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Exclusive: Beirut’s Zach Condon On Having Grown Up With His New Album

The multi-instrumentalist talks about Beirut, his Balkan-influenced band and traveling the world to make music since his teens

Sharin Bhatti Jul 04, 2012
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Zach Condon. Photo: Kristianna Smith

Twenty-five-year-old Zach Condon has been traveling and making music since he was 16, ever since he dropped out of his suburban school in New Mexico and ran away to Europe to become a street musician. He returned a year later, bringing with him Balkan folk music that he reassigned to the piano, the trumpet and the ukulele.  Last week, he released the music video of the title-track of his third album The Rip Tide that released last year. Currently on tour in US, we asked Condon about touring in India and he sounded most enthusiastic. “I would jump on any offer to play gigs in India. I’m hopeful of that becoming a reality. Mumford & Sons played in India, I surely can,” he said.

The Rip Tide is different from your earlier albums. It sounds more contained, melodic and less experimental and there’s no electronica as one would have expected after Holland. Was it a conscious decision to steer clear of everything you’ve previously done?

It was a conscious decision to an extent.  I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t sick of hearing about my music as cultural tourism by lazy journalists. A melody is a melody. End of discussion.  But in all honesty I knew this was coming.  I started writing songs around the age of 15 and they were always simple songs with hooks and a decent amount of random instrumentation. It felt very natural to make this album, as if I’d known how to do it all along. I’m happy I got to experiment but if someone asked me to point out the ”˜true’ sound of Beirut I would point to songs like “Santa Fe” and “The Rip Tide.”

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I read you recorded this album in the winter of 2010 in Brooklyn. Is location important to inspiration in your case, considering your music is an amalgamation of storytelling and folk?

A part of the album was finished in Brooklyn, but most of the album was written and recorded about two or three hours north of the city, at a farmhouse in the woods.  I have trouble focusing in Brooklyn, too much stimulation.  But that’s what I love about the place. But yes, location is pretty woven into what I do. Funny though, I promised myself when I rented the farmhouse that I would not write a whispery, wintry folk album and The Rip Tide is just that sort of sound.

You had a major label vying for a contract and yet you chose to release The Rip Tide independently. Why?

I was feeling a disconnect between my music and myself, which is why my last EP Holland  was all over the place. But it did very well, inspite of me being not so happy with it. That’s why when I was offered the contract,  I ran. Releasing it myself is actually quite invigorating. Atleast if something goes wrong you have only yourself to blame.  No regrets.

Could you take us through the genesis of Zach Condon from leaving home, discovering your grandfather’s trumpet, travels through Europe and forming Beirut?

I was born in AlbuquerqueNew Mexico, and raised mostly in Santa Fe. My grandfather was an alto-sax player, and my father wanted me to try sax as well. During one fiesta, I saw a mariachi band that came to our elementary school. I couldn’t believe the power I felt from the brass, so that sealed my fate. At 16, I dropped out of school and soon found myself in Brooklyn, making gold gilded frames and saving money for Europe, where I spent most of my time in Paris. I got by on couch surfing. When the money ran out, I came back to Santa Feand started writing an album. That album was the Gulag Orkestar.  I got a phone call from a label, BaDaBing records and I moved back to New York to start a career in music. That was six years ago.

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Your debut album released when you were 17? And you’ve put out five EPs and two more albums since then. Are you constantly writing?

It slowed down a little bit once the touring became more intense, but I can’t go long without writing. And I used to travel a lot, but these days I’ve been trying to settle down. I’ve been living out of a suitcase since I was 17 and it has started to take its toll on me.

You’ve been touring extensively through Europe and USA. Any hopes of bringing your music to Asia?

I would jump on any offer to play gigs inIndia. I’m hopeful of that becoming a reality. Mumford & Sons played in India, I surely can.

When is the next album or EP out?

As soon as I have the chance to sit still in one place for more than a week.

Watch the video of The Rip Tide:


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