An Interview with Zach Condon & Jason of Beirut
DOWNLOAD: Postcards From Italy (MP3)
Help me welcome interviewer Mike to BrooklynVegan. Mike set up this interview with Beirut's Zach Condon and Jason (guitar & keyboards) with the help of Ben from BadaBing Records (who we'd like to give special thanks).
BEIRUT @ NORTHSIX (more)
Mike "caught up with them (Beirut) the day after they played two shows at the Lily Pad in Cambridge (June 24, 2006). The venue was small and the line snaked around the block. They ended up playing two shows: one at 11:30 and another at 12:45." Mike, Zach and Jason "tried to grab some beers but lack of proper I.D.'s prevented that" so they "ended up grabbing a six pack and did the interview on a friends porch"...
BrooklynVegan Mike: How did you hook up with BaDaBing?
Zach: Jeremy lives in Albuquerque, which a lot of people don't know. The funny thing about us is that we both lived in Albuquerque and are from Albuquerque, and that's what our bios say about us…but neither of us played in Albuquerque, ever. The one show we did do, a friend of Jeremy's convinced him "Come on Jeremy, play a show in your hometown," so he did. They were looking around for people with similar musical aspirations and that's how they found me. Somebody heard that I was doing gypsy-related stuff as well and that's how we hooked up. I was doing karaoke to Gulag Orkestar stuff, basically. He heard it and liked it and eventually gave the CD to Ben [Goldberg, BaDaBing Records] and he agreed to do drums on it.
BrooklynVegan Mike: So how long has the album material been done, like the songs and whatnot?
Zach: About this time last year. About a month from a year, yeah.
BrooklynVegan Mike: How do you feel about people making Neutral Milk Hotel comparisons? Does that bother you?
Zach: It doesn't bother me. They're a great band. I don't really see what the big complaint is about comparisons. Unless, of course, you get compared to a band you hate [laughs].
BrooklynVegan Mike: Do you think that perhaps people are looking too much into the music, to draw those parallels?
Zach: To an extent, yeah. But the thing is we share so much aesthetically with them, you know? I'm not embarrassed to say that, especially with the guilt by association with Jeremy and all. I'm not afraid to admit that there is some aesthetic of theirs that I really love. Sure, it can be tiring. I don't want to be pigeonholed.
BrooklynVegan Mike: Do you have any thoughts/feelings/opinions on the whole blog/pitchfork culture that has created this excitement?
Zach: My general answer to that is I never took the internet seriously until about a month ago when I realized what it could do for me [laughs]. What do you think Jason?
Jason: That sounds right. I still don't really understand it.
Zach: I don't think any of us in the band…like Ben would call us up and be like "Yeah, another blog wrote about your album and I'm like…..
BrooklynVegan Mike: And….? [laughs]
Zach: Right [laughs]. I thought it was like Myspace blogs or something.
BrooklynVegan Mike: I first read about you on Gorilla Vs. Bear. I know a lot of people did. When I talked to Ben, he told me that he bent over backwards to get mainstream press to pay any attention to the album and no one would.
Zach: No one would. This is how it works now. The Internet introduces new things and discovers them and everyone else follows suit. The major publications kind of give the last word on it, instead of vice versa.
BrooklynVegan Mike: At the end of the day it still seems like Pitchfork is the tastemaker. Sometimes blogs will push a band but if for some reason Pitchfork doesn't like it, it all dies.
Zach: Totally. But they didn't hurt it, and they didn't fuel it, which is fine by me. I don't want to be playing sold out Bowery shows within a month of the release. We have to do a few of the shows like last night to get our feet on the ground.
BrooklynVegan Mike:So you don't have a problem building a name for yourself slowly?
Jason: It has not been that slow [laughs].
Zach: It hasn't been a slow building tour across the U.S. Our first show was at the Knitting Factory and that was a disaster. A total disaster. Worse then this one. Our second show was the Mercury Lounge and that one was flawless. It sounded amazing.
Jason: We have cut out three really good shows so far.
Zach: Yeah. The Northsix show was amazing. You could hear a pin drop. It was like an orchestra was on stage. It was totally sold out. If they could all be like that. It is weird with all of the lineup changes.
BrooklynVegan Mike: Has the lineup been finalized?
Zach: To some extent. The core has been.
BrooklynVegan Mike: You made a joke last night about the wind section being m.i.a.. Were there really people missing last night?
Zach: Yeah The guy that plays baritone sax, clarinet, glockenspiel, mandolin, and ukulele. These are the kind of people I need in my band because those are the instruments I play and I'm not an octopus. I can't do it all.
BrooklynVegan Mike: What was funny was at the second show last night you guys were kind of off the set list so whenever you picked a song there would be a flurry of movement behind you and people shouting "is there mandolin in this song? Is there glockenspiel?" [laughs].
Zach: This guy [pointing to Jason] signed on…and he's a friend of my brothers and he's like "I play guitar," and I'm like "I don't think that will work, but come on, join the band. We'll see what works."
Jason: He lets me play guitar on two songs now, I think [laughs]. And now I play grand piano.
Zach: He never touched a piano until yesterday.
BrooklynVegan Mike: Really?
Jason: I've played keyboards, but until last night I had never played on an actual piano.
