Man of the World

Music Features Beirut
Share Tweet Submit Pin

Someday in the distant future, cultural archaeologists will isolate a huge square block in Brooklyn’s formerly industrial neighborhood of Greenpoint and decide here was the incubator of indie cool.

“TV on the Radio used to practice down there,” Zach Condon says, gesturing north as we cross the street toward the Pencil Factory, a refurbished pub opposite his band’s rehearsal studio—a raw, empty space in a 1931 Art Deco warehouse where Eberhard Faber once manufactured those canary-yellow No. 2 pencils that have been a part of every American childhood. More recently, bands like Blonde Redhead and Condon’s own Beirut have replaced the Italian and Polish immigrant laborers of yore, knocking together bits and pieces of songs over long, sweaty days like this one. “I used to see Kyp every day,” he adds, mentioning TVOTR’s lead guitarist, owner of an unmistakable Afro. “But I don’t think he ever recognized me. He never said ‘Hi.’”

You might not recognize him, either. Condon—reed-thin and barely old enough to buy his own beer—could be any of the thousands of kids flocking about the ’hood on a lazy summer Sunday afternoon, the kind of afternoon The Kinks used to sing about. There’s a free concert (Blonde Redhead, naturally) at nearby McCarren Park Pool, and every budding hipster within reach of the L Train is pouring in. Though he may have been last year’s most-talked-about performer in the amorphous and ?ckle online universe of MP3 blogs, Condon could easily evaporate into the crowd. Sleepy eyes and a faint blanket of fuzz under his jawline offsets a baby face almost as pale as his plain-white T-shirt. His hair is wavy and tousled and, when he turns up his palms, you can glimpse a tattoo of a French hunting horn below each wrist. Yet, as easily as the kid blends into the picture, Condon—who’s been traveling the world since he dropped out of his Santa Fe high school at 16—feels like a total stranger, as out of place in the New World as one of those freshly arrived Poles, churning out pencils in the post-war 1940s.

“It’s been hard coming back to New York,” says the composer, who is open and outgoing despite his frazzled mood. He needed a getaway after the whirlwind experience of the past 18 months and the starmaking sensation, 2006’s Gulag Orkestar, a batch of home-recorded, Balkans-saturated songs he spent years conjuring, and released under the nom-de-rock Beirut. Condon—who sings in a sweet, soothing baritone and accompanies himself on a battery of instruments (trumpet, accordion, ukulele, etc.) with which he has a non-virtuosic acquaintance—had escaped to where he always escapes: Paris, the city whose polyglot musical culture most closely resembles his own aesthetic. The 20th Arrondissement, which Condon called home, boasts two of the loveliest neighborhoods in the City of Light—Menilmontant and Belleville—as well as the fabled Pere Lachaise cemetery, the eternal mailing address for Oscar Wilde and Jim Morrison. Perhaps most significantly, Chez Condon was happily adjacent to a club where his beloved gypsy brass bands held forth. “Paris has been around since the dawn of cities. They’ve ?gured out what it means to live in an urban center and live your life without all these things that suck. In New York, you pick an apartment and it seems perfect. Then you realize you’re too far from the subway, there’s no air-conditioning, the toilet doesn’t work, the fridge is blown out, there’s cockroaches everywhere, and there’s no light! You tough it out, though. It’s part of the game you play here. But in Paris it seems like it’s all ?gured out.”

Given Condon’s natural tendency toward chaos, a little bit of a sure thing offers necessary grounding. As he ?res up a smoke from a blue pack of American Spirits at the sidewalk table we’re sharing, he apologizes for any discombobulation. He’s floating through limbo right now, having ?nished a new album—the sweepingly melancholy Flying Club Cup—stuffed with arrangements for the umpteen instruments for which he’s compelled to compose, yet with no clue how an actual band will translate this complex, aching, resplendent stuff to the stage. Some songs feature as many as 14 instruments, way more musicians than Condon can afford to take on the road, even if that egalitarian Decemberists/Arcade Fire omni-band thing continues catching on. I make a joke about hiring a mariachi out?t instead, and Condon raises his eyebrows. “It’s funny you say that. I thought about getting a really good mariachi band from New Mexico, and get me in a suit just singing the songs.”

Much of the The Flying Club Cup was pieced together over three months at a downtown dance studio in Albuquerque, and in spots as unlikely as a public restroom in the Chicago airport—or so Condon claims, perhaps as an exaggeration to illustrate how hard it was to snag all the various musicians sailing in and out of his orbit. “It was a nightmare,” he says. The process concluded with a four-day mixing marathon in Chicago, highlighted by a contagion of stomach flu. “It wasn’t so much battling an inability to write a melody. It was struggling with people’s schedules. As soon as they got there it was immediate, working under pressure, working them like dogs.”

There was a respite of sorts during a visit to the Arcade Fire’s studio in Montreal, where Condon hunkered down with Owen Pallett, the gifted string arranger who performs as Final Fantasy. With some help from their friends, the pair recorded tracks both for Flying Club Cup and Pallett’s next album, amid frequent home-cooked vegan feasts and Condon’s occasional indulgence in poutine, the French-Canadian equivalent of “disco fries.”

