Dirty Beaches’ songs shift and turn and reinvent themselves in a moment. They cavort and flip, shifting and defying any kind of objective classification. The listener is thrust into nostalgic pools of sounds that recall before times - except those times never existed. Twisting along to Dirty Beaches is rewarding – and often quite dark. But the darkness is warm and not without comfort. Dirty Beaches will be at The Wall on Tuesday, April 22nd and The Mercury in Kaohsiung on Saturday, April 26th.
GigGuide.tw: Dirty Beaches toured the Asia Pacific region for the first time early last year, but didn’t make it to Taipei. The show at The Wall will be your first in the city of your birth. Do have any real, or perhaps invented, nostalgia for Taipei?
Like all stories of immigrants, our stories or concepts of home are passed down from our parents - a cultural time capsule if you will that's similar to the Italians or Europeans that flocked to North America during the 19th and 20th century. Even my own personal memories of Taiwan have been frozen in a sense. I remember the 80's and up until 1994. Even in Taiwanese pop culture, I was quite up to date until that point. But anything beyond this point are cultural memories that have expired, in a sense. On the topic of diasporas, I'm not alone. It's quite common for kids like us who were shipped out to the open sea and later came back only to realize our ideas and identities of home have long expired. I've met kids from South Africa or Singapore or Hong Kong who were of British/American/Canadian descents and in a way, we all end up becoming ghosts that can no longer tolerate the homogenous, one-way-traffic mind of the "motherland". When your identity grows beyond the confines of what your parents or society put on you, there is a level of necessity to create your own identity. Because I am all of those places put into one nondescript collage, yet I'm none of them as a whole. That's some deep ass shit right there, son. I'll stop before rant on...
Casinos are full of passers-by, it would seem. The well-heeled unhinged. The song “Casino Lisboa” could reference either the Lisbon or the Macau version. Have you visited either? What is it about spaces of dubious repute that cause them to sort-of leak into your songs?
I was in Macau with my old man for his 70th birthday at the time. These ideas are like impressions that form their way into my work and not accurate portrayals of the actual places by any means. Neither am I interested in this kind of a limited one-dimensional-way of storytelling. I think this is very boring. I think music and "songs", in the traditional sense, have suffered greatly because of this one dimensional way of presentation. People want answers and definitions from my work, but to me this just reminds me of when I was a kid and people told me I wasn’t Chinese-enough or Taiwanese-enough or American-enough or Canadian-enough or Hawaiian-enough or whatever. I am my own country and the only reason I'm here today and even have people interviewing me is because I’ve followed that path. My path. I also just had a huge morning beer shit and some really strong Japanese matcha. Sorry we just landed last night. Still jet lagged...
You speak often and eloquently of process, with respect to how you approach song-writing. This is a welcome change; many artists seem to choose to wrap themselves in swaddles of mystery. It’s nice that you don’t. Drifters/Love is the Devil on one level seems filmic, but then not nearly as single-minded as Badlands. Do you view songs as stories – or parts of larger stories?
I think people nowadays require too much context or info to digest or appreciate things. It's also my failure as an artist if I can't convey what I want to my listeners and they require all this info or background in order to appreciate my work. For me, Drifters/Love is the Devil was more of a direct documentation of putting all my personal life into my work without the painful cringe-inducing, diary-esque lyrical content. It was almost like a silent instrumental documentary of my life chronicling the past two years, whereas Badlands came from very complex motivations: One, as an homage to my father and his youth and the need to reach out to him without directly saying anything to him. Two, a mapped-out, meticulous design, both in sound and approach to song-writing and the mixing of different methods of sampling, noise, rock n’ roll, blues, gospel, RnB and a shit-ton of research. But in both of these works you can tell that I really don't like being labeled or pigeonholed. Or defined. Even when I was washing dishes and recording music at home, I guess all that shit went into the music subconsciously.
Drifters has a kind of roadhouse vibe at times, maybe not in terms of the music itself, but more in terms of a feeling of swarthiness. This is certainly upheld by the music video for “Casino Lisboa”. And sorry to be reductive, but Badlands evoked so much of what it’s like to drive for long stretches on darkened highways. Where does this seeming romance with nightness come from for you?
