Beirut’s Zach Condon
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In April 2008, while being floated around the world by the praise for 2007’s The Flying Club Cup, Beirut mastermind Zach Condon called off his band’s European summer tour. His online explanation alluded to general exhaustion, and closed with the uncertain words, “Please accept my apologies. I promise we’ll be back, in some form.” Shortly thereafter, while conducting research for a soundtrack to a Mexican film, Condon heard something that reinvigorated him. The movie was never realized, but the just-released Beirut double EP, March Of The Zapotec/Holland, emerged instead. Following the tour cancellation, Condon and some of his bandmates traveled to a small southern Mexican village to enlist a 19-piece church band. The results—an unprecedented combination of Balkan brass and Mexican marching music—comprise the first half of the EP. In stark contrast, the rest of the record, attributed to Realpeople, finds Condon resurrecting an old bedroom electronic project started years ago in his native New Mexico. Beirut is on the road again—this time with a less taxing schedule—and before he left, The A.V. Club spoke to Condon about Oaxacan delicacies, the not-so-universal language of musical love, and why he expects Realpeople to fail.
The A.V. Club: What can you say about Teotitlan Del Valle, where you recorded The Jimenez Band?
Zach Condon: It’s a little town nestled in this valley that’s mostly Zapotec Indians, about 45 minutes north of Oaxaca. It’s very typical Mexico small-town: cinderblock houses, really tight, steep streets, that kinda stuff. It’s actually famous for weaving. Our translator, Tomás, is the head weaver of the village, and I brought some of his stuff back when I left. [Sneezes.] And I’m getting sick from the weather here in New York already.
AVC: Did you spend any time in Oaxaca City?
ZC: Yeah, what’s funny is that it actually reminds me a little bit of Santa Fe, except Oaxaca is actually a functioning, vibrant city, and not a dead tourist stop. It’s laid out the same way, it has the same feel—Oaxaca has the zócalo instead of a plaza—but Santa Fe, you know, is kinda busted. Plus, in Oaxaca, you can munch on crickets as an appetizer.
AVC: You tried chupalines?
ZC: Yeah, I quite like them. I had cricket tacos in the morning.
AVC: Did you choose the region first, or did you start by wading through Mexican horn ensembles to find the one with the right sound?
ZC: [Laughs.] No, no. We were lucky. I mean, this movie came up randomly, and they sent me music that I liked, so I asked the director where one of the bands came from. He was like, “That’s super Oaxacan. That’s what they all do.” I guess these bands are taking old European marches and resizing them. A friend of mine has a mother who lives down there part of the year, so it was pretty easy from there. I called her and she said, “Oh, I’ll talk to my friend Tomás. I’m sure he can get you the local church band.”
AVC: Do you speak any Spanish at all?
ZC: No. I’m a bad son of New Mexico. I think I learned French as a little bit of teenage rebellion against my home state.
AVC: So once you’d wrangled The Jimenez Band, was it difficult to communicate ideas, or is music a universal language?
ZC: You’d think it would be, but it was actually more difficult than I’d expected. I didn’t realize how different our senses of melody actually were. I would write a part that just made perfect sense to me, but for them, it was mind-boggling. Likewise, they could play stuff with relative ease that I never could have. If there was something lost in translation melodically, it wouldn’t work at all—we’d just be 17 people in a giant room staring awkwardly at each other. When that happened, I’d go home, figure out what was wrong, fix it, and then return to smooth sailing.
AVC: Did that approach lead to some happy accidents?
ZC: Totally. Certain songs sound almost like they’re on the brink of a train wreck—and that’s kinda what I was hoping for—and some of it came out pretty pristine, which was surprising.
AVC: Aside from inspiring you to rework some ideas, did the band members also contribute their own ideas to the compositions?
ZC: Yeah, it’s funny. I thought it was going to be more improvised, but as it turns out, it was a point of pride for this band that they read and write music—they’re very serious about it, that it’s not just improvisational wildness. So they would help me create endings and beginnings, and we would write all of the music out. The bandleader would come early every single day so we could sit down. I’d explain the ideas to him, and he would go “Uh-uh,” or, “Yeah, that’ll work.”
AVC: Did you introduce yourself by playing them your music?
ZC: Actually, they had a little Internet café in the village, and I guess Tomás and his sons went and checked Beirut out, then talked me up around town. When I showed up, everyone was all wide-eyed, like some celebrity had just arrived. Apparently the last time Tomás was used as a full-time guide was for President Carter.
