Fuck Roads: Dirty Beaches Live - By Volume

I'm afraid of heaven because I can't stand the height. I'm afraid of you because I can't be left behind. St. Vincent - Regret

Fuck Roads: Dirty Beaches Live

Robin talks Dirty Beaches' intense live show and critiques stepping into Google Maps. Author: on May 30, 2013
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By Volume’s staff has recently become enamoured with GeoGuessr, the never-ending game based around Google Maps and a hell of a lot of geographical savvy. The premise of the game is simple, and at heart, wonderfully tethering: it drops its player into the street-view of any old place, inviting your eyes to create a random, parallel universe fully aware that you might never see it again – then it asks you to guess, in that moment, where you are. More to the point: it asks you what you see, to join every highway to its town, or its city, or its country. It’s an ethically motivating game, in a way, teaching you to resist ignorant inhibitions about how you must be in Portugal if a sign is in Portuguese, and encouraging you to sleuth around for deeper, more signifying clues about our world’s little microcosms.

Keelan is particularly good at playing detective (“okay Sherlock”, remarks one sulking staffer), but if GeoGuessr’s cruel, punishing point system has taught me anything, it’s that nothing’s harder to see, really to see in a physical way that makes sight tangible, than a road. “Road” isn’t an ideal word for what I’m describing – it encompasses anything from narrow country roads to busy but isolating motorways – but there’s one quality that unites them all: the travel. The feeling road travel provides is both romantic, a “trip” that exists disguised (on the ones I take, I like to pretend there’s neither a beginning nor an end), and threatening, a capsule of time that’s being bled out rather than contained in clockwork. Driving down your nearest road is the ultimate way to understand time as one-way machinery. It’s a movement forwards that you couldn’t capture any other way, even if you looped back in on it. It’s through the past and toward the future, a feeling akin to letting hot clay run through your hands and feeling its composition change only by reference of what’s still there.

What GeoGuessr does to fuck me up it does on roads: on crossroads, on roundabouts, on vast empty highways. It’s a distillation of time’s passage, freezing it in place but capturing its flow. Trucks get stuck in time, but they’ve burnt so much road behind them. If you move your camera angle around, you become the future, the bit of grit they’re headed towards. But in the real world that place doesn’t exist; there’s no person to wave a flag or draw a line on the spot. A road is so impossibly unphysical. Being on GeoGuessr and seeing a sign reminds me of every time I’ve primed myself to look out the window of my family car and concentrate hard enough to see how many miles it is to London, or when “THE NORTH” is going to kick in. That sign’s going to disappear in front of your very eyes.

Dirty Beaches’ music is total highway fodder, perfectly evoking the feeling of a dark, delirious road trip you’d only see with your own eyes, one where the road reveals itself in terrifying absences. It’s become even more like this on Drifters/Love is the Devil, a new experimental double-album that washes its hands of the lo-fo rockabilly of Badlands. Despite my love of that record, this forward-motioned, nostalgia-revoking album feels more natural. In an interview with Pitchfork, Alex Zhang Hungtai talked about his own internalised homelessness, suggesting he’d abandoned any place he could’ve got comfortable in: “Home is a collage of all these different, fractured landscapes that I try to piece together”. Drifters, in particular, captures these fragments, but it’s more realistic to say it loses them than pieces them together. The beats on the brow of Drifters propel forward on this nomadic, present-tense drama; the ghostly music that shimmers around them comes in suites, repeating and then whirring out of existence like the stretch of land left behind.

Displacement seems to follow Hungtai around. His music is always attached to illusions, and fixed on them in an way that removes their end dates. This is why so much of Drifters coalesces around small pockets of sound. It chooses to see the roots of life growing rather than the eruption of one hot idea. And the story of how I came to watch Dirty Beaches live is no different, almost a cruel joke standing in thrall of his straight-line musical mazes; like anything he creates, he was destined to be found where he didn’t belong. “We might be opening for a screamo band tonight”, he tweeted hours before the gig, waiting for more information to filter through from Leeds’ Brudenell Social Club. The band in question was the effervescent, teenager-buoying Rolo Tomassi, who had been scheduled on the same night for the same venue, though originally in different rooms. The result, for the part of the gig I saw, was embarrassing, and likely upsetting for a psyched Hungtai and band. The room was emptied like one of Hungtai’s highways, sprinkled with uninitiated skramz fans in its corners, and populated by a number of fans reaching laboriously into the twenties to his centre. Hungtai had been invited here, but he didn’t belong here.

That piece of real-life dramatic irony was enough to set the Brudenell alight. There’s a tension to a crowd like this, one where half the audience are assuming a support act, the other some kind of epiphany. And for those who sat around the room’s sidelines – making jokes, imitating Hungtai’s dramatic fist-pumps and chest-pounding – the gig must have been intimidating. At the centre of all things, located somewhere between Hungtai’s line of sight (not that someone that engrossed in his work would have noticed me) and his percussionist’s, I felt drawn in, put on a map with Hungtai’s pounding new electronic music, and thrown out of it just as callously by his dissonant guitar scratches. It may not have been the best feeling, but it was the most enticing, and that reflects the abstractive decisions Hungtai has made with Dirty Beaches.

The music played was culled almost exclusively from Drifters, an album that is so perpetual it gets reinvented on stage. The beats remained, and the bass was felt even more dramatically, but Hungtai became more philosophical about the journey, and even more decrying of the destination. “I don’t give a fuck about yesterday”, he spat at one point, clutching to his square-compact microphone and little else, “I only care about tomorrow”. If the music of Dirty Beaches has an ideology it isn’t captured in the baritone crooning of Badlands or the homages to Japanese noise rock bands; it’s in the need to get somewhere, and on Drifters it’s to get as far away from here, the specific but totally unspeakable piece of land that makes its creator feel like “a rotten piece of shit”. Hungtai went on to make demands: “Give me what’s real!” he screamed, pushing his mic-stand (and, as collateral, an unplugged fan) through to an empty crowd. Nearly everyone was perturbed by the interrogation, made uneasy by the demands of our dichotomous relationship. No one was able to give him what he wanted.

Drifters gets extracted live, pulled apart aggressively and made into a louder, more unfathomable version of itself. What kept Hungtai’s performance so engrossing might well have been a plethora of little things: booming bass, constricting drumbeats, and the piercing howls and screams that Hungtai uses to screen his landscapes. Those patterns are clung to, used to place and satiate repetition. Hungtai’s experimental music needs these signifiers. Like me, it needs to see, even if only for a second, and it needs to see in a way that satisfies all the senses. Hungtai’s music feels so highway to me because it captures the sounds of disappearance. It disorientates only because time changes what we see. And like the secretly disturbing-as-shit GeoGuessr it can freeze time, but it can’t stop its flow. I couldn’t tell you which side of Dirty Beaches I’m more enthralled by, the intimately disturbing journey Drifters makes on record, or the sadistic presentation it’s given for whoever’s watching. But there’s certainly no stopping what Hungtai has created – not until it all bleeds out.   

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