Zach Condon has used music as a travelogue since forming Beirut five years ago. It started with a visit to eastern Europe as a teenager where he was exposed to Balkan music that informed Beirut’s first album, 2006’s Gulag Orkestar.
Flying Club Cup in 2007 showed some influence from French pop. Both sound a little arcane for a band filed under indie rock, but the best way to stand out in the genre is to sound different, and Beirut — with its swinging songs, peppery brass and Condon’s penchant for singing vowels as though they were taffy — managed to find a sizable audience seeking something new. Beirut’s success proved exhausting and Condon retreated; The Rip Tide, released a few weeks ago, is the first album from the band after a long layoff. And it’s notable for a few reasons. The worldly flavors prevalent on previous albums are in tact, but they’ve been more naturally dissolved into a sound Beirut can claim to itself. And this time out, the travelogue is one of the self, as Condon’s songs deal with comfort and isolation and the desire for a proper home. He talked about the new album.
Was there a specific reason for The Rip Tide as a title? It has a serene and violent sound to it.
There’s a few, it actually feels like an amalgamation of reasons. One is not subtle: It’s that I felt like my life had been taken by a rip tide over the past five years, and I’m just starting to get my head above the water. I often think in gibberish before the lyrics, though. The melody and syllables come first, the lyrics second. Sometimes the song is just so clear that I know what I want to say without even saying it. That was the case with The Rip Tide. Even Santa Fe, I didn’t set out to write a song called Santa Fe. It’s just my gibberish sounded like “Santa Fe.”
You just torpedoed my next few questions. I was going to point out that many of these songs seem to imply a comfort in home and others seem to convey this longing for home. Is that me reading too much into gibberish?
(Laughs.) No, not really at all. There’s been a big push in my life the last couple of years to find a sense of home. I’ve been living out of a suitcase since I was 17. It just got to be too much. I think in some of the lyrics and titles I was even poking fun at myself, there’s such a myth of the world traveler naming songs after city names. It made a lot of sense to me to turn that around and turn it on myself.
Some people are embarrassed by their teenage artistic pursuits. Are your earliest songs like yearbook photos?
(Laughs.) Well, I felt like the albums came out and got across the point that needed to get across. Gulag is a raucous album, just me in my bedroom screaming at the world. To me then, melody wasn’t melody unless it knocked you over the head like a ton of bricks. I still like how energetic and tense it is. And confused in an exciting way. But it is nice to see some subtlety and a sense of self arrive through the albums.
There’s a lot of earth and fire imagery on the new one. And come to think of it, there’s that oceanic reference in the title. Were you deliberately going for an elements thing?
Yeah, it’s funny I always had ... I don’t know if this will answer your question or not but if you look closely you might have noticed the album cover has no image itself. (Laughs.) Just gold foil or cloth, depending on what format. This was the first album where there were all these images in my head and not physically manifested outside. I used to pin photos to the wall when I was recording. I wanted the songs to sound like they looked. But this one, very much all the imagery was in my head and nowhere else. So when the time came to produce the art work I drew a blank.
It has a certain clean elegance.
And I like that about it. It’s almost jokingly classic looking. As if some label released a box set of greatest hits.
Did you always plan to embrace the brass? Horns were kind of gauche in ’90s alterna-rock.
True, and I definitely didn’t assume I’d reach as many people as I have. I thought I would always be on the sidelines, actually. It was never my intent to bring anything to indie rock. I was just trying to sound apart from what I heard. And these were the instruments I grew up with and knew. I still listened to contemporary music, but I was writing pop songs with the instruments I had at hand. And it was nice that people considered it refreshing and not a novelty.
It does help you stand out in a sea of guitars. That sort of undid rock in the ’90s.
Yeah, things did start to sound homogenous at the time. But there was still plenty of innovation then. For me it was almost reactionary, a “(expletive) that, I’m throwing an accordion on this record.” And it developed into this interesting place. To some it might have started as a novelty, but it has become something you know how to do, working with this sort of orchestration. And I hear other people doing it too, guys like Sufjan Stevens, who have become in their own right brilliant arrangers.
Have you ever been caught in a rip tide?
Yeah, down in Brazil recently I was caught in a big one, before I titled the album that. I got caught, and I finally made it back to shore. I was exhausted and right then I got hit by a giant wave and thrown to the bottom. It punctured my eardrum, so my ear was bleeding and my head was spinning.
Is there a saddest song you’ve ever heard?
Saddest song ... hmm. I think can probably name a few. Old Mexican songs. (Sings) Aye aye aye canta y no llores. It’s funny, I guess they sing it as a release from the sadness underneath.
In Kentucky, where I grew up, there was a restaurant that changed it to fry-aye-aye-ayied ice cream. Which is less sad.
Definitely less sad. In New Mexico we had a Frito Bandito version of it that more or less did the same thing. I guess it’s just something people feel the need to do with that song.
8 p.m. Monday
813 St. Emanuel