Dissonant Notes

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Interview with Dan Bejar of Destroyer

Destroyer have existed in one form or another since around 1995. The one constant in the band is Dan Bejar. Although he makes cameo appearances in both The New Pornographers and Swan Lake, his main musical project is Destroyer. I catch him via telephone to talk about the band’s ninth album Kaputt.

In terms of the promotional aspects of Kaputt, and I realise we’re doing an interview right now, is that winding down or is there still lots to do?

In North America the record came out at the end of January so that is definitely winding down. We are going to leave for a tour in a few days. We’re going on tour in Europe for two and a half weeks so there’s probably promotional stuff around then that’s going to happen but the record is starting to feel a little far away. It’s not that it came out that long ago but from the time I first started working on it it’s been quite a bit of time.

I read somewhere that it took a year and a half to take shape.

Yeah, maybe more. I think we started working on it in the fall of 2008 and handed it in in June of 2010. It wasn’t just us trying to blaze a trail in the studio seven days a week for a year and a half. It was an erratic schedule but I think I knew that an erratic schedule was going to be necessary for this record.

The reaction of the music press seemed to be overwhelming positive. Is that something that pleases you or are you the kind of person who essentially ignores that kind of thing and just gets on with it?

I don’t know if it pleases me because it’s always hard to tell what exactly is going on when there’s a positive reaction. Because the record is getting a positive reaction from people who never knew the band before or in other cases did know the band and actively disliked them then you never really know exactly what it means. I guess being nine albums in you see how things can come and go pretty quickly. The record also does seem to be attached to some idea of a youth culture zeitgeist, sonically anyway. People seem to want to lump it in with some younger groups which to me is somewhat amusing.

I think there’s a tendency among the music press, because of the sound of the album, to assume that you’re coming at it from an arch point of view as if you’re indulging in something which is seen as uncool and that has a lot of currency these days.

It would seem that, when you boil it down, there are certain sounds from the 80s, the commercial, crossover New Wave sounds, that were treated like venom for a few years or so but in the last few years people born around that time seem to have embraced, though I’m not really sure at what level. I guess that happens with every generation, you go hunting in the weirdest places you can find. I don’t think that’s what Kaputt is born of myself but only because I’m privy to inside information of how the record came about.

Even though this word might seem frightening to some people I think the record is sincere. I don’t mean that in the worst kind of way, I just mean I don’t see anything ironic about it. It more just seems like this is what you were listening to and you wanted to go for that sound.

At its simplest level it’s kind of a collection of sad disco music, a genre I’ve always liked. On top of that there are some New Wave and jazz flourishes. There’s a lot of soloing horns and there’s a lot of programmed drums. If all that adds up to something that’s kitschy in someone’s mind that’s fine but those are things that I like, things I’ve always liked. The deal with Destroyer is if I hear something I just want a piece of it. However ill-advised that may be I just go for it. About seven years ago we put out a record called Your Blues which was actually made in a similar way to Kaputt except it wasn’t intended to be pop music. It was intended to be experimental so it ended up being a little more baroque and melodious than pop music. It was at a time when I was really into the idea of coalescing the four decades of Scott Walker’s vision. Of course most people probably couldn’t think of someone more distant from Scott Walker than me and my voice, and probably even my writing style. From that weird project something else was born and I ended making something that probably didn’t sound anything like what I originally set out to make but it’s kind of cool nonetheless. Kaputt in its own way is not that different excepting that for the first time in my life I wanted to make a pop record so it makes sense that it’s a bit more accessible. The singing was less aggressive, a bit more space to it, kind of more even keeled. So in that sense the vocals are less alienating than they have been on other records.

With some bands you can see a progression in their albums, and you can tell where they’re going to go on the next album. With Destroyer, though, it almost seems like since Streethawk: A Seduction every album has been almost a rejection of the previous album. Is that a fair enough assessment or do things just happen that way and it’s not a conscious decision?

