Monday, November 27, 2006


Now that it's list-making time again--and I'm usually called upon for about four or five different permutations of this exercise--one album I keep returning to is Beirut's Gulag Orkestar.

Here's what I said about it in my review for Exclaim magazine this past July. I'd provide a link, but their website--in particular the reviews section--remains a national embarassment (long-promised changes are apparently afoot).

!!! (mark of excellence)
Gulag Orkestar
Coming out of a melatonin dreamstate, it's never clear where you're going to land. One minute you're outside a Brooklyn bodega with a Casio keyboard, the next you're singing melodies to fill the New Mexican sky. But you keep coming back to that small Eastern European town by the sea, standing on the corner armed with your ukelele, fighting to be heard amidst the brass bands that parade around the village. If you are 20-year old Zach Condon, this would all be par for the course. Countless American college students backpack around Europe and return thinking they're all cultured and shit, but precious few make great art out of the experience. Condon comes off like Morrissey singing Balkan opera, and everything is illuminated once he lifts his voice into a codeine croon to make you swoon. He gets valuable direction from more experienced traveler Jeremy Barnes, who anchored the drum set for Neutral Milk Hotel and later traipsed his accordion around the European countryside as A Hawk and a Hacksaw. Though the band name and album title suggest war-torn landscapes, Condon's music is ultimately uplifting, lifting the fog of resignation with the sound of hope. (Ba Da Bing!) –Michael Barclay

I wrote another short piece that will be included in the magazine's year-end issue, which hits the streets tomorrow. Not that Gulag Orkestar sums up 2006 in any discernible way. Quite the contrary. Gulag Orkestar is so wonderfully out of time--as evidenced in the opening brass fanfare that bleeds into loping piano chords that plod into a dub drum fill before it all gets tied together by young Zach Condon's wordless warbling. It could be disastrous, but instead Condon forges a cohesion from this detritus, a perfectly realised album that should exist in its own little world.

Which, of course, it doesn't. Because Condon is a North American upstart whose never visited the Balkans--an area which inspires much of his music--and takes his name from a wartorn city that once again found itself in the crossfire this summer, he's wide open for attack from the same quarters that think Paul Simon, David Byrne and Peter Gabriel are all one step away from being colonialist slavemasters. Of course, they drew from non-European traditions, which complicated matters further. What initially surprised me about reaction to Beirut was that no one seemed to mind that Condon was apparently pillaging Balkan brass with no direct contact with the culture itself. Even if you have a hate-on for Simon Gabriel Byrne (which I most definitely don't--all three loom large in my musical education), you have to admit that they've given back generously to the cultures that inspire them.

That's changed somewhat now that more and more people clue into the influence of Eastern European music, as I discovered in this article in The Guardian that Chromewaves directed me to.

I don't think Condon has to apologize for anything, really. Easy for me to say, naturally, because I don't have a culture to pillage (though the fact that there's an American band called Canada does get my back up a little--even more so coz they're quite bad). For me, Gulag Orkestar is such an evocative, imaginary sonic world that succeeds precisely because any kind of authenticity is the last concern of the creator. This is where beautiful hybrid music gets created, where boundaries are bled, where communication begins.

The conversation below was conducted for Eye Weekly, for this article back in September. I missed the Toronto show because I was at Pop Montreal; I missed the Montreal show because I was at the opposite end of town chatting with old friends at the Laura Barrett/Habitat show. Hopefully he makes his way north of the border again soon.

He's not terribly forthcoming--this reads a bit like a standard phoner done on a cell in the middle of a tour. I do, however, prod into some of the issues discussed above. Otherwise, it's mostly short answers, lot of small talk, but some small insight for Neutral Milk Hotel geeks. But if you want to peek further into his psyche, I'd highly recommend reading his guest post on Said the Gramophone from earlier this year. And also thanks to them for the heads up last week regarding their Swan Lake post (beautifully written, by the way, as always).

Beirut, Zach Condon

September 19, 2006

locale: phone interview from the road

How was playing in Moscow last week?

That went really well, actually. I was surprised at some point in the concert that some people were singing along.

Is that the first time you’d played anywhere close to Eastern Europe?

Definitely. That was actually our first time out of the country, other than me travelling by myself.

What can people expect from the live show? Tell me about the band.

It’s settled into place now. It’s an eight-piece band playing the same range of instruments heard on the album: trumpets, pianos, ukeleles, accordions and drums. It’s a ramshackle orchestra.

How are the rock club soundmen dealing with it?

Uh, they don’t. They really don’t know what to do with ukeleles. We’re starting to figure out tricks to get them to make you sound right.

Is ukelele the hardest thing?

Oh yeah. If you put a pick-up on it, it sounds like an electric guitar, which is the last thing I wanted.

