Dan Bejar of Destroyer
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Singer-songwriter Dan Bejar divides his time between a handful of bands and collaborators, most notably power-pop favorite The New Pornographers and art-rock outfit Swan Lake. But Bejar’s personality finds its fullest expression in Destroyer. Bejar launched the band out of his Vancouver home in 1995, and he’s shepherded it through an eclectic string of LPs, EPs, cassettes, and singles—sometimes recording simple songs by himself, and sometimes recording elaborate song-suites with a miniature rock orchestra. Destroyer’s latest album, Kaputt, can’t really be classified as a departure, since every Destroyer record is fairly distinct from what came before, but Kaputt’s mix of slinky soft-rock and ’80s-style art-disco is unexpected, at least. Bejar corresponded with The A.V. Club via e-mail about the sonic inspirations for Kaputt, the mood he was trying to convey, and why you should never say that one of his songs sounds like Haircut 100.
The A.V. Club: When you record an album, do you start from scratch every time, or do you come into the project with some finished songs?
Dan Bejar: I always have words and vocal melodies. Usually a chord structure. In this case, there was no band, just in-house producers, and then people who trickled in down the road to shred over top of things. Some of the songs on Kaputt, I demoed. Crudely, but not without their charm. Others, I didn’t. I could sing them from beginning to end, but that was about it. No chords, no nothing. But those songs rejected structure. They turned out to be the poppiest ones. This is my first try at a pop record, by the way. I think it turned out pretty good. Though the elements were all taken from non-pop sources. Mostly film soundtracks I had in my head. Michael Mann or Alan Rudolph movies. The modal jazz classics. Certain ambient basics. I couldn’t play them on a guitar if you asked.
Generally, a Destroyer record begins traditionally, with a rock band laying down bed tracks and scratch tracks, some of which you keep, if you’re lucky. Your Blues was not like this; in fact, there’s a few similarities in the way things got started on that one and on this one. I’ve never just jammed and then tried to riff vocals over it, though every single Destroyer song starts from that kind of kernel. I knew I didn’t have it in me to figure out defined versions of the songs, in a way that you could play for a band. I also didn’t really want anyone to hear anyone else. I also wanted to be able to pull the rug out from any song at any given time and still be able to keep some of the work. So obviously the grid and MIDI played a big role. Songs like “Chinatown” benefited from this.
AVC: Do the songs you write dictate what kind of album it’s going to be, or do you have a mood and tone in mind before you come up with the songs?
DB: I usually have a mood and tone in mind, independent of what the songs might be able to bear. But that mood and tone generally gets betrayed. I don’t really care about writing anymore. I don’t think pop music or indie-rock or whatever you call all this is a suitable forum for it, so I gave up all that. I’m now strictly interested in singing.
AVC: It’s probably foolish to attempt to interpret lyrics, but there does seem to be a lot of imagery on Kaputt related to far-away places, both in terms of time and distance. Were you feeling especially elegiac when you wrote and recorded this album, or are any themes purely unconscious?
DB: For the most part, I have no idea what the lyrics of Kaputt pertain to, except for “Suicide Demo For Kara Walker.” Which is odd, because the writing seems really specific compared to all the other Destroyer albums, whose lyrics I happen to understand very well and can explain 110 percent and always have been able to. That being said, there is a colonial sound to the record, which maybe is playing off the lyrics. I was thinking a lot about dissolute officers and envoys with cushy posts, strung out on opium. By “a lot,” I mean I thought about that more than once, even if just as an audio reference. That’s what Roxy Music’s Avalon sounds like to me. I did have the instrumentation mapped out very strictly, and we really didn’t veer from it too much over the 20 months of working on this stuff on and off. I always had the players in mind.
AVC: Is “Suicide Demo For Kara Walker” about the artist?
DB: It was co-written by Kara. More than co-written, as most of the lyrics I wrote were created as segues and asides to the texts she gave me. The stuff she wrote was definitely the springboard; I just had to mangle things in order to make them singable and get from one bit to the next. Though I swear I had that chord progression and that beat and a mess of text in front of me, and I just went for it, making up my own “filler” as I went! Probably the only song I’ve ever written that involved me just making stuff up on the spot and then getting up and walking away. I think that’s one of the reasons I really like it. The flow and delivery seem so casual: just the opposite of forced, even though the words and the sentiments are, in spots, fucking harsh.
I like the idea of the song being about her, even though I know very little about her work, and even less about her as a person, and I don’t think it’s about her, any more than it’s about me. I also like the idea of the song being about avoiding having the song be about her, and maybe failing. By the way, what it’s been like to be a black woman in America over the last 400 years had to be an idea that popped into my head for at least a split second before I went “brown paper bag, don’t stop me now, I’m on a roll,” even if at the time I was thinking about huffing glue. It goes without saying, I know nothing about either of those things.
