While most people associate Nicolas Cage with flaccid popcorn flicks like National Treasure, Alex Zhang Hungtai still relishes his mercurial role as Sailor Ripley, the Elvis-quoting outlaw who dives straight off the deep end in one of David Lynch's most divisive movies, 1990's Wild At Heart.
Fittingly, Ripley is one of the many role models for the central character in Hungtai's breakthrough record as Dirty Beaches. Badlands is a concept album that's inspired by everything from the electro-punk exorcisms of Alan Vega to the self-absorbed static shots of Vincent Gallo's long-shunned film Brown Bunny.
eMusic's Andrew Parks tracked Hungtai down in his current home Vancouver (he was born in Taiwan and has also lived in Honolulu, Montreal, and Toronto) and asked the pomade-crowned frontman about ghosts, the open road and what really makes something rock 'n' roll.
On his first experience as a frontman:
I was in a metal band that sounded like Sepultura. It was kinda interesting because I was trying to do something a little more feminine with the vocals…like David Bowie. The band kicked me out soon after that.
On the roots of this particular concept record:
Films have always been a greater inspiration to me than music. When I have an initial idea, I think of the sound as the genre — the casting call — and I think of a few bands and actors, and I combine all these elements. Like, “This is the character. It's part Willem Dafoe, part Wu-Tang, and part Jim Jarmusch.”
On David Lynch's finest musical moments:
The Twin Peaks theme is so iconic. And then there's the Bobby Vinton song at the beginning of Blue Velvet — the typical white picket fence situation, alongside a cutoff ear with ants crawling all over it. I love that kind of juxtaposition. Wild At Heart, obviously, like when Harry Dean Stanton was chain-smoking to “Baby, Please Don't Go.” Just all of those images of cars and rock 'n' roll. It left a major impression on me.
On the ghosts in his machines:
There's a reason why the record sounds like a vintage radio. I'm obsessed with machines from another time — tape decks, drum machines and amps — because I feel like there's ghosts in them. They make sounds that modern technology can't produce.
On the limitations of being lo-fi:
I don't like when people deliberately record in the red, where it all sounds blown out. Some rock 'n' roll bands can pull it off — like a lot of the ones on that label In the Red. A lot of kids record on GarageBand and just add distortion, though. Why would you do that to a recording? It sounds really bad.
On why Brown Bunny wasn't such a bad movie after all:
A lot of people think my record is based on the Terrence Malick film Badlands, but it's really closer to Vincent Gallo's Brown Bunny, except I replaced the mundaneness of him wandering around with someone who's possessed. What I like about the ending of Brown Bunny is it's not happy or bad. It's more like “you reap what you sow.” If you're hell bent on this road, this is what you get — a life of entrapment. And there's no end to it.