Zach Condon doesn’t know what you’re going to make of the new Beirut album, a record plagued by mental health, and one that bypasses the fantasy sounds of his early adventures in Europe
Zach Condon always looked like a World War II evacuee. Cherub-faced, porcelain-skinned, wavy of hair, in a tidy blazer and open-neck shirt, there he stood, as if on the platform of a country village railway station, with a musical instrument from another time tucked under his arm – a trumpet or a French horn or a ukulele. In 2006, when he released ‘Gulag Orkestar’ – his first album as Beirut – no other act at the coalface of new millennial indie looked or sounded remotely like him, and Condon’s singular and complete vision (and fantasy) has endured on a diet of uniqueness and self-imposed pressure. Even when he was buddied up with other non-dance-punk acts of the day, like Arcade Fire, Final Fantasy and Patrick Wolf, it was only earthy, old country instruments that they really shared in common – nobody else was utilising pianos, accordions, strings and a hell of a lot of brass to make Balkan folk and Sicilian funeral music. The only records that have resembled ‘Gulag Orkestar’ since are Beirut’s following two albums and his clutch of EPs.
Condon is now 29 and still lives in Brooklyn where his project began in earnest, although as a young American obsessed with Europe he’s spent plenty of time away from his adopted hometown. He looks less like a paragon of virtue hiding out from the Luftwaffe these days, although his perfect mop of hair is still a style (and non-style) of its own, and he still looks good in a shirt with buttons. His three-day stubble tells the story of his last three years, which haven’t been easy, and he arrives at his new practice studio in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, as you’d imagine anyone else to who’s suffered from chronic insomnia their whole life – squinting into 10am white light and introducing himself in a low, slow register that lingers for our few hours together.
Later this month, Beirut will release his (or, more so than ever this time around, their) fourth album, but ‘No No No’ has been no walk in the park – “More like a frozen waterfall and an ice pick and snow cleats climb,” says Condon.
In 2013, whilst touring his 2011 album, ‘The Rip Tide’, Condon was hospitalised in Australia due to exhaustion whilst simultaneously going through a divorce. He convalesced in Brooklyn and summered in Istanbul where he fell in love, but creatively, for the first time, he became crippled by self-doubt. Writer’s block got the better of him as he scrapped albums and albums worth of material.
Condon has a history of battling anxiety. In the past he’s spoken candidly about the stage fright he suffers from (which has led to panic attacks that have cancelled tours before now), and Australia wasn’t the first time he was hospitalised due to exhaustion. “You could go on,” he tells me. “I’ve got manic depression, I’ve got an intense fear of flying – you could go on and on.” Insomnia feeds off mental torture and I believe Condon when he stresses that it’s one of the most frustrating things in the world.
“It should be so easy to switch it off and go to sleep – it’s that fucking simple, right? – but it’s not, and so you’re going through these nights, and you’re up by yourself and the world shuts down – even here in New York, you’re utterly alone after a certain point. And you’ll go through these epic mental wars throughout the night, and then the sun will rise and they’ll all seem so petty and stupid. And people will wake up and you’ll start socialising, and you’ll be like, ‘where did I just go, because this is not the same reality as 3 or 4 o’clock this morning.’ And it’s this weird, awful feeling. How do you explain that to the people around you? What I went through last night while you were asleep felt like one of the most epic battles of my life, and you just cruise through life.
“But they’re all mental,” he says. “All these issues, they’re all in my head, and that’s what you realise. So if anyone else got the luck it was the luck to just be content.”
The pressure he puts upon himself, he says, is getting worse. “I’m more self-aware, too. I like to think that coming from an ethnically Irish Catholic family, we just love to make ourselves suffer.” He laughs.
So Zach Condon was tearing his hair out writing music only to throw it in the bin, until his core band mates, bassist Paul Collins and drummer Nick Petree, did something about it. In a much grottier practice space than the one we’re sat in (Beck is currently rehearsing upstairs), a mile up the road under the Manhattan Bridge, they convinced Condon to put in a 9 to 5 day with them, Monday to Friday. “We just used field recorders, and we’d just jam, which is a word I hate,” says Condon. “I’d usually burn that to the ground, and they knew that too, but that’s what we did.”
