Sweet 16: The year Beirut’s Zach Condon dreamed of Europe while wishing he was in The Strokes

When he wasn't stealing his father's scooter in the middle of the night

I was living at home with my parents in Santa Fe. We had a nice house, about 15 minutes from the skate park downtown where I’d go most days. I’d skate and chain smoke cigarettes. I was dropping out of school around that time. My insomnia would have started really bad, too. Late nights were making school nearly impossible. I used to leave in the morning, fall asleep in a park, go back home, finish up a song and go to the skate park.

My brothers and I were tight. My older brother, Ryan, was a huge mentor. When I was 14 or 15 I remember bringing home a record, I think it was Green Day, and he just about threw it out the window and said, “you’re not going to listen to this crap.” Then he was feeding me a steady diet of records from people like Boards of Canada, plus more abstract electronic music from Europe. He was a real intellectual.

The flip side was that I used to sneak in The Strokes. It was 2002 and they were maybe my favourite band. I wanted to move to New York and dress in a leather jacket. I used to wear these shiny white loafers, suit jackets and turtleneck sweaters. I remember my brother telling me once, “when you sing, you kind of sound like Julian [Casablancas].” I was like, “yes, oh my God, that’s amazing!” I was real proud.

I was working at this art house film theatre. I spent two years serving popcorn and watching movies. Sixteen was around the time I got fired. There was this kid that was working the concessions stand after I moved up to box office. There was a gallery opening and he asked me to bring him some champagne. I grabbed it for him, he gave me a little cash, and the next day he turned up wasted at work and pointed the finger at me! I hated the job, but I loved the exposure. The cinematic world was a huge escape. I was a very disillusioned, super-depressed teenager. In hindsight I can tell that I was really struggling. I was finding a lot of art house cinema. French new wave, film noir, a lot of Italian films from the Fellini-era but lesser known. That’s also where I discovered Emir Kusturica. Black Cat, White Cat, Underground

I was planning a trip to Europe. I mostly wanted to go to Paris. I had a Lonely Planet Europe guide and bought a Eurorail pass. I didn’t know what the fuck I was gonna do. I knew there were hostels. You’d get to the train station, look at the Lonely Planet and hope they had a room. It was big on my mind.

I was extremely antagonistic towards school. I’m not trying to romanticise it, but I just couldn’t understand the concept of these adults telling me what to do. In my mind it was all very beneath me.

My dad had gotten into scooters. My mum wouldn’t allow motorcycles so he said “well, what about scooters?” He bought two. Late at night I would be doing these recordings, then I would hop on the scooter, because I couldn’t sleep, and I would just drive to downtown Santa Fe as fast I could get that thing to go, which was about 40 MPH tops… if you were going downhilI. I was feeling so exhilarated, feeling like ‘I’m so badass!’.

Santa Fe was a town where there was a lot punk, hardcore and emo bands. All my friends were in bands, so these were the concerts I was going to, but I only went for the social aspect because I hated the music. I was known as the weird kid who really loved synthesisers at the time. I’d got this Oberheim Matrix from this very famous electronic music pioneer because I knew his son. The guy’s name was Morton Subotnick.

I was already fully into the music thing. My room was filled. Piano, organs, amplifier, ukuleles, trumpet and a computer… When I was done at night, I would push the microphones aside, lay the mattress down, and sleep.

As told to: Greg Cochrane

Read previous Sweet 16 columns with the likes of Riz Ahmed, Johnny Marr, Shirley Manson, Matt Helders and many more. Or listen to our Sweet 16 live podcast series.