Sax ‘n’ Synth Drone
Top image: Alex Zhang Hungtai
If there’s a single guiding motif to Love Theme’s debut record, it’s the melancholic throb of love learnt and love lost; a descent that tumbles and slips through the overall feeling of looking back. Comprised of Alex Zhang Hungtai, formerly of Dirty Beaches and who made a recent appearance on Twin Peaks, along with Austin Milne and Simon Frank, the new group’s work follows a travel narrative, moving across a series of landscapes reflecting the innate experiences of death and resurrection, like a memory morphing as it is observed.
Produced over the course of a year in Montréal, London, LA, Hong Kong and Taipei, the album takes cues from its surroundings and offers a vivid atmosphere. The aching wane of saxophones create a melancholic halo above the mixed percussion and synths, like the distorted echoes of Coltrane tumbling through the neon lights and dark alleyways of Kowloon at night. It’s a bizarre lust for life that’s divined from equal parts dislocation and invigoration, a potent remedy that Love Theme can call their own. We spoke with the group about their self-titled debut, available now from Alter Records, the production process, upcoming tours and city life.
“I think with Alex, part of why we’re friends is a sense of similar experiences lived in different directions. He was born in Taiwan and moved to North America, I was born in Canada and because of my parents’ work grew up in New Delhi, Beijing, and a few other places. My experience is not the same as immigration, but I think it has made me ask some analogous questions about identity and what home really is.” – Simon Frank
Nazanin Shahnavaz: What are you guys up to?
Simon Frank: I’m in my current home of Taipei. Just got off work, biked home, eating some guava now.
Austin Milne: I got married here in London on the weekend. I’m tired but couldn’t be happier.
Alex Zhang Hungtai: I’m in Montréal at the moment, going to record some prayer music in an hour, then make some food at my temporary home and read.
Nazanin: How did the three of you meet? Can you join the dots for me.
Alex: I met Simon in Beijing when he was like eighteen, I think. He booked my first Dirty Beaches gig in China at D-22 in 2008. When Austin and I met in London, we just got along so well that we started jamming dual saxophone in his basement.
Austin: I’d seen Alex play as Dirty Beaches back in Montréal but our paths never really crossed there. A mutual friend let me know that Alex was in a bind for a place to stay, he crashed with me and we got to know each other over a few days of eating and walking around my neighbourhood in London. I became re-introduced to Simon at that point too as Alex invited him out to dinner with us on his first night in town. We’d played the same show in Toronto back in 2010 and I’d known he and his brother from Hot & Cold.
Simon: I think with Alex, part of why we’re friends is a sense of similar experiences lived in different directions. He was born in Taiwan and moved to North America, I was born in Canada and because of my parents’ work grew up in New Delhi, Beijing, and a few other places. My experience is not the same as immigration, but I think it has made me ask some analogous questions about identity and what home really is. When we recorded the album I was living in London doing part of a master’s degree in history, and re-connecting with Austin really enriched my time there.
Love Theme’s Austin Milne
“We started with some rough edits but the further into the material we got, the more we discovered was in there. With the other guys moving around from place to place, I worked my way through the takes, using the raw sessions as a palette and seeing where it went. I’d send bounces to them, get input and overdubs back and gradually we pieced it together. There was a lot going on in my life at that time and producing this record was a great distraction.” – Austin Milne
Nazanin: The night you guys recorded felt very impulsive, how did it come together?
Alex: Some bottles of Buckfast and brotherly love.
Austin: As Alex said, he and I recorded some stuff in my old basement when we first met and we were both really stoked on how it went with both of us playing sax, so we decided to record with my friend Dan Miller after he stopped by my place that evening. Dan’s another Canadian transplant in London and he used to play in a band called Omon Ra and knew Alex from then. They hadn’t seen each other for years, so it closed another unexpected loop. We recorded all night at a studio Dan had access to in Clapham, south London.
Simon: I was unexpectedly invited to the session as we ate dinner, and didn’t want to intrude but was very happy to join. The beginning of my time in London wasn’t the best for me personally, and I had been moving from apartment to apartment, so I hadn’t properly played music in a while. Playing together in that situation, improvised… having drunk some Buckfast… definitely created a catharsis for me and allowed some wildness to come out.
Nazanin: The three of you guys haven’t been in a room together since the night you recorded this. What was the production process like?
Simon: Alex was on his way out of Europe to LA when the album was recorded, and half a year later I moved to Hong Kong, and later Taiwan, making it unclear what direction exactly things would exactly take. Austin started a radical remix of the raw material we had recorded, capturing the raw energy of session, but taking it into more focused and subtle, yet also weirder places. I’m really impressed by what he’s done.
Austin: We’d recorded about four hours worth of material that night and it took a while to get a sense of what all we had. We started with some rough edits but the further into the material we got, the more we discovered was in there. With the other guys moving around from place to place, I worked my way through the takes, using the raw sessions as a palette and seeing where it went. I’d send bounces to them, get input and overdubs back and gradually we pieced it together. There was a lot going on in my life at that time and producing this record was a great distraction. The album is heavily edited but retains the atmosphere and attitude of the original session. It was a cool experience, I’d never made an album that way before and definitely learned a ton along the way.
Nazanin: The album was recorded in February of 2015, what was life like then and how has it changed?
Austin: My mom had been battling cancer off and on for years and a few months before the doctors said her chemo treatments hadn’t worked and that they were out of options. I’d been going back and forth between London and Canada a lot for work and family stuff when Simon, Alex and I recorded. Shortly after I moved back home to take care of my poor mom as she declined and ultimately passed. My family lives out in the middle of nowhere and I’m an only child so it was just my dad and I looking after her. It was such a sad and vivid time, a world of pickup trucks, family photos and palliative care. Things are great now. I feel incredibly lucky to have such a loving partner and supportive people in my life. It’s great for this album to see the light of day, it feels like the end of one chapter and the beginning of the next.
