Jukebox Jury: Beirut’s Zach Condon Thanks Thom Yorke And Explains Mariachi Trumpet
Condon looks back on the Beach Boys, Neutral Milk Hotel, and what inspired his forthcoming LP
Beirut’s Zach Condon is notorious for his eclectic collection of influences. From Balkan folk’s heavy-handed impression on his debut Gulag Orkestar in 2006 to the infusion of mariachi on 2009’s March Of Zapotec / Holland EP, Beirut has probably spent more time in airports than the far-flung countries that inform his musical taste. Yet, for his fourth full-length, No No No, Condon is looking towards a basic three-piece layout of guitar, bass, and drums, with only minor hints of his signature brass embellishments. After taking a breather from touring his previous album, 2011’s The Rip Tide, Condon escaped to Istanbul; there, he took solace in its lush scenery while brushing off a bit of writer’s block before returning to record in New York for two weeks this past winter.
So what ultimately sparks the 29-year-old multi-instrumentalist’s creative train of thought? We played Condon a small playlist of past influences and modern-day hits to get inside his head. In the offices of his home label, 4AD, which will be releasing No No No on September 11, Condon fidgets with a pen, repositioning himself every few minutes while he coolly reminisces about his childhood soundtrack and expounds on the issues with today’s subcultures and the popular interpretation of Turkish music. Get front-row access to SPIN’s conversation with him below.
1) The Beach Boys, “Barbara Ann”
I could never believe my dad that that was Brian Wilson singing the falsetto at the top. I didn’t believe a man could sing that way. I didn’t know what a falsetto was. This song was on the first tape cassette I ever owned. It was just a greatest-hits compilation of the Beach Boys, but it was all their old stuff so like “Help Me Rhonda,” that type of s–t; no Pet Sounds or “Good Vibrations.” The funny thing about this is that my dad and his brother, my uncle Doug, used to sing it to us as kids. My dad, to prove the point, he would go up to that falsetto part. He had this really nasal falsetto. He’s from Jersey so it just gets even more nasally the more he sings. They were all obsessed with doo wop and Motown.
Did you ever try to compete with him for that falsetto?
For that falsetto? On a good day I have it now. You’ll hear me do, like, snippets on certain recordings. I can only get away with it for five or six minutes; in other words, like two or three takes before I have to like throw in the towel and come back to it the next day. But God, if I could add one skill set without having to do work that would be it — to just wail away with that falsetto like that, or like Frankie Valli style. So yeah the [the Beach Boys] sound like a little common house party growing up.
2) Bix Beiderbecke “Singin’ The Blues”
I’m waiting to see if there is a vocalist or not. Is this Django Reinhardt? No. Is this post-that? Like Glenn Miller era?
The trumpet player. [Laughs.] Oh man, my jazz trumpet teacher is going to be so sad with me. Growing up with jazz, I always had a certain impatience with it. Now, I feel terrible, because what an amazing thing to be exposed to as a kid! I only ever got into Miles Davis, Clifford Brown, Coltrane-era type stuff, all this stuff my dad used to put it on. My trumpet player, my trumpet teacher used to really encourage me, too, but that squawk-y sound is so funny to me. I had my father’s expectations, my trumpet teacher’s expectations. I was first chair in trumpet, and there were all these people being like, “You’re going to be a professional trumpet player.” There is also a forceful ignorance when it comes to jazz for me because so many people with their hands were trying to guide in my life somehow.
Why did you gravitate towards the trumpet in the first place?
Besides it being a shiny and loud instrument, I knew I had to play an instrument because of my dad. He originally wanted me to play guitar. I hated guitar. I hated guitar lessons. I think the trumpet really came from watching the Mariachis play in Santa Fe. Every year they would have fiestas, and they would play in the plaza. To me those guys were total f–king rock stars. I think that, stylistically, growing up around something, I could never totally get rid of; so even when I tried to play trumpet in the style of Balkan brass bands, in some weird way I just always end up going back to the way mariachi plays. I’ve started bringing that out in the set more, even songs that I wrote while I was listening to eastern European stuff. Now when we play it live I’m like, “F–k it, it’s a mariachi song.”
