Beirut: Rock 'n' Roll Vagabond

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Rock ’n’ roll has always been dominated by instruments that sound like consonants. The click of a pick against guitar strings, the pop of fingers against keys or bass or the snap of sticks against drum heads, they all echo the percussive sound of tongue against palate, teeth against lips or lips against lips. By contrast, most European and European-emigrant folk music has been dominated by vowel sounds—the open-mouthed, airy sustain of trumpets, tubas, accordions, pump organs, even bowed violins. One reason the band Beirut sounds so fresh is that they’ve made room in rock for those vowel-sounding instruments.

“Yeah,” agrees Zach Condon, the band’s founder and leader, “my first and favorite instrument has been the trumpet; it’s a sonorous instrument, which fits into your vowel theory. What drew me to it? That’s the kind of abstraction I try to stay away from, but it wasn’t the first thing I was offered. My parents very much wanted all of us kids to play some kind of instrument. My dad was a guitar player, so he gave each of us a Peavey Raptor, a cheap knock-off of a Stratocaster. But that didn’t take. Then he signed me up for saxophone, and that didn’t take. The trumpet took.”

So it’s no surprise that Condon writes such sonorous, sustaining melodic lines and then finds the appropriate instruments to play them. The Rip Tide, Beirut’s third full-length album (not counting 2009’s two EPs), gets its character from its vowel instruments—trumpet, tuba, accordion, cello, violin, trombone, euphonium and French horn. Sure, there are some consonant instruments in the background—ukulele, harpsichord, glockenspiel, bass, drums—but the foreground is all about the unblocked flow of air.

On “East Harlem,” the first single from The Rip Tide, Condon sings one of his slo-mo, cryptic lyrics, “Sound is a color I know,” over recurring splashes of trumpet, trombone and wavering organ. If melody is what he sketches with, sound is the paint he uses to fill in the outlines—and more often than not, the colors are the sounds of brass, bowed strings and bellows-driven keyboards.

“For me, sound has always been a color,” Condon confirms. “I started that song when I was 17. My brother Ryan, who’s four years older, wrote the first verse, but we never finished it. We wanted it to be a doo-wop song like the Drifters—Ryan came up with that reference to ‘Spanish Harlem’—but the demo was only a minute and a half long. I kicked the song around for all these years; I wanted to finish it, but, let’s be honest, I can’t finish my brother’s thoughts. I don’t know why, but language doesn’t come easy to me. I can’t ever leave any personal information behind. I can’t express myself in words. I can only do it through sound. It was only when I tried to use sound rather than words that I could finish the song.”

In a video of Beirut performing “East Harlem” at Germany’s Haldern Pop Festival on August 13, 2010, the then-24-year-old Condon has the dark mop-top and high-cheeked boyishness of a young Paul McCartney. Trying to hush the large crowd for the quiet song, he whispers, “Shhh,” into the mic and then picks up his golden trumpet to join Ben Lanz’s trombone and Kelly Pratt’s French horn in the brass reverie over Perrin Cloutier’s piano triplets. Condon is wearing blue jeans, an untucked white shirt, a wedding ring and a black tattoo of a silhouetted French horn on each wrist. When he rests his trumpet on his left shoulder, closes his eyes and begins to sing, his sweet tenor has a bit of McCartney’s boyishness as well.

Not surprisingly, the new album’s vocals (leads by Condon, harmonies by Condon, Kelly Pratt and guest Sharon Van Etten) also emphasize rounded, held-out syllables rather consonant-chopped, tongue-twisting wordiness. No one’s claiming that fluid, air-filled sounds are somehow superior to percussive sounds, but the former are certainly rarer and thus more surprising. If nothing else, Beirut is expanding rock’s musical palette.

On his earlier albums and EPs, Condon made it very clear where he had found his sounds. Gulag Orkestar, the 2006 debut, emphasized the brass-band tradition of Balkans. The Flying Club Cup, released the following year, emphasized the cabaret instruments of Paris. March of the Zapotec, the 2009 EP, was obviously inspired by the mariachi bands of Mexico.

But The Rip Tide makes no obvious reference to a particular exotic locale. Instead, as the song title “Santa Fe” makes clear, it marks a return to Condon’s childhood in New Mexico, when he was giddily entranced by American pop music. Concerned that his enthusiasm for foreign musics was obscuring his own personal statement, the composer revisited the demos he’d made as a teenager before he began his legendary globe-trotting through Europe and Latin America.

“Before I even started writing the new album,” Condon reveals, “I went back home and listened to all these demos I made when I was 15 or 17, when my only references were Radiohead, Magnetic Fields and Neutral Milk Hotel. I went back to where I was before I went out and experienced all those things in the world. I could hear there was something about the melody that was definitely me; something personal lay at the core. But when I actually made the new album, I surrounded that core with all my accumulated experiences.”

