Zach Condon’s eclectic indie-pop project Beirut turns 10 next year, and while the band kicks off an American tour Thursday at New York’s Radio City Music Hall, any sort of longevity recently seemed in doubt. “I had this absolute disaster on my hands, because I was having terrible writer’s block,” Condon recently told EW in his label’s Manhattan office while discussing Beirut’s latest album, No No No. “I no longer knew where I wanted the songs to go. I couldn’t write a single word over them. I was afraid to sing, I was afraid to do anything.”
In other words, a serious problem for a cult favorite with a reputation for quirky instrumentation, ebullient melodies, and an experimental streak. Exhausted from touring his most recent album, 2011’s The Rip Tide, the 29-year-old Santa Fe native called in two longtime collaborators, Nick Petree and Paul Collins, who helped him rediscover his creative mojo. “They pulled me aside and forced me to start showing up,” Condon says. “You can actually hear that we’re enjoying ourselves, instead of trying to keep up this posture of grim seriousness all the time.”
Where Condon had often written records “90 percent” on his own before bringing in outside musicians for finishing touches, Petree and Collins entered the process early, and the result is a departure from the music that EW once labeled “a dense slice of exotic musical Bohemia.” No No No maintains what Condon calls “guitar-less folk music with a brass section,” but streamlines the project’s baroque affectations with a sheen of buoyant synths.
Condon caught up with EW about growing up in Santa Fe, why so many of his songs are named after cities, and his newfound love of Brazilian music.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The Rip Tide was more stripped down than your earlier work and I feel like this continues that direction. How has Beirut’s sound evolved over the years?
ZACH CONDON: The Rip Tide was hinting at it and this record hit it on the head. The sound I was creating alone in my bedroom [before 2006’s Gulag Orkestar] was an instance where I had taken some trips and I had run into a style of music that I couldn’t ignore. Over the years as I’ve let that out of my system it’s like I’m slowly going back to what I was doing in the first place.
How has Santa Fe influenced your style—and do you think it still influences it?
The first time I picked up a trumpet [was] because I used to be very impressed by the mariachis that would play during fiestas. To me, those were rockstars, the trumpet players especially. Santa Fe is a city where even if it’s kind of cheesy sometimes, everyone is hellbent on making quote-unquote art at all nooks and crannies of life. There’s that sense that no one is going to bat an eye if you, like I did, basically drop out of high school to pursue music. People just kind of go, “Uh huh, uh huh. That’s very Santa Fe of you.” The isolation that that town will give you is pretty important. My original sound was kind of in revolt of a lot things Santa Fean and a lot of the small town-ness of it.
Your band takes its name, and many of its song titles, from the names of cities. What role does location play in your music?
In my head, city names were just a certain kind of poetry. I never had much reason for liking them more than the sounds and the random s–t that they evoke.
Tell me about how your collaborators Nick Petree and Paul Collins influenced No No No.
I met Nick and Paul in Santa Fe, because they were going to College of Santa Fe. Back then I used to play on a laptop—I played trumpet and I sang over pre-recorded stuff. Paul was the first person to corner me after a show and say, “You need a band. Let’s jam.” Which, in Santa Fe, sounds like a bad idea about to happen. But I had to play South by Southwest not long after he put the offer on the table, so I took them up on it, and we’ve been playing ever since.
Most of the records I’ve written like 90 percent by myself. I called people in at the last minute to finish it with me, to do drum parts I couldn’t do, for example. This record, when I came back [from touring behind The Rip Tide] I had this absolute disaster on my hands, because I was having terrible writer’s block, I no longer knew where I wanted the songs to go, I couldn’t write a single word over them, I was afraid to sing, I was afraid to do anything. They saw that and they pulled me aside and forced me to start showing up. Here’s where that “jam” word comes back into use. I hate that word, but that’s what we did, for like a month straight. I was out of directions to go, I needed to see what happened naturally. You can actually hear that we’re enjoying ourselves, instead of trying to keep up this posture of grim seriousness all the time.
It locks into these grooves.
Which is not something that I would have expected to say about a record. Like, oh yeah, Beirut locking into a groove.
Was there any music you drew on while recording?
We’ve been listening to a lot of Brazilian music. One guy in particular we were listening is Joãd Donato. We were trading MP3s between sessions, you know? We’d go home from the studio and say, you know, that kind of reminded me of [this]. That would give us an idea for the next day, and we’d keep bouncing back and forth.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.