Monday, December 7, 2009

Interview: BEIRUT - An American In Paris

Tuesday, February 05, 2008 

Zach Condon, it's fair to say, is like few other Americans. For one, he has a passport. Secondly, his interest in the world beyond his hometown extends to him creating escapist fantasies of idealised locales in concept-album form and, in the case of France - the subject of his band Beirut's latest album - relocating there. Whether he could have had this combination of ingenuity and imagination anywhere other than the relative isolation of his hometown Sante Fe, New Mexico, is something Condon says is debatable. Something that isn't is his love for Paris, even in the wintertime.
"Paris is definitely like I imagined it would be." he says from Brooklyn where he is currently recording. "When I was living in Sante Fe every time I saw a film about Europe my mind would explode, I couldn't believe it. I spent my youth in my head, so it makes sense that even when I'm out in the world now it still feels like I'm in a story." he laughs. Conversely, this allows Condon a sense of removal from the Paris he knows nowadays, giving him the perspective to imagine an alternate version. "The town I grew up in, it's so cut off you always feel that something else is going on in that huge great big world that you'll never know about. Sante Fe is an ancient city that had practically no outside contact till the 1900s, and it still kind of acts like that," he explains before pondering where this calling comes from. "It's hard to say whether I was born with it or it came from the location I was born in. If I had grown up in Europe I'd probably be much lazier in comparison, just because of the way the cities are set up there, they're so stimulating. You've got the whole world at your back door so you might as well use it. Being alone in New Mexico I spent more time in my bedroom recording than socialising, and I was a pretty lazy person to begin with so it takes a lot to get me motivated." he laughs. "Ever since I've attached myself to music I've had a purpose, but outside of that y'know...the house is always a mess, the bills are always late, the food is always going bad."

Laziness is something few associate with Condon given his intimidating output since his first release at age 19; 2006's Eastern European-redolent Gulag Orkestra. This album was rapidly followed up with a spate of EPs in the first half of last year, before October's widely acclaimed The Flying Club Cup. Though Gulag Orkestra has different references, Condon says it was recorded in the same way as The Flying Club Cup and initially followed the same idea, writing a song to the name of a place. "The funny thing is I didn't stick with that, there's only a couple of songs that worked that way. Some of those I wrote about are dream destinations, places I've never been to and probably never will go, but that was the original idea. Sometimes you have to give yourself an outrageous concept just to get something started, particularly with my problem of motivation." Unlike Sufjan Stevens and his '50 States' project, Condon, in a way that deserves a thesis, assembles a world based largely on invention. "Does it exist in a parallel universe? Probably, yeah. I feel like I write from more of a fantastical approach than a realistic one. I'm not trying to be a gritty and real - in fact I'm all for the escapism in music...I'd say it was mirroring the escapism that was me running away from my life in the States. It was for a good reason and in a good way and I think I found what I was looking for, though I could be delusional." he laughs. "Every time I dropped out of college I would go to Paris for a little while so I guess I first came there when I was 16 or 17 and it just captivated me. When I moved there recently I already had friends, I have done solo shows and a lot of my friends are involved in bands. In Paris it's really fun to be a musician, you can go to a small bar in the middle of nowhere and just pull out the ukulele. In America...I don't know why, it seems affected, whereas in Paris it's seems quite natural. I spend a lot of time in the neighbourhood of Ménilmontant, the 20th Arrondissement. There is something about it that is very non-touristy and very old fashioned - not bourgeois at all. That place is pretty special to me."

Interestingly, Condon notes that he's doing the reverse of Ennio Morricone, a man who stayed in Europe and composed music for imagined landscapes of the American South-West, and, like Morricone, he writes music based on images, though Condon hasn't yet written for films. "We've had a couple of songs go out to films. I would like to write for film, but it would have to be a bizarre film...Jan Svankmajer maybe. I just get an image in my head and it becomes almost like I'm writing for a scene or a movie that doesn't exist. The time and space are pretty inseparable to me, it's all a fiction and it's always based on an image in my head." Inspired by a 1910 photograph of balloonists beginning their ascent at the foot of the Eiffel Tower, The Flying Club Cup sees Condon honing his gift for interpretation and creating richly evocative arrangements. "I'm not the kind to research, I just immerse myself in certain things. If I'm trying to sound a certain way, then that music is all I'll listen to for months and months. The image on the cover of the last album, Gulag Orkestra is one I found in some book, I was in the middle of recording and I just taped it up on the wall. I don't know exactly how it affects you but it does - and I don't want to sound like a hippy but yeah..." he pauses. "Just now an image just popped in my head of old men in aviator goggles toasting each other in a bar...The Flying Club Cup...the club of old geezers reminiscing about the old days." he laughs, offering another interpretation. Is it hard to communicate these mental images? "For the band to be there with me I have to gesture wildly and conjure up something they can understand, which is always close to impossible." he chuckles. "Beer helps, French beer."

By the time he reaches us, Condon will have all but left his Flying Club France behind him. "It's been a while actually. The album was finished last year in May. Right now I'm actually looking up funeral bands in Mexico. I'm thinking about actually traveling to record this time. I heard this drunken funeral song from this band from Oaxaca and it was so intoxicating, I was just imagining writing a few simple chord progressions and melodies for a band..." and away he goes again.

No comments:

Post a Comment