Beirut: Varieties of Exile
For his latest Beirut offering, Zach Condon celebrates his own sound on a truly global record that is worlds away from his Santa Fe bedroom recordings.
Beirut’s music has always been somewhat of a contradiction. Anyone listening to the band’s unexpectedly lush debut album, 2006’s Gulag Orkestar, could be forgiven for imagining that the record was created by a world-weary troupe of Eastern European musicians, rather than a teenager in his bedroom in Santa Fe, N.M. After all, it’s sonic signatures included a swirl of rich, crackling horns, Balkan-informed beats, and impossibly thick vocal harmonies anchored by a lilting and theatrical lead baritone.
Zach Condon, the mind behind Beirut—as well as the voice, the trumpet, the ukulele, the piano and so on—never meant to portray himself as a traveling troubadour. But a unique debut effort like Gulag Orkestar hits hard and, though Condon has gradually strayed away from those heavy Eastern European influences in the span of four subsequent albums—including Beirut’s latest, Gallipoli—the singer-songwriter admits that, accurate or not, his reputation as a sort of musical Marco Polo has stuck with him.
“There is an image projected of me as this guy who goes to some country and then runs back home to lay down what he heard while traveling,” Condon explains while at home in Berlin, where he’s lived for the past two years. “To me, it couldn’t feel further from the truth. I get more influence from records and movies in the first place. I just go, ‘Oh, wow, listen to that fucking accordion—that sounds amazing! Why didn’t I think of using the accordion more in my songs?’ I’ve allowed it over the years, and sometimes I regret it because it pigeonholes me. In my mind, I’m just writing pop music, but I am trying to be expansive about what I’m listening to and what kinds of instruments I’m using.”
Despite Condon taking a couple of what he refers to as “typical teenage backpacking trips” in Europe, the worldly sound of that first Beirut record can be traced back to a source much closer to home. Condon worked in a local arthouse movie theater for his first job, serving popcorn and, on his off hours, watching the foreign movies that the cinema projected. Now, Condon, an admitted former teenage Francophile, cites French films like Pickpocket and Les Quatre Cents Coups (The 400 Blows), along with the work of Jean-Luc Godard like Week-end and Breathless, as early favorites.
“It’s hard to say what came first—the music or the movie,” Condon reflects, noting that, while he’s considered a foray into filmmaking or at least soundtracking, the idea of working with a large amount of people—or having to write music specifically for a scene or ambience—“sounds like absolute torture.”
The Balkan musical influence was also derived from the movie scores he grew to love at his local cinema, akin to those featured in the works of Bosnian filmmaker Emir Kusturica, which immediately struck Condon and began to soak into the music he was writing. “I was just so fascinated; it was one of those things that I had to try, especially as a brass player,” he says. “Like, why not? And then it came out so grainy and weird and kind of fucked up, but I loved it.”
Even more lasting, perhaps, was the influence of Condon’s older brother, who opened his ears to a variety of genres of increasing obscurity—starting with simply guiding him away from some of the questionable musical fads of his youth.
“I came home with a Green Day CD as an 11 or 12 year old, and he just chucks it out the window and goes, ‘No, at least start with Radiohead!’” Condon recalls with a laugh. “And then he would push me all the way into super ambient German electronica; [my brother] had this crazy thing about that. I don’t know where he was getting this stuff—like, he was trying to get me to read Kierkegaard at the age of 13! But he opened my eyes a lot. And then the theater was playing these Kusturica films, and I heard the brass bands and was just blown away. I knew my aesthetics did not fit in with what I was around. I hated punk-rock. I hated emo. I hated hardcore with a passion. I couldn’t find my place, but I knew that I loved music so much. Then I heard that and just went, ‘Oh, man, fuck all this rock bullshit—what the hell is that?’”
Early on, Condon’s family saw that he was destined for the life of a creative. After he dropped out of high school, he says that his father exasperatedly joked that he was “one of those Condons,” a group that presumably included his cousin Brody, a visual artist 12 years his senior who was an artist-in-residence at the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam when Condon first met him at age 19.
Brody, who helped Condon with the cover art for Gallipoli, along with the video for album single “Corfu,” also played into Condon’s decision to officially move to Berlin after the musician had been spending time flying back and forth between there and New York City during the early portion of the creative process for the new record. The company Brody kept in Europe struck Condon as a welcome respite from the relatively tense vibe he was experiencing back in NYC.
“It just clicked,” Condon says. “It was a quality of life thing, first of all. There seems to be this constant striving in New York that pushes you to think about money and measure your success. What I found in Berlin was people who were working on art and really didn’t give a shit about status. I know this kind of sounds cliché and worn out, but it was a breath of fresh air to me. I would go to someone’s studio and this guy would say, ‘I’m a tape-loop guy.’ He didn’t give a fuck. These people were truly interested in their art and possessed to work, and I like to be around that.”
