Beirut's Zach Condon on Mental Illness, Not Touring, Being Pigeonholed, and Going It Alone

Beirut's Zach Condon on Mental Illness, Not Touring, Being Pigeonholed, and Going It Alone
Photo by Lina Gaißer

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I've been a longtime admirer of Zach Condon's music as Beirut since the Gulag Orkestar days, and I think his new record Hadsel is one of his best to date. We hopped on a call last month to talk about what he was going through while writing and recording it, as well as a host of other topics surrounding mental health and the music industry.

I saw a quote in the press materials about stumbling through a mental collapse you've been in since you were a teenager.
It's something I've been putting off—that's the best way I can explain it. From a very young age, I seemed to have some major issues. My family sent me to your fair share of psychiatrists and therapists. Around the age of 15, I picked up drinking, and I swept everything under the rug that I'd been building up issues with before that—anxiety, intense insomnia. Around 2017, I finally quit drinking. It might've been 2018, actually. I don't know if you know my history with touring, but I really thought, "I've got everything in check now. I can do this how I wanted to all along."

I made a lot of promises to the band, and the second I got on the road and left home this doom—this incredible doom—returned. It was hitting so hard, and then I was getting sick endlessly. I remember thinking that this is exactly how I felt when I was a teenager. I wasn't fit for life, in a lot of ways. So the sicknesses just kept getting worse. I was on antibiotics and steroids for weeks on end, and I did that three times in a row—I'm still having issues to this day that I think are related to that. It wasn't working. By the time I toured Europe for the third time, it was obvious that everything I'd swept under the rug for years and muted with alcohol wasn't going away—it was getting worse, in fact.

So I called it, because physically I couldn't go on and, mentally, something was up as well. There was this huge fallout. It wasn't like I severed relationships with the band, but it was clear to them that I'd given up the fight for touring. I was sending them home for what was probably the last time. When I got up to Norway, I was fleeing all of this, and dealing with insurance claims and a lot of not-nice things that were hitting me left and right. It's been three years now, and in some ways I've moved on and in some ways I'm still in the same place.

The pandemic was really hard for anyone struggling with addiction and recovery. How was it like for you?
I felt like I was already in that state before that time. I'd already sequestered myself in Norway, and when I came back to Berlin the lockdowns started a week after I arrived. It was ironic, I'd just returned back to society and they were all doing what I was doing—but by law and not by choice. A lot didn't change, but it left that awful, anxiety-ridden energy in the atmosphere that felt oppressive and dark.

As far as recovery goes, I was already well on my way at that point, but in some ways I feel like I sat down and read too many books on the subject. [Laughs] I got so deep into it that I lost myself a bit. You can go so deep in the world of psychology and trauma work that you can really lose all perspective, if I'm being honest. Now that I've gone through some of that, I'm almost discouraging people from going that deep into it.

I think it's really interesting to see how your mind works and where it might've come from in your own childhood, but there's a part of me that's almost this outside voice that snatched me from the void I was in. "Brush it off and move on. Don't exaggerate it so much in your own head." That was one problem with COVID for me—I wasn't around enough people while going through it to realize that I was in too deep.

When it came to dealing with this inner turmoil, what helped?
I've come out of things a little more cynical than others who I've seen go through the same thing. I'm cynical of the modern cures. We live in this era where we believe we can solve anything, and I don't think that's actually true in the cases of psychic ills that seem to plague our culture, especially our generation—and I can say that from a ground-eye view.

I've been to so many therapists and psychiatrists, and they've prescribed so many pills, and I've done so much meditation, but there's only so much you can learn, and learning is not gonna show you how to experience things differently. In order to do so, I had to rip myself out of learning mode. I don't think I'm on the other side of things—I just think I'm better at carrying it with me, that's the solution.

What I found was a lot of incredible wisdom from long ago, and by that I quite literally mean Christianity and such things. I'm not a practicing anything, I'm not a religious person, but the teaching of older things—this is how people have dealt with it since time began, since we wrote it down. Just because we're so technologically advanced doesn't mean we've come up with something they didn't already know as far as how our minds work.

So I got into this state of, more than just getting past it, acceptance of it. I just have a very serious mind, in the sense that it takes life very heavily—and instead of thinking "That's wrong," I've started to see the beauty in that. I take things deadly serious—even music. That's just the way I am, and I think there's something nice about that, too.

In the last few years, there's been a bit of a public reckoning when it comes to musicians' relationship with touring. Where's your head at with the future of touring for you?
I used to leave vague clues about it in the past—"exhaustion." No, it's much worse than that. I have seen people be like, "We've all known all along that touring is basically inhuman." No normal, sane human being can get from A to B on a tour and come out fine on the other end. Everyone's known it—audience, crew, labels, they all knew it. When COVID shut that stuff down, it became more precious when people did tour again. I think a lot of people were like, "What were we expecting of these people again?" They're not fuckin' gladiators. They're not meant to go into battle.

