Preface: Treble’s interview with Beirut’s Zach Condon presented a very unique situation from which to make into a feature. Not only was it Condon’s first actual interview with a music publication, but it was also the first interview our youngest writer had ever conducted. Due to the unique circumstances, this feature is a little different. And it’s still shorter than that Destroyer review on Cokemachineglow. Enjoy—Ed.
“What!” Branson screamed, as his shoulders detached from his body, collapsing on impact with the ground, all the while his guitar still in hand. Then, an aptly placed silence.
Just the reaction I didn’t want.
I had just told my friend I was going to interview Beirut. Getting enough pressure from myself, being my first interview ever, even more given it was with Zach Condon, and I didn’t need that anatomy defying reaction to live up to. Eager to get rid of this awfully pregnant silence, I added a nice little “Yup.” There we go. Now it’s all relatively better.
That night was all build-up. An “all thoughts lead to Beirut” sort of thing. I was at my school’s coffeehouse, an amalgamation of coffee and random acts of music, dressed up in dimmed lighting and couches. It was my night out. I had been doing a lot of work lately, lots of album reviews and exams, and I deserve a break. I was juggling, or at least making the attempt. The interview deflated my concentration and my balloon mind was shooting across the four walls of my skull. One minute, balls were flying in the air, and the next had ukuleles and tambourines flying between my palms in preparation for talking the multi-instrumental mastermind of Beirut. Needless to say the sudden weight changes threw off my juggling. When I couldn’t quite put my finger on the physics anymore, I decided to just give it up. I had been sitting on the peak of this folded lunch table long enough that I could feel my colon. It was probably time for an adventure.
The loading dock behind the cafeteria seemed a promising distraction. What wouldn’t catch the flight of the bumblebee attention back here? I talked and rambled and ambled, which led to an odd sort of soupy drunkard type dance with friends, wondering what made us loopy. Keeping my feet in step, I thought about the echoed accordions at “Mount Wroclai” and these (Idle Days) back behind the school.
The music had wormed its way into my unconscious, guiding my thoughts like a Freudian puppeteer into nothing but a pit of worry and anxiety. I have keen sense for destroying my own fun, I realized, but I can’t let this ruin my night. What better time to get adjusted than now? Instead of avoiding the subject, I just let it come, letting the music subtly underscore my thoughts and actions.
Ignoring the fairly obvious “Do not enter” sign, Abba dumpster-dived for crystalline gems of diversion, fighting off the serpentine seaweed grime snakes to the climactic tune of “Bandenburg.” She pulled up some fluorescent light bulbs. We walked to the corner of the parking lot, where “Scenic World” played, waiting for us to have our shattering fun. The shards of bleached glass reflected the night sky on the black top, and in the “Rhineland” between two skies we wailed away the night, mentioning movies, media, and magma that eventually coalesced into a resounding and relaxing mmmm…
Ashes rained from the cloudless sky as Adam flicked his gas station cigar from his nesting point on top of the boxcar that had lost its way from some train and I guess had thought it pretty inconspicuous, despite laying down outside a high school. Describing a movie far outside my realm, I half listened to Adam while playing philosophy with myself with the other half.
What are we doing here? Hanging out behind a high school, breaking light bulbs, talking about movies, having fun. Having fun? Who has time for that anymore? That’s when the reality of the interview came smashing down on me. I’m going be in dialog with a kid only a year older than me, who made a whole CD by himself, a really good one at that, playing as many as twelve different instruments, editing them together, and having outside help from only two friends who came with a drum machine and a violin. I’m going to be asking Zach Condon what he thinks of his work, and here I am, shimmying like a dog to get cigar ashes out of my hair while standing over broken glass in a parking lot, pissing away one of the last nights in my senior year of high school.
The night’s fun was eventually lost in scrounges for fast food. I found myself lost in the paragon of over-greased potatoes and sugar water that was Fast Food Central. Now where did they say they were going again? Snippets of goodbyes from behind the school collaged in my mind, but all the pictures came razored, losing just the parts that I needed. I walked into the Chick-Fil-A, and found some other people, friends of mine as well. I said some things about Matthew Barney films, just as mystified as his work, and left, getting back into my car. Cell phone rings…rings…rings.