Once Condon was fully committed to living in Berlin, he says there was “no question” that he wouldn’t be returning to New York City to finish writing and recording Gallipoli, though some of the tracking began in a Manhattan studio. (He also admits that he hates flying, another knock against the prevailing image of him as a constant cultural traveler.) At the recommendation of his bass player, Paul Collins, Condon joined with him and another longtime collaborator, drummer Nick Petree, plus producer Gabe Wax, at a recording studio in Puglia, an area located on the southeastern “heel” of Italy. The new LP and its title track are named for a small town in the region, where Condon and his bandmates had what might be described as a typical—even clichéd—Beirut experience, which Condon decided to lean into while writing the artist’s statement that he shared when announcing Gallipoli to the world.
In it, he writes, “We stumbled into a medieval-fortressed island town of Gallipoli one night and followed a brass-band procession fronted by priests carrying a statue of the town’s saint through the winding narrow streets behind what seemed like the entire town, before returning late to Sudestudio. The next day, I wrote the song I ended up calling ‘Gallipoli’ entirely in one sitting, pausing only to eat.”
And, although Condon’s statement goes on to refer to “Gallipoli” as the song that helped “return [him] to the old joys of music as a visceral experience,” providing “the guiding logic behind much of the album,” he somewhat plays down the experience now.
“I always had a silly fascination with city names, which is contrary to a lot of things,” Condon says. “In the past, it was a kicking-off point to write a story because it tickled the imagination just enough to get going—because I hate lyrics. It feels like a chore. This time around, I was actually being a little tongue-in-cheek. I had this feeling of wanting to be unapologetic about my sound and my image in some ways: ‘Fuck it. I write songs and I stick city names on them, often as placeholders before I have lyrics or anything.’
“You can tell that I am a little conflicted,” he continues, referring to the ongoing battle of artistic self-identity versus public perception. “To me, [‘Gallipoli’] was almost in the vein of ‘Postcards From Italy’ [the ukulele-fueled standout single from Gulag Orkestar], which is a song that I wrote when I was 18 years old living in Santa Fe with no fucking clue what I was doing. [Now,] there are layers of self-awareness that drive me fucking nuts, and sometimes I wish I could just roll with it. [In Gallipoli,] we found this brass band playing and I knew it was one of those little moments that I live for. It was like a movie playing in my head—I was transfixed—and I remember thinking, ‘God, I love the name of this city.’ And, too, ‘Look at us—we are right in the middle of our own cliché! How beautiful is that? We’re like pigs in shit; we love this stuff.’ But it’s not like I went home and said, ‘I gotta write something about that!’ The next day was just another day in the studio using the same organs I had been using back in New York.”
Petree, who has collaborated with Condon and Collins in Beirut for 13 years, has seen his bandleader evolve over the group’s five albums in both musicianship and approach to songwriting. He’s also noticed an increased appreciation for their own live performances, which Petree says Condon was never too fond of when compared to their studio work. Condon admits that he is loathe to relinquish any creative control, though Petree notes that he does take his bandmates’ suggestions, at least when it comes to their own instrumental parts. Above all, though, the Beirut drummer admires Condon’s desire to search for new influences while exploring old themes and still striving to create his own unique style.
“Zach is always looking for new shapes and sounds that will inspire his writing, whether it’s a certain genre of music he’s using as a jumping-off point for his creativity or whether he is just exploring new instruments to write on,” Petree says. “In the beginning, the ukulele and the trumpet were the major sources of inspiration for him, but from [2011’s] The Rip Tide on, he has delved more into the piano, and I think that’s one of the reasons we’ve started to sound more like Western pop music recently. But he will always love the sounds of accordions and other old-world instruments, which will always be a part of the identity of this band. On this new record, Zach is playing more with synthesizers, and it’s fun to incorporate those new sounds with the old—something that he has always done since the very first album.”
And while Condon describes the title track of The Rip Tide as one of his favorite compositions from throughout his career, he also reveals that he experienced some frustrating writer’s block during that album and 2015’s No No No, partly stemming from an admittedly misplaced desire to push back against perceived notions of what he calls the “one-trick-pony style” of his earlier work. On the new album, however, Condon finds solace in returning to what launched his career in the first place: focusing on the songs and not dwelling on outside commentary.
“With Gallipoli, I wanted to celebrate my own sound, personally,” he concludes. “It’s not like I used to obsessively read reviews or anything like that, but they were there and I was aware of them. So I just crawled into a cave and wrote an album for myself. I like to think that it is genreless, and unplaceable in that way. Because of that, it feels pure, like it’s unique to me. In a lot of ways, it’s a combination of everything that came before; I hear a piece of every single record on there. I mean, it has its faults, like every record I have done, which I think people usually tend to accept as the package. For me, it’s really a freedom from self-consciousness. It was pretty liberating.”
This article originally appears in the June 2019 issue of Relix. For more features, interview, album reviews and more, subscribe here.