Published Aug 22, 2011Even as Zach Condon was releasing his 2009 double EP March of the Zapotec/Holland, the founder, singer and songwriter for Beirut already knew what his new record, The Rip Tide, was going to sound like. "I knew the moment I finished those EPs that this was what I was going to do next. To take the thread that united all the melodies and harmonies and everything I've done and just focus on that ― and that alone. Not really care, stylistically, how it came out."
Beirut's musical journey in the last half-decade has encompassed Balkan folk, the work of Belgian songwriter Jacques Brel and the mariachi influences found on the Zapotec EP. Embracing simplicity ― actually, not even simplicity, but just letting inspiration be his guide ― is a significant step forward for Condon, who's been on a series of very specific musical journeys since he was in high school.
"The first record was released when I was 19," he continues, "and you can tell I'm trying on musical personalities and taking influences from really different places ― which I'm very happy about, I'm totally excited by that still ― but it was like a form of musical adolescence, in a sense."
Such a self-assured statement would never have come from Condon in 2006, when the teenager was launched into the spotlight on the back of his excellent debut, The Gulag Orkestar. The album effortlessly fused Eastern European, Balkan-style horns and folk with shambolic indie rock influences like Neutral Milk Hotel and the Decemberists. That he was a natty dresser, sang in a haunted baritone tremor and wailed on a trumpet instead of a guitar only added to his Old World charm. Condon, who was raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico and only began home recording because he suffered from insomnia, was instantly embraced for the breadth of his musical vision.
"At the time, I thought I was invincible, and that no matter what changed in my life, I would just coast through it like it was no big deal."
In 2008, Beirut released Gulag's follow-up, The Flying Club Cup. The tribute to European sophistication, particularly Belgian songwriter Jacques Brel, was frillier, perhaps even more ambitious than his debut, and Condon took it as a given that his next steps would be as effortless as the first few. He took his six-piece band collective on the road throughout North America before taking The Flying Club Cup back to the roots of its inspiration.
"When we got to Europe, two days in I started getting these really intense panic attacks, constantly. I didn't even believe panic attacks were a real thing until it happened to me." The entire European tour had to be cancelled. "My reaction to [my initial success]," Condon realizes now, "was ignorance."
From an early age, if Zach Condon was told what to do, he would do the opposite. "My dad had given me a guitar, but I dropped that," he says of his early musical experiences. "My grandfather played saxophone, and so my dad sent me to school the first day, to sign up for band, with a saxophone. They asked what was in the case; I said 'trumpet.'" Condon may have a refined, boy-next-door image but his introspective side has been pitted against an inner rebel for much of his career. He even rebels against what he loves: "There's something more expressive about the trumpet compared to the guitar," he enthuses. "I took a couple of years of trumpet lessons as a young kid and that's about it. When I got into music theory, I just stopped listening."
After cancelling the Flying Club Cup tour, Condon retreated to a childhood love of mariachi bands and headed to Oaxaca, Mexico. He began work on March of the Zapotec, once again channelling the music of a specific time and place far from his own experience. But feeling like the EP was a little sparse, he returned to a handful of bedroom recordings he'd done as a teenager under the name Realpeople. More electronic-based, influenced by early Magnetic Fields records, the Realpeople songs showcased a different side of Condon. "That's where I started," he explains. "That's what I used to do as a teenager: write little synth-pop ditties."
Risking alienating fans of his more organic sound, he compiled the Realpeople songs as the Holland half of what became a double EP release. "It was super liberating. I'd done this Mexican project, so to speak, which I'd been dying to do for a long time. I just love hearing my voice over varying palettes of sound. I just thought 'Shit, if I'm going to put this out, I would love for people to have more material to listen to, so why not show them where I came from?' That was the point behind it."
Having seemingly exorcised the ghosts of his early musical life, Condon felt more confident. In an interview following the release of March of the Zapotec/Holland EPs, he claimed, "I feel like I've explored all the palettes and now it's time to look inward for inspiration." Asked now if he's done that on The Rip Tide, he's quick with a "Definitely."
"This sound," he continues, "it's been there, for me, since day one. I've always had it, it's always been with me. This was the first time that I kind of looked in the mirror and said 'Well Jesus Christ, just put that on paper! That'll be great! Why fuck around?"
