Beirut’s Arctic Inspiration on Hadsel

With a blend of indie rock and traditional Eastern European folk music, Beirut has always stood out as a highly original and unusual band. Now, with their sixth studio album, Hadsel (out November 10 via Pompeii Records), they push the musical boundaries even more. The album emerged out of frontman Zach Condon’s sojourn to the deepest depths of the Arctic, where he sequestered himself in a remote Norwegian village (for which this album is named), where an old pump organ invigorated his creativity.

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“I see the album as having two layers,” Condon says during a recent video call from his home in Berlin, Germany. “The underlayer is the rolling rhythms that are constantly bubbling up—I imagine them being a little bit like bad weather beating on the house, for example, and all that kind of chaos and exhaustion. And then the organ drone that’s over the top, whether it was a pump organ or synthesizer, which started to be more like a warm blanket to protect against all of that stuff. And I liked the two of them together in that way, creating that feeling.”

[RELAED: Beirut Returns with New Album ‘Hadsel’]

He went to Hadsel because his girlfriend suggested it; she’d been to the region and thought it would appeal to him because he’s always been obsessed with wintry, dramatic scenery. “I like to go into the deep dark and cold,” he says.

As soon as he arrived, he knew her advice had been spot-on: “It’s just unimaginable beauty.” To prove it, he holds up a photo showing the view from the cabin where he’d stayed; it’s a stunning scene of wintry mountains and wispy clouds. “It’s so dramatic that I didn’t want it in any of the album artwork because I thought it would overly influence the way people heard the music. I [said], ‘No imagery like this can be used on the album because it’s too much—it’s overwhelming, and it takes over.’”

Condon finished Hadsel in 2021 but decided not to release it then for fear that it would get lost in the deluge of “COVID albums” that were coming out at that time. “That felt so sloppy, so careless,” he says. “It seemed like all these people who would rather be on the road were like, ‘I guess I’ll be OK in the studio.’”

Photo by Lina Gaißer

As someone who loathes touring and loves being in the studio, Condon couldn’t relate to this attitude at all. And, he adds, “Why would you ever be so careless with something like a record? Like, the last thing people need is another thrown-together covers album or something, filling the space with noise that doesn’t need to be there. It was like, ‘This pisses me off, and I’d rather wait.’”

Condon himself has always been extremely meticulous as he writes and records material for Beirut’s albums, and Hadsel was no exception. So that he could take an entire synth system with him to the cabin, he packed his car to the brim and made the thirty-hour drive from Berlin to the village, where his equipment barely fit in the small cabin. He spent a happy two months immersed in exploring sonic possibilities, especially with a pump organ in a nearby church.

“For me, songwriting is often the physical act of getting my hands on an instrument,” he says. “I have worked in the past on things like computer programs, but it just doesn’t do it for me. So it’s really like, hands-on the synthesizer or whatever to get started. It’s like it needs to be externalized somehow. Once that’s started, if it clicks, it clicks, and it doesn’t stop, and I basically take a deep breath and go underwater and don’t know what’s going on until I snap out of it somewhere toward the end.”

This time, he says, “I was doing a lot of knob twiddling, basically, as I was trying to follow instinctual ideas. Then I would get these rhythm loops. This is something I’ve always done: the moment I’m like, ‘Hey, that’s interesting,’ without thinking or stopping, I immediately turn to an instrument and it’s just a ‘whatever comes first’ type of thing. I have a very gut-like response to what I’m hearing. At that point, it’s all instinct. It’s no conscious thought. I’m all about the unintentional outcome, in that way.”

He points out that this approach is quite different than what he saw others doing around him as he grew up in New Mexico. “My musical tastes and artistic interests never streamlined with the people around me in my city. I grew up in Santa Fe, and it’s a super hippie dippy New Age-y place. A mantra that everyone in that city has is, ‘Art is self-expression.’ It’s like they think that the entire purpose and the goal of art is just to express yourself. And I always had problems with that, to be honest, because I felt like the best music I did was when I disappear entirely, and I feel more like I’m channeling something else.

“The more that you sit and determine what you’re supposed to do, the worse it’s going to be,” he continues, “and the more you’re going to come out with something that’s too self-aware and self-conscious, and therefore kind of rigid and unimaginative. And especially, worse than that, passionless.”

At fourteen years old, Condon was already experimenting with finding his own distinctive sound as he figured out how to become a professional musician, but “I still had nothing but doubts and fears and anxieties,” he says, “and I never told my family. I mean, they all could have guessed because it’s all I did. But I never told anyone because I thought, ‘You don’t talk about these things out loud because it could be taken away from you.’ And I thought I would be laughed at or something.”

Starting out playing various keyboards, his initial efforts came out as synth-pop, which frustrated him because he wanted something that sounded much more original than that. He knew how to play trumpet, so he started adding that to the songs, which he thought worked well. Then he decided to include some of the instruments that he’d heard in the traditional music he liked, such as Balkan folk songs. He realized he was trying to fill the gap he saw between that style and the alternative bands he loved, such as Stereolab and Magnetic Fields.

But at this point, Condon’s limited musical skills posed a problem: “I remember thinking, ‘I’ll never be able to create a band sound because it’s just me, and I don’t know how to play drums or piano or anything [else], really.’ But then I remember being like, ‘But I have to try because there’s no one else to help me. There’s no one else that agrees with me on music where I’m from. Why not try and do it, even if it was an uphill battle?’”

Though Condon was the only member at this point, he took the band name Beirut and released a 2006 debut album, Gulag Orkestar. Upon its release, the critical acclaim was immediate, and he gained an international fan following. From there, he was able to find bandmates he could coax into following his unconventional artistic vision. Beirut has been consistently successful ever since, and Hadsel will be the band’s sixth studio album.

But Condon encountered another obstacle when he realized that touring was debilitating for him. “Mentally, it just broke me,” he says. “My first experience with a tour ended up with me going back to New Mexico for a year because I was having a break from reality where I didn’t know who I was or where I was. Every day was fighting to maintain reality, and it would just dissolve, and I would be kind of in a catatonic state. It was like a mental break from all the overstimulation, and the tension of shows—the excitement, and then the sudden crash afterward when it’s all over, and then you do it again the next day. I think it actually snapped something.” This problem came to a head in 2019 when he suffered a breakdown and cancelled all subsequent touring.

However, he’s not completely done with performing: Beirut has two shows set (on February 16 and 17, 2024) at Tempodrom in Berlin. “That’s all I have planned,” he says. “I’m going to see if I can handle it. We’ll find out.”

He also has another project in the works that will provide a unique way to keep Beirut’s music going in a live setting: “I wanted a way for the music to be performed without having to perform it, and this Swedish circus company asked me if I would do an album of music that they would perform their set to, and it was based on a theme that they had picked that I liked.” Intrigued, he agreed to do it, and the songs are now nearing completion. Performances will likely begin about a year from now.

In the meantime, Condon is enjoying his life in Berlin, where he’s lived since 2017. He moved there because of the city’s history and culture—and, he notes, significant musical history has unfolded there, as well. “Fifteen-year-old me would have died to have this for himself,” he says. “I feel very spoiled in that way; I feel very grateful. I have these moments where I’m like, ‘Just remember that this is everything you ever fought for.’” He also still makes frequent trips to Hadsel, to visit the friends he made while staying there.

No doubt it won’t be long before the next unusual place, or instrument, captures Condon’s imagination and sparks him to create yet another innovative, imaginative batch of songs.

Photo by Lina Gaißer / Shorefire

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