Beirut: Another Unexpected Journey

Music Features Beirut
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It might have been the hospitalization for exhaustion. Or maybe the dissolving of his marriage. But going into the process of creating his band’s fifth album, Beirut bandleader Zach Condon realized business as usual simply wasn’t going to work. He was going to have to learn how to chill out.

“I tend to live with a low level of anxiety in general,” he confesses. “A lot of that is probably why I work, why I create things. Because it’s the only way to satiate it. It took some force of will to say ‘You don’t need to write right now. You can do it in a few months. Believe me, you can take the time off.’”

The results on a personal level were fruitful. During his downtime, Condon spent an extended period in Turkey, connecting with his new fiancée’s culture in Istanbul, her family’s home city. A self-described parrot, he found himself picking up the language, struggling through verbs and relearning how to accomplish daily activities. (“Oh what the hell am I doing?” he jokes. “I can’t even walk to the store without having to really struggle with my vocabulary!”) He even haunted the area casinos, taken with the performance style of the in-house musicians.

But back home in Brooklyn, Condon found that the sabbatical didn’t exactly feed into his creative drive. Sloppy real life was waiting for him. Tapped out and stressed out, he worried incessantly that he had nothing left to say.

“I did get writer’s block for this album, badly,” Condon admits. “I had all these unfinished songs. I kept building them up and building them up. They got to the point where I’d be in this dungeon studio alone by myself, banging my head against a wall. They had become overly precious. I was just so self-conscious and self-aware. Everything I put down in writing sounded like such trivial garbage to me. Especially considering all these things going on inside my head. I got it pretty bad. But I never stopped making music. I just couldn’t finish any of it.”

Stuck with the desire to burrow into his frustrations, Condon was saved by his bandmates, whom he credits for reminding of him of a simple fact: Music may be their job—but it’s also really fun.

“I was really beating myself up about it, pretty bad,” he continues. “The turning point came when Nick [Petree] and Paul [Collins], the drummer and the bassist, came into the studio and were going to jam together…We did, and it was kinda fun. I always joke that I hate that word, ‘jamming.’ But a little bit of that tension rolled off our shoulders. And then we did it again the next day, and the next day, and the next day. And then we made this plan. We’re going to do this every day, almost nine-to-five style, no matter what. No matter if something happens. No matter if we do something really stupid and silly or something really genius. By the end of the month I had forgotten that we were writing an album. But all of a sudden there’s these songs. That’s when we called up our manager and we’re like, ‘put us in the studio, I think we’re ready.’ What a nice surprise.”

No No No is the group’s most stripped-down effort to date. A warm collection of tracks (many instrumental), the album leans on the heart worn sentimentality that fans have come to expect from Beirut. But surprisingly, it’s also a song cycle without a fixed address, lacking many of the Mexican-influenced flushes of March of the Zapotec, or the Balkan-inspired flourishes of his earlier work. That was intentional, says Condon.

“It’s hard because obviously that narrative for my grand past is that I go somewhere, I soak something in, and then try and spit it out when I come back home,” he notes. “Some version of it. But it wasn’t the case there. Obviously some of the lyrics are references to places and times and things happening there and what I felt there. I absolutely love Turkish music. But it was just one of those things where, now I turn back and go home, because sonically I can’t go any further away from where I’m from without sounding ridiculous.”

It may have taken Condon some nine years since his debut album, but he’s finally sonically back home, leaning on a stripped-down keys, voice and strings hybrid that he first tiptoed into while still living with his parents as a teenager. It’s a blend, he says, that’s even more established than the sonic wanderlust he became known for—even if he will also admit that his ornate first two albums, Gulag Orkestar and The Flying Club Cup, didn’t fully reflect that ethos.

“When I listen to them I hear a younger man with a lot to prove,” he notes, laughing. “I can hear how badly I wanted to get out in the world and be part of something bigger than myself. That’s just not as much the case now.”

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