In 2019, after persistent throat issues forced him to cut his Gallipoli tour short, Zach Condon was longing for a place to escape. Having always found comfort in the darkness of winter, he sought the most extreme version of it, and in early 2020, rented a cabin on the arctic Norwegian island of Hadsel. It ended up being a major inspiration for his sixth album as Beirut, though not necessarily in the same ways that his travels through Europe had previously informed his musical palette. Hadsel is very much rooted in the present, evoking the astonishing beauty of the landscape, from the northern lights and fjords to raging storms, whose intensity only amplifies the warmth inside the cabin, as well as that of companionship and the small community that took him in. Part of why Condon chose his rental house was because it came complete with a pump organ, and you can hear his excitement at combining its unique tone with other instruments he’d developed an interest in, like modular synthesizers. It sounds rejuvenating, vibrant, and strangely, intimately cathartic. At the same time, working in isolation brought forth an internal reckoning that somehow mirrors the harshness of the environment, infusing the record’s clarity and hope with a sense of wistfulness and agony. It’s not that things have gotten any less dark, or that trauma magically goes away, or that past and present are ever totally reconcilable – but given just the right space, you might get a better view of it all.
We caught up with Zach Condon to talk about some of the inspirations behind Hadsel, including the blue hour, the northern lights, the Trayser pump organ, and more.
The blue hour
Before we talk about what it’s like up in Norway, what do you normally associate with the blue hour?
Technically, it means when the sun has gone over the horizon and you don’t see it anymore, but the light is not gone completely, so you get that really deep blue, dim twilight to everything. This has always been my favorite part of the day since I was very, very young. For me, it means excitement and focus. When I was a teenager, before I’d ever heard a phrase like the blue hour or anything, I used to always use that one hour every day to listen to music – I would turn off all lights in my room and I would blast, like, Boards of Canada or something, because it would just fit with the atmosphere so incredibly well. It was always the most enigmatic time during the day.
So, I have this problem – I’m very backwards in some ways, and the middle of the day to me is often when I feel the lowest, I feel the most sleepy and dead and uninspired. I often feel like I’m just not part of the flow of life, like I’m watching society go on, and I feel really separate. It’s not just because of my job, because even when I was going to school and was a kid, it was exactly the same. So I always have this major dip in the middle of the day, and then when the twilight hits, it’s like my brain comes alive. I feel interested again, I feel less apathetic, I feel more engaged, more focused. That’s often when I start writing music. And for some reason, by the time night hits, I’m usually much more relaxed and much more focused and less strung out, tired, and moody, I guess. And my favorite discovery up there was that the blue hour lasts for hours. It doesn’t just last 30 minutes to an hour.
And it’s usually around the middle of the day, right?
Yeah, so in early January, noon will look like that. But it’ll start looking like that at 9 o’clock in the morning, and then it’ll go fully dark around two or three in the afternoon. That’s hours of this beautiful, mysterious blue light, where you can go outside without a flashlight, but it’s not super bright. I like that, because it it preserves the mystery of things; you don’t see everything in such bright detail that it’s almost overstimulating, everything is constantly enigmatic and interesting and kind of subdued in some interesting way. I just found that to be this amazing thing that I never thought about, but they have it so much more intensely there. And then the more day comes back, the longer that period actually gets. So for a while, you’re getting four or five hours of this really cool blue light. It was just this really magical discovery, because I remember thinking, I wish more of the day could be like this. I’d always thought that since I was a teenager. And then, all of a sudden, I find this place where that’s literally true, and I was like, “Well, I wish I had known this before, because I would have been here,” you know.
Once you’d experienced it, did it become something familiar in a way that almost took away from the magic of it?
No. I was wondering if something like that might happen, but I continued to remain excited with it, and I was really surprised. I was just very happy to find it. You daydream about something existing, and then you run into it, it’s really there. I’ve been spending so much time there – I’m still excited about it now, years later.
You said you’d use that time for writing as well?
