Beirut's Zach Condon: Young Success 'Fucked With a Lot of Things' -- Interview
I recently sat down with Beirut front man Zach Condon at his new Williamsburg, Brooklyn apartment, where he lives with his girlfriend. After spending the summer in Paris, the 21-year-old multi-instrumentalist and Santa Fe native returned to another round of critical fawning timed to the October 9 release of his band’s second CD, The Flying Cup Club. Speaking from the yet-unfurnished room that will serve as his new studio, Condon talked about the perils of fame at a young age, brass, quitting school, and his new tattoos. Beirut will play October 8 and 9 at Herbst Theater.
So, you prefer recording at home?
Yeah. I really don’t do too well in a studio situation. I hate studios. They promise a lot that they can’t really deliver on, like, ‘Whatever sound you have in mind.’ Often, that’s not the case. You get the sound they have in mind. So, you don’t have room for experimentation, at least not enough.
Where was your new album recorded?
It started off in Albuquerque, New Mexico; I took over this place that used to be owned by A Hawk And A Hacksaw, that had this giant dance studio, wooden floors, nice view of Albuquerque. (Laughs.) I took over the space and just filled it with instruments. I did 90 percent of the album there, and eventually we headed up to Quebec with Owen Pallett, who invited us to the Arcade Fire’s studio. He traded some string arrangements to get time, free reign of the studio, actually. It’s a musicians dream up there, harpsichords, pianos.
After I recorded the album I moved to Paris, and I’ve been living there until now. I was staying in the 20th. I love it there, it’s super-functional. They have this thing, “free bike,” you put your card in, take the bike out for an hour, go anywhere across the city, and just drop it off at another station. When I moved back here I was like, ‘Oh no, New York Subway again, 45 minutes to get anywhere in town.’ In Paris, that’s preposterous. It’s such a functional, easy city. The pace is right. It’s built for humans, you know? It’s not meant to stress you out, to stretch you thin, to make you work for anything. It’s built to help you, it’s built for you to enjoy yourself. American cities are just put together for pure functionality. They’re just not meant to be beautiful or have much character.
What else were you doing in Paris?
I was playing music. I played with Kocani Orchestar, they’re a Macedonian brass band. They rearranged some songs of mine for a live show, and I just sang over them. It was super amazing. I dropped a trumpet and totally destroyed it — bent the bell way out of shape. [A band member] didn't speak any English, he just kept gesturing at it and shaking his head. Then he grabbed the bell, and just started rubbing a beer bottle across it, molding it back into shape.
Your new album has guitar, where the previous one didn’t.
There’s acoustic, nylon-string guitar. I’ve been listening to too much music that has it, and uses it so well, to ignore it. And it was never some adolescent reactionary thing in the first place -- it wasn’t a gimmick. I just can’t play the guitar, and I’ve never really liked the tambour of distorted guitars; sonically, it just wasn’t very interesting to me at all. But now I’ve just been listening to really good Bossa Nova, and Tropicalia, and stuff like that. [Bandmate] Jason [Poranski] originally came to me as a guitar player, and there were no songs for guitar, so he played strings, but slowly he started working guitar into the songs in a really amazing way, so that comes out in the album. A kind of subtle mix with the upright bass, and the accordion and that kind of thing.
There’s a strong French influence.
There’s a varied sound, I’ve created throughout the recording. What I’m listening to sneaks in the edges, and I like to try push it into an uncomfortable place that I’m not used to. At the time [of recording this album] I was definitely obsessed with French chanson, so it’s definitely taking cues from that, expanding the orchestration. Big voices and stories, and the orchestration would follow the story. The promo calls it, ‘The French Album,’ basically, but I was also taking cues from other places. It’s no lie; I am a Francophile in a lot of ways, always have been.
Why was your tour cut short last year?
We'd been touring for two months. We’d done all of the United States, basically, at that point, and then we flew to Europe. I was running on no sleep, in a bad place actually, and by the time we got to Europe I was discombobulated all the time, had no idea where I was. I would walk out into the street, and people would grab me because cars were coming. I talked to a couple of doctors, and they said I seemed fine, I just hadn't slept in two months.
This tour seems a little more relaxed. You’re only hitting a few U.S. cities.
It’s much more relaxed, and for that reason. I’m not a tour monster. I just wasn’t made for that. Also I feel like, it’s a great thing when you show up in town just once a year, to make your shows more of an event. You put more into it, as well.
Those tattoos on your wrists, they’re French horns?
I'm obsessed with brass — it was almost like sealing my fate. I got them while I was recording the [new] album, actually, right when I turned 21. This was after the tour that nearly killed me.
How did you meet your girlfriend?
