"The Hopelessness of the Future of Music": An Interview with Destroyer's Dan Bejar
"I don't need to create more distance between myself and the current musical climate -- I feel that distance pulsing in every creaking bone of my body, which makes the idea of Kaputt tapping into some sort of current zeitgeist absurd and touching."
You could forgive Dan Bejar for seeming somewhat enigmatic as an artist.
After all, he's a member of one of the most popular bands of 2000s indie circuit -- The New Pornographers -- but even among diehard fans of that group, he's known as somewhat distant, a valuable presence but one difficult to quantify. In his own project, Destroyer, he's ridden a wave of critical evaluation and revaluation that waxes and wanes at levels that would spin the heads of less seasoned acts right off of their necks. See, for instance, the praise rightfully heaped upon Destroyer's Rubies (2006) and the comparably confused reaction many listeners professed upon spinning its follow-up, Trouble in Dreams (2008), for the first time.
One thing's for certain: whatever reception Bejar's work may receive at the time when greeted back-to-back with flavor-of-the-hour acts of the blogosphere, he long ago solidified his reputation as a songwriter with a talent even more exceptional for its idiosyncrasies. Those who have been paying attention haven't relented in that view since Streethawk: A Seduction (2001) brought Destroyer the first hints of a wider audience. Now, with the recent release of Kaputt, his tenth proper album, Bejar has given us another record of remarkable depth and precision -- and, for perhaps the first time, one that sees the perfect confluence of his pop sensibilities with the strength of his lyric sheet.
Even longtime Destroyer aficionados may be surprised to discover just how easy a listen Kaputt can be. Bejar's vocals sound more assured than ever; he's toned down the la-da-da's and upped the kind of breathy, straight-forward singing that marked the strongest compositions on Rubies and Dreams. Sibel Thrasher provides a female counterpoint to his voice on many of the tracks here, and her presence makes Kaputt seem the least insular Destroyer album in memory. Most revelatory, though, are the strains of DNA that provide the record's musical foundations: 80s soft rock -- including all the sax and synth washes you could ever want -- interlocks with touches of Roxy Music and even Sade to create a delectable, almost liquid atmosphere of easy pop brilliance. It's something else, even for a songwriter already as distinctive as Bejar.
The jubilant feel of the music is more striking when you read Bejar's list of "associated thoughts" for the record, a strange and typically elliptical gathering that includes "the hopelessness of the future of music" and "the pointlessness of writing songs for today". Kaputt does not sound like the kind of album made by an artist in the grips of despair about his medium. Perhaps, then, the key bits of those phrases are the ones that refer to time: the future, the songs of today. Kaputt unapologetically reaches back past current zeitgeist influences to mine less fashionable -- and far less frequently tapped -- sounds. Goodbye, Afropop. Hello, '80s Adult Contemporary Radio. Bejar claims Sade's Stronger Than Pride (1988) and particularly Love Deluxe (1992) as primary reference points. He listened to the latter, he says, to gain more of a "sense of an equal-parts overwhelming and evaporating vocal presence, as well as really loud low-end." Those R&B strains show up in abundance on Kaputt, from the cooing "Blue Eyes" to the bounce of "Savage Night at the Opera". Bejar's homework shows dividends.
It may also seem that Kaputt's genre-sidestepping is an attempt on Bejar's behalf to distance himself from the current musical climate that so gets him down. True, the touchstones of Kaputt aren't the names one usually hears in today's discussion -- the '80s aren't totally defined, apparently, by Factory Records or its post-punk ilk. As for that decade and its mark on this album, Bejar says further that "I thought that there was a way in which ambient music and jazz music intersected in this misty background form, a term that would later be explained to me as Quiet Storm, which probably peaked in the 80s. But I can't say I listened to any of that stuff for much inspiration." Whether those influences permeated into the music anyway is a question for the listener. Either way, the sense of intersection, of a cosmopolitan amalgam of sounds, comes through without reservation. "I guess I was thinking about what real music for airports might be," Bejar says. He's onto something: you're less likely to hear Brian Eno than Bryan Adams when waiting for that transfer in O'Hare. The strange thing is, Kaputt wouldn't sound totally out of place if played on the radio side-by-side with that Bryan, nor the material of Bejar's more celebrated Bryan-of-choice, Bryan Ferry of Roxy Music.
Whatever the case, Bejar claims that Kaputt wasn't born of a conscious desire to remove himself from the contemporary conversation. As he puts it: "I don't need to create more distance between myself and the current musical climate -- I feel that distance pulsing in every creaking bone of my body, which makes the idea of Kaputt tapping into some sort of current zeitgeist absurd and touching. I feel strongly enough about myself as a singer and a writer that I'm not afraid to be defined by a genre. I welcome the open embrace of any musical form that will have me. So far, no offers." As far as where he does fit in, Bejar still finds proper company among musicians. Though he's claimed in past interviews that sometimes feels more of a pull toward writers of a literary bent, poets and playwrights, he says that the "company of musicians" -- and recording engineers, whose work he finds "fascinating" -- is "what I have found in my life, no doubt about it."
The non-musical artistic world does have a place in