Posted: April 14th, 2009
"I didn’t want to be a fruitbooter. Shit—what’s a scrawny, anti-social kid supposed to do..."
Interview by Dan Zaslavsky | Photo by Kirszenbaum
While sipping wine with Jose Rojo before a show, a funny-looking four eyes in a red shirt approached Jose, trying to figure out if it was actually the man am himself. “I’m Paul,” he said. “I’m with the band. You skate, right?” So excited to meet Jose, Paul brought us backstage as the rest of the band was scrambling to get ready. I met the lead singer, Zach, while he was trying to locate a tuner for one of the other members. We got out of their way and agreed to meet after the show. On Stage, Zach tried to apologize about not being able to locate the tuner, proclaiming, “It’s just a ukulele, it doesn’t need to be in tune.” And he was right, because the band sounded incredible. The music they perform isn’t unprecedented, but rather uncommon in today’s scene, especially with their processes of execution. Made up of (on average) 10 members, Beirut has a complete sound reminiscent of Eastern EuropeanBalkan ensembles that rock out hard enough to skate to but are still mellow enough for your mother to appreciate.
You’ve been in Paris lately, what’s going on there?
Strange scene these days; it seems as though the clichés caught up to the city and the art world turned its back on Paris about 20 years ago. Nowadays its got strange grass-roots art movements going on everywhere you look, so it seems to have much more stable ambitions than such cities as New York or Los Angeles, or London for that matter, where people don’t always have the best sense of reality. Other than that I watch bad Hollywood films at the local theater when I need a quick fix of English.
What are you working on out there?
A lot of my time was spent working with Chryde and Vincent Moon, La Blogothéque.net, a French website. They do really interesting videos of musicians out in the streets, kind of like busking. We ended up doing a live version of every song off the new album with the full band in the streets and random buildings. Kind of a grueling project.
It’s interesting to take musicians off the stage and put them back where the music came from: the streets. Tell me about the first time you came to San Francisco.
A friend and I had saved up a lot just to be skate tourists. This was before you could just pull up a spot-map online. I remember we nearly got arrested because we couldn’t understand the subtle signals the local kids had for when the cops were spotted. I think this was at Pier 7. Lavar McBride seemed to be hawking his free decks off to local kids.
You can never tell on film what a shithole Hubba Hideout actually is.
It’s funny to me how sacred these spots can be once you get enough people on film skating them. When I was in Barcelona, I found myself looking for famous spots instead of Gaudi buildings. I also remember finishing knocking off the last couple skate-proofing knobs to get up and noseslide Hubba Hideout. Hard work.
When did you start skating?
I didn’t want to be a fruitbooter. Shit—what’s a scrawny, anti-social kid supposed to do in high school and middle school besides skate?
How’s the skate scene in Santa Fe? I know there are spots, but New Mexico seems often forgotten about.
When I was 14 or so, Thrasher happened to rate the Santa Fe skatepark the worst in the country…not that I’m offended. I got used to the giant cracks and terrible transitions, but the city spent more money making the main pyramid into a Zia symbol (ie, the state flag) than actually making it the slightest bit skateable. I spent much more time skating in Albuquerque than in Santa Fe. I once ended up hanging out with the Foundation team after I recognized them at a gas station near the Universtiy of New Mexico. Turns out they were much more interested in my girlfriend.
What got you into playing music?
I like to imagine that shattering my arm had something to do with the shift in concentration from a full-time skate rat into a musician. My left wrist has a titanium plate and is an inch shorter than my right wrist. That was after I had broken it for the second time in San Diego. If I was able to explain exactly what compelled me to do music, then these interviews would run a lot smoother. Besides the obvious, I find myself attracted to a good melody more than almost anything else in the world. Always have.
At what age did you first start messing around with creating your own sounds?
My father wanted me to be a guitar player at a really early age. After a couple lessons I found the instrument to be kind of disappointing, so I picked up the trumpet to spite either the guitar or my dad. I was 15 or 14 when I first started recording on an old Fostex four track that my brother left behind on his way to college. Within a couple weeks I was busy writing my first album. I even convinced the older girl who I worked with at the movie theater to come sing on a song or two. She’s a tattoo artist now. But I was hooked. A year after that I dropped out of school and recording was all I cared about.
How many official members of the band are there, and how did you find them?
Somewhere between 1 and 13 or so. Some folks from New Mexico, some from New York, a friend that I skate with, a girl from Dallas, and my mentors from Albuquerque (my brother and the two great people that make up A Hawk and a Hacksaw). I don’t know how we met; the project was well under way when I had to recruit folks for the first show. Although, I did meet the accordion player at the Häagen-Dazs in Santa Fe. We both scooped ice cream for a living before all this happened.
What do your parents think about what you’re doing? Most want their kid to graduate from ivy college and become a typical part of society.
The most shocking thing was that they didn’t put up too much of a fight. They must have blindly trusted me, staying up ’til five in the morning with bottles of wine and a microphone. I don’t know how that didn’t scare them more. I get along with them pretty well now. They’ve gotten into the habit of Google-ing my name. My dad will call me to tell me he read about a shitty show we played the night before.
What are your plans for the near future?
To wean myself off tour addictions like video games and liquor, meet a mariachi band that I can collaborate with, and skate the hell out of the decks I got from enjoi. Thanks, Jose.
How do you like living in NYC compared to Santa Fe?
The one thing they have in common is that they can be incredibly isolating if you’re not careful. New York is as close as I can get to a functional city in the United States in the European sense; although, I’m becoming lazy. I’m realizing all I need is a good studio and a couple friends and it doesn’t matter where I am.
What have you been listening to lately?
Dirty Projectors, anything from Studio One on Soul Jazz Records, Philip Glass, music from the Mediterranean, Iraqi music! Shit, the list goes on.
Download Beirut albums or songs from the iTunes store here.