I would use it for writing, or for just observing, and then the writing would come after. It’s almost like you soak in the atmosphere while it’s happening, and then you react afterwards.
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Fishcakes were what kept me sane there. [laughs] I actually thought the food in Norway was going to be really bad – it’s funny, the whole world seems to have this cliche of all these Germanic cultures having terrible, bland food, and I’m always shocked because I’m like, “What are you talking about?” It’s rich, it’s hearty, it’s extremely flavorful, and I’m always really surprised. I come from a place where it’s all chilly and spice, and I love that. New Mexican food is extremely spicy, and we just do chili for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, pretty much. I can live like that, but then I got to German food and Germanic foods in general, and I was like, “This is how you keep going in the winter.” These really rich vegetables and gravies and all these nice things. Whenever we would go over to people’s houses in Norway, they’re all fishermen, so when you leave, they always hand you fishcakes. Cooking fishcakes every night became this ritual, and I think that really brought me closer to the community there.
Who is this in reference to?
I should show you a picture, because that will make it make more sense potentially. [Holds a picture of a cat up to the camera]. So this Arctic-looking cat here kept coming to the house, here she is next to all my equipment. She was like the fluffiest cat I have ever seen in my life, and she would just show up at the house and scratch at the door in the middle of snow storms. I would always think, she’s gotta want to come in and try and get next to the fire, and instead she would hover around the door and be like, “Why aren’t you guys coming outside?” [laughs] I started really looking forward to this visit from this cat, because I just really fell for her. She would let you pet her for a while, and then she would run outside again, and we actually started going outside to go after her, just to see. This cat was in snow that’s up to my waist, and she was able to just manage, I don’t know how.
So it just became another ritual, like a lot of things were becoming rituals of mine. It was this ritual to wait for Fiona to come, and she would always come around the same time, after the blue hour. So I would usually be in the middle of writing on the modular, and then Fiona would come, and I would take a break and be with her for like 15-20 minutes, and then go back to working. Eventually, I went to a neighbor’s house, and they were like, “Oh, that’s our cat, her name is Fiona.” Again, all these things were helping me kind of not go into the dumpster of my mind. I feel like it just wouldn’t be the same without her.
You’ve talked about the darkness being a natural space for you, but did the intense weather out there ever get too overwhelming?
There were a couple times where it got almost too overwhelming, especially the noise of these storms. For the most part, I actually find storms extremely comforting, because one of the reasons I went up there in the first place was to feel protected against the elements, and I feel that more in these extreme environments, so the storms were part of that as well. I really liked the storms, but there were definitely a few that were so intense I didn’t realize they could get that strong, where it’s actually hurricane-force winds, and it’s quite dangerous to be out. These cabins, they have these flaps where the air vents let moist and warm air out of the house, and you need to have them in Norway, otherwise you get mold and issues like that. So what happens in the really strong storms is end up getting these metal clapping vents that are, from every side of the house, just being flipped around left and right in these storms. That would actually get to the point where you’re like, “Are we safe?” And it’s like, “I guess. They’ve been living here since the Stone Age, they must know how to build the homes.” But they’re very intense, and I had no idea how intense they actually got.
It’s interesting to me how much warmth there actually is to the record, and although the percussion sometimes blends into that, there are moments like ‘Arctic Forest’ where you seem to be evoking the harshness of that environment.
Yeah. I do think I was doing those drums during one of those bad storms for ‘Arctic Forest’, for example. It’s not so much a super-conscious effort on my part to be like, “Okay, I’m going to represent this now.” But I do think it kind of sneaks its way in, and the drums were kind of meant to sound like they were battering against walls.
How much of figuring out the tone of the record in general was just experimenting with different instruments?
I like to experiment with arrangements as far as what instruments to choose. A lot of my career, I’ve been pulling out instruments that I feel like are either ignored, overlooked, or even kind of abused. Like the ukulele, I felt like I’d seen that used for a lot of musical abuse. [laughs] I wanted to show a prettier side of them and a more dramatic side, because that instrument always seemed like this lonely, melancholic instrument. I don’t know why it’s considered cute and happy when it actually feels quite lonely to me, and I like that about it.