AVC: Beirut’s music, and the name itself, connote a certain worldliness. What attracts you most to working with, say, The Jimenez Band—the sound, or the story?
ZC: It’s always the sound. It’s like some musician cliché, but really, I’m just looking for good sounds to put my voice on top of—different palettes.
AVC: So why not sit at home and toy around with new sounds? What inspires you to actually physically track down a palette to work with?
ZC: I was partially inspired by Jeremy Barnes [of A Hawk And A Hacksaw, and Neutral Milk Hotel]. When we met, I gave him a copy of my first record. The problem with Gulag Orkestar was that I’d wanted it to sound like a full brass band, but had to do everything myself. I think lot of people really liked that, but I always had aspirations for this gigantic sound that I could never, never achieve. Jeremy had actually just been living in Bulgaria, and he’d tracked down this Romanian band while he was there, to play one of his songs. I was amazed. How awesome is that? I was also just inspired by the junky, mournful trumpet stuff that I was hearing from Oaxaca.
AVC: There’s a song called “La Llorona,” which is the name of a character from an old Latin folk tale, the weeping woman. Which version of her story do you prefer?
ZC: Well, they’re all heartbreaking, and they’re all horrible. The story in New Mexico is that she was rejected by her husband, so she threw her kids in a river, and then was so crazed and upset that she spent the rest of her life looking up and down the arroyos for her children. That was the ghost story told around the campfire to keep the kids out of the riverbeds at night.
AVC: You were able to find a tidbit from your childhood in this faraway land?
ZC: It’s like I said, one of the weirdest things about going down there was that I felt so at home. I felt like I had gone back to New Mexico to take a vacation, the only difference being, the cacti are bigger and the fucking scorpions are huge.
AVC: And then you returned to New York and fleshed out the Holland EP?
ZC: People were reacting well to the Realpeople tracks I’d put out on a few charity compilations, so I’d been wanting to put more of that material in one place. When I came back from Oaxaca, I had a bit of a headache from working so hard on that material. It was just so easy to pop over to a computer and bang out some goofy, three-minute pop songs.
AVC: Had you actually planned on reviving your old moniker?
ZC: Not at all, but people wanted to hear it, and so I was like, “Let’s give ’em a few extra tracks for their dollar. Package it together and send it out!” I don’t actually expect many good reviews about that one.
ZC: The thing about that material is, when I write it, I’m very nonjudgmental of it. I’m just letting it go and not being harsh about how the final product comes out. With Beirut, it has to be perfect and it has to be big and really well thought-out and beautiful. These are just first takes and “Oh, that sounds cool.”
AVC: “Venice” brings to mind Boards Of Canada or Casino Vs. Japan. Are you a big fan of electronic music?
ZC: Boards Of Canada was by far my favorite when I was, like, 15 years old, and I love Casino Vs. Japan. Yeah, I actually listen to a lot of electronic music. I was there for some of the early IDM—like the first Mum record and Aphex Twin—then I hung around for the Clicks And Cuts era, and stuck through right up to the most recent Kompakt releases.
AVC: As far as lyrics go, do you write differently for the Realpeople music?
ZC: [Laughs.] I’ll be frank. I actually just don’t try very hard. All I want to hear is a pop melody, a real sharp hook, and that’s it.
AVC: The Zapotec press release claims that the double EP represents the “totality of your work” for 2008, but you’re a notoriously restless musician. Have you started down any other musical paths lately?
ZC: Of course. The thing is, 2008 was a hard year. The touring started to verge too heavy on career, and veer too far away from the music itself. I was getting obsessed with going back to where it all started, which is why the Realpeople stuff resurfaced, and I was trying to find something in between this crazy thing that I did in Mexico—this harsh, brassy, world music—and me writing little ditties on a computer in my parents’ bedroom as a kid. I’m not saying what comes next is going to be electronic, or even acoustic, but in preparing to play these songs live, I’m figuring out a way to justify the two halves.
AVC: You cancelled your last tour partway through. Is there anything you’re changing so you’ll have a better experience on the road this time?
ZC: There’s new material, so I’m excited to sing again, and we’re taking a less grueling route. Also there’s some crazy shit going on in South America right now. They played a Beirut song on a TV show, and there was a major reaction. I think we’re going to Brazil.
AVC: Will you look for a local band to perform with you in Mexico City?
ZC: That’d be nice, but it would be too much trouble. I don’t want to stress myself out this time. I’d rather just go with what I know.