Just when you think you’ve got Beirut’s Zach Condon figured out, he’ll assure you that you were all wrong to begin with. Typically described as a soft-spoken, semi-reluctant emissary, the horn-blowing, ukulele-plucking vocalist has always seemed elusive.
Condon was just 19 when he released Gulag Orkestar, Beirut’s debut album, in the spring of 2006. Indie rock had already begun embracing folk music as its very own, but it came as a surprise to hear Condon, who also plays organ, percussion, piano, and trumpet, wash his imaginary world with Mexican, French, and eastern European folk mannerisms. After all, this was a teenager living with his parents in New Mexico, writing his first album from his bedroom, giving it a Slavic name, and naming his band after a place he’d never visited.
In 2008, after two brassy, career-launching albums, Condon cancelled his European tour to hide out in Mexico, only rearing his head for 2009’s double EP, March of the Zapotec. After spending six months in a log cabin to write Beirut’s third full-length, The Rip Tide, the ripple effect of touring nearly drowned the lead singer. A hospitalization in Sydney, the demise of his marriage, and a bout of writer’s block all took their toll, forcing the band to cancel every tour date yet again. Beirut’s anchor had hit rock bottom.
It took a trifecta to get Condon moving again: newfound love, a trip to Istanbul, and two of the band’s integral members, Paul Collins and Nick Petree. “They saved me from myself and made me do this record,” he says from his Brooklyn home. “There’s no longer this intention to please anyone but us.”
But forget the stories. You don’t have to understand Condon; you just need to listen. Beirut weaves a feeling of modest confidence and vulnerability throughout the nine tracks of No No No, an album that is comparatively more confessional because of its simplicity. Condon spoke with Consequence of Sound about how this album broke all the rules and ripped open his writer’s block: “All of a sudden I was in a place where I was just reacting musically as if my mind had shut off and my subconscious was taking over, and that was perfect — that was exactly what I wanted all along.”
There’s already a story around the record, with people talking about this album’s music more in the context of how it was made. Do you feel that knowing your backstory is important to understanding the record?
No. If anything, I told the backstory just because I had to explain it. The record should hopefully speak for itself.
I agree, and while the lyrics are important messengers for your story, this does seem like it was a sound-first record. Were you concerned more with the musicality this time?
Honestly, lyrics always take a backseat for me. As far as I’m concerned, the best lyrics in the world are doo-wop lyrics because they’re so easy to ignore, and you can get into the melody and the tone of it all so much more.
What I’m most struck by on the new record are the harmonies of the orchestration. This time there’s something modest and communal about everything. Are you interested in pursuing that angle now? If there are rules to Beirut, I definitely see them being broken here.
There were definitely rules broken — I never thought I would let my hair down, so to speak [laughs]. When I wrote these songs, I was writing them with the other two members that have been with me since Santa Fe. I needed to just let go and let whatever happened happen.
Was it important to have Nick [Petree] and Paul [Collins] working so closely with you? Your relationship with the two of them is a decade old. How involved were they in this process this time around?
In the very beginning — I hate to say this because it doesn’t sound like they were as important as they are, but they came to me. I didn’t have a band. I just did things by myself, and I did it all brutally, like I had no choice. I had no one that had any sort of likeminded sensibilities. So they’ve always been a voice of reason on tours when I get edgy or something. They’re always the ones that cut the tension, and they’re always allowing things to flow. Basically, they were integral. I couldn’t have done it without them. They saved me from myself and made me do this record.
I’ve always thought that the itch to make art involves hiding away. That personal purging is completely opposite to the idea of performance, of being together and having this nurturing output. They are not your usual bedfellows.
That was exactly the problem. I was trying to do this as a selfish concern, and I got in over my head because my concern drifted from the music to what people would think about it. They’re the ones that said, “Well, I think we know a way out of this.”
With their help and a new perspective, do you feel like you’re on the other side of it now?
Oh yeah, absolutely. The walls have come down. That wall that the music should be created for anyone other than yourself and your own enjoyment was absolutely broken down, and that’s the healthiest mentally I can be. Now there’s no longer this intention to please anyone but us.
And make art for art’s sake and not be too conscious of how it’s going to represent you?
Yeah, who’d’ve thunk!
It’s so hard to discern between the two, though. I like the dark sometimes in a musician. Not to say everybody needs to have that life-crumbling process, but I do feel that’s part and parcel of some of the best artistry.
