The instruments of my life: Q&A with Beirut's Zach Condon

All together now, Beirut sets sail.

Zach Condon, the pied piper of Beirut, is known for a great many things – his quavering voice and heart-tugging music (watch the new video for “Santa Fe” and try not to weep, I dare you), the global journeys on which he embarked to gain such a worldly sound, and, perhaps above all else, his skilled takes on an array of string and horn instruments. He employs their use to enable listeners an audio-vacation: the far corners of Eastern Europe and the Balkans, to the chateaus of French chansons, to his mariachi-filled hometown of Santa Fe, New Mexico.

As Beirut's two Bay Area shows this weekend (at the Fox Theater in Oakland and the Independent in SF) are very, very sold out, I'm assuming there are a few of you out there grasping tickets as you read this. And if not, there are always scalpers (note: we do not condone buying from scalpers).

In a phone call a few weeks back from his current home of Brooklyn, Condon gave me the rundown on the instruments of his life:

San Francisco Bay Guardian: What’s the first instrument you ever played?
Zach Condon: I have to be honest, even though it makes for a jarring twist in the story. It was actually a guitar. When me and my two brothers were really young, my dad bought us an electric guitar. A Peavey Raptor if I remember correctly – it’s kind of a generic Stratocaster or something? I don’t know, I really don’t know guitars very well. And then some sort of cheap amp for it. Then he signed us up for some lessons. And I just remember thinking distortion was really funny and interesting but hating the lessons that I was taking.
SFBG: Why weren't you interested?
ZC: I guess I’ve always had some sort of problem with authority. But it also felt like I hadn’t chosen the instrument. My dad, it’s really great that he did that, but he was really intense about us learning to play an instrument because his grandfather was a multi-instrumentalist. My dad was an obsessive guitar player so it always felt like, oh I don’t want to do that, that’s what my dad does.
SFBG: So what was the first instrument that you chose?
That’s the funny part, I was also supposed to play saxophone, which is what [my dad] also played. My older brother and I signed up for band – this was probably about fifth grade – and I walked in the first day and they asked me what I was going to play. I said trumpet. I went home and told my parents some bullshit story about how they had too many saxophone players and they wanted a trumpet player. I don’t think they believed me but you know how when you’re a kid you kind of think that you got away with something? I think they were just like ‘well if he wants the instrument whatever, let’s just get him an instrument.’ They took me to a shop and I bought a pawn shop box student model trumpet That was an immediate love.
SFBG: What specific instruments did you play on 2006’s Gulag Orkestar?
I played my grandmother’s accordion. She had died three or four years before that, and I had asked my grandfather to send me all her instruments that he could pack, which ended up only being the accordion. But she also played bagpipes, piano, organ. She was a good singer too. So he sent me her accordion and I had it fixed up a little, and I had a better trumpet at that point. At this point the family had finally gotten a real piano in the house and I had first bought a ukulele a year before that. Just this really janky little soprano uke from a guitar shop. I bought it as a joke at first then I totally fell in love with it.
Outside of that I had some percussion that I’d assembled from friends and neighbors – weird things. I remember thinking at the time, if I’m going this route then I probably shouldn’t use a general rock drumkit. So I was collecting tambourines and little hand drums. My neighbor in Santa Fe had this really funny conga djembe drum, which ended up being the basis for most of the percussion that Jeremy Barnes didn’t play on the record. Every songs is like eight tracks of me hitting the conga drum and then a bunch of tambourines.
SFBG: And 2007’s The Flying Club Cup?
A bunch of the songs were written on this organ that someone had actually donated to me. There was a movie theater I worked at for quite a while, and I ended up developing a relationship with the people there. They were also attached to a theater that would have these weird traveling acts and there was this faux-circus cabaret act that had come through at some point and while they were there, they were taking this beautiful Farfisa organ which had broken down in Santa Fe and the guy just left it. They said, 'if you can fix it, you can have it.' I was able to fix it just enough. There are still notes on there that don’t work, so I had to write every song around certain notes, the entire album is almost in the same key. The rest was me picking up new brass instruments, phoneom and French horn, trying to open up on the brass front a little bit. And of course my grandmother’s accordion, although I bought a new one later that year from this mariachi shop, I don’t even remember the brand, because my accordion player can run circles around me blindfolded, so there’s kind of no point.
SFBG: Most recently, on The Rip Tide, what were some of the instruments you picked up for that?
Not so much picked up, but went back to. The main one there would be the piano. I actually bought my first piano –I’d never had one of my own. I bought this Yamaha upright from this guy in Jersey and I had it shipped to upstate New York where I was writing, and I just spent a lot of time with this piano, writing these loops and chord progressions and melodies. A lot of this was based on me hammering around on the piano until I felt like I was sufficient. There’s just something cool about the piano, being next to it, it just wraps you up like a warm blanket. It’s such a big instrument. When you start playing the big chords on it, the acoustics are so interesting.
SFBG: Which instrument stands out as the most important to you? Your grandma's accordion?
To an extent yes, because it’s part of me writing songs. But I can’t help but feel like it was the trumpet that made me fall in love with writing and making music in the first place. As a kid it was the first instrument that I connected with. It was the first time I was proud of making a new note. There were a few false starts, between guitar and saxophone, it may never have happened if I hadn’t just randomly stumbled upon an instrument that immediately spoke to me.

Sat/1, sold out
Fox Theater
1807 Telegraph, Oakl.

Sun/2, sold out
The Independent
628 Divisadero, SF

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