Led by the precocious front-man Zach Condon, Beirut are causing a ruckus within both the so-called “indie” and “world music” worlds. They’ve been in New Zealand recently, playing two shows in Auckland and Wellington, and playing at Taranaki’s WOMAD festival. BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM catches up with Perrin Cloutier and Paul Collins from the band, just after they played their second show at WOMAD.

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AS THE DUST settles from their tour down here, Beirut has left behind a thousand fan crushes, and a number of shows that people are still talking about. Both Auckland and Wellington sold out shows to see Zach Condon and his multi-instrumental band, while the band also played two well-received shows at WOMAD. The music is intoxicating, elements from indie staples such as Neutral Milk Hotel or the Magnetic Fields, French pop (e.g. Jacques Brel), and Balkan folk. The first album, Gulag Orkestar, was made with the assistance of Jeremy Barnes’ and Heather Trost (both from A Hawk and a Hacksaw). The second album The Flying Club Cup, expanded the Beirut template, with the French influence being stronger felt. This has led to greater exposure, and the band finds itself straddling two ill-defined areas of popular music – world and indie music.

Playing at the Bowl of Brooklands must certainly be a bizarre experience for any band, with the expansive amphitheatre and the crowd being separated from the performers by a moat. Cloutier admits that “it was like a blackout. A lot of times I looked out in the audience and all I could see were the glowsticks. It was a little bit like playing in front of an audience on an alien planet. All you could see were their glowing antennas.” The moat didn’t look particularly inviting despite the sweltering Taranaki weather, Cloutier suggesting that “it seems like you’d get an infection jumping into that moat.” Collins confesses that “I thought about it.”

Cloutier met Condon when working in the same ice-cream shop in Albuquerque as teenagers. Cloutier was a cello player and “through the internet he [Condon] got a little bit of recognition for his record that he was working on, and he asked me to help from then on.” Collins had been booking a lot of shows in Albuquerque, and knew a lot of musicians from around the area, so he came on board. From there, the band expanded, and they eventually moved to Brooklyn picking up more musicians on the way.

Both were impressed when they saw Condon perform by himself for the first time. Collins says “when I first saw him it was at a punk rock show that I helped book. It was actually a pretty good show, it was called ‘Get Awesome Fest’. I think it might have been the first show out as Beirut. I heard him play and I thought his voice was incredible, the songs were great.” Cloutier’s first impressions were a little more descriptive. “The first show that I saw of his, he was playing in a real-open warehouse full of underage kids, and Paul was in a suit – a donkey suit with tambourines – with a head and everything. (Collins: “that was kinda an afterthought”) The mainly exciting thing was Zach was playing alongside his music recorder on his laptop and he was playing his ukulele and a trumpet, and he was wearing a hat, it was like an old Soviet Union pointed cap, and singing – he’s got a strong voice and stuff, and it was really crammed with people. I can’t remember why. (Collins: “it was my birthday”) Paul’s birthday! Everybody came for Paul’s birthday. Paul was really popular.”

The band are most well-known for their love of Balkan music, but both Collins and Cloutier emphasise that to label them simply as being fans of Balkan music would be reductive. Collins says “we all love some Balkan stuff, some French stuff, we all love some Cambodian stuff, hip-hop. Everybody tries to scratch everybody’s itch.” And in a band where everybody is like that, Cloutier says “that can be really fun, it really is. Everybody in the band has their own sort of niche, for listening to things. We’re all friends in the band, which makes things a lot smoother, that I suppose we all share music with each other, from one end in the spectrum to the other end of the spectrum.” Both say though that Condon was intrigued by Balkan sounds when “Zach saw some movies, downloaded some stuff. It’s really as simple as that, something took him. It was just one of the things that work. The Balkan music though, that was just one piece.”

“Authenticity is key, you’ll find that new sound that’ll invigorate your love of music, in the way that a band that has a totally different sound can do. It just broadens horizons. It’s a beautiful thing. I listen to music from around the world, and historical recordings, even just old recordings because they just sound different.”

