Phawker got a chance to speak with Beirut bassist Paul Collins [pictured, below right] while the band is on tour promoting their third studio album, The Rip Tide. The new record marks a transition in Beirut’s music from Eastern European and World Music musings towards a sound more reminiscent of Western pop. Paul talks to us about the strange instruments that show up on Beirut records, the band’s history, the new album, and even Grover Norquist. The band will be playing at the Electric Factory on November 13th.
PHAWKER: Forgive me if you’ve been asked this a million times, but why is the band called Beirut?
PAUL COLLINS: One day Zach [Condon] decided – his brother, actually, Ryan, suggested Beirut [as a band name] and he just thought it was pretty cool. So it’s basically as simple as that, really.
PHAWKER: When did you start working with Zach? How did you guys meet?
PAUL COLLINS: I was working on a free concert in Sante Fe, New Mexico, called Get Awesome! Fest. My friend had asked Zach [pictured, below left] to play. So basically, it was just Zach – if you can imagine that – it was Zach with a trumpet playing backing tracks on his MacBook and singing. So I saw him playing and thought it was magnificent, and I told him that, and I told him I’d help him in any way that I could. And then, you know, he asked me to be in the band.
PHAWKER: Let’s talk about some of the crazy instruments that wind up on Beirut records. For example, the conch shell – not something you hear on a lot of records.
PAUL COLLINS: [Laughs] Yeah, totally. Zach is, you know, very much into brass and things like that, and I think the conch shell – something that just kinda fell in his lap – is basically a brass instrument. You just blow into it and it makes that noise. I think he got a kick out of it, but I think there’s something that’s very old school and very classic about the sound of that, and I think he likes the idea of opening the record with it. Other than that, everybody in the band is constantly searching for new sounds and little acoustic instruments like the cavaquinho and what have you. Always fun for us to dig into and get new things out of. It started with Zach playing ukelele as opposed to a guitar, then that kinda set the pace and we all kinda took the ball and ran with it.
PHAWKER: What prompted The Rip Tide’s move away from the World Music explorations of the previous albums and more toward a traditional Western pop sound? How do you think the new album connects with what came before?
PAUL COLLINS: In answer to how it connects; it connects because all the songs – we were constantly exploring different world musics and things like that in our listenings – but as far as what we were creating, it really always had its core with pop music. Pop song structures, strong melodies, things like this. So all the stuff has that thread through it. I think with this album though, there just wasn’t that. Zach was looking more inward. He wanted to be more about us and how we sound now rather than picking a country or a type of music as the jumping point. This was more like, “Lets make a solid pop record that’s just fun and very much us.” And that’s what happened.
PHAWKER: How does a Beirut song get written? How much do you and the other band members contribute in comparison to Zach? Is he the primary writer and composer?
PAUL COLLINS: Yeah, absolutely. Zach will just write. Sometimes he’ll have everything. “You play this, you play this, you play this.” But then there’s songs like “Port of Call,” probably the best example on the record, where Zach just came in with a ukelele chord progression and then the band built the song around it. It’s like a short talk about a poem, and then we just recorded it. Then Zach came up with the melody over it, and the rest is history. But, then there’s songs like “The Peacock,” on the record, where Zach is just home in Sante Fe and just rips it, and makes beautiful songs, just him alone.
PHAWKER: Unrelated to your work with Beirut – you have a side project, an experimental jazz band called the Grover Norquist Quartet. Could you tell us a little bit about that and why you chose that name? Are you pro Norquist or anti?
PAUL COLLINS: [Laughs] I would say we’re definitely making fun of the gentleman because I don’t think Mr. Norquist would care for the sounds we’re making. Really, it’s fun for us. The four of us who are in that band have a very strong love for jazz – particularly free jazz – music. So when we’re on the road we’ll have a lot of days off for Zach to rest his voice, so we wanted to take that time and do something that was fun and productive in between. So we came up with this jazz improvisation group, the “Grover Norquist Quartet.”