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Beirut : Mezcal for the road

He’s from New Mexico but he soon felt the urge to go elsewhere. Maybe he felt confined, maye he felt isolated. He travelled, he went where he desired to go or just wandered by chance. He found other kinds of music and other ways to make it. He made a living out of it, and he suffered from it. He had this fantasy of a Balkanic orchestra, on his own at first, and then with company. He rejoiced in it, and then knew sorrow. He was overtaken, he surrendered, he left, he came back, here, there, elsewhere. He wanted funeral processions and exhausted trumpet players, he wanted a different sense of pain, but actually not that different from his laments from the ends of Europe. He made his record in secrecy and painstakingly. He wanted black and white, circus’ parades, old french cinema. Gangsters’ music, the kind that reeks of honour, taboos and omertas but which makes for beautiful afflictions. Instead of Calabra, he chose the state of Oaxaca, in Mexico, but geography doesn’t really matter. He’s nostalgic of an era he didn’t experience, so he reinvents it with songs. They are sadly disillusioned, and maybe he is too, deeply, very deeply.

He’s Zach Condon, he’s also known as Beirut, his new EP is called March Of The Zapotec .

Once, he dismissed his band, the very craftsmen of his sentimental and festive ambiences. He locked himself up and created his languid electrop-pop just like you go back to your first loves. Alone with his computer, experiencing both pleasure and nostalgia. He might have found himself, but he also led us astray. He wanted to multiply appearances, to pretend being someone else while staying true to himself. A very risky game to play with people’s perceptions, and maybe finally he got lost, more than he thought.

He’s still Zach Condon, his second EP is called Real People : Holland .

We wanted to know what had happened since the release of The Flying Club Cup and his return to the US. We wanted to come to know the path that led him to the Zapotecs. We chatted a lot. About mezcal, touring, synthetizers, travels, the Mexican pieces that influenced him. About music.

You’re coming back with a Mexican record : to be honest, we expected a lot of mariachis. When I hear this, it’s like I’m watching the Godfather…. What is this music ?

You just reminded me… The Godfather theme was the first “song” i taught myself on trumpet. I’m sure my brief explanation of what my new project was going to be (back when you heard me first mention it) didn’t give the right impression…. so I’ll start from the beginning:

A director by the name of Cary Fukunaga asked me if i would like to do the soundtrack for his movie which is filmed and mostly takes place in Mexico. After reading the script and seeing some footage I thought it would be a great thing to cut my cinematic teeth on… So he sent me packets of music from Mexico while he was filming, stuff for me to get ideas from. “Dios Nunca Muere” was one of those songs, and it really caught my ear… It took a while, but it started to grow on me.

I wrote a few songs with that in mind, but in the end me and the director parted on friendly terms (we might still work together later!) because I started getting heavy on the idea of doing it for myself and the poor guy needed movie music, not Beirut songs.

The music is very specific to Oaxaca State, Mexico, so its definitely not “mariachi”. It’s wedding and funeral and festival music, played by a large, barely rehearsed local brass band… That’s kind of the fun of it. Its pretty thrilling when the band sounds like its about to go off the rails and lose everything but are pulled together by bright trumpets and loud drums. (Starting to sound similar to other genres of music i fell in love with a few years ago, right?). “Dios Nunca Muere” was written by a Oaxacan composer, and as a parting gift, the band i recorded with in Teotitlan played a rather moving rendition of it on my last day in Mexico. That song hides more than it shows until you hear it done right in front of you.

It’s again a recording that implied a journey. One of the first times we met, we talked of your need to leave the US and see other places. What’s elsewhere that attracts you so much ? Is there always the generic idea of an elsewhere or was it just specific places that you wanted to see ?

Thats a great impulse for any youngish person to have. I feel like if you don’t feel the need to leave home at least for a while then there’s probably something wrong… Probably a clingy girlfriend or something.

Anyway, I didn’t need to have some sort of indiana jone’s adventure around the world, I just needed to feel a part of something bigger and practice my french. Or maybe I just needed a new drinking spot. I don’t know… You’ve heard me say this a lot but I feel like Paris was very important to see. I needed to see why it inspired so much literature film and music that I loved.

Your music has always been very linked to geography : what are the next places that you’d want to explore musically ? I remember a chat about Mahmoud Ahmed and Ethiopia, and also that you were excited about greek instruments when you came back from Athens. Are you generally attracted to places or is it just the music ?

