RAZ: Time now for our regular music feature. Today, the return of an unlikely indie rock star. His name is Zach Condon, but he's better known as Beirut.


RAZ: This is a track off Beirut's new record. It's called "The Rip Tide." Now, if you haven't heard Beirut's music before, its sound is as compelling as the story behind the band. Zach Condon created Beirut back in 2006. It was a solo project, music inspired by the brassy sounds of Balkan folk bands and Parisian chanson. And Condon recorded most of his first album, "Gulag Orkestar," in his bedroom in New Mexico at the age of 20. He managed to release the record on a small label, and almost immediate critical acclaim followed.


ZACH CONDON: (Singing) Left the vagabonds, a trail of stones, forward to find my way home. Now...

RAZ: The thing about Zach Condon is he somehow manages to take the sounds from the fringes of the Ottoman and Habsburg Empires and make them appealing to jazz fans and hipsters alike. Zach Condon is now touring the record. He joins me from the road in London. Zach, welcome to the program.

CONDON: How's it going?

RAZ: You - the name of your band, Beirut, it was kind of a half a joke, right?

CONDON: Yeah. I was kind of poking fun at myself and some of my more exotic tastes in music at the time.

RAZ: Beirut was known as the Paris of the Middle East, and you're - you listen to a lot of Jacques Brel and Serge Gainsbourg and all these Parisian crooners, and I read that was the reason why you called yourself Beirut.

CONDON: There's a lot of reasons. But the truth of the matter is I've always had a fascination with city names, actually. I used to paint them on my wall in my bedroom and on my bike, and I don't know why. But that one seemed to carry the most weight as far as just the ring to it.


CONDON: (Singing) Sign me up Santa Fe, and call your son. Sign me up Santa Fe.

RAZ: So you are in your mid-20s now. I think you're 25 or 26, is that right?

CONDON: Twenty-five, that's right.

RAZ: You were actually exposed to Eastern European music, this sort of Balkan sound. I read, I guess, around the age of 14 or 15, this is, you know, the time when most people your age, I guess, were listening to Jay-Z or Weezer, and you were sort of like rocking the flugelhorn?


CONDON: Yeah. Yeah, you could say that.

RAZ: How did that happen?

CONDON: Well, at the time, I was working in a kind of art house theater in Santa Fe, and their specialty was foreign films. And so there'd be one week of, say, French film noir, one week of Italian films. And then one week, eventually, they brought in all these Balkan films. And I remember, you know, serving popcorn and hearing, when people would go in and out of the theater, just this amazing, mournful brass music just blasting away. And I had to know more. I had to know what it was.


RAZ: Eventually, you actually went to Eastern Europe to hear it firsthand, right?

CONDON: I'd dropped out of school as a teenager, and I'd spent a lot of time wandering around from - anywhere from Paris, Leipzig, Germany, down to Budapest, et cetera. And I was just being exposed to it from the kids there. I'd meet these kids my age and they'd be listening to indie rock from America but at the same time Balkan music. And till then, it was all music.


RAZ: Sounds from Romania and Serbia and parts of Hungary, and I mean, that's what we're talking about here.

CONDON: Yeah. And actually, my favorite branch of that would be Macedonian.

RAZ: Well, what is it about Macedonian music that appeal to you?

CONDON: Well, there was one specific band, actually, called the Kocani Orkestar.


CONDON: They had the Balkan brass aesthetic entirely - amazing musicians. But there was something very mournful about their music - also there's a very subtle Turkish influence in what they do.

RAZ: Macedonia was actually occupied by the Ottomans at a certain point. So, you know, all that kind of came out around that era.

CONDON: It's a massive cultures in a great way.

RAZ: I'm speaking with Zach Condon. His band is called Beirut. And they have a new record out. It's called "The Rip Tide." What is "The Rip Tide" about?

CONDON: Well, I was down in Brazil the summer of 2010, and it was a very strange time because we've become quite popular in Brazil, so the shows there were very, very intense. And during a quiet moment at the beach between shows, a rip tide took me out pretty far. I'm kind of struggling to get back in. And as I came in, a wave crushed me and actually punctured a hole in my eardrum. And it just got me thinking: These last five years of my life, me and everyone I'm close to, we've all been taken by this bigger force, and it's mostly out of our control. And I spent the rest of the year trying to find a home, settle down. Spent too many years living out of a suitcase. And I guess calling it "The Rip Tide" was saying goodbye to that sort of lifestyle.


CONDON: (Singing) And this is the house where I, I feel alone. Feel alone now. And this is the house where I could be unknown. Be alone now. Soon, the waves and I...

RAZ: Zach Condon, when you made your first record, "Gulag Orkestar," most of which was recorded in your bedroom in New Mexico. When it came out - I mean, critics - they couldn't believe that it was made by a 20-year-old kid in his room. It was almost like people thought it was a hoax. Were you surprised at the critical acclaim that it received?

CONDON: I was surprised.

RAZ: You thought it would kind of die in obscurity?

CONDON: Yeah. I mean, I guess so. You know, it was my, you know, most focused thing up until that point that I'd done, but, no, I didn't expect it to be a big seller, so to speak. I didn't expect it to be what I would become known for. Because it was kind of funny, I almost felt like a strange phase I was going through, and it's almost like I had to get it out of my system. Listening back these days, it's really fun because I can hear this kind of youthful, like - it's almost like the melodies are trying to beat you up.


CONDON: I like that about it that it - playing more and more of a subtlety as time progress.


CONDON: (Singing) (Unintelligible)

RAZ: What do you make of this idea that you're categorized in the indie rock world and yet, you know, you have fans in the Balkans who are not interested at all in indie rock, and then you've got jazz fans and, you know, as I said, you know, forgive me, the hipsters and, you know, all kinds of different people listening to your stuff?

CONDON: It's always a struggle with me. I'm trying to be genrelist(ph), timeless, and that's no easy feet. But the reaction is telling me that I'm heading at least mostly in the right direction.

RAZ: That's Zach Condon. He fronts the band Beirut. Their new album is called "The Rip Tide." You can hear a few tracks at our website, nprmusic.org. Zach, thanks so much, and good luck.

CONDON: Thank you.


CONDON: (Singing) No, I don't want to be there for no one. I'd stay here. No, I don't want to be there for no one. That's over the sea. I don't want to follow your light on the sea. No, I don't want to be there for no one that I can't see.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

NPR thanks our sponsors

Become an NPR sponsor

Support comes from