The Great Instrumentalist Returns: Inside the Fantastical, Obsessive Mind of Beirut’s Zach Condon
How one of the world’s premier singer-songwriter-instrumentalists overcame divorce, hospitalization, and writer’s block to deliver his most feel-good album yet.
In an epoch teeming with ghostwriting, auto-tune, and EDM, where instruments are counterfeited by machines and Imagine Dragons sell out arenas, Zach Condon remains an analog man in a digital world. As a teen battling insomnia, Condon would lock himself in his bedroom and, armed with a 4-track recorder, Oberheim Matrix 6 keyboard, junky piano, and that angelic voice, record an album a week to show off to his brothers. For his band Beirut’s debut Gulag Orkestar, a then-19-year-old Condon famously played nearly every instrument on the album—including trumpet, flugelhorn, ukulele, mandolin, accordion, and piano—and recorded the bulk of it in his bedroom.
But a few years ago, Condon thought about calling it quits.
Following a messy divorce and 2½-year world tour that left him hospitalized in Australia due to extreme exhaustion, the Beirut frontman struggled to record any new music following the 2010 sessions for his third studio album The Rip Tide.
“I was inside my head, in a bad way,” he says. “I was almost paranoid of what people’s reactions to whatever I put out next would be—critics and fans alike—and the fact that I just knew I was heading down different roads than I was before. It seemed endless, actually, and it seemed like it would never stop.”
When I ring the doorbell to Condon’s quaint, sun-soaked Brooklyn home, I’m greeted by his dog Mishka, named after a character in Ukrainian author Andrey Kurkov’s novel Death and the Penguin, and those inescapable French horn tattoos on each of his wrists. The barefooted 29-year-old, clad in a white tee and khakis, seems at peace with himself. He’d spent the past few summers in Istanbul—his new fiancée is half-Turkish—where he played around with the ukulele and cümbüş, in order to “be as far away from the music industry as possible.” And he’s promoting his fourth studio album, No No No, which, though billed as his “divorce album,” sounds more like a spiritual rebirth.
“This is not a Taylor Swift breakup album,” he says, chuckling. “This album was very much a return to form. It was a reverse of that psychology of needing to sponge in everything that was around me and discover constantly, and was more, well, actually I’m just this kid from Santa Fe with a big imagination and a big enough personality to back that up.”
Indeed, No No No is perhaps Condon’s most stripped-down effort to date—a nine-song, 29-minute LP of subtly satisfying grooves and melodies. Gone are the swelling, Carnegie Hall-ready anthems like “Postcards From Italy,” “Elephant Gun,” and “Nantes,” replaced by three-minute up-tempo ditties such as its title track, “No No No.”
Last year, Condon returned from summering in Istanbul with a renewed sense of purpose. You see, Condon’s older brother had, over the years, gone through the trouble of archiving all of his bro’s music pre-Gulag at their family home in Santa Fe, New Mexico—those “weird musical obsessions,” as Condon describes them, that he’d record every night in lieu of sleep. Knowing that Condon was in a songwriting rut, he brought back a few of the albums, dumped them on the table, and said, “You should check these out.”
And immediately, Condon says he experienced a Proustian flashback to those Santa Fe days locked in his bedroom recording an album a week. “It comes from an isolated place—an isolated city, an isolated fuckin’ bedroom, and an isolated bed where I spent all my insomniac years,” he says. “I’d be working on them until 5 in the morning, and it’s the reason I dropped out of high school. I’d get in the car, drive out to a park near my house, sleep until my parents went to work, and then go back home and finish what I was working on.”
After listening to the albums, Condon gathered his bandmates and, during late November and early December of last year, as the city was ravaged with snow, the fellas sat in a dungeon-like studio rehearsal space in DUMBO, set up a field recorder, and played, and played. Once they went through the files, they realized they were on to something, and recording the album in two weeks at Strange Weather, a studio right down the street from Condon’s home, and recorded the album with producer Gabe Wax.
“It’s a total reset,” says Condon. “I’m allowing myself to do what I was doing all along anyway, and I’m not trying to soak anything in, I’m just trying to develop what was already there.”
Condon’s journey began in New Mexico, and he still chain-smokes Natural American Spirits. While all his friends in Santa Fe were in punk and screamo bands, he describes himself as “the weirdo”—a cultural sponge interested in trumpeting and far-off lands.
When I ask him how a ratty kid from Santa Fe became so worldly, he laughs. “Family pressure of, ‘If you haven’t seen the world, then who the fuck are you?’ Blind aggression. And movies. A lot of movies,” he says. “There were things I’d read about or seen in movies, and I needed to see—and hear—what they were about.”
He worked as an usher at Plan B, an unfortunately-named arthouse cinema that’s now known as the CCA, and all they showed at the time was foreign films. He mentions Almodovar and Fellini as influences, as well as the oeuvre of Emir Kusturica. “It was all in my head,” he says of the movies. “I was hearing these soundtracks, and I wanted to make soundtracks instead of what I was hearing in the punk scene of Santa Fe at the time. And so I tried.”
Whereas Gulag was inspired by Balkan folk music, each successive album had a distinct geographical feel, from French chanson-influenced The Flying Club Cup to March of the Zapotec, inspired by a trip to Oaxaca, Mexico, and True Detective director Cary Fukunaga.
“March of the Zapotec started as a soundtrack for Cary Fukunaga for a film called Sin Nombre,” recalls Condon. “He sent me these recordings of all these different regions in Mexico, and this one caught my mind to the extent that I started to get a little too obsessed with it.” Fukunaga showed him string orchestras from Huapango in the Yucatan Peninsula, as well as funereal brass bands from Oaxaca. “I had to say, ‘I’m sorry, Cary, I need to do this thing,’ so I went down to the region and recorded a 19-piece village orchestra with scores I’d composed.”
Condon and Fukunaga were working on a follow-up project back in 2010, a musical about a boy and a girl in love, but trapped in parallel dimensions—a nod, Fukunaga has said, to Pyramus and Thisbe.
“The last time I talked to him was when he wanted me and Owen Pallett to score a musical in the vein of a Godard film,” says Condon, wearily. “I’ve tried scoring a film a few times. But every time, I get too caught up in what songs I want to write versus what they want for the scenes, so I get aggressively on the music side of things versus the soundscape side of things.”
His music’s traveled from New Mexico to Mexico and back again, but Condon seems most at home in New York. He’s lived in Brooklyn for the last 10 years, although says he’s now over the city, and is contemplating moving upstate to Westchester County.
“If you want to talk about where Brooklyn is going, it’s Vice fuckin’ office space,” he says. “That is Brooklyn in a nutshell.”
But for now, he’s happy in his current home—a two-story he’s lived in for the last four years that boasts an enviable back deck.
“It is nice, but mostly because my fiancée made it nice,” he says, flashing a smile. “I went on tour for a year, and returned to a nice home.” I ask if falling in love with her has allowed him to re-focus on his music, and he takes a long pause. “She pointed out where I was being very irresponsible and immature—and in the most loving way—so I thought, wait, maybe I can address it. Maybe it gave me the perspective to return.”