My understanding is that when you left high school, that you took not one but several trips over to Europe. Is this true?

Yeah. There was this repeated history where I would drop out of school, run over to Europe, try to go back to school again, and then go back to Europe.

How many times did that cycle repeat itself?

Just twice. But I did drop out of three or four different schools.

Where did the trips take you?
Mostly France, a lot of time there. And Germany, Prague, Amsterdam, London. I never really made it that far east, which is the ironic thing.

What was it about Europe specifically that fascinated you? A lot of people explore different parts of North America, and for a while Asia was the new Europe for a lot of post-teenage travellers. But now everyone seems to want to hustle over to Europe again. Why do you think that is?

For Americans, it represents a place where cultures are still intact, but it’s modern. It’s aged gracefully, whereas America did not: it turned into Elvis sitting on the toilet bowl pretty quickly. Europe kept its traditions and its class while watching TV.

Any political theories about American longing for Europe?
I think that everything we did wrong with our system, the Europeans tended to do right. I used the health care system a couple of times there, and it was awesome. It’s hard to explain. I don’t have any great philosophical reason for it, but it feels more comfortable and natural over there for me.

I’ve read that you got your first healthy dose of so-called “world music” while over there. Do you think American audiences—specifically indie rock kids, I suppose—can be a bit xenophobic when it comes to those influences?

Incredibly so. It’s as if the only instrument ever created was the guitar, and they’re cynical about electronic music and world music. I don’t listen to any indie rock, but I listen to a lot of the other two. In France, kids will have a Clap Your Hands Say Yeah album, but right beside it they’ll have an Ethiopiques album. It’s just another form of pop music there. We are a giant homogenized country.

I find it interesting that you approach Balkan music here without an academic approach, and more of an honest emotional one—and as a result it sounds more real to me.

And that’s what doesn’t resonate for me with a lot of tacky modern world music for me, that professional musician approach. It’s not conservatory music.

But what’s funny is that if you had done something like this even five years ago—or, by extension, if you had done this with African or Brazilian music—all sorts of issues of cultural appropriation and authenticity would come up. Have you encountered any reactions like that?

I wouldn’t have found an audience back then, because it’s too lo-fi for a traditional world music audience, and it’s too foreign for any indie audience back then. It’s spiralling outwards, especially since ‘indie’ is less indie. Its credibility is at stake and people care less about it.

In terms of this not being your cultural background, it’s interesting and refreshing that people are listening to this with an open mind. There are keyboard pop songs here and a definite dub reggae drum sound…

That drum sound started as an inside joke, because I listen to a lot of dub music, and anyone who knows me well enough knows that too. The joke being that I was using it with fairly Balkan sounding songs.

But it doesn’t sound like an obnoxious worldbeat mash-up song.

I could never stand doing that.

Did any of this weigh on your mind at all when writing the arrangements, was there any kind of impostor syndrome?

No. This might sound a bit new age-y, but it was like meditation. The less I thought about it, the easier it came out. It was a situation where I had a panic attack of writing, and I didn’t think about it much until the songs were done. The only real thoughtful stuff I put into it was mixing it and making the sound quality old, grainy and messy.

Other than simply the scales and the sound, what drew you to it emotionally? aesthetically?

It’s the kind of thing that you almost have to see live, or at least on video, to understand the aesthetic going on. It’s really enthralling music, the thrill of seeing 20 trumpets on stage blasting away this epic melody. And it has this dark beauty to it. You can only spout off clich├ęs about it at that point, but it’s impossible to deny the melodic value of that stuff. At the same time it’s so drunk and eager.

When I think of 20 trumpets playing together, it’s either a big and clean and punchy, or full of tremolo notes with everyone doing their own thing that creates this whole other thing, like New Orleans brass. It’s the difference between classical choir singing and gospel choir singing, with these other tonalities in there that give it this extra push.

I love how the whole thing sounds like a rickety machine that’s about to fall apart, but it doesn’t.

Does it ever do that live?
It comes crashing down all around us sometimes, but it’s been working out recently. We got our stage chops now.

In many of the songs, there’s this pervasive feeling of hope in a wartorn landscape—again, communicating more through the melodies than any actual lyrics. Was there a specific emotional tone you were trying to convey on the album?

At the time I was listening to a lot of Sigur Ros, and that’s just gibberish. I didn’t want him to sing real words, because the melodies are so pretty. For some people that really comes across, and others are frustrated when they can’t understand lyrics. To them I say that I was supposed to sound too drunk to pronounce them.

If I was listening to Balkan music, I wouldn’t be able to understand that either.

