Many travel miles have been clocked in the lifetime of Zach Condon known to many as the operating force behind Beirut. The miles seemed to especially take hold these last few years as it has been a whirlwind for Condon and his team of musicians that make up his band, the group traveling around the world in support of 2006's Gulag Orkestar and 2007's The Flying Club Cup. Facing a bout of extreme exhaustion in 2006 and having to cancel a European Summer tour in 2008 in an effort to “change some things, reinvent some others, and come back at some point with a fresh perspective and batch of songs,” it became abundantly clear that Condon needed a break. It’s almost been a year since Condon released that statement but he has returned true to his words by way of March of the Zapotec/Holland. The two EPs are a double shot. For March of the Zapotec, Condon’s signature voice is meshed with the stirring sounds of The Jimenez Band, a funeral band from Teotitlan del Valle, a town in Oaxaca, Mexico, which Condon traveled to, to record a majority of March. No trip was necessary for Holland, which is credited to Realpeople, another moniker of Condon’s, as Realpeople is pre-Beirut and a pure bedroom based/electro influenced project.
In January I talked with Condon via e-mail about the two new EPs. The discussion was filled with a myriad of subjects, some of which include the origins of March of the Zapotec/Holland as well as how Holland will be translated live once Condon and crew hit the road. Even his normal routine of washing his hair on tour was discussed.
How has the long break been treating you? Do you enjoy touring? If you had it your away would you lessen your touring schedule and just focus on recording? Did you feel that you had become unfocused with your music because of the many months on the road and having to tour?
I've been well. It’s not that I don't like touring, seeing as the stage is an addictive thing. I'm proud of what I've accomplished outside of just the recorded side of music. But it was completely out of my control, after so many months non-stop. It started to seem like there was no light at the end of the tunnel and I was just there pushing the career side of things instead of the music side.
Do you yourself follow the amount of press that you get? Do you read music blogs? One particular focus I noticed about you when I read your press and in blogs in general is this attention towards your hair? Do you find that bizarre; something to laugh at?
I like to follow published articles and sometimes I can't help but see if people were as excited about a show we just played as I am, as in “Googling” the show the day after. But nowadays I avoid a fair amount of it. It all starts to seem very unreal after a while, meta. I don't know what to say about my hair other than I wash it about once a month, less on tour…
I get this sense from reading interviews/other stories written about you that you have an almost music conservatory/old soul nature. Do you feel that to be true? In a sense do you feel you're much “older” than the people that are your age?
I felt like an old soul until recently, when all of sudden I feel like a scared little boy again. I'm buying a house and trying to not get derailed musically, scary world out there.
Do you often wonder what people your age are doing, especially during the time of Gulag Orkestar and the acclaim you received which often described you as a 19-year-old wunderkind?
Yeah, but I think everyone is asking what the hell the rest of their age group is doing at any point in time.
Why is geography/location such an instant inspiration for you? What inspires you? Do you feel that everything [almost collage style] inspires you?
Same reason I read Tintin as a kid maybe? I don't really know… childish romanticism.
Do you feel that one of the reasons that you do the music you do (French pop, Balkan inspired) is to give listeners a taste of that country's music and essentially open them up to exploring and finding that kind of music they way that you did?
No―that was never the point. The styles were only a reflection of what I was listening to at the time. I always see a more even keel in my music than others do. To me it's all “Beirut” music and melody. I have to be honest when answering to where the influences come from you know?
What do you think of the trend of indie rock being inspired by global music (especially African music)? Do you like that type of music? Do you feel that you are part of the trend?
I think our generation is definitely coming into its own voice, though we're still young. In this day and age people's music radars are a lot bigger and we're trying to take that in.
I imagine you have a treasure trove of instruments in your collection. Did you learn everything by ear? Any formal training?
Yeah I definitely have a sizable collection. The only instrument I had any formal training in was trumpet- which I feel has a lot to do with the way I sing actually… I'm quite amateur at most of my instrument collection, but I have a lust for new sounds in my music. So I get by.
Your voice has always felt to me like an instrument and that finding your singing voice was a discovery. Do you find yourself taking care of your voice even more so than before?
Yeah I definitely have to. I got real sick in Europe once and sounded like a toad for an entire week, had to cancel shows… I felt awful about it. It is true that I kind of stumbled upon my voice…
Can you talk about the origins of March of the Zapotec? Can you tell us about the film that you were going to do the soundtrack for before you made the EP? Was there an immediate inspiration in wanting to do songs based upon the music of Mexico after you decided that you weren’t going to do the soundtrack? How much did you know about that genre of music before you set out to record it?
The title comes from the song they would blast from the village (Teotitlan del Valle) school everyday around twelve. It was really loud and repetitious, pretty funny, and always our wake up call to get breakfast. As for the reason I made the record and not the soundtrack…I got over-zealous really. I've always wanted to work with a big brass band as a background to the way I sing… I heard the bands from reference material that was sent to me for the film and I decided I wanted to go down there and record it myself. The people behind the movie (Sin Nombre) weren't upset, since that would just get in the way of the scenes and what not…I actually think the film is going to be great. I haven't seen the final product yet.
What was your first initial reaction when you first stepped in Teotitlan del Valle? Any culture shock? Where did you stay? Where did you record? Did you learn any Spanish during your stay?
I only learned the basics, like “let’s record” and whatnot. The youngest person in the band, Emiliano, wrote me a cheat sheet for musical terms that I could refer to when I had a quick thing to tell everybody. We had a translator for the bigger ideas we needed to get across. He spoke to them in Zapotec for the most part. I was surprised to show up to such an isolated and somewhat faraway place and feel as at home as we did. The colors, the food and the landscape really aren't that different from small towns in New Mexico. We recorded in a bed and breakfast type villa at the top of the hill overlooking the village. Absolutely gorgeous.
