'I Was That Kid': Beirut's Zach Condon On Self-Discovery Ten years after Gulag Orkestar, the extravagantly arrayed breakthrough album he wrote as a teenager, Condon says he's finally learning how to be subtle.
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'I Was That Kid': Beirut's Zach Condon On Self-Discovery

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'I Was That Kid': Beirut's Zach Condon On Self-Discovery

'I Was That Kid': Beirut's Zach Condon On Self-Discovery

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We're about to hear a man finding out who he is. His story is universal, except that he's a musician, which means we can listen to the workings of his mind.


BEIRUT: (Singing) Everything should be fine. You'll find things tend to stand in line.

INSKEEP: This is new music from a popular group called Beirut. The founder is Zach Condon, the man at the center of our story. He's produced a decade's worth of music, starting in his late teens, when he sounded very different.


BEIRUT: (Singing) Life, life is all right on the Rhine. No, but I know, but I know, I would have no where to go...

INSKEEP: Condon won many fans with songs like this one from 2005. The music is extravagant, international, sort of Balkan - all the more remarkable because this music, with so many interments, was composed and mostly played by a guy who wasn't yet 20, living with his parents in New Mexico.


BEIRUT: (Singing) There's nowhere to go, to go...

INSKEEP: Condon at 18 or 19 played accordion, mandolin, organ, percussion, piano, trumpet and ukulele. It was back then that he named his group Beirut, even though he'd never seen that city.

ZACH CONDON: My mind is always one step ahead of what I'm actually doing.

INSKEEP: And when we met in New York recently, we talked of where his mind wanted to take him and where it actually did. He's a slight figure who sometimes looks away thoughtfully as he talks. He told a story that starts in Santa Fe, where he grew up.

CONDON: You can imagine the type of kid I was, just how consistently contrary I was to everything that was going around for me.

INSKEEP: He wanted to be different from the other kids. But he also wanted to be different from the other kids who were trying to be different.

CONDON: It's like I always knew I wanted to be in a band. But growing up in Santa Fe, if I joined a band - like, I joined my friend's band. But these were all, like, hard-core and punk rockers. And I wanted to play, like, you know, accordion and a French horn and stuff. And it just didn't fit.

INSKEEP: Get some punk rock accordion, that might be interesting.

CONDON: Yeah, so I was that kid, you know? And no one ever gave me grief about it. But it was a kind of lonely pursuit.

INSKEEP: Which explains how Zach Condon came to write his first album in his bedroom, alone.


BEIRUT: (Singing) And I will love to see that day...

INSKEEP: Condon called the album, "Gulag Orkestar," Slavic words, even though he had never been to Russia. He named many songs after cities he'd never seen.


BEIRUT: (Singing) The willow trees and play the songs...

INSKEEP: And as Beirut grew famous, he sometimes wondered what people might actually think in that distant city still unknown to him.

CONDON: I can only imagine how many Lebanese people, every time they hear about us, just, you know, just bury their face in their hands.

INSKEEP: Why do you think you got interested in Beirut?

CONDON: I don't know. If I'm being totally honest, it did seem like the most exotic place to me at the time, as a teenager. And the name stuck. And I was obsessed with city names.

INSKEEP: There was a time when it was synonymous with chaos.

CONDON: I think, if I'm being honest, that was part of the appeal almost. And I hate saying that because it sounds cheap. But I was. I was fascinated with this place, and I was fascinated with its trouble as well as its beauty. And it was all - it was all in my head.

INSKEEP: You were thinking about that part of the world long before you ever got to that part of the world.

CONDON: Long before.

INSKEEP: Years passed. Zach Condon and Beirut went on tours. And his travels caught up with his mind. He eventually lived part-time in Istanbul, on the edge of the Balkans that so influenced his music. He even played in Beirut. Along the way, things happened to Zach Condon. And you find clues to them in his new album. One song is called "Perth," after the city in Australia.


BEIRUT: (Singing) Blood on the sand, (unintelligible).

INSKEEP: A bouncy melody about a dark moment.

What was Perth to you?

CONDON: It sounded better than Sydney (laughter). For the last three, four years, I was on an unending tour. It just got to this point where I was completely and utterly, like, run ragged and destroyed. And I ended up hospitalized in Sydney.

INSKEEP: What do you mean by hospitalized?

CONDON: Totally - too weak to - I don't know. It's really hard to explain. I just woke up one day, and things were not functioning right. And I got pretty scared.

INSKEEP: His tour had to be cut short. His marriage was falling apart. It sounds almost like he was having a midlife crisis, except it was a mid-20s crisis.

CONDON: I came back home and was just devastated because I - at that point I was kind of assuming that, you know, maybe I'm not cut out for this. Maybe this isn't such a good thing for me to do with my life, which was just one of the most depressing thoughts you can have because I don't have anything in life besides music. Like, I dropped out of high school for this stuff, you know? I've never wanted anything else.

INSKEEP: He stayed in music, but his music changed. He discovered something about himself.

CONDON: I've been spending a lot of time in Turkey. My fiance is Turkish. And being there has kind of proved to me how much of a Santa Fe and American kid I actually am. And it's almost like I went there to discover more about the world. And I kind of just came back going, well, this is who I am I guess. I'm not that. I'm definitely this. So it kind of made me say, you know what, so what? I did grow up with, like, doo-wop and Motown. And I love it to death. And I have an ear and a knack for it much more than I do for, I don't know, Eastern melodies. So let's do it.


BEIRUT: (Singing) Oh, oh...

INSKEEP: You can hear what Condon learned in this song from "No No No." The hallmarks of his early music, the extra instruments, the Balkan sounds, the very extravagance that made the younger Zach Condon different even from the different kids and finally made him famous, those sounds were not exactly him.

CONDON: In the past, I had this overwhelming desire to, like, literally just knock people over the head with music as some sort of blunt instrument. And I'm learning a lot about pulling back and implying things instead of actually just shooting for the moon.

INSKEEP: Were you hiding from something by just putting in more French horns or whatever?

CONDON: That's probably the case, yeah. I think - I don't know how - if I was hiding so much as I just had so much to prove.

INSKEEP: Are you saying that you're now at a point where you can just play what you feel like playing rather than playing the opposite of what you imagine people expect you to play?

CONDON: Correct, yes. That's a mouthful. But when it comes down to it, that's kind of the concept now.


BEIRUT: (Singing) Don't know the first thing about who you are. My heart is waiting, taken in from the start.

INSKEEP: The newest from Beirut, on MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


BEIRUT: (Singing) Don't know the first thing about who you are. La, la, la...

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