Monday, September 23, 2013

Interview: Dirty Beaches

By Stuart Ross

photo by daniel boud
Dirty Beaches brought their “back in the US” tour to the Empty Bottle on September 12th. DB is the mastermind of Alex Zhang, who has been recording music in one way or another since 2007. They followed the breakthrough success of 2011’s Badlands with last year’s expansive Drifters/Love is the Devil, a double-LP that serves up taut futuristic crooners and epic atmospheric disturbances in equal measure.

Alex tours with guitarist Shub Roy, and they offered the crowd the top highlights from the new record. One of DB’s themes is travel and the non-place, as song titles like “Greyhound at Night” and “This is Not My City” attest to. No matter how they got here, we’re glad they found their way to Chicago earlier this month.

After the show, we caught up with Alex via email.

WCR: Bear with me here, but what was that white object you were taping with a drumstick?

AZ: It's a piece of aluminum I bought at Home Depot for $1.75, with a contact mic ($10) attached to it. I built it myself. Wasn't too hard to make and very cheap to reproduce as well :) the working men's percussion.

I found myself getting more into your music after reading a Portals piece that obliquely compared it to “browsing unsecured webcams through Google and watching things happen live from around the world.” From what I’ve read about your tour schedule, you may be an IRL version of that webcam. How does travel inspire your work?

At first it was just restlessness on my behalf due to the way I was raised (Taiwan, Toronto, Honolulu, etc.) but after playing to people and making some real friends in Russia, Thailand, Japan, Serbia, Israel and many more places, you realize the more you see the less weird the world becomes. The more you feel like you belong in this fucking confusing world. And it's the same with music. Just because I don't understand a genre or subculture like rave music, for example, it will not stop me from enjoying it. People tend to dislike what is foreign or what they can’t understand but it actually has the opposite effect for me. I become very attracted to things I can't understand.

If any, what was the extent of your music education as a kid?

I never had any music training. I taught myself (poorly….haha) how to play music. I didn't start playing music until I was 19. I'd like to learn more. It's a life long pursuit after all.

You’re often captioned as being a “Taiwanese-Canadian.” What’s your relationship to Taiwan?

My heart’s in Taiwan and Honolulu. When it comes to identity and food and where I dream about as "home" those are the two places I dream of. All my childhood Taiwan memories come from being on the front of my future brother in law’s motorcycle while he's on date with my sister but they had to babysit me, haha. I just remember the '80's-looking night markets with neon and tropical trees down south and ocean coastal highways. Taipei up north where I’m from is more city like, but it also has green moss on the sides of highways that look very weirdly sci-fi.

When you hear the word ‘Chicago’ you think…


How many times have you been in Chicago? Any thoughts on the city?

Five or more. I love Chicago because since the early DIY tours I did back in 2008 people in Chicago were always down. Even when I played in a basement to 5 people, everyone bought a CD-R afterwards.

You also compose movie soundtracks. What was the last movie you saw in a movie theater with popcorn and a soda?

Only God Forgives in Reykjavik. Great film score by Cliff Martinez.


Check out Dirty Beach's 'I Dream in Neon' below.

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