Zach Condon Takes Beirut on a Journey Home

BY Saskia De Melker  February 1, 2012 at 3:58 PM EDT

Video by Saskia de Melker, Annie Strother and Tom LeGro.

Zach Condon can tell you the exact moment he first discovered Balkan folk music.

“I used to work in a movie theater in Santa Fe that would play a lot of foreign films [and] there was a festival of Balkan films. I remember just making popcorn at the time, but I remember hearing the music of ‘Black Cat, White Cat’ [by] Emir Kusturica. My jaw just kind of hit the floor when I heard the sound of the brass coming out of the theater,” he says. “I just couldn’t believe that someone had taken it to that level of excitement and melancholy all mashed into one. And so I knew I had to find out what it was and how to do it.”

By age 16 he had dropped out of school and set off for Eastern Europe in search of that sound. When he returned home to New Mexico, Condon hunkered down in his bedroom to record his debut hit album, “The Gulag Orkestar.” He assembled a band of musicians under the name Beirut (which stems from Condon’s fascination with city names rather than any particular significance of the Lebanese capital) and has been wandering the world blending musical influences, especially from Eastern and Western Europe.

Condon insists that his nomadic lifestyle hasn’t dictated his music, but that his musical inspiration comes from his fantastical imagination. Yet most of Beirut’s albums have followed Condon’s travels in tandem and center heavily around foreign musical traditions, from “The Flying Club Cup’s” French chanson to an homage to Oaxaca, Mexico, in “March of the Zapotec.”

On his latest album, however, “The Rip Tide,” Condon breaks his wanderlust streak and brings the sound of Beirut home.

Condon says the album is much more personal and retrospective, as he, now 25, finds himself settling down and looking back at his past. Several of the album tracks, including “East Harlem” were based on melodies that he developed as a teenager growing up in New Mexico.

Condon wrote all the tracks for “The Rip Tide” in a farmhouse in upstate New York one winter. There are still the big brass rifts and ukulele solos that fans will recognize, but there’s also greater simplicity to the writing and arrangements.

“In a sense I was just trying to distill the sound that’s always been there with Beirut throughout the albums,” says Condon. “Despite the logical jumping around from locales and ideas, there was always something in the middle that carried it through, that kept people interested beyond a novelty. I was really trying to dig into that with this album.”