Alex Zhang Hungtai on Breaking His Hand, Grief, Quitting Drinking, and the Legacy of Dirty Beaches

Alex Zhang Hungtai on Breaking His Hand, Grief, Quitting Drinking, and the Legacy of Dirty Beaches
Photo by Brian Echon

I interviewed Alex Zhang Hungtai twice while I was at Pitchfork back when he was still making music as Dirty Beaches, and both conversations were immensely rewarding beyond the work itself. We’ve kept in touch online since as Hungtai’s moved on from DB and made adventurous and fascinating music as Last Lizard as well as under his own name, and he’s been someone on my mind to pick up another conversation with for some time. After six months of scheduling and rescheduling (all my fault), we finally got on the phone to catch up about the last five years of his life and his outlook as a musician and human being.

What’s your year been like?

I feel really fortunate. Right towards the end of 2019, there were two soundtrack jobs in prospect, and when January hit, I was talking to both directors and we solidified the contracts. So throughout the pandemic, I was working on those, and both production companies were nice enough to pay me half the fee in advance.

You’re not the first person I’ve talked to who have been working on scoring this year. Seems like the isolation helped other artists focus. How did being more isolated than usual affect you?

It didn’t really bother me, to be honest. I’ve been living like this for the last three years, really taking it easy. I haven’t been touring as much as I used to. I broke my left wrist two years ago, so that put a damper on a lot of things, and then my dad died. I was already in an introspective mode, so the pandemic didn’t push me over the edge. Some people maybe had more distractions they were dealing with in life and then were forced to look at a lot of things, so it must’ve been hard for them—but it wasn’t that hard for me.

When did your father pass?

Two years ago.

What was the grieving process in your family like?

We went to temples for three weeks straight, every day. We’d go in there, chant, and read the scriptures with the monks. The amount of days you do it is completely up to the family when it comes to how long they like to mourn. It’s actually a pretty nice system to help families cope with the loss of a loved one. You’re not forced to do these cultural customs, but you’re obliged, which frees you from everyday responsibilities. My sister got time off work.

So we were forced to deal with the pain, face it head-on, and let go while hoping the deceased can pass on to the heavens to reincarnate. The old saying is that people hang on because they have unresolved business, so they end up being a wandering ghost. The family chanting is there helping them to move on. “Don’t worry, there’s nothing else to hold on in this world.”

Was it effective in helping you grieve?

Yeah, for sure. It forced me to cancel tours, and if I hadn’t cancelled tours and stopped working, I would’ve been a mess. I would’ve gone back to drinking, or doing all sorts of regrettable things.

When did you quit drinking?

I’ve been sober for three years. I feel pretty good—I don’t miss it at all, actually.

What led to that decision?

It was one of those things that I never really enjoyed anyway. It was a social thing, but also to numb whatever social anxieties I had. If I was in a bad mood, I’d drink myself until I was no longer coherent. I turn 40 this year. I’m at an age where I don’t really need that anymore. I’m not a 25-year-old. If I have problems, I hunker down and deal with it. I don’t need to drink to hope they’ll go away momentarily.

More musicians I’ve spoken to in recent years have been embracing sobriety. The music industry itself seems to enable substance abuse.

Before you reach the professional level with guarantees, venues pay you with drink tickets. It’s a low payout, but at least you get 20 drink tickets, how about that? [Laughs] Bands are usually like, “Sick! We can buy 12 beers each for each member.” In my twenties, people were stoked about that. What the fuck, man? [Laughs]

Tell me about breaking your hand.

It happened while I was on tour in Europe. I’d played one show, and when I injured it I didn’t know I broke it—it was just real swollen. So I played a one-handed gig with Gabriel Ferrandini, and it worked, but when we got to Lisbon I had to go to the hospital because my hand was turning black. Turned out that I had a fracture. Had a cast on, played another show with Gabriel one-handed, and after that when I had the second appointment, the doctor was like, “We need to operate. Your fracture has shifted so now it’s no longer safe even if you’re in a cast.”

