"Do you want to sit on the deck?” Considering it’s the second week of February, that could be a cruel joke. But winter has called a brief ceasefire, allowing me and Zach Condon, the twenty-two-year-old founder and frontman of New York–based Beirut, to take our steaming mugs of rooibos tea out into the watery Brooklyn sunlight.
While we adjust the levels on my digital recorder—“Hey, I’ve used that for field recordings,” Condon says—to accommodate the musician’s soft speaking voice, Condon smokes a cigarette and wakes up a little. Sure, it’s 2:30 in the afternoon, but you’d be tired too: in the past week, Beirut has played five shows in the New York area, some with full orchestra. On Friday, the sixth, the band made its network television debut on Letterman. And this month marks the release of March of the Zapotec and Realpeople Holland, the follow–up to 2007’s chanson-inspired The Flying Club Cup.
For the first half of this eleven-song double CD, Condon and company headed to Mexico to record with local musicians Band Jimenez, but they never left the territory of Beirut. The band makes use of a mishmash of sounds from around the world, employing brass instruments, woodwinds, and the occasional accordion. But the influences always fold into the unmistakable ring of Zach, whether he’s riffing on Jacques Brel, singing against the backdrop of a traditional Mexican band, or, as on the Holland half of the new EP, recording with simple electronic sounds from his bedroom.
Condon and band are soon heading back to Mexico to play shows and get some rest. But today he and I enjoy the first signs of spring and talk about trying to stay grounded, cynical musicians, and the concept of home.
Kate Crane (Rail): First off, is there anything you wish journalists would ask you?
Zach Condon: Well, there are definitely some funny things that music journalism has picked up on and exaggerated to extremes, which I find kind of grotesque. Certain clichés: the world traveler, the gypsy, that kind of stuff. It’s not who I am. They even put it in old-timey fonts when they print it [laughs], so it’s really disappointing.
Rail: Almost every article I’ve come across about you describes you as frazzled or discombobulated. Is that an exaggeration too?
Condon: [bursts into laughter] That’s actually entirely true. Ever since I was a kid—head in the clouds, clumsy, the whole nine yards. Maybe that just makes it easier to focus on some things more than others.
Rail: I was thinking about how life changed very quickly for you, after the superfast success of Gulag Orkestar in spring 2006.
Condon: Yeah. Maybe it’s a reaction to that? You know, it might be, actually. It’s a way of shutting out the world, I guess. It is funny, when you do become bigger, and more successful, and you have to become a performer, and you have to become certain kinds of things for different people, you do find different ways of shutting the world out. It’s all a focus thing. On days of the shows, I’m a totally different person. I turn into Performing Zach.
Rail: Does that take a lot of energy?
Condon: Yeah. It does. I don’t mind, because I like to be taken places like that. But obviously, I’ve canceled a few tours and stuff because I can’t handle it for very long. It’s ironic that I live here, because visual stimuli is a big thing for me. When you’re rushing through New York, it’s insanity. All of a sudden I feel like I’m playing a videogame instead of actually being there in real time. I like to have the city at arm’s length. I’m not all shut in, reclusive; I need that stimulation in my life. There’s a reason I moved to the big city and didn’t stay in tiny little Santa Fe. But I definitely get shaken easily.
Rail: Is there a city that feels like home to you? Does the concept of home factor into the work specifically?
Condon: You know, what’s funny is, all the albums I’ve done up until this one, which I did in Mexico, I did really close to home in New Mexico. I had this beautiful place in Albuquerque that used to be a dance studio. So it had wooden floors, giant vista view of the mountains, that kind of thing. And it was Albuquerque; I was born there. And it’s always felt like home, even more so than Santa Fe, where I grew up as a teenager.
I get an immediate vibe from cities. The moment I walk into a city that’s new, I get a yes-or-no kind of reaction to it, and I have very strong ones, and I can’t change them no matter how hard I try. Santa Fe, no; Albuquerque, yes; New York, yes; Boston, absolutely not; San Francisco, sure; L.A., ehhh—it’s fun to visit, would hate to live there. When you get to Europe, I can’t stand Berlin or London, but I really did love Paris. As romantic as Paris seems, it actually really is just a good place to be, it just feels right when you’re there, and I’ve lived there for periods of time that I was just really happy. Paris felt like home, probably more so than New York does. I’ve been popping in and out of Paris since I was seventeen.
Rail: Yesterday a friend said to me, “If you’re not tied to something, somewhere, floating doesn’t feel the same.”
Condon: [laughs] That’s totally true. Not to get too abstract, but I was such a nomad for the past two years, that’s probably one of the reasons I had to cancel the tours and drove myself insane out on the road. The lifestyle didn’t allow for me to have a home base. But at the same time, I would hate to just be stuck here, I guess.
Rail: There are a lot of brass bands and marching bands out there right now. I asked some of my contacts in that world how they felt about Beirut, and almost everyone replied that they feel like you co-opt traditions. But no one would talk to me. I got the feeling they thought the Beirut hit squad was going to come after them.
Condon: Maybe the fans? [laughs] Yeah, it’s funny, I’ve never met a generation that’s more cynical of itself than our own. Any success is to be weary of. I grew up playing these instruments, and I started putting them in my music and putting the sounds that I was listening to into the music as much as I could. At the very center of it all, very simple pop songs—very Zach melodies and songs. It’s just an aesthetic pleasure to put these flourishes of things that you hear and love from around the world in it. But that’s met with a lot of cynicism from, of all people, the kind of hardcore brass and woodwind musicians that grew up playing American classical and jazz stuff.
Rail: Do you care?
Condon: No. It’s a little unsettling, though.
Rail: Do you think it’s even possible to co-opt something?
Condon: No. [laughs] It’s possible to visit, but obviously, you can’t put your heart in something where it doesn’t belong. And to me I guess it’s more like electronic music. Take Boards of Canada: they have their palette of electronic sounds that they’re really into, these kind of wheezing, old, groany organic electronics. But at the center of all that, there’s four chords of basically a hip-hop beat and a very Western melody. For me there’s a world of sound out there, and you might as well tap into it.
I got into an argument once, I didn’t mean to, with a journalist who was kind of a fundamentalist world music listener, and he was getting angry at me. I remembered this quote: “It’s not where you take from; it’s where you take it.” Yeah. End of argument. Nice pleasant way to cap it off.
Rail: Tell me about Band Jimenez. Are you going to play shows together?
Condon: That would be hard, because they’re a band that takes a lot of rehearsal. They take pride in playing the songs exactly as they’re written down; they’re almost anti-improvisation, which is interesting. They are a very loose collection of people in the village who all have day jobs that get together to play fiestas, quinceañeras, weddings, funerals, and church-sponsored things. And they play the traditional local music. None of them are professional musicians.
Rail: This was the first time you sought out a band like that, right? Would you do it again?
Condron: Yeah, I just wanted to have an insane palette to hear my voice on. And that was so much fun to do.
Rail: There’s not much autobiography that I can see in your work. Do you think that’s ever going to seep in?
Condon: I’ll bet, as I get older, it will. Even now I can see there’s a lot of childishness in the stuff that I’ve created. In the sense that it’s very escapist, and wide-eyed to the world, and it’s kind of fantastical. I never wanted to write about myself. I always thought that whatever I was thinking or feeling wasn’t that big a deal. I’d rather just be taken somewhere else by a giant melody. But as I get older, yeah, there are probably some more personal things to talk about. I feel like I’m really living now; it’s great.
A writer based in Jersey City, Kate Crane is writing a memoir about her father's 1987 murder.