The Skater And The Record Geek

6 November 2012 | 6:00 am | Liz Giuffre

"I skated for seven years. Actually before I smashed my arm to bits my dream was to be a professional skater. And I still follow the culture very closely, very closely."

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Beirut's sometimes reserved sometimes apparently otherworldly singer/songwriter Zach Condon is on the phone from New York just after a big storm has hit, and is happily reminiscing about an unlikely lost relationship. When you hear the acoustic, jangly, horn and accordion-led soundscapes, it's easy to assume he spent his formative years in a commune or under a blanket listening to three chords and the truth. But no, there is a skeleton in that closet.

“I skated for seven years. Actually before I smashed my arm to bits my dream was to be a professional skater. And I still follow the culture very closely, very closely, and in fact my music career has allowed me to hock my way into certain skateboard circles, which as you can imagine, is a dream come true for [who I was] as a kid,” he says. “My entire life before music, literally, was skateboarding. That's all I would do when I was a kid. When I was like 11 years old I would wake up in the morning and shake my parents awake and say 'Drive me to the skate park, now!'. And I did that until I was about 17 and then you know, had a pretty gnarly accident actually, and since then I've only just really watched.”

Getting your head around Condon as he might have been is at first pretty strange, but it also provides an insight to his process as an artist. There's social interaction, there's obsession, there's hierarchy, there's past masters and there's also risk of falling down. “The thing I would tie together about music and skating is the focus,” he says of his attraction to it, and his approach to life, actually. “What I loved about skating was that in some weird way there was a self discipline that bordered on impulse more than it bordered on discipline, if that makes sense? So when I got home at night you know, I would spend the time that I was otherwise focusing on learning some [skate] tricks, for example, on trying to make music sound a certain way, trying to get a certain instrument to sound a certain way for example. And like I say it's impulse rather than discipline; it came out of nowhere, you don't even realise you're doing it until it's done.”

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Describing someone's artistic (or athletic) prowess as an impulse rather than a discipline is curious, but also comforting. It shows that Beirut's, strange and almost unplace-able music comes as perhaps as much of a surprise to Condon as it does his listeners. On the flip side, Condon compares his approach to music to that of Beirut bass player Paul Collins. “I'm jealous of his record collection, to be honest. Paul spends his days going to record stores and I don't. And I should,” Condon says. “And well here's the thing, having Paul in the band is a constant reminder that what you're doing is a gift. Like I said, he spends all his time off going to record stores here in New York and on tour, and so when we get home it's basically like, 'Paul, what's the playlist'? 'What are we listening to, please? Burn me a CD, do something'. He's constantly fascinated and by proxy, so am I”.

When asked about said collection, Collins explained it a bit less scholastically. “Basically, I go on tour around the world and I get very tired of drinking all the time, so I wake up in the morning and I'm like 'Okay, I need to go and see these record stores', and that's the way I kind of calm down,” he says, perhaps only partly tongue in cheek. In terms of his main musical focus, he's vague in terms of style, but not in terms of passion. It doesn't take long to move from wanderer to fanboy. “I don't know, I collect a bit of everything, but mainly world music and rock and all that stuff. Actually, one of my big finds that I was really excited about was in Australia. Do you know who Scott Walker is? Well you should, that's a great place to start – he's awesome. He's an American who moved to London and he just made all these really strange records. One of his records is called Nite Flights and his band The Walker Brothers made it in the late '70s/early '80s ... Anyway, I found that record in a store in Australia for like ten bucks, which was a steal. So Australia has added to my bounty.”

It's a sweet relationship between the two, and the musical journey of Beirut as they continue to sail the seas of skates, discs and tunes. While Condon is impulsive, Collins makes a point of holding a card or two in reserve. “I'm a bass player, I play other stuff too, but for me the whole addition, the main thing about being a bass player is not being noticed too much. There are some people who get into music and are like, 'That bass player is pretty rad', but it's something that's for me – holding back is a huge part of it. Zach is full of them and he is crazy to watch – you have to know when to not have too many cooks in the kitchen. You need to know when is the right time to bring forward an idea, and if you hold back until it's really good, then it's like 'Now is the time for me to step forward'.”

Having previously described his own contribution as adding 'colour', does Collins always stand back? “It depends on the song definitely. On the new record, a song like [title track] The Rip Tide was pretty much done when he brought it to us, and then you have a song like Port of Call, which is more indicative of the band overall. That was a song where he came in with lyrics, a ukulele and a chord progression and just said 'I don't know', and then we all put it together.”

Part Zen, but also part strategy, it seems. Picking up a silly comment this writer made about going in for the kill when the others had worn themselves out, Collins reveals his ace (hilariously). “If you can describe me in your article as a type of ninja that would be great” he says with a conviction that seems almost a little too genuine. Stealth attacks aside, the part fanboy, part professional also has a clear idea of how to use his musical contribution and enthusiasm in the best way for the band proper. “The central idea [of Beirut] is Zach's songwriting and his voice. Zach has such a strong sense of aesthetic.”

Beirut will be playing the following shows:

Saturday 10 & Sunday 11 November - Harvest, Werribee Park, Melbourne VIC
Monday 12 November - Her Majesty's Theatre, Adelaide SA
Wednesday 14 November - Enmore Theatre, Sydney NSW
Saturday 17 November - Harvest, Parramatta Park, Sydney NSW
Sunday 18 November - Harvest, Brisbane Riverstage and Botanic Gardens