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Music & clubs

Splendid isolation: A new era of Beirut arrives in Berlin

In 2019, Beirut lead singer Zach Condon suffered a "breakdown year". Now he's back to Berlin with a new album, Hadsel.

Photo: Robert Rieger

In 2019, American musician Zach Condon, founder and lead singer of the seminal and beloved indie band Beirut, pulled out of his world tour due to acute laryngitis. Touring and performing had taken its toll on the singer-songwriter, mentally as well as physically. Riddled with anxiety, and not sure whether he would perform live ever again, Condon decamped from his Berlin studio to a remote island in northern Norway. Working from an isolated cabin on the island of Hadsel, with a pump organ kindly donated by a neighbour, Condon chipped away at new music, influenced by the dramatic landscapes and the darkness of winter.

The productive period led to the album Hadsel, a cathartic record named for its birthplace, filled with atmosphere and beauty released last year. In February, four years after his last live performance, Condon is returning to the stage at long last – playing that album live for the very first time at three exclusive shows at Berlin’s Tempodrom.

Not sure whether he would perform live ever again, Condon decamped from his Berlin studio to a remote island in northern Norway

Originally from Santa Fe, New Mexico, Condon’s relationship with Berlin began over 20 years ago while backpacking across Europe. Enamoured with the culture and history, Condon would go on to write several songs about the city, which featured on Beirut’s 2006 debut album Gulag Orkestar. Ten years later, the city still had a hold on him, and he moved here permanently.

Moving to the harsh climate of the Arctic Circle isn’t perhaps the most obvious thing to do, but it’s not out of character for Condon. “I actually grew up in the mountains with snowy weather. And when I was living in New York, I just about spent every winter in cabins upstate, peaceful places where I was able to write,” he says. “To me, winter represents something else, this kind of peaceful introspective, and it’s there that I get this feeling of shelter.”

It was Condon’s partner who initially provided him with the inspiration to head to Norway. “My girlfriend had spent some time up there and had shown me some images of the place,” he said of Hadsel. “I’ve always been really fascinated with the Arctic, and it’s exactly the type of location I’d been thinking about going to for a while.” After an initial visit, Condon packed up his studio equipment and drove it across Europe. “I hate flying so much that I would prefer to drive 30 hours,” he admits.

Hadsel follows a long tradition of Beirut’s records being influenced by or recorded in new international locations, from the LP Gallipoli, which was made in Italy, to March of the Zapotec, in Mexico. They serve as musical postcards sent across the world. Unlike previous records, however, where Condon would bring his 11-member band with him, this time everything was written and recorded solo. “​​Maybe I pushed myself further than I should have,” he says about the process. “For this one, I wanted to see if I could do it again, like with the first album. There’s such a big difference when you can’t spread the stress around, but that was exactly the kind of situation I was trying to impose on myself.”

With new material to play, Condon decided it was time to return to the stage. “After my breakdown year in 2019 I wanted to see if I still had it,” he says. He originally announced two nights at Tempodrom, but the run was recently extended to three nights due to strong ticket sales. “After the initial announcement I had a breakdown, wondering why I would do that to myself again,” Condon says. “It’s not that I didn’t enjoy concerts, it’s more the touring that I hated. It was like I was being sent on military duty. Now I’m excited again and working with the band, and want to play a fair amount of the new record.”

With no opening acts on the roster, the band will treat the audiences to extended performances of Hadsel, attempting to replicate the serene and glacial atmosphere of the record, with its existential swells and rhythmic heartbeat. The only element Condon can’t replicate is his beloved organ. “I’m trying to bring a string section and get it to emulate certain elements of the pump organ, as that’s one instrument I can’t get onto the stage safely,” Condon says.

After my breakdown year in 2019 I wanted to see if I still had it

With its unique pointed ceiling, Tempodrom is an appropriate venue for an album built around the organ. “I considered booking a smaller venue to save my nerves,” Condon says about the upcoming gigs. “But I can imagine that the reverb in a building like that can be quite special, like the Roundhouse in London.”

Beirut’s frontman is not ruling out the idea of doing more shows, but at the moment nothing is confirmed. “I’m hoping that I can test the waters with these shows and convince myself that I’m not going to war,” he says. While he’s still a Berliner, Condon will continue returning to Norway for inspiration, something he does intermittently.

“I’m looking forward to resting and having a blank slate again. I just spent six months there in winter, and I keep going back, it’s amazing,” he says. “A lot has happened since 2019. I had this tough time and went up there, learned all this new confidence and came back a different person.” The new era of Beirut is coming, and Berliners should count themselves lucky that they get to hear it first.

  • Beirut, live at Tempodrom, Feb 16-18, details