That’s the other thing. It’s meant to sound a bit foreign. I was just listening to that new Serge Gainsbourg tribute record, and I love his stuff, I’ve been listening to it a lot recently. But everyone on this thing was singing in English, and it sounded awful to me: the songs were boring, the melodies fell flat on their face.

But you are writing some lyrics in English here. How do you approach them?
I don’t write lyrics so much as I write a short story about a city or a place and then allude to it in song. ‘Mount Wroclai’ is about a city underneath a volcano in Poland.

Why the name Beirut? What image did it conjure for you?

It’s an image of a modern Arabic city, way off the map, and there was something quite enchanting about that. I named it that when I was 15 and had just started recording. At the time it seemed so bold to name it that. Now it’s become a bit embarrassing, because people want to know if there’s a political side to it.

You have to admit it was a weird summer to launch a debut record credited to Beirut.

When the record was getting ready to come out in Europe, I brought that up [to the record company], and they said, ‘Well, you’re just going to have to deal with it because everyone knows you by that name.’ They told me about Kristin Hersh releasing an album right around the time of the Indonesian tsumani called 50 Foot Wave.

I have two images of Beirut the city: one is as the Paris of the Middle East, and the other as a wartorn, bombed out city—either in the early 80s or now.

That adds to the image of it as a foreign, beseiged city. The whole thing seemed romantic at the time.

Couple that with the word gulag in the title…

I’m just out to offend people, aren’t I?

What’s the reason for the gulag?
It’s a lot more frivolous than one might expect. The phrase ‘gulag orkestar’ means a band of prisoners. I was thinking literally of an Eastern European prison band.

But gulag is Russian in origin, no?
Yeah, and orkestar is Serbian for orchestra.

In the songs that I don’t hear lyrics in, what’s communicated to me is this feeling of hope in a wartorn landscape. They sound like songs you sing the morning after the bombing, to rouse everyone to continue on. And much of the record has a similar tone to it, so was there something specific you were going through with the entire record?

It was just the time I was going through. I had just come back from Europe and had nothing going on in my life, and I was feeling nostalgic. So… yeah. That’s about as far as it goes.

The album was recorded in both New Mexico and Brooklyn. How did your move affect things in the process?
I was actually finished the record in New Mexico. Ben Goldberg [of Ba Da Bing records] asked me if I wanted to orchestrate it any more. At that point it was exactly what you hear, minus a few drum tracks and stuff. I basically told him that I didn’t want to touch it, and that it would drive me nuts if I went back and did anything again. I called up Jeremy [Barnes of A Hawk and a Hacksaw] to come out to New York with me and play drums on a few tracks and fill in a few violin licks. Overall it was done at that point. I didn’t redo any vocals or trumpets or anything.

You’re playing all the trumpets, are you?

I hear some really low brass on it though, and I don’t see any other brass credits in the notes. Is that you as well?

Yeah, it’s euphonium.

I know you didn’t know Jeremy Barnes before you played a show with him, but did you know A Hawk and a Hacksaw?

Yeah, of course, I’d been hearing about him for a while. My friends told me that a guy from Neutral Milk Hotel [Barnes was their drummer] lived [in Alberquerque, New Mexico, Condon’s hometown]. Furthermore, everyone was pointing him out to me because we both seemed to be doing similar music. It was this weird fluke that two guys alone in their bedrooms in Alberquerque had been making gypsy music. So of course someone put us both on the same bill together, and we clicked immediately.

He lived in rural France for a while didn’t he?

Yeah, in the south.

What was [Barnes's Neutral Milk Hotel bandleader, now recluse] Jeff Magnum up to? Didn’t he do some eastern European field recordings?

That’s right, I found out about that after the fact too. It seemed like everyone was veering in the same direction after they did Elephant 6. I talked about that with Jeremy, who said that the sound they were going for in their heads was already being made. They’d spent all that time thinking they were geniuses, creating something that no one had ever heard before, and then Jeff went out to Bulgaria and recorded this folk festival and they all said, ‘Alright, we give up. We’ll try this stuff now.’ They all went their different ways, and that’s what happened.

Surely they must have absorbed that music subconsciously sometime beforehand.

I certainly heard that music subconsciously years before I heard a real brass band. I heard it in Tom Waits music and all sorts of stuff I really love.

I’ve always been drawn to this music too, and only really discovered what it was a few years ago. And now there are bands like Man Man and Devotchka, both of whom I’ve interviewed in the last year, and both of them mentioned Emir Kusturica films.

It’s like what I was saying earlier about having to see it visually to make it click, Emir Kusturica did that perfectly. That brass band chasing people around with those drunken melodies and people tied to trees, the band is always there in the background.



nh said...

beautiful thing you've got going on here Barclay.

Keep it up.

Anonymous said...

they mentioned my country. yes!!