Playlist | Beirut
Worldly Influences On a Young Artist
Published: July 22, 2011
Zach Condon is growing up. Or trying to, anyway. At 25, Mr. Condon, better known as the songwriter behind the indie folk band Beirut, is already a music veteran, having arrived as a multi-instrumentalist teenager versed in global sounds: Balkan beats, French chanson, Mexican funeral. For Beirut’s third full-length album, “The Rip Tide,” out Aug. 30 from Pompeii Records/Revolver, he wanted to hone his influences.
“I’m trying to be less of a dilettante with instruments,” he said. “For years I was picking up new instruments once a month, and for this I was trying to focus a little more, stick with piano, ukulele and trumpet.” But with clarity comes pressure. Playing a Roman amphitheater this month in France, “I was shaking for the first couple songs,” he said. “That seems to be happening on this tour for some reason. I guess I’m getting older and I’m getting a little more self-conscious. Or maybe it’s because I’m less drunk. As a 19-year-old you just want to swig whiskey and drink beer and go onstage and have a ball. And I started to realize that I sounded like an idiot between songs.”
Via e-mail and telephone from Madrid, between stops on a European tour, Mr. Condon drank a single beer and talked about what inspires him now, from the Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño to an Xbox skateboarding game. “It’s hypnotizing,” he said. “There’s actually some kind of rhythm to it.” These are excerpts from his conversation with Melena Ryzik.
Q. Your new single is called “East Harlem,” and in your e-mail you said you like Bolaño because he has “the same idle and poetic amusement with city and street names” as you do. Are you reading him now?
A. I’m reading “2666,” which is a monster of a book, that’ll last me all this tour. “The Savage Detectives” really got to me, these children acting as bohemians and this ennui. I read a review of Bolaño, and they were asking him: Why do you have these long passages of street names and city names and he said they were poetry. I wish I’d thought of that. It’s not like I’m trying to be exotic or always evoke a strong reaction with the names. As a kid I used to paint city names on my wall, just from a map. I thought that was brilliant. The funny thing about the way I write songs is, I’m very much a child of the modern era. I write songs on Pro Tools. I write songs by multitracking. And when you open Pro Tools, they ask you to name the file, and the easiest way for me to remember it is to name it after a city.
Q. Do you steal — or, let’s say, get inspired — by any writers for lyrics or music?
A. I remember I was struggling a lot to write lyrics, and my older brother, who I trust in anything about literature, was egging me on to read E. E. Cummings. There’s something about his rhythm that’s very singable.
Q. Did your older brother, Ryan, influence your musical taste growing up? You said you recently picked up the Magnetic Fields’s “Desert Island,” which you first listened to at 15. Was that his idea?
A. Me and my brother were very close growing up. It was the kind of situation where if I brought home a Green Day CD, he would throw it out and put a Boards of Canada CD in and say, ‘This is your homework for the night.’ That one [Magnetic Fields] was a discovery of my own, which I was pretty proud of.
Q. What made you return to it?
A. I’ve been revisiting a lot of my old stuff. There’s a song on the new album [“East Harlem”] that I wrote the melody for when I was 17. I had a bit of an identity crisis after our last year of touring. I recorded so many songs as a kid, and I used to lose them and forget about them, toss them everywhere, and my younger brother, Ross, was really into archiving them. When I was back home, there was a stack in his room, and I was just poring through it, and of course when you get in that state of mind you go through what you were listening to. I guess I was looking for a time when music was a little more innocent, and the pressure wasn’t there.
Q. What was the emotion you wanted to telegraph then?
A. I’ve always been searching for some sort of epic melancholy, I guess. It sounds silly saying it out loud, but it’s the truth. I can remember the first melody that made the hair stand up on the back of my neck. It was this haunting Italian aria. My mom put it on. It had a haunting melodic twist at the top of the singer’s range, and I remember thinking, I wish this just repeated and didn’t go anywhere else.
Q. You’re a fan of Lykke Li, the Swedish singer, especially her song and video for “Sadness is a Blessing.” You called her a renaissance woman. Why?
A. I’m jealous of her clarity of vision. I’ve just been scratching about in the dark for some sort of image to project, and she’s nailed hers. But also she’s just not shy of performing and being swept up in it all.
Q. Is that why you like Chico Buarque, the dapper Brazilian artist? You said his song “Roda Viva” is one of your all-time favorites, and compared him to Sinatra.
A. Back in the day the press was basically trying to pit him against Caetano Veloso. They were pals, they had nothing to do with it. But what they came to represent was something different: Caetano looking outward for influences, to rock ’n’ roll and America, hippy stuff, and Chico, at the same time, digging deeper and deeper into his classic samba roots, dressing up every night, old school. I can appreciate that. I’ve been a total slob, but I’m trying to adapt some of that attitude myself.
Q. Is your band dressing better?
A. I’m trying to force them all to wear suit jackets. I’m sick of seeing 30-year-old men in New York look like toddlers, wearing sweatpants and flip-flops.
A version of this article appeared in print on July 24, 2011, on page AR15 of the New York edition with the headline: Worldly Influences On a Young Artist.