He describes that dank room in Dumbo as a dungeon, and points out that the rust on an amplifier beside us is from the moisture that would cling to and drip from the walls and ceiling. It would constantly make their acoustic instruments detune, and while on a 31-degree day like today it would be unbearably hot inside, in the depth of New York’s coldest winter in recent times the three of them would sit tight to a space heater with scarfs wrapped around their heads. “We’d do really silly shit and then something would catch,” he says. “We’d pursue that idea a tiny bit and before I could get all wrapped up and confused about it we’d move on to the next thing – on and on until it became apparent that we had a decent batch of songs to work on.”
‘No No No’ is Beirut’s first album to have been written like that, and the first that was composed in New York. It’s important because place has always been two thirds of Condon’s inspiration and all of his romantic Interrailer identity – his track titles include ‘Brandenburg’, ‘Rhineland’, ‘Nantes’, ‘East Harlem’, ‘Bratislava’ and ‘Postcards From Italy’, to name few. In the past, he’d travel and either retreat to New Mexico, where he grew up, to write, or make for the solitude of upstate New York. “Here never felt like an appropriate place to work,” he says, “because the city was where things happened, but not music, not writing.”
“I was convinced that Europe would be like walking through an old French film,”
Condon always preferred Brooklyn to Manhattan, way before that was what you were meant to say. Like so many things in his life, he was introduced to it by his older brother, Ryan, who’d moved to New York for college, from the family home in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Condon first visited his brother’s Broadway apartment in 2001: “And that to me was the most romantic thing in the world,” he says, “but Broadway was a shit show back then – it was a mess. My brother wouldn’t let me walk around on my own, that’s for sure.
“New York is meant to be a shock to the system. That’s what makes it so exciting. In my mind, it played out like a fucking movie, which is kind of how I’ve lived a lot of my life, and I feel like I’m only just beginning to snap out of it.”
Condon has a younger brother, too (Ross plays in garage band Total Slacker), but the influence of Ryan – a writer – cannot be overstated. Back home in Santa Fe, before he was sneaking the middle child into Brooklyn clubs and art spaces like Galapagos, it was Ryan who schooled Zach in European cinema, returning home each night with a different foreign language film and sitting his brother down in front of them. “He was also the guy who… I’d bring home a Primus CD and he’d throw it out the window and give me [Brazilian IDM musician] Amon Tobin or something,” says Condon. “Ryan moulded me in some ways.”
Ryan wrote all of Beirut’s early blog posts, and a short story of his appears on the back sleeve of 2007’s ‘The Flying Club Cup’. In 2009, Condon, who’s never enjoyed writing lyrics for his songs, told Loud And Quiet that he tries to sync his voice (or words) with Ryan’s because he likes the way that he writes, and in an email exchange a couple of weeks after we met in Brooklyn, he wrote to me: “He was always there, he moulded my listening experience as a kid as well as providing me lyrics for years after. Ryan was always the voice of reason. We never fell out so much as life just took us apart enough that we’re both still shaking our heads wondering where the time went. Ryan’s particular voice will always be the voice in my head. The band knows this. He encouraged me more than anyone ever has when I got my hands on recording equipment. If you like my music than you like where Ryan as an older brother steered me – nothing could mean more. He also introduced me to skateboarding, snowboarding – the guy is a genius and I’ll always love him. I wish more people could see what an inspiration he is – there is no Beirut without Ryan. He saw my love of the things I do now and legitimised them, gave them a name.”
Zach Condon learned nothing in school, which is why he dropped out. Which is completely different to learning nothing in school because you dropped out. New Mexico, he tells me, has the worst school attendance records in the United States, which falls in line with the colloquial term for capital city Santa Fe – ‘The Land of Manana’. Instead, he got a job at a cinema that exclusively played foreign movies, which made up his mind that he needed to go to Europe. Two trips at the age of 17 and 19 essentially resulted in Beirut and ‘Gulag Orkestar’ – an exotic, homemade homage to baroque pop, gypsy and Balkan folk, Mariachi trumpets and the kind of theatrical bohemia and otherness that can only come from the giddy adventure of a man or woman while they’re still young enough to be so simply enthralled by something that they want to give it a go themselves. ‘Gulag Orkestar’ was a success due to its unpretentious fandom as much as the talents of its arranger; the following Serge Gainsbourg- and Yé Yé Girls-inspired ‘The Flying Club Cup’, too.
