Beirut :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

In 2019, Beirut’s Zach Condon was looking for an antidote to a modern world that left him anxious, depressed and stuck in a cycle of nihilism. A lifelong atheist, he began exploring Christian thought. “I liked the idea that the world is this beautiful gift and it’s something for you to appreciate, but it’s no picnic, it’s no cakewalk. It’s a struggle, and the struggle has a beauty of its own,” said Condon. 

His fascination with Christian philosophy led him to Christian music, to choral and organ music that had specifically been written for god. And then in early 2020, he took a radical step, spending the winter’s darkest months on the island of Hadsel in the northern-most part of Norway. The island had a traditional eight-sided church which housed a pipe organ. Condon was given the keys to the church and allowed to get to work. 

Hadsel, the album that he wrote up there amid hurricanes and darkness and the surprising warmth of the local people, is an astonishingly beautiful piece of work. It prominently features the church’s organ, the swell of massed vocals, some intricate rhythms Condon made on vintage synths, trumpet and French horn—all played and sung solely by Condon himself. It has no guitars. For Condon, the music is a record of the transformative period he spent near the Arctic circle. He explains, “The whole album was supposed to sound like that place. The drums sounding like the outside elements and then the organ in the middle being like the warm fireplace that you get to sit by that keeps you warm through these harsh moments.” | j kelly

Aquarium Drunkard: The very first sound we hear on this new album is this wonderful organ, which I gather came from a church in a very remote part of Norway. What were you doing up there?

Zach Condon: I was fleeing, I think. I was fleeing all the chaos that I was surrounded by. 2019 was a really tough year. I was looking to get as far away from things as I could. I had a lot of comfort in the winter, so this was kind of an extreme version of that. I stumbled into this little community. I didn’t mean to. It just happened. I met a lot of people and they let me into the church.

AD: What can you tell me about the organ and the church and the place that you found yourself in?

Zach Condon: I think I had a picture open of it, so I could show you. Because it’s not a big organ. By church organ standards, it’s probably on the small side. It’s only got six stops. You pull out the stops on the sides. Again for a church organ, not very large. 

AD: Was it very old?

Zach Condon: I don’t think it’s very old. The church is very old. The church is from the 1800s. It’s one of the last remaining of its kind, an octagonal, hand-made, wooden structure. I think a lot of them are falling apart, and this is one of the few that remains up there. 

AD: Are the acoustics really good?

Zach Condon: They’re okay. That’s actually not a selling point, because with the wood structure and how small it is, it actually soaks up a lot of the reverb. It’s not a majestic church. It’s more like a very beautiful cabin church that’s been built against the elements outside. 

AD: Have you played pipe organ before or were you learning it as you went along?

Zach Condon: I was figuring it out as we went. It was all new. The way you have to play the pedals is the hardest part if you’re not used to it. I have some experience because of some of the old electric organs that I would play. They have this little pedal shelf where you can play the really low notes, the bass tones. You hear them in that opening song, playing the downbeat. That was really tricky to figure out because I’m not a professionally trained keyboard player at all. A lot of this stuff is tricky for me. 

AD: By the way, if you ever want to play in Vermont, there’s a place called Epsilon Spires that has this massive pipe organ. It’s three stories tall. It’s really beautiful. 

Zach Condon: Brattleboro? 

AD: Yes. 

Zach Condon: That would be neat. I’m certainly very fascinated with these instruments, and I always have been. 

AD: They really can move the insides of your stomach around. It’s a visceral sound.

Zach Condon: It’s kind of built with the insanity of…someone would say, you know how a few flutes sound together? What if we did 100? I like that about it. I don’t know if you’ve seen this, but old pipe organs before they had electric pumps or pumps run by other methods, they would have one monk who would just sit there pumping the air into the instrument. He would try to keep a steady pace so that he didn’t bend the pitch out of tune. 

AD: What kind of religion was this church?

Zach Condon: The main churches up there are Protestant. But it’s not really part of the discussion up there. You would have that in Germany. Is it Protestant or Catholic? But up there it’s just Protestant. I could be wrong. And that’s the thing, even all the time I’ve spent there, no one’s ever mentioned it.

AD: Do you speak the language, Norwegian, or did everyone speak English?

Zach Condon: I picked up some. A lot of them speak German, and I speak functional German, so we would communicate that way. My partner came with me, and she’s from Berlin originally, and she speaks fluent Swedish, and so with the older people, especially, it was very easy…Norwegian and Swedish are close enough that they can communicate very well. It’s a bit of a mental game to constantly think it through. So it was a lot of that. A lot of the people there are older than …most of them were in their 70s. So, English, some of them speak some, but most of them don’t speak much. We got by on Swedish and German. 