How do you categorize those differences? How do you interpret Mariachi-style music versus what were you taught growing up?
There’s an overdose of tone in Mariachi, is the best way to put it. Jazz, you hold back. You reserve. You imply things in between the notes, for example. Some of this stuff is about fluidity, etcetera. Classical music is about a cool, clear, richness of tone and mariachi, like I said, is just going to town on the trumpet. When you play it, you feel. You feel your lips [claps hands] hit this different type of energy. You feel the trumpet fill with sounds like you don’t otherwise. It’s right on the boarder of ugly — ugly tone, ugly splattering, ugly hits — and it’s kind of flashy, too.
3) Neutral Milk Hotel, “Holland, 1945″
[Sings] “Two, one, two, three, four,” [taps pen against table] God, I love that distortion. The first time I heard that, me and my brother were trying to figure it out: It was all analog, four-track tape distortion. What is there to say about this band? Scott Spillane he’s playing a flugelhorn on this song, but if you want to know what I’m talking about with that mariachi tone, he’s got it.
Are you still close with the band?
I don’t go back to New Mexico to see Jeremy [Barnes] a lot. I don’t think they like New York too much: They only come through very briefly. That probably blew my mind the most, was learning he grew up in Albuquerque, that there was a connection to this band, where I’m from. It made me realize that you could do this if you tried. This was before I knew Jeremy. It was probably this record that made me want to sit down with a four-track. There were trumpets on it, there were all these things hitting me on the head, “Oh my God, oh my God.” Nothing can touch this.
4) Blondie, “Call Me”
Obviously, I know this… the funny thing is, I’m terrible with names. I could sing you the whole song and I still couldn’t tell you if it was Pat Benatar, or like —
They covered you recently…
[Laughs.] This is so not a Blondie song. I know it’s one of their top ones, but when I immediately think of Blondie, I think of “Heart Of Glass.” I think of her doing, like, stuff into the mic – because this is more, like, a snarl.
Were you surprised when they covered you?
I was super surprised. I saw them in Woodstock maybe two weeks ago, so now I feel bad I didn’t recognize this right off the bat. They come to shows now a lot, and when they were in the studio doing that cover, I played on it. I was living in Bethel Woods [in upstate New York] at the time, and I got a call from Chris [Stein] saying, “Would you mind playing trumpet on the new record?” So they drove me out to Woodstock to do that. The whole downtown scene seems like an amazing thing to miss. We never got that. We got Williamsburg for five minutes and then it turned into a f–king Disneyland. There seems to be this longevity and rawness and realness to what they had back then. We all came looking for the party and it just wasn’t there.
It’s not a subculture.
No, and those that are around — they aren’t trying to break new ground. They’re subcultures for the sake of being subcultures, pretty standard rock, punk, hardcore. They’re not trying any new s–t. They’re not experimenting with new wave, or any instruments they haven’t seen before.
5) Edith Piaf, “Milord”
Give me a second… Who is that?
That’s Piaf? Besides the classics, I never really got into Piaf. My obsession with French music really boiled down to the Yé-Yé Girls and Gainsbourg and the like, Jacques Dutronc and Françoise Hardy. Piaf to me… Some of the stuff is just hokey. You got to wait for at least [Jacque] Brel for [Parisian Chanson] to get out of the camp of its own decade or for it to get into something kind of with substance and, in Gainsbourg’s case, a lack of substance that created significance.
6) Radiohead, “Karma Police”
Radiohead! The funniest thing I have to say about Radiohead — because, obviously, I was a huge fan from this record to Kid A — Thom Yorke is one of the reasons that I took as long as I did to start singing. He was what convinced me I couldn’t sing when I was young enough to start recording my first records for myself, like bedroom stuff. When I sang, I wanted to sing like him, and I couldn’t. My voice is nowhere near his. It’s not in the same range. It’s not in the same level in any sense, so I would try to sing along with him and be like, “Well, I guess I can’t sing.” I didn’t sing until I heard [the Magnetic Fields’] Stephin Merritt and was like, “Maybe my voice is in a different range and I just don’t know it yet.” So thanks, Thom Yorke.