I don’t think it’s an active rejection. I kind of have a jittery muse. I’m not really a musician, I mean I can string together chords on guitar or piano, so I’m not really tied down to expressing myself in a distinct way on an instrument. I’m more of a vocalist and for that reason the music can dart around a lot. I have some very disparate tastes. I probably have very myopic tastes at the end of the day but within the tiny confines of rock and pop music I think it can jump around a lot. I think I’ve started looking at the music on a song to song basis of what I think the song actually needs, of what would be beneficial for the song. Before there was a certain idea of, ‘Let’s see what the song is really made of’. If it’s worth its weight then it’s going to have to stand up to a certain amount of abuse so sometimes things could get a bit discombobulated or would get built up in very strange directions. That would happen from record to record. Sometimes I would just want to relax and play in a group and have the record sound as close as possible to what it might sound like for us to be all together in a room playing music. Streethawk would be an example of that.

Not so much on Kaputt, but a lot of your previous albums have featured barbed critiques of the music industry. I remember you got some press previous to the album coming out when you put together some ideas of what Kaputt was born of.

Yeah, the record label wanted me to put together a list of what I thought the record was about.

(That list in full – Kaputt by Malaparte, which Bejar has never read… Kara Walker, specifically the lyrics she contributed to the song ‘Suicide Demo for Kara Walker’… Chinatown, the neighborhood bordering on Bejar’s… Baby blue eyes… 80s Miles Davis… 90s Gil Evans… Last Tango in Paris… Nic Bragg, who played lead guitar on every song, again… Fretless bass… The hopelessness of the future of music… The pointlessness of writing songs for today… V-Drums… The superiority of poetry and plays… And what’s to become of film?… The Cocaine Addict… American Communism… Downtown, the neighborhood bordering on Bejar’s… The LinnDrum… Avalon and, more specifically, Boys And Girls… The devastated mind of JC/DC, who recorded, produced and mixed this record from fall of 2008 to spring of 2010… The back-up vocals of certain Roy Ayers and Long John Baldry tours… Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence… )

You seem to be cursed in that when you mention something it becomes the theme of the next 15 interviews. I remember you described Your Blues as “European blues”.

Yeah, I still have to answer questions about ‘European blues’.

Do you feel dismay at music culture in general? Is the way music is consumed bothersome to you or is there just too much being made of things you say before your albums come out?

When I think about Kaputt, if I’m thinking of the record itself, I seem more at peace with the world than ever. If those things ever come up they come up in a very different way they come up in Streethawk or Thief where, aside from whatever view I might have had on the underground culture business, a lot of my lyrics were composed as a series of jabs. That was probably my style back then. I don’t think that’s happening on Kaputt. Before that, probably starting with Rubies and leading up to Trouble in Dreams, I felt like I was on a path of leaving behind any kind of social writing whatsoever and trying to focus more on an imagist style. I guess Destroyer records have some kind of rep as being cultural critiques but that’s not really how I see myself as a writer. I suppose as someone who accidently describes their social milieu then every drama needs a backdrop or a background and I just used the world of music or the world of art as a background on a couple of songs but I don’t think it’s the pivotal aspect of what is happening. On Kaputt, when I rattle off a bunch of dead UK music magazines it’s not meant as a barb. It’s more someone just rattling off a bunch of distant memories. That someone may be on their sickbed, on morphine, and they’re just laying awake and being visited by these fleeting, possibly pointless, aspects of their past and that past may include a copy of Melody Maker. I will say that the way music is consumed and disseminated now, probably mostly because of my age, I do find it a little confusing. Confusing would probably be the best word. I’m not so much critical of it as just alien to it.

As somebody who’s only three or four years younger than you I definitely share that confusion. You face a choice of becoming the kind of person who re-listens to the same albums until they die or alternatively trying to embrace something that may not actually be made for you in any way.

It’s true, but when I’m actually writing I don’t think about any of this stuff because when I’m in that mode I’m more of a beast. Everything is kind of instinctual. Then when I go into the studio, which is the real work part for me, I don’t really think about it either. I only really think about it when the record comes out and we go on the road. You look out into the audience and you see a bunch of people half your age and once in a while I’ll think ‘what the hell am I doing here?’ Most of the time I’m not engaged with those thoughts.