The suffering artist, it’s true. I mean, God, how far back does that ideal go? I’m still on the fence about it, but I do feel like part of the self-destruction I was creating for myself often came from the act of attempting to promote myself. I’m going to be frank right now: I just had a conversation with my mom who was just here. As a young kid, I didn’t think anyone would know what it felt like to come out of Santa Fe and try to get into the music scene. I felt like I had a lot to prove.
What appeals to you about the spirit of this album now, coming from all the things that happened and getting to where you are now?
Mostly the fact that I came out of a period of absolute confusion into a state of focus, and then something happened that tied the record together and realigned the focus in every light.
A lot of it is upbeat. Your last record, Rip Tide, almost seemed like the opposite, as if you had something to say so you built the sounds to say it.
At this point, Rip Tide almost embarrassed me. Going back, I had so much to prove, and I just realized that was the wrong way to approach it. The thing is, you can want to say a lot of things, but what people are really gravitating toward — I think the reason we’ve survived as long as we have is not because of what I wanted to say, but because of the melodic content and the actual emotion behind it.
You’ve always managed to use trumpet, an instrument that’s omnipresent in jazz and doo-wop, in some odd and interesting ways. The horns used to be more textural than melodic, but now they’re knitted in with your voice. I don’t know if that’s a product of you being an artist for so long — have you noticed that?
Oh, yeah, but maybe because I have a better microphone than I used to have [laughs]. There was a point where I was like, “Wait, I can sing after all and I can carry weight somewhere in my voice.” That’s what ties it all together in the end. The rest should really just be used melodically for feeling. I was trying to be really simple and really straightforward, and the lyrics weren’t the point. It was like, “Oh my God, I can play piano with this drummer and this bassist and make motion happen.”
That obviously changed your whole songwriting process. Was there a song you found particularly challenging that Nick and Paul helped you edit down?
There was, definitely. The last song on the album [“So Allowed”] I was just thinking all brass, all these tricks that I got used to over the years because I knew they worked. I had to just do exactly the opposite. So in lieu of the brass section, for example, I put a string section and felt like, “Okay, that would be what the brass section should be.” These things were meant to trip me up, so I kept thinking on my feet.
The song “At Once” in particular really stands out.
That song was huge for me. The big decision was whether to include it in the album because I didn’t know if it would come across wrong. There’s two songs on this album that are old, actually, that I recorded years ago, and that one I couldn’t let go. A lot of it was because the simplicity of the lyrics made the voice feel clearer, and also that brass part seems integral to the album in some way. I don’t know why, but that brass part raised the hair on my neck. I did it with Ben Lanz and Kyle Resnick who we have toured with and who have played with us for six years. I just made us improvise over this one chord progression literally three times in a row. Three people, three times in a row – nine players stacked on top of each other. We didn’t redo it once. I just thought it needed to be there because it speaks to the whole Beirut record collection.
It really feels like a movement toward another direction.
Absolutely. It’s the one song that I played the percussion on as well. It’s really sloppy, but that was the point. The whole thing is a lament to everything that was going on at the time, and that brass ring, once we built it and stacked it up, I was like, “I’m keeping all three of those takes.” We just looked at each other and were like, “Shit, well, that’s kinda beautiful.” We didn’t expect that to come out.
The song is so naturally fluid. It feels like the moment you fell in love, too — not necessarily romantically, but with the music again.
I did, and I know. Now you’re making me think I need to work a little harder on the live set. It was one of those necessary moments because the rest of the album is all this moving away from exactly that, and you can literally hear the transition from, “Okay, I think I got it, but now I’m going to try something else.” That’s exactly what we needed to do.
Obviously, you went through such personal confusion before you wrote the album, and now what’s come out is the raw purity of your sound. So how do you make sure you don’t wind up in that knot again? How do you make sure this is good for you and it doesn’t send you spiraling?
That was the big struggle, and that’s why it took outside forces to change how I started and finished the album. The entire album is: “How can I not do this again but still make something beautiful?” I feel like I’ve spent many years squashed into a lyrics box and confined in a certain way, and that really got to me. It bothered me in a big way. The way out was so simple it’s kind of stupid. I’m doing this interview because I got out of it.
We have to do promotion, promotion, promotion, but the funny thing is, this album ripped open all the writer’s block I was feeling and all the uneasiness, it just ripped it apart, because all of a sudden I was in a place where I was just reacting musically as if my mind had shut off and my subconscious was taking over, and that was perfect. That was exactly what I wanted all along. I realized that when I’m not thinking, things tend to happen.