtai: Absolutely. Back to the idea of rebellion mentioned earlier, that is, trying to break away from being labeled by others, breaking away from the frame of being restricted by others, and making music without any binary perspective. I mostly do improvisations, and it takes a long time to hone my views and performing methods. After all, we do not want to be restrained by others or criticized. So it is a “cultivation” and requires broad-mindedness and cooperation with other artists.


—In the concept of the album Young Gods Run Free, you asked yourself, “What is time?” with the recorded sound/reality chopped up, collaged, and reassembled into long-format songs, it seems you dispel the linear perception of time generally? So how do you perceive “time”?

Hungtai: The idea of time as going forward is an illusion. Time does not move forward linearly or travel in a straight line. My view on time is “round,” which is also deeply related to our cultural background: the Eastern philosophy of karma and retribution—what you sow causes what you reap.

Therefore, I have always been indifferent to the style of European academic jazz that is entirely anti-traditional, inexplicably intense, and even decontextualized. And I may have my own attitude towards improvisation—if it is to express it with an intense way of playing, I hope there is a reason, maybe an emotional pull, and not just an exaggerated performance to sound cool. Seeing time as a linear form is the thinking of industrialism—leveling everything, building new things, and eliminating the past simultaneously.


—Alejandro Jodorowsky said, “Failure doesn’t mean anything. It just means changing paths.” His point seems to echo your concept when you made the “Divine Weight” album—seemingly a “failed” attempt at composition. And the change of creation carries the consciousness from personal to metaphysical at the same time or tries to explore our inner mystery. Is there anything you think you’ve wanted to explore or clarify since you started making music?

Hungtai: Everyone asks themselves: why to live? Why do I exist? What are their following thoughts? Everyone is different. I remember thinking about these questions, and I asked my family when I was 16, and my father’s response was, “You might as well study instead of asking these questions.” Jodorowsky has mentioned different levels of consciousness: the first level is self-centered, that is, personal consciousness—awareness of what one is doing; the second level is family consciousness—the way you behave has a context to follow, maybe it comes from your parents, from your family; then there is social and political consciousness—the way you behave is because of the situation of your entire society or country at that time, and this affects the ideology of the group, layer by layer, forming historical consciousness.

Every level of consciousness can be said to be a kind of inferno. If you can’t get rid of the perceptions of that level of consciousness, you will live in that level of inferno forever—as well as if you can’t get along with yourself, your parents, everyone in society, people from a particular country, or even with yourself. Then you trap yourself in hell endlessly. For me, the Divine Weight is that I found myself out of all kinds of thoughts on these levels, and the impact was quite profound while coming to that realization; because I found that I spent most of my life dissatisfied with myself, my parents, and the people around me, then, of course, I would live unhappily, like being in hell, and feel that performing was painful.

—Now that you have chosen to settle in New York, does this city profoundly impact you? A friend of mine even affirmatively thinks you like Vincent Gallo because your music seems to have some 80s-New-York experimental vibe.

Hungtai: I used to love no-wave, post-punk music and like Vincent Gallo’s music. I bought his album When when I was about 19 and listened to it for a year. The way I felt about music at that time… I didn’t want to write feelings into beautiful stories and wrap up the music into something appealing. Even with the freedom of language, it still takes a lot of effort to understand and find the appropriate language.

When it comes to expressing myself, I also hope that the private and public selves can emerge. Anyone who is into improvisation asks themselves: what is freedom? Taking the spirit of “I don’t give a fuck” as an example. If you can capture the toughness of “I don’t give a fuck” genuinely and then interpret what you want to express with a sense of responsibility, art or not—I think that’s a great thing to do.

Photo Credit: Michael Grondin