For me, tour was always like going to war. Physiologically, I had a similar response to how a soldier must've felt—traumatized like you're being put back in an Army base. I always mentally prepared for it as such. It's just so inhuman and abnormal in so many real ways. It's not like I hate performing. I'm a nervous performer—for that matter, I'm not even really a performer, as an artist, as much as I hate to say that word. I'm not a performer. I don't like putting on a persona, I don't like keeping on a facade. And on tour, on stage, you really kind of need one. Otherwise, you're just blowing yourself out every night in this intense way where you can't put the pieces back together.

Touring is too much. I'm gonna do some shows in Berlin, and that's literally it for what I'm planning for this record. On the other side of things, the reason I'm doing my own label is so that I simply get open access to the royalties. I'm not gonna sit down with me and go, "Goddamn it Zach, you need to tour—the label requires it." That's what I'm doing to brace myself.

I'm lucky, because in the grand scheme of things, I'm pretty established as a musician. I got really fuckin' lucky with that. I did 17 years on the road, and people are gonna listen to the record when I put it out, which makes me extremely happy. But a young band that has the troubles I do with touring? I don't know what I would tell them. "Prepare yourself, because this is gonna be so excruciating in some ways." But I'm an extreme case in some ways too—how averse I was to that lifestyle.

Tell me about running your own label. You've put stuff out on there over the last decade. Tell me about the value of running your own shit, and how it's compared with your label experiences at Ba Da Bing! and 4AD.
One thing I've learned is that I'm not a business person, unfortunately. [Laughs] I don't have the mind for it, but I have a few people around me who do. This would not exist without them. With the labels, even the most independent labels—and I consider 4AD to be on that roster—they have their cookie-cutter methods that they don't question. Five years ago, everyone makes a music video—now, you don't—but you ended up making videos that you don't love. You end up doing tours that you really didn't want to do.

More importantly than what I didn't like about that, I hated being responsible for others, and I still do. That was one of the big problems with touring. I'd be on the road with 12 people—tour managers, crew members, band members—and if I got a sniffle, they all had to go home. That always crushed me.

The reason I started Pompeii was because there was the first project I had where I didn't know where it was gonna go. I could've come home completely empty-handed, and in some ways I almost did. It was the project that I went down to Mexico to record with the brass band there, and 4AD was interested. "We'll front you some money." Someone said something about flying down to check in, and I remember thinking, "I just don't want this possible failure to be on anyone else's shoulders. I don't want to owe anyone anything if this goes south."

I knew I had enough money saved up from touring to pay for it myself, and after I did that I thought, why not release it as well? I was just so worried. I honestly just thought, "This could blow up in my face. Why get others involved?" Now, it's kind of a similar story. [Laughs] I can't even accept the small nuisances of working within a system that's set in stone already.

Brian from Animal Collective said something similar to me recently about being responsible for others as a result of touring—how a cancelled series of gigs means multiple people are out of work.
I'm so fascinated to hear other musicians talk about that, because I always felt like I was completely alone on that. It's really fascinating to hear anyone else speak up about it. And you see it start to pop up in news articles more and more—musicians being like, "I can't take it anymore."

I've been doing a lot of interviews over the years on these subjects, and a lot of people have been saying, "Why weren't we talking about this before?"
It's crazy, especially since income is tied up with touring now.

You mentioned the notion of being lucky regarding when you came up and broke through to a larger audience—at a time when the act of breaking through just happened in a different way that really doesn't anymore. A lot of people I've talked to who experienced breaking through around that time had positives and negatives. There was a lot of room for misconceptions with artists in the social media era, too. Tell me about some of the misconceptions you faced from the Gulag Orkestar and The Flying Club Cup days.
I feel like I have a lot to say about that—I'm not really asked about it much, which is interesting. Were you a writer for Pitchfork back then?

I started there in 2010, but I worked at SPIN during a decent amount of the blog era.
Right, so you saw when things started to change. In some ways, there's no other way it could've worked for me, because my inability to perform was already set at that point. So being taken for the merit of a few songs was a very lucky break. I don't think I could've put that effort into touring. The downside of that was that I was very painted into a corner, very quickly. I remember watching my own image be built and thinking, "I'm powerless to stop this, and I can 100% see where people are coming from how they see how I am." But I knew very surely that it was so far from the truth, which ended up involving me in a lot of silly nonsense, if I'm being honest. [Laughs]

Shit, I don't remember who it was, but it was people interviewing that guy from Gogol Bordello and trying to start a fight between us or something like that [Laughs] I was a 19-year-old kid! I remember being like, "Yeah, Gogol Bordello is sort of more punk rock, I'm not so into that," and then that was like, "Now it's a fight." There was a lot of ridiculous stuff. But to this day, when I've wanted to do a music video, I get people pouring in being like, "You're gonna ride a unicycle, and you're gonna wear a vest with a pocket watch and have a top hat." What am I, steampunk? [Laughs] How did this happen?

