Sandy Vu from Dum Dum Girls turned me on to the music of Alex Zhang. Over lunch, she mentioned that the band that she drums for was going on tour with Dirty Beaches (his musical name) and then she sent some links. Holy crap. Obvious touchstones are the crooning of Elvis and distorted guitar of Suicide, but those are just starting points for an post-retro, completely reimagined aesthetic that's as realized as music by The Cramps or Guitarwolf or a movie by Jon Mortisugu or Wong Kar-Wai. And like all rad music, it's even better live.
I had the pleasure of meeting Alex on a break during his current tour opening for Dum Dum GIrls, and it turned out he used to buy GR at the Tower at A La Moana. If you miss Dirty Beaches on tour this time around, don't stress. He will be back for a second round of gigs a few months.
GR: Last week on your blog, you wished that music journalists would do half the research that CHRW's Bill Murray radio show did. As I read that, I thought, “Aw shit…” Do most of your interviews go poorly?
DB: That guy did so much homework… I've met people who thought I was Japanese. I'm like, “What?” That's the rudest thing you can do in an interview–say I'm from a different country.
GR: And has anyone ever complimented you on your command of the English language?
DB: That happened with some French people. I should have said, “I speak English much better than you, motherfucker!”
GR: You should have bust out with some Pidgin!
DB: Like scrap or wot? I take care of you right now!
GR: That was really good… So, brah, can you tell me about your dad? His picture is on more than one of your 7″ single sleeves now.
DB: He sent the whole family to Canada and stayed in Taiwan working to support us. As a result I didn't see him much, and pretty much grew up without him.
GR: Was he a musician or did he just dress like one?
DB: He played in a band. You know all the kids with greasy hair in Asia during the '60s? In Cantonese they called them fay jai. Basically, they were like delinquents. My dad was definitely one of them. He was in a gang and he was a debt collector. Then he went into the military, and that's when he straightened out. He started working construction and became a real estate guy.
GR: Does he always look hip in pictures?
DB: Those are the ones that speak to me. They also remind me how much my parents love posing. You know, like one leg on a tray? They love doing that shit. I pick the ones where they look more natural.
GR: They're Chinese and they're cool. I like that, and feel the same way about the mix tapes you post on your blog. I've discovered so many cool new bands from China, Singapore, Hawai'i, Canada…
DB: The ones about my friends? Those are all the bands I've played with over the past five years. I feel like I'm the first one that's popping up, and more people should know about them, too.
GR: It's great when one band or guy is rising up, but it's even better when there's an entire scene or movement–and you really create that feeling.
DB: With the Internet, people like us can put together DIY shows and tours. We find bands we like, message them, and say, “Can we play a show with you guys? We're going to be on tour?” They say, “Fuck yeah!” And we stay with them. Then, when they come to our towns, they stay with us.
GR: It seems like there's a tight scene, but it isn't bound by geography.
DB: It's amazing. Ten or 20 years ago, none of the bands in the mix tapes or I would have existed. We'd just be guys banging around in the bedroom. Like Jon Moritsugu would be huge now! I played a show with him and his wife in Hawai'i years ago.
GR: They're my friends! Do you know Jon and Amy?
DB: I don't know them personally. He doesn't teach at the University of Hawaii anymore, does he? A friend of mine was taking his class and played Mod Fuck Explosion for me. I really like his music. It's really good.
GR: His lo-fi style totally overlaps with yours, but then you also go with the more high-end stuff, like a still from Fallen Angels is on your website.
DB: Wrong Kar-Wai was actually my first band name. I was so worried I was going to be sued by him. But that movie pretty much brainwashed me in 1996. I became a smoker that year.
GR: Because Takeshi Kaneshiro was so cool?
DB: Yes. After that, there was no turning back. I remember when I was watching Fallen Angels, my sister walked into the room during the masturbation scene. She said, “What the fuck are you watching?” I said, “It's art.”
GR: That movie has a killer soundtrack, too. Like isn't Laurie Anderson playing during that scene? And Massive Attack is in it, too, right?
DB: I used to think that, too, but the guy that did the score hired a South African singer to mimic the style. I think it's actually cooler that it's not really Massive Attack. I have the soundtrack.
GR: Same here, but I can't read Chinese! Did you track down the Dennis Brown song from Chungking Express, as well? Not the LP version, which is lame, but the 7″ single.
DB: Yes. That's awesome… Were you born here?
DB: I'm first generation, so his movies spoke to me a lot. There weren't any alternative Asian figures to look up to that weren't kung fu-related. Not that I don't