On Kaputt, I don’t feel like you’re actually trying to ‘say’ something. Some people think the point of music is for the artist to express an emotion, while others think the point is to create an emotion in the listener. I feel like you’re trying to create an emotion in the listener, perhaps trying to spark up images in their mind, as opposed to actually saying something.

I think I know what you mean. How Destroyer worked in the past, even though it could be a lot more abstract sounding, I think it’s way more pointed than Kaputt. On Kaputt I really wanted the vocals and the words to contribute to the ambience. Usually my lyrics and vocals provide a counterpoint to the music, or there’s even a bit of a battle going on, but this time I wanted things to be seamless. I don’t think it was really a conscious move but I knew when I had the songs in front of me that this is how I wanted to proceed. In general I was way more concerned with the sonics of the record than with my role as an orator or something. Sometimes in the past I kind of played around with that as if I were doing vocal takes from a podium.

In saying that, I would still describe the album as highly lyrical. If you take someone like Dylan, when he wanted it to be more about the music oftentimes his lyrics went right down the tubes and he just sang nonsensical, awful things, and the only thing you had to hang on to was the music. I don’t think that’s the case with Kaputt.

I think at this point I can trust myself more as a singer and play more to the role of singer than writer, maybe for the first time, or singer as opposed to ranter. Still, to sing something it has to fit into my mouth which isn’t easy. I have to feel really comfortable and I have feel like there’s some sort of conviction to what is being said. Which is why Destroyer has always struggled with our Stones covers. I love the Stones so much but when I try to do a song and I have the lyrics in front of me I can’t do it.

Yeah, I can’t say I’ve ever tackled the Stones at karaoke.

Maybe disco Stones. It’s tough, but I’ll keep trying.

I look forward to that Stones cover making the set.

One of these days we’ll get it right.

Whenever you play live you don’t really interact with the crowd. Is that an un-comfortableness or do you just think “I really don’t have anything to add”?

I have nothing to say to anybody. I’ve been to a couple of shows in my life when people interact with the audience and what they say adds to the show but most of the time it’s really superfluous and breaks you from the music. I’d much rather have a minute of awkward silence than me asking people how their night went. Awkward silence has way more to do with the music we’re playing than casual banter, which has nothing to do with what Destroyer are about.

I read an interview not too long ago and you said you hadn’t written anything since Kaputt. You sounded a little despondent and you were talking about writing plays instead of making music. Is that still on your mind?

I feel like there’s a certain style of writing that I really like that I’ve tried exercising in music in the past that I can’t imagine trying in the future. Kaputt is kind of a signpost for that. A song like ‘Bay Of Pigs’ is probably the last of a certain type of Destroyer song. The other ones are more in keeping with what the future might hold. I’ve written a couple of songs since then but I definitely write a lot slower than I used to. I’ve always thought, probably wrongly, that it’s a style of writing that could be applied to other art forms. That being said, I’ve never tried. I’m still on word one.

I think with music, if you have more of a lyrical approach, I could imagine someone thinking, “Am I still going to be doing this at 60 as a functioning musician?”

Yeah, am I going to be hanging out backstage at the 400 Bar when I’m 60 years old? Maybe I should go and write a play instead.

Moving into plays or novels feels like a more respectable profession.

Generally people who’ve tried to make the transition fail miserably and are a complete embarrassment so it’s complete hubris for me to think I would not suffer that same fate but it’s fun to think about. It is something that I’m genuinely interested in even if it’s from a wide-eyed, inexperienced perspective. I don’t really know what goes into any other art form. That being said I’ve been writing longer than I’ve been making music so I can at least fool myself into thinking that at some point I could manage that. I think I’m really into music these days. Lyrics always come very naturally but what excites me these days are the one-off collaborations that I’ve done. Not necessarily anything on Kaputt, but the ambient music artists I’ve collaborated with. Weird shit like that is going to add years to my life if I can continue to do it. I need some clean breaks from pop music or else I’ll go mental. It took so long to make the record and then after that to figure out how to play it live. That was a bit of an undertaking. Then there’s a bunch of touring. So any idea of what the future might hold, I haven’t given it a second thought because I have to get on a plane in a couple of days and I just want to get to the airport.

(This interview originally appeared on Collapse Board)

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