I’ve known her since I was 17, actually, back in New Mexico. She keeps popping up, and taking care of all the details. I’m a total ‘space’ when it comes to organization. So, she takes care of that. We have a manager, but, when it comes to, like interviews and stuff, she says, ‘You have five minutes before someone else is coming in.’
My brother is a huge 4AD fan, and he insisted I ask about any label gossip.
Nothing that I can really say. [Laughs.] Kim Deal is back in business. I met her, she’s really sweet.
Anyone on the label you especially admire?
I’m a huge Cocteau Twins fan; they’re absolutely amazing. And I really love those guys in TV On The Radio. I used to live in Greenpoint, the same street that they recorded on. Every single day, I would see Kyp on the street. If you can imagine how funny that guy was in the middle of Greenpoint. A bunch of, like, short Polish people, and then this guy with an afro out to here and a huge beard. Everyone stared at him, it was really funny.
Have you ever meet your hero, Stephin Merritt?
I met him in New York last year. Strange connection. Some of the first music I ever recorded was based on his stuff, so meeting him was really hilarious. It was like, we should have had a conversation, but we sort of just awkwardly talked about ukuleles for a few minutes. I didn’t know what to say. You think you should have something to say in those situations, but you never do. You realize that in the long run you don’t really have too much in common with this person besides, maybe, music.
Where did your parents grow up?
My dad grew up as a greaser in Middlesex, New Jersey. He got away from that at just the right time. He never talks about it. I only know that because his brother told me, ‘Oh yeah, your daddy used to steal cars. He had nasty hair.’ My mom ran away from St. Louis back in the ‘70s, to go to New Mexico, back when Santa Fe still had a real art scene, before it was just a tourist trap. They both had big dreams, as far as that stuff, but once they had kids…My mom was a painter, a good one too. My dad spent a lot of time trying to become a musician, and then he decided to do something weirder, which was becoming an archeologist. My older lives in New York, no too far from here. I see him every day. We’re really close, all three of my brothers, actually.
So, how has being in the public eye at a young age affected your personal development?
That’s such a hard question. It’s changed everything. It's fucked with a lot of things, but I was asking for it. I left school at a very young age. I was super aggressive about doing this. Adolescent stupidity just kept me going, saying, 'It'll work eventually.' And it did. Hopefully.
Being in the public eye…People tell me that they read somewhere I was at a show last night. Or, I’ll try to tell them a story and they’ll be like, ‘Yeah, I read that.’ That kind of stuff is absolutely insane, that I’ve gotten to that point. The thing is, you can’t process it all, so that you just live with it. You kind of just become two different people. In public, I’m a very different person, and I’ve learned to be one, on stage, after the show. Sometimes I blur the lines, and fuck that up.
You said last year that you felt lyric writing was almost a chore. Do you still feel that way?
No, I’m kind of excited about it now, that I can write these stories, and these characters, and have these locations in my mind. But still, when I listen to music I never listen to lyrics until I’ve gotten extremely used to the song. I always just listen to melody first. My dad used to make fun of me because I couldn’t memorize Beach Boys songs. Lyrics are still not the same joy for me as writing a melody.
How many times a day do you check your email?
That’s practically Luddite status.
Yeah, I’m practically under a rock with that stuff.
Writers are often taught to ‘Write what you know.’ Do you feel like your songwriting is kind of the antithesis of that?
Yeah. That’s the idea. I think there’s something interesting…to just run with a fantasy of something, like, writing about a place you’ve never been to, and acting like you’re a character from there, and you’re part of that place. Even if you’re totally off, you’ve still invented something very fresh. For me, it’s not really an experiment, it’s the way I work.
That’s kind of what Bob Dylan did when he came to New York.
Totally, although mine is much more obviously fantastical. Nostalgic. When I grew up, I was a daydreamer. I didn’t like what I knew. I liked what I didn’t have.
Last question. You dropped out of four different colleges, right? Which ones?
I dropped out of high school too! (Laughs.) All right, there was Santa Fe Community College, UNM (University of New Mexico), and TVI (the former name of Central New Mexico Community College). Also, actually, I went to SVA – School of Visual Arts – here in New York, for about a week. I was so notoriously bad at school; I couldn’t get it together to do that work. Not that I have anything against it. I think it’s quite logical for most people. UNM actually asked us to come play a show. I had dropped out of UNM in a very bad way. I got a call while I was literally walking to class that [BadaBing Records’] Ben Goldberg wanted to release [my] album. It was my first month of school. I literally threw my backpack on the ground on the spot, and I told him, ‘Yeah, I’m coming out to New York, I’ll meet you there.’ And then I just turned around and walked home that day. I’m sure all my teachers said, ‘Where did he go? Wasn’t there another kid in this class?’