MFNW Preview: Beirut

How a kid from Eastern Oregon helped save Zach Condon from himself—and finally got him to finish a new album.

When your band's official bio explains that your latest record is the byproduct of a physical and mental breakdown and your subsequent recovery, you are signing up to talk about that breakdown for the next year of your life—even after the bio has been pulled from circulation. And if you are, as Beirut frontman Zach Condon has described himself to be over the years, "decently shy" or "very self-conscious," that might just be a subject you tire of endlessly retreading.

This is, I assume, how I wound up calling Beirut bassist Paul Collins.

It was a welcome surprise. Before he moved to Santa Fe, N.M., for college and met Condon and Beirut drummer Nick Petree, and before the band relocated to New York City, Collins was a punk-rock kid in the militantly country town of Pendleton, Ore.

"I came from a rodeo family," he says from his apartment in New York. "My mom was a Round-Up princess, my grandfather was the director of the Round-Up and the owner of Cimmiyotti's [a popular Pendleton restaurant]. So, in other words, that whole legacy of Pendleton was ingrained in me in a weird way. But I was never asked to be a cowboy."

Instead, Collins became an integral player in Pendleton's burgeoning—if somewhat surprising—local music scene in the early aughts, playing shows at the only real venue in town, Floyd's Truck Ranch, and organizing shows of his own. It was Portland's looming presence that inspired Collins and friends like Peter Walters and James Dean Kindle to make music happen 200 miles east. "When I got into Quasi and Elliott Smith, it was just over," Collins says. "We just loved that stuff so much and we wanted to be a part of it so bad. Playing shows at the truck stop was our backwoods sort of way of doing that. The kids my age, we just put a really high premium on doing shit."

For Collins, "doing shit" would eventually mean leaving home for college in Santa Fe, where he started a Stereolab-ish band called Ping Pong with drummer Nick Petree. Around the same time, a high-school dropout named Zach Condon returned to New Mexico from a European vacation and began recording jaw-dropping songs in his bedroom. Collins happened to see Condon at one of his first solo shows as Beirut, and was impressed enough to offer his assistance. Six months later, Collins and Petree were core members of Beirut, and they relocated to New York City to make playing in the band their full-time job.

That was nearly a decade ago. And still, Collins says, it wasn't until recording Beirut's upcoming album, No No No, that he felt like more than a bit player. "In the past, I've always been a fan," he says. "It felt like Zach was letting me play bass on his records, but I never felt like a real musician. I felt like I was just sneaking by. But this is a record that Nick and I feel especially proud of."

By Condon's own admission, it was those two bandmates who dragged him out of a four-year recording drought. Collins and Petree "stepped up and said we're going to the studio every day no matter what, and we're just going to have some fun with it and not make it a serious thing," Condon told the Line of Best Fit in June. "Borne out of that, it became a much freer thing."

"I'm really flattered Zach said that," Collins says, "but it's like, yeah, that's exactly what happened. I think he hit a point where he was just overthinking things. It got bad. So one day Nick and I just cleaned up the practice space. It looked like shit and it felt terrible. So we vacuumed, arranged things, put a bad painting on the wall that we found on the street. First we were like, 'Forget Zach,' and we just started jamming in there. And then Zach came in, and we all jammed together. We had never really done that. That might sound crazy, because we've been together for like nine years, but we finally just sat down and played."

The resulting record completes the stylistic transition that Beirut began with its 2011 full-length, The Rip Tide, from a group that defined itself by a series of exotic influences to a band with its own internalized musical language. At once funky and pristine, No No No is largely a trio-with-horns album. If Condon is singing about intense suffering he experienced in the album's lead-up, you wouldn't know it from his seductive vocals and the band's in-the-pocket playing. From hooky opener "Gibraltar" to airy waltz "August Holland," it sounds—for the first time—like a band that is having a blast in the studio. Those mental breakdowns sound miles away. Few people understand the stress Condon is under better than Collins.

"Zach was 19 when this all started, you know?" he says. "I can't imagine being in charge of my friends' well-being, even now. He's our breadwinner—he's like our dad in a weird way. It's all on him, and that's a tremendous amount of pressure."

But the flip side of that coin is that your friends will drag you through your worst days. Sometimes that just means cleaning up the studio and jamming, a coping mechanism that Collins learned from Portland. “That Pacific Northwest DIY shit is still in me,” he says. 

Beirut plays at 8:30 pm on Saturday, Aug. 22.

WWeek 2015

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