Originally the solo musical project of Zach Condon, the lead singer and principal songwriter of the band, Beirut have been making a deep impression since 2006 and the release of their 1st album, Gulag Orkestar. Combining melancholic pop, exotic sounds and orchestral melodies, they’re one of indie rock’s most unexpected success stories. At the heart of this sonic hybrid was a teenager from Albuquerque, New Mexico, a fact that made Beirut's debut album, Gulag Orkestar, all the more surprising. Something of a musical prodigy, multi-instrumentalist Zach Condon began making one-man D.I.Y. bedroom recordings in his early teens. He claims to have recorded an entire album of '50s-style doo wop material and a collection of electronic pop songs inspired by the Magnetic Fields.
Condon was a straight-A student until he dropped out at the age of seventeen to travel Europe with his brother in a drunken haze, cavorting and partying with the locals wherever he ended up. It was during one of these evenings that he was first exposed to Balkan music (notably including the Kočani Orkestar and Goran Bregović), blasting from the upstairs apartment. Condon ended up with the Serbian artists all night, going through albums country by country, note for note.
The first album under the Beirut moniker, Gulag Orkestar (2006), was the direct result of what he learned that night. While it may sound like an entire Balkan orchestra playing modern songs as mournful ballads and upbeat marches, the album was performed and recorded almost entirely by Condon alone. Back home in Albuquerque, Condon crossed paths with fellow New Mexican Jeremy Barnes, formerly of Neutral Milk Hotel, whose own albums as A Hawk and a Hacksaw share similarly ethnographic interests with Condon's new material. With the help of Barnes and his A Hawk and a Hacksaw partner, Heather Trost, Condon recorded the songs that would make up Gulag Orkestar largely on his own, playing accordion, keyboards, saxophone, clarinet, mandolin, ukulele, horns, glockenspiel, and percussion along with Barnes' drums and Trost's cello and violin.
After Barnes gave an early version of the album to Ba Da Bing! Records label head Ben Goldberg, the newly christened band Beirut was signed to the New Jersey-based label and Condon moved from Albuquerque to Brooklyn, where he put together a floating collective of part-time band-members for live performances.
Rumour goes the Beirut nickname had been given to him by his friends because of his fascination with our very own Fairuz!
The band’s first performances were in New York, in May 2006, to support the release of the album. The Lon Gisland EP followed in 2007, leading up to the full-length The Flying Club Cup later that year. Parts of the album were performed and recorded by Condon in his bedroom again, but others were recorded with the live band, which resulted in a more organic, live sound. While writing, Condon said he was inspired by French music, like Jacques Brel (whose song “Le Moribond” he covered on his Elephant Gun EP), and he moved to Paris for a while. After the extensive tour in support of The Flying Club Cup, Condon took a long break and returned in 2009 with a double EP, March of the Zapotec & Realpeople: Holland. The first was partly recorded in Mexico with the Mexican Band Jimenez and had a more South-American flavour to it than Condon’s previous efforts. The second EP Holland was credited to Condon’s old moniker Realpeople and consisted of five electronic tracks recorded at home in the vein of The Magnetic Fields.
Beirut's third album The Rip Tide was released in 2011 on Pompeii Records, Condon’s fully independent label. Recorded in Upstate New York, Brooklyn and, of course, in his hometowns of Albuquerque and Santa Fe, it marks a distinct leaping off point for the band whose music is often synonymous with the exotic mysteries of world travel.
Since The Flying Club Cup sang a love letter to France (with a 2009 stop-off in Mexico for the March of the Zapotec EP) many have asked where his songs would voyage next. Lots of guesses, but few predicted the inward journey Condon has achieved on The Rip Tide, an album with the most introspective and memorable songs of his young career. No longer about imagining places you haven't been; they're about places with which we are all extremely familiar, some of them too familiar.
In terms of style, there are no direct geographical affiliations. The band has no equal when it comes to enchanting us with musical postcards. However, what emerges is a style that belongs uniquely and distinctly to Beirut, one that has actually been there all along.
Their sound will probably keep on evolving; perhaps Zach's visit to Lebanon this summer will trigger new moods and musical directions for future releases? But what is certain is that this historic concert will be just as special for the band as it will be for its audience!