Upon releasing his 2006 debut album, Gulag Orkestar, at the age of 20, Beirut’s Zach Condon became an instant indie icon, thanks to a splendorous, brassy sound that imagined Neutral Milk Hotel on an Eastern European backpacking excursion. However, the attendant media hype also served to forever cement his image as a ukulele-toting troubadour singing lullabies whilst traipsing down narrow, cobble-stoned streets backed by a Balkan marching band—an image that he has spent much of his career since trying to undo. “I got so pigeonholed as this sepia-toned, penny-farthing-riding, pocket watch-wearing indie-twee kind of guy, which I just ended up dreading so immensely,” Condon tells Apple Music. With the rarities compilation Artifacts, he delivers a 26-song bulldozer to that stereotype, repositioning Gulag Orkestar’s era-defining aesthetic in its proper context, as just another manifestation of a mercurial muse that Condon has been following since he was a 14-year-old home-recording hermit toying around with Fruity Loops software in his bedroom in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
While planning a reissue of Gulag’s companion release, the Lon Gisland EP, Condon decided to dig deeper into his archives, unearthing not just a trove of B-sides and outtakes from throughout Beirut’s career, but also some of his earliest teenage adventures in lo-fi. And hearing them, you can’t help but think, ‘If things had gone differently, he could very well have turned out a synth-pop scientist instead of an indie-folk hero.’ “When I heard chillwave coming out [in the late 2000s],” he says, “I remember thinking, ‘These bastards are doing what I was trying to do 10 years ago, but they have better equipment and more access to good computer programs than I did!’” Here, Condon ponders what could’ve been as he talks us through each of Artifacts’ four chapters: the Lon Gisland EP (included with related outtakes), “The Misfits” (his first synth experiments), “New Directions and Early Works” (a showcase of key transitional, pre-Beirut tracks), and “The B-Sides” (a collection of mostly unreleased Beirut castaways).
The Lon Gisland EP (Tracks 1-7) “While I was digging through all my hard drives, I noticed that, right off the bat, my tracks all had city names. And then I realized why: My family would do these brutal road trips around the country because my dad and mom refused to spend the money on flying. We drove to Key West to visit some family; we drove up to Nova Scotia; we drove to California. And the whole time, my parents would be playing country music on the radio—these sad, lonesome songs about places like Amarillo, Oklahoma. These city names began to tell these huge stories on these endless journeys. When I started making music, I was on a constant search for outside influence and trying to get away from the American and the UK rock bubble that bored me as a teenager. So, of course, I was trying to throw these more exotic locales in my name and songs. I would play with these old styles in ways that I thought were not overly tacky or ostentatious. I’m always flirting with these instruments and sounds that I find are used so abusively, and I always want to bring them back from the brink. Like, the ukulele is not a cutesy toy. It actually has some kind of distant melancholy to it. Brass sections are not this circus music—they’re filled with depth and pack a lot of emotion.”
“The Misfits” (Tracks 8-13) “Where I grew up, it was all emo, punk, math-rock, hardcore—nothing but fucking rock music. It sucked, because I would go to the plaza during siestas and hear these mariachi bands, and I’d be like, ‘This sounds fucking incredible!’ And then, I would go to my friends’ [punk] shows, and I’d just be sitting there stuffing as much tissue into my ears as possible, because I could barely sit through these shows. The last thing in the world my friends would have allowed anywhere near was a four-on-the-floor dance beat. But to me, the synthesizers have this whole wide-open world of sound and so much variation and so much power compared to that very typical—and often very dreary—guitar/bass/drums thing. At this point, my brother had brought some records from New York, when the electroclash thing was starting [in the early 2000s]. I was also listening to a lot of IDM, like Boards of Canada and Aphex Twin. And I would’ve been listening to a ton of Magnetic Fields obsessively. On ‘Poisoning Claude,’ you can really hear it. ‘Fyodor Dormant’ came a year or two later—I had gone to New York and started to hear the dance-music influence that was creeping into electroclash.”
“New Directions and Early Works” (Tracks 14-19) “These would have been made from the age of 17 until I left for Europe at 18. I used to write a song a week and these are from that batch. I was still feeling surrounded and repressed by American rock music. This is the point where I had isolated myself from my friend circle quite a bit. I just started going into my own world. I had gotten so obsessed with music at that point that I was dropping out of school, because I would stay up till 5 in the morning, making songs. I would be in the parking lot of my high school, passed out in my car. School just wasn’t working anymore. I pretty much lived in the movie theater that I worked at, and then I brought home a projector from there, and I would just project movies on the ceiling of my bedroom. I had a mattress that I would lay on the floor; when I was recording, I would put it against the wall so I could have the microphones out. There wasn’t even room for a bed. So, at this point, I was just gone from reality. But the truth was, I felt like I had found something. Something had cohered and it was really clear that I now had something that would cut through. So, at 17, I was like, ‘Oh, I think I get it now—I can make it myself.’”
“The B-Sides” (Tracks 20-26) “I have a lot of leftover Beirut material, but a lot of it is maybe less finished than this stuff. That’s why I chose what I chose here—these are far enough along. With some of them, it’s obvious—like, I wasn’t sure how a three-minute instrumental would fit on certain albums, whereas here, it made more sense. But then, some of them are less obvious: I’m sure some people are probably wondering why I didn’t include ‘Fisher Island Sound’ on a record if it was done. It was written not long after [2007’s] The Flying Club Cup, and then I ended up recording sometime around [2011’s] The Rip Tide. There’s a point in your career where you become painfully self-aware of how you’re represented in the music media. Initially, there’s just the excitement of being mentioned at all, especially coming from my own private world in my bedroom in Santa Fe. But I had gotten to that point where I was like, ‘If I get one more music video treatment where it’s like, “OK, we put you in the street in knickerbockers and an old-looking suit jacket while you’re drinking absinthe…”’ While I liked the Balkan music, being portrayed as this naive, ukulele-strumming romantic felt really quite insulting and patronizing. So, with ‘Fisher Island Sound,’ I had to say, ‘Not yet. I can’t go down that road right now. Even if the fans would love it, I can’t do it.’ But the truth is, even back then, I was like, ‘No, it’s a catchy song!’”