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How Beirut's Zach Condon Escapes To Find His Focus

Feb 2, 2019
Originally published on February 2, 2019 4:02 pm

Beirut took refuge in rural Italy to record its first album in four years. The genre-mashing band's latest album, Gallipoli, out now, stays true to the band's signature sound. It's an amalgam of instruments all tied together by a unique, almost haunting voice.

Beirut's bandleader Zach Condon talked to NPR's Scott Simon about hopping from city to city for inspiration, the emphasis of music over lyrics and more. Hear their conversation at the audio link and keep reading for interview highlights.


Interview Highlights

On using the names of locations in song and album titles

Gallipoli is this medieval city island off the coast of Italy. It's about an hour away from the studio and we visited it from time to time while we were taking short breaks. I don't know what the city name thing is entirely. It's kind of it's almost like a psycho-analysis thing. I have theories, but I don't exactly have a great answer.

Maybe it's just like the Indiana Jones thing or something, you see that little red line going across the map. And then, you know, I think growing up in Santa Fe — it's such a beautiful place but it's also quite isolated. As a teenager I was all about escapism. I think I was kind of a restless kid.

On the instrument at the beginning of the song "Gallipoli"

This is a Farfisa organ. I guess this traveling circus came through town and they played the show in the art space that was attached to the theater. And [the organ] had all these broken keys and buzzes and just technical glitches so they left it behind. But I had kind of become known at the theater and around town in Santa Fe as this guy collecting these kinds of odd instruments. People would show up in my house in a truck with organs, for example. And so, of course, I got a phone call and I picked this thing up and I started writing on it. It's all over the first two albums.

After that, I was kind of living in New York so it was harder to get to, but I would go back. I wrote the song "Santa Fe" on it, for example, when I was visiting with my parents.

On the emphasis on instruments rather than lyrics

I get this feeling sometimes that lyrics almost force the song back to Earth or something. - Zach Condon

It's not so much about lyrics being completely pointless or meaningless. But when I fall in love with the song, I fall in love with the timbre and harmonies and melody. That's what kind of lifts me off. Then when I get too used to the song and I've heard it a million times and perhaps the glory of it is fading a little bit, that's when I start noticing lyrics. So it's the same in my music. I get this feeling sometimes that lyrics almost force the song back to Earth or something.

On artists feeling like outsiders

I don't want to act or try to sound too special, so to speak, because many people suffer from this, too. ... I think perhaps there is a certain sensitivity that drives that feeling of outsider-ness, and that feeling of observation rather than participation.

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(SOUNDBITE OF BEIRUT SONG, "GAUZE FUR ZAH")

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Beirut, the band, is out with their first album in over three years. It's called "Gallipoli." And they recorded it in a studio in rural Italy.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GAUZE FUR ZAH")

BEIRUT: (Vocalizing).

SIMON: The new album stays true to the band's signature sound, an amalgam of instruments all tied together by a unique, almost haunting voice. Zach Condon is the mastermind behind the music and joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

ZACH CONDON: Yes. Sure.

SIMON: So you put city and place names on your albums, don't you? Santa Fe, where I guess you grew up, East Harlem, where you lived in New York for a while, but tell us about Gallipoli.

CONDON: Yeah. Gallipoli was this medieval city island off the coast of Italy. It was about an hour away from the studio. We visited it from time to time while we were taking short breaks. I don't know what the city-name thing is entirely. It's almost like a psychoanalysis thing. I have theories, but I don't exactly have a great answer.

SIMON: We have time for a couple of theories.

CONDON: I don't know. Maybe it's just like the "Indiana Jones" thing. You see that little red line going across the map. And then I think growing up in Santa Fe, it's such a beautiful place. But it's also quite isolated. And as a teenager, I was all about escapism. I think I was kind of a restless kid.

SIMON: So you put names of places you've seen, places you've inhabited for a while on your albums.

CONDON: You know, not so much, actually. I think when I wrote the first album - and, of course, it's littered with city names and places and I think I'd visited probably less than half to be honest.

SIMON: (Laughter).

CONDON: Yeah.

SIMON: Well, that's art, isn't it?

(SOUNDBITE OF BEIRUT SONG, "GALLIPOLI")

SIMON: The instrument at the beginning of the song "Gallipoli" is going to sound familiar to people who follow your work. Tell us about this instrument.