He directly addresses the issue of going back home on the tellingly titled “Vagabond.” The track opens with jaunty piano as if he were channeling Elton John or Ben Folds in a tribute to pop music. Twin trumpets pick up the theme and bolster it with a robust confidence as if revisiting adolescence has filled Condon with a renewed swagger. But when his vocal finally enters after the 37-second intro, it’s anything but self-assured. “Left a bag of bones, a trail of stones for to find my way home,” the rootless traveler laments, later adding, “I am lost and not found.” Both the trumpet melody and the vocal melody bear the composer’s stamp, “something personal,” but they create very different emotional effects, as if reflecting an internal dialogue between optimism and doubt.

“It’s almost as if the trumpet is the character I want to be, and the voice is the character I am,” Condon confesses. “The vocal is like the shy kid at the party who wants to be the center of attention; you can try to do something about it but that something is not really who you are.”

Throughout much of Beirut’s music, you hear this same counterpoint between the vibrant certainty of the horns and the frail misgivings of the vocals as if echoing the division in every listener between what we want to be and what we are. On the new album’s title track, for example, the trumpet, trombone, cello and French horn swell happily, sumptuously like the ocean’s sun-kissed waves, while the world-weary vocal pulls in the opposite direction, like “The Rip Tide,” confessing, “I feel alone now.” Salt-water song titles such as “Payne’s Bay,” “Port of Call” and “The Rip Tide” might seem incongruous for someone from landlocked New Mexico, but they hint at Condon’s earliest influence.

“Since I was extremely young, I’ve loved strong, lush melodies,” he recalls. “My father was a big Beach Boys fan, and those were the first melodies I embraced. I had this Fisher-Price cassette-tape player, and I played ‘Help Me Rhonda’ over and over again until my brother Ryan took the tape out and smashed it because I’d played it so much. Even among the happiest, most frivolous lyrics by the Beach Boys, there was always something dark below the surface. I didn’t understand that at the time, but that probably attracted me too.

“Influence is a funny thing,” he adds, “because music is the art of repetition. You want to find something that sounds familiar but isn’t familiar. Music is about scratching around in the dark until you find the right melody; they’re out there in the ether, but it’s only when you put the right chord progression under one that it becomes obvious. Sometimes you’ll invent a melody and you’ll say, ‘Oh, shit, that’s a Rod Stewart song.’ But melody is where I keep scratching because it seems so primal, whereas language takes a while to work out. For me, melody is easier, and I’m drawn to what’s easiest.”

Another profound early influence was Fiestas de Santa Fe, the annual September celebration of the New Mexico city’s reconquest by the Spanish in 1692. The multi-week event includes Catholic religious processions carrying the cathedral’s statue of La Conquistador (the Blessed Virgin Mary as Spanish imperialist), food booths, craft booths, live music and the burning of a 50-foot-tall papier mache figure, Old Man Gloom, who represents all the worries of the past year. For a grade-school Anglo kid, it was a dizzying array of sensations.

“I think that’s where Burning Man got the idea for its festival,” Condon suggests. “You eat fried bread and green chiles, and there are a lot of mariachi bands marching around. The power of the trumpet in those bands was just too much to pass up. It was all around me but I wasn’t part of it. I was like, ‘They get to do this and I don’t?’ A lot of people ask me about my interest in exotic music, and my answer is that I grew up in a place where I was surrounded by very deep traditional music. There was also a lot of very fake tourist music, but the good stuff was very good.”

The instruments that Condon favors are characterized not only by their vowel-like airiness but also by their roots in village bands from before the dawn of recording. Because trumpets, tubas, accordions and fiddles are easily portable and require no power source, they form the basis for ensembles such as Mexican mariachi conjuntos, Parisian sidewalk cabaret combos, Balkan brass bands, Polish polka bands, New England gazebo groups and New Orleans parade outfits. As a result, these instruments arrive at the near end of a long thread of oral tradition.

“Rock ’n’ roll is a recent invention,” Condon declares. “It’s great and has done terrific things all over the world, but it’s fun to play with different palettes. It’s nice to know you’re working with something that won’t go out of style. An effects pedal may go out of style, but how can a trumpet go out of style? The fact that these instruments carry a history is important to me; it’s comforting. I love rock ’n’ roll, but what I wanted to write was a little more moody and serious.”

He dropped out of Santa Fe High School at 16 and out of a local community college at 17, when he moved to Paris. This was the fall of 2003, and he lived there for four months with his brother Ryan. The French kids they met proved equally enthusiastic about the electronica of Air and the Balkan brass music of the Boban Markovic Orkestar. That shared enthusiasm for modern dance music and ancient folk music struck a deep chord in the New Mexico teenager, and he dug deeply into both genres. He also became entranced by the French chanson records of Jacques Brel, Serge Gainsbourg and Yves Montand.

