Gulag Orkestar plays like a musical daguerreotype, old-fashioned but modern, grainy and rough. Straight Gypsy tunes follow bouncy synth-pop. “Bratislava” is a bustling ghetto of a song; the next track, “The Bunker,” is a sweet chanson set against ukulele and folk drum. He recorded the album in four months and posted a few songs to MySpace; Jeremy Barnes, the ex-drummer of Neutral Milk Hotel, turned on Ben Goldberg, founder of Ba Da Bing! Records in Brooklyn, to one of them; and the young New Mexican soon relocated.
“If things go down that are truly horrible, I’ll change the name. But not now. Beirut is still a good analogy for my music.”
He likes Brooklyn—it’s “as close as we are going to get to Europe in America.” But he’s deeply “wary of the whole New York indie-rock scene. It all seems like style over substance. Gogol Bordello is a Balkan punk beat-box band—I don’t want to be a part of that. Half of what makes that band work is the fact that the singer dresses crazy.”
Condon is working on a new EP, and this record may reflect his newest world-music obsession, fado. (“I speak a little Portuguese. It was the only class I liked in college. Well, before I quit.”) But no matter what its influences, Beirut has to sound old, and soulful, and somehow off. “I like it brash and drunken and full of feeling. When our new trumpet player came in, he sounded very regal and was perfectly alliterating all the notes. I remember saying, No, you have to slop it up!
“There are three ways I see music used in the modern world,” Condon says. “One is for thinkers: They approach it analytically. Then there are people who use music to get a raw attitude out. And then there are people who are simply looking for beauty, for the sentimentality that good music has.”
Late last month, Beirut opened for the Swedish sensation (you’ll have to trust us on this) Jens Lekman at the Bowery Ballroom. Something had changed in Condon. The show was rowdy but controlled. He’d stopped reading the blogs—though he still seemed to know what they’d been saying about him. “Here’s a song that you all have been asking us to play,” he said, grinning, before he launched into “Scenic World,” an electronic bedroom-pop song. “It might have taken us a while, but you know, we figured it out.” The crowd laughed.
This Sunday, Beirut plays McCarren pool, and soon, perhaps, Europe. “My nerves have finally subsided,” Condon says. “Everyone can believe in you, but I really had to grow into the music, and into myself. And I feel comfortable enough now that I bounce around onstage like a 5-year-old. It’s impossible for me to play these songs and not feel joy.”