I did the operation in Lisbon, which was kind of terrifying because I wasn’t fluent in Portuguese. So it was weird going to the operating table and having everyone speak a foreign language. They inject me with anesthesia, wave at me, I pass out, the next thing I’m in a corner of the room fuckin’ aching. The guy noticed I was awake and said, “Dolor?” And I said, “Yes, muita pain.” “OK, morphine, no pain.” I felt like I was taking MDMA, just rolling on the fucking bed as they push me to my room. [Laughs]

I was just tripping alone in the dark for five or six hours. It felt like I was at a silent rave. I could feel my own heartbeat. The nurse came in the middle of the night and said, “Are you in pain?” I said, “A little bit,” and she said, “OK, I’ll give you one more shot of morphine until the morning,” and I was like, “Oh God.” [Laughs] I was out of the hospital the next day.

How did it affect your ability to make music?

It was a rough period. After the cast came off, my left hand had shriveled like a stick. It looked like it was dead, just flapping. I was in a lot of pain. I was back in L.A., and I went to a physiotherapist. It was a very painful three-to-six months. The first week, I was crying because I was in so much pain. I couldn’t even move my left hand. I kept thinking, “Fuck, it’s over, I’ll never be able to make music again.” Then, two or three weeks later, I was able to move four fingers, and I was like, “Maybe there’s hope.” Then I could move my wrist, and a year later I gained 70% of my mobility back. Then I had another surgery to take out the pins, screws, and metal shit. After that was taken out, my mobility came back to around 90%.

What was it like making music again after getting that mobility back?

I definitely couldn’t just be reckless and do what I wanted like in the past. Everything slowed down, literally. I had to readjust to the pain. If I play keyboards, there’s this aching pain. But over time, I got used to it. It’s something I live with now that I just have to override when I’m playing.

I was trying to pick up touring before I broke my hand because it was pretty successful, and after my hand healed I went on another tour that was pretty lucrative—I was just playing solo saxophone. Right before the pandemic, I was supposed to go to Europe, and I was glad I cancelled it. A week before I did, Italy exploded with the COVID-19 shit. I was really glad I didn’t go. I had friends from Toronto who were stuck in Italy for months because they couldn’t tour.

What are your expectations for going back to touring in the pandemic age?

To be honest, it doesn’t look hopeful to me personally. I stopped working with my European agent because he was trying to force me to tour—guilt-tripping me. That was the beginning of the pandemic, in February. There were reports from Asian friends in Europe that were being called names, spat on, attacked. Two separate Korean guys got stabbed in Montreal. I was like, “I don’t know, man—this is gonna get pretty bad.” And this was before the global outbreak.

But my agent was like, “Nah, it’s fine man, you should book your flight ASAP.” I was like, “Man, you don’t even care about my safety.” He was like, “Europe is not like America, man. It’s so much safer and more civilized.” But I was like, “You don’t know what it’s like to get attacked for no reason.” He’s just some Belgian guy. So he got really pissed off with me, and a week later the outbreak happens. He was like, “I guess you were right,” and then he was already rebooking my tour for November 2020. I was like, “Dude, this is a fuckin’ outbreak! We don’t know how long this is going to last!” Then, the George Floyd protests were everywhere, and I was like, “Dude, can you read the room? Everyone in the U.S. is not thinking about touring right now.” Then, I was like, “I think this is the last time we’ll be working together.”

I think everything is just on hold right now. My friend Marie Davidson was preparing for her latest album release, and then a couple of months ago they were like, “We’re going on tour in Europe in February.” I was like, “I don’t know if it’s gonna be possible,” and they were like, “Nah, it’s cool man.” They’re not going anymore.

How do you perceive the music press now versus when Badlands came out?

It’s completely different. Back then there were a lot of independent blogs that were really big at that point. It wasn’t just Pitchfork. People were just writing about music all the time. A roommate of mine in L.A. five years ago was releasing a tape, and he had a mailing list of all these old blogs—people that he had somewhat of a relationship with in the early 2010s. By 2015, all these blogs were like, “We don’t take unsolicited [promos]. You need to have your publicist get in touch with us.” He was like, “What the fuck, man? This is just a blog!”

