How Beirut went from golden boy wonder to the dark side
Zach Condon is the boy wonder who flew too close to the sun. Aged 19, he released his first album as Beirut. Channelling a teenage crush on Balkan folk, it was weird, feverish and beautiful. At 21, he recorded The Flying Club Cup, 40 minutes of gorgeous indie mopery that referenced F Scott Fitzgerald and Parisian chamber music without coming off as painfully pretentious. Then he went on the road, partied waaay too hard, and, in the back of a rust-bucket tour bus, had a violent breakdown.
"It's funny, I never used to believe in panic attacks," says Condon, nestled in a hotel suite overlooking Toronto's bustling midtown. "I thought they were a joke someone had invented because they were pushed a little too far. But after the first one, they kept coming. I needed to go home."
Apple-cheeked and with the air of a mildly flustered librarian, even at his darkest moments Condon, now an ancient 25, was never in danger of being mistaken for Pete Doherty on a crack binge. The most debauched thing he recalls getting up to was sinking half a bottle of whiskey and a few beers before a show in London.
"Don't get me wrong. I loved every minute of it," he says. "Until my body gave out, that is. I had the naïve idea that I was simply tired, that whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger. It was such a harsh lesson to learn that actually your body has limits. That was a shocking moment. The rest, it was amazing. One of the best years of my life. I wouldn't take anything back. Ultimately, what I discovered is that I needed stability. I can't keep on living that rock lifestyle. So I went to New York, bought a house and got married."
Returning from a 24 month lay-off, Condon has been surprised to discover that, far from the forgotten man of ukulele-soaked chamber pop, he's on his way to becoming a proper star in the indie firmament. Tim Robbins is a fan, as is Sean Penn, who took time out from filming in Dublin to attend Beirut's Tripod show last year. Blondie went so far as to cover their song Sunday Smile on their latest album (throttling it half to death).
Granted, it is probably overstating the case to suggest Condon is poised for hugeness on the scale of Arcade Fire, whom he recently supported in front of 60,000 in London's Hyde Park. But, on the evidence of Beirut's new LP, Rip Tide, there is every reason to believe he might soon be rivalling the arena status of a group such as The National. Actually, that band told him as much the other week.
"We were talking and they said to me, 'Man you've got everything, it's all fine. There's one thing you still need, a fucking lighting guy'. In other words, they were telling me we have reached a point in our career where the venues are so large the people at the back can't exactly see us and there needs to be another element to interest them. Which is so strange to me. Basically I spent two years slacking off musically. I mean, sure I was recording. But I didn't go back to touring until last year. It's been strange to discover I didn't leave anything behind. People have been waiting, it's all building. Which is great. At the same time, it's a totally insane revelation."
The biggest difference this time around is that Condon is going it alone, having parted from the UK label 4AD. At one level, that is hardly news. Artists are fleeing record labels faster than rioting Londoners helped themselves to flatscreen TVs a few weeks ago.
For the most part, though, they've been deserting fuddy-duddy majors. Fiercely independent 4AD is one of the few record companies that has been actively signing new talent. Why pull the plug at the point where things are really happening for Beirut?
"The funny thing is, I love 4AD," says Condon. "I couldn't have done anything without them. The point is you become close friends with the people you work with on a day to day basis. And then, every day, they have to try to betray you, to ask you to do things both they and you know you don't want to do. The pressure of that was getting to me. I thought, 'man, there has to be another way to do it'. They wanted more radio, more touring, more everything. That's fine, that's what their job is. At the same time, Jesus Christ, it was stressing me out, to put it lightly."
The other issue, he admits, is that he has a problem with authority. Since childhood he has resented having to do what other people tell him. It got to the point where his career was starting to suffer. "I look back now and think, God I was such a brat," he says. "It's true -- a problem with authority has been a reoccurring thing in my life. I ran away from high school, I ran away from everything in my life with an authority figure, even trumpet lessons when I was younger. I realised I was doing the same thing with my music, whenever anyone else exerted any control. The only way to alleviate it would be to do it myself. That way I would only have myself to blame for whatever I put myself through."
Setting aside an obvious debt to mid-period Magnetic Fields (a band he adores), Condon's influences have always been chiefly European, such as the much-publicised Balkan overtones on his debut Gular Orkestar. He subsequently moved to Paris to write The Flying Club Cup. He'd be there to this day were it not for the fact his wife spoke no French (he presently lives in Brooklyn and has Irish filmmaker Maya Derrington for a neighbour). He has surmised his interest in Continental culture stems from growing up in Santa Fe, New Mexico, a desert town from which he felt alienated as a teenager. He addresses this on a new track called Santa Fe.
"I always felt I was living in a cultural vacuum," he says. "Revisiting it as an adult, as opposed to someone trapped in adolescence, I found the opposite was the case. It's a cultural mecca, hidden away from the rest of the world. It's a tourist town. The culture is largely hispanic and native American. I felt I didn't belong. It's been interesting to revisit it and see the degree to which it shaped me. I've been shaking off the dismal view I've had of it since adolescence."
Condon is glad he's back, that his audience is still here for him. However, his recent forays opening for Arcade Fire and The National have brought him a profound clarity, too. He wants to be successful -- but not to the point where it gets to be overwhelming.
"When I went up there to support Arcade Fire and saw 60,000 people, I shook violently for the first three minutes. It wasn't a bad experience. At the same time, somewhere deep inside me a voice was saying, 'you know this is not what I want'. I'm totally fine headlining the second stage. To be up there, full frontal in front of so many people... it isn't for me."
The Rip Tide is released today. The band play Electric Picnic on Sunday, September 4
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