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Traveling the world with Beirut bassist

Pompeii

By Chloe Stachowiak, Daily Arts Writer
Published October 2, 2011

Don’t be fooled by their baby faces and short history together — from international tours to appearances in Spin Magazine, the members of Beirut have already tasted what takes some a lifetime to achieve. Following the August release of their third album, The Rip Tide, the bandmates are moving across continents yet again. They will be lighting up Royal Oak tonight with new music and inspiration, but the same European folk sound that started the frenzy five years ago.

But it hasn’t always been concerts and magazine shoots for Beirut. Their story is a music industry Cinderella story, beginning in 2006 when the band released its first album, Gulag Orkestar. Before then the music could only be heard in a University of New Mexico bedroom, where singer Zach Condon wrote and recorded songs by himself.

“The first time I actually saw (Condon) play, it was him with his laptop and a trumpet,” said Beirut’s bassist Paul Collins. “He’s come a long way from there. It’s a far more alive endeavor, as opposed to him playing MP3 backing tracks alone.”

It didn’t take long for Condon to form a band with six of his friends, who used their humble, computer-based origins as a launching point to perform in public.

“We were lucky to have the Internet on our side,” Collins said. “We were immediately playing shows for people who were familiar with our music. Suddenly, we had an international following. That’s different from any other band I’ve been in before, where we were really just trying to get our friends out to hear us.”

Beirut stands out in the music scene for more than the instant success story, though. It was the music — a worldly fusion of horns, strings and vocals — that first caught public attention.

“Something that separates Zach from his time is that he wants to make music that will last a long time — even if it’s not immediately successful to people,” Collins said. “You’d never find, say, delayed vocals in any of his songs. His music is always rooted in the past and looking toward the future.”

This distinctive sound has whisked the band away to countries ranging from Australia to Taiwan, a far cry from the bedroom recording studios the members played in before. Collins recalls the band’s first tour, which stretched across Europe and parts of North America.

“The first tour was amazing and nuts and like a gypsy caravan or something,” Collins said. “We were all just so young and new to it … there was so much discovery, awe and wonder. Different places in Europe can get really crazy and fun. Always fun.”

Even with the international travels and album releases, Beirut has managed to stay grounded in its love for New York coffee and Brooklyn roots.

“We just played in this place in New York for two nights, and for me, it was the best two shows we’ve ever played,” Collins said. “It was so memorable going home and really feeling the sense that you’ve accomplished something. Just having all of our family there makes it really feel like we’re part of a community. In those shows, I felt our whole lifespan as a band culminating.”

It has been an unpredictable road for the members of Beirut, who have seen most of the world in just five years. Still, some things will always be the same.

“We are still the best of friends,” Collins said. “We have such a good time doing this stuff … Everyone is very good at being professional, but we will always have that loving, friendly bond. If we didn’t, I think the band might fall apart.”