Zach Condon: Found in Translation
Oct 01, 2007 Fall 2007 - Beirut Photography by Crackerfarm
He was a kid from New Mexico living in New York, playing Balkan music under the moniker of a Middle Eastern city. And when you heard his music, it all made sense. But for Zach Condon, the days before the release of Beirut’s 2006 debut album Gulag Orkestar were the beginning of an unimaginable transformation, one where in the span of a few weeks, he would go from being an anonymous kid who was trying to put together a band and maintain his day job to headlining shows in New York City’s hottest rock clubs. Just a few months earlier he had been a bored college student, wondering if the album he’d meticulously pieced together by himself in his parents’ basement was good enough to show other people. By the time the dust settled, he’d led his band around the world, been hospitalized with exhaustion, gone home to New Mexico, and set up a new life in Paris. At an age when most people are entering their junior year of college, Condon had the task of crafting a second album that would prove whether he was the latest blog-powered sensation to fizzle out under scrutiny or the rare songwriter who could reinvent himself before he was allowed to legally drink alcohol. He had time to spare, but he wasn’t taking it. The world was waiting, and he wanted to see the rest of it while he had the chance.
Postcards from Farnham
“It has been a strange day,” Condon says, sounding frazzled on a Friday afternoon in mid-September. “We just played a couple live songs on the radio, but they didn’t tell me they were going to interview me, so we played the first song and then stopped and waited for the guy to move on to the next one. And then he starts asking me all these questions, and it caught me off guard, and I said, ‘Oh shit!’” he recounts sheepishly, as if offering an apology for swearing on the air. “And everyone froze. The entire studio was staring at me. And I was like, ‘Really, is it that bad?’” he says, now laughing. “I’ve had a strange day…”
Soft-spoken and articulate, Condon has taken on more responsibility at 21 than many musicians will in a lifetime, and he couldn’t be happier. Now, with his second full-length release, The Flying Club Cup, finished and ready to meet the naysayers, he already has graduated from the Balkan-inspired pop of Gulag Orkestar and moved on to grander ambitions. Where that album’s raw-boned spirit and greasy sprawl captured an artist trying to corral the essence of a form of music that most Western ears had never encountered, he now has cast himself into a less exotic, if equally ambitious, form of songcraft: He has made a French pop record.
“It was Jacques Brel, actually. It was the album, Quand On n’a Que l’Amour, ” Condon says of his inspiration for exploring the chanson form of elaborately layered, big-voiced, and emotionally rich French music. If Balkan music offered him a wildly cathartic, viscerally immediate structure for his songwriting, chanson would serve as a conduit to the elaborate pop craftsmanship and theatrical performances he now wanted to explore. “I realized that it was the perfect in-between for me, because when it comes down to it, I really am writing pop songs,” he explains. “I do write simple melodies, Western melodies, and I think stylistically the way [chanson] uses chord progressions and arrangements to suggest certain grandeur and things like that; it was the perfect in-between for me, because I could play with all the instruments and arrangements that I wanted and still write a pop song.”
Those songs would come together remarkably quickly, and The Flying Club Cup was born in the isolation of New Mexico. Still, just getting to Albuquerque came at a cost, as Condon’s constant tour and press demands left him confused and in need of medical attention. “By the end of that tour, we had fishhooked [through] all of America. Then we flew to Europe, and while I was there I just collapsed. I said ‘yes’ too much, and I had to cancel the tour. I just wasn’t seeing things straight. I remember I’d be crossing the street and someone would grab me by the arm and tell me to look out for the all the cars that were passing by. And I’d take a second look and see that there were, indeed, cars that I didn’t see the first time around. At some point, I really was just hallucinating.”
Finally, the treadmill came to an awkward and unexpected halt, and all those days of ten people crammed into a tour van passed into the band’s collective lore. And while Condon had spent much of his life trying to get out of New Mexico, he was happy to be home.
“It was good, because I had this great excuse to just disappear for a while from record labels and press and audiences,” he says. “I just really isolated myself, and if I didn’t have that, I don’t think I could have written something at that moment. It just wouldn’t have worked here in New York. I can’t write on the road. It was great, though, because people really let go and let me do my thing. The pressure was off, and I was able to forget who I was writing for, if I was writing for anyone. Once the album started to take shape, then I got serious again and started inviting the musicians out to fill in their parts outside of Montréal, in Farnham.”
