Postcards from the Edge
Zach Condon Brings Beirut's Big Band Anxieties to the Gorge
Beirut's simply stunning debut album, Gulag Orkestar, seemed to come out of nowhere and everywhere at once. Sonically, its suite of songs drew inspiration from Balkan brass, far-flung strains of folk, and bedroom Casio pop. Lyrically, its vaguely painted scenes at least nominally referenced Italy, Slovakia, Berlin, the Rhine, the Iron Curtain, a geography that Pitchfork writer Brandon Stosuy deemed "an imaginary Eastern Bloc."
In fact, the album came from the bedroom of one Zach Condon, a then-19-year-old from Santa Fe, New Mexico. Condon had dropped out of high school and a string of colleges to travel abroad with the money he'd saved from working at a picture-framing shop. Upon returning home, he recorded Beirut's debut mostly at home in New Mexico, fleshing out his sonorous vocals, trumpet, and ukulele with some help from ex–Neutral Milk Hotel drummer Jeremy Barnes and Barnes's A Hawk and a Hacksaw bandmate Heather Trost.
In the two years since, Condon has moved to Brooklyn and boarded in Paris, toured the world with his 10-piece live band, and released two more critically acclaimed records, the promising Lon Gisland EP, highlighted by the longing ballad "Elephant Gun," and the brilliantly realized French chanson-inspired sophomore full-length The Flying Club Cup.
The rapid ascent was not without turbulence, though. In November 2006, Condon was hospitalized in Paris for "extreme exhaustion," leading him to cancel the band's upcoming East Coast tour dates (Condon's brother, Ryan, offered up a poetic if not entirely believable account of the incident involving rancid French wine, Jim Morrison, cubism, and Flaubert). Last month, the band again canceled a string of shows, this time a summer tour through Europe; the band's website posted a less fanciful if still somewhat vague letter of explanation from Condon. In it, he expressed his surprise and appreciation for the band's success ("the past two years have been a mind-blowing experience"), his desire "to do everything as big as possible" with the band he'd begun in his bedroom, and his subsequent exhaustion with his own outsize ambition. He concluded, "It's come time to change some things, reinvent some others, and come back at some point with a fresh perspective and batch of songs. Please accept my apologies. I promise we'll be back, in some form."
Recently, Condon gave The Stranger his first interview since that announcement, speaking on the phone from his adopted home of New York City. Our conversation was briefly interrupted as three fire trucks screamed by to attend to what Condon supposed might be an exploded car: "That seems to be where most of the fires occur in New York right now. People soup up their car and then it blows up on them because they didn't know what they put in it. A car blew up next to the studio yesterday."
In April, you canceled a bunch of European tour dates and posted that letter on your site. What led you to cancel those shows?
I was on tour again for maybe the fifth or sixth time that year. I'd been away from home for so long. And it wasn't homesickness, it was literally just... it's funny, I wanted to make this record, and I realized there was no way I could actually do it if I was still doing these tours.
So you're working on a new record?
Yeah, I'm working on it right now as we speak. I went down to Mexico to do that, and I'm going back soon, after this tour—finishing what I've started.
It's kind of hard to explain. There's a lot to it. It's not just that I needed to record this album and I needed to record it now. It's also a case of pure exhaustion. I was never built for tour. I've already canceled dates on tours before.
I had no room to write music; I only had room to regurgitate music. At some point I realized I had to stop the process I was going through, which was literally lots of legal pressure coming down, lots of pressure from promoters, labels, etc., to the point where I no longer had any perspective at all on what I was going to do for the next record. I realized that I'd completely lost track of what it even felt like to write music. I'd gotten so far away. It happened in Australia, where I realized I was on the other side of the world and, even though I enjoyed it very much, I couldn't do it. There was no way in hell I could balance both parts of my life. If anyone wants to hear another record, it would be pathetic if I kept doing that. It was getting heavy—I was in over my head.
You dropped out of school to travel before starting the band. Have you found traveling with a band to be different?
