He was barely out of his teen years, but Beirut's Paul Collins recognized a budding star. "The first time I heard Zach [Condon] sing, I knew he was going to be more than just a local musician," Collins says. "I've never seen someone play where I just knew they were going to be something amazing."
Condon, who was born in Albuquerque and grew up in Santa Fe, is the golden boy behind Beirut, a band that draws heavily from the tradition of Balkan brass ensembles. Collins, a native of Pendleton, Ore, attended the College of Santa Fe and met Condon at a 2005 show at Warehouse 21, Santa Fe's teen-run music center. When Condon was signed to Ba Da Bing Records later that year, he needed a band. He enlisted Collins and eight other musicians to join him on the road and in the studio.
Condon's vision for Beirut has never been in line with rock music's guitar-bass-drum setup. Trumpet, accordion, mandolin, baritone sax, clarinet, glockenspiel, ukulele and flugel horn are more to Condon's liking; his songs are a chaotic romance of brass (sometimes tumbling into weeping collapse, sometimes swelling with big-chested pride), tender-to-the-bone strings and plodding, processional percussion. Condon's voice is wide open and wavering under the weight of what feels like a lifetime of love and loss. He's just 22.
Since the summer of 2005, Beirut went from shuffling around Santa Fe to selling out clubs across the country. The band's popularity has made it among the most successful outfits with New Mexico roots. In that short time, Beirut recorded five records (including two LPs) and side projects have abounded. Collins says Beirut's recording plans are temporarily on hold to accommodate them all. Fans of Beirut's Eastern European flights of fancy can hear some new material at the Santa Fe Brewing Company on Monday, June 2. The show is a benefit for the always all-ages Warehouse 21, which is scheduled to re-open later this month after major renovations.
Collins says he's eager to return to Santa Fe, and the 23-year-old is looking forward to lending a helping hand to a venue that propelled his own musical development, along with Santa Fe's.
What impressed you most about Condon when you saw him live?
I thought he sounded like Frank Sinatra or something. The way he played the trumpet was so beautiful. When I first saw him, it wasn't a fully realized live show, but it had such power and soul. He's a striking young man.
“The whole fun of the Beirut project is that it's a tangled mass of puppies with instruments.”
Has anything changed about Beirut's dynamic now that the band is playing bigger and bigger venues?
We were a lot more scared in the beginning. Now we worry more about making sure our music keeps getting better. At the start, there was a lot of partying, playing little clubs and getting totally ragged. Now it's more businesslike, but we always come back to wanting to improve the music. We know who we are, and we're starting to slowly become adults, I guess.
How do you guys decide which instruments to bring into a song?
We just try to listen to as many different types of music as we can so that we run into new instruments. Someone will bring in an instrument they wanna try; they'll throw it in a song and we'll see if it works.
Has Condon or anyone else thought about making some more minimalist Beirut songs?
That kind of stuff comes in some of our side projects. The whole fun of the Beirut project is that it's a tangled mass of puppies with instruments.
When Beirut makes it into the studio, do you have any idea what it'll sound like?
I hope it's completely different from the other times. The way recording is now, you can do it in all different places and then put it together, so who knows what we'll be doing?
What was your impression of New Mexico when you lived here?
It's like another planet. Sometimes for better, and sometimes for worse—it's so completely unique.
Talk about the Warehouse 21 fundraiser.
Any place where the kids can play music is tremendously important. Warehouse 21 seems like one of the only places where the government doesn't break up all-ages shows. The venue is a really big deal to the community.