“Hello” Branson said.
Good, maybe I can get back on track. “Hey Branson, wher…”
“Oh no no no, I’m not here right now…” I snapped my phone shut. Damn is that an annoying voicemail. Well, it’s 9:49. I could go home, but should I? I don’t know. I don’t really want to call in so early.
I got an image of Zach Condon playing for a live audience, or making a video, or writing a song.
Fuck fast food. Let’s go home.
Half an hour later, I found myself in my pajamas, on my bed, with my laptop in front of me, mid-poem. I came home to do this, to make something of myself, of my time, so what rhymes with “defense.” Sense? Cents? Fence? Fence? That’s the same word, isn’t it? Well, not quite. It’s a homophone. Does that make it better, some fancier wordplay? I wouldn’t know, just stop asking me so many questions.
Getting shut down by my own brain, I lost any sort of sense of self and esteem that I briefly had sitting in front of my laptop. I looked around in my room, starting with my computer. Thousands of trinkets, t-shirts, ties, and torn books, not a single one of them mine. All of them “necessities” or gifts or things bought with the money I hoarded from two Christmases ago, and not a one of them a product of me. The only result from my labors around here is that piece of shit I forgot to flush in bathroom. I should probably go do that.
I came out of the bathroom and turned off the light. I caught a glimpse of my cell phone in the corner of my eye, bent down and grabbed it. The clock screen on the phone’s face was already giving me a look that a Pepsi bottle cap gives when it’s giving away a billion dollars. “Sorry. You are not a winner. Try again.” I opened it up anyways, hoping that I might win even the most minuscule something. Nope. Nothing to get out of my pajamas for. Dang. I crawled under the covers, secure in my newfound uselessness, strategizing all of the things I would never create.
Well, at least I’m interviewing Zach Condon.
Waking up always gives a groggy feeling that never goes well with details. I sat around while doing the usual morning routine waiting for one o’clock to roll around. Ben said that Zach’d be ready at one because they were doing a video until then. I kept thinking about what Zach was doing in comparison to me. He was probably going into the swift moped riff from “Bandenburg” on his mandolin with cameras surrounding him. Meanwhile, I was probably going into my nose, without cameras, hopefully.
As the hour neared, I got all ready with my little recorder and my notepad with questions. I checked every possible angle, making sure everything was going to play out smoothly. I tested the recorder twice, both times just doing the typical “Test, test.” What is it about a microphone that people feel the need to say stupid stuff like “Testing” and “Is this thing on?” I plugged in the speakerphone and watched the minutes blink away. I started saying the questions aloud to myself for some unknown motivation, as if it was entertaining to another personality. I told myself when the digital clock changed all of its digits, then I would call. It did. Shit.
Let’s walk around a little bit.
I walked into my bathroom, rephrasing the questions in my head, even checking myself in the mirror. I felt like I was going to call a secret crush, and even then, checking myself in the mirror might be taking a phone conversation to a concerning literal level. Getting somewhat of a grip, I sat back down on the phone. Then I realized that the phone is not the bed, got a full grip, and sat on the bed. Okay, only 1:01. At least I haven’t kept him waiting. I dial.
“Hello is this Zach?” practically yelling, feeling that anxiousness about my crush again.
“Yeah” he said plainly, in a voice not too unlike mine.
“Yeah hi, my name’s Paul from Treble Magazine, and well, you know, the guy that’s going to be, well uh, I guess interviewing you today.”
Articulate and points for grace, you’re doing well so far. Wait a sec, where’d you come from? You wouldn’t understand, besides, I thought I told you to stop asking me questions. Sorry.
After kicking myself for that introduction, I tried to play it a little cooler. That’s right, play it cool, but remember that the interview’s started, so you might want to turn on the recorder.