With this album, I just knew the pump organ was going to be there, and I knew that I might get access to a church organ. At the time, I was messing with these modular synthesizers for the percussion, and I didn’t even know I wanted to do percussion with them. That wasn’t originally the plan. But when I went up there, I didn’t have any other percussion, so I started leaning on it heavily and started to come up with these almost tribal-like beats at times. Again, it wasn’t so much out of purpose as out of convenience, out of what was there. But I did make the decision before I went that I would try to do the whole album almost entirely on just a handful of instruments, and the two I knew I would try to connect were the organs and the modular synth drums. But that was the closest I came to a conscious choice, which was to say, “Yeah, I’ll bring the synths with me, and I will use them as percussion if I can figure out how.”
When I came back, for example, the baritone ukulele came because – I think I mentioned in another inspiration I wrote – I was listening to a lot of country music, for example. For the first time, I was like, “Actually, the way they used guitar was very mellow and pleasant.” So I just pulled out this baritone ukulele because it’s the closest thing I have to a guitar, an instrument I avoid. When I played it along to the pump organ, I was really shocked how well they went together. That was this moment where I went, “OK, I’m gonna put this all over the album then.”
Trayser pump organ
What was it like first encountering the instrument and then getting to familiarise yourself with it?
When I was going up there, on the listing of this house, I saw a picture where they had this pump organ in the living room. So I wrote them and I said, “Does it work? Is it in tune? Is it functional?” They said, “Yeah, it is. In fact, the guy who gave it to us is a family friend, and he collects and repairs pump organs, and he plays church organ at church.” Of course, by then I was extremely interested, and was really eager to maybe even meet this guy. So, I kind of made friends with him and he let me into the church, which was amazing. We talked a lot about organs and how sad it is that they’re kind of disappearing, and we’re both really fond of that particular sound.
He has this one organ in his house, and that is this little tiny Trayser organ. It’s a German company, and they didn’t make many of these. I have one now as well, but the bellows aren’t very good, I have to repair it, actually. But he had one that was functional in his living room, and when I sat on that thing, it just had the most beautiful, melancholy sound. It sounded somewhere between a harmonium and an accordion, maybe, and I actually wrote a couple songs on that. They’re not on the record because I wasn’t recording at his house, but I would write them at his house, and then I would go to my pump organ at home and record that one. But I loved the sound so much that it really wrote certain songs for me, and that’s how I work with instruments. Sometimes you get on a new instrument and the same chords that you’ve been playing your entire life suddenly have a new life and all these new possibilities open up, so it was really just chasing that. This Trayser organ wrote ‘Melbu’, and it wrote parts of ‘Arctic Forest’, and then I just went to the other house and recorded it there. And then eventually, I came here and I bought one of the Trayser organs.
Did the feeling change at all when you’d transfer what you’d written to the pump organ at your house?
It did change a bit, because the Trayser organ at my friend’s house has a softer, sadder sound, and it’s a little bit thinner, in my opinion. And then I would go home, and the organ there was a bigger, thicker organ, and it had a lot more power to it, so it would really shift into this wall of sound drone in this really interesting way. In some ways, it’s like I wish I’d have more access to the Trayser, and in other ways I’m like, “No, I think this was exactly how it had to happen.”
What first struck you about the place, and what did you come to love about it?
Actually, my very first reaction to the place when I got there was one of disappointment. [laughs] Because when I first walked in, I noticed that there was literally no room at all around the organ, and I had all this equipment. I just remember thinking, “I’m never gonna fit a studio in here, and I’m never gonna be able to work if I’m so cramped that I can’t even move around.” And then we redecorated, so we started moving everything around in there and somehow, magically, we were able to squeeze the equipment onto this table and make just enough room. I think at first, I was afraid that we would get claustrophobic over the time there, but then, by the end I was really in love with this cabin and everything it represented. The views and the warmth of it, the fireplace and everything. That’s maybe another thing I can show you a picture that I have briefly. [Pulls up a picture of the landscape on his phone]. You can see why that would be so –
Oh, wow. That’s not a Google photo?