Love Theme’s Simon Frank
Nazanin: Alex, where has life taken you since then? I see that you appeared on the new Twin Peaks series, what was that like?
Alex: I got married last August, and moved to Hong Kong for three months with my wife. After that I toured with David Maranha and Gabriel Ferrandini as a trio in Europe, and then played some shows in Beirut and Cairo with my friend Khodor Ellaik. Twin Peaks was chill, David Lynch is a master of his craft, so it was refreshing to be part of something without having any doubts because you have trust in his work, that was a cool learning experience. Shout outs to my man Dean Hurley and Riley.
Nazanin: Simon and Austin, what other projects are you guys up to?
Austin: I’m working on some recordings of my own which will come out later this year. Aside from that, I’ll be back to lecturing at Goldsmiths in October.
Simon: I’m releasing a solo tape in July called Humid Music on Lonely God, a label/collective/group of friends that I’m part of in Taipei. It’s a bit different from Love Theme, more synth punk, primitive electronic music.
Nazanin: The album feels quite filmic, quite visceral… How does it sit with you?
Simon: For me, it’s like a slightly mysterious warped cassette found at a market stall, music from cities or landscapes that may or may not exist. I think there’s something unique in the combination of the two saxophones and an electronic pulse. The album cover is by my friend Wang Chun Hong, a really talented Taiwanese photographer and filmmaker. I think the screen within the image speaks to this cinematic feeling, or ideas of separation, mediation.
Alex: I had just came back from the Middle East at that point, so a lot of Jerusalem and Beirut and the desert landscapes were in my mind when I was playing.
Austin: The music is intuitive in the sense that the three of us had never played together before and was completely improvised. All three of us were at a crossroads of sorts in our lives, and I guess the vibe alludes to that, maybe an Easy Rider adventure through the Gobi Desert. It would be great to do soundtracks with Love Theme, we all think narratively and our musical sensibilities naturally lend themselves to that.
Nazanin: What are some of the ideas and settings you explored with this album?
Simon: In the eerie, somber moments of the album and the more wild, rhythm-driven sections there’s a dialogue between isolation and the social, being surrounded by people again; to me it asks how we can exist in both. As Austin arranged the album and we discussed the direction it could take, it accumulated new meaning for us, as a signpost as our lives changed. For example, Yau Ma Tei from the title of the track Docklands / Yau Ma Tei / Plum Garden is the neighbourhood I was living in in Hong Kong, in an eighth floor walk up. It’s right next to Temple Street – if your image of Hong Kong is decaying apartment blocks, crowded streets, and neon signs, it’s exactly that. Austin and his girlfriend came to visit and stayed with me there, and eventually Alex and his wife briefly lived in the apartment after I had moved to Taipei. It’s a place that had real significance in all of our lives.
“We’ve only played together once, so would love to play this live. This project has a unique sense in that we are all on our path in search of something, but our paths aligned together at that moment, and our friendship is what binds us together in the future wherever our paths cross again.” – Alex Zhang Hungtai
Nazanin: What happens next?
Alex: We’ve only played together once, so would love to play this live. This project has a unique sense in that we are all on our path in search of something, but our paths aligned together at that moment, and our friendship is what binds us together in the future wherever our paths cross again.
Simon: We are going on tour in North America in September, then we will move from there. From when the project started we’ve had the dream of playing music together in Asia.
Austin: We’ll start working on the next record in Montréal later this year, hit the road and then see what comes next. It’s been awhile since I’ve toured with a project of my own and am excited to see some new places, drive around and eat with these guys.
Artwork for Love Theme’s debut album
Nazanin: I know food is important to each of you and that you worked on this album between many different cities: Montréal, London, Hong Kong, Taipei and Los Angeles. Do you have a favourite meal from each?
Simon: Taipei has to be a restaurant called Jinfeng Luroufan. When Alex visits Taipei we basically go there straight from the airport. You get fatty braised pork rice, pork rib and bitter melon soup, a medium boiled duck egg… I miss baozaifan from Hong Kong, it’s a ton of salty things cooked together with rice in claypot, you get a nice crust on the bottom.
Austin: There’s a great Colombian restaurant called La Bodeguita in a south London shopping mall that pushes their tables aside on Friday and Saturday nights for dancing. With people of all ages and sizes dancing to vallenato and salsa music and eating enormous platters of food, it’s very cute. They do a great bandeja paisa with rice, pork belly, beans, minced meat, egg, plantain, avocado, corn and chili sauce. Also the Coco Jerk sandwiches you can get at most Jamaican spots here are pretty incredible.
Alex: I’m in Montreal at the moment and I forgot how good Serrano’s Chicken Rotisserie were… Get the cuisse sandwich there, and ask for the chicken grease sauce on top, with Portuguese bread, hot sauce, mayo, lettuce, tomatoes and onions. Sounds basic, but it is done right.
Love Theme is now available now from Alter Records and see below for their North America tour dates:
14th September, Le Cercle, Quebec, QC
15th September, General Assembly, Ottawa, ON
17th September, This Ain’t Hollywood, Hamilton, ON
18th September, The Empty Botlle, Chicago, IL
19th September, El Club, Detroit
20th September, MOTR, Cincinnati, OH
21st September, The Windup Space, Baltimore, MD
22nd September, Philamoca, Philadelphia, PA
23rd September, Park Church Co-Op, Brooklyn, NY
25th September, Echoplex, Los Angeles, CA
26th September, Space, San Diego, CA
27th September, Bottom Of The Hill, San Francisco, CA
29th September, The Chapel, Seattle, WA
30th September, Holocene, Portland, OR