By Philip Cosores
The upcoming release of Beirut‘s fourth full-length LP, No No No, on September 11 will end a four-year recording drought for the band. It will also mark the follow-up to 2011’s The Rip Tide, an album that launched Beirut into headliner status at amphitheaters and festivals like FYF Fest in Los Angeles and Northside Festival in Brooklyn.
But, while that album marked success for Beirut mastermind Zach Condon, he quickly found himself pushed to his breaking point, winding up hospitalized for exhaustion in Australia and unable to produce new music he was happy with.
The turning point for Condon came from falling in love with a Turkish woman, and even by phone during his first interview discussing this new album, his voice changes at the mention of her, as if blushing had a sound. Her presence can be felt in not only the lyrics on the nine song record, including the album’s first single “No No No,” but in the tone, as if Condon is enjoying himself again for the first time in a long time.
Radio.com: At the end of the release and touring cycle with The Rip Tide, you had reached a new echelon of success, playing bigger venues than ever and headlining music festivals. How did you feel about where you were creatively at that time?
Zach Condon: We had gotten to the point where we were touring the same material for three years, and basically I’d get back to New York, I’d scramble to write new material and I’d record some instrumentals or something, and we’d go back on the road again. I’d never finish what I started and never get the chance to sit down and concentrate. And, it just kept going. It was working. We just kept playing bigger and bigger venues, so, why stop when its getting bigger? But, creatively, I was getting frustrated. It started to feel really repetitious.
You wound up in an Australian hospital in 2013 for exhaustion and had to cancel tour dates, which wasn’t the first time this had happened to you. Describe the kind of exhaustion that makes you seek medical attention.
It’s incredibly frightening. Your body and your mind are going one direction, but… Both times, I just woke up one day and was able to put one foot in front of the other, but something wasn’t right. I get asked about it sometimes and it is really hard to put into words other than it was really frightening and I can’t really remember all of it. I was sick, too, so it was just bad. You feel a slow burn up to it.
It isn’t surprising that this affected your creativity, if you were so mentally and physically spent.
Well, there just wasn’t anything left to give. What I was dealing with, it took every resource I had. So, I’d be coming home and staring at these instrumentals and feeling like I had no ideas left, and every time I did have an idea, I felt like I was just retreading The Rip Tide over and over again sonically, just totally lost. I was second-guessing and starting to doubt whether I’d be able to move forward at all, that this was the end creatively. Maybe I’d be able to have a few good years left touring and making some money off of it before disappearing in mediocrity.
Part of the revitalization of your creativity was falling in love. Before you met this person, did you believe in this romantic idea of the power of love to heal wounds?
No, I was pretty cynical at that point. At that point it felt like everything in life was part of a big machine. I just went about my business, so, I wasn’t expecting that at all. I was just trying to take care of myself, not really nourishing the possibility of something like that happening.
Is she the subject of the album’s first single, “No, No, No?”
(Laughs) I don’t think at the time I was trying directly to write about it, but I guess it was pretty obvious. Yes and no. Part of the lyric is very old and part of it is very much about her. That song is the oldest in the bunch, the only one that survived when I couldn’t even finish the others. And it still stuck out three or four years later.
Why have you chosen it to be the first thing that people hear from this record?
To me it is the bridge between The Rip Tide and where we ended up, in terms of the recording sessions that most of this new album came from. Compared to the lost instrumental stuff where I felt like I was stuck doing the same thing, this was the first song where I was allowing myself to write an up-tempo, upbeat, hopeful, happy song. And then the rest of the album followed suit, but just way later. But ‘No No No’ had staying power for me.
And maybe if it has staying power with you, it will have staying power in other people.
Exactly. I started to hate and resent all the other material that I had been recording around the same time as that, but that one never bothered me, and that sort of made me smile.
Despite all the heavy times that went into making the album, it never feels overly heavy to listen to. Was that something you were going for, like maybe it is about shedding the weight of all you’ve gone through, rather than letting your hard times be the subject that you dwell on?
I think in a big way I had to take myself less seriously, because that was what was taking me down. I took everything so seriously. Like, if I wasn’t on the road, I didn’t exist as a musician. I never saw the humor in it. Not to say that there aren’t heavy moments in the album or that the whole thing is me being completely playful, and the fact is there were a lot of blood, sweat and tears that went into making it. But a big thing for me was realizing it was okay if I said something dumb, or play something that isn’t heavy or dramatic. Otherwise I’d be frozen in fear. I’m a very self-conscious person.
Your music and your songs have always been very tied to regions, to geography, and this album is no different, with many places used for song titles and the global music influence still present. Do you have a strong sense of home at this point? Is New York home or do you still think of Santa Fe as home or is being on the road more home?
New York has to be home since I’ve been here for eleven years now. At this point, it is a part of me whether I like it or not. I am comfortable here and I’ve sort of grown into it. But, I miss Santa Fe more and more the older I get, but I’ve been less and less, so that’s probably why I do miss it. But, I’m still traveling. I’m still going around, but I no longer have this distinct need to understand everywhere I go, and rather just allow myself to continue to be whatever it is that I’ve always been.