The path was clear but the road turned out to be a little more treacherous than he'd expected. First, he suffered a nasty broken elbow while skateboarding ― yes, the wing-tipped young man who wrote "Postcards from Italy" skateboards. He also discovered a polyp on his vocal chords that threatened the range of his theatrical baritone. He was given two choices: surgery or a vocal coach.
With great trepidation, Condon opted for the singing lessons. "I've always been super anti-authority," he admits. "This is a theme that runs through my entire life; any sort of authority, I immediately want to dismiss." And even though he's matured, and he was facing a threat to his love and livelihood, Condon could only swallow so much, as it were. "I only went [to see the vocal coach] for two-and-a-half or three weeks, but it was fucking amazing! The coach helped me learn to sing around the polyp. I felt strength in my voice that I hadn't felt before. I used to have to really layer [my vocals] and do all sorts of things."
The singing was easier, but for Condon, getting to that point was a struggle. He had written ― and his band had recorded ― all of the music for The Rip Tide, gone on tour, and returned, but suddenly, Condon was stuck. "I came back from tour with this finished instrumental album that I had to put all the vocals to. It felt like an insurmountable task, and that was when the identity crisis kicked in. I was afraid to mar these beautiful instrumentals that I'd worked so hard to create. Every time I wrote a lyric, I would scratch it out ― I have a notebook that's like, half scratched out lines."
The biggest challenge was that the commitment to a more personally inspired journey actually required a radical change in creative approach. "With Gulag and Flying Club, I had a picture pasted on the wall next to the computer and I was like 'I want to write music that sounds like this picture looks.'"
The fiercely independent Condon needed help ― he needed an outside voice that wouldn't take no for an answer. He found it in producer Griffin Rodriguez. "Griffin came out to New Mexico, where I was staying, and just cracked the whip and made me put it down whether I liked it or not. He dragged me through that phase kicking and screaming. When it was done, he played the whole thing back for me, saying, 'Look, this is what you did.' I was like, 'Shit, that is nice! I do like that! Thanks, Griffin!' I was just in such a weird mental state when I came back from that tour, and I couldn't do anything, I couldn't put down anything. Months and months and months of just beating the shit out of myself because I couldn't do it." That Condon sought the assistance of his producer marked another moment of growth for the still-young musician; between Rodriguez and the vocal coach, he'd already reached out to two others where in the past, he might have continued the struggle alone.
But before The Rip Tide could be sent into the world, Condon needed one more act of rebellion. He ditched his record label, 4AD, and formed his own, Pompeii Records. "Here was my passion, and my career, and my entire life in music, and it was run by a label. And truth be told, I actually really liked 4AD! I liked the people there a lot, they did amazing things for us, but just the fact that someone else was telling me when and where and how was enough to send me..." Condon pauses, looking for the words before making his confession. "Well, here's what I always do, I just run the fuck away. I dropped out of high school, I dropped out of community college, I dropped out of trumpet lessons, I dropped out of everything and anything where there was some kind of authority, and I realized I would do the same thing ― much to the detriment of my life ― if I kept going on that path. So, the next logical step would be to do it myself, put the pressure on myself. I only have myself to blame now for every choice I make now. That's why I started the label."
Based on the ways he's had to confront himself, Condon will happily attest that The Rip Tide is his most personal album. It's less ornate, and deftly uses melody and songwriting strength in place of the instrumental flourishes Club Cup and Zapotec proudly bore. On songs like "Goshen," "Vagabond," "Port of Call," and especially, first single "East Harlem," it is the structure and melody of the songs that speak to the listener, rather than a specific sound or time or place. Chalk it up to maturity, perhaps, but it seems like Condon is done rebelling for rebellion's sake.
Before dropping The Rip Tide, Condon made some preparations to break the cycle of running away from the mental anguish that comes with writing and performing music. "I knew that this album was going to require a ton of effort. I knew that I'd be touring a lot, I knew that I'd be doing a lot of interviews, and promo and stuff; I knew it was going to take a lot out of me," he admits. "What I was doing in the time off was basically setting up an actual life back home ― I got a house, I got married, I got a dog ― all these things to have some feeling that I'm not just drifting through this world. I've been living out of a suitcase since I was 17 years old, and it's gotten taxing, to say the least." The teenager who picked the trumpet, in an act of defiance, all those years ago has found solace in a place where he can be most comfortable: a home. "Exactly," Condon exhales. "Somewhere you know where you belong, you know?"