AD: If you’re in a place you’ve never been before and people are speaking a language you don’t speak, it would be an isolating experience… maybe not in a bad way because you were busy with the music.

Zach Condon: I’ve had that most of my life, because of the time I’ve spent in Europe. Even growing up, I was surrounded by Spanish. I didn’t really speak it. I understood some of it. But it was still kind of isolating in its own way. Culturally in New Mexico as a kid, there were borders we weren’t allowed to crossed. I was so obsessed with mariachi music as a kid but I wasn’t really allowed to participate. I could only listen to it. 

But here in Europe, I’ve lived in France, I’ve lived in Turkey and now in Germany for five or six years, and I’m kind of used to it at this point. If anything, I felt that the people up there were a bit warmer than usual. We were invited to family gatherings very quickly. They really were so amazed that Lina spoke Swedish as fluently as she does. They were just like, who learns a Scandinavian language that hasn’t lived here for work? With my fascination with the instruments and the landscapes and stuff, they just seemed really charmed that we would bother at all. 

AD: Was it near the water?

Zach Condon: Everything’s near the water in Norway.

AD: So you’d have the cliffs and everything that you think about with Norway?

Zach Condon: Yes, you’re always looking out at the fjords. Hadsel is an island with fjords all around it, and in one direction you can see open sea.

AD: Sounds amazing. How long were you there?

Zach Condon: So then I was there for two months, January and February 2020. And then we waited for two or three years and then went back. We spent more time there than in Germany this year. We were there for almost the whole time. We’re even considered buying property. That might be the next place. 

I’m transitioning from Berlin to there, but it’s going to take a long time because a) there’s so much to move and b) there are all these projects that are in the works right now, and I don’t want to do both. I don’t want to move and be trying to do the release of the record and talk about it and play a concert or two and everything all at once.

AD: It seems to me that you’ve always been interested in the folk sounds of various musical cultures. You’ve done records that are influenced by Eastern Europe and France. Did the music of this part of Norway feed into what you were doing on this record? And if so, what is it like?

Zach Condon: Well, it’s hard to find. It’s mostly gone. I got to hear bits and pieces, but mostly it’s not around anymore. It got kind of buried. Norway and Sweden in particular have really locked eyes on the U.S. Culturally. So you get a lot of that. So for me, it wasn’t really hearing the local music and then wanting to sound like it. It was more of a mystery, actually, where even now I’m not really sure what it sounds like. 

AD: There are some really beautiful choral arrangements on this record. I was wondering if people sang in choirs there?

Zach Condon: That’s what you get. The closest that you get is in these churches. You hear a lot of choir music. You hear a lot of traditional church organ music which is German and classical usually. 

I was listening to a ton of choir music at the time. Literally I don’t even know albums or names necessarily. I had just started going on Youtube and finding these groups. Often they were from Britain actually. Tenebrae. That was a group I was listening to a lot. That just crept in. I think at the time, I didn’t examine….This goes into a heavier conversation, and I don’t know how much I want to get into it.

AD: Oh, come on.

Zach Condon: I’ve been reexamining traditions and roots, especially of my family and Western heritage in general, and kind of landing in the Catholic and Christian world. In a very interesting way. 

I’ve suffered through my whole life with depression and anxiety, but also this general sense of meaninglessness and nihilism. I’ve been to a million psychiatrists. I’ve been on anti-psychotics and anti-depressants and a lot of anti-anxiety medication and all that stuff. But the modern world has no cure for the kind of soul element. 

AD: That’s what I think. People take all these drugs and we should fix the world instead. 

Zach Condon: I see my generation just descending into nihilism. It’s so bad. 

I knew something was wrong since I was very young. I come from New Mexico. New Mexico actually has a very Catholic background but then the kind of white families that moved there are all the kind of burnouts from the hippie generation. It’s very new age. So growing up, I always had this very icky feeling about it. I don’t like the new age. There’s something about it that felt, to me, very entitled, very self-absorbed. Pick and choose what you want but take none of the hard truths of the world. So it’s like take your crystals with you, and everything will go your way. Anyone you don’t like is just a stupid patriarch narcissist. Everything was this very reactionary thing. 

I reached this point in 2019, where I was really just like dying with my own excesses and my own nihilism and I knew something was wrong. I started looking into Christianity. What was the actual intention of it, under everything? I was raised atheistic so it’s not like I have a background in this stuff. 