Farnham, of course, is where the former Masonic temple-turned-home studio of Arcade Fire is located, and with their string arranger and Final Fantasy main man Owen Pallett having set aside a few weeks of studio time, it was the perfect opportunity for Condon to work with musicians who could turn his song sketches into the sweeping, over-the-top arrangements he had imagined.
“It’s definitely a musician’s dream, that studio,” he says. “It’s got everything—timpani and harpsichords and things to salivate over for a musician. At the same time, it was also a place that’s actually far away from Montréal, in a super small town. Eventually, we just started to go crazy, cabin fever. Owen started playing video games for 12 hours a day. I would balance on this board on top of a log. It’s not that we were getting on each other’s nerves or running out of ideas, we were just losing track of time and space and what we were there to do. Songs would just lazily finish themselves off. We’d stay up in the studio for hours, having a beer and talking, and someone would meander down and write some line and record that and listen to it. Time just started to warp until it was time to leave, and then on the last day we rushed out a bunch of takes that we had been idly talking about. And at the last minute, this album was ready to go into mixing. It just happened out of no-where. The last day, it was back to work.”
For a musician who had only a year earlier spent his time piecing together songs in the privacy of his bedroom, Condon proved a quick study in communicating his vision to the musicians he needed to execute his increasingly complex arrangements. No longer would he have to cover every piano, accordion, and ukulele in the mix.
“It was hard at first to not have my own hands on all of the instruments playing on this album,” he admits. “There was a moment of relinquishing control that was admittedly difficult for me. I had to step back and realize that this was the first time in my life that I’ve been around musicians that I actually respect enough that I’d want them to play on an album. I got over it, and now I’m all about it.”
In Pallett, he found the perfect collaborator, an artist whose gift for elaborate string arrangements was stretched by Condon’s unfettered imagination. Both were looking to change the sound they had previously mastered and, already being mutual fans, found in each other kindred spirits who innately pushed the other to imagine the impossible. “There are definitely moments that shocked me when they came out the way that they did,” Condon says. “There’s that one moment in ‘In the Mausoleum.’ We had recorded all the piano parts in New Mexico and written everything out, except there was this giant blank spot, and I had no clue what to do with it. And I remember we were listening to this Iraqi folk music CD that [A Hawk and a Hacksaw’s] Jeremy Barnes had given me for my birthday, and I looked at Owen and went, ‘Do you think you can do those strings?’ And he thought I was joking, but, hey, the guy can adapt the sounds a lot quicker and better than I can. We were laughing at first until we realized that we were quite serious. We really liked what came out of it.”
Their experiments over, Condon left Farnham with the record he had envisioned, a dizzying pop masterpiece as big as his dreams. In the span of a year, he had found an audience, found a band, and found out how far he could push himself. Changing and evolving to meet every new challenge, he was now a long way from home, and the gears of the industry were warming up again.
My Family’s Role in the World Revolution
If it seems like Condon moves quickly, it’s because he’s been in a hurry to get to this point for most of his life. Born and raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico, with a few years spent in Virginia before he and his family moved to Santa Fe for his teenage years, the young(er) Zach Condon spent his youth fantasizing about Europe and listening to Boards of Canada. Going to school just couldn’t keep up with what was going on in his head.
“I felt school was in the way of something, but I didn’t know what at the time,” he says candidly. “I felt no responsibility to it. I always thought I was heading toward something, but I didn’t know what it was. It felt like it would get in the way of that. After I dropped out of high school, every once in a while I’d say, ‘You know what? Maybe I did make a mistake.’ And I definitely don’t come from the kind of family that smiles on that kind of thing. I kept trying, but every time, I swear, a week into it I’d realize that something was very wrong. So I dropped out of school four times, [including] college and high school. It might have been a dumb adolescent cockiness, but I always felt that there was something more important to be done and I was just wasting time.”
When pushed, Condon admits that he did enjoy language classes, with his interest in French and Portuguese taking root before he left school for good. At that point, despite his burgeoning musical talents, music class was just another period to suffer through before the bell rang.
“It led me to believe that I’d never be a musician,” he says with a laugh. “I’ve played trumpet for most of my life, and it’s the only instrument that I’ve been at all trained in. I remember when I went to high school, all they had available was marching band. And I convinced the principal of the school to start a jazz band class, which I claimed that I would run under the supervision of the marching band teacher who just sat in his office as we drank wine in class and played a few Thelonious Monk songs and Miles Davis tracks. And we never even played a concert, though we did have fun doing absolutely nothing. I remember that being the first time that it was like, ‘Well, I’d rather be in this all day than in school.’ So I started recording myself.”
