By Jordan Yeager
Beirut, like many bands, is often thought of in terms of its frontman and founder, Zach Condon. Originally it did start out as his solo project, but its magnitude and vision were too vast to be carried out by one man alone; and over the years, the band’s shape shifted. Paul Collins, the group’s bassist, has been there almost since the beginning after he witnessed a one-man performance by Condon in Beirut’s earliest solo days by sheer happenstance.
“I was working at a punk rock festival in Santa Fe, and he was playing,” says Collins. “I was like, ‘holy shit.’ I think he was 19 years old, and I just couldn’t believe it. Santa Fe is a pretty small town in terms of music and most of the bands I was playing in were post-punk bands, and there was a lot of emo and hardcore stuff. Zach just seemingly came out of fucking nowhere, and I loved it. I helped him find a drummer, his friend Perrin played cello, and then he added me just to play the ukulele and do whatever, and then the live band was formed. So basically it was out of necessity. I think if Zach had it his way he would have just been by himself all these years.”
At the time, Collins was in school studying film, but ultimately realized he “was not disciplined enough to be a filmmaker.” Music was something that had always come naturally to him – he felt compelled to create it, and seeing Condon perform sparked something in him.
“I honestly wasn’t disciplined enough to be a musician either, but I just love music so much that I could get by,” he laughs. “Jonas Mekas was an experimental filmmaker – although he hated that term – in New York City, and he just died the other day at 96 years old. He talked about how his work and his life were one inseparable thing, and I really connected with that, in terms of how I see music. It’s not really a career endeavour. It’s always just been a part of the ether for me. It’s outside of me. It just, like, happens.”
Something else that just, like, happened was the magnitude at which Beirut accelerated from a band formed out of the necessity to perform live into a full-fledged indie-rock group touring the world.
“It was like a fucking rocket,” says Collins. “It just so quickly gained speed. I remember calling up my parents and being like, ‘Hey, so Beirut is moving to New York, and I still have a year left of school, but I think I need to do this.’ And my parents, to their credit, were like, ‘Great.’ You don’t know my parents, but that was surprising to me. Suddenly this band was in SXSW, which I thought was the biggest thing ever. And then we had a tour of the US, and I couldn’t believe it was happening.”
“Gallipoli,” the premiere single off their forthcoming album of the same name, is classic Beirut: brass, drums, a steady bassline, and vocals reminiscent almost of a choir in a huge, echoey room. Suitably, they recorded the album in Gallipoli, a coastal town in the south of Italy, for no real reason other than the fact that they could. “Those are the moments that are so exciting – I almost love knowing that we’re going to go somewhere more than even going there,” laughs Collins. And for a group with a history spanning more than 12 years, five albums, and five EPs, those moments have scarcely slowed down.
“My friend Jeremy Barnes [of A Hawk and a Hacksaw and Neutral Milk Hotel] always said to define yourself in music. The one thing you have to do is just keep making music,” he says. “If you keep making music and put out a record every year, then you have created your own world by the end of it all. I think working as much as possible is the best thing you can do as a musician. I have so many brilliant friends who stopped playing music for stupid fucking reasons and it’s so self-defeating as opposed to just getting shit out and making it. Even if it’s bad – that’s how you get better.”
Beirut performs at the Orpheum Theatre on February 26.Beirut, Gallipoli, Paul Collins, Zach Condon