For a couple of years, Condon spent a majority of interviews talking about Europe, enough, you’d imagine, to put him off the place altogether. But its significance still looms large – larger than ever, perhaps – as he makes music further removed from the traditional sounds he once mined. He says: “‘Gulag…’ is this kid’s complete and utter fanaticism of this new style of music he’s just discovered and everything after that is me chilling out and opening up and remembering to write music and not just devote my time to being something else.
“I was convinced that Europe would be like walking through an old French film,” he remembers. “And then I had all of these ideals of social and political standpoints that I thought these American hicks will never understand. It’s not the case – every place is nearly as backwards as the next. The mind sees what it wants to see, so I nestled into it quite nicely.
“My first stop was London, which I was more confused by than anything else, and I was so eager to get to France I can remember taking the train to Paris and getting out at the Gare Du Nord – it was epic, seeing it for the first time. It absolutely lit up my brain in a way I’d never experienced before.
“A big thing in my family is architecture,” he continues, “and to be in a place where that’s an actual thing was… Downtown Santa Fe is gorgeous, I should say, but America to me is just this suburban sprawl of nothingness, nothingness, nothingness; everywhere you go feels like nowhere. Suddenly, in the first time in my life, in every direction that I looked there was beauty, and it absolutely blew my mind. There was a guy pissing on the station, asking me if I wanted a ride, and even that was beautiful.”
Condon doesn’t speak rapidly in our morning together, but he enthuses about Europe like he does no other subject. He’s now engaged to a girl from Istanbul, and has spent the last four years visiting Turkey, learning the language and studying areas and maps of the city. He’s modest when I point out how quickly he picked up and replicated the complexities of Southeast European Romani music as a 19-year-old – all those happy squeezeboxes and forlorn trumpets. “I’m just a good parrot,” he insists. “It’s why I’m good at picking up languages and accents and key phrases that make it sound like I know what the fuck I’m doing. And then after that you’re just going to get a blank stare. I still can’t really play that music.”
There are few images more romantic than that of an American in Europe, and even if you take away the melancholic swell of Beirut’s music, he’s still out there doing what F. Scott Fitzgerald and Earnest Hemingway were doing – treading the foothills, tearing up Paris and eventually finding the time to create something that truly justifies their being there. He says that New York is “too fucking necessary” to permanently live anywhere else, but of course it’s the back and forth that’s most romantic of all. “The music scene isn’t like it is here anywhere in the world,” he says, “not LA, not London, and those are the two big gravitational pulls, but we’re right in the fucking centre of it. Always have been, always will be.”
Condon is under no illusion that he’s not a kid from Albuquerque, USA, either. Or at least he isn’t any more. He picked up a trumpet to rebel against his New Jersey-born, rock and pop-loving father, but the records of his childhood home (Bruce Springsteen, The Beach Boys, Motown and doo-wop) have left their mark too, and ‘Gulag Orkestar’’s comparisons to Neutral Milk Hotel were never unfounded or contested by Condon, a fan. When he says: “‘Gulag…’ is this kid’s complete and utter fanaticism of this new style of music he’s just discovered and everything after that is me chilling out and opening up,” or, “[New York] played out like a fucking movie, which is kind of how I’ve lived a lot of my life, and I feel like I’m only just beginning to snap out of it,” he’s pointing to ‘No No No’, an album that might sound less like Beirut to us, but sounds most like him to Condon.
“You have to imagine that where I’ve totally inhabited this fantasy for so long – this otherness – I tend to forget what’s actually there,” he says at one point. And earlier when we discuss Santa Fe: “I think it led to a lot of my ambitions, because it’s a very isolated place. It doesn’t concern itself with the outside world, which is a good thing now, and I fucking love that place to death, but as a kid my ambitions were well beyond my means. It made me struggle to be someone I’m absolutely not, and I tried so hard to do that that I probably confused myself and have been working my way backwards ever since, but the fantasy had become the utter reality.”
‘No No No’ is Beirut’s most concise album yet, picking up where ‘The Rip Tide’ left off. “That album was me trying on my own sound again, but it was still rough around the edges,” says Condon. “This one is very much… the clothes fit.”
