On April 26, Alex Zhang Hungtai posted an Instagrammed image to the Twitter page of Dirty Beaches, his solo project and occasional band. It was a photo of a segment of the Underground subway system—an economically designed, futuristic space—with the caption “Good bye London” [sic]. Nothing is significant about this single picture and there’s nothing surprising about someone filtering pics through Instagram. There is, however, something pure and apropos about Hungtai being an Instagram user.
Instagram’s key feature is its ability to send photographs through filters that will fade their colors, soften their focus, and add imperfections—effects to immediately make new images look like relics plucked out of a dusty shoe box. The tool is perfect for Hungtai, a musician obsessed with romanticizing aged aesthetics whenever he can. You can’t Instagram music yet, but in the meantime, Dirty Beaches are the next best thing.
The ’50s, ’60s and ’70s constantly show their shades in his sound. Hungtai composes his sometimes melodic, sometimes droning, always sunken-sounding music using looped samples from vintage rockabilly/doo-wop/pop recordings (even if we never learn the specifics of said recordings), original guitar work, and a mic. He howls and croons half-intelligible lyrics about love and streets and running away, using a voice that’s been repeatedly compared to artists from the aforementioned decades—Roy Orbison, Elvis Presley, Jim Morrison, Suicide’s Alan Vega—with good reason.
The cover of his True Blue seven-inch is a touching old photograph of his parents as young lovers—the vintage ideal Instagram is always hoping to emulate. Hungtai’s choice of dress makes him resemble a self-aware update of the ’50s greaser archetype. He prefers white T-shirts, plaid dress shirts, carefully arranged tattoos, slicked black hair, a handsome matching mustache, and a cigarette dangling from his mouth in impeccably cool fashion. Also, his pointedly fuzzy and dated-looking “True Blue” video resembles a lost Top of the Pops broadcast from the ’60s, and he’s repeatedly voiced his love for David Lynch, a filmmaker also intrigued by revisiting the shadows and implications of decades gone by.
But why does Hungtai fetishize the past in the first place? He ties this interest into his role as the constant immigrant—someone who has lived in places as disparate as Montreal, Toronto, Honolulu, Shanghai, Taipei and Vancouver. “I read this book called The Future of Nostalgia and it mentioned that nostalgia can be a sickness or melancholia, like how immigrants that came to North America feel homesick,” he recently told Pitchfork. “But I don’t really have a place where I can say I was born and raised. For me, home is a collage of all these different fractured landscapes that I try to piece together.”
As he later told The A.V. Club, “the protagonist in my music is always someone in exile or someone that’s removed from their comfort zone and just trying to figure things out.” With so much physical and emotional displacement, his greatest solace comes in roaming around the memories, daydreams and details of years he never actually experienced as they happened. Nostalgia has never been so alluring.
Dirty Beaches perform Thurs., May 3, 8pm. $13-$14. With Xiu Xiu + Father Murphy. First Unitarian Church, 2125 Chestnut St. r5productions.com
PW's Music Issue 2014