Beirut: TAS In Session
A sense of wanderlust defines Zach Condon of Beirut. It's a restlessness that's eloquently explored in Beirut's excellent third album The Rip Tide. Recently Beirut joined WFUV and The Alternate Side's Alisa Ali for a very special session which can be heard via NPR Music now. Below are highlights of Alisa's chat with Zach, plus exclusive videos from Beirut's four-song set in Studio A, including "East Harlem" and "Santa Fe."
Condon brought along his entire band as well: multi-instrumentalist Kelly Pratt, bassist Paul Collins, drummer Nick Petree, horn player/pianist Ben Lanz and accordionist/pianist Perrin Cloutier.
As WFUV and The Alternate Side's Alisa Ali observed for NPR: "When Condon joined me at WFUV, he talked fondly of his nomadic lifestyle, but he also expressed a desire to maintain stability in his life. He's finally ready to lay down some roots, which in his case means buying a house, getting a dog and looking homeward for musical influences."
Alisa Ali: You randomly met your band - and these people are still with you.
Zach Condon: And it continually proves to be very lucky. It’s funny, we recently got a new tour manager because our other one was busy and she said, “You guys have been together for five years and you’re still talking to each other?”
Alisa: How often are you not on tour? I describe you as a Brooklyn band, but every time I look for you, you’re in Prague or Mexico.
Zach: We were just in Portland recently, some shop, and a guy asked me what we were doing. I said we were playing a show and told him the band name. He sat there, looking for why he knows the name, and then he blurts out, “Oh yeah, you’re the guys who never come to America!” Which is very untrue, I have you know. But we do travel quite a bit. We’ve covered some ground. The final frontier, which we’re finally going to get to this year, is Japan and Asia. But everything else we’ve done, South and North America, Australia [and more]
Alisa: Your music has an international flair to it so it’s not surprising that you guys are a bunch of vagabonds.
Zach: That’s definitely the case, but there’s a story behind that too, and it’s not because of the traveling. I think it comes from a much more fantastical place than any reality.
Alisa: You’re going to have to expand on this fantastical place.
Zach: I often get asked where the wanderlust came from. Why are you trying on these different styles? Why do you list all of these city names in your albums? It’s taken me a while to think of a good answer for that because … I like it. It’s very simple. I think it comes from growing up in Santa Fe.
Alisa: And there is a song called “Santa Fe” on this record.
Zach: Santa Fe is a city full of contractions and so on one end of the spectrum you have the tourist part of town and tourist culture, this manufactured culture that sounds very hollow. On the other end of the spectrum you have real traditions of Hispanic and Native American cultures. I’m stuck somewhere in the middle, growing up there. Because I was exposed to both, I felt in my own life that I had that kind of void of culture. I didn’t belong to any. My solution to that was to lose myself in other people’s cultures, movies and music. That’s my slightly long-winded answer for the wanderlust.
Alisa: Then you decided to move to New York City which is a melting pot of all cultures.
Zach: I like to think of it as an island off the coast of America.
Alisa: I want us to secede.
Zach: Totally. I think we’d do good on our own. You hear that, Texas? For this album it was about coming home. Or at least trying to find a home. I’ve been doing the same thing in my real life, outside of music, too. Just trying to find some way to get my feet on the ground. Get my head out of the clouds. It only made sense that the music follows suit. I was looking through [our past] albums and even older stuff that I’d written as a teenager, and I could hear this very common thread that sounds very unique to Beirut, the project. That was really interesting because in some ways the international qualities of the band have gotten kind of overexposed. The spotlight has been put too brightly on that and it puts you in a weird, reactionary corner where you almost have to fight this name that you’ve been given, this narrative that people have written for you, even though it felt different. So with this album I remember closing myself off from the world completely. I holed myself up in a farmhouse in upstate New York, in Bethel woods, and just chopped wood and wrote and wrote and wrote. No influences, no images, that’s why the cover of the album is blank. Just letters. Nothing to influence me in any direction but just to find the core of the sound and to bring that out.
Alisa: How long were you there?
Zach: I was there for five months. We recorded in Catskill, New York, on the Hudson River. There was another thing with this album — I didn’t want it to be the bedroom opus that I’d started with. That was a case of necessity; I had Pro-Tools, but I didn’t have an orchestra. I wanetd an orchestra. So it was all me. The second album is 90 percent me and this time around, I remember thinking, to go back to the band members. The power that I feel onstage with them backing me up was enough to convince me that I needed to mimic that on the record. So we actually locked ourselves in another place — but this time just for two weeks. I showed them what I’d written and we banged them out, all in the same room, mostly live to tape, over the course of two weeks. Alisa: So when you secluded yourself for five months, you were coming up with lyrics as well as music? Zach: Lyrics always come later. I went back to New Mexico for that. I start with gibberish. You know how Sigur Rós used to claim that they sang in “Hopelandish?” To me, the melody is the more important of the two, not to cheapen the lyrics in any way. It’s just to say what really haunts with you, sticks with you and the magic of music that I can never describe or explain gracefully comes from melody, harmony and rhythm. Not from words. From me. Although I do love, obviously, great lyricists. It starts with gibberish; that’s how you can hear the melody without any interference from what else is going on in your head.