I found I really, really agreed with the core tenets of Christianity. There’s this beautiful acceptance of the universe the way it is. It’s not practiced this way all the time, and there are problems with that. But this idea that the world is this beautiful gift and it’s something for you to appreciate, but it’s no picnic, it’s no cakewalk. It’s a struggle, and the struggle has a beauty of its own. The seriousness of it. That’s what I liked about it. This is serious. We take this seriously. We take the struggle seriously and we take the beauty seriously and it’s bigger than us and we’re just little parts of it. 

I liked that view so much better than that kind of nihilistic, self-absorbed view of new age that I grew up around. I found that so fascinating. Because of that I was diving into all this Christian thought, and at the time, I was listening to a lot of Christian music, especially choirs, and the music that was written for god, the beauty of that. It’s not something I’ve talked about in a lot of interviews, because it’s, I don’t know, I feel like people can easily take it the wrong way, but it was very good timing that I landed in this church environment in Norway with this organ at that time. That was literally what I was right in the middle of. It wasn’t by design. It was by accident. You have to understand, me being there…they gave me the keys, you know? I would go, and it was dark all the time. I would go in the middle of the day in darkness. 

AD: Norway in January must be pretty grim.

Zach Condon: Right. And the storms would just be raging against the church, and it was just so beautiful and breathtaking. There were times when, you know, the only bathroom was in a little shed outside the church. I would go out there in these storms and just be looking out. A little bit of light would come out and you could see the fjords and the mountains and the snow hitting this church and it was just like, life is so intense. And it is. It’s to be taken seriously. I don’t know what the word is. Not necessarily worshipped but put on this higher pedestal. So it was almost like a religious experience for me. But coming from a completely non-religious background.

AD: But it sounds like it was more of a philosophical construct, rather than a connecting with a deity kind of thing?

Zach Condon: Correct. I think overall that is the way I feel. Taking these ideas from Christianity really is a way to think about how people have dealt with their minds throughout history. Because we haven’t got anything better. I promise you that therapy and pills are subpar. They’re not useless. But they won’t do it for you. So in this very philosophical way, I was wrestling with my own nihilism and whether or not there was a deeper meaning to the things I was doing with my life and to my life at all. That was all coming together at the time.

AD: Was the pandemic, the COVID, all wrapped up in this or was it separate?

Zach Condon: That happened right when I got home. That first trip ended in March and I came back here to Berlin, and I think it was not a week later or something like that, five or six days later, that all the lockdowns around the world started, and especially here in Germany. It was just kind of surreal. I just walked out of this very heavy experience, a mixture of isolation and community, very strangely mixed. They had really taken us in. We were really part of things there. But also it was an isolating place in the winter. And it was so strange. Part of me was like, “The world is going crazy.” But I was already going to do this. I had no intentions of travelling anymore, of going out and about. I was exhausted. I was burnt out from all the experiences I’ve had. To me it just added a whole level of surrealness to the situation. I ended up finishing the record in the spring in that first year and a half of lockdowns. But I didn’t want to release the record right after, because I felt that there was a great flood of albums coming out. Every musician that was supposed to be out on the road was suddenly stuck in the studio…

AD: There were lots of covers EPs. 

Zach Condon: Yeah. Totally. People were bored in their houses.

AD: I was glad there was music, because there wasn’t much else. 

Zach Condon: Sure. I agree with that, but in this day and age, we’re so overswamped and overstimulated 

AD: We bought a lot of books, too.

Zach Condon: I got super into sci-fi.

AD: What are you reading? I love sci-fi.

Zach Condon: At the time, I was reading Hyperion by Dan Simmons. He really gets into the religious stuff, which I love about that book. It’s incredible. It’s some form of Christianity has survived to end of time. And now I’m reading Vernor Vinge. I don’t know if you’ve heard of him? A Deepness in the Sky. This is funny for me, because I think these books would have been frowned on by my parents and by my older brother who are all a little bit on the book snob spectrum. 

AD: What I like about sci fi is that it’s another way of looking at the world. 

Zach Condon: It’s that but it’s adventure and mystery. It’s all in your head. It’s all imagined.

AD: Yeah and the serious literature is getting to be so grounded in personal experience. You can’t really write about anything but things that have specifically happened to you or you’re appropriating. Sci fi is more expansive.

Zach Condon: No, it’s like freedom of thought, and I love that about it. I love how little it has to do with reality in some ways, but then it’s hyper fixated on what’s going on. I like that a lot. You’re preaching to the choir in terms of the whole idea of appropriation and this weird limitation of allowances that we’ve gotten ourselves into. 