AVC: The new album has a vibe reminiscent of the softer side of early ’80s British new wave: Haircut 100, Spandau Ballet, et cetera.
DB: The sonic templates I had in my head didn’t change too much, but they were not Spandau Ballet or Haircut 100. All that stuff is a strident, young, composed version of romantic. And I don’t think my singing sounds anything like those guys. And I don’t think most of the playing sounds anything like the playing on those records. I guess music that has both horns and synths pushed to the fore, and a rigorously ’80s drum sound, is gonna get compared to that shit. Maybe John [Collins] and Dave [Carswell] pulled a fast one on me and it sounds exactly like that stuff, I don’t know. I wish there were more sound effects.
AVC: You have one of the most distinctive voices in modern rock/pop. Does your voice dictate the kind of songs you can write and sing?
DB: I don’t think my singing on this record bears any relation to the previous eight Destroyer albums. Am I wrong to think this? Otherwise Kaputt is a failure, which I’m fine with. More people should fail at art. I’ve never tried to write a song, so I can’t really tell what the songs’ intentions are. I know I’ve often enjoyed singing in a conversational style, so there aren’t a lot of sustained notes or circular melodies. Kaputt feels removed from society, maybe from that faraway place you were talking about. But the writing seems on paper very social, removed from the kind of pure poetry that I was hung up on with Trouble In Dreams, and that I’m still hung up on, though I don’t engage it with music anymore.
AVC: Kaputt comes on the heels of last year’s “Bay Of Pigs,” which you released as a 12-inch single. Another very ’80s move.
DB: I wanted to release a really long song, and vinyl these days seems like the only way to go, so doing a 12-inch made sense. I also wanted large-format black-and-white photos of myself made prominent. [Ted] Bois really nailed it on all three releases.
AVC: Were you were a record-store scavenger when you were younger, looking for rarities? If so, do you have any specific memories of good finds?
DB: Nah, I wasn’t that cool in the “’80s heyday.” I had a few tapes kicking around, a couple records, but I really didn’t get into buying music ’til later in my teens, maybe 15 or 16, and by that time, the era of the new-wave 12-inch had faded a bit. I might’ve had the [Jesus & Mary Chain] “Some Candy Talking” 12-inch, or some early Stone Roses singles, but those were really more EPs. Not so much that crossover of new wave and club culture. By the late ’80s, it definitely seemed that techno was techno and rock was rock, and the two didn’t really meet up again for a few years. Though I was listening to [Primal Scream’s] Screamadelica on an airplane a few weeks ago—it was one of the airline’s “classic” album choices?—and listening to “Higher Than The Sun,” which is one of my favorite songs of all time, and obviously a huge inspiration on the album Kaputt, and remembering how I bought the Higher Than The Sun CD. It was a five-song, 30-minute EP that contained five different versions of “Higher Than The Sun,” and they were all so good, so vital! Seemed unheard of for a “rock” band. Also, a real abuse of the CD format, seeing as I think the 12-inch only had a measly three versions of the song. Why am I talking about this again, rock being rock and techno being techno?
Anyway, it wasn’t ’til the mid-’90s that I got really serious about scouring for records, and had about a five- or six-year period of doing that stuff in earnest. But I was in my twenties by that point, and by then, it was mostly typical classic-rock stuff of the early-’70s English variety: Bowie, T. Rex, Roxy Music, Eno, John Cale, Mott The Hoople. Pretty easy-to-find stuff at the time, ’cept for a couple of those early Mott records. I remember dropping coin on a copy of [The Kinks’] Village Green, and maybe some Tim Buckley records. A Soft Machine record I bought, I remember being kind of expensive. But really expensive to me 15 years ago was 15 bucks. Easy listening was a good racket to be in, ’cause it was so easy to find any Bee Gees record or Dionne Warwick record kicking around for a buck, and they were always good. Anyway, I’m a total novice in this record-hunting department compared to a lot of people I knew back then. And now it seems the whole ballgame has changed. People seem to be handing out fields of expertise at the door.
AVC: Are you touring behind Kaputt? And if so, will you be performing your older songs in a Kaputt-like style?
DB: Destroyer is touring as an eight-piece with mostly the same people that recorded Kaputt. We will try playing songs off other albums in ways that suit our fancy, though seeing as we’ve yet to spend a single minute in the same room together, I can’t vouch for any of this. I actually can’t vouch for any of this, in general!