“I think there’s a huge relationship between those two artists,” Hungtai says from his home in Canada. “What Suicide brought to the table was this tongue-in-cheek, but brave approach to music. They totally obliterated prog rock – it was just two guys stripping rock’n’roll back to its essence, like street music. It was radical,” he says. “Elvis was also very radical, but also simple. He was banned on the radio because he sounded too black, and his music was too sexual. And when he was shown on TV, he could only be filmed from the waist up.”
Hungtai’s childhood was peripatetic, a result of a fractured family life. Eventually Hungtai moved to Honolulu as a teenager, where he remained for the next ten years. “I lived there from high school until the end of college, when I was 24,” Hungtai. “That was probably the place that made the biggest impression on me.” Hungtai’s pre-music working life was similarly colourful, with a variety of jobs ranging from house painter, to dishwasher to shooting range tour guide. “When I was in Waikiki I did tours of a shooting range,” Hungtai laughs. “I think that’s definitely the strangest job I’ve ever had.”
By the time Hungtai moved across the Pacific to Montreal, he’d already joined, and been kicked out of his first band. Hungtai’s first band had a heavy metal bent, a prevailing style that didn’t match Hungtai’s vocal inflection. According to legend, Hungtai was evicted from the band on account of sound too much like David Bowie. “Yeah, that’s true – nice research!” he laughs. “I really liked Bowie long before I started playing music. But the other guys in the band wanted to sound like Sepultura, so it didn’t work out.”
Hungtai decided to pursue his own nascent musical interests, buying a second hand guitar in Honolulu and experimenting with beats and whatever cheap and cheerful recording technology he could find. Hungtai appropriated the band name Dirty Beaches from a lyric written by a fellow musician in Montreal. “I nicked it from a friend’s lyrics,” Hungtai explains. “He was a Greek immigrant in Canada, and in the song he’d written there was this idea of detached existence. The imagery was of a man standing on the coast staring into the ocean. I liked the imagery in that song, and it reminded me of when I was living in Hawaii.”
Hungtai released the debut Dirty Beaches album, Badlands, in 2011. With its stripped-back, rockabilly surf aesthetic, Badlands reflected Hungtai’s belief in the ongoing relevance of historical ideas. “I think every existing, current type of music is influenced by the past,” Hungtai says. “And you can go beyond that – every idea that’s around now is influenced by the past. If you take a chair, the design of the chair has been around for a long time – it hasn’t just been invented now. I think the idea of trying to perfect technology or an artistic idea or concept doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re recycling that idea or technology,” he says.
Dirty Beaches’ music has a strong cinematic quality, with each song conveying a rich visual image that transcends the simple beats and basic melodies of the music. “All of the songs that I write stem from an image or idea that’s in my head,” Hungtai says. “So I definitely have the imagery first, and the sound comes second.” By way of contrast, Dirty Beaches’ cover of The Stooges’ No Fun came about when Hungtai was messing around with rhythmic structures. “I was working on some beats and it reminded me of The Stooges’ song,” Hungtai says. “I felt a connection with that song, and with Iggy Pop’s lyrics. When you have those moments, I think you have to embrace them.”
The other notable aspect of Badlands is its avowedly lo-fi aesthetic. While lo-fi production has its regular ideological champions, for Hungtai it’s a simple consequence of necessity. “It’s all about cheap technology being accessible,” he says. “Now I have a laptop and I’m recording with a proper microphone, so things are changing. I think the next two records, which I’m putting out this year, will sound a lot different.”
Early next month Hungtai will board the plane to commence his first Australian tour. With temperatures in Canada the polar opposite of recent heatwave extremes in Australia, Hungtai is looking forward to the change. “When you’re touring you don’t always get to do much because you’re always in transit, but when you do get to go out and try the local delicacies, the food, the drinks and meet the people, it’s great,” Hungtai says. “I’m really looking forward to coming to Australia and I can’t wait to jump into the ocean. It’s better than washing dishes!” he laughs.
BY PATRICK EMERY