“I wanted to work with Zach because of the way Beirut’s music has no real sense of location,” Pallett says, nailing both the appeal and the mystery of Condon’s creative instinct. “There are a lot of conflicting signifiers and the end result is entirely removed from any musical tradition. I’m working on some new recordings that contain narratives that take place in a ?ctional country. I ?gured that Beirut’s ‘mongrel’ take on world music would be an appropriate starting point.” Pallett pauses to amend himself. “‘Mongrel?’ Does that sound offensive? I mean, like a cockapoo.”

Condon might appreciate the reference to an exotic canine breed, though what he has in mind is pretty simple. So simple it’s sometimes hard to communicate. “I love the sound that comes out of a really good Studio One record,” he says, noting the seminal reggae label. “You have some really brilliant song that’s flawed in some really human way. It’s not the best it can be. It’s the best you can do. My band members have heard this a million times. I’m always telling them to play it drunk. Play it off. Falling apart around the edges.” The gypsy bands Condon valorizes, like Boban Markovic’s Orkestar and the Kocani Orkestar, are masters of a similarly slippery nuance, navigating odd, shifting meters and lurching polyphony with a sensitivity that verges on the uncanny. They have a name for it: snake time.

“It sounded like these people didn’t give a f— if they were missing notes and getting out of beat,” says Condon, who was adopted by the Kocani Orkestar during its Paris stint and drafted into playing some trumpet. “They were just going for it, putting everything they had into it. It sounded like they were super-drunk. I’ve come to realize that every single note and stylistic swirl is perfectly planned out. They’ve been playing that way for as long as they can imagine.”

The more Condon talks about how hard he’s worked to get everything just right, you realize how much more effort is necessary to get everything just wrong. If he had a motto inscribed somewhere on his flesh, perhaps in a 17th century hand, it might read: Imperfect Sound Forever. How many great albums are the result of happy accidents?

“There were major f—ups: The tape was running at a different speed and the bass was completely out of tune,” Condon says, not of his own sessions for Flying Club Cup, but of Miles Davis’ 1959 classic Kind of Blue. “However, think about it. There were really discerning critics, obsessive jazz fans, everybody thought it was a masterpiece. Never mind that there was something really wrong with it, according to a modern producer. Then they put it out again and ?xed it and it didn’t sound any different! Miles was the guy I looked up to. He was the ?rst guy who put his foot down once bebop got going. What he said was, ‘I can’t play high and fast and I’m not going to, but I can write a really pretty song.’”

Beirut’s songs are pretty, too. The best moments on Flying Club Cup have the effect of an old 78 spinning in a crumbling hotel in an imaginary Eastern European country not long after a war. The narrator, or balladeer, misses a lover—or a place or a time—and wants to convince the world, or just himself, that he can recapture what’s lost, even if it’s illusory now. It’s not so much words, which Condon says he has a hard time writing. He often prefers to just mumble out provisional phrases and ?ll in the blanks later, which also suits his vocal style, in which the end of a line tends to vanish into a humming consonant. It’s feeling. And for Condon, nobody did it better than Jacques Brel, whose vagabond spirit the singer may have been chasing down those Paris boulevards.

“This one Jacques Brel song really amazes me,” he begins. “In some sense the whole push and pull of it is what amazes me. I have no aim or vision for lyrics. But I heard this song and the lyrics are basically two-and-a-half minutes of him getting nastier and nastier about the bourgeois class, men with beers in their nose, and he just goes all out, and you realize he’s into a character. He’s no longer talking anything real. He’s a guy sitting at a bar telling a long rambling story about how much he hates all these people around him in this small town in France, these disgusting people with their fake marriages, and their fake sensibilities of culture, and ideas, and politics. And all of a sudden in the middle of the song this giant French horn swell comes out of the mess, out of this minimal, upright bass and piano playing [comes] this simple, almost jazz noise—boom-boom, boom-boom, boom-boom—and the whole time he’s sitting there, [Condon sings a brief lyric in French, sweeping a hand up] ‘I hate the bourgeois,’ and all of a sudden it explodes, and you realize this drunk, rambling guy is getting all sentimental about it, the whole situation he was just making fun of. He fell in love with a girl who’s from this town where all the people—he hates them all. He hates himself. And he fell in love with her and it’s the only worthwhile thing in the world. And it’s this huge explosion and the music gets so grandiose and gigantic and he’s screaming at this point—he’s wailing! And everything crashes to a halt and he says, But it will never happen and sir, I must tell you, I have to go home now. Just total … he took you on a ride! It’s insane how amazing he was at that. It’s too much.”

Condon takes a slug of his Brooklyn Lager, the pint glass slick with condensation. He’s grinning, and his eyes, once bleary, are bright and focused. “Those are big shoes to ?ll, and frankly I can’t and I’m not going to,” he says, “but it’s not wrong to love it.”