With his older brother leaving home to see the world, laying down the pattern Zach would follow in a few years, the younger Condon inherited the elder’s 4-track recorder, and a recording career began. “It crept over me quite swiftly,” he says. “I was about 14 when he left, and I was waiting for that 4-track to become mine. This is a strange thing to say, but there really was this moment when I realized that I could sing, which actually was a shock, because I didn’t think I could sing at all. I tried to sing along to Radiohead and stuff like that when I was young, and I always thought that I had a horrible voice. I could never hit the falsetto or have that much drama in my voice. And so as soon as I figured that out, it really took over my life completely. I dropped off the face of the earth. Then I dropped out of school, and I became very isolated. In the course of two years, it totally changed my adolescent life and stretched it beyond recognition.”
The recording experiments came fast and furious, with Condon cutting his creative teeth on a doo-wop album and a synth-pop release that he never planned to let out of the creative sanctuary of his bedroom. Day by day, he was becoming a songwriter, but his parents were naturally troubled by his isolation. “I know [when I was] a child, my dad very badly wanted me to be a musician, I just don’t think he thought it would come about in such a way,” he says. “I do remember my parents being very concerned, thinking that I had lost all discipline and that I was really headed down the wrong path. It’s actually a really good feeling, because at the time I didn’t want halfhearted support. I wanted to do it for myself. I think that was a good thing, actually. That it was very clear from the start that it was for myself and no one else.”
Growing tired of having his world hemmed in by four walls, by the time he was 17, Condon decided he was ready to join his brother in New York City and made his first trip to Paris later that same year. Smitten by the sounds of the brass bands he heard there, at 19, he decided he’d try to live in Paris as long as he could, crashing on friends’ couches for nearly five months. Before he ran out money, he had undertaken a crash course in the history of Balkan music through a bemused Serbian musician he met in Amsterdam. Having exhausted his means, he then had to return home to mom and dad and a crappy job scooping ice cream. But things would be different this time. He now knew exactly what kind of music he wanted to make.
Music from the Bunker
“I had 13 songs, and I remember thinking, this isn’t what I want it to be. This still isn’t good enough,” Condon says, the songs in question being the same ones that formed Gulag Orkestar. “I didn’t show it to anybody at all. And I tried to go to college again, the last time, the third time I tried. I took a class in Portuguese. I was going to try. And then I got this offer for a show in Albuquerque from a friend of mine. At the time, all I had was those tunes on my iPod. So I played this concert, and I walked on stage, and I pressed play on my computer. All I had was a microphone and a trumpet, and I started singing and yelling and playing trumpet. And it was a really great show, and it’s a really great memory of mine. Afterwards, they kicked me out of the bar because I was underage. And I hung out in the alleyway, and I listened to the other band, and it was amazing, just stupendous. And I managed to sneak a look inside and see what was going on, and there was this guy that was drumming with his feet and playing an accordion with his hands, and singing at the same time, hitting a cowbell with a drumstick taped to his knee.”
That man was Jeremy Barnes of A Hawk and a Hacksaw (and, previously, the drummer for Neutral Milk Hotel), and before long, he would take the younger musician under his wing, even giving a copy of Condon’s songs to Ben Goldberg, the owner of Ba Da Bing! Records in New York City, A Hawk and a Hacksaw’s record label. “I just needed to listen to it once,” says Goldberg. “I remember, I was driving in Massachusetts with my girlfriend, and I kept going, ‘This is really good, right? I’m not crazy. This is really good.’ And she kept saying, ‘Yeah, this is really good.’ But it was really thanks to Jeremy.”
Condon’s interest in college waning once again, he immediately dropped out and moved back to NYC when told that his album had an official release date. His bedroom project was just about ready to meet the world, and he needed a band to help him form a welcoming committee. After three months and several recruiting sessions in New Mexico, he had his band. “I knew immediately that it was something that I wanted to play on,” says multi-instrumentalist Jason Poranski, one of the members that joined Beirut after meeting Condon in New York City. “I was amazed that this young kid had pulled off this record single-handedly. It sounded like it was going to be really fun music to play, and it really interested me. I didn’t know what the hell he was trying to say, though.”
