Beirut - Biography
A fusion album of Balkan wedding dances, indie rock ingenuity, shambolic melodies, and gypsy debauchery doesn’t sound like the makings of a hit record, even in the increasingly eclectic indie rock world, yet even before Gulag Orkestra (2006 Ba Da Bing) was released, the hype surrounding Beirut and, particularly, the band’s teenage frontman Zach Condon, was near fever pitch. In an indie rock landscape more and more dominated by obtuse art rock and an infinite amount of post punk pathos, the peculiar, foreign sounds of Beirut feel like taking deep breath of fresh air. The production aesthetics of Gulag Orkestar fit the indie rock mold perfectly: a passionate, enigmatic frontman barely singing his poetic lyrics in tune, accompanied by grandiose lo-fi instrumentation. Yet instead of relying on dirty guitars and post-punk beats, Condon packed his songs with accordions, ukuleles, fiddles, glockenspiel, and horns galore, blazing a trail into a realm so far in the past it could barely be described as rock music at all. The results were eclectic without being pretentious, passionate without going over the top, and so creatively astute, it was hard to believe the album stemmed from the mind of a 19-year-old kid from Santa Fe, New Mexico. American audiences, in particular, were immediately smitten with the updated indie spin on a sound they’d only heard in movies or distant field recordings.
In his early teens, before the idea of Beirut was conceived, Zach Condon had been busy making recordings in his bedroom. Inspired by Stephin Merritt/Magnetic Fields, his first release, The Joys of Losing Weight (2001 unreleased), was an album of lo-fi electronic music recorded under the name, The Real People. At age 16, Condon dabbled in the realm of doo-wop for a collection of songs inspired by Frankie Lymon, followed by an EP under the moniker 1971 titled Small Time American Bats, which was also never released. Allegedly, the burgeoning musician quit high school shortly thereafter to travel Europe, where he was exposed to the Balkan gypsy music of Goran Bregovic and the Boban Markovic Orchestra. Inspired, Condon returned to New Mexico and began recording his Balkan inspired tracks with the assistance of former Neutral Milk Hotel drummer Jeremy Barnes and violinist Heather Trost of Barnes’ current band, A Hawk and Hacksaw. Lacking an actual band, Condon played nearly every instrument on the album himself, with Barnes filling in on drums and Trost providing strings. After sending an early version of the album to the Ba Da Bing label, Beirut was immediately signed, with Condon relocating to Brooklyn, New York to put a touring band together.
The band followed the huge critical and commercial success of Gulag Orkestar with the EP Lon Gisland (2007 Ba Da Bing), the first Beirut release recorded with a stable line-up comprised of Perrin Cloutier (cello/accordion), Jason Poranski (guitar/mandolin/ukulele), Nick Petree (drums), Kristin Ferebee (violin), Kelly Pratt (trumpet/euphonium), Paul Collins (organ/tambourine/ukulele), and Jon Natchez (baritone sax/mandolin/glockenspiel). Beirut’s sophomore full length, The Flying Club Cup (2007 Ba Da Bing), replaced much of the Baltic overtones of Gulag Orkestar with early 20th century French chanson instrumentation. Condon wrote and arranged the album with the idea of each track representing a different French city. The Flying Club Cup was another hit, with Beirut making a stop at Amoeba Hollywood on October 12, 2007 for a memorable in-store performance. After two years of constant touring and recording, Beirut canceled their entire European 2008 spring tour to take some much needed time off.