AD: Have you read The Deluge by Stephen Markley? It’s a really good one. It’s about climate but in a very interesting way. It’s about what’s happening here and now but taken to the nth degree. 

Anyway back to the record, I feel like the song “So Many Plans” probably refers to your spiritual crisis most directly. 

Zach Condon: That one’s kind of funny. I’m being quite glib with that whole thing. It’s a bit sarcastic. For me it started because I heard someone say that, “We had so many plans,” about the COVID.

AD: It seems very COVID related. 

Zach Condon: Yeah, exactly, and I took that and I ran with it because obviously there was a lot more on my mind at the time. Like I said, in this weird, surreal way, I was already in that state of mind and then it seemed like the rest of the world just suddenly got forced into it. I’m not self-involved to think that I’m the center of it. But in that funny way, it felt like people were joining me in some sort of hermit lifestyle.

AD: It was funny. When the COVID happened, we got these stimulus checks in the U.S.—and normally, there’s no safety net at all here—but for a couple of months, there was enough money and nothing was happening and you just stayed home and went out and looked at the garden. It was kind of weirdly restful. 

Zach Condon: A lot of people said that. A lot of people realized how much they were tied into this rat race. It just wasn’t really doing it for them. But for me, that was kind of a double entendre, talking about the COVID thing, but also talking about how my mind works. That’s what I was really realizing up there, how much kind of magical thinking and delusion I had. And how childishly I approached the world. That’s why the line, “Leap from the sill and see where we land”…”hiding your head in the sand.” It was such a simple, lullaby-like thing and that’s what I wrote about it. I think that I was trying to comfort myself, seeing the really weird, impulsive ways I’ve behaved all my life. I mean, just look at where I’ve lived. That alone reads like someone running from something. 

AD: This album is pretty richly textured with that organ and the vocal arrangements and brass and percussion. Did you do all that yourself or did you bring other people in?

Zach Condon: Oh, no, I did everything on this one and very purposefully. Even before COVID started, I was already like, maybe I should just do this for myself and by myself. But yeah, the pump organ, you sit at that instrument, when you play it and when you write on it, it’s like a warm sound blanket. It’s so incredible. So I was really happy. A friend of mine introduced me to these microphones that I took with me up there. If I didn’t have those this album wouldn’t have its sound because all you have to do is put them in the general direction of the organ and it really captures that sound. 

AD: You have some really traditional, organic sounds and then the percussion is often very modern. Like in “Arctic Forest” there’s this jangling percussive thing that I can’t help but hear as sleighbells. Can you talk about how you did the drums?

Zach Condon: A lot of the percussion was actually done on this long machine right here [he points to an old synthesizer in his studio]. I brought this up there with me. These are these old synthesizers from the 1960s and 1970s and they have this electro-acoustic timbre. I really dislike digital music, especially with the computer chips involved. It can be useful and I use ProTools for example. But I’m obsessed with the acoustic artifacts like this. I brought it up there because I knew I could go into these trance-like states when I was working on these. Because you go into almost an engineering mode but then when you come out of the kind of tunnel vision that you have and you listen to what you’ve done, you find these very repetitious, almost tribal beats. I really loved that. I’m also, I’m not the world’s best drummer, so I needed that accompaniment. So a lot of the album was just me disappearing for ten hours a day on this machine and then coming out the other end, being like, whoa, that’s what’s happening? All right. But it came to represent the weather outside. Just the constant beating of the storms. There were a few hurricanes while we were there. I didn’t even know that was a thing.

AD: Did you lose power?

Zach Condon: We didn’t. Which was magical because it felt like the house was going to get knocked down. We had to trust that they knew what they were doing. Otherwise they wouldn’t be there. 

AD: I also wanted to ask about the trumpet, which I know you’ve been playing since you were a kid and you’ve used it a lot on previous albums. And it’s an unusual instrument in the rock context. I was wondering if there’s anything special that you have to do to get it to work with the songs that you’re doing. 

Zach Condon: I don’t know. I never considered myself to be part of the rock context, you know? My whole musical life has been a rebellion against that. I don’t want to minimize it, and there is rock music I like. I’m the kind of guy who will be listening to a Beatles record and when they start rocking out, I just skip. I’m like, okay, cool. And then when they do the ballads, I’m like, this is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard in my life. 

