Calm in Beirut


YOU HAVE to hand it to Zach Condon. The man does not do things by halves. Ask anybody who was at Beirut’s first Dublin headline show in 2007, when their intoxicated leader mumbled his way through much of the set and closed it with a catastrophically bad cover of Hallelujah. Cohen-esque it was not.

In a way, you couldn’t blame him. Here was a man whose debut album Gulag Orkestar was being hailed as a work of quasi-genius by all and sundry, whose journeys into gypsy and klezmer music sounded of a different time – certainly not something that an all-American kid barely out of his teens should be making.

But it’s been always that way with Condon. His all-or-nothing approach saw him drop out of high school to traverse the globe with Beirut (initially a solo project, then a 10-piece band, it’s now been streamlined to a more manageable six musicians).

He has left a trail of exceptional records in his wake: 2008’s ode to French chanson, The Flying Cup Club, was just as acclaimed as his debut, while a number of EPs have whetted the appetite of those eagerly awaiting his third full-length offering.

That’s not to say that Zachary Francis Condon hasn’t grown up over the past few years. Although he has worked with some like-minded musicians on their own records, the New Mexico native has kept a low profile since his last release. He needed to live a normal life for a while, he says. He got married not so long ago, too, and his then-fiancée’s one condition was that he “stood still for more than six months”.

“I mean, it’s ridiculous,” he laughs, that deep, resonant quiver of a voice belying his young age. “I’ve been living out of a suitcase since I was 17 years old. I think it’s about time I had a place to call home. So that’s what I’ve been doing. And also, I knew whatever project would come next, I wanted to push very hard with it, and I wanted to elevate the status of the band, in some ways. I knew that a lot of work was coming up, so I was trying to take some peaceful time.”

He may be only 25, but it sounds like the days of drunken stage shenanigans are behind him. That long-awaited third album, The Rip Tide, sounds symbolic of his new-found stability. It’s characteristic of Condon’s style, yet it subtly expands his sonic palette and is not as brazenly in thrall to his influences. It’s also the first time that he has laid himself bare when it comes to lyrics, rather than painting the vivid yet impersonal imagery he has excelled at it in the past.

“It’s a lot more relaxed, yeah, and it’s a lot more true to the sound I wanted to make. When you’re a young kid, you think your own story is really interesting to tell – or at least you don’t have the resources to really express yourself without coming off as kind of trite. There were some very good moments when I was working on this album – a feeling of being really comfortable in my own skin, and I wasn’t afraid to talk about myself, lyrically.

“For years, I’ve been wearing my influences on my sleeve. This is the first time where the main influence has been the sound that I’ve created all along. I wanted to try to work on a more personal level than to tell these fantastical stories, and it was hard. But I feel like it stayed true to the sound of the record. It made more sense that way – to sing something that people could relate to, instead of maybe just being impressed by.”

Much of the album was written in an isolated log cabin in upstate New York last year, with just his pet beagle to keep him company. Log cabins? Remote location? So far, so Bon Iver.

“It’s funny going into that, because there are so many cliches that you could employ,” he laughs. “But I made a promise to myself that even though the isolation was great for the music, it couldn’t come out in the music. And I was going to make, on my terms, a pop record, no matter how dark the winter got. It was fun, though. It was quite a fascinating thing in a way, because I’ve never considered myself to be a naturey person, so that was quite an experience.”

With age and musical evolution has also come a slackening of the dictatorship that Beirut has been since Condon first dreamed up the project in his Santa Fe bedroom. Surrendering power to other musicians in his band was another major change heralded by the surge of The Rip Tide.

“I used to try to play every instrument on the album, and would rarely admit defeat. This time around I still wrote all the songs, but I just demoed them and showed them to the band, and we actually played most of it live. The idea was for me to concentrate on a few instruments – namely the piano, ukulele and voice – and just lead with that. So when we were recording, it’d usually be just me sitting at a piano, kind of conducting the accordion player, the bass player and the drummer. We’d all play together in the same room, and without a click track. Just over and over and over again, till it felt right.”

The results are songs that you’d perhaps expect to hear on one of Condon’s side projects rather than a Beirut album. Santa Fe’s poppy electronic undertones burst into an explosion of trumpets, while Goshen is a beautifully simple piano arrangement buoyed by sweetly crooned vocals, the gradual introduction of brass and the rolling tick of a snare drum.

Although Condon claims to have deliberately isolated himself from outside influences when it came to writing the album, he admits that the Brazilian music from the 1960s and 1970s, and its inherent sense of melody, cast a spell over him. Brazil is a country close to his heart. His music is so popular there, that it has inspired a community of “Beirutando” across the country – numerous local bands that cover his songs and give them a distinctly South American twist.

And despite the roots that he has put down in recent years, the sense of wanderlust in his music remains. It could be related to his travels around Europe, his time spent in Paris (where he first became enamoured with the Balkan sound that he began his musical journey with), or his ache to escape the monotony of life in Santa Fe as a teenager with high ideals. His brief sojourn as an employee of an art-house cinema in his home city played as much of a role as music, he says – watching Godard and Fellini films and thinking perhaps he belonged in Europe rather than dusty New Mexico.

He knows it all sounds a little too romantic to be true, too; the young wandering musician dropping out of high school to navigate the globe in search of a place – and a sound – to call home.

“Let’s say I was struggling to create a legend,” he laughs heartily. “No, it wasn’t very romantic. I mean, it can sound romantic, but it sure as hell didn’t feel like it. It was very rough-and-tumble, actually. It was a very exhausting experience in some ways, but it definitely and obviously laid some groundwork.

“It’s funny that the first trip to Europe didn’t feel like anything significant. That was really just me getting through the logistics of travel and being far away from home and in a country where you may not speak the language. It wasn’t really until the second time I went back, which was right before I wrote Gulag Orkestar – I went completely alone, and stayed much longer. I think I was 18. It wasn’t until that time that I really started to settle in, and found that I had a certain affinity for it, and I was very much in agreement with the pace and ideas of day-to-day life in Europe, as opposed to some of the metropolises in America.”

For now he has earned his place among the pantheon of young greats. A strong, vibrant third album solidifies his standing as a musician with vision and ambition.

He could, I suggest, quite easily become some sort of cult figure in the next 30 years – a highly respected musician with one foot planted in world music and the other in the alternative realm. The Peter Gabriel of his generation, perhaps? He bursts into laughter at the mere thought.

“Hmmm, I don’t know if I would be happy with that. It’s funny, because I really do want to push this album, and I want to raise the band to a certain status. But that’s because I want to find a comfortable space so I can just get to keep doing what I’m doing. It’s still scary, the amount of kids who come to concerts. It’s humbling.”

st Beirut play on Sunday. The Rip Tide is out now