“—really started writing music was when I had, uh, I guess uh, a friend of mine gave me Frooty Loops, weirdly enough.” He gave a little laugh, and I paused. I couldn’t quite hear him, but I thought he said Frooty Loops. I’ve used Frooty Loops, well actually, maybe not me, but people I know. I realized time had passed for my thoughts and I gave a sort of uncomfortable laugh a couple seconds after his, interrupting the barely existent flow of things that managed to find itself. As I started to read my next question, I just sort of gave up paying attention. I could tell from my self-deprecating way of doing things, Zach Condon’s talent, and the way this had started out that it wasn’t going to mesh together well. He would seem bored, I would kick myself for it, then I would hope for it to be over, and quickly at that. I caught word of what I was reading over the phone to him, asking him a question about how he dropped out of high school and went Europe when he was sixteen. Of course he’s going to be bored about this. He went to Europe and probably got drunk with a whole bunch of Serbians. He’s done more than I’ll ever witness, and he’s probably smarter too.
“I’m an amazingly bad student,” he said, almost in rebuttal. Okay, well he still might be smarter.
“Dropped out of multiple schools, multiple times,” seemingly to affirm that rebuttal. Okay, so maybe he’s not so high above me. My self-deprecating voice came back again though, trying to prove him so right, mentioning that book smarts aren’t everything. But something about Zach’s voice wasn’t the way Mr. Voice wanted it either. Zach’s speech was punctuated oddly with uh’s and unsure pauses. I came back at Mr. Voice that Zach might be just as graceful as I was in my little introduction. Maybe he’s not as bored as you say he is. Gaining a little foothold against myself, I asked my next question with a little more confidence.
“What fascinated you about, ya know, the Balkan Eastern European type music?”
“Well, ya know, I was first kind of exposed to it, uh, before I even listened to it much at all, I was always seeing it in films I was watching, kind of like Fellini-esque Eastern European films.”
Wait, hold it there. Fellini, I know Fellini. I know the composer too, what was his name? Nino Rota. That’s it. Wow. I actually knew something Zach Condon was talking about.
“Just the kind of drunken excitement to the whole thing, ya know?”
“Yeah,” I said in response, almost jumping the gun, wanting to throw in my limited knowledge of his realm of music composition into the conversation.
“Yeah, there’s the immediate draw for it, and then eventually I realized once I started buying the albums and listening to them, I realized I was on top of this huge, epic, brash sound that’s drunk and fast and insane, with beautiful melodies, ya know—”
“…weird, darker tint, that you don’t see of course in western music.” I thought of 8 1/2 and the psychosis of Guido in the last days of his film with the fanciful horns tooting away, oblivious to his suffering. Oh, I guess it was my turn.
“Yeah, well I know myself that when, ya know, watching Fellini and I immediately, immediately comes to mind the Nino Rota, the uh…”
“Yeah,” he said.
“You know, the melodies in that.”
“Yeah, exactly, yeah.”
Well, it wasn’t much, but we talked. We knew some of the same stuff, surprisingly. Mr. Self-Deprecating had the last couple of words into my ear until I flicked him off my shoulder. It was a huge weight gone—I could finally get rid of the crippling slouch and I could see with Zach eye to eye. Maybe the mirror would be level now, too.
As I asked him about how he felt about the album’s “pre-release buzz” and how he reacted to it, I remembered Branson’s adoring arms-falling-off-of-his-body reaction.
“A bit overwhelming at first, uh… you know, you know you, there’s almost like a disconnection almost, you know, when you see, like when you’re reading phrases about your own songs, you know this album that I wrote like ninety percent in my bedroom, and it was like, all of a sudden I was losing all connection to the actual music. It’s kind of like you’re reading stuff about your album and you’re like, `Who is this guy?’ It’s weird.”
“Yeah” I said, understanding, but at the same time feeling like I was sort of the one disconnecting him.
“It’s not a bad thing, you know, it just sort of like, takes it outside of you, you know.”
I went back to Branson for a moment. “I know that, myself, I was, uh, introduced to the album by a friend of mine, and, you know, when I mentioned that I was going to be interviewing you, he, well, you know, shit himself.”
Zach gave a good chuckle that puffed my chest with pride. “Am I already a celebrity?”
“Well, I mean, I guess in certain circles, yeah.”
