Alex Zhang Hungtai is a man of many names. As Dirty Beaches, he released several critically acclaimed indie rock albums, mixing what Pitchfork called “grimy, dissonant love songs” with a 1950s greaser look that made fashion editors take notice.
But just as he was gaining popularity, he ditched the pomade and began making jazz-inspired music under the name Last Lizard. Recently, he released an album with a trio called Love Theme and popped up on the Showtime reboot of “Twin Peaks” as a member of the fictional band Trouble.
In his personal life, Mr. Hungtai, 37, has shown a similar aversion to being pinned down. Born in Taiwan, he moved frequently as a child, living in Toronto, Hawaii and in Queens.
He has kept up his rootlessness as an adult, bouncing among Los Angeles, Montreal, Berlin, Lisbon and Taipei (when he is not touring the world playing music). Last year, he decided to leave the United States permanently, for reasons both political and personal.
Over a few months this year, I emailed with Mr. Hungtai while he was touring. The correspondence ranged from global affairs to his thoughts on Prince and his habit of stocking up on underwear abroad. Consider his emails transmissions from a global nomad, a man who is “Stateless,” as he titled a 2014 Dirty Beaches release.
In Cairo, Egypt, now and just played a concert here last night. Will be here until April 2, then heading to Beirut to play another concert. Please keep in mind that internet in Lebanon is incredibly slow and unreliable, so the replies might be a bit delayed. Send over the email while I’m still in Egypt so I can actually answer you.
Nice to hear from you. Cairo! What venue did you play and what was the audience like? And do you have rituals or routines when you travel to a city, trying local food or shopping?
Upon arrival, we were stuck in traffic for an hour when we witnessed a minor accident between a bus and a car. The men in the car gathered around the bus driver and pelted stones and bricks at the bus. It kind of set the tone for the trip.
That being said, the people we have met and those who housed us have been incredibly generous and kind.
The concert was similar to the concert I played in Beirut three years ago. It is often in a clublike environment, where immediately after you play there’s a D.J. that spins trendy Western music circa 2005. The crowd was mostly young Egyptians with maybe 5 percent expat foreigners that either knew me or my friend Khodor Ellaik (a brilliant musician from Beirut that I am playing with in the Cairo and Beirut shows on this trip).
Local food was interesting, especially ful and koshari. Shopping-wise, for me, it’s usually used old-men uncle-style shirts from local shops or markets. They have great soft cotton underwear that’s significantly cheaper in this side of the world. I try to stock up on them.
I’ve been reading stories about you, and watching interviews on YouTube. One of those interviews struck me. You said: “I’m not scared of moving. For a lot of people, they have a lot to lose. Whereas I don’t have anything to lose. So I can just move wherever I want.”
I admire this. Uprooting seems scary. And exhausting. I don’t like this rootedness about myself, but sometimes I guess I do like it, too. I have my records and books around me, and I can’t imagine living without them, and it’s hard being a nomad with 1,000 LPs.
I wonder if your outlook is shaped by your background, the way you moved around so much as a kid. Can you imagine your itinerant lifestyle as something that lasts years or decades, or are you starting to feel the pull toward a fixed home? Where in the world most feels like home to you?
My wife is Norwegian, and she travels for work as frequently as I do. Our relationship is based on the idea that our home is each other, rather than a specific place geographically. I’m turning 37 this coming September and can relate to how you feel. Eventually this lifestyle takes its toll on you. My entire belongings have been cut down to four Rubbermaid boxes currently sitting in my sister’s basement in Taipei. As of last year, I’ve stopped “relocating” but rather just travel for work.
A physical home is essential for raising children, as I wouldn’t want to put them through what I went through. The only place where it truly felt like home was Hawaii. I lived in Honolulu from age 14 to 24, my most formative years. Hawaii is distinctively American, but also un-American.
This dichotomy was both the reason why I moved to L.A. as an adult, and the reason why I left America last September prior to the election results. It didn’t matter to me who won the election because I had realized it wasn’t my country after all. The feeling of being a permanent foreigner percolated my sense of being.
P.S. I’ll be in Beirut from now until April 9. The concert will be on April 8. April 10 to May 10 I will be in Taipei to meet up with my wife and spend some family time with my mother and sisters, and June I will be in Montreal back to work for some recordings.
