Beirut's Zach Condon Comes Home
The indie musician's 'No No No' returns to what made his music most appealing. We sat down with him to talk about it.
Photo by Burak Cingi
Zach Condon is basically a method actor—his approach to songwriting is built on full immersion. “I am super tapped out after records because I try to do anything and everything on them,” the man behind Beiruit tells me recently while sitting on the couch at his label 4AD, promoting the band's latest record No No No. Even the way he describes being exhausted feels exhausted. He seems a bit reluctant towards the press, but it's understandable. People want a piece of the Beirut whose trumpet-led orchestra grew to popularity in the mid-aughts, but Condon knows he's spent. He's been running all over the place these past few years.
Here's what I mean: Following the success of his debut record Gulag Orkestar, Condon moved to Paris in 2006 to write his sophmore record The Flying Cup Club, a Western appropriation of songs from the French new wave. In between albums, he backpacked through Eastern Europe like a pied-paper, full orchestra in tow. Then, for 2009’s The March of Zapotec, a concept album about Mexican death culture, Condon relocated to a small village in Oaxaca to compose tirelessly with a 19-piece funeral band. And although 2011’s The Riptide didn’t require leaving the country for research, he insisted on isolating himself in a log cabin in upstate New York where he cooked duck and chopped wood.
Despite Condon's commitment to absorbing foreign cultures through the music of Beirut, much of the material since his impressive debut was met with criticism. The Guardian once explained Condon’s previous two records as having flopped because “it was like a young boy standing on tiptoes to try and seem sophisticated.” I ask him why he feels compelled to take on such audacious concepts for records. Why try and stuff that kind of grandeur into 12 tracks when it will inevitably sound forced and over the top?
“I’ve always just been a wide-eyed, slack jawed kid trying to figure it out,” he says quietly, fiddling with his calloused thumbs. “[I’m] just very aggressively eager to figure it out and then act like I know it, but I don’t know it.”
That desire had its consequences. Outside of the criticsm, his health suffered. In 2013, Condon found himself hospitalized for exhaustion while touring in Australia, an event he refers to now as an identity crisis. “Musically, I wanted to turn right back around and go home.”
Consider the title of this latest album: No No No. It's indicative of an internal struggle, one that makes perfect sense in the context of Condon's personal life leading up to it, which included emotional problems and a divorce. This is a record that pushes against Condon's instincts, most noticeably for elaborate compositions with an impossibly heady vision. Condon had to stretch Beirut this thin to realize that the simpler songs like “Scenic World" or “Postcards from Italy” were perfectly imperfect. Stylized and emotional? Of course. But they were also charmingly naïve, like they were winking at you. "You can hear me stumble through things," he says. "What you’re listening to is the shaky ground I’m standing on in that moment."
Gulag Orchestrar and The Flying Cup Club introduced us to a musician who reached for high brow associations like Balkan marches and the storming of the Bastille while remaining grounded in the mindset of a curious American traveler. He followed up with The Rip Tide and The March of Zapotec, taking his previous work and doubling down on its bombastic ideals. Considering the purposeful oddness of his work, one could easily assume that Condon grew up with his ear to a vintage gramaphone. That's actually not the case. He recalls a particularly telling exchange with his older brother, to whom he credits massive influence. The story goes that his brother snatched Dookie by Green Day from him and replaced it with a CD by Boards of Canada and a strict order to "do your homework." Perhaps unsurprisingly, his music drifted towards trying to impress an intellectual audience.
This wasn't uncommon in the realm of mid-2000s indie. Everyone from Arcace Fire to Sufjan Stevens seemed to be opting for a grand, orchestral sound. Accordians and horns had never been cooler than in 2006. Luckily for Condon, whose early obsessions with Byzantine music had already manifested in a series of demos, Beirut was able to make a relatively seamless transition into the scene. Indie at the time was going through a major Neutral Milk Hotel revival, when historically-inclined freak folk was on the rise. Condon enlisted the former Neutral Milk Hotel trumpeteer into the fold, giving Beirut the perfect cache to launch into that void. But with such associations comes a lot of pressure to live up to the hype, and I think that's the hubris that led to Beirut becoming more or less a caricature of its original intent. Sometimes you have to travel to the end of earth before realizing that you just want go home.
"I realized what my actual musical education was. Which was my dad raised me on a steady diet of Motown, Beatles, and Beach Boys. How could I deny that aspect of my growing up? That and Bruce Springsteen because he’s from Jersey. And also the experiments I was having before Gulag Orkestar came out it was what I had tool-wise was a drum machine, a piano, a trumpet and a fostex four track."
After touring the world and making a few overly complicated albums, Condon goes home on No No No. There’s no histrionic wailing or a 19-instrument funeral band. It’s back to synth beats, vocals, and spurts from that same trumpet tattooed lovingly onto his forearm that I find myself gazing at. He continues to wear his obsessions on his sleeve and in his music. For example, No No No is inspired by his time spent living in Turkey, falling in love with his fiance, and learning the culture through her family. The Balakan influence is alive and well, but it's slightly muted this time, as if Condon realized that not making a grand gesture was actually the grandest gesture he could make.
I ask him about Turkey and what it was about Istanbul that inspired him to look back at the beginning of Beirut. "I started playing shows out there and I started going out there staying there, spending a lot of time, meeting her family, that sort of thing, get to know the city try to learn the language and the funny thing to me is by the time I got there musically I was already looking back at my own back catalog at that point, " he explains. "Like I was no longer out to just sponge up more of the world or something which sounds bad, but it’s true. At 19, I had a lot more to prove than I do now."
Our time is up, and I start to leave, but Condon has one last thing to say: "In the end, I learned I'm just a kid from Santa Fe, and that's cool, too."
Bryn Lovitt is a contributing editor at Noisey. Follow her on Twitter.