Thanks to what he’s accomplished in a couple of short years with Beirut, Zach Condon has built a reputation as one of the most visionary upstarts in the indie nation. When he picks up the phone in his adopted hometown of New York City, though, DIY’s current golden child suggests he’s not quite as brilliant as his admirers think. In fact, he’s just come from a band practice that has him thinking he’s failing at his latest endeavour: taking the spirit of indigenous music he recently fell for in Oaxaca, Mexico, and using it to reinvent his songs.
“Sometimes I’m amazed at how quick and how easy it is to adapt the music of other places,” Condon says, on his cellphone while making a cigarette run to the store. “This time, it’s been rather difficult—we’re still working on it. I feel this is something that’s not translating well. It’s funny—some of the previous stuff we’ve done, even though the musicianship was amazing, was easier to tap into than what we’re doing now.”
What makes this struggle surprising is that the 22-year-old seems like he’s never had to work at taking the music of other countries and shaping it into something new. In 2006, the soft-spoken Condon went from Williamsburg–via–Sante Fe nobody to blogger-blessed breakout artist, thanks to Beirut’s Balkan-flavoured debut, Gulag Orkestar. As Gorilla vs Bear devotees know, at the age of 17 Condon visited Paris, where he discovered throwback-Gypsy artists like Goran Bregovi? via roving street bands. He then set about the process of assembling a band and trying to do justice to the music he’d heard.
“It’s this thing—and it’s always the case—where you don’t want to be a cultural tourist,” he says. “You want to find something that resonates with you. I think a good way of looking at it is that at home, you hear all sorts of bands. Every now and then one pops up, and you think, ”˜I wish I’d done that myself.’ Obviously, it’s in some way going to seem like some vulture thing, but, I don’t know, I guess that’s all right.”
Condon returned to the streets of Paris for last year’s The Flying Cup Club, which was deservedly hailed as one of 2007’s best releases. This time, however, Beirut’s songs sound more inspired by Jacques Brel than old-world Serbia. Condon’s second long-player imagines life on the Left Bank as a sepia-toned dream, the romanticism ramped up by magnificently wavering vocals, wheezing accordions, and the sweeping string arrangements of Final Fantasy’s Owen Pallett.
“The Flying Cup Club was me really, really wholeheartedly falling in love with old-school French music, and then just decided to really, really go for it,” he says. “I basically can’t write a song unless I’m bat-shit in love with something.”
Judging by what we hear on The Flying Cup Club, Condon fell hard for bal-musette. Purposely ramshackle, gorgeously cinematic, and spine-chillingly atmospheric, “Nantes”, “A Sunday Smile”, and “Cliquot” are nothing less than transportive. If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to stumble out of a side-street tavern in Paris, bombed on Beaujolais as the sun sets on the Champs Elysées, the answer lies here.
Pulling The Flying Cup Club together conceptually are yellowed photographs unearthed in France and tinny between-songs transmissions that sound like they were broadcast from the Eiffel Tower circa 1922. As on Gulag Orkestar, Beirut’s great trick is sounding totally legit, as opposed to Condon and his supporting cast of indie-nation hipsters playing at being something they clearly are not.
In fact, given how effortless it all seems, it’s strange that Condon’s current attempt to give Beirut’s songs a Mexican-flavoured make-over is proving so difficult.
In + out
Zach Condon sounds off on the things that enquiring minds want to know.
On the challenge of capturing the music of Oaxaca: “The obvious thing is the sheer volume of the sounds. In Mexico, I was recording a 17-piece group of pure brass instruments. Trying to fit that melodically into a smaller group is difficult.”
On reinventing his band: “When I first met the people I play with, I had to teach them to play a little bit sloppier, a little bit looser. Now I feel like I’m having to reteach them to play this kind of music. I guess it’s a case of ”˜Here we go again.’ We’re in a position where we’re having to relearn what we do.”
On being asked to create the soundtrack for Sin Nombre: “I freaked. I couldn’t do it. I choked. Not only could I not create a world of sound for someone else’s vision, I also realized I would be incredibly unsatisfied if I did.”
Beirut’s main man found himself in Oaxaca after being approached to do the soundtrack for Sin Nombre, a Sundance-backed movie about Central Americans who ride freight trains across Mexico and into the United States in search of a better life. He was given reference music that he instantly adored, which got him stoked on the idea of recording a small-town, church-sponsored funeral band. The movie’s director, up-and-comer Cary Fukunaga, ended up wanting conventional soundtrack music, but that didn’t stop the songwriter from making the journey anyway, eventually returning to the U.S. with an idea that’s proving tough to execute.
“I had no idea that this reference material that was really beautiful was coming out of Mexico,” Condon says. “I always thought of Mexican music as mariachi and norteño, but this stuff was very martial and naive, almost like the raw roots of oompah music. So I went down to this small town and recorded music that will be on a new EP, but I’m also trying to adapt some of the material so we can tour and play it live. We’ve basically been on tour with the same material for a year and a half, so I wanted to change it up a bit.”
That’s admirable because no one would have been disappointed if he’d stuck to the sound that made The Flying Cup Club one of the most enchanting records of the decade. Or Condon could easily have revisited Gulag Orkestar, where, even though he wasn’t old enough to drink in America, he sounded like he’d spent a lifetime living down the street from Serbian trumpet legend Boban Markovi?.
Instead, he’s chosen to challenge himself when he could have taken the easy route.
The downside to being one of the most in-demand bands on the booming indie circuit is that it’s tempting to start putting commerce before art. Condon is obviously aware of that, which explains why, a couple of weeks back, he called off a hotly anticipated European tour, knowing full well the financial implications of doing so.
“One of the reasons I decided to cancel it was that I felt like I was on some sort of bizarre career trajectory that I had never foreseen,” he reveals. “People involved in this project had become so intense that I had realized that things were no longer in my control. Basically I’m being pushed beyond my means by everyone around me, and I don’t even understand why.
“Those people have helped me out to no end—I wouldn’t have a career without them,” he continues. “At the same time, I realized I could take a step back. So after I finish up these records that I’ve been doing, I’m going to go to Morocco for a year.”
For all that he’s accomplished with Beirut to date, somehow you just know that Condon is headed places that will show he’s just getting started.
Beirut plays the sold-out Commodore Ballroom next Thursday (May 22).