When I call Zach Condon he’s in Berlin, and it comes as no surprise to discover he’s immersed in a studio in the city that he now calls home.
Condon is a consummate musical explorer. He starts our conversation by telling me his day has been spent messing around with modular synths, drum machines and old organs he’s bought from Berlin’s pawnshops.
Musical discovery has always been part of the Beirut front-man’s modus operandi. Growing up in Santa Fe, New Mexico, he stumbled upon fiestas where he heard Mariachi music for the first time and finding himself intoxicated by the sound of brass he became a trumpet player.
Another musical awakening came when the fourteen-year-old Condon landed a job at a Santa Fe art-house cinema, where he discovered exotic sounds in international film soundtracks. “It dawned on me that I was really disillusioned to punk rock, emo, hardcore and all the things the kids around me were playing,” he explains. “I felt like if I heard another fucking guitar I was going to scream. I don't know why, but a distorted guitar is the worst, most boring sound in the world. I know that's going to piss people off, but I don't mean it in a mean way.”
Condon’s fascination with instruments runs through Beirut’s music and the songs that inspire him. As well as mastering the trumpet, he’s found room for flugelhorns and ukuleles, where Beirut has become a home that mixes folk, baroque, pop and world music. Their musical manifesto was set out on 2006s’ Gulag Orkestar, a precocious debut which drew on influences from Balkan music to Neutral Milk Hotel, the Louisiana-based band who helped to get Condon signed and whose drummer Jeremy Barnes physically contributed to the musical narrative.
Beirut are now on their fifth record Gallipoli. The project was recorded in Berlin, New York and the rural countryside of Apulia, Italy, an hour away from the town that shares the albums name. The majority of Gallipoli was written in Berlin and Condon says he needs to be alone at the start of the song-writing process before his fellow band members come studio and flesh the songs out. “I need to write this way. I can’t have an audience because I won't think in the same way. I need to be in a trance-like state and that's hard when you're with other people.”
The songs that inspire Condon are an eclectic mix of the Eastern and the Western, that spans multiple eras of musical history. The story starts with a goose-bumps moment of hearing The Beach Boys as a three-year-old, and although guitars are not entirely absent, there’s always something else thrown into the mix, whether that’s a trumpet, accordion or vocal harmony.
“I grew up with The Beach Boys and they’re everything to me. When it comes down to it I still listen to them most of all, which is kind of crazy after all these years.
“My Dad listened to a lot of music around the house when I was growing up, he had big speakers and he blasted things. The Beach Boys were an immediate success with me and ‘Surfer Girl’ was my favourite, because it was the first song that raised the hairs on the back of my neck and gave me goosebumps. Being only three years old at that time, I didn’t understand that concept and how music could do that. It’s also the harmonies; there’s all these human voices but they’re just so dense and inseparable from each other that it’s mesmerizing - it’s so lush and so simple.
"I had a tape of it and I played it on this little Fisher Price karaoke machine. I played the tape constantly until it was wobbly, hissing and all the shit like that, and eventually my older brother took it out into the yard and stomped on it because he was so sick of hearing ‘Surfer Girl’. Lesson learned, my Dad bought me another one.
“I don’t have the tape anymore, I have the record with the single on it now. It’s what I use to test new speakers.”
“I had a phase around the age of 17 where I'd become disillusioned with what I was used to - British and American indie-rock and some electronica - and I remember hearing this song on a film soundtrack and I got really into Balkan music. It was the dawn of internet file-sharing and I randomly stumbled on a site that had Turkish music and I wanted to dig into it further.
“I learned that a lot of the Balkan brass music was based on Turkish melodies and scales, which fascinated me because it was so different at first, but then I internalised it in this crazy way and I was so moved by it. I was obsessed but it also seemed like worlds way, it was oddly unobtainable, but it eventually started to sink in.
“I chose ‘Gurbet’ because later in life I finally ended up in Istanbul. For four years, between the age 26 and 30, I would go there on and off for six months a year and I was collecting a lot of Anatolian rock from the 70s’, everyone from Erkin Koray to Barış Manço and stuff like that.
