By Colin Gallant
CALGARY — After nearly 15 releases under the name Dirty Beaches, Alex Zhang Hungtai has retired the moniker that brought him critical recognition and art world fame. It was an announcement that took many by surprise and left them in a state of confusion. As Dirty Beaches, Hungtai was renowned for being a musical chameleon. His breakthrough work Badlands (2011) was an ode to rockabilly and days gone by via Suicide and David Lynch. Next came the double LP Drifters/Love is the Devil (2013), which saw him range from gorgeous ambient passages to blistering techno. The final Dirty Beaches release, Stateless (2014), was extremely challenging, comprised of textural dirges made up of repeated saxophone notes, viola and subtle synthesizer tones. So why exactly did he need a new definition for his music? It turns out, it was more about a shift within himself than in his music that compelled Hungtai to take on the new name Last Lizard.
“Dirty Beaches kind of turned into a money making machine where I was always following this really regimented schedule and touring non-stop for the past four years. I just got so tired,” he explains.
“I was doing it basically so I could pay rent and take care of my mom, and take care of the ladies in my life… everyone from my sisters to my mother to my ex-girlfriend. I became the breadwinner, pretty much. After a while, I realized I wasn’t even happy playing music anymore. I was just taking care of people and taking care of myself. It’s not why I wanted to play music.”
He largely credits the ruthless schedule and loss of sight on his artistic pursuits to an uncaring system that views human beings as products.
“The music industry kind of puts musicians into this template and you kind of all turn out to be the same. It doesn’t matter what shape or size you’re in, once you’re in the machine you just come out looking like boxes of cookies. Basically, you make a record and then you tour for two years. In between those tours you’re supposed to write and have inspiration and at the end of two-year cycle people in the industry come up to you and they’re like, ‘Where’s the next record?’ And then you quickly finish that record and then you go on tour for another two years,” he says.
This took a toll on him that extended beyond exhaustion and creative frustration. Even Hungtai’s relationship with his family suffered.
“Then I go home, my nephew’s grown up and he doesn’t even recognize me because I haven’t been home for four years. And then my sister’s like, ‘Dude, you gotta come home man. I’m sorry he didn’t hug you but it’s because he doesn’t know who the fuck you are. You haven’t been here.’ That was a real slap in the face for me,” he says.
It was a moment of clarity for the artist. After stints in Montreal, Berlin and Portugal, Hungtai today resides in Los Angeles, a city his sister and her family often visit.
“I feel very grounded now, it’s good,” he says. “The thing I love the most about L.A. is that it’s in little pockets, and you can have your own kind of spot, and not participate in any of the clichés that L.A. has to offer. But it’s also a really industry driven town, and since I’ve moved here I’ve already gotten a lot of opportunities to score films and TV shows, and that’s another thing I wanted to pursue… So, it’s working out for me, both career-wise and personally.”
So far, Last Lizard has been primarily concerned with a new approach to working patterns and advancement of Hungtai’s abilities with the saxophone. Based on the few recordings currently available under the new banner, he seems to be exploring similar elements to those covered on Stateless. In regards to his current fixation on the instrument, Hungtai says, “I’m very attached to it because it allows me to say and express things that are more abstract – I kind of stopped singing because of it. I don’t know how to describe it.
“It’s kind of like you can cry in public and no one would know that you were actually crying. You can do a lot of things with it, you can say a lot of things and be really honest in what you’re trying to express and only people who tap in to that kind of connection can understand what you’re trying to say. But otherwise people won’t really know. It feels good to hide behind and it allows you to say a lot of things, whereas with words, you get judged and it’s very ego-driven. I’m at a period where I really just don’t want to talk about myself, at least not in my music.“
Recent days have seen Last Lizard working mostly privately and at his own pace. Following his live appearances with Marching Church (the new project by Iceage’s Elias Rønnenfelt), Hungtai has scheduled an extremely limited run of live dates as Last Lizard. Coming from the project’s overall mentality, his acceptance of gigs comes down to whether or not he feels the destination and venue are stimulating.
“I finally realized that I’m going to be making music until I die, so I’m not really in a rush,” he says. “Whenever the right opportunity comes up, I’ll do it… As long as I can pay rent, that’s all I want. I don’t want a million bucks.”
The entire sentiment boils down to a not-so-simple social media post. Hungtai recently tweeted, “A constant being capable of creating endless moments.”
As he explains, “You live in the present and you try to find out more things about yourself, you try and confront yourself – and it’s not pretty sometimes. I notice that a lot of people, including my parents or other people, everyday people who work really hard, they don’t have time to confront themselves. I’m in an industry where I have the luxury to confront myself because my work is about transcribing my feelings to music and then [trying] to sell it… You have to make sure it’s something you love so much that it’s not going to turn into a day job that you hate. So, everything I do, career-wise or the ending of Dirty Beaches, everything is related to that.”
Last Lizard performs at the Lougheed House on May 7th with Moss Harvest. You can buy tickets at http://lastlizard.zoobis.com/.AB, Alberta, Alex Zhang Hungtai, Dirty Beaches, Last Lizard, Lougheed House, Stateless