I hope this email finds you well. I thought of you after the news of the bombings in Egypt earlier this month, and how you were there just days before. How was Beirut? Can you tell me a little about the show and the crowd, as you did with Egypt, but also what you did in your off time, and your sense of the city at this moment?
Currently back in Taipei now, and slowly adjusting to the slow pace here. Cairo and Beirut seem so distant.
This was my third visit to Beirut, so the novelty aspect of the city naturally wore off this time. Mostly it was as if I lived there, reading and meeting friends for coffee and lunch, playing music from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. and maybe a drink at Demo Bar in Gemmayze to end the night. I don’t go back to Beirut because of the city; I go back there because of the people, people that I think dearly of like family and brothers and sisters.
The concert went very well from our perspective (not sure how the crowd felt). It was part of Irtijal festival showcasing experimental music in Lebanon along with some international guests. This particular concert was a special one because it was focused on my bond and friendship with Khodor. You know that feeling when you were 5 years old, playing toys with your brother or buddy, and you have this private world you created together? It felt like we reclaimed some of our childhood back and did it in public.
I’ve heard you talk about “Purple Rain,” and thought your comments about the record were spot on — the way everybody assumes it’s a pop record because it sold well but it’s actually pretty strange when you listen to it.
What ambitions do you have for your music and your career? What two or three records mean the most to you? Do the things you listened to as a teenager still move you? Also: How did you come up with the name Last Lizard, and what does it mean?
As far as Prince is considered, I’m a mere tourist fan, but even on that kind of basis his genius can be felt in multiple layers and complexities. How he managed to hustle people into thinking it’s “pop music” is where the genius and his purple magic is.
I think for any artist the goal is to imprint his/her vision onto the real world. It could be an idea, could be creating a physical object, a performance, etc. The goal is to project and manifest that view and infuse it into reality.
The first CD I ever bought on my own allowance was Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation,” which I still listen to today. Another all-time favorite is Vincent Gallo’s “When.” Still jam it.
The name Last Lizard comes from a Yukio Mishima short children’s story.
I hope this email finds you well. Our photo editor saw you on “Twin Peaks”! How did that come about? Also, would you talk a bit about your approach to style and image, both on and offstage? Do you think it’s important for a musician to cultivate a stylish image? I know you’re a big fan of Wong Kar-wai, which comes through in your cinematic videos. Do you see yourself as part musician, part visual artist?
I first met David Lynch in Paris when he invited me to play at his club Silencio. This was in 2012, I believe. That meeting introduced me to Dean Hurley, who is David’s sound engineer. When Dean asked me to record some sax for this song he’s working on, I drove over to Mulholland Drive and, as usual, Dean worked his magic. Last year, when the filming of “Twin Peaks” started, Dean invited me to join the filming of this fictional band. It’s strange to be a fan when you’re a kid and then later become part of the “Twin Peaks” universe.
Do I think it’s important for a musician to be fashionable? Whatever floats their boat, because in this world the only important thing to me is to understand the importance of not letting anyone instill fear in you, whether it’s fashion or not. Taste is irrelevant until proven otherwise. Everything is seasonal and temporary. That’s how I feel about style.
To answer your question in regards to visual work: yes, it is integral. The visual world is important to an artist or musician because we must project the ideal of a world that we wish to live in, when the reality of it has failed us over and over again. It is important to paint this dream, in our work, because we owe it to the world. It’s what makes us human, we dream.
P.S. Sorry I forgot to answer your question in regards to Wong Kar-wai. Yes, he was very crucial in my teenage years when I first discovered his films because all the characters were real human beings with complex emotions, unlike how Asians are portrayed in Hollywood. It was a lifesaving moment to be relieved from those images drilled into your head while growing up. From “Sixteen Candles” to “The Hangover,” the list goes on.
It’s important to see yourself and not hate yourself because everything around you while growing up in this country was made to make you feel inadequate.
It is especially important to challenge authorities now, more than ever. The world is changing.
Correction: September 15, 2017
An article on Page D4 today about the musician Alex Zhang Hungtai, whose work was featured in the recent remake of the television series “Twin Peaks,” misidentifies the entertainment company that is producing the series. It is Showtime, not Netflix.