“This song just snuck in at some point and I found something so perfectly laidback and simultaneously intense about it, but it's a really hard one to describe. When I was living in Istanbul I remember during the Gezi Park protests we would be walking down the street blasting this song, Erkin Koray and all these other guys.
“It's also not really well-known and I wanted to give a shout out to a song that flies underneath the radar from a lesser-known artist. ‘Gurbet’ kicks ass every time I hear it.”
“I was trying to find songs that give me goose-bumps and make me want to run a lap around the block when I hear them, and this song fucking blows me away. It's a simple, descending melody with the same kind of notes over all these shifting chord progressions, and to me that's the essence of song-writing.
“And the way she sings it is fucking epic, I know every word of it and I don't speak a word of Italian. Ennio Morricone, who wrote the song, was apparently in Marseilles and he heard the siren from an ambulance and made the song’s melody based on that. He then threw all these lovely chord progressions underneath these modal changes. When I heard that it blew me away and I remember soon after that I wrote the song ‘The Rip Tide’, which has a similar vibe. I'm not going to say it holds a candle to this song, but it’s a similar concept.
“‘Se Telefonando’ nailed it for me. That's how song-writing should work; it’s a simple little moment of inspiration and then you just orchestrate the shit out of it.”
“Chico Buarque is a genius and ‘Construção’ is considered to be one of his masterpieces, and obviously for good reason. It's also one of those songs that has a really nefarious start - he's got a real knack for these moods - and then the tension never stops. It just builds and builds and it feels like the song is going to snap apart at the seams.
“What I like about his music is that whilst the rest of the people from his generation were super into the Tropicália sound, he was almost like a Sinatra-esque character in Brazil. He was like "No, I'm sticking to the classics", but he had his own type of experimentation that captured this tradition. So the song has a very traditional sound to start with but it’s like there's almost something wrong with it, there's a nervous energy. It’s the orchestration, the discordant vocal harmonies and the brass that comes in that's kind of screwed towards the end, and the tempo just feels like it's getting faster and faster.
“This song sucks you in like nothing else I've heard from that era; it builds its own world completely and it just gets bigger and bigger, they don't hold anything back towards the end and I just find that so amazing. When I first heard it, I remember thinking: "I wish I could work like this."
“I studied Portuguese before I dropped out of university and the reason why I did that was because I liked Brazilian music so much. I actually wanted to sing in Portuguese and I wanted to understand it. I'll admit my Portuguese is bad, my French is good, but my Portuguese sucks. I have a good accent but a terrible vocabulary because I never stuck with it. I think it's the most beautifully sung language I can think of, my list of favourite languages to hear being sung would probably go Portuguese first, then Turkish, then French and then English.”
"This is another example of a simple concept that’s arranged so brilliantly and that takes you into a totally different world. ‘Ces gens-là’ starts with two notes played over and over and he tells a story with all these characters. He's talking from the point of the narrator the whole time, but you hear the man literally get drunker and drunker throughout the song until he's wailing at the end of it.
“And when that brass section comes in at the end the lift is like nothing I've ever heard before, it's like you hear the man suddenly stand up from his seat and you can imagine the seat falling back onto the floor with the excitement.
“Again, this is a thing in the arrangement. From such a simple concept, adding a couple of nice chords, you add nice melodies and then there’s this ecstatic, cathartic explosion of sounds, but done beautifully. Not brutally, but beautifully.”
“I don't know if this would surprise people, but I listen to a lot of Dub and Reggae, ridiculous amounts actually, my brothers and I are obsessed. We even watched all the films about it, including Rockers and all the others. We’re completely obsessed and have encyclopaedic knowledge on it.
“To me, it was some of the first music to be focused on actual recording as the art form. It was no longer based on this song-writing sensibility, it's the first one where all the instruments come together on tape and become a bigger force than the sum of their parts. That's the most fascinating thing, because it shows such a deep sensitivity to sound itself and that's the way I listen to it.