I watched a YouTube video of a funeral band in Mexico and musically it had the very same musical aesthetic (big brassy feel) to what you normally do. I imagine you felt it was a natural transition. Did you do any prior research on bands such as The Jimenez Band before you worked with them?
Yeah I looked into it quite a bit before. Figured out where these philharmonic bands had originally come from and why they were reconfiguring European classical march tunes to their own style. And yes, I felt there was already a mutual attraction to that sound.
Did you go back home to New Mexico before you went to Mexico to record March of the Zapotec?
No, at that point in time I was fairly grounded in Brooklyn and I was trying to make it work there. I didn't have a studio at the time, it was frustrating. But it worked out in the end, singing in my bedroom here instead of there.
How often do you go to New Mexico to write music and lyrics? What is it about working at your parent's home that inspires you? What kind of music scene is out there in New Mexico?
There was never much of a scene, but definitely some private individuals worth a lot of respect. I guess going home to the parents' house meant cutting myself off from all distractions. Cliché but true. And maybe there's the added bonus of feeling like an unsigned 15-year old again. Maybe it keeps me grounded.
Why didn't you want to do an entire album with the band? Is it true that the band recorded other songs that aren't featured in March of the Zapotec? If so when are we going to hear that music?
We recorded those other songs for them, to return the favor. I wanted it to be a short collection of songs. I'm not in the right place to write a long playing record right now. Too scattered brained. I'm questioning everything…
I hear that you worked with Christopher Taylor [of Grizzly Bear] on the EP. Which song? What was it like working with him especially since he's become a notable producer as of late?
That’s why I recorded the song with him. I heard this Charlie Haden track that I loved, and I had a dirge that I wanted to do in a similar style, with the tenor sax among other things. I thought Chris would be able to pull it off the best. We did “On a Bayonet” in the Grizzly Bear church in one day.
Do you see yourself making more recordings similar to that of March of the Zapotec? I hear you want to make a mariachi record…
No, that was a great tangent to go on but I don't see that as the future of my sound. I might revisit it for shows or something.
So I want to talk about Holland. Can you talk about the origins of it? I read that you started your musical career making bedroom electro pop songs. You've flirted with that with the first version of “Scenic World.” Have you always wanted to get these type of songs out to the public or have you shied away because of how radically different they are to the Balkan/French music that your fans are accustomed too? Do you think your fans are going to be shocked by Holland?
It was always a secret among friends. In fact I had my doubts putting these two out together. I wanted the fans who reacted so well to “Venice” and “My night with the Prostitute” to have some extra material to stash away with the same energy. I put them together so that it would be cheaper and easier to find.
I read that you have a love for IDM. What kind electronic artists are you inspired by? Any of their music inspire the recording of Holland?
The electronic stuff I do pretty blindly, without any reference to the electro I love for the most part. But my favorite band as a teenager was always Boards of Canada. Nowadays I'm catching up on the old Kompact releases.
Are we going to hear Holland live? Are we going to hear it in its original version or are you going to rearrange it and make it more Balkan influenced? Could we ever see a solo tour of you doing Holland type music?
Yes actually… I found a way to do some of the Holland songs live with the same band setup I've used before…But we'll see about the solo tour…Not so sure
This is by far your most “music driven” record in that there are instrumentals within the two EPs as well as long stretches of just brass instruments. The music also feels very direct. Is that what you were trying to get across with the EP? Do you see yourself making a full instrumental record in the future?
Not really. Doing this one almost made me miss using my voice as much, but I did this project in order to push myself into an uncomfortable place. There's usually some really good results from such a situation. Besides, I had been singing for six months or more prior to the EP… I felt like letting the brass do the talking.
Can you talk about the cover of the EP? I hear the packaging is pretty unique. Can you talk about it and just the conception of it? Also why did you decide to put your face on the EP… did you want to mix it up this time around?
Yeah, wanted it to be something a little different… But actually we were kind of trying to replicate these great 7″ record sleeves we saw in Morocco… I brought home about 20 of them. They're just a garish color or pattern and a black and white picture of the person who sang or played on it. Pure and simple, and it catches the eye.
Did you feel that this EP was in a sense a nice palette cleanser and you can return to making Balkan music or French pop, etc?
Yeah that's definitely part of it. When I was recording The Flying Club Cup I would do one of these songs in order to cleanse the palette.
Are you worried that you might lose touch with these new songs if you see yourself touring constantly again?
Yeah, I'm going to be careful so as not to overdose.
I often get this sense that you have this almost happy accident approach to recording. Is it better that way? And if so what happy accidents occurred during the making of both of these EPs?
All of it.
Do you consider yourself a workaholic when it comes to making music? As an artist especially as a young artist do you consider it to be very important to always seek new challenges with your music? Do you feel that it only accelerates your already proficient work ethic?
I have months of complete slovenliness. I do nothing, I worry about everything. Then something comes along out of the mess and I become 100 percent focused. You can't force things like that, so my advice would probably be to give into yourself a little bit… maybe not. I don't have a good system yet. I haven't separated the music from my daily life.
What's on slate for 2009 besides touring? Is it true that you want to make a doo-wop record?
Yeah, I would love to do a doo-wop album. Besides touring I'm probably going to set up a true home studio, instead of a bedroom one. There's a few singles I'd really love to release….