I’m hoping to unlink it from geography. I feel like i’ve gotten that idea out of my system so to speak. I’ll always be fascinated in new sounds and melodies, that I could never get tired of. But I feel like I was just growing up musically, wide eyed and obsessed with whatever new sound I was able to create or imitate… And I finally feel like I’ve found my own sound; in fact, it was always there, something uniquely my own in all the music I’ve made. So the next step will logically be taking my own voice and melody as far as it can go.

Do you think you can again travel like you used to ? Now that you’re a musician, do you feel you can just take the road and discover … say Greece for example, the way you tried to discover the Balkans ? or will it be now much more music-centered, in the sense : with the idea of a record that needs to be recorded on your mind ? Do you even feel that need ?

Not necessarily… Last summers trip to Morroco for example, was more about traveling again like i used to, not just for the sake of music.

But I also felt like there was no better way to experience Mexico when I was there than to record and work with the locals. I don’t see traveling as “discovering” anything really…Just getting to know new personalities and traditions and seeing something beautiful on the way.

Back to “Dios Nunca Muere”. It sounds very sad, and lazy, kinda drunk music.

Again, a familiar theme for me. This album was recorded in a thick nightmarish cloud of homemade Mescal from Teotitlan Del Valle. I’d like to thank Jon Natchez’s mother for hooking us up with the people of that city. They were amazing, band Jiminez.

“Toques para difuntos” also conveys something that’s terribly sad. Do you know how they play that ? Is it all written or part of improvisation ? How are theses orchestras organized ? How was it working with them ?

I guess I have a thing for sad music. And I often like badly recorded music… I don’t know why. All this music is written down, they improvise intros but that’s it.

Working with Band Jiminez was pretty intense. There were seventeen of them after all. I can’t really explain how it was “working” with them, so I’ll try and just describe what it was like to be down there.

We were staying in a bed and breakfast type place on top of a steep hill overlooking the ramshackle town. Every morning we would wake up to music blasting from different corners of the village, and there were three weddings and two funeral in the two weeks we were there…. You could see the procession with the casket walking down the main road towards the cemetary. They often played “Dios Nunca Muere”.

Around four pm the band would start to show up, with drums and brass instruments hanging off their bikes and cars. We would set up microphones in a room with no actual doors and start rehersals. Our translator (Tomas) was a saviour. Our Spanish is horrible (sorry New Mexico! I never paid attention in class). And they mostly only speak Zapotec anyway. We would do many takes and record until the sun went down, same song. Then we would drink mescal and write out the parts for the next day. We had strange dreams about asian gangsters stealing our equipment (true story) and then we woke up to do it again. It was a very happy time.

There’s a sense of losing control in your music. Both Balkans and Mexico bring to mind images of feasts where everyone gets extremely drunk. But the new EP sounds more constrained, more controlled than your previous recordings. How is that so ? Not enough tequila ?

Often I am losing control. Part of my mind starts to shut down when I’m writing and from then on its all auto-pilot. When I’m done with the melodies, it’s like I have to wake back up and pick up all the pieces that I had thrown around while recording the raw demo of a song…

I had a funny thought… If you think this sounds more organized and together than my usual recordings then its probably only because I’m not playing much on it. It’s the Zapotec band that are holding it together whereas I would usually let it fall to pieces had I recorded every instrument myself. All I did was write the songs… They played 90 percent of it.

And there was plenty of Mescal when we were down there. In fact, our guide and translator’s brother made the mescal himself not far from the house we stayed in. It’s how we made it through the long nights of figuring out how to get the band to play what I was hearing in my head.

How did you stumble upon “La Primavera” ? It sounds much more like what I expect from Mexico. It doesn’t sound a lot like your record, though. What did you take from this ?

Cary Fukunaga again. After hearing this song, I went on a rampage to figure out where it was coming from.. the elastic vocals and weird changing tempos and strings…. so beautiful…

The genre is called huapango, and is native to the yucatan peninsula. usually with really complex dances to go with it. To be honest, in the end I took nothing from it for myself, because i couldn’t. Strings and vocals like that are of a different world than mine. I love them, but I dare not try.

The mexican songs that inspired you are strongly linked to funerals. The same way that balkan brass bands you fell in love with play a repertoire of weddings songs. Is that notion important to you ? Do you think your music in some way should be the soundtrack to some sort of a ritual ? And in that case : a wedding or a funeral ?