“Weird. That’s gonna be, that’s gonna be hard to, uh, that’s something I’ll never quite understand.”
It seemed now that this wasn’t an interview anymore, with the minuscule aspiring writer bowing at the feet of the all-knowing powerful man-god musician. We were just talking, sort of about a friend of mine, and it was very equalizing, only I wasn’t raised in status, and Zach surely wasn’t lowered, but it was just that we were just two guys now, like a hitchhiker and a truck driver, who were taking the same route, and enjoying it.
“I don’t have a uh, a rockstar personality to this whole thing…I’m not the kind of guy who could stand around for 20 interviews a day for every magazine under the sun.”
“Okay,” I said with intent to throw some wit into the next little bit of speech. “Well then, hopefully I’m not the first one, or the last one, or whatever”
Despite my fumbling, he got what I was trying to say and laughed a little, saying that this actually was his first interview. He said that Gulag Orkestar was his starting point, and he wasn’t going to “throw it all to the wind” but he wasn’t planning staying in one place, stylistically. He even mentioned how he previously wrote a doo-wop album as a bedroom side-project. He “didn’t want to do the typical dropout thing” and like the whim that brought him to Europe, he went into music, doing it because it’s what he can do. He was doing it all just as much for himself as he was doing it for the music, and was happy.
Eventually the topic of comparisons came up. I asked him how he felt being compared to such notables as Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel. “Guilt by association,” he said, as his friend Jeremy Barnes from A Hawk and a Hacksaw who was part of Mangum’s group also worked on Gulag Orkestar. “The funny thing is is that when I wrote the album, I didn’t even realize how much it sounded like `Elephant 6-ish’ and then I remember sitting around one night like `Geez, man’, its been a while since I listened to In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, but I realize that subconsciously, it’s gotta be coming up.” To comparisons in general he said that “They get a little overblown” showing his modesty, but simultaneously blowing it off, saying that “it’s bound to happen, right? And I would have my own ideas about it”
One thing that had interested me greatly that there was no guitar on the album. “It’s, well, it’s intentional and not intentional,” he said. “I didn’t want typical of course, and guitar lends itself to typical things these days, musically.” In my head, I lay down prostrate at his feet for that sort of stylistic integrity. “But uh, I mean, there’s also, I, you know, I had an accident where my left arm is an inch shorter than my right, and I can’t even really reach around a guitar now.”
“Whoa…” I thought aloud, and suddenly his stylistic integrity transformed into something mythical, with visions of Zach slaying fire-breathing monster guitars that guarded some euphonic Holy Grail.
“But that, that happened a long time ago and I just stopped playing guitar back then, and then I realized that I never really wanted that to be part of my sound.” Wow—he’s trying to separate himself from the typical, and he’s a mutant. That’s pretty kickass. I wish I knew him.
Fifteen minutes, and it was all over. I got off his truck at the junction and we went our separate ways. I flipped to the front of my notebook and tossed it aside. I unplugged the telephone and brought it back down to the basement. All the while, something was missing. There wasn’t that constant yammering, a nagging at my complacency. I went up and down the stairs without the underscore of my own self-consciousness. I got back up-stairs to my room and realized I left the recorder on. Oh well, what’ll two minutes hurt. Who am I kidding? I rewound the recording, seeing if I could get rid of that last two minutes of nothing. What button do I press? I see erase, but I don’t see any sort of yes or no. Well, it was already playing, might as well listen to it, see what I sound like when I’m not talking.
The sound of papers flipping and subtle changes in balance on my bed, it was like listening to that part of an album where they didn’t bother to turn off the mics while they were busy switching instruments for the next song. I was tracing all of my movements, all of my heartbeats, all of my breaths, a voyeur looking into a mirror. I didn’t know whether to be creeped out or flattered, but then again, it was myself who was spying, so I guess it didn’t really matter. I noticed all of the little things that you do unconsciously and never fully take into account. I heard sighs, scratches on my face, and then a rhythm. It was the slight rhythm I hummed to myself—a sign of my newly cleared mind.
Zach courtesy photo by Kristianna Smith from www.beirutband.com*