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Interview: Zach Condon of Beirut

Zach Condon of Beirut
25 February 2022

Photo by Lena Gaisser

As a teenager growing up in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Zach Condon voraciously absorbed a vast array of musical influences, from the mariachi music he heard in his hometown through traditional Balkan and Arabian music. Working solo in his bedroom, he combined all of those eclectic styles into his own distinctive sound. In 2006, under the band name Beirut, he released his debut album, Gulag Orkestar, which was met with much critical acclaim and commercial success. Since then, Condon has led Beirut (which sometimes features a rotating cast of musicians, and other times is still just Condon working alone) through four more studio albums and several EPs. Some of his earliest and hard-to-find releases have just been compiled on a 26-track double album, Artifacts (released in January via Pompeii Records). Listening to Condon’s body of work is like taking an exhilarating trip through the world’s musical styles, while still staying solidly grounded in indie rock sensibilities. His ever-evolving musical explorations seem to reflect the nomadic lifestyle he’s adopted: he’s lived in New York, Paris, and Istanbul. For this interview, he calls from his workspace in Berlin, Germany (where he’s lived for five years now), the Zoom video revealing a cozy room crammed full with old and unusual instruments. He angles his laptop to show them all: a pump organ that he says is more than a hundred years old, a farfisa organ, a spinet, and some lovely ukuleles, among many more. He seems content, and his enthusiasm for these often-overlooked musical treasures makes it clear why he’s been able to use them to such great effect in his impressive career.

You’ve always seemed to have such an affinity for old and unusual instruments, which has really defined your sound with Beirut. What sparked that interest?

ZACH CONDON: I heard Stephen Merritt from The Magnetic Fields playing the ukulele, and I thought it would be fun for me to try – and then I got super hooked, basically. Growing up, I was so burnt out by the guitar. I felt like wherever I turned, it was just electric guitar. It was on the radio, it was on TV, all my friends played in punk bands, I only went to shows with that kind of stuff. What frustrated me so much is that I would go to fiestas in Santa Fe and I would love watching the mariachi [bands] play. I got super obsessed with trumpet at a young age because I thought those guys were the rock stars, for me. As a teenager it was like, ‘Oh God, if I hear one more electric guitar, I’m just going to roll over and die. I need something fresh.’ I worked at this movie theater, and they [also] had a warehouse space and they would have these gallery expositions, so they had a traveling circus come through town. I guess the organ that was traveling with the circus partially broke down in the warehouse space while they were performing, so the organist was, “I’m done with this thing,” and he left it. So I drove over and I picked it up, and it wasn’t so bad, really. The problem was just that every G sharp and every C sharp was not working, so I had to learn to play around those keys. But outside of that, it functioned pretty well. And I remember there was another organ I had that some family dropped off because they knew that I was into these things. So yeah, I’ve always had an affinity for that. My dad actually tried to get me to play guitar first. He is this hardcore guitar nerd. He’s the kind of guy that would sit down and listen to a Beatles record and say, “These guys can’t play lead guitar for shit. They’re really good at rhythm guitar, but their lead guitar is garbage.” I just thought that was so silly because you listen to those Beatles records and there’s this world of sound going on. Mellotrons and brass and strings and all these amazing, incredible things. I remember thinking, “Why the hell is this guy so stuck on this one instrument? I don’t get it at all.” So I tried playing guitar. I gave it up fairly quickly, and I asked for a trumpet. Then I started listening to klezmer music, then I heard Balkan music and Arabic music. And like I said, I grew up loving mariachi. I heard that and I just thought, “Wow, this is the most intense brass music I’ve ever heard in my life.” And then that set off this huge thing.

When it came time to do your own music, how did you ever figure what your own distinctive sound should be, after having such diverse influences like that?

ZACH CONDON: When I started, it was almost out of necessity. Like “I only have these few tools to work with.” The first things I had were an acoustic guitar from my dad, a drum machine that my brother had bought, and my trumpet. So I started there. I was listening to a lot of Neutral Milk Hotel at that time, [who] have these funeral dirge marches in the middle of this otherwise kind of indie rock record, and organs and bagpipes and all these really creative instruments. The moment I heard that, I was like, “Thank God – someone else thinks and feels about music the way I do.” So that was a big, clear thing in my mind to try. Because the other truth is, even though my influences might have been all these incredible things, it’s not like I had a teacher that was showing me how to play Arabic melodies. My musical upbringing was very much Beatles, Beach Boys, Bruce Springsteen. So my inner palette will always be that, but then hearing this wider palette of sounds and saying, “Why don’t they belong in here, too?”