No, this is literally from looking out the window. And then I had set up my studio in this little nook and cranny corner of it, which I have a picture of, too. It’s later in the trip, when the sun really started to shine again, so you can see that little corner where I had everything. Very tight and very humble in a lot of ways, but I liked that about it. So that cabin just became everything to me and and to the record in a lot of ways. I feel like it’s somewhat self-explanatory and there isn’t a lot I could add, but that was like the little ship that took us through the storms and the cold and gave me that little space and the warmth to work. That was exactly what I was looking for.
Is it clearer to you now what it came to represent?
We ended up liking the place so much that we ended up buying a small cabin, very similar, actually, nearby. If you can imagine that, obviously it was very meaningful to us to be there and to be part of that little village that it’s part of and with our friends there. Maybe it represented an oasis away from my career and away from the noise of the city and all that. With that cabin, we started to feel like it was our home and our community, and that’s why we were in the process of potentially moving there long-term.
How has your understanding of home changed over the past few years?
Well, I’ve always felt quite homeless in a lot of ways. I think that’s been an issue of mine since I was pretty young, partially because we moved a lot, but actually partially because of where I ended up growing up. I was born in New Mexico, and I spent a few years on the East Coast in a state called Virginia, by the water, and then I moved back to New Mexico. So I was gone five years, but the rest of the time I was mostly in Santa Fe. New Mexico is kind of trapped in time. There’s the Native American culture, but that’s not really part of Santa Fe anymore, I think it’s gone, mostly. And then there’s a lot of Hispanic culture, which is Spanish families that moved there with the first conquistadors, and they started this city in the 1600s. It has this beautiful, rich history. It’s kind of Catholic, it’s kind of mythical, it’s kind of lost in time. It’s kind of rural in its own weird ways, and it’s beautiful. There’s all this interesting music and architecture and traditions and festivals that are only from that time, and it was cut off from the rest of the US so well, that when I was a kid, I used to try to order things in magazines from other parts of the US, and they would tell me that they didn’t ship outside of the country. They didn’t even know New Mexico was part of the US. That’s how isolated we were when I was a kid. Now it’s not the same, but back then it was.
Because of the weird racial divide, the Hispanic kids had no interest in us, you know, Northern European descendants – my family is mostly Irish, British, and maybe Scandinavian, Germanic a little bit. We were just these Americans that had moved there because my parents are from different parts of the country, and we didn’t belong to these long-standing families that had come hundreds of years before. So we were always treated as outsiders, and we were always treated like we weren’t allowed to participate. We did anyway, but there was always this understanding that we weren’t allowed to fully take it on as our own culture. Because of that, I feel like I’ve spent my whole life being like, “Well, I don’t really belong anywhere, because I don’t belong to where I’m from as I would have liked to feel.” There’s this feeling of, like, “You’re not allowed to.” I think I’ve carried that with me everywhere I’ve gone, and I think that’s one of the reasons I move a lot. I think it’s one of the reasons I feel like I don’t fit in very often.
I have this deep appreciation for all these places I’ve been, like in France and Turkey and in Germany. Now, there’s so many Americans that come here, and they have zero respect for Germany and German culture and the language. It’s like they don’t give a shit, they’re just here to party and don’t bother with the German stuff, you know. That kills me inside. So for me, I’ve always felt very homeless, because I’m always like, “Well, I’ve learned the language to a functional amount, my partner is German,” there’s all these things, but there’s always this part of me that’s like, “Yeah, but you don’t belong here any more than you belong to New Mexico, or anywhere in the world, for that matter.” It’s kind of sad, but it’s kind of interesting. And I think there, more than most places, I felt close because the people were just – I don’t know, they were warmer than usual somehow, I guess.