Zach: He was bothered by the weighed keys. "I…can't…do it." [laughs]. We were gonna set the keyboard on top of the grand piano and just make it look like he was playing a piano.
Jason: But we couldn't balance it on the keys.
BrooklynVegan Mike: About the band, the enormity of it, did it really just come together, like a ramshackle approach?
Zach: Yeah. That was kind of the idea. I kind of wanted a ramshackle orchestra. This is gonna sound like a romantic story, but when I was in Paris I saw this band of kids that all bought pawn shop instruments like busted up tubas and trumpets and stuff, and they would all wander around Paris, playing. They weren't great musicians or anything, but it sounded awesome and was a lot of fun. I kind of wanted to mimic that idea. That's why I'm working with…basically we are all amateurs. No way in hell could I ever revert back to a guitar-bass-drum kind of band. I can't write for that. I don't really even like the sound that much.
BrooklynVegan Mike: You debuted one new song last night. Do you have another album already planned?
Zach: I'm taking a month off of shows right now and record an e.p. for possibly for a British single and possibly a single here in the U.S. I write a lot of stuff and when I do an album I usually cut out about 90% of it.
BrooklynVegan Mike: Will any future album sound or have the same aesthetic as Gulag Orkestar?
Zach: I don't think so. I mean, it will still be multi-instrumental, but I don't think it will be in the style of Gulag. That was the phase of my life I was in at the time. I'm really not there right now. I write a lot so it is whatever it is at that time.
BrooklynVegan Mike: Now I have read about these other albums, like a doo-wop album and an electronica album. Will we ever be able to hear those?
Zach: It's funny because those are the same two albums that people bring up. I did those when I was like, 14. Just me in my bedroom kind of stuff.
BrooklynVegan Mike: We kind of came in conflict with it today, but with your age do you have trouble with clubs, grabbing a beer or people taking you seriously?
Zach: Not in Brooklyn.
Jason: Also, his age never changes. He's still 19.
Zach: I'm 20 now but everyone thinks I'm still 19. We've decided we're gonna start celebrating my birthday's backwards from now. Next year I will be 19, the year after, 18. In New York, I don't get any crap at all. Here I feel like a 20 year old.
BrooklynVegan Mike: From a marketing standpoint, you can understand why they want to keep pushing 19. That's still a teenager.
Zach: Why not? That seems crazy, but not to me.
BrooklynVegan Mike: You mentioned how you kind of came up with the idea for the sound, travelling around in Europe and such. I have also read that all of that is B.S. and that you are a guy who never left his bedroom in Albuquerque, New Mexico until just recently.
Zach: I didn't realize I had so much mystique, on a P.R. level.
BrooklynVegan Mike: One of the more fascinating things about Internet hype is because there is no "true source," it is very easy to create and mix up stories.
Zach: Yeah, have you seen my name go through the transformation from Zach Condron to Zach Condlin…?
Jason: To Zach Condom….
Zach: Even the Village Voice totally jumbled it up.
Are you looking for the honest story? Yeah, I travelled. What I think it is they mix up is that they want this big, fantastical story of this big voyage through Europe, of soul searching and finding this music, and having a purpose in life. But it wasn't like that. It was me being a 17, 18 year old kid, and just being a hooligan in Europe, drinking and hanging out with kids on the riverside and not doing anything responsible or that interesting for that matter. I did discover the sound when I was over there, so it's a half truth but I don't feel like pushing the romantic aspect of it.
BrooklynVegan Mike: Have you had any vocal training? How did the voice come about?
Zach: Almost by accident. I think I was trying to sing along to a lot Magnetic Fields when I was 15. I had this keyboard and I wrote this song and I wanted my friend to sing on it but he was kind of an emo singer, and I realized it was a dumb idea. Literally, I tried and it worked. It has developed since then. It just came naturally. I haven't had a day of vocal training in my life, although I am thinking about it before I go on tour. It gets exhausted drinking and smoking.
One of the earliest memories with music is I had a Fischer Price Karaoke machine. I was like four or five. And I had this Beach Boys tape that I played to death, from front to back. Eventually, my brother Ryan smashed it because he was sick of hearing it [laughs].
editor's note: Mike and I discussed the questions a bit before the interview. I told him about how, at the Knitting Factory show, Zach said that his Internet celebrity status still wasn't good enough to convince his mom he's doing something right. I think that's where the next question came from.
BrooklynVegan Mike: At the Northsix show, you made a comment about how your mother hasn't accepted/approved of your career choice. Has she come around at all?
Zach: Oh…I don't know. Yeah. Did I even mention that? Of course, my parents never took it seriously, you know? That's the funny thing now because my dad follows me closer than I do. He's calling me up saying, "I heard that you closed your eyes too much. I read it on the internet." I'm like "what the fuck, dad. Four months ago you would have never even, you know, mention the fact that your son makes music in his bedroom." So, that's ironic.
The funnier story is my mom. About a month after the release, when the Pitchfork review came out and some other stuff, and it was starting to look like we were going to be a big deal, and this UK bidding war thing started…and my mom goes "that's so great. I heard about your album." And then she said, "do you sing on it?" I was like, "Wow, you really didn't know?"