“I was a fucking pressure cooker! I was fucking nineteen; it often feels like I’m still catching up with what happened to me and negotiating with the fact it’s all real.”
Everyone wants to be a musician right? Well possibly not everyone, but certainly ourselves and a lot of the people reading this are frustrated rock stars at heart. We want the glitz and glamour, we want a slice of the fame, the debauchery and the freedom to see the world and get paid for it. Who wouldn’t like that…in theory. Of course the reality of being a touring musician isn’t quite as easy or glamorous as this all sounds.
Very briefly in a previous incarnation, we toured the UK in a moderately unsuccessful indie band, on probably two or three occasions. Some delightfully happy memories ensue of course, but even then you could see there were cracks in the dream. It’s amazing playing a sold out show in a city you’ve never been to before, it’s amazing meeting fans, promoters and other bands, it’s amazing making just about enough money to make it financially viable. What’s not amazing is sleeping on floors, driving for sometimes eight hours a day, living primarily on a diet of beer, burgers and hummus from your rider and being constantly somewhere between hungover, sleep deprived and ill. Of course it’s slightly different touring at a higher level, but anonymous hotel rooms, gruelling never-ending tours, and the added pressure of fame, are most likely not on the list of the joys of making music.
We’re not by any means saying we wouldn’t swap places with The National at the drop of a hat, but perhaps both the fans and the industry should think about the strain we’re putting on these talented people. In an era where income from touring is far exceeding that from record sales; the pressure and necessity to get out and play live is becoming greater all the time, and eventually something’s got to give. Add to that the fact that the majority of people in touring bands are still (rightly or wrongly) young-men, one of the most vulnerable groups in terms of depression and suicide, and the music industry is in danger of becoming as dangerous as it is appealing.
The Guardian ran a superb article on the difficulty of life on the road (you can read it HERE) and the whole topic was rather beautifully summarised by the always articulate Meredith Graves, “we’re the luckiest people in the world to be able to do this; but that doesn’t mean it’s not hard.” Of course there’s little we can do as music fans except support bands and accept that sometimes they might need to cancel a show, take some time out, or just simply be a bit lethargic on stage, they are at the end of the day people, with all the wonderful flaws and issues that come with that.
When Zach Condon recorded Beirut’s debut album, Gulag Orkestar in his bedroom in Santa Fe, he was just nineteen years old. Nearly a decade has passed since it was released but it remains a remarkable piece of work. A melting pot of all the music he’d experienced; the Mariachi bands who filled the streets of Santa Fe, the Sicilian Funeral Brass he experienced watching Felini films while working in the local international cinema, and in particular the Balkan folk he discovered after dropping out of college to travel round Europe with his older brother. The success of the project allowed Zach to continue his tour of world music; the Francophilic second album Flying Club Cup an album in awe of Serge Gainsbourg and Jacques Brel, and March Of The Zapotec which experimented with traditional Mexican music.
It was only on Beirut’s fourth album, the career highlight that was The Rip Tide, that Zach perhaps finally settled down. While until then his music was all about exploration of new cities and new sounds, The Rip Tide felt like an important step, an album that just sounded like Beirut. It was a masterpiece, critically lauded and commercially successful. Its release and subsequent touring also coincided with one of the darkest periods of Zach’s personal life. It was on a tour of Australia in Perth where the situation finally came to a head, Zach was hospitalised, suffering from mental and physical exhaustion. The rigours of touring, going through a divorce and suffering with crippling writers block had taken their toll. Sessions for the next album were cancelled, recordings which Zach has described as sounding like “The Rip Tide Part 2” were scrapped, and he has admitted there were times he thought he would never make music again. Beirut took a much needed, well deserved and long overdue break.
It’s almost a cliché but with the love of a good woman and the support of his bandmates, Zach came out the other side of his problems. He spent a summer in Istanbul, fell in love, returned to New York and alongside his fellow Beirut bandmates, bassist Paul Collins and drummer Nick Petree set to work. The results of that period now see the light of day, with the fifth Beirut album, No No No.
You might suspect, given the nature of its recording, that No No No would therefore be an album of darkness and struggle. There’s as element of that sure, but for the most part this album is remarkably upbeat. Zach’s flair for playful vocal melodies and exploration of musical textures remain firmly intact. The major change here is the instrumentation he uses to deliver the melody. Whilst previous incarnations of Beirut have been huge productions, dense layers of brass lending a grandiose, dramatic tone, here the whole production is stripped back, and subtle. Based largely around the three pillars of piano, bass and drums, it is a shift in musical direction, but on repeat listens not perhaps as drastic as it first sounds.
The supposed dearth of horns, doesn’t really materialise, there’s less certainly but their relative paucity just emphasises their impact. From the instrumental swell of At Once which replaces the lone vocal with a cacophony of mournful horns, to the oddly jaunty trumpets of Perth, throughout the album they are beautifully and tastefully used. The stripped percussion also allows other elements to come to the fore, be it the spectacularly detailed drumming in Fener, the frankly genius use of handclaps in Gibraltar or the beautiful use of melodica on the title track, No No No.
It is not a flawless album, with a running time already less than half an hour, it also contains a couple of tracks that seem to act largely as filler. August Holland is forgettable, the Sufjan Stevens like instrumental, As Needed, pleasant but meandering, whilst Pachecho sounds like the middle ground of Thunderclap Newman’s Something In The Air and Stevie Wonder in slow motion, only not as great as that sounds. These odd forgettable moments are however a small price to pay for the joys elsewhere.
The single Gibraltar is wonderful, all bouncing percussion and upbeat stabs of piano, the jaunty music at odds with the downbeat vocal and lyrics, “everything should be fine” Zach notes with no conviction at all. The waltzing-rhythmic piano that underpins So Allowed, is romantic and triumphant, and latterly it features the albums most classically Beirut moment as the horns and strings roll in for a gorgeous instrumental close. Whilst the minimal beauty of At Once is a huge departure, but ear-catching because of it, ending with just Zach’s voice alone it is spine chillingly excellent.
The two tracks that book end the story of this albums creation are arguably its best moments. Perth, a track named after the setting for Zach’s lowest ebb, is unfathomably jaunty sounding, the upbeat music acting as a screen for the emotional breakdown it discusses. Over a shuffling beat, he notes, “I was in Perth and I was getting blood in the sand” before recalling how, “I skipped around as cannon fodder.” The opposite side of the emotional spectrum comes in Fener, named after the area of Istanbul where he spent his summer recovering, it starts with a piano and military drums that fade in, it’s bright and upbeat, before breaking down to just a piano and what sounds suspiciously like a stylophone and ending with a delightful Grizzly Bear like vocal harmony section.
It’s an album that against the odds is uplifting and triumphant, whilst not the best Beirut record it might be the most important, and as the first step on a long road to recovery, it’s just great to have them back.
No No No is out now on 4AD. Beirut play two dates in London in September, but they’re both sold out!