Had you seen them before your first trip to Norway?
No, that was during that first trip, the first time I ever saw them. The first night I saw them, it was hazy, and there was a cloud that looked like it was ever so slightly green. And I remember thinking, Maybe that’s it. Maybe that’s all there is. I looked up online about Northern lights, and they were like, “Yeah, most for the most part, people don’t really notice them there. It’s mostly a camera trick that makes it look so beautiful. In reality, it’s not so intense and it’s pretty understated.” And I remember feeling extremely disappointed and underwhelmed, like I’d been sold a lie or something. And then, I think it was a day or two later, it’s like the sky – there was just this glowing, pulsing, smoky green haze all over the sky, and it was bright as hell. I was so blown away I couldn’t believe it. I was really, really, really excited. I actually wrote a whole piece on the modular synth just about it, or just because of it, because I was so excited. I was out there the whole night watching them as they changed and shifted. They just kept getting brighter and brighter the longer we were there, because they actually get the most extreme in March, and we were there until early March. I’ve never seen anything like it, and you feel like a part of the universe or something.
The other cool thing about being up there in the night, especially in the polar night, is you feel closer to space in this interesting way. It feels like you’re right there on the edge of outer space. It doesn’t feel like in the rest of the world, where there’s that huge remove between you and the universe. It’s like it’s right there, you can touch it at night.
I’ve never seen them, but I can imagine being confronted by the sheer beauty of it and just wanting to keep watching as it changes. But is there a moment of reckoning afterwards, where you’re like, What does this stir up in me? or How do I exist in relation to this? Is that something you experienced?
You know what’s interesting, I’ve heard a lot of people say they struggle with feeling small in the face of the universe, and I don’t find that to be a problem. I like that it’s infinite and larger than we can even imagine. I like that we have our little corner of it and that we get to observe these phenomena that are so much bigger than us and so impossible to comprehend in some ways. To me, that’s the magic and the majesty of the universe. Where I start to get frustrated, actually, is when I think of how small things can get, and then you get into atoms and cells and breaking everything down to billions of parts. I find it stressful to think about that – like, me, as a unit, can be broken down into these billions of things that don’t even have a conscience or thought of their own, and they’re just molecules in space. That actually starts to bother me. But seeing the universe in that way is more awe-inspiring.
The northern lights, like the blue hour and even hurricanes, seem to be these intense representations of the beauty of the universe, and maybe you get a little bit of that just going through the day like most people – in the flow of life, like you were saying – but I assume being there was rewarding in the sense that it exists as more of a constant backdrop.
It does, yeah. One of the reasons I went there, and one of the reasons I travel to make music in general, is not just so that I can soak in new sounds or something like that, but rather so that I kind of crack open my experience again. So things are new and exciting, because it’s that comes across very clearly in the music. I have this problem where, when I’m left to my own devices for so long, my life starts to get very small and very repetitious. I don’t have the best stamina against depression and apathy, unfortunately. So when I’m alone a lot, or when I’m at home for too long, I start to just never leave the couch, you know. I just disappear into a TV show or a record or something, and I just want distraction all the time. I start to drift away from the world. So I often travel to places so that I can crack that back open and get re-engaged in the world somehow and stop disappearing so much.
Up there, the beauty is so intense that you walk around in this permanent state of awe. Everything you see is bigger and more beautiful than anything you’ve ever seen before, and you feel like this little kid that’s experiencing the world for the first time again. Mountains look bigger, water looks more dramatic. The sky is changing colors every minute of every day in ways that you’ve never seen or experienced before. So it becomes impossible to feel jaded, it feels impossible to be bored, it feels impossible to feel underwhelmed by things. And that really cracks me open again.
Was country music a formative influence on you?
