Photo: Lina Gaisser

Interview: Beirut looks back over his musical journey

Making art is an exercise in constant remembering, if not your own than another’s. A piece is created, and with any luck it lives on immortally, in one fashion or another. The piece may be forgotten by its creator, but it is constantly being found by new eyes and ears and minds, new memories of its impact being created, as time moves forward around it. But what happens when the artist looks back on their own work, which had been buried under the weight of all that succeeded it; lost, in a sense, to the annals and the pressure of new new new. Do the memories come back? Do they come back different, like a half-forgotten dream?

Zach Condon — the singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist behind the musical act Beirut — has taken on the daunting task of engaging with that past, his own musical lineage, on his new collection Artifacts. By unearthing scores of demos, b-sides, outtakes, stray musical ideas, and more, from across his life, Condon has been forced to remember.

Some of the songs on Artifacts, which spans two LPs and four distinct sides and eras, date back to Condon’s adolescence in New Mexico. Other songs are more recent, such as some outtakes from the 2010s. Others are already familiar to fans, like his early Lon Gisland EP.

By extending his careful gaze backward onto his own life, Condon gives us a map that leads us to where Beirut is now. Artifacts is a highly-detailed and deliberately assembled set of songs, the music that made Condon who he is as an artist. It takes us from when he was first discovering his baritone croon (that he could sing at all came as a surprise to him) and love of ambling synthesizers, all the way to his more refined Balkan-influenced baroque pop. It’s a fascinating journey to take, but it’s one that wasn’t terribly easy for Condon, who has had a long and profound relationship with music.

In the fall of 2021, I chatted with Condon, speaking from his home in Germany, about all of this for my podcast Meet Our Makers. It was a lovely conversation, deep and exacting. We spoke about what music means, how music can guide and heal a wounded soul, how digging through his own archives was a powerful and at times complex experience for him. We talked about his first tour, and how the trauma of that rigorous experience nearly derailed his ability to play live at all. Condon, despite being a bit reclusive in his personal life, was emotionally candid, and a generous conversationalist. 

Unfortunately, through an upsetting technical snafu, the recording was lost. Thankfully, being the kind and patient person he is, Condon agreed to do a followup interview via email. I tried to repurpose some of the more vital questions from our conversation, trying to pick up on some of the threads we untangled together. Graciously, he responded with answers that were just as resonant and sincere as they were in voice form.

You will find this version of the interview below, and I hope you enjoy it. And when you’re done, take a listen to Artifacts and dive into the heretofore unlit past of Beirut, borne by the Santa Fe winds on the shoulders of a man whose love of and connection with music is palpable, important, and moving.

Can you explain what brought you to the point of collecting all these rarities, b-sides, and demos for Artifacts? What do you hope people get out of this excavation? 

I have been re-releasing early records of mine as the rights for them have returned to me over the years (at the end of publishing contracts and such). I had already put out my first two records and The Rip Tide on my own label. Last summer someone who works with us (Evan Whikehart) mentioned we ought to put out the Lon Gisland EP with a few bonus tracks in order to fill out two sides of a vinyl record. 

What started as an attempt at compiling some other pieces together (like “O Leãozinho” and “Transatlantique”) ended up with me starting to search through every hard drive of music I could get my hands on. I had recently moved to a new place in Berlin after a long trip spent in the arctic winter in northern Norway, where I had been writing music and I guess combing through my life in my mind. How did I end up here? How have I never made it through a single tour in one piece? Why do I live almost entirely in periods of obsession followed by massive burnout? Do I even have any talent? Why am I always scared? 

I’m being a bit absurd, but going through hard drives for these few extra songs led me to a long period of taking a break from writing a new album to sit and listen through all the false starts, sketches, early songs that felt like successes and forward momentum. I was clearly already in an introspective mood and had recently made some big decisions to stay off the road and out of harmful environments for a while. What I heard told a pretty incredible tale (to me at least) about my mad dash through 35 years of life and a little over 15 years of writing songs through the fog. 

I hoped that people would enjoy the early works as much as I still did and see the machinations running things musically for me.  

What was the strangest or most difficult thing – emotionally or otherwise – for you about delving through your archives?

The whole thing was strange and felt like a minefield. I remembered the feeling of triumph and excitement from writing the first melodies I found catchy and thinking I had something special going on. Then I would remember that I hardly had anyone to share it with besides my two brothers, and that most of the early tunes were written in times of insomnia, loneliness, depression and anxiety about the future that no amount of booze or music ever seemed to calm. I remembered my own helplessness and how I would lash out without guidance, and I remembered some painful and tense relationships I’d had through the years. I also saw that I had an insane amount of drive and ambition kicking around for someone who was otherwise growing up in a vacuum without borders. I don’t know how I was able to fight so much fear, doubt  and paralysis out of sheer, almost angry willpower. 

Do you see any throughlines from your oldest demos to your newest recordings?

I still write the same way, since I also still use multi-tracking as a means of writing and throwing sounds together. I still make very repetitive music. I still reach for the same chord voicings very instinctively. I recognize a very certain melodic sensibility, and I clearly hated writing down words back then as much as I do now. I think I still feel like tone and melody, harmony and rhythm paint more vivid pictures than words. They still hit somewhere much deeper for me. I still seem to both be seeking out new sounds and gravitating towards very similar and specific dense, rich chord tones.  

How has your relationship with music changed over the years, from when you first fell in love with it to now?

Not much to be honest. I still consume the same amount, as obsessively, and it still gets me to the same places. One big change is that when I started writing music I assumed there was a very limited amount of songs out there left to write before we simply ran out of melodic and harmonic possibilities. I used to literally think we’d run out of songs one day soon, and it scared me that I had started so late in music history and I often wrote as if my time was running out. I guess I wasn’t very good at statistical mathematics and assumed our western 12 note scale wasn’t sufficient to support infinite songs? 

Really I think I was just a deeply traumatized child who thought anything good was bound to quickly disappear. Oh, and I finally came to appreciate some classic American country music recently for some reason.   

Switching now to some guest work you’ve done over the years… What was it like for you to get that call from Blondie to play on their cover of “A Sunday Smile”? Was it an immediate ‘yes’ or was there some trepidation?

Immediate yes, though I’ve always suffered deeply from imposter syndrome and thought that Chris Stein must have lost his mind or who knows what type of joke was going on. I was deeply shocked and moved that he happened to be an honest fan of the music and I was more than excited to join them in the studio.

It was fun to meet him and Debbie and I really appreciate Chris’s broad tastes in music.  Even recently he’s pointed out some really fascinating cumbia and other genres and styles I’ve sometimes overlooked. I quite like how open Blondie’s ears have been throughout their history, like their early respect for hip hop when it was so young, and toying with dance music before it was accepted in many circles.  

Have you learned anything from these past couple years, including the assembling of Artifacts, that you think will inform your future work?

I don’t know. I’ve learned some important things in the studio recently that might not be that exciting to explain… I guess that makes me realize that I relearned a type of musical self-reliance that I used to have before I had the live band and access to professional studios. I relearned to trust my own approach and ability to adapt to instruments and techniques that I’m not an expert in, all in service to the song. I think digging through the early work reminded me of that spirit, to set out on one’s own to find a functional solution, for better or worse, if nothing else is available. To not give up. 

Beirut’s Artifacts compilation is out digitally today via his own Pompeii Recordings. A physical box set arrives on March 4 (pre-order).

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