With the free flow of capital and continued global unrest, the migration of people has taken on an increasingly visible presence. Artistic responses to migration have also become more frequent, given the proliferation of artist residencies, artist visas, opportunities for musicians to tour, and the increase in cross-cultural collaborations. One artist whose practice seemed to me to embody the complexities of the movement across boundaries is Taiwanese-Canadian musician Alex Zhang Hungtai.
Better known for Dirty Beaches — the more pop-oriented, lo-fi minimal project that drew on romantic images of the drifter and long drives — Zhang has been making experimental music that speaks to the dislocation and loneliness of modern life. His own nomadic history plays a large part in his music, having moved and toured across Asia, North America and Europe since he left Taiwan at eight years old. After retiring Dirty Beaches, he has been making instrumental compositions that sound like they belong everywhere and nowhere at once. Since the album Stateless, his current output and collaborations eschew stylistic genres for more honest and spontaneous expression. Furthermore, Zhang’s artistic practice has also crossed disciplinary boundaries. Not only has he written scores for films, he has made experimental shorts of his travels and just started to make an appearance in front of the camera. He was recently in the third season of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, and he stars in Mitchell Stafiej’s A and Loic Zimmerman’s upcoming Correspondence.
We caught up with Zhang on a stop during his tour with his latest band Love Theme. Consisting of two saxophones, a drum machine and a synthesizer, he and his band mates Austin Milne and Simon Frank played an electrifying set that blended free jazz improvisation, drone and techno rhythms. Prior to the show, we discussed identity, foreignness and expression beyond those limitations with acting.
You’ve had a very itinerant lifestyle since childhood, having grown up in different parts of the world and constantly being on tour for the last few years. You also just left your most recent home in LA within the last year. How does the tension of domesticity vs. movement resonate for you?
It’s the laws of polarity. Domesticity or traveling for work; it is all kind of the same thing because they invert essentially. People always want what they don’t have. On one end of the spectrum, someone who’s always out want a home — they want a place to go back to. And people who are domesticated want to leave. It’s essentially the same thing.
Being on the road for so long, do you want a home?
Of course, who wouldn’t want to go home? You can’t do one thing forever. It’s all part of seasonal changes. It’s the laws of nature. It’s just circumstances: you make it work whether it’s family or circumstantial. It’s not like I choose to do this. It’s more like life happens and you deal with it. I’m just going where work is, so mostly it’s just touring. My current plan is that, my schedule is stacked until January.
Do you see that polarity in your music? I’m thinking about how your albums Knaves of Heart and Love is the Devil — they are both piano-based — seem more inward looking in a sense. And with your more saxophone and drone heavy music, they sound like industry, mass transportation, and the movement of people.
To me they’re kind of the same. I mean how we live is going to affect what we do. For example, the way you talk to your family. We’re different in front of different people, but we’re still the same person. The albums are an analogy to what you were just asking. It’s just different facets of who we are, but still the same person. You might drink and smoke, but you might not do that in front of your parents.
Your diaspora and hybrid identities play a huge part of your practice and what you’re projecting in your music.
I think those are kind of my people. I mean we all have certain cultural or historical things that we can bond over when we meet people with similar backgrounds. But I find that the people I bond with the most are people from the diaspora communities, people who are in between countries. Those are my dearest friends. They just know and understand how I feel, and they’re usually very adventurous with food and culture. They’re interested in other things beyond the polarity — beyond where they come from and where they ended up immigrating to. Those are the people that I want to reach out to.
The reason why I keep bringing up the laws of polarity is because a lot of people are very reactionary. People say, “Oh you’re white-washed,“ so you act more Asian. Or if people say, “Oh you’re a FOB,” you just become more whitewashed. You’re not really free in that sense, you’re just reacting to whatever opposing force that’s on top of you. That could be the surrounding culture or your parents, and neither to me, in my opinion, is the answer. You have to find who you are, and who you are is beyond point A and point B. It can’t contain you, or your gender or sexual orientation. You are who you are and none of it matters.
Do you see yourself as a perpetual foreigner then?
Yeah it’s like 24/7, even when I go back to Asia. Even then, you’re truly in limbo. You’ve lost the point of return. I go back to Asia looking like this — people just think I’m a sketchy person with the tattoos. They have a very specific social structure there. If you don’t fit into that, then you’re on the outskirts or they consider you as lower income, which is worse. Whenever I go to Taiwan or Japan or anywhere, there’s always older people sizing you up and looking at you head to toe. I can’t stand it. Taking the subway and looking the way I do, and they’re just giving me the stink eye. I didn’t even say anything!
“You can’t do one thing forever. It’s all part of seasonal changes. It’s the laws of nature. It’s just circumstances: you make it work whether it’s family or circumstantial. It’s not like I choose to do this. It’s more like life happens and you deal with it.”
You’ve played in Asia a few times. How are you perceived by the youth there?
Some people you meet are cool, and they understand your music and appreciate it for whatever reason. And then there are other people who like it because people in the West like it. They’ve been told that this is somewhat semi-popular in that part of the world therefore it must be cool. It doesn’t really matter what music it is or who I could be. That’s a bit unfortunate I think. I hope that will slowly disintegrate and diminish as the global cultural power dynamics shift.
And that perpetual foreignness, do you think that comes out of being an artist too? In your interview with the New York Times, you said that it is important as an artist to project the ideal of a world that we wish to live in, when the reality of it has failed us over and over again.
