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Beirut's Zach Condon Shares His Worldly Wisdom

Photo: Tony Nelson / Retna

Beirut leader Zach Condon came from nowhere — well, Santa Fe, New Mexico — a year ago, releasing his debut album Gulag Orkestar on a tiny label before becoming instantly blog-famous thanks to a rabid Internet fan base and near-unanimous critical acclaim. Vulture spoke with Condon, who’s in town for a trio of area shows preceding a whirlwind world tour, about guerrilla video shoots, being hospitalized for exhaustion, and the alluring French-pop sound that dominates his much-anticipated follow-up album, The Flying Club Cup.

So you’re in New York right now?
Yeah.

How long are you going to be here?
Um, 30 to 45 minutes?

…In New York City?
Oh! [Laughs.] I’m going to be here until November.

Cool. We hear you have an apartment in Brooklyn.
Yeah. In South Williamsburg, right off Broadway. It’s in the Hasidic neighborhood. I like waking up in the morning and feeling you’re in an entirely different country.

Well, you've been living in Paris until recently. Do you miss Europe?
It’s been an incredibly difficult month, actually. I’m trying to get back into the hectic, Gods-know-how-to-explain-it thing that is New York. It’s not been a smooth transition. It’s a city where I never really feel completely at home in. You’re always on your toes.

We hear your new album has a pretty different sound. What influenced you this time around?
Nothing was forced; I wasn’t sitting down in the studio wondering, How can I make this the opposite of what I used to sound like? I’ve been listening to more archaic pop music, pop hymns from France, Germany, and Italy. They’re basically pop tunes, but the orchestration is so brilliantly arranged and well thought out and so fitting to the music that I wanted to experiment with orchestration. One of the biggest influences is the way that Jacques Brel works. He has a great sense of melody and storytelling, and then on top of that is that the music behind him is always sort of grappling with what he’s singing, and interacting in these ways that are different than what I’ve been accustomed to for so long, like four chords and a melody. These are very epic songs.

Are there any surprises in store for the upcoming tour?
We’re playing with all the same people, but we’ve ripped up old songs and put them together in a totally new way. I really love playing vice-versa with how you do songs on records and how you perform them live, like the loudest ones on the records being the calmest ones live, and vice-versa.

Any guilty pop-music pleasures lately?
My guilty pleasure is good European house music. But as far as pop music is concerned, I grew up on the Beatles and the Beach Boys and Van Morrison and even Bruce Springsteen. They’re part of my musical vocabulary.

We also hear that you shot a video for every single song on your album. Any disasters?
Oh, totally. It started in Paris, and I decided that when I went back to New York, I’d take my friends with me and we’d start the videos there. We actually filmed them in the streets and in buildings that we weren’t exactly allowed to be in, which is funny, because you find yourself in these crazy situations where you’re in a restaurant and then halfway through the song you get kicked out, and there’s people yelling at you. It’s always a nerve-racking experience for me because I’m the opposite of an exhibitionist and it’s hard to get over.

You were hospitalized for exhaustion last year…
It’s super, super intense on the body and mind to be on tour — you get to the point where you lose track of time and space, you lose track of what city you’re in and what it means to be there. You lose track of reality, and that’s what brought me down and landed me in the hospital, just this complete insanity. I think I’m ready to do it again, and do it right this time.

Do people make a big deal about how young you are?
Yeah, I turned 21 when I was recording, but I feel more like a 60-year-old trapped in a 21-year-old’s body. I whine a lot, I complain about my back pain and how my throat feels that day. I’m an old man at heart. —Annsley Chapman