Actually, not exactly, even though it should be. The funny thing is, my parents loved country music. When I was a kid, they would listen to it all the time, especially on our road trips. We used to travel a lot in this van, me and my two brothers and my parents, and we would often drive to St. Louis, for example, which is in the middle of the country. We were just driving everywhere like once a year, and it was kind of awful as a kid, because it’s just really hard to sit in a car for 14 hours a day for many days in a row. But they would always be playing country music, and where we were, they would base the music on it. So we would go through Tennessee and they would play all these songs about Memphis and Nashville, and we’d go through Oklahoma and they’d play these songs about there, and we’d drive through Amarillo and there was a song about Amarillo and truck drivers or something like that.
This was a very formative experience for me, absolutely, but I kind of forgot about all that, to be honest. It wasn’t until I was up in Norway, and I remember I would be playing different styles of music, but for some reason, it’s like bossa nova didn’t go great with a snowstorm. [laughs] It didn’t feel quite right, maybe. And then I put on some country music – it wasn’t even my idea, it was actually my girlfriend’s suggestion, like, “What about old country? It’s warm, it’s pretty, it’s simple but catchy.” And I’m like, “Really? Huh, maybe.” And I put on Hank Williams and was really blown away, because I’d never listened to that stuff as an adult. I kind of ignored it, and it seemed kind of boring to me. And then I was just really taken by it all of a sudden. It fit the environment, it fit the vibe.
There was so much melody, and I really love the way they sing. I like that they sing very full-voiced, because there’s a lot of indie modern stuff where people kind of whisper or they hide behind effects, where they put on a ton of delay or flanger or something on it, and it always sounds overproduced and fake and digital. I really hate that, and hearing these old voices was really heartwarming and really catchy to me. I really wanted to emulate that in some ways. Also, the simplicity of it, how it often is just a guitar and voice, but it’s not annoying guitar rock or something. I was surprised that I had slept on it for so many years, and I totally dove so deep into it while I was up there listening to everything I could find again.
There was this funny thing, too, which was me rediscovering the culture that I had left behind in the US. I’ve been out of the country for many years, and even before that I would often spend time in France, and then I went back to the US. And then I spent time in Turkey, then went back to the US. You know, I was always one foot out the door, and there were a lot of things about the US that really bother me culturally. But I realized that part of it was this real, genuine, very unique to the US beauty – you would never mistake that for any other style. I found that quite charming and interesting, and I really I think there was this part of me that even reanalyzed how I saw the US. The US right now is so caught up in this conservative/liberal split, and it’s really falling apart because of it. I grew up in this very liberal place, and we viewed people who listened to country music as these rednecks – unintelligent, uneducated, whatever. And I realized how brutally wrong that was, to see this whole part of the country as these backwards idiots. I realized that that was the most pretentious and close-minded thing I could possibly do. I felt really bad about that, and I just started to reevaluate everything and realized that there was so much more wisdom in there.
As you alluded to before, a lot of your work in the past has been seen as soaking in the sounds of a specific place or culture, and you can hardly make that case for Hadsel. Was that part of what led you to look back on the past, making the process less about absorbing your surroundings and more about turning inwards?
Very much, yeah. I was really doing a lot of reading and introspection to try and find out what the hell was going on with me and why I was having such issues in my life with certain things. It was a very interesting journey in that way. Norway has a lot going on culturally, it’s a very interesting and vibrant place, but it was funny how much I ended up going internally in some ways and seeing the American in me.
Even the fact that the album is named Hadsel, but what you’re singing about in the title track is very personal and very much tied to your personal life, rather than just being evocative of a place.
I kind of saw the album as straddling the line between internal and external. Like I was saying about ‘Arctic Forest’, for example, it’s like the drums represented the external storms and forces acting against the house, and the organ was meant to represent this warmth of the fireplace and the shelter itself. There was a lot of that going on. The lyrics were basically a weird therapy session where I was just improvising whatever came up from my subconscious, and the rest of the music was looking outwards in other ways. It was all over the place.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
Beirut’s Hadsel is out now via Pompeii Records.