CONDON: This is a Farfisa organ. I guess this travelling circus came through town, and they played this show. And, you know, it had all these broken keys and buzzes and technical glitches. They left it behind. But I had kind of become known at the theater and around town in Santa Fe as this guy that's collecting these kind of odd instruments. People would show up at my house in a truck with organs, for example. And so, of course, I got a phone call. I picked this thing up, and I started writing on it. And it's all over the first two albums. You know, after that, I was kind of living in New York, so it was harder to get to. But I would go back. I wrote the song "Santa Fe" on it, for example, when I was visiting my parents. And I brought it back. I shipped it out to New York. And I felt like going back.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GALLIPOLI")

BEIRUT: (Singing) We tell tales to belong or be spared the sorrow.

SIMON: Why go to rural Italy?

CONDON: You know, I've always got this sense. You know, I've lived in New York for a long time, like, 11, 12 years - Paris and Istanbul. And I just - I can start projects in the city. I sure as hell can't finish them. And so that was another escape. That was a place to focus. That was somewhere to soak in the vibe, so to speak. I hate that word vibe. But it's kind of like when I lived in New York. I would often either go upstate or back to New Mexico to focus. And it was the same there. And I didn't want to go back to the states at the time. So that made more sense.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEIRUT SONG, "WHEN I DIE")

SIMON: Let's listen, if we could, to the opening track, "When I Die."

(SOUNDBITE OF BEIRUT SONG, "WHEN I DIE")

SIMON: How many instruments do we hear there?

CONDON: You know, if I had to take a rough guess, I would think around 16. I mean, you have analog synthesizers, trumpets, organs, obviously all the percussion, bass. And I stack a lot.

SIMON: And who plays all of the instruments?

CONDON: I play almost all of them. You know, I'm not a great drummer. I tend to write the percussion parts. And then I hand them off to Nick Petree, who's been with me since Santa Fe. And then Paul Collins plays the bass. And every once in a while, we get a couple of brass players who play with me live. But for the most part, I love to be in control of all of it.

SIMON: You emphasize instruments. You got a problem with lyrics?

CONDON: (Laughter) Yeah, to an extent, which I can explain. I'll put it this way. When I fall in love with a song, I fall in love with the timbre and harmonies and melody. And that's what kind of lifts me off. And then when I get too used to the song, and I've heard it a million times and, perhaps, the glory of it is fading a little bit, that's when I start noticing lyrics. And so it's the same in my music. I get this feeling sometimes that lyrics almost force the song back to Earth or something.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LANDSLIDE")

BEIRUT: (Singing) If you ever return in a wonderful form, don't you wait out the storm. Just pull roots and move on.

SIMON: That's a beautiful lyric, despite what you say.

CONDON: Right.

SIMON: If you ever return in a wonderful form, don't you wait out the storm. Just pull roots and move on. What's it about?

CONDON: There was this period of time I was living in upstate New York. I think I had become quite disillusioned with New York, actually.

SIMON: New York City?

CONDON: Yeah. And, you know, I moved upstate. And I was seeing how the isolation suited me almost. And this period, to me, felt like there was this kind of wreckage or something. You know, I think I was almost trying to comfort myself or something, trying to get myself to pick back up, get out, move on to the next place. I try to keep it somewhat vague. But I think that one's a little more obvious than others in some ways. That song is a little more personal.

SIMON: How are you feeling now?

CONDON: You know, it's funny. Berlin was never on my radar in the way that Paris was obviously a kind of goal of mine. Turkey was very exciting. You know, I have these places that I'd love to be. And Berlin wasn't necessarily high on the list in any way. And I just kind of stumbled into it. It just dawned on me that it was a good fit. And so ever since - yeah, I mean, it's rare for me to find a good fit. I've felt like an outsider wherever I've gone. And I still kind of do in Berlin but much less so.

SIMON: Don't artists feel a little bit of an outsider all of their lives? Isn't that part of it?

CONDON: I don't want to act or try to sound too special because many people suffer from this, too. But yeah. I think perhaps there is a certain sensitivity that drives that feeling of outsider-ness and that feeling of observation rather than participation.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEIRUT SONG, "FAMILY CURSE")

SIMON: Zach Condon of the band Beirut, thanks so much for being with us.

CONDON: Yeah. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEIRUT SONG, "FAMILY CURSE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.