Beirut cover art

When you were putting together this new compilation, did it bring back memories of what was influencing you the most when you were creating each of those tracks?

ZACH CONDON: Yeah, it triggered all of the influences. it’s actually made me re-listen to a few of the old records I was listening to heavily back then. But it wasn’t always the rosiest of trips. I was in a pretty introspective mood to begin with because 2019 was like this final straw year for me where I had canceled tours again because of physical problems that were very clearly created by mental problems. Like, my hate of being on tour and my discomfort with performing. I’d been fighting that for fifteen, sixteen years at that point. I was never a performer to begin with. I think that’s something that is really important about me. I can’t perform. I’m not a performer. It doesn’t come naturally. I always had to put it on, like wearing someone else’s clothes. It always came at an extreme mental toll, unfortunately. I always would try to get excited about a tour and I would always burn out so spectacularly. I had hit rock bottom for the last time in 2019. So I canceled these tours and I was already doing a lot of work on saying, “How did I get here? What is it that drives me? What is it that is making me so anxious and so intensely handicapped when it comes to these sorts of things?” That was when the idea was raised that I should re-release the Long Gisland EP because that was out of print for years at that point. That would have been around 2020. I was writing a record, but I paused to be like, “Let me add a few extra things to this…”

So no more shows from you?

ZACH CONDON: Well, it’s not a hundred percent like that. What I really said was, “No more tours.” I can’t tour. Because it was killing me. Unless I have some magic rebirth, like through therapy or something where I just suddenly feel like a person that can take anything – but I don’t really see that happening anytime soon. My idea is more like, I can’t tour, [but] maybe someday in the future, in three to four years, I can try and play a couple of shows in New York, in Paris. Maybe in Brazil and Mexico. That’s enough.

You mentioned you’re writing a new album – can you say more about that?

ZACH CONDON: My hope is that I can release it this fall. After the tour cancellations, I went to far, far northern Norway, above the Arctic Circle. I went in January, and I stayed for a few months where it was really dark. I was working on this record, and I finished it recently and we are mastering it now. I’m calling [the album] Hadsel, which is the island that I was staying on in Norway. I did a lot of work on a church pump organ I got to use up there. Then I did a lot of the percussion portion on this machine [gestures to a drum machine behind him] because I really like old analog synthesizer drums. It’s funny because it really made me realize, I was doing exactly what I dreamed of doing [when I started out], and I had access to all these things now. But the other crazy thing about it is was while I was writing this record, in my mind, I’m thinking, “Maybe I can get someone to help me with an upright bass.” And then I remember thinking to myself, “I used to do everything myself, no matter what. No matter my skill level at the instruments.” I was so incredibly stubborn and ambitious back then. I would say, “I’m not a drummer, but I’m going to try.” I’d pick up a brand new instrument and say, “I’m going to make a song out of this.” And so I decided to do the whole [new] record myself again. Now I’m limited only by my skill level. But I like that. Early on, I did take trumpet lessons, and before that, I’d had some guitar lessons, but I remember thinking, “I don’t want to learn too much because I feel like I just have to break those rules, one way or another.” I feel like music needs to be approached from a pretty naive angle, otherwise you get people who get stuck in ruts and just repeat what has been fed to them over and over again, rather than what their impression of an outside influence is. So I find it super important to stay naive, in a way.

What do you think it is that’s made people connect with your music so strongly?

ZACH CONDON: I’ve thought about that a lot. I come from this family where we doubt ourselves, we doubt our abilities. There’s a lot of, “You don’t belong in that field.” So I really felt like an imposter for much of my life. I thought maybe I had tricked people into liking me or something like that. [But] early on, when I sang through a PA system for the first time and I heard my voice in a big room echoing around, I remember thinking, “My voice sounds like it carries more gravity and weight than anything I’ve ever said does.” Like it seemed to transmit something deeper and more transcendental than anything I could sit and talk to someone about. It seems to be much more immediate and unfiltered and direct from the heart. And I realize now that that’s the connection: that’s what people get from it. And it’s not even something that I have control over. It’s totally raw and vulnerable. I think that the music does transmit that stuff. It’s funny, because it’s something that I can’t really take credit for, in a way. I just have to enjoy that it works and it feels good because it’s just there. For whatever reason, I got lucky enough to have an ear for music and a voice that is completely unfiltered.

 

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