All the blogs turned into Pitchfork—modeled in the same infrastructure. You can’t reach a real person unless you have the prerequisites. You can’t just send your album to an underground blog and they’ll be like, “Cool, man!” It feels like a corporate takeover at this point—even all the social media outlets people use to post this stuff. With Facebook, you have to pay to have your post show up on peoples’ timeline, otherwise it won’t. Everything’s becoming monetized. It’s looking pretty grim. It’s nothing like how we operated as short as six years ago. Things have changed dramatically.

Back then, a lot of my peers were complaining about an explosion of underground music, where there’d be some random guy on Bandcamp with 30 released who drops an album every month or week. They’d be like, “These people are overflooding the market.” But, to be honest, it never bothered me. I was like, “Well, this person has the right to do whatever they want. Who cares.” But now, there’s definitely a lot more gatekeepers than there were ten years ago. It’s almost like the mafia—you have to pay to have protection. [Laughs]

A lot of us are pretty lucky. We survive off of these one-off soundtrack gigs. One thing’s that saved me post-Dirty Beaches is licensing songs to commercials. It saves my ass over and over again, because if you don’t want to tour, there’s no income, and you can’t survive off the royalties. So when these commercial syncs come in at five, ten, twenty grand, you’re like, “Whoa, this is a real lifesaver.”

The Dirty Beaches albums hold up really well to me.

Really? Every time I listen to them now I feel like it’s so dated. I cringe all the time. [Laughs] It was a very different time in my life. There was so much channeling of this spirit, which is why a lot of teenagers responded to it. It was an archetype I channeled. I’ve been reading a lot of Carl Jung, so forgive me for an overabundance of psychological references [Laughs], but people with missing father figures conjure up this male fantasy figure that they embody. As you embody this archetype, you go through this trial of the spirit to discover what you’re really about.

Ultimately, it’s a conjuring of the ego, and eventually you have to break it down because it’s not who you really are—it’s a front, a teenage rebellion that got overextended into your 30s. All my references were about the long-gone outcasts and American road dogs—a weird, bygone era that doesn’t even exist anymore, to be honest. And our generation was probably the last of it. Gen Z, they don’t even have drivers licenses. Kids from the ‘80s, if you’re from a small town you listened to Bruce Springsteen records and imagined leaving in the middle of the night with your girl. That doesn’t even exist anymore. They don’t even know how to drive. They’re like, “Uh, what? Just get an Uber.” [Laughs]

Tell me about appearing on Twin Peaks: The Return.

I met David a few times over the years, and I became really good friends with Dean Hurley. Ever since I moved to L.A., we’d meet up once in a blue moon and get deli sandwiches and shoot the shit. He called me out of the blue and was like, “I’m working on this track with David’s son Riley, he’s a fan of your music, we were wondering if you’d stop by David’s studio.” So I drove over to the house that they used in Lost Highway, and I overdubbed the saxophone without even asking what it was for. We did it in an hour and a half.

Later, I was like, “What was this for?” Dean was like, “We’re gonna pitch it to David to see if he’ll put it on the show.” “What show?” “The new Twin Peaks.” At that point I wasn’t even aware they were making a new one, so I was like, “Holy shit!” I didn’t hear from them for over a year, so I’d forgotten about it. Out of the blue, Dean calls me again and is like, “Remember that track we did? David really likes the song and found out you were on it, and he’s inviting you to come onto the studio so he can film the band.” I was like, “But we’re not a real band.”

The pay was really shitty, because we didn’t get the properly-paid artist fee—we got the employee fee because it was an in-house production. It was a couple hundred bucks, basically, and Riley was a PA for the show, so he was like, “I gotta bring all these people coffee and play onstage with you guys?” [Laughs] They shot all the bands in one day. It was almost like a music festival. Everyone congregated in this gymnasium that they decorated as the Roadhouse. You had all these bands networking with each other—all the cool bands at one table and all the lesser-knowns not talking to each other. I was just with Dean and Riley with the catering food and the film crew. We didn’t sit with the musicians.

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Jamie Larson