Beirut: from the studio in lichtenberg deep into the soul space

In Lichtenberg, where U.S. indie pop star Beirut lives, he dug through his difficult past, complete with obsession and depression, for his new early work compilation "Artifcats" – to finally find peace with it. Speaking to us amazingly candidly about this time, Zach Condon aka Beirut said, "I was a zombie".

An introverted guy with a soft spot for trumpets: US indie pop star Beirut. Photo: Lina Gaisser

Beirut: Insights into his studio in Lichtenberg – and into his soul space

"As a teenager, bedroom and music room were the same thing for me anyway" ", says Zach Condon aka Beirut, and you can feel how intimate the matter is for him: making music. He points to a wall of modular synthesizers behind him. His keyboards and pianos. His Farfisa organ from Santa Fe, New Mexico, the place of his childhood. A harmonium and a spinet. Ukuleles and a French horn. We peek into Zach Condon’s home studio in Lichtenberg, where the indie-pop star with the stage name Beirut has been living for the past year and a half, after a few years close to Kreuzberg’s Viktoriapark. "Some of the pretty new instruments I bought in Berlin," he says in his soothing baritone voice. "Although new in this case means a hundred years old."

He smiles gently, and you feel welcome. Actually, Beirut had invited us to his studio in the flesh for the interview. Then, one day before, he got the creeps – and moved the conversation to the digital, to the video chat. He still opens his room to us. His soul space.

Beirut is one of the biggest stars in indie pop in a decade and a half. His multi-million clicked hit "Nantes" found its way onto numerous arthouse film soundtracks, was even sampled into electro and hip-hop realms, by Snoop Dogg, Diplo, Chance the Rapper and also many others. Zach Condon, aka Beirut, became known in the mid-noughties with a playful, organic brass- and organ-laden signature sound that he once developed on interrail tours to Berlin; through Balkan music that he heard here.

Berlin has long been present in Beirut’s songs

There were references to Berlin very early, already on his debut album "Gulag Orkestar" from 2006, with a song called "Prenzlauerberg". As beautifully misspelled as David Bowie’s "Neukoln" once was (sic!). Zach Condon was 19 when he came to Berlin for the first time. That was 16 years ago in February. Beirut remembers fondly; in the middle of winter, he says, Berlin is so dramatic: "Ugly and beautiful at the same time. East Berlin felt like a stray dog to me back then."

Meanwhile, Zach Condon has made himself at home in Berlin, after restless years in New York and Istanbul and Paris. But that Berlin, of all places, would become the place where he would be confronted with his past more intensively than ever before – he probably would not have expected that himself. The impetus was his label’s idea to prepare a re-release of the 2007 "Lon Gisland" EP, enriched with B-sides and unreleased demos. So to select the recordings for this new early work show, now released as a double LP called "Artifacts," Zach Condon went through 20 (!) hard drives of his early sound material foxed. "You can’t listen to a recording of yourself when you were 14 or 15 without being transported right back to that time," says Zach Condon.

And so it came to pass that Beirut undertook his psycho time travel back to his youth from Berlin. "Suddenly I could vividly imagine again," he says, "how insomnia plagued me back then. And how I lost contact with my friends."He replaced them with his instruments, which he brought into his room until there was hardly enough space left for his sleeping mattress. He didn’t meet his skater friends from the halfpipe anymore after he broke his wrist a few too many times. The only time he went to high school parties was to pick up beers, he says, and then go back to his instruments: "When I was 14, 15, I thought it was perfectly normal to stay up until 4 or 5 in the morning because you hadn’t finished writing the melody yet. I had this rule: I had to write a song every night that would stick."

Panic attacks on the first world tour

Zach Condon tells of how his little brother Ross stuffed earplugs in his ears so he could sleep in the next room. At one point, in anger at not succeeding with the song, Zach Condon banged the keyboard, microphones and trumpets out of the room. Two weeks later, three in the morning, he did feel like playing the keyboard again, brought the instruments back into the room. "I had no choice. Never could I have seriously stopped. I don’t have a life outside of music – not until today."And even then he dreamed big: "I wanted to get the hell out of Santa Fe and see the world. My ambitions were huge."

Arrived in Lichtenberg: US indie pop star Beirut. Beirut. Photo: Lina Gaisser

And they did come true: his dreams of becoming world famous through his music. "Looking back, I would say I went through brutal anxiety disorders and depression. In my 20s I had already achieved something. And still I was miserable. I never had enough. Not enough attention. Not enough applause. I wrote whole albums in response to outside criticism. ‘The Rip Tide’ was my reaction in 2011 to people saying, ‘Beirut’ is this world music Balkan chanson guy. I was like, ‘Nah, I’m not. I also grew up with the Beach Boys.I was like a zombie looking for a cure."

He tells of panic attacks on the first world tour. "I had to cry in the tour van for seemingly no reason at all. My hands were shaking like crazy. My brain shut down. For weeks I woke up in the morning and didn’t know who I was anymore. I didn’t even realize what ‘being alive’ meant anymore. I stared at my hands and slowly understood that Zach was my name. That I am in a place called New Mexico. That I had an ‘incident. I felt as if, if I didn’t concentrate hard enough, I could disappear altogether."

The gloom and fun on Beirut’s "Artifacts."

When Zach Condon confronted himself with the past, he also realized that he was less alone than he thought: Many very early recordings were not even on the 20 hard drives that Zach Condon has in his Lichtenberg home studio. But Ross, his younger brother with the earplugs of yore, has archived himself: early CDs by Zach Condon, which he burned himself and then fired into the corner. "Otherwise, all this would now be gone."

Zach Condon also captured some such memories in bittersweet lyrics in the liner notes to the "Artifacts" compilation. You almost think that a novelist was lost to im. "I used to hate writing," he says. "I myself have torn up notebooks with song lyrics after the recordings, burnt them. I hated seeing my thoughts on paper. It’s only in the last year and a half that I’ve managed to value memories of my feelings. Some things are really gloomy. But other things are really fun."When he says it like that, Zach Condon, the indie world star, seems almost like a normal Berliner who came here to find himself. The painful memories, they can no longer haunt him – since he himself brought them home to him in this, his room to Lichtenberg.

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