Definitely. Especially as artists of colour, we have a different reality to deal with. Being on tour for the most part has been fine because it’s 2017, but there’s still a lot of shit you have to deal with. Like showing up in Europe — I can’t remember which city — and the sound guy was telling me where to park the car just because I was Asian. If it were different — if I were white — I would never get asked that as an artist. It doesn’t happen very often but it has happened more than once. Once is enough in my opinion. It’s fucked up because we live in a world where we’re being gas-lighted. People are like, “Why are you so agro? I’m just asking you a question.” But you’ve been basically told that your whole life, of course you feel like you’re going insane. You’re being gas-lighted for a whole lifetime by the entire society that you grew up in. And you have to be like, “No, this is the way it is. And if you don’t see it, it’s because you’re fucked up. And you’re trying to make everyone fit your narrative and that’s not going to work anymore.” People are angry; people are woken up because it’s so obvious now.
And it’s so visible that cops are killing black kids.
Yeah, now with cellphone videos, and they still get away with it! What more proof do you want? That is the society we live in. Like, am I taking crazy pills?
I wanted to ask you about the moniker, Last Lizard. I heard it came from Mishima. What does it mean for you?
It came from Yukio Mishima’s short story; it’s like a children’s story. It’s very simple and very short. I’m paraphrasing, but a lizard wakes up and finds that he’s all alone. His family and friends are gone, even all of his enemies. And as he looked at the sunset, he thought to himself, it would be much easier to be amongst people that hate you than to be alone. But even that thought doesn’t matter when you’re the last lizard.
Does that say something about the shift from your project beforehand — Dirty Beaches — to now?
Yes and no. It’s like people going through a career change. You studied in social economics, why not work in that field?
Aside from the songs you’ve put up on Soundcloud, are you planning on releasing anything under Last Lizard?
Not at the moment. I think I’m just still figuring it out I suppose. I feel like Last Lizard embodies a certain quality from my childhood and I don’t want to be stuck in my childhood. It’s just more therapeutic in some way, to talk about it in an abstract, fictional way.
What prompted the shift from lyric or what draws you towards instrumental music now?
Maybe just disappointment with words for the most part. They don’t really mean anything if they’re not backed up by actions. That’s proven from the government to family to personal things. I’m more interested in abstract things now because there’s a lot more you can say without being judged. Whereas when you have words, you have to be careful of what you say. If they don’t understand the hidden meaning behind the words, they’ll take it at face value. People can get offended. People can judge you. It’s not something I want to deal with right now
I find that listening to instrumental music — for something that’s so abstract — it’s viscerally more affective too. It’s interesting how the experience of it becomes so much more embodied.
Yeah, you’re not following anyone’s narrative essentially. It’s abstract so there’s freedom of interpretation involved. Whereas when you’re listening to words —although people can still interpret it in their own way — if they’re saying, “I’m walking down the street,” it’s more literal. I mean, you can fill in the gaps but there’s not a whole lot you can do.
You’ve recently appeared in the new season of Twin Peaks and have acted in various projects since you’ve moved to LA, including a new film that was shot in Montreal and a short film Correspondence. Do you see a correlation with what you do in music and what you do with acting?
It’s all interrelated in my opinion, especially with improvised music. It’s all about reaching this inner space. When you reach that space, you can create miracles. I know that sounds kind of cryptic. Like, there are things that your body teaches you in improvised music. Our bodies are very sophisticated, it’s ancient — the DNA coding and its ingrained fight-or-flight intuition. Things that can’t be explained by science or words — like a sixth sense or something, the ability to feel danger — those kinds of things. It’s a very sophisticated machine and playing improvised music is about listening through your body. Your body can perform things that you’re not usually capable of; that’s where I see the correlation with acting. If you reach that space, you’re able to draw aspects of yourself that you didn’t know was available, but that’s a very hard place to reach in and stay in. There are constant distractions. Everything around us is a distraction: cars, people, smart phones.
How do you reach an emotional response that’s pure?
It’s also dangerous because if you reach that place and you stay there, you can’t really function in society. I would see a homeless person and give him all my money. And people are like, “What are you going to eat?” I don’t know but I feel like that person needed it more than I do. Or someone can ask, “Hey can I use your phone for a second?” And you’ll be like, “Yeah, sure,” and they grab your phone and run away. So you can’t function. In an ideal world, everyone should be in that place and this world would be better, but it’s not. Even when we’re with people we’re close to and you choose to let them in, the result could be very beautiful or very horrible, depending on who it is. It’s hard.
“Things that can’t be explained by science or words — like a sixth sense or something, the ability to feel danger — those kinds of things. It’s a very sophisticated machine and playing improvised music is about listening through your body.”
Yeah because if you have a trusting relationship with the director and the film crew, then they create a safe space for you to go to that place and then give them what they want in exchange. And they document it. But if you don’t trust this person, then you won’t. You don’t want to risk that.
Cinema is a huge influence in your practice, and you’ve made short films that you’ve uploaded to your Vimeo channel. Do you see yourself making more films in addition to acting in them and contributing to a soundtrack?
Yeah, actually a dream of mine is to hopefully one day direct a film. I’ve been working on a script for two years now. I hope that in the next few years I’ll be able to finish it, gather a small crew and shoot it.
Would it be a narrative or more experimental?
It would be narrative-driven, that’s why I’m working on a script. I’m more interested in stories than aesthetics. I mean, it’s cool too if people are breaking barriers in what is considered film and pushing boundaries. For me, the interesting thing about film is that it’s a fictional world where you can put a lot of your secrets in there and it’s all coded. Only you would know them, and to have that shown in public is therapeutic. It’s like playing music; it’s very cathartic.