If you were hoping for a return to grandiose funeral horns and jittery accordions, stop – it really is an album mostly made up of a drummer, bassist and piano player freezing their arses off during a New York winter. And yet it’s Condon’s most joyous collection of songs, perhaps most of all because it embodies the relief of finally getting it made after a period of severe turmoil. The brass featured – now an accompaniment rather than the main attraction – is paired down, leaving Condon’s curling, melancholic croon centre-stage. It makes you realise that his sad voice has been the most important element of his music all along, even though tells me: “If I could change one thing in this world, music wouldn’t have words.” I’m sure that telling him that wouldn’t put his mind at ease. The fact remains that he is extremely anxious about how his new album is going to be received.
He reckons the doubt has always been there, but it was once overpowered by “youthful vigour and enough cocky confidence as a post-teenager to just get it out there and be convinced that someone would want to hear it.” At 29, Condon is acutely aware that there are certain expectations of a Beirut record, and worse still, they’re expectations of a fantasy version of himself that no longer exists.
He knows that it’s all in his head, and tells me so with a noted air of frustration and shake of the head more than once. Denial would be even more destructive and he knows it.
“I’m fully aware of it,” he says. “I’m not exactly the mentally healthiest person I know, but I put up a good fight.
“The older I get the more I realise that [the anxiety] won’t go away, so I just try not to lose my head over it every time. There’s the young, bratty teenage part of me that wants to be like, ‘that’s what gives me my edge and keeps me on my toes and makes me interesting,’ but wouldn’t it be fucking nice to not have to deal with that.”
Maybe it is what gives you your edge, I say.
“Maybe, but I try not to play into that because it will lead to places like denial.
“I need to let go of the album now, which is what I’m doing. When I’m not listening to it, I’m filled with anxiety. I’m afraid that old fans aren’t going to like it, I’m afraid that new kids aren’t going to get it. I’m afraid that critics are going to be like, ‘oh, he’s trying to be this…’ Shit like that. When I actually calm the hell down and listen to it, I find myself really pleasantly surprised, like, ‘this is fun! This is actually quite enjoyable, and it’s thick and there are good melodies, and it’s all things you’ve wanted out of an album.’ These songs make me happy; they’re nice. But when I’m not listening to it, philosophically I can’t wrap my head around it and I have these fears it’s going to be taken the wrong way.”
Over email I asked Condon exactly what he meant by that. He replied: “Being disingenuous, I guess – like every note didn’t matter as much as the rest.”
“I feel like in some ways I’m not giving people enough credit,” he told me in Brooklyn, “and that it’s just my own dismissive and judgmental mind. But I feel like people get used to you, and there’s a certain image I have. When you’ve been around long enough you can easily get pigeonholed into certain ideas. And so to literally write an album where you say, ‘only do what comes naturally, don’t ever think about that,’ that is unnatural.
“So much of it is in my head.”
Condon was filled with similar dread when he released double EP ‘March of the Zapotec/Holland’ in 2009. The record’s first half was business at usual, including the almost caricature oompah of ‘The Shrew’, but ‘Holland’ wasn’t even a Beirut release – it was Condon as Realpeople, his electronica project that harked back to his teenage years listening to IDM. Exotic track titles and songs about places remained (‘The Concubine’, ‘Venice’ and the brilliantly evocative ‘My Night with a Prostitute from Marseille’), but ‘My Night…’ sounded more like The Postal Service than anything else, and ‘Venice’ was completely ambient. Condon was concerned then, too, and ‘March of the Zapotec/Holland’ is widely considered his greatest release to date. He’s definitely more unpredictable than he realises, and just as few fans jeered “Judas” after he displayed such a love for electronic music, ‘The Rip Tide’ (a less brassy, more conventionally structured record than Beirut’s first two) didn’t have them running for the hills either.
‘No No No’ is Condon’s next logical step in presenting his true self, and so it is that he’s dialled down the idiosyncratic sounds that fuelled the days when he was living in a film and exploring the world. He’s still hopelessly romantic, though, and his new record still yearns and aches like only a Beirut album can.
“It’s entirely a letting go type album,” he tells me before his scaled down band of four arrive to continue a week of rehearsals. “The whole place leading up to that, it was like, ‘you’d better fucking enjoy yourself at this point, you fought for it.’”