Zach Condon's commitment to his anachronistic, European-influenced music is apparent upon entering his new Brooklyn apartment. He has turned the big room into a studio, and he sleeps in what's essentially an oversized closet. He's also very committed to brass, the instrumentation that colors his band Beirut's debut, Gulag Orkestar, and its new effort, The Flying Club Cup. He recently had tattoos of French horns stamped onto his wrists, an action typical of his tendency to do things full bore.
"I'm obsessed with brass — it was almost like sealing my fate," says the pale musician of his new ink. "I got [the tattoos] while I was recording the [new] album, actually, right when I turned 21. This was after the tour that nearly killed me."
Said tour kicked off in 2006, the same year the Santa Fe native's music hit indie-music fans like 10 tons of ukuleles. Beirut signed to Ba Da Bing Records while Condon was still a teenager, and tracks from the band's Balkan-influenced Gulag leaked onto the Internet. Bloggers and their inspired readers crowded his first live shows in New York. But Condon — who writes Beirut's music and helms a revolving group of musicians — wasn't ready for the physical demands of touring, and he cut short a world tour due to exhaustion.
"We'd done all of the United States, basically, at that point, and then we flew to Europe," he says. "I was running on no sleep, in a bad place actually, and by the time we got to Europe I was discombobulated all the time, had no idea where I was. I would walk out into the street, and people would grab me because cars were coming. I talked to a couple of doctors, and they said I seemed fine, I just hadn't slept in two months."
He returned to New Mexico to record The Flying Club Cup, which, unlike Gulag, incorporates guitars and largely forsakes Eastern European baroque for a more nuanced, French-influenced sound. The disc still evokes turn-of-the-century burlesque shows and carnivals, but the lyrics are more self-assured, the portraits clearer. "Nantes" is an infectious, Manu Chau–influenced ode to a sad friend, while the accordion-heavy "The Penalty" tells a story set in the time of plague: "I'll beat on my drum till I'm dead/ Yesterday fever, tomorrow St. Peter, I'll beat on my drum until then ..."
Contrary to what one might think, Condon doesn't spend all his time conjuring melancholy imagery or contemplating the Dark Ages. He spent the summer in Paris, riding bikes and playing with Macedonian brass band Kocani Orkestar.
"They rearranged some songs of mine for a live show, and I just sang over them," he says. "It was super amazing. I dropped a trumpet and totally destroyed it — bent the bell way out of shape. [A band member] didn't speak any English, he just kept gesturing at it and shaking his head. Then he grabbed the bell, and just started rubbing a beer bottle across it, molding it back into shape."
Now that Condon is back in the United States, he's preparing for another onslaught of indie publicity. He sees his relative celebrity as a necessary evil.
"It's fucked with a lot of things, but I was asking for it," he says, noting that he dropped out of college the minute he got his record deal. "I was super aggressive about doing this. Adolescent stupidity just kept me going, saying, 'It'll work eventually.' And it did. Hopefully."
Regardless of his fame, Condon remains obsessively committed to the creaky, old-timey tunes populating his thoughts. And aside from some fairly cramped sleeping conditions, his convictions have yet to steer him wrong.