He remembers those vanished years as though looking through a dusty window pane. The past is something he could see, but not touch, and everything he sees is blurred and indistinct.
These words appear on the screen at the end of “In the Mood for Love,” a film widely considered to be Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai‘s finest. Perhaps it isn’t surprising then that Taiwanese-Canadian musician Alex Zhang Hungtai (who adopted the moniker Dirty Beaches after realizing that “Wrong Karweis” might lead to a lawsuit with his favorite filmmaker) describes his third LP, 2011’s Badlands, in similar terms.
“I don’t often talk about specific places [in my music], but rather a collage of landscapes and landmarks that only exist in passing memories,” Hungtai told THE BOMBER JACKET via email. “Over time, it blurs. So there is a sense of haze, a dark cloud cast over these images.”
Hungtai is also somewhat of an auteur figure in that he has tremendous creative control and a distinct personal style. The cover of Dirty Beaches’ “True Blue” 7″ is a creased black-and-white photo of his parents, the kind of artifact you’d find stashed away in the drawer of an antique dresser. He also directs and shoots his own videos, including the dizzying “Speedway King” (below), which complements the droning, echoing music. And as Hungtai has stated in interviews, his creative process is similar to that of a filmmaker; the sound of the music becomes his “leading man.”
So, who exactly is playing the lead in Badlands? “[The] character…is hell bent on leaving everything behind and opts for the open road,” Hungtai explains. Badlands explores “the thrill of it, the guilt of leaving your responsibilities behind, the danger, and the lament and sense of regret at the end, when you know you’ve gone too far and there is no looking back.” The leading man looks out from the dusty window of his motel room, realizing that the past will never stop chasing him down the highway.
The sounds we hear on Badlands don’t seem to come from Hungtai’s own past, but from a time the 32-year-old musician is too young to remember. The surf-rock shuffle of “Sweet 17” and Hungtai’s doowop croon on “True Blue” evoke the early 1960s and like Wong, he uses modern technology to capture bits of the past and present them in innovative ways. He produced Badlands as though it were a hip-hop album, letting beats sampled from Link Wray and Ronettes tracks form the basis of his songs. Badlands also includes an homage to Hungtai’s favorite hip-hop group, the Wu-Tang Clan: “Lord Knows Best” revolves around a piano loop from Françoise Hardy’s “Voilà,” just as a piano sample from The Chamels’ “As Long As I’ve Got You” rules everything on Wu-Tang’s “C.R.E.A.M.”
Since Badlands’ release almost a year ago, Hungtai, who felt like “an outsider” in the Vancouver music scene, has moved back to Montreal and embarked on a number of new music projects. He’s currently scoring two films, a Canadian film directed by Evan Prosofsky and a horror film by Italian director Brando Desica, but plans on releasing two LPs as Dirty Beaches next year. Look out for his new 7″ and 12″ vinyl splits, due this fall on Clan Destine Records.