Interview: Paul Collins of Beirut (performing Nov. 13th at Electric Factory)
Beirut is often grouped with other bands whose front man has become a synonym for the band itself. Bright Eyes has Conor Oberst, Bon Iver has Justin Vernon, and indie rock outfit Beirut has Zach Condon. Though Beirut started as Condon’s personal brainchild, bassist Paul Collins has been a part of the Sante Fe-based group for nearly as long as Condon himself. Now fresh off the release of Beirut’s latest EP, The Rip Tide, Collins has witnessed first-hand how the band’s songwriting has slowly morphed—and continues to morph—from a one-man show to a collaborative effort. Just as Condon’s songwriting has a reputation for being sophisticatedly eclectic, Collins has his own diverse musical background to offer, fronting his own band, Soft Landing, and handling some DJ-ing on the side. Prior to Beirut’s performance Sunday night at the Electric Factory, The Key spoke with Collins about writing for Beirut, wearing suits, and his appreciation of accordions.
The Key: What, exactly, is your musical background—and how did you end up involved with Beirut?
Paul Collins: Ok. Well let’s see. Where do I start? My mom made me take violin lessons and piano lessons, and I was terrible at all that. But once I was into junior high I started playing in bands, and I loved it. It was the best thing ever for me. I just lived and breathed music, punk music, classic rock, and all that shit. Then, basically, I got to college, and that’s when I met Zach, actually, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I saw him play by himself—I think it might have even been his first performance as Beirut—and I was so blown away by it that I approached him after the show and just told him I wanted to help him in any way I could—being in shows, or whatever. And then he needed to get a band together about six months later and he called me up and asked me to help him. And here I am.
TK: So you had been in other kinds of bands before?
PC: Yeah, the band I was in before that was called Ping Pong. That’s where I met the drummer for Beirut. We were like a Stereolab kind of band. That’s the only way I can describe it. Before that, I was just in punk rock bands, or in college I would take electro-acoustic music classes and things like that. So I have a pretty wide range of bands I’ve been in.
TK: How do you incorporate that background when you’re filling out sound in Beirut?
PC: I incorporate it in the sense of evolving into bands. I guess that’s what the difference is with that type of stuff. I just play how I feel like it should be played. I’m not technically very advanced, especially compared to some of the other members of the band. But I can bring a feeling and create on it.
TK: Are there any specific moments you can think of where you did that?
PC: “The Concubine” was a song that was on the March Of The Zapotec EP, and that was my strongest bass line, I think. That really is my strongest bass line in this band, and it was really just me and Zach working with each other and then just being very intuitive and having fun with the bass line.
TK: Do you think the way that the band writes and records music has changed since the first album?
PC: Absolutely. I think the main reason is because the first album, it was just Zach. It wasn’t a band that was co-writing things with him. Then with Flying Club Cup, it was a lot of people that were playing parts, but, I think, that were a lot more controlled by Zach. Zach would say, “Play this,” and it would happen and they’d record once and move on. But this record has been a collaboration where Zach will—yes, he definitely still has a very strong part in songs and demos—but this is the first time where he really wants everyone in the band to gel and come up with their own parts.
TK: Do you ever have issues with your parts clashing with someone else’s?
PC: Oh yeah, totally. There will be times when you’re trying something and you think it’s so cool, and then you realize—like I had a bass line on the album that I thought was really great, and then we were listening back to the song like right at the end, when it was being mixed, and it was like, “This bass line is slowing down the entire song and screwing it up.” I had to go back in and re-record it. And then it was great. It was amazing. But it happens to all of us, definitely.
TK: There are often a lot of accessory instruments thrown in, like a trombone or an accordion. Why do you guys choose to incorporate those kinds of things?
PC: I would say that brass has been in the sound from the beginning. Zach was a trumpet player ever since he was a little kid, so that’s why trombone and any brass instrument is just the basis of everything, and expounding that is just a very normal kind of thing. As for the accordion, I don’t know. We love French music and we obviously all love Neutral Milk Hotel and any band that has brought that instrument in and done very cool things with it. I mean, it’s a beautiful sound and it works without being kitschy, I feel like.
TK: Is it hard to keep that from sounding gimmicky?
PC: Yeah. I mean, Perrin [Cloutier, who plays accordion in Beirut], at this point, knows how to play it so well, he has his own attitude. But we’re constantly talking about that stuff. He’ll play a part, or we’ll all play a part, and we’ll be like, “No, that sounds like shit, that’s terrible. That’s stupid. It sounds like zydeco or something.” But it’s a constant struggle and a battle and it’s fun.
TK: What kinds of venues have been your favorite kinds for that music?
PC: I really like…let’s see. People need to be able to stand and they need to be able to drink. That’s basically it. I mean, I love beautiful places, but as long as they can do those two things, you have a good shot at having a good night.
TK: What’s the largest venue you’ve performed in?
PC: We played at Hyatt Park for like 70,000 people. It was an Arcade Fire concert and we were one of the openers. It was insane. It was without a doubt the biggest place we’ve performed.
TK: How did that compare to smaller venues?
PC: I feel like I just kind of zoned out. Like, it was cool, I’m glad to say I’ve done it, but it wasn’t like anywhere near the energy that I get off on.
TK: I saw you on Jimmy Fallon and you were all suited up. Do you like getting dressed up for stage?
PC: Yeah, I love it. I think it’s awesome. Totally. That was the first time we’ve really done that, to that extent, and it felt really good. It made it feel important.
TK: Why did you decide to do that?
PC: Because it’s TV, you know? We wanted it to be special. When you play so much it’s really easy to get into a point where you don’t take each show and treat it with as much respect as you should. That just seemed like a clear time to do it. It’s like, well all our friends back home and all across the world are going to see this, so let’s not be wearing white T-shirts and jeans.
TK: What are some side projects that you’ve done or that you’ve been working on?
PC: I have a band called Soft Landing. I released a record in, I think, February of this year. That’s my side project. Perrin, the accordion player, he plays drums and my friend Mike Lawless plays guitar and keyboards.
TK: What’s it like for the members of Beirut to go their separate ways and then come back and work together again?
PC: It’s like being away from your family for a long time and getting back together with your family, and having that few days where it’s kind of weird, but you’re thinking, “That’s still mom and dad and my brother and sister.” But, you know, you have to kind of relax. Even while you’re communicating, it takes a bit to get that answer and feedback. That’s always difficult but it always ends up happening.
TK: Is there anything else you want to say to the people of Philadelphia?
PC: Well, I just want to say that I love Philadelphia. And Need New Body was one of my favorite bands of all time. And Beautiful World Syndicate is my favorite record store on the east coast. And, finally, I am doing a DJ after party at Johnny Brenda’s the night of our show. So if anybody wants to come to that, they should come to that. It’ll be awesome.
Beirut performs with Basia Bulat at 8 p.m. Sunday, November 13th, at Electric Factory; tickets to the show are $30.95. —Marielle Mondon