The trumpet, to me, is more like singing. It’s a tone that I’m so attached to and so used to because it is my only …it’s the instrument I have any classical training on, and that was the first instrument I ever picked for myself. My dad actually stuck a guitar in my hands when I was really young. He signed me up for lessons. I didn’t last long, maybe a couple of months, and I really wasn’t interested. So trumpet was me picking my own fate. For me, it fits naturally all over the place but I reach for it less and less these days. 

Actually a big one on this record is the French horn. I brought that one back out. On “So Many Plans” there’s both and on a lot of songs there’s French horn. 

AD: Is it hard to play the French horn if you’re a trumpeter? Is it a big shift?

Zach Condon: Oh, it’s like trying to catch a wet, slippery fish. French horn is by far the most difficult brass instrument. Any brass player will tell you that.

AD: Why is that?

Zach Condon: Because you can’t…when you play the trumpet, the one thing that’s simple about trumpet, because there’s a lot that’s not, is when you press down a button you tend to go to that note. 

AD: So the French horn, you have to tune it as you’re playing?

Zach Condon: You play and you have to pull the notes out of thin air. You have to have the good muscle memory to know it’s right there. The note is at the same spot every time. It’s incredibly difficult because there’s so much pipe. It takes all the mechanical-ness out of it and you really have to feel for it. It’s very tricky. 

AD: It’s a beautiful sound though. I love the drone in, for instance, “Melbu” and I have this idea that drones are like the color white because it’s all the notes together. How do you feel about these long tones? Do they have any special significance for you?

Zach Condon: Well, you know, for as much as I make fun of new age thought, it is a kind of meditation and the density is something that I appreciate a lot. Those songs are all built around drones. I usually have two notes at the top of the harmony that just stay there while everything underneath it moves and changes shape. And that was the way of thinking at the time. For me it represents a type of meditation. I have such a frantic mind that I’m often really fighting to settle it. I was able to do that a little better up there. And I think that “Melbu” was about reaching that state, so I didn’t really add anything to it. 

AD: There are a lot of cool sounds on this record, and I was wondering if you have any special favorites, like an instrument or a sound or a little bit of melody. I’m not talking so much about “what’s your favorite song?” but more of a moment on this album. 

Zach Condon: There’s two moments that really stick out on the whole album for me. You have to understand that I have phases with the album. For a while, the first song was my favorite because it was the most bombastic and intense, but eventually I’ve settled on some of the quieter moments. The second half of the song “Süddeutsches Ton-Bild-Studio.” That was just an improvisation that I did on the modular synth. I had set up a keyboard so that I could play the notes live for the first time in a while, and I just kind of zoned out for 15 minutes doing that, and I took a few minutes of it and threw it on there. 

That’s a moment that really stands out to me, because it feels so personal and lost in space in a really nice way. The other thing that really stands out to me is actually the last song, “Regulatory.” Because that one, it’s mostly just organ, trumpet and a really old drum machine that I found. But I liked that one because there’s something about the melody that makes me think I should have written that song years ago, because it’s so simple. The melody is just one note. And yet for some reason to me it gives me goosebumps. It feels like a crystallization, a distillation of my melodic ideas. 

AD: You mentioned you were working on a bunch of projects. Anything you can talk about?

Zach Condon: I’m getting pretty close to done with a new album. A Swedish circus company approached me to make a soundtrack for one of their performances. It’s based on this book called, An Inventory of Losses. It’s a book about things that humanity has lost over the years, so each chapter is based on one thing. Some of it is about a building, architecture that was lost in a fire or abandoned. There’s one for the Caspian Tiger that went extinct. There’s one chapter on Greta Garbo’s face, which I found funny and interesting. So these people take these themes and then they build these beautiful sets and they do these circus acrobatics to these songs. I saw their sets for the piece they were working on most recently, and I was blown away. I couldn’t believe what a beautiful job they had done. 

I’ve been working really heavily on that, and I’ve actually been stopping in Stockholm on the way up to Norway every time to meet with them and talk about what we’re doing and show them new music that I’m working on. They’re going to build it around my songs. They’re called Kompani Giraff.

That’s what I’ve been most excited about. Besides trying to do press and promo for this album.

AD: This album seems to come from a very personal place, but I was wondering if you had any thoughts about what you hope people would take from it?

Zach Condon: I think it’s a kind of an environment thing that I’m hoping people will get. To be wrapped in that protective environment that I found protective. Because that’s where it was coming to represent. The whole album was supposed to sound like that place. The drums sounding like the outside elements and then the organ in the middle being like the warm fireplace that you get to sit by that keeps you warm through these harsh moments. That was what was important. That was the whole reason I was up there. To really feel that protection against the elements. If that comes across, it’s working.

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