All over the map
If it gives his music more flair, Beirut's Zach Condon will go to the ends of the earth.
Thu Jan 29 2009
Photograph: Kristianna Smith
Zach Condon’s house is a bit of a mess. “We just moved in,” he says apologetically, navigating a roomful of boxes where two striped cats jump from crooked chair to beat-up sofa. Despite the temporary chaos, the two-story East Williamsburg townhouse, which Condon owns with his girlfriend, Kristianna, is a source of stability for the 22-year-old leader of the ever-touring Brooklyn band Beirut. But once he sits down at his massive dining room table, the conversation turns to traveling—the current topic is Mexico. “I’ve been accused of musical tourism a lot,” he says, “and now it’s actually true.”
He’s talking about a trip he took last year to Teotitlan del Valle, a tiny weaver village near Oaxaca, where Condon recorded with local 19-piece brass ensemble the Jimenez Band. The resulting tracks make up half of a double EP, March of the Zapotec/Holland, due out in mid-February. The other half is a collection of old synth-based songs that Condon had been sitting on for years. “Some of them I wrote when I was in high school,” he says. With his sneakers and faded black jeans, he could easily still pass for a minor.
The two halves of the new disc bookend the illustrious personal and musical journey of Condon’s early adulthood. A bedroom-tape maker and high-school dropout in New Mexico, the cherub-faced multi-instrumentalist moved to New York at 19, and eventually discovered Balkan brass music while traveling in Europe. His wildly popular 2006 debut under the name Beirut, Gulag Orkestar, which bears the unmistakable stamp of the Eastern horn tradition, placed him among a class of world-music--copping bands beloved by the indie-rock crowd (DeVotchKa, Gogol Bordello, etc.). Next, Condon turned to the French pop tradition on 2007’s The Flying Club Cup, a sprawling work heavily influenced by chanson.
Like any young artist faced with unexpected early success, Condon burned out a bit while touring for his second record. “I realized things had become about pushing the career side of things and not what I’m doing musically,” he recalls. Abruptly canceling last summer’s European jaunt, he threw himself into scoring the upcoming Mexican film Sin Nombre, by Cary Fukunaga. The collaboration collapsed, but it led directly to the Zapotec sessions. “I had all this reference material, so I just applied it to whatever I was working on,” says Condon. Once he discovered that a member of Beirut had connections to Jimenez, he began to envision his new compositions, such as the ghostly “La Llorona” and the waltz “The Shrew,” as large-scale Mesoamerican brass pieces. “It wasn’t meant to be a clich, me traveling down to Mexico to record,” the musician insists. “But it was like, Oh, wow: a junky, melancholy-sounding brass band? How perfect is that?”
Meanwhile, for all his wandering, Condon still had a stockpile of old material that he wanted to release as Realpeople, his pre-Beirut moniker, so he just packaged it alongside the Mexico stuff as a bonus for his longtime fans. In his basement studio, among shelves of ukuleles, horns, accordions, hand drums and keyboards, he uses a toy piano to plink out the melody from “The Concubine,” which he wrote at 16. The song is so majestic in its simplicity, it’s a wonder Condon ever left his bedroom.
On location >>
Understanding the far-flung geography of the Condon canon.
See more Music >>