Condon is the “mastermind” of the group, writing at least the framework to each song, if not the whole thing before giving it to the band. Cloutier says “things are already figured all the way through in the recording process. Zach can play just about anything so he just records some songs. Other times, there’s a melody or something, and he asks us to fill the blanks. And so everybody does. Sometimes there’ll be versions of songs that we do, or older songs, we’ll play them in a different way.” The band also find themselves re-interpreting old Beirut songs. “That can be a lot of fun to revamp old Beirut songs, it reinvigorates the whole thing.” He adds, in tribute to each band member’s seemingly multi-instrumentalist capabilities, that “I think the band is full of very natural and intuitive musicians, so everybody fills their roles. The music comes out pretty quickly, if it’s going to work, it’s going to happen fast. If it doesn’t sort of happen within a few tries, we just give up and move on.” Condon’s the driver behind the project, and Cloutier and Collins admit they have no idea where he’ll push them next. “He leads the direction of the thing. He’s a hard individual to read.” Condon’s also, as admitted to me by another member of the group, the one who cops a lot of adoring attention from fans – particularly from underage girls and older men.

Both “indie music” and “world music” are oft-used terms, but they’re ultimately rather shallow, generalising a whole bunch of music under these marginalised labels. Nevertheless, Beirut are often pigeon-holed into these two terms and I ask how they feel about that. Collins says “that’s a rough question. Put it this way, as far as indie rock goes, everything is stale, until you find a band that sort of sounds different. The thing with world music: that is a huge term that blankets everything.” Collins says the two aren’t mutually exclusive. “I find those things go hand in hand in a weird way where in the indie world everybody’s just starving, dying for a band to come along that has a different sound. All you have to do is grab almost any given record out of a world music bin that’s actually a sort of authentic piece of work.” Cloutier suggests that these other music forms find themselves working their way in. “Authenticity is key, you’ll find that new sound that’ll invigorate your love of music, in the way that a band that has a totally different sound can do. It just broadens horizons. It’s a beautiful thing. I listen to music from around the world, and historical recordings, even just old recordings because they just sound different.” Collins expresses his frustration with the terms “indie” and “world” as well. “That’s such a bull-shit term. Indie means independent, so it comes from what? Most of these bands aren’t even independent anymore, it’s just a term being used.” But he suggests that the internet is working in a way to help break down the totalising nature of these concepts. “Audio files especially with the internet, are broadening horizons with the world community – not in terms of ‘world music’ but in terms of, simply, music from around the world. Things are much more available and much more interesting.”

But then, this hasn’t stopped the band being questioned about cultural appropriation – a bunch of guys from New Mexico and New York playing music from the Balkan region and France. I ask them how they feel about these accusations, and this gets them going. Collins says “People say stuff like that, fine, accuse us of ‘cultural appropriation’. The fact of the matter is, with that mindset, Zach should be in a fucking hardcore band in Santa Fe, which even then, people from Santa Fe shouldn’t be playing hardcore music because it’s from New York. It’s ridiculous to think Zach has to be playing hardcore music. Even then, nothing comes from nowhere.” Cloutier says “that sort of question stems out of the indie rock mindset, we’ll never get that question from a world music critic. On the one hand, you have cross-pollination (which is a theme of this festival) but you can actually go too far, and tread into the realm of corny shit. A question like that can come from a more critical perspective – are you being authentic or not being authentic? Are you stealing from somebody’s heritage? But you’re thinking about it from different angles. You’re taking inspiration. You try and play the music you want to play. We’re definitely not a covers band, we’ll play some songs that are traditional songs, because we’ve arranged them right. It’s more of an homage to the real thing. I think they [the original musicians] get a kick out of that, rather than feel like it’s cultural appropriation or feel like we’re trying to steal from them.” Collins says “there’s never a thought in our minds that we’re going to reach the status of Jacques Brel, or Boban Marković, there’s never that thought. We just make arrangements. People like it ‘cause it’s fun.” I emphasise that I wasn’t trying to accuse them of cultural appropriation, but Cloutier admits that “I think about it too, and I’ve felt that too. I’ve questioned myself about it.”

Nick Bollinger in introducing the band before their performance suggested that Beirut’s music isn’t necessarily geographically located, it’s more located in “the mind”, which seems to me apt way of summing up their sound. The music is indeed quite stunning. It’s layered, emotional, hazy, and all served up by some impressively young talent. It’s fascinating to think as more and more influences take hold of the band, to exactly what direction Condon will lead his talented musicians in the future.