You walk out on stage. The volume hits you. The scale hits you. The front row can see the whites of your eyes and the tremors coursing through your limbs. This is when the nerves incapacitate. Debilitate. Reduce you to a quivering wreck. Or at least that’s how I imagine the on-stage jitters hit from the comfort of a hack’s armchair.
For Zach Condon, it was a grim reality. About to embark on the European leg of a tour promoting Beirut’s EP ‘March of the Zapotec’ back in 2008, he found himself suffering from panic attacks to the extent that the tour had to be cancelled. Back in 2006, on the eve of another European tour, he was hospitalised with exhaustion. They should have been early watershed moments to put a halt to Beirut’s rapid rise, but after charming with Balkan brass-infused debut ‘Gulag Orkestar’ and the sombre ‘The Flying Club Cup’ in the long run the cancelled tours did little to derail an otherwise successful trajectory and steeled Zach for the future.
“You probably know, one of the very first European tours I had to cancel because I had really bad panic attacks,” he starts. “I was young and I had no ideas what my limits were. I was saying yes to anything and everything. ‘You want me to go to this city? Yeah, sure. You want me to go to that city? I’ll go to that city.’ That would mean being on the road another few weeks and then at one point it hit me. That was when I had to start paying attention. It was very haphazard and I’d play it by ear and sometimes it would really shake me up.”
It’s the afternoon after Beirut’s show at Hyde Park and Zach, understandably, looks pretty shaken now, after a celebratory night out. Having shared last night’s bill with friends Arcade Fire, and spent the day bouncing from radio station to promo interviews for forthcoming album, ‘The Rip Tide’, he’s remarkably lucid and eloquent. It’s also telling that even after Beirut’s already colourful history, Zach’s comfortable referencing what could have been an uncomfortable past.
“The moment I stepped out on stage last night, I was absolutely terrified,” he smiles. “I remember I shook violently for the first two songs and then I don’t know how but I was able to brush it aside and centre myself and it actually went off really well after that.
“You can’t really imagine what 60,000 people will feel like. You just can’t picture that if you haven’t done it before and we’ve done big shows to 10,000 people but there was a force when we walked out last night. It was a shock to the system and it takes a few minutes to adjust.”
Adjustment seems to be a prevailing theme in Zach and Beirut’s timeline. A man once content to roam the world soaking up everything it had to offer, he’s admittedly more settled and centred as a result of his meandering experiences. But that isn’t to say his drive or sense of spontaneity has been totally diminished just yet.
“The funny thing is it was the first show of the tour so it was kind of like being thrown straight to the wolves. I hadn’t seen the band in about two weeks so it was like, ‘Fuck, let’s just get out and do this! But they’re pros and it was great.
“We’ve arranged five songs from the album that we can play,” he continues, “and so we’re trying to spread them out until the new album’s released. We always play ‘East Harlem’, ‘Santa Fe’, ‘Vagabonds’ and it’s good that sometimes people do seem to take an immediate liking. There was a little faction of hardcore Beirut fans who recognised the songs, so they’d probably Youtubed it or something. You can always recognise them – they’re the ones waving a ukulele or something,” he laughs.
Four years on from the ‘The Flying Club Cup’, the ukulele-totin’ die-hards have something new to immerse themselves in. The result of a self-enforced hiatus, ‘The Rip Tide’ is an album that burns much brighter than the more solemn offerings of Beirut’s earlier work and it seems that the time taken to re-focus and re-energise has been well worth the investment – both personally and musically, for Zach.
“I knew a lot of things coming off the last tour last summer,” he says. “I knew that I needed to sit still for more than six months in one place and that the next project was going to be a really big one for me – a really important one – and I already knew that I wanted the next album to be a straightforward pop album. But I needed a lot of time. I bought a house, I got married… so I needed the time to set the stability in my life to do this without going crazy.
“The time in the studio recording with the band was so good for me and so healthy. It made me realise all the struggles and pressures I’d put myself through before was easily lifted off by approaching the whole system differently. As a kid I was scared of studios; I was scared of session musicians; I was scared of chord theory; I was scared of vocal lessons because I thought it would contain something I had that was unique. Who knows what could have happened if I knew more than I did? But I’m over that now.
“I actually had a vocal injury when I was in Brazil, a little polyp, and the option was either have surgery or go to a vocal coach to learn how to sing around it until it heals. So for the first time in my life I saw a vocal coach and she was amazing. I can do things with my voice now that I never thought I could do. I had no idea I could sing in a falsetto or sing in a higher range or give notes character. I think some of the vocals on this record are probably the best takes I’ve done. I’m no longer afraid,” he laughs.
“So given that time and stability, the brighter side was always going to show through in the music. And I meant it to. The funny thing is I wrote this album in a farmhouse during a particularly snowy winter in upstate New York and I had to promise myself I wasn’t going to make a wintery, folky album.”
‘The Rip Tide’ is anything but. It holds the rich variety and old country warmth of the albums that precede it, but there’s also a healthy sense of contentment and optimism that doesn’t just feature; it radiates.