“I've noticed this in a lot of German music I like. For instance, in German dub stuff they seem to have processed that really well, instead of turning it into shitty reggae songs. The process is more of a big picture thing, it's more a musical palate than anything else and one that can fuck you infinitely, because the sounds themselves are so dense. I try to attack that a lot in the studio because I want things to be crunchy and I want them to bounce off each other rhythmically. I want that density, that complexity of sound, the organicness of it.
“I picked King Tubby because he's someone I can put on infinitely and keep finding these things, and the record that ‘Keep On Dubbing’ is on, King Tubby Meets the Rockers Uptown with Augustus Pablo, is one of the fascinating pieces of music ever done as far as I'm concerned. That soundscape! It inspired my approach to music and some of my songs, including ‘Nantes’ from The Flying Club Cup.
“The other thing is the instrumentation and the way it fuses together. Jackie Mittoo and all these reggae organ players got me fascinated in that instrument a little bit as well. When I was writing ‘Nantes’ I was joking like "Hey, wouldn't that be funny, to play a reggae song?” and when we do soundchecks we actually play ‘Nantes’ as a reggae song. Just for ourselves though, I don't think we'd ever show it to everybody.”
“This song is an intimate installation for me every time I go back to it, because it's so simultaneously understated and overstated. Everything from the opening drum machine you hear to the wash of chords, it seems to imply all melody and true harmony, which is amazing.
“It's something that I don't know how to explain, it's hard to capture, but it's this idea of these modal chord changes that keep pulling you and pulling you so deep into them that you can't get out. Those are the types of chord progressions I look for; it’s how I write songs, I start with chords and then I build up to other things once something catches me and puts me in a trance-like state that I know is going to work for me. Not every time, because that would be fucking impossible, but I wish!
“There are a couple of songs like that on the new album and it was a big inspiration for The Rip Tide era of Beirut; there's also a lot of early, unreleased material that was directly inspired by this song too. It's always there and in the background, it's in the choices of instruments too.”
“I heard this song when I was working at the cinema and it cracked everything open for me. It made me realise how damaging the scope of music I was already listening to was, and being a brass player, it blew me away - brass is a really powerful instrument, that's what it comes down to.
“In this song there are terrifying twitches, a lot of strings, accordions and other instruments that I love, blasting these schizophrenic, dark melodies. Later, there’s this moment where it comes down, things open up for just a moment and then the brass comes in. The pure muscle behind it; every time I hear it it gives me goose-bumps.
“When I first heard it I was like "Wow, this is a billion times crazier and more intense than punk rock, where has it been all my life?" It put me in a state and I thought this song was a really good encapsulation of the styles I love in music. You have Taraf, being from Romania and Kocani Orkestar is from Macedonia, so they're super Turkish-influenced too. I love the collision of Western harmonies and Eastern melodies in Turkish music.”
“My older brother introduced me to Neutral Milk Hotel on a tape mix that he made me around the time he moved to New York. I would have been 13 or 14 when my brother moved to New York; he left his Fostex four-track cassette recorder behind and that's when I started writing music. I heard them soon after I started writing and that was the moment I was like "Here's somebody doing something different, it's melodically some of the most beautiful work I've ever heard."
“On top of that it was DIY and grungy around the edges, and at the time I was still opening up to that music. I remember thinking “I'm not professional, I didn't study music, I'm not the best trumpet player and I can barely play piano or anything on keys.” I had my grandmother's accordion, my trumpet, a couple of keyboards and a drum machine.
“I remember thinking “This is one of the most beautiful things I've ever heard” and simultaneously thinking that maybe I could do this too. That was a huge revelation for me, and they were my favourite band for that period time and when I started writing music all the way through the first record as well.
“They excited me so much and hearing Scott Spillane on the trumpet, that blast and tone, to me it fitted this hole in music at the time. It fitted right into that spot where I felt that all the good things were missing. There was stuff I'd like from a lot of American music, but I always felt something was missing. When I heard Neutral Milk Hotel it just filled that void, it was exactly what I wanted to hear.
“After the moment I heard ‘The Fool’ I knew that it was exactly the type of song I would want to write, and I went onto write it in many different ways. This song inspired the album Gulag Orkestar in a huge way."