While it may sound like an entire Balkan orchestra playing modern songs as mournful ballads and upbeat marches, Beirut's first album, Gulag Orkestar, is largely the work of one 19-year-old Albuquerque native, Zach Condon, and was almost completely recorded at home. Horns, violins, cellos, ukuleles, mandolins, glockenspiels, drums, tambourines, congas, organs, pianos, clarinets and accordions (no guitars on this album!) all build and break the melodies under Condon's deep-voiced crooner vocals, swaying to the Eastern European beats that sound like they're being brought to you by a 12-member ensemble.
Condon was a straight-A student until he dropped out of high school at the age of 16 to travel Europe in a drunken haze, cavorting and partying with the locals wherever he ended up. It was during one of these evenings that he was first exposed to Balkan gypsy music (notably including the Boban Markovic Orchestra), blasting from the upstairs apartment. Condon went upstairs to see what exactly he was hearing, and ended up staying up all night with the Serbian artists, going through albums country by country, note for note. The Gulag Orkestar is the direct result of what he learned that night.
Most of the tracks on Gulag Orkestar were recorded on Pro Tools while skipping school in Albuquerque, but this past winter, Condon moved to Brooklyn and booked time at Sea Side Studios in Park Slope. He was joined by Jeremy Barnes and Heather Trost of A Hawk and A Hacksaw, who added percussion over what was originally done with drum machines, and some beautiful violin overlays. The resulting record sounds like a Neutral Milk Hotel from behind The Iron Curtain, a glorious and emotional sweep of music both shocking in its emotional content as well as the astounding logistical feat of this having all been pulled off.