7) They Might Be Giants, “Istanbul”
Why are they doing this? Why are they doing a like ragtime gypsy jazz song about Constantinople? It’s a far cry from Turkish music that is for sure. There has been a lot written about that city, but nothing else fits with the visuals of that place. This, I literally think of kids in f–king zoot suits, suburban mallrat kids picturing Istanbul in their head. You need to hear a mournful, actual strong melody and this just isn’t doing it for me. [Laughs.]
You were inspired by the visuals of Istanbul?
Istanbul is a very visual city. The music is an interesting wash of background that’s always there. Besides a few shows, the music was call to prayer and was really nice at sunset. We were on the Asian side overlooking Marmara Sea, not so much the Bosphorus. There would always be this beautiful moment where that melancholic call would come out from minarets nearby. The birds always get excited by it, but it’s slow. It’s incredibly introspective, and the melodies are incredibly complex. They’re not even running on Western scales. Then I hear something like that and it makes me —
It shatters it.
Yeah, it’s just not okay. It shatters that whole image of serenity of that city.
What’s the most prominent image when you think of that city?
I often think of riding the ferry across the Bosphorus. It’s a lot of seagulls and bridges and open water and minarets.
8) Gogol Bordello, “Start Wearing Purple”
Gogol Bordello, huh?
Are you a fan of theirs?
Not even remotely. I don’t want to say anything because the last time I did, this guy got six months of free press because he got to lash out.
Did you say something negative about him?
I literally just said I wasn’t a fan, and that it sounded more like punk rock to me. That style of music really frustrates me.
9) Rihanna and Kanye West and Paul McCartney, “FourFiveSeconds”
I’m assuming this is…
Do you listen to pop music these days?
It sounds like either f–king Beyoncé or Rihanna, but I don’t know s–t about pop music.
It is Rihanna, Kanye West, and Paul McCartney.
Oof, what a bummer.
You’ve never heard this song?
No, but I never wanted to. [Laughs.]
What current music do you listen to, if not Top 40?
Sometimes I’ll leave the radio on. I mostly use it to hate-listen. I don’t think it’s cute and ironic.
Is that what pop music is supposed to be?
It’s more like, “I listen ironically to Rihanna.” I hear people say that and I say, “Good for you, isn’t that cute.” Some of it makes sense. I’ve heard songs by the Weeknd that I thought were really catchy, I just thought his lyrics were so annoying it was almost unbearable. He has a crazy voice.
10) Florence + the Machine, “Ship To Wreck”
OK, I’m lost. Is this really pop, or is it someone British? It sounds like Florence + the Machine. It’s funny when you hear someone with a voice like that just blowing my s–t out of the water, but that’s cool, too. She just headlined Glastonbury, didn’t she? I don’t know who these people are. When I go home, I listen to dub music, old Brazilian records, French stuff I told you about — a lot of electronic music, actually. A lot of old IDM and then, like, house, and Kompakt Records. Nine out of ten times I don’t know what I’m hearing, unfortunately.
What music really inspired this record?
I was trying not to listen to things, and pit myself against some sort of ideal. There is this guy, João Donato, who did this record that I can’t remember the name of because we were giving it to each other on MP3s. We’d play a session, and it’d be like, “It reminded me of song from this guy.” I wish you would have done this with our bass player. He’s a total encyclopedia. A few things we did listen to were deep cuts like Chico Buarque, or Donato. In fact, the record cover itself is based off of a Chico Buarque record.
Is there a reason you wanted less brass?
The main reason is that it was written as a very simple three-piece. I also felt like anything extra was unnecessary, and if I did have brass on something, I wanted it to be necessary. Everything that is there needed to be there. I also had this feeling that I needed to stop forcing myself to sound a certain way, especially now. By this list, for example, people expect me to come from a certain angle, and it could not be farther from the truth. It is so often misrepresented. With this record, I was very much trying to be like, “I had my fun but you might be getting the wrong idea.”