Interview – Zach Condon of Beirut August 5, 2011

This is one of those interviews where I’m dry. Dry mouthed, dry witted and dry with my questioning. I don’t try to be, but I’m so intimidated by a major figure of my adolescence that I freeze up. I always think it might be to deprive whichever purveyor of Clinton-swooning of the opportunity to be a dick and shatter my fantasies about them. Luckily, Zach Condon of Beirut (who wrote my second favorite song of all time and one record in my top ten) was not a dick. Quite the opposite. Coming fresh off a stand overseas and probably jet-lagged to hell, he gave a great interview, despite my efforts to sabotage it with nerves. Originally appeared in BeatRoute Magazine.

“It’s a tender moment when you reveal your new song,” says Zach Condon. The leader, vocalist and multi-instrumentalist behind the bedroom-project-turned-group-effort Beirut has returned to touring after a long hiatus following his well received sophomore album The Flying Club Cup. Exhausted by the rigours of an extended tour, they’re supporting their latest LP, The Rip Tide, with renewed energy. “Flying Club Cup and the other things took me for a ride and I knew if I was going to do it again I was going to need a rest.”

Their first LP since 2007 and separated a half decade from the breakout Gulag Orkestar, The Rip Tide represents a culmination of sorts. While Gulag Orkestar, The Flying Club Cup and the 2009 EP March of the Zapotec were preoccupied with regional sounds, The Rip Tide compromises that conceptual thread in a gluttonous way – it combines everything. “I knew about a year ago what I wanted the album to sound like. I’ve flirted with a lot of styles. Musical growing pains,” says Condon. Through all the variation, he recognized there were commonalities in his work. “I just noticed that there’s a thread that connects all of them, even if I’m recording with an 17-piece marching band from Mexico.” In that sense, The Rip Tide had a harbinger in a single the band released in 2007. “It has a similar melodic feel as ‘Elephant Gun’ does. I just though with this album I wouldn’t try to fight it and just try and remain as true to that sound as possible.”

Along with the broader sound comes broader cooperation with a band for Condon. “When I started writing music, I didn’t have peers that wanted to play what I wanted to play, that wanted to share my vision,” he says. Now, with the help of a group including Kelly Pratt (Arcade Fire, Team B), Condon can realize what was impossible just a few years ago. “Even though I wanted an orchestra, I was stuck with only myself. Now I have that orchestra and it would be a shame not to use it.”

Another first for Condon is releasing this LP on his own label, Pompeii Records. He insists, however, he did not experience an angry break with his previous label partners. “I really liked the labels I worked with, and that might have been the problem,” says Condon. He explains the desire to do it on his own. “You get into these relationships and friendships with these people that you work with on a day-to-day basis with these labels that you work with. There’s pressure from above and they will have to betray that relationship on a daily basis, asking you for favors that you and they both know you don’t want to do. It becomes a stressful thing trying to please everybody and not feel used. I realized I could either be cold hearted and distant or do it myself.”

The Rip Tide finds it’s climax with the track “Vagabond,” which breaks with Beirut tradition and eschews the foreign for an seeming foreign to Condon – home. “I’ve been going home a lot recently, to see what it feels like as an adult. I felt complete isolation from the city culturally. There was always this sense that even the city I was born in, I didn’t belong in. I felt culturally adrift. I think that’s why I ended up travelling so much, to try and find a home.” The image of a drifting vagabond is apt. “I just have the tendency to run from situations of authority. I have all my life. It’s kind of embarrassing now that I’m an adult, but it goes all the way back to me dropping out of school at 16,” says Condon.

“You can’t run away from yourself.”

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