“I’ve just really dug into it and crystallised it and tried to bring it to the forefront. I’m glad to have flirted with a lot of different styles, that’s never a bad thing, but I knew after ‘March of the Zapotec’ – I knew during – that my next album would be a much more straight forward affair. It’s funny – I always thought ‘March of the Zapotec’ and the other EPs were much more playful, but people were confused about what I was going to be doing. I don’t think they realised it was just giving them a fun little gift.”
Daring to be different comes loaded with stereotype, as much as it does anticipation. Having been tagged as the chief purveyor of Balkan-brass to a champion of French culture, the expectation for the alternative has followed Beirut from the outset. It’s an aspect Zach enjoys but also finds one of his biggest challenges – not the exploration of new musical styles but shedding the expectancy that it will always have to be something that doesn’t necessarily walk the line.
“Yeah I definitely dug myself into a hole,” he smiles. “I made it too easy but it’s something I’ve struggled with because to me melody is melody and it should just boil down to how good that melody is. I remember when the first album came out people didn’t know where to put it, but now genres are so burst, record stores don’t even try. They’re just like, ‘fuck it, this was easy in the 90s’,” he laughs.
“I’ve been recording music since I was 15, but the first one to catch on and the one that introduced me to the public was ‘Gulag’ [Orkestar] and it was during a phase when I was head over heels in love with Balkan music, so I was trying to write pop tunes with these flourishes of the way they use brass because I find it really fascinating and I think they use it in a much more interesting way than most Western bands would. At the time it was a big discovery and a big deal to me. It was also my big first step into the public.
“What’s also funny is that for the next album I’d been listening to French music my whole life and to me the French had that style of music down and I looked up to it. It’s funny that I have to try and shake that off again this time round. I put those albums down to youthful indiscretion, but I’m also very proud of them. It’s a nice feeling – with this album I don’t have to act as an ambassador to some culture I don’t belong to.”
It’s arguably a pressure that contributed to some of the early tribulations. At 20, Zach was already facing the exciting prospect of travelling the world off the back of a celebrated debut album. A few years later, the expectation and interest had increased to whole new levels. Having come out of those experiences with the appetite and drive to continue to strive is commendable in its own right – continuing to apply an unyielding personal pressure makes Zach a glutton for punishment.
“I put a huge amount of pressure on myself for this album,” he says. “You always want a masterpiece. I think this album is all about centring myself a little and not haphazardly roaming the world with no plan, so the starting phase of this record was one of the hardest ones I’ve had to deal with. I’ve known what this album was going to be for a long time but because I was having too much fun with the other albums, I knew it was going to be hard this time.
“For ‘The Flying Club Cup’ I’d gone back to New Mexico to kind of recover from the tour cancellation and other shit and while I was doing that I was writing the record and it never felt like it was hard to get going. It was hard to finish but it was really flowing out at the beginning. For ‘The Rip Tide’, probably because I’d taken some time off and didn’t know what to expect, there was a couple of really rough months of self-doubt and frustration, but when I found the groove, oh man, that’s when it got interesting.
“It was actually recorded in three stages: first was writing alone in this farmhouse and then when I’d finished and I’d had enough ideas I scrapped all the demos I’d recorded and just took the chord progressions, melodies, harmonies to the band and we locked ourselves in another studio for two weeks, non-stop. We actually played most of the instrumentals live to tape with all of us in the same room with microphones set up and me conducting and we’d arrange it on the spot. Then I took a long time off settling in to do vocals, which I did in New Mexico. It was a really intense, awesome couple of weeks.”
It’s difficult not to be enamoured by Zach’s enthusiasm. Still only 25, he’s got a world-weary quality that extends beyond his music into his presence. Where ‘Gulag Orkestar’ inspired Baltic cobblestone streets and old men playing accordions for pennies, and ‘The Flying Club Cup’ dropped you into a Parisian backstreet, reliving George Orwell’s ‘Down and Out In Paris and London’, it’s always been more than a simple case of evocative imagery. There’s a sense of a wider displacement; a search for something that’s not quite tangible made richer by the wandering personality Zach has fiercely retained throughout Beirut’s chameleonic life.
“As a teenager I grew up in Santa Fe and there’s this strange disconnect there between me and my home town, so it’s almost like I was homeless from the beginning. It’s a tourist town and the culture’s largely Hispanic/Native American, so there’s all these things that come together that made me some white guy that doesn’t belong there.
“I’ve been back and my opinion on that has changed quite a bit, but because of that it left me looking for a home, and one of the first things that grabbed me as a teenager, and kind of soothed my aching hormones and all that other horrible shit, was the fantasy of the movies I was watching. I was working in a movie theatre that was playing maybe 90% art house European films and I think that had a deep effect on me, maybe deeper than I realised at the time. Maybe it is a bit of a fantasy but I’ve always liked to play with it.”
Tired, happy and increasingly fulfilled: it’s a dangerous combination for complacency but here it’s the catalyst as Zach Condon proves that a troubadour’s spirit never dies.