BEIRUT: An American in Paris

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Zach Condon, a.k.a. Beirut, might just be the archetype for youthful DIY bedroom rockers. The 21-year-old dropout from the deserts of Albuquerque, N. M., spent months cloistered in his home to record, brood and flourish in a field of sound that harkens the sounds of Balkan villages and cobbled side streets of Europe. A happenstance meeting with Jeremy Barnes (Neutral Milk Hotel, A Hawk and a Hacksaw) resulted in his tunes landing in the hands of Ben Goldberg (Ba Da Bing! Records) and a record deal followed.Zach Condon, a.k.a. Beirut, might just be the archetype for youthful DIY bedroom rockers. The 21-year-old dropout from the deserts of Albuquerque, N. M., spent months cloistered in his home to record, brood and flourish in a field of sound that harkens the sounds of Balkan villages and cobbled side streets of Europe. A happenstance meeting with Jeremy Barnes (Neutral Milk Hotel, A Hawk and a Hacksaw) resulted in his tunes landing in the hands of Ben Goldberg (Ba Da Bing! Records) and a record deal followed. Gulag Orkestar dropped in the summer of 2006 amid a flurry of blog buzz and praise. The album’s distinct Euro-gypsy-folk numbers and Condon’s soaring vocals vaulted him to indie darling status faster than you can say Zach Attack. It wound up on many “best of” lists last year. The touring, maelstrom of attention and overnight fame led to a tour-ending bout of exhaustion. Yet Condon did not retreat from the music he revels in, but instead, fled from the dusty pastoral of the American Southwest and transplanted himself in northeastern Paris, France. Thankfully, he’s not pulling a Jim Morrison; a great deal of The Flying Club Cup was laid down back in New Mexico, and it was released on October 9. Ironically or not so, one of Condon’s major musical influences, Jacques Brel (1929-1978), died in Bobigny (just outside central Paris). It’s around where Condon set up shop. “The way Jacques Brel writes a story, getting into the character, bringing out all his faults and qualities in the same song…I love the songs of his where he becomes a ranting drunk, then a sentimental-and then bitter and angry,” says Condon. “Not that I could ever write in such an epic way, but it really is a different way to go about writing lyrics…and I find that quite inspiring.” Though Griffin Rodriguez (AHAAH, Man Man) lends his talent to Beirut with engineering and producing on the album, and Owen Pallet (Final Fantasy, Arcade Fire) offers delicate touches to a few tracks, Condon refines his style and sound. All whilst he band rallies around their little colonel, “It’s always changing. It seems to be very difficult to hold onto brass players these days. The band is solidified in the sense of a collective, I guess you could say.” They furnish Condon with enough confidence and comfort to dust off older material and patch up the moth holes. “‘In the Mausoleum’ left me biting my nails a few times. It’s actually a very old song of mine. I failed to finish it when I was 17, and it started out promising the second time around, but then I found myself in the same situation: unable to finish what I had started…so much potential, so few ideas. It’s quite a strange song for me, but when the band joined me, we were able to make it new again.” Here the street corner collective deftly interpret Brel, Serge Gainsbourg, and an array of august chanson music. The Flying Club Cup is more proper, Parisian cabaret pop than the upbeat Balkan-infused jaunts on the previous releases. The album surrounds the listener in an atmosphere that swooning horns, tight percussion and Condon’s peerless voice. “Cliquot” waltzes along with accordion sections and barroom brass, “St. Apollonia” struts and parades in the alley with pensive ukulele, and “A Sunday Smile” stands out as one of his favorites: “It’s the first song I wrote for the album, and it immediately showed me how I wanted the rest of the album to sound,” says Condon. “I’m really happy that it came out like an organ grinder soundscape…so dense you can barely pick out the individual instruments, and of course, the drunken sing-along for the chorus.” It, and the album as whole, matches his documented interest in early nostalgic photographs. Gulag‘s cover was taken from a 1953 Sergei Chilikov photograph (“All his photos are mesmerizing,” Condon attests), so it’s no surprise the title of the new album draws directly from an early 20th century Léon Gimpel photograph of hot air balloons taking off near the Eiffel Tower. “It’s a good way to work…they’re very atmospheric. So it’ll give me something vague to think about…daydream about,” Condon relates. “But sometimes they have an obvious story behind them. [I] start making up names and lives for the people and the place.” For being a young songwriter, he demonstrates a healthy awareness and respect for his creative method.  “It’s absolutely impossible for me to write on the road.  I have to be somewhere I can actually call home…though I’ve actually written a few keepers during sound checks. Something to do with the exciting sound of hearing my voice echoing around a big empty concert hall really makes me want to write a haunting melody…I always improvise lyric-less songs during sound check.” And he prefers working alone in the nascent stages of his writing, not straying far from the environment he created in his parents’ house while piecing together what would become Gulag.  “I have to start out solitary. Then I know what instruments I’d like to bring in to the song afterwards. I’ll even lay down drum sketches, etc…and then let it change slowly when the band shows up. But I can’t really just sit in a room with a bunch of other musicians and go, ‘Lets write a song, shall we?’ I write one step at a time, always finishing off the part I’m working on before even thinking about the next part. I need to hear it all together before deciding what goes next. I even mix before moving on…in other words, I write by recording. “I need lots of space, dim lights, a globe and isolation. Time constraints and other things really get to me. It’s inspiring just to be surrounded by a room full of instruments.” Paris suits him, and provides the necessary aforementioned space and stimulation. He says he’ll return there “always.” Like American artistes and expats before him, it’s where Condon can absorb musical history, discover his own boundaries and never cease in pushing them outward. Some may romanticize his exploits of Europe, but for Condon it is more a choice to be surrounded by music he draws from-rather than an extended backpacking trip. He can also enjoy some fantastic French food. “My favourite cheese has yet to be decided, but for breakfast I would eat a new cheese every day with some bread and mousse de canard.  My favourite dish ended up being magret de canard…sorry ducks of France.”

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