Beirut's Zach Condon on 'Rip Tide': 'I Was Trying to Write a Pop Album'
Zach Condon, the songwriter and mastermind behind Beirut, may be just as famous for his music as for the cultures that have influenced it. Beirut's debut, 2006's "Gulag Orkestar," played like an old-world village party in the Balkans. Follow-up "The Flying Cup Club" found Condon obsessed with French chanson; 2009 EP "March of the Zapotec" took cues from Mexican funeral brass bands.
So when Condon explains Beirut's latest LP, "The Rip Tide," out Aug. 30 on his own Pompeii Records, he knows what fans may be thinking.
"The cliché is, 'What country is he going to do next?'" Condon deadpans. "But before I even started this album, I wanted to dig into the Beirut sound as far as I could go. I was trying to write a pop album."
To cut to the core of his sound, Condon, a Santa Fe, N.M. native, needed isolation. In the fall of 2010, he packed up a broken-down Saab, rented a woods-enclosed farmhouse in upstate Bethel, N.Y., and brought a neighbor's beagle for company. "Writing in the city provides too many distractions," says Condon, who immersed himself in his work, waking early to chop wood for the stove and taking breaks to "whack golf balls into the trees." In the process, he sharpened a sound that was all his own. After all, Condon says, becoming a musical atlas of influences was never the idea.
"It's more playful than people may expect," he says of the roots of his wide-ranging sound. "I just liked to play with the fantasy of places, to be cinematic and romantic. It was musical escapism. It did dig me into a little hole, actually. I found myself an ambassador of cultures that didn't belong to me."
The Rip Tide may not shake that perception of Condon, but the album does sound distinctly like Beirut. Its lack of an obvious, singular cultural touchstone may be the nine-song set's strongest quality-Condon's delicate voice, set aloft by Beirut's usual assortment of brass instruments, orchestral percussion and quivering accordion (Beirut tours as a six-man band), is reminiscent of prior releases, but "The Rip Tide" is a tighter, more focused whole. All Zach Condon, and little like anything else.
Though Condon may fight against any "world music" label, his music has achieved a unique popularity around the globe. Beirut is bigger in countries like Belgium ("We went gold there. We didn't really go anything anywhere else," he says) and Brazil than at home.
"What the world knows of Brazilian music is this in-your-face funk, so I figured we'd never get [popular] there," Condon says.
The exact opposite turned out to be true. After Beirut's "Elephant Gun" became the theme song of "Capitu," a 2008 Brazilian TV miniseries, a new genre was born-Beirutando-of wildly popular, nationwide, Beirut cover bands. Beirut's resulting 2009 tour of the country only fanned the flames.
Video: Beirut's "Elephant Gun"
"Apparently, [in Brazil] we can now be used as a verb, We're going Beirut-ing," Condon says. "It's incredibly flattering. I'm almost scared to go back now. I don't want to disappoint."
The band's influence in the States, though, is nothing to scoff at.
Like Animal Collective and the throngs of neon-haze bands that followed, Beirut has helped usher in a wave of global-influenced American acts ranging from Afropop to gypsy punk. "I hope what people are taking from this trend is the art of song craft through different musical approaches, but I'm afraid to see it go the way of a bad fad," Condon says. "I don't want this to be the decade of world music."
Still, Condon says, "If you like a melody, it shouldn't matter where it came from, as long as it comes across as earnest. I don't like fundamentalism in music. That's such a silly way to approach an all-encompassing art form."
Very little about Condon isn't earnest-including his approach to the business of the music he creates. "The Rip Tide" is being released on Condon's Pompeii Records, with distribution through Revolver, without any help from a major label.
"As a self-release, this record is a different challenge," Beirut manager Ben Goldberg says. ("Gulag Orkestar" and "The Flying Cup Club" were released on Ba Da Bing! and 4AD, respectively.) "There's no major-label involvement anywhere. We're not relying upon a system enacted day after day. We're carving out our own system; it's a new methodology."
Condon insisted on breaking from any major-label ties. "I always felt responsible to please the middle men," he says. "That was the breaking point. I don't want to feel responsible for anyone but myself and my immediate band and family."
Goldberg is confident that, even independently, Beirut can attain and maintain its already impressive level of indie success: well-known, but not quite the Decemberists or My Morning Jacket. "The Rip Tide" was released digitally through iTunes on Aug. 2 in response to a leak and entered the Billboard 200 at No. 88. The album was also made available for streaming on NPR.com prior to its release. With a fall tour through Europe and North America booked as well, Beirut isn't going anywhere. But, Goldberg says, ubiquity isn't the objective.
"[Beirut's] goal isn't celebrity, but to live playing music," Goldberg says. "It's embarrassing how much of an attempt there is [by some bands to attain mainstream success], but others expand their sound and don't lose any fire. There's something really graceful about that."