The last time Alex Zhang Hungtai came through L.A., he was on tour opening for Dum Dum Girls but didn’t get to play because their gig was a fancy hotel event. Nonetheless, I grabbed that chance to meet him. He’s a longtime Giant Robot reader, mutual follower of filmmakers Jon Moritsugu and Wong Kar-Wai, and a new friend of mine. Alex’s taste in cinema is actually pertinent to any discussion about his music since I think both aesthetics come through in his lo-fi but fully conceptualized work. On the current Dirty Beaches tour, which just went down the West Coast as is heading across the U.S., he’s headlining for the first time.
I arrived just as Neverever was ending. I’ve seen the post-girl group band open for other shows and I’m a fan. Then, as the second band was going on, I realized that I neglected to put my SD card back into my camera after downloading its contents. Sorry, Bell Gardens. Your first and last songs sounded lovely but I had to run home. What I saw of the set did provide an interesting contrast to the headliner, though. Bell Gardens uses at least six members including strings and horns to make a pristine pop sound. After they broke down their mountain of equipment, Dirty Beaches set up only a vintage amp, some pedals, and a guitar on a floor to weave together a fuzzy concoction that clouds ears and melts hearts. Not even a mic stand, since Alex either holds his vintage stick while he strums or puts it in his back pocket.
The set was short and solid, and the bulk of it was his noisier work. Fans of his prettier songs had to wait through more abstract pieces to get them. While the washed-out sounds of Suicide and cool of Elvis are usually cited as touchstones, the live set also recalled Chip and Tony Kinman’s Blackbird (early ’90s, post-Rank and File and waaay after the Dils) project with the mix of mechanical beats, avant guitar work, and emphasis on vocals that lies somewhere between crooning and Krautrock. What could be a cold combination turns out to be raw, direct, and very human. Alex’s onstage persona is like an un-undead Lux Interior or Guitarwolf off speed, although when he humbly asked couples to slow dance to “True Blue” traces of Hawaiian Pidgin emerged…
After the show, we went to Good Shine Chinese Food in Monterey Park for some late-night Taiwanese dishes since Alex expects to eat nothing but sandwiches between the coasts. I had the pleasure of meeting his friend and filmmaker Zoe Kirk-Gushowaty as well. Dirty Beaches wrote a score for her documentary Practical E.S.P., which investigates “the boundaries of verbal communication through equine facilitated therapy.” Between her work and Alex’s experiences and opinions on new music all over Beijing, Taipei, Singapore, and everywhere else–not to mention our favorite movies–we had a lot to talk about between bites. I have no double Alex will kick ass on the month-long tour, but I’m ready for him to come back to L.A. already.