Beirut, the band born out of the bedroom of Santa Fe teenager Zach Condon in the early 2000s, has come a long way fast. The night after I spoke with Condon by phone from his hotel in Belgium, where he was situated for a European press junket, Beirut played a show with Arcade Fire in Londonâ€™s Hyde Park. (â€œI didnâ€™t know [it was happening] until an interviewer mentioned it this morning,â€ admitted Condon, who says heâ€™s notorious for not paying attention to schedules.)
While 2007â€™sÂ Gulag Orkestar put Beirut on the map with its charming lo-fi production, catchy songwriting, and obvious nod to Eastern European folk music, the groupâ€™s new album,Â The Rip Tide, is what Condon classifies as â€œthe Beirut sound crystallized into its purest form.â€
â€œIâ€™ve always had a fascination [with Europe],â€ says Condon. â€œI never meant to be an ambassador for Balkan music or French music. At the core of my music, I was always writing very American pop music. I was just using all these different palettes to keep it interesting.â€ So instead of the eight multi-tracked trumpets that bay out at the start ofÂ Gulag,Â The Rip Tideâ€™s brass is more like the clean, simple lines youâ€™d hear in a Motown song.
Condon first started recording music after his brother left for college and bequeathed him a Fostex four-track. He bought some Oberheim organs, a BOSS DR-202 Dr. Groove sampler, and a desktop Mac with Pro Tools and a soundcard in the back that you plugged two RCA cables into. He started trying to cure his teenage insomnia by recording late at night.
OnÂ Gulag, Condon enlisted A Hawk And A Hacksaw (and former Neutral Milk Hotel) multi-instrumentalist Jeremy Barnes to play drums in the studio, and got fellow Elephant 6 acolyte Griffin Rodriguez to mix the album. It was the first time Condon had seen the inside of a studio.
â€œI remember I was obviously very nervous and very excited,â€ says Condon. â€œThey were miking the drums and every time we did takes it felt wrong. I had to convince [the engineer] â€“ and, trust me, it was difficult because Iâ€™d never been in a studio before and he obviously knew that â€“ but I walked into the room and took two microphones and placed them five feet away from the drums at waist-height. And it sounded amazing. It sounded so raw and real. Itâ€™s something that weâ€™ve done ever since.â€
Condon and Rodriguez, who fronts Chicago-based Icy Demons and was a member of the free-jazz group Bablicon with Barnes, have been recording partners ever since, and continue to employ Condonâ€™s drum miking technique.
After Condon finished writing the songs forÂ The Rip Tide, he convened Rodriguez and the rest of Beirut for two weeks at Old Soul Studios, a recording studio in upstate New York. Condon would sit at the piano while the rest of the band gathered around him and theyâ€™d go through one song a day from one in the afternoon until five in the morning.
â€œI spent so many years multi-tracking. You get one person in [the studio] and you wait â€˜til they get the right take and you move on. But when everyone is playing, you always get these subtle variations.â€
â€œI started with purely electronic, then moved somewhere in the middle,â€ Condon says about the evolution of the Beirut sound. â€œAroundÂ Gulag, I split completely and did the entire thing [acoustically]. Thereâ€™s a drum machine behind some songs but itâ€™s very subtle. [OnÂ The Rip Tide] Iâ€™m trying very hard not to rely on electronics as the rhythm section. I want the rhythm section to be totally natural.â€
There is one song, â€œSanta Fe,â€ with its warm electronic opening beat, where Condonâ€™s original demo served as a foundation for the other parts.
â€œI was visiting my parents and they kept my old bedroom exactly as it was,â€ he says when asked about the songâ€™s origin. â€œThere were two organs, a Farfisa and this other brand, and then a piano on the other wall, and a few other instruments lying around. I was playing with those organs and I got that repeater melody going. The organ has a program where you can hold down the drum machine and the chords at the same time.â€
But, true to the acoustic purist in him (then as now), Condon says if he could play just one instrument for the rest of his life, itâ€™d be an upright piano. â€œWhat would keep me entertained the longest and has the most versatility? I would have to say piano. It defines music for me.â€