Yeah, definitely. There's always someone to show you around when you're with a band. You have an immediate connection everywhere you go, but then you're also isolated in a very different way. Actually, I prefer [traveling with a band], to be honest with you. Not necessarily with the band, but with the band in mind. When you're on tour, you don't get to know anything but a few key people. But if you're just traveling with the backpack or whatever, you end up doing even less. You just see things; you take pictures. So I guess I prefer the former.
In the letter you posted, you mentioned wanting to change some things about the band and come back fresh. Should the Sasquatch! audience expect to see any changes in your live arrangements?
Definitely [some new things] since the last time we were in Washington. Actually, that's been such a long time that the band has grown so much anyway that it's going to be very different. Beyond that, the instrumentation is different, there's a lot more brass leaning, brass heavy. Basically, I've gone further down the rabbit hole as far as it comes to the oompah oompah funeral bands, and I guess I'm not coming out.
Is that to do with time spent in Mexico? Have you been hearing a lot of mariachi or norteño there?
Actually, it's not mariachi or norteño that I've been listening to. The story is this: I was going to do this soundtrack, but I ended up not doing it because they wanted more of a string quartet kind of feel and I couldn't do that. But the reference material they sent me was all from the far south of Mexico, in Oaxaca. It was all these bands that consisted entirely of Zapotec natives and they were all doing these kind of dirgey funeral marches with 17-piece brass bands. There was something so naive and martial in that music that I really fell in love with. It had nothing to do, actually, with mariachi or norteño. To be honest, it sounded more like what klezmer music is supposed to be or something. The raw exposed nerve of the music really struck a chord with me, maybe that will do it some justice.
Do you have any plans for a title, or a date for a release? Will you be debuting some songs at Sasquatch!?
Yeah. I've come back with a small batch of songs that we're going to start performing right away. I'm going back for more, but at the moment there's at least an EP's worth. I expect to release it maybe in the fall, but to be honest I don't know. You can put that down—I'm going to try for the fall.
Setting up this interview, Ben [Goldberg, of Beirut's label Ba Da Bing!] said you were a "sleep in till 4:00 p.m." kind of guy, which isn't really the impression you might get from Beirut.
The disparity between the music I make and who I am seems to be growing pretty vastly at this point, to the point that I get the same reaction from a lot of people who either meet me or interview me. They definitely expect something, and I'm becoming a person who's not that. When things are fresh and new, you present a certain face to the public—and that changes so drastically after even only a year of doing what you're doing. I guess that's the one telltale sign that I'm young, is that my tastes and ideas change so drastically over the course of a year. It's kind of ridiculous. I don't know what I would have told you last year.
When you canceled some shows back in 2006, your brother, Ryan, who's also written liner notes for you, delivered a pretty fantastic statement to the press. He seems like a pretty gifted writer. Does he ever contribute lyrics or do you write anything together?
He does, actually. He's been a bit of a secret hand behind a lot of the lyrics. One thing I've always loved about my brother is his way of seeing the world and writing about it. There are actually a lot of songs that people have heard that are partially his and partially mine. I would say a good 50 percent of the time the lyrics are almost entirely his, and anything that I do, I'm trying to copy him. Ryan, for instance, wrote "Scenic World" and I just sang his lyrics to a song I had written. We've always been a team—a secret one, but a team nonetheless.
Not only do [lyrics] baffle me, but they're also kind of incidental as I'm concerned, musically. My entire life is spent looking for a good melody; it's never spent searching for a good line. And the thing is, I respect a good line so much that I could never destroy what I've created with a mediocre line. So, whenever that comes up, I ask Ryan.
And you two traveled together before the band?
Yeah, Ryan's been a big part of my life, obviously my whole life, but we became pretty close around when I was 15. Ever since then, he's been egging me on and helping me out whenever I come up short.
After a show in Vancouver a couple nights before, Sasquatch! will be your first show in a while, right?
It's been a while. Australia was our last show. I guess it's only been a couple weeks or so, but it feels like a year.
Beirut play Sat May 24, Sasquatch Main Stage, 2:10 pm.