When he returned to Santa Fe, he resolved to record his own Balkan brass band album using Pro Tools on a laptop in his bedroom. That became Gulag Orkestar, released in 2006 under the band name of Beirut, even though there wasn’t an actual band. But when the project proved unexpectedly popular, Condon had to form a band to play the music live.

He used that band (actually a free-floating pool of different musicians) to record an album of Parisian chanson and cabaret music, The Flying Club Cup, in two different studios: Arcade Fire’s workspace in Quebec and A Hawk And A Hacksaw’s headquarters in Albuquerque. He made his mariachi project, the March of the Zapotec, with members of Beirut and Mexico’s Band Jimenez in Oaxaca and Brooklyn.

This globe-trotting exploration and remaking of different traditional musics can be a thrilling but risky business. Thrilling because discovering the ins and outs of a new music can be as heady as getting to know the body and personality of a new lover. Risky because there’s the danger of underestimating a new culture and foolishly passing off your surface knowledge as the whole thing. Or the danger of burying yourself so deeply in the new culture that you lose track of your own.

Cross-cultural contacts should be a dialogue, and such dialogue is possible only when you respect the complexity and dignity of both the culture you’re visiting and the culture you’re coming from. On all his Beirut recordings, Condon has maintained that precarious, reciprocal conversation. He clearly loves Balkan and mariachi music, but he never makes the mistake of pretending he’s a Macedonian or Mexican musician. He’s an American pop musician using Balkan trombones, French accordions and Mexican trumpets to get across his own vision.

“There’s a fine line you can cross between being an admirer of these exotic musics and pretending to be an ambassador for them,” Condon acknowledges. “I like to think I’ve been able to tread that line. I’ve always written simple pop songs and then surrounded them with all these sounds I’ve discovered. I’ve had a lot of interviewers and audience members say, ‘What are you doing with what doesn’t belong to you?’ But I’ve never heard that from another musician in another culture. They’re always, ‘Oh, you like this? That’s great.’ That’s how people connect.”

The evolution of Condon’s music has been a process of gradually giving up control and welcoming others into the creative process. He played every note of his debut, Gulag Orkestar, himself, but with each succeeding release he has given the other players in Beirut a larger role in the music-making. He still writes the melodies, chord changes and lyrics himself, but he now allows his bandmates to figure out how to interpret the compositions. When he was listening to his teenage demos, he remembered how much help he got from his brothers Ryan and Ross and how enjoyable that had been.

“This new album is a return to that,” he acknowledges. “This time I was glad to ask other people for help. It’s hard to remember why I needed absolute control over every note when I was younger. It’s hard not to trust people you’ve been touring with for five years, especially as smoothly as it’s gone. We get new tour managers and they say, ‘Gee, you guys have been touring for this long and you still hang out with each other?’

“I’m not a very good accordion player, and I’m a horrible drummer, so it’s good to have musicians who can actually play those instruments. Now I can just say, ‘This tune needs a bass line and an accordion line,’ and they’ll come up with great parts. The live show has made a big difference. It’s one thing to lay down a drum track over a recorded track in a room by yourself, and it’s another thing to be on stage and hear these powerful live drums pushing from behind you.”

Condon is finding allies not just within his own group but in like-minded musicians who are popping up all over North America. There’s a bunch of young rock bands right now who are employing vowel-sounding, ancient instruments in ways quite similar to Beirut’s methodology. Perhaps we should call this movement “Village-Band Rock.”

Five of this writer’s favorite albums of 2011 have all come from this nascent sub-genre: Beirut’s The Rip Tide; the Decemberists’ The King Is Dead (accordion, pump organ, pedal steel and fiddle); Bon Iver’s Bon Iver, Bon Iver (trumpet, saxophones, French horn and fiddle); Low Anthem’s Smart Flesh (trumpet, clarinet, harmonium, pump organ, pedal steel and musical saw); and DeVotchka’s 100 Lovers (trumpet, accordion, saxophone, tuba, cello and fiddle).

These five bands share more than a taste in unorthodox instruments. Each band boasts a lead singer with a gift for writing pure-pop melodies and surrounding them with rich harmonies. The fact that they’re executed by hand-held folk instruments gives those harmonies a dizzying sense of reverie, as if they’ve been dislocated in time and are drifting among the centuries, inviting us to drift in similar fashion. As we do, we remember that the past is always with us in every singular moment. It’s no fluke, Condon says, that this movement has emerged over the past five years.

“We’re still riding the rails of the punk revolution—of DIY, freedom and deconstruction,” he says. “We’ve now reached this point where we’ve lost that classic songcraft—from Italian arias to ’60s rock, the idea that songs tell stories and can be lush—and now we’ re trying to recreate it. That songcraft had become so stale that the punk movement was saying, ‘How can anyone watch these soap operas of art?’ What we’re trying to do now is to recreate that songcraft but with that DIY freedom, so someone like me can write lush melodies and then surround them with strange horns.”