"He's obsessed with geography and location, but doesn't have a permanent home of his own," wrote CMJ of Zach Condon in 2006. "He loves to travel, but his music imagines the locales that inspire it rather than documents them. And, most of all, he's a young man with old tastes."
This pretty much sums up Zach Condon at age 20, a musical prodigy with far more travel-related imagination than actual travel experience. After dropping out of high school to be a musician, Condon traveled briefly to France and New York. Out of money, he returned home and recorded his entire first album, Gulag Orkestar, in his bedroom at home in Albuquerque, New Mexico. His friend Jeremy Barnes, the former drummer for Neutral Milk Hotel and current accordionist for A Hawk and a Hacksaw, insisted on sending his demo to a friend at Ba Da Bing! Records in Brooklyn. And almost overnight, Zach Condon was Beirut. He flew to New York for the album release and played his first show with a full band in front of a house of 200 at the Knitting Factory. He was apparently very, very nervous—luckily for his career, he caught on quickly to the art of being a bandleader and solidified an 8-piece band by the time "Elephant Gun" came out.
When Lon Gisland was released Condon was 20 and living in Brooklyn, but much of his life there was spent crashing with friends in between bouts of touring. He had still done most of his music writing at home with his parents in Albuquerque. He was, however, clearheaded about his quick path to fame. He dropped out of school because he knew he had a higher calling, and when his music career took off, it all made sense: "I felt school was in the way of something, but I didn't know what at the time," he told Under the Radar. "I felt no responsibility to it. I always thought I was heading toward something, but I didn't know what it was. It felt like it would get in the way of that. After I dropped out of high school, every once in a while I'd say, 'You know what? Maybe I did make a mistake.' And I definitely don't come from the kind of family that smiles on that kind of thing. I kept trying, but every time, I swear, a week into it I'd realize that something was very wrong. So I dropped out of school four times, [including] college and high school. It might have been a dumb adolescent cockiness, but I always felt that there was something more important to be done and I was just wasting time."
He wasn't even sure if music was what he should be doing: "I've played trumpet for most of my life, and it's the only instrument that I've been at all trained in. I remember when I went to high school, all they had available was marching band. And I convinced the principal of the school to start a jazz band class, which I claimed that I would run under the supervision of the marching band teacher who just sat in his office as we drank wine in class and played a few Thelonious Monk songs and Miles Davis tracks. And we never even played a concert, though we did have fun doing absolutely nothing. I remember that being the first time that it was like, 'Well, I'd rather be in this all day than in school.' So I started recording myself."
By the time he was 19, he had written most of Gulag Orkestar. "I had 13 songs, and I remember thinking, this isn't what I want it to be. This still isn't good enough," he said. "I didn't show it to anybody at all. And I tried to go to college again, the last time, the third time I tried. I took a class in Portuguese. I was going to try. And then I got this offer for a show in Albuquerque from a friend of mine. At the time, all I had was those tunes on my iPod. So I played this concert, and I walked on stage, and I pressed play on my computer. All I had was a microphone and a trumpet, and I started singing and yelling and playing trumpet. And it was a really great show, and it's a really great memory of mine. Afterwards, they kicked me out of the bar because I was underage."
Gulag Orkestar reflected a highly developed style—and one that was unusual in the indie music scene of the U.S. Balkan influences were generally marketed more to a "world music" audience that tended to be well over 30. Condon brought it to 20-somethings, and the 20-somethings loved it. "Elephant Gun" continues in this style, but it is also part of the ongoing development of Beirut not as a Balkan-inspired brass band but as a band who can do anything; what came next (later that same year, in fact) was The Flying Club Cup, an album styled after French pop music known as chanson. The EP after that? Mexican funeral music recording in Oaxaca. Critics loved Gulag Orkestar, adored "Elephant Gun," and are likely to revere whatever comes out of Condon's versatile band next. "He is more than a precious indie rocker slinging a guitar; he is helping revive orchestrated pop music," wrote CMJ.
And now, the moment you've been waiting for: the explanation of why on earth this kid who'd never been to the Middle East named his band after the capital of Lebanon. As with many things Zach Condon, the decision was based more on his imagination than on lived experience: "One of the reasons I named the band after that city was the fact that it's seen a lot of conflict. It's not a political position. I worried about that from the beginning. But it was such a catchy name. I mean, if things go down that are truly horrible, I'll change it. But not now. It's still a good analogy for my music. I haven't been to Beirut, but I imagine it as this chic urban city surrounded by the ancient Muslim world. The place where things collide."