When the 100 promotional copies of Gulag Orkestar that Goldberg had mailed to journalists yielded only one reply, he searched for alternate means of generating interest and sent out MP3s. Soon enough, the blogs were abuzz with “Postcards from Italy.” Conquering the world one blog at a time, Beirut became the It-band of the spring of 2006 before the record was even out. Before long, Condon had translated his complex arrangements for his band, and they began a series of sold out shows. Up first was New York City’s famed Knitting Factory. Not surprisingly, there were some rough edges to address.
“That was a complete and utter nervous disaster, and yet not as crushing as I thought it would be,” Condon says of the Knitting Factory show. “We’d been struggling to practice, and then never felt totally rehearsed. Just pure jitters. I remember sitting in the greenroom and them telling us that there were four bands on the bill that night. And Ben Goldberg, who has been very close by my side the whole time, comes running upstairs saying, ‘The place is filled to the brim!’ And I said, ‘Oh…who’s playing after us?’ And he said, ‘No. Everyone in the crowd is mumbling about you.’ So, I freaked.”
Always quick to adapt, Condon pushed the band through their awkward stage within a matter of a handful of shows. Though he had no experience as a bandleader, he found an immediate rapport with his hastily assembled crew. “I’ve played with a lot of musicians who have been bandleaders, and I’ve seen ways that they have trouble with their collaborators,” says Owen Pallett, himself a bandleader. “And sometimes it can be quite despotic, and sometimes you get the feeling that the bandleader has no idea what he really wants. Zach has really got it figured out. I’ve never seen a band that has so much respect for their dictator. I was in Brooklyn, and the band was rehearsing without him. He was out doing interviews. I’ve never heard of any band doing that, ever. In the past, I’ve had a hard time getting bands to rehearse with me! He creates a really good working environment, and I think that translates very well.”
With the right mix of talents and personalities, Beirut would give Condon the opportunity to see the parts of the world he had missed the first time around. But while he was playing the songs from Gulag Orkestar every night, he still wasn’t convinced that the album was very good. “At the time, I thought it wasn’t ready yet. It’s not mature enough. It’s not something enough,” he says disarmingly. “I can now put it on and say, ‘You know what? This is a complete piece. It’s not an unfinished, half-there record.’ It has been long enough that I’m quite proud of it. It’s obvious from the recording how much it meant to me at the time, that it was my only way of clinging on to reality at all.”
After the Curtain
“I may lack a lot of discipline in every other area of my life, but music isn’t that way,” Condon says, minutes after making it apparent that he’s still feeling embarrassed for swearing on the radio. “Music is a compulsion. I can’t sleep at night if it’s not finished, if it’s not right. Or if I feel like I wrote a boring melody, or something as simple as that.”
His work ethic unquestioned, if anything, Condon might need to find a way of relaxing after his frantic year and a half of on-the-job-training. “Zach would go from recording to working on his other musical projects that I probably shouldn’t even tell you about. He can’t really stop working,” says Pallett mysteriously. “Kristin [Ferebee, Beirut’s violinist] was telling me stories about how they’d go to some exotic place [on tour], like Istanbul or somewhere like that, and everyone wanted to go see the architecture and sights, and he would just sit in his hotel room with his ukulele. That’s how he felt comfortable, just working away.”
All that remains to be seen is if his fanbase will prove sturdy enough to follow him away from the clattering din of Gulag Orkestar and toward the fantastically swooning pop balladry of The Flying Cup Club. Or, will listeners drop all notions of Balkan music and French pop and just hear a 21-year-old from New Mexico who has developed a voice of his own? “It’s risky, because it’s not as fast-tempo and upbeat and rousing,” admits Goldberg. “It’s just more emotionally striking, and it’s more ornate and has a gorgeousness to it as opposed to a rallying, party-like atmosphere to it. And it is a matter of—how do you reinvent yourself and make something that you’ll be happy with? I think as many people will listen to the new record and say ‘This sounds more like French pop than Balkan music,’ but just as many will say ‘This sounds like Zach Condon’s music.’ No matter what he’s inspired by, it’s always going to sound like him. He’s already defined his own sound and style, which is pretty amazing.”
Now a veteran, having been thrust into the working musician’s grind whether he was ready or not, Condon knows exactly what he’s getting into this time around. But despite his unflappably mature demeanor, he can’t help but show his excitement over the fact that when Beirut plays the Olympia Hall in Paris on November 12, 2007, he’ll take the same stage that once was commanded by his idol, Jacques Brel. “That’s a really historic spot, and to me, that’s something to write home about. I’ll call my parents again,” he laughs, before turning disarmingly quiet, almost childlike, for a single moment. “I just hope we don’t blow it.”