- 28 May 12
He used to be the party boy of the sensitive indie circuit. But Beirut boy wonder Zach Condon has grown up and calmed down. He talks about his mature new record, The Rip Tide, shivering ‘naked’ before the world and why, under the surface, he feels Irish.
Zach Condon stands in his back garden in Brooklyn, laughing like a man with secrets. Hot Press has been inquiring about the Beirut frontman’s much trumpeted vow of sobriety. When last we spoke, Condon, responding to several booze-related meltdowns, had pledged to knock the partying on the head. Eight months and one world tour later, we’re seeking an update.
“I’ll never know,” he says, dissolving into further fits of nervy giggles. “I hope I keep it together. I mean, I keep trying… but, I don’t know. “
Even at his wildest Condon was never exactly a television-over-the-balcony, orgy-in-the-hot-tub guy. He’s the sort who’ll sink a six-pack, then wake the next morning and think about calling AA. Still, his drinking did sometimes spiral into the danger zone. Given to stage fright, he’d knock back several whiskeys before going on, with beer and shots to follow. He was young and enjoying himself and, yeah, for a while that was fine (although punters who witnessed an infamously ragged Beirut show in Dublin several years back might disagree).
Eventually, though, it got to be too much. Lots too much. En route to a festival date in the UK he suffered his first panic attack. The people in the car with him thought he might be having a heart attack.
“Don’t get me wrong. I loved every minute of it,” he had told me last year, on the eve of Beirut’s biggest tour to date. “Until my body gave out that is. I had the naïve idea that I was simply tired, that whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. It was such a harsh lesson to learn that actually your body has limits. That was a shocking moment. The rest, it was amazing. One of the best years of my life. I wouldn’t take anything back. Ultimately what I discovered is that I needed stability. I can’t keep on living that rock lifestyle. So I went to New York, bought a house and got married.”
He may giggle like someone barely out of short-pants. However, at 25, Condon no longer looks like a schoolboy, which was the case when Beirut blew up in 2006 and he was a chubby-faced 17-year-old who could have passed for 12.
“I was really young-looking,” he agrees. “It was a strange time for me. For what is a life-long project to start with all of those accolades, that was odd. I’m trying to take it in my stride. There’s no good way to go about it.”
Condon was alt. music’s resident teen prodigy. As a songwriter he seemed to have emerged perfectly formed with a singing voice burnished beyond his years and tunes steeped in Balkan and French romanticism. At the time, people mistook him for some sort of indie rock polyglot, a renaissance tunesmith moving comfortably between the new and old world.
In reality, he was merely a wide-eyed kid playing the part of world-wary troubadour. He’d never been to the Balkans in his life while his grasp of mid 19th century Parisian culture was mostly gleaned from his crackly collection of old French vinyl. As is often noted, he has also yet to set foot in the Lebanese capital. Growing up in Santa Fe, New Mexico – a place so recently colonised as to be virtually cultureless – he was filling in the blanks for himself. The outre influences in his music were, he says, an act of wish-fulfillment. If he pretended he was jaded and arch and sophisticated, maybe his music would sound that way too.
“During that time I had canned answers for every interview I gave,” he admits. “I was presenting a persona of myself to the world.”
He has never rejected his home town, he says. But as a kid he needed to get away, even if he was mostly taking the trips inside his head.
“I’ve always considered the [New Mexico] accent to be accentless. And the culture to be cultureless. It’s a baby, a child that needs attention. Where I was growing up, it was a Hispanic and Indian culture. I was looking for a place where I belonged. I’ve never found it. But it’s given me an interesting voice.”
Condon started writing songs at 15. By 17 his career was taking off and he was in a position to give up high-school. Both his parents were professionals and had assumed Zach would graduate, then go to college. That their son was the toast of the blogosphere did not go very far towards persuading them of the merits of quitting school.
“It took a while for them to come around,” he grimaces. “I’m truly surprised they would let me do it, at all. I would have expected quite the opposite.”
After his panic attack, it struck Condon a phase in his life, and career, was at an end. Just as he could no longer go on impersonating, in his own dweebish fashion, a member of Guns ‘N Roses, as a musician he had to leave his boy wonder years behind and move forward. So he took a leaf from the Bon Iver manual of high-miserablism, renting a cottage in upstate New York and writing The Rip Tide, the most personal record he’s yet recorded.
“Does it feel like I’m pressing the restart button?” he muses. “Absolutely. I needed to give myself permission to do that. When I sing those songs now, they sound as if I’m apologising to myself almost. I was trying to work my way out in the physics of music, so to speak. I was telling myself, it’s okay to write more honest songs… that’s fine.”
He bursts into laughter again when his next-door neighbour pokes his head over the wall.
“He’s from Dublin. You guys have the exactly same accents,” he says, appalling his Corkonian interviewer in the process.
“My family is second generation Irish. The Condons and the McLaughlins are my family. Now I’m surrounded by Irish people and I’m starting to feel that I’m Irish, in some fucked up way.”
The most remarkable thing about The Rip Tide is the lack of embellishment. On previous records, Condon threw the proverbial kitchen sink at his songs, flinging in trumpets, brass, trombones, synths and whatever else was to hand. With the new album, he’s stripped everything down, so that tunes often seem to consist of his gentle baritone, aided by some subtle orchestration.
“It’s a little bit Full Monty, I guess. I like that the album is honest. In a way it’s almost too honest. That’s cool. I’ve given myself permission to be that way. I intended to build on that. I feel it’s the start of something.”