It’s true, I’m obsessed with songs that are deeply involved in ritual. Let’s just say that I’m always looking for that sound that really means alot to large groups of people in times of need or celebration. Something that strikes deep. And often, it takes something as dramatic as funerals for a certain melody or song to reach its full potential. But it doesn’t have to be under such dire circumstances. There is something equally beautiful about just hearing that song alone, and feeling strong emotions pour through you. I wish there was more music like that. But to me, even pop songs have taken me to the same place. they have overwhelmed me just as much.

The other EP is not a surprised to those who know that you’ve always been in love with electronic music. Can you tell us more about this ? I remember you were into Kompakt recordings when The Flying Club Cup came out. What’s in there for you ? Does it influence your music overall, or just only your electronic works ?

Yeah, the second disc is very much a bonus disc for more involved fans who might be wondering what the Mr. Hyde side of my music personality actually sounds like. I don’t expect casual listeners to put too much thought into it. It was an interesting year for me…

As I said earlier, I feel like I’ve finally found my voice after a few years of experimentation with sounds from all over. These two discs really helped me find that. I was looking forward and backward at my own body of work, trying to pick out what united it all. From the outside it’s probably hard to associate the realpeople stuff with all the Beirut work I’ve done, and thats fine by me. But for me it was a strange eureka! kind of moment when I noticed that no matter what instruments and ideas I’m working with, there’s always a common sense of melody and rythym.

Your interest for electronic instruments is not new. Can you tell us the story of that first synth that you found ?What was so interesting with this instrument for you ?

Morton Subotnick‘s son was in school with me. I guess he heard I was looking around for retro synths, and he happened to have a bunch lying around the house. I didn’t really realize who he was until a couple of years later. I bought the keyboard and played it for years before it broke. I know its on a few of the songs on this release. I loved its big warm
analog sounds.

“Venice” sounds clearly as a mix between the two : it has electronics and trumpet. I know it’s a song from 2007 but is that a direction you want to take ?

Not really, but that is a favourite of mine. I don’t think I’ll be fusing electronics with acoustic instruments. Thats not normally my aesthetic at all. I imagine I’ll sneak off and record a few more Venice type songs for fun, but again, thats not the direction I’m headed in. Maybe “The Concubine” is a slightly better example, but you’d have to hear it live to understand exactly what I mean by that.

Speaking of live : you recorded the Zapotec EP with a large band of 17 members, how do you see this work on stage ?

There’s plenty of simple melodies in there underneath the wall of instruments. I found that they translated quite nicely to a five piece once I got them into the rehearsal room.

So you down-sized your touring band : what is it going to be like ?

I guess I was starting to see such a large band as a novelty…And I knew it would be a healthy musical challenge, having to boil down all the songs to their most important parts. I wanted to have a tighter smaller backing band that that would leave me more room to do some serious singing over, instead of hiding behind so much noise..

You’re giving very few concerts around this release : a handful in Brooklyn now and then a small European tour in May. Are there any other dates in the works ? Or is that a choice ?

That is a choice I made. Shows are lovely things when taken in small doses. Each show gathers more significance and becomes its own special event. Obviously I get exhausted and sick pretty easily if I overdo touring.

I know that you’re not fond of life on the road : still, what are you looking for in a gig ? Do you think that your recorded music has to be played live to gain its full potential ?

Its gotta be moving…Touring itself is difficult, but the shows have turned into an important part of my life and growth as a musician. There’s always a moment when band and audience are suddenly very in sync and it’s a feeling you want to keep chasing after you’ve experienced it.

What’s next for you ? A full lenght album sometime this year or the next ? You played on Final Fantasy 2008 EP, you did a song for Dark Was The Night charity record : any other collaborations that we can expect to hear of ?

I’m ready to set out on my next LP, now that I’ve gotten such dramatic musical mood swings out of my system… I’ll probably release a single while I’m working on that to test the waters. I want to build a true home studio when I get back from tour. I’ve spent too much time in Brooklyn doing guerilla recordings whenever I got a moment of peace.

I need a studio home base, and I intend to make a very good one.

– Interview by Garrincha & Chryde
– Foreword by Rockoh
– Translation by Nora
– Pictures by Ryan Muir for Brooklyn Vegan