It's just so funny, because I'm actually so not that character. I was a 19-year-old kid who was genuinely in love with Balkan brass music. I'd always come from this perspective of not liking the status quo in rock music. I never liked it. I never understood it. But I don't hate it, and I'm not simply here to break it down—I'm just here to provide an alternative. I'm more interested in the beauty of music, and the wider range of sounds that can be incorporated in pop music. My basis was this solid foundation of Beatles and Beach Boys. It's very typical, but it's typical for a reason—because it's some of the best ground, musically, to stand on.

But yeah, it was really funny with those two albums, because I was going through obsessions with both of them. With the first one, I'd just heard Balkan brass bands, and I couldn't believe that we weren't hearing it in the States. It was the most emotional, intense music I'd ever heard. With the French chanson stuff I was listening to for the next record, that was just a lifelong obsession I've had forever, only brought up more by the Balkan obsessions. It took me a while after that to get my own sound. But it's true, from out of the gate I was taken as this cutesy, navel-gazing Instagram traveler, and I was always like, "What is that about?" I think if people got to know me, they'd almost be offended by something about me instead.

It's funny because The Flying Club Cup was already an indication that you were always interested in doing different things, which is apparent in the breadth of your work.
A jack of all trades, a master of none.

I thought it was interesting when Robin Pecknold was talking about the sonic progressiveness of indie in the mid-to-late 2000s, which has kind of been lost a little these days. You don't hear people changing and developing across their records that much anymore.
It's a fine line, but what I feel is missing—and this is gonna come across as a generational gripe—is that I did feel like there were people who were putting their neck out on the line and taking these risks. There was more of an exploratory feeling to it. What I see a lot these days is sample pack-type imitation without exploration. "Here's my lo-fi track, blah blah blah." Where's the new ground, where's the experimentation? Maybe that's all in my head. I can go back to that era of stuff and listen through, and I'm like, "This stuff isn't half-bad," and then some stuff comes on and I can be like, "I can see how some of this stuff has aged poorly too."

The synth is really prominent on this record, but you've always put synths in your music in a way that's been under-recognized. You use it in a new way for you on this record, though. Tell me about how it becomes another tool in your arsenal.
My first instruments were synthesizers. I did have the trumpet lying around, and I put it on some of the synth-pop when I was younger, but my obsession was the Magnetic Fields at the time. The synth has always been this amazing breath of fresh air to me. I was sick of the status quo of the rock world and the distorted guitar as king, and the synth was this wild new ground for me to explore. I was immediately more drawn to the analog side of things, because to me the electroacoustic is as beautiful as the acoustic.

With this record, I'd just dived deep into modular synthesis—and as I'm saying that, I'm cringing with my shoulders a bit, because I know what that sounds like these days, especially in Berlin, where you can't throw a rock without hitting a modular synth producer. But I always felt like there was this hidden beauty in them that I felt wasn't being used—and I'm gonna steal from Pecknold here—in any progressive way. It was always the same territory over and over again. You either get people doing the ear-bleeding techno stuff, or people mimicking the very beautiful and very original Buchla Bongo sounds. Which I lean more towards, to be honest, because it lends itself so well.

But I was getting super lost in this stuff, and when you're teaching yourself these things, and you're on YouTube watching all these demos, you're thinking, "Am I the only one seeing the potential of how to use these things?" I almost felt like I was building a manifesto. It was interesting for me to let loose on that. And to be honest, part of me is like, "I landed somewhere new," and another part of me is like, "No, I'm recycling old sounds in new partnerships with different instruments." Nonetheless, it was like, "Is no one else seeing the gap here?"

I feel like there was this period of time in indie in the last 10 years where, no matter what, you'd get a synth-pop record from somebody. It happens more often than not! I'm always like, "You know everyone's doing this, right?"
[Laughs] I know, it's really funny. I find it funny how herd-minded we can be—and I'm guilty of it too. I started there more than anything. But it is really funny that you mention that, I 100% see it too, and I have to admit I roll my eyes when someone's like, "OK, now here's the synth solo project."

Every time! It's not like the music is necessarily bad, though.
The idea is for someone to let their hair down and do something unexpected, right? To surprise themselves sonically. But in my head I'm like, "Don't you know there's a whole world of sound out there?" There's so much more to choose from than what you've given yourself as options. I find that a little bit unimaginative, I guess.

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Jamie Larson