NEW YORK — And I thought I was a Francophile.
A few months back, a photo of a hot-air-balloon exhibit in Paris, circa 1907, caught the eye of Beirut's Zach Condon. It was, the young singer/ songwriter/ uke and horn player figured, the perfect image for the cover of his new album, an homage to France — its music, its culture, its cities — called The Flying Club Cup. While the album title stuck, the photo (due to rights issues) did not. Still — on the Beirut Web site and on the merchandise accompanying the new record — a hot-air balloon can be seen, floating off to new adventures, à la Jules Verne. And how apropos is that for this musical world traveler, who only a year ago turned a rapt audience on to Balkan sounds with Beirut's stunning debut, Gulag Orkestar. Now Condon's balloon has headed west, landed squarely in the middle of the "hexagon" (as the French call their land) and produced a record that hopes to do for classic Gallic pop what Gulag did for gypsy music.
Following Beirut's second (and best) of three recent New York shows, I talked with Zach about being a "grumpy old" 21-year-old, the challenge of a second album, recording at home in New Mexico and in a Montreal church, his globe-trotting ways and his current fascination with France.
John Norris: So when did you first realize that this album would reflect the French pop music of the mid-20th century?
Zach Condon: I've been listening to French chansons since I was, like, 15 or 16, for a very long time. But I never got obsessed with it till very recently. It's funny, after doing all this Balkan music, after looking into these Eastern European countries and being so obsessed with their sound and how different it was from ours, I remember taking a closer look at music that was slightly closer to home, so to speak.
Norris: And you lived in Paris for part of last year. Is it important to you that each record have a real specific geographic or ethnic identity to it?
Condon: I'm definitely not trying to. I'm definitely not the kinda guy that sits in his room and has a map of the world and is, like, throwing darts and is like, "Well, it looks like it's Germany this time. Let's do it." [He laughs.] It's very much a situation where slowly something just grows on me. Something just kind of consumes me. And I can't help it. I need to do it. I absolutely need to do it. I needed to do this.
Norris: You're headed to Europe for shows in a few weeks, and I noticed on your tour itinerary the great Olympia in Paris. That's gonna be a moment, right?
Condon: I'm scared. I mean, it's two months from now, but I'm scared. I feel like I've bought hundreds of CDs from the Olympia in Paris. The most famous French artists — Yves Montand, Edith Piaf, Jacques Brel — everybody has played there, and the fact that we're playing there has been the most shocking thing that has come about this year.
Norris: You've cited Jacques Brel a lot as an inspiration; you've even covered one of his songs live this year.
Condon: Well, yeah, Brel was actually Belgian. And it's funny. I was in Belgium, and I was sitting under a photo of Brel, on the same bench as me. And I was obviously extremely excited about that, you know. "Jacques Brel — in the same seat as me!" But all the interviewers were like, "We hate Brel." And I'm [like], "Why?" And it's because Brel made so much fun of Belgium, so that was strange being there and talking to these people about Jacques Brel, who they both love and hate.
The Flying Club Cup — while not as immediate as Gulag Orkestar and Beirut's late-2006 EP, Lon Gisland, and less dominated by those signature mariachi-esque horns — is a grower. With the nostalgic "Nantes," the mournful "Cliquot" and the sing-along "A Sunday Smile," Condon still delivers melodies that soar and transport. But will people come along for the ride? A year ago it was hard to find a disparaging word about Beirut, in print or online, but early reaction to the new record has been mixed, and a Village Voice review of the band's recent Central Park show was especially scathing. Does he care?
Condon: Look, last time I was shocked the press was even paying attention, and this time, sure, I'm wondering what they're going to say, and as of yet it's been fairly positive with some negative things. And it's almost like I welcome that, because it's like I'm walking on a fence, and it's kind of a good thing that there can be negative and positive views about what we're doing 'cause it means we're just — we're not for everybody.
Norris: Well definitely with this second album, the "novelty" of Beirut is not there. While this is a different record, for sure, to an extent you and the band are a known quantity. Does that make things very different?
Condon: Yeah it does, a lot. When I was working on this album I completely disappeared from the music scene in New York and the East Coast. I went back to Albuquerque [New Mexico] to record this album, to disappear from that. I had to remember that I was recording for an audience of one, not a hundred-thousand. And yeah, this album has changed a lot of things. And I'm scared of an audience of that size. Had I known that there was an audience in Europe, and America, South America — all I can tell you, because I haven't actually figured it out, haven't wrapped my head around it, is yes, I actually am quite intimidated.
Norris: After recording in New Mexico, you guys did end up working in a proper studio in Montreal. And that all happened because of [Final Fantasy's] Owen Pallett?
Condon: Well, the first thing that I have to say is that I have been so amazed by and interested in Owen Pallett's music for as long as I can remember. Because this guy has taken pop music and he's turning it on its back. He's classically trained and you know it's just amazing what he's doing with pop music. And so he invited me to his studio, the Arcade Fire church studio in Montreal. They had left to tour, and Owen had traded string arrangements for free reign of the studio, so to speak. And he was gonna do it alone, but then he asked me if I could trade him some brass and percussion parts as well as some vocals for two weeks of absolute freedom in the studio. And of course I took him up on it. It was towards the end of recording this album. It was absolutely amazing.
Norris: In a weird way I think Flying Club Cup is a more intimate, more understated record than the last two, and I don't know if people would have expected that. Was there any feeling that "I have to make this one as different as possible from the last two"?
Condon: Being reactionary is a bad thing, as far as I'm concerned. Because I'm just trying to write songs, I'm trying to write pretty songs. So it wasn't like reactionary. It wasn't like some sort of punk-rock thing where it was like a reaction to what has come before. It was more of a "What do I find beautiful now?" and "Can I replicate this?" And well, for that matter, "Am I capable of it?"
Apart from his tremendous musical gifts, it's hard to know exactly what to make of Zach. The guy can come off as alternately charming, aloof, sweet and condescending. He opens his mouth and sings in that plaintive, dramatic, seen-it-all way, and a few minutes later, he can be the likeable curmudgeon, bitching about the heat, the venue or busting on a bandmate for his busted trumpet.
When it comes to his musical paeans to France or the Balkans, he is nothing less than sincere. When it comes to everyday life, well ...
Norris: I've heard people use the term "old soul" to refer to you. You know, "He dropped out of high school 'cause it wasn't challenging." "He seems to have always been thinking way ahead of his peers."
Condon: Well, that's funny, 'cause I don't feel old.
Norris: You're not as world-weary as your music might make it seem.
Condon: I'm not as world-weary as I seem, but at the same time, ah ... I'm a grumpy old man in a 21-year-old's body. I complain about my knees, complain about my hips, complain about my throat. ... No, obviously that's not true. But I don't disagree that I feel and act and participate in a world that doesn't exist for most people my age, and it's always been the case. I've always been a complete and utter stranger to my generation.
Norris: Do you think you're a cynic? If I was to ask your friends ...
Condon: They would tell you I'm one of the most cynical people you could meet. And I am. A lot of my friends give me hell for being cynical and pessimistic. And yet the only way I can — man, I really don't want to use this word — but the only way that I can kind of transcend that state of mind, which is the constant state of mind that I'm in, is to write these songs, to sing these songs, and frankly, it's the only thing that goes above and beyond everyday life. Taking the subway, walking down the street, buying a bagel in the morning — there's something very unique about it and something very transcendental.