Zach Condon’s first show in New York, this May at the Knitting Factory, was a complete disaster. The 20-year-old had pulled together the three musicians for his band, Beirut, only weeks before. His eBay ukulele would not stay in tune. He fumbled with his trumpet and flashed a sheepish smile during the long breaks between songs. His banter was self-conscious (“I’m sorry, this ukulele is terrible … ”). His voice shook.
The band seemed unripe and overwhelmed, sweating through Balkan-influenced melodies that felt a size too large. On recordings, Beirut’s songs are like the lush score to a movie about Gypsies and bohemians. Onstage, Condon seemed like a boy pantomiming the music of grown-ups.
It couldn’t have helped that the place was packed. More than 200 people were at this debut, driven by the guerrilla success of leaked MP3s from Gulag Orkestar, an album Condon recorded in his bedroom in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Bloggers and industry types had hyped the show for weeks, “wunderkind” a permanent prefix to Condon’s name. “I was going onstage to bomb,” he says. “We were just so unprepared, with so many people there expecting the Second Coming. And I knew that I wasn’t going to deliver that.”
He didn’t, but a strange thing happened. Usually, the only thing music bloggers love more than building buzz is torpedoing it, posting detailed rants about every note gone wrong. Even after Beirut’s misstep, however, the online community continued to embrace the singer and his strange record. Listeners wrote in assuring him of his potential. Would their faith pan out? And why was Condon the beneficiary of it, anyway?
“I think I share music with a very specific group of people,” he says. “I play for those who want to hear something energetic and true and beautiful in music again. But perhaps people just like that I am 20 and fresh-faced. Maybe if I had a beard, they would have been harder on me. ”
Three months on, Condon’s band has grown to ten members—just in time, it would seem, to defend its name. “You know, it’s ironic,” he says, addressing the “Beirut situation” before a rehearsal in his Bushwick loft. (Spackle covers everything, including the pots and pans. He and his roommates are trying to build individual bungalows, maybe buy a pool table.) “One of the reasons I named the band after that city was the fact that it’s seen a lot of conflict. It’s not a political position. I worried about that from the beginning. But it was such a catchy name. I mean, if things go down that are truly horrible, I’ll change it. But not now. It’s still a good analogy for my music. I haven’t been to Beirut, but I imagine it as this chic urban city surrounded by the ancient Muslim world. The place where things collide.”
Collision is a large part of Condon’s style, inherent to its appeal. His record is not so much world music as a global mash-up. He first picked up a trumpet as a grade-schooler in Newport News, Virginia. “Newport was a coastal town. I was always on a boat. It made me look outwards.” But Condon’s family moved to New Mexico in his teens, where he started making lo-fi recordings on a synthesizer, inspired by the jangly, slapdash rock of bands like the Magnetic Fields and Neutral Milk Hotel. “I was so angry to be landlocked, I just wanted to stay inside and make music. One day I just thought, Can I sing? And I tried, and I could.”
One home record turned into five, and Condon dropped out of high school (and then four colleges), thrilling his parents along the way. “We are just not the kind of family that has dropouts in it. The rest of my family is full of track-and-field stars.” At home, he also spent a lot of time, as any American teenager would, watching Emir Kustarica movies. “He’s a Yugoslavian director who makes these beautiful, sad films. And he always had this Balkan band running around drunk and crashing into things. I just loved it.”
At 18, after bailing on his minimum-wage job and flying to Paris, Condon met these sounds in person. “I found this band—these kids who’d walk around with thrift-store brass instruments. They weren’t Gypsies—they were so in love with that music. Eventually, I got the guts up to ask if I could play trumpet with them. They started teaching me the songs to the point where I could riff, like a jazz song. This one guy could play trumpet with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth, and at night you could see little puffs coming out of the bell. There was another who played the euphonium and poured wine into it. He gurgled.”
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.”