I don't sleep that much. And when Dirty Beaches first started in 2005 in Montreal, all the music was written at night after my shift at the restaurant was over. So I would come home after 1am, write and record in my small apartment on my headphones until 6am, pass out, then wake up at 3pm and bike to work. This was on repeat pretty much from 2005 to 2011 until I started touring and working as a musician fulltime. Man I'm not sure if I'm answering any of the questions you've asked so far, sorry dude. Haha. Night time romance. Well that's the surface shit. What the endless road entails is why they left their home in search of the unknown. That's where my fascination with this metaphor comes from. Back to diasporas again. It can be literal too, as I literally sat in a car and drove myself all across North America and now Eastern and Western Europe. No one in my band has a fucking license. Learn how to fucking drive boys.
Mirage Hall is a very cool song. What sound to me like sublingual animalistic utterances make the song quite urgent and unsettling? What’s going on in there? How does it feel to perform such a tormented-sounding dance track? To me it is a dance track, but I don’t know if everyone (or even you would agree). Could you talk about this a little?
I used to hate dance or rave music when I was a kid in high school, but that was due to bigotry and a complete lack of understanding of the subculture. I just judged it at face value and, as for all young kids, all values are by association. I didn't like what I didn't want to be associated with - back in 1996. And this is what defines you in America; you define yourself with what you like or dislike. After moving to Berlin, all my shallow preconceptions of dance music were completely blown out of the water. There's way more danger and a lot more emotional content at these underground dungeons where people dance from Friday to Sunday, escaping or confronting/coexisting with their dark side. It's part of the spirit that came out of those nights that I absorbed. I realized that it's a genre that can convey very heavy emotional things that guitar or "rock" can never do. There’re some things I've seen at Berghain, that have altered my view of the world forever. You will never feel as alone as when you are surrounded by a mass sea of people. So many amazing stories there. Mine was just one story amidst the millions of stories that happen there.
On the topic of sublingual utterances: Grasping what is being uttered in some – certainly not all Dirty Beaches songs – is more or less impossible. Is this important? Probably not. There will always be two camps of critics when it comes to “understanding” what singers are saying. How do you feel about not being able to understand lyrics when you listen to music?
A lot of the music I liked when I was kid was before I knew how to speak English. And I enjoy music and understand it and interpret it in my own way. If people want the lyrics I am more than happy to supply the lyrics, as we did for the Japanese release of our record for the Japanese audience. They expect, appreciate and need the translated text. Our Japanese label asked us, and I happily obliged. But I know for English speakers there's a different connotation all together. I've been told I'm foreign my whole life, even in Taiwan. And I'm glad I never learned "how to appreciate" art or music. I just make shit. Interpreting what other people think of my work is not a part of my job description. The only opinions I care about are the people that I love: My family and my friends and homies.
What it is like to live and create in places like Montreal and Berlin and then to take these songs on the road? Every single touring artist does this. But given the atmospheric quality of the later half of Drifters, and Phases as a whole, it seems that some elements of the places from whence these songs arose haunt about their edges. What’s it like to inhabit these spaces night after night – perform these songs - while you physically travel from city to city? Could you talk about this?
It's very taxing on the mind - and physically demanding as well. But to me live performance is not about representing what you have already captured on a recording. To me live performance is another thing altogether. It's trekking through uncharted dark waters/territories in your head. A form of Exorcism of all the shit that my dumb-ass brain can't process. The world I inhabit, all these post-colonial power and class systems, racial tensions and identity issues. Where is home? How should I make sense of this? Why did I come out the way I am? Diasporas and the modern human condition. When these songs are presented live, depending on the location, they can transform into something completely different altogether. I'm very sensitive to my surroundings, so I pick up on these weird vibes and spirits of where I go. When we played in Russia, Israel and Serbia - those shows were transformed into something the shows in Canada or the US could never be. Be prepared for the unexpected, Taiwan.
The body of your lyrical work shares nearly an equal part with dronier, instrumental tracks. When you are in the process of writing a song, do you know early on that it will be without lyrics, or is this decided later? Maybe this isn’t a consideration, but could you talk about this?
I listen to what the sound is trying to tell me. I follow where it goes, instead of trying to force something to be what it's not. If it doesn't want words, there will be no words. The key is to record and document everything. Some people still think in the vein of, "oh, no one wants to listen to them if there's no words". Well, I feel sorry for them and how narrow their minds are. There are infinite ways and endless possibilities in how you can express yourself. Why bother expressing yourself only in ways people can understand? If the self you’re expressing is very similar to hundreds and thousands of other people that are expressing themselves, what does that say about you? Lots of questions, eh? Or let's just not think about it and just be and destroy any fucking thing that comes in your way. Wow, jet lag, matcha and two cups of strong coffee. I'm gonna get another cup and go watch the Sakura cherry blossoms with some homies in Japan. Laters. Jya ne. Ciao. Bye la.