- Posted on Mar 2nd 2011 5:00PM by Kenneth Partridge
Midway through a tour with Dum Dum Girls, the Vancouver-based Hungtai talked with Spinner about discovering Sonic Youth, choosing rock 'n' roll over real estate and crafting an album he calls a "love letter" to his Elvis-loving father.
You were born in Taiwan. How long did you live there before moving to Canada?
I moved to Canada when I was 8, and I was there for about six years, until we were naturalized as Canadian citizens.
You also spent 10 years living in Hawaii. That's a lot of moving around. Do you remember where you were when you first heard rock 'n' roll?
I'm a late bloomer. I didn't start listening to alternative music until I was around 18 or 20. I started my first band when I was 20, and I didn't pick up a guitar until I was 21. Before that, it was just pretty much whatever was on the radio or popular on MTV -- and the Chinese pop I listened to.
Once you finally did get into alternative rock, who did you like?
A friend of mine was really into Sonic Youth, so he let me borrow [1983's] 'Confusion is Sex.' That was the first Sonic Youth record I heard, and then pretty much from there it was a lot of other bands people have recognized [in my music] along the way, et cetera, et cetera [laughs].
There's obviously a strong element of '50s music in your songs -- rockabilly, especially. Did you grow up listening to that?
Yeah, because my father is a big fan of doo-wop and rockabilly stuff. He loves Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, the Righteous Brothers and the Temptations. That kind of music was always around when I was growing up. It stayed in my subconscious and resurfaced later on. I realized I loved those songs and I knew all the words to them because they've been ingrained in my mind. When you're a teenager, you rebel and try to have nothing to do with your parents. I went through that. Now that I'm older, I try to reconnect with my family. In a way, this whole ['Badlands'] album is a love letter to my old man.
In your music, you really touch on the darkness inherent in some of that seemingly happy '50s music. Were you always aware of that side of the music?
I just didn't want to portray the naïve aspects of the '50s. Our notions of the '50s are often just photocopied from the '80s. I remember my first intro to the '50s was watching 'Back to the Future' and 'American Graffiti.' It was really glamorized and romanticized. There's no racism. Everything is hunky dory. Everything is peachy. When in reality, there was a lot of f---ed-up s---. Maybe the happy-go-lucky sound in the '50s helped people, in a way, to deal with that kind of stuff.
You said you didn't start playing guitar until 21. How long after that did you realize you had the ability to go it alone and be a solo artist?
It took me a long time. I'm 30 now. It took me 10 years to get to where I am today. In between, there were a lot of life choices I made, career choices. I had to really think about if I wanted to pursue music. It had to be a really serious decision. It was either a career in real estate or gambling and trying to make it in music. I just stuck with it, playing by myself. I tried to start a band with other people, going on the Internet, meeting people, jamming with people, but none of them really worked out. Out of circumstances, like a lot of things in my life, I rolled with it and did it by myself.
What's your recording process like?
I usually start with drumbeats. Because I don't know how to play the drums, I usually construct a rhythm with a drum program on the laptop, or I take it from a drum machine or sample a previous song or an existing song. [After] the drumbeats, it's adding layers -- bass lines or keyboards or guitar. There's not really any particular order, but it always starts with the drums.
Do you ever wish you had a full band for live shows?
At this point, there are pros and cons. Having a band is amazing. You can turn around and have your boys and girls and your whole crew. It's a feeling that you don't get playing by yourself. It's lonely and excruciating, in a way, to perform by yourself, because you have to compensate for the lack of sound you can generate by yourself.
People often talk about your music in the context of David Lynch films, but that idea of not having a band reminds me of the scene in 'Mulholland Drive,' when the guy's playing the trumpet, but it's pre-recorded, and the announcer says, "No hay banda!"
[Laughs.] There are definitely a lot of ideas from Lynch. I'm a big fan of his.
Catch Dirty Beaches' SXSW Set on Friday, March 18 at Kiss & Fly (404 Colorado St.) 8PM.
Keep Austin Weird: Fun Things to Do at SXSW | SXSW Survival Guide: Advice, Tips and Tricks From Artists | SXSW Road Trip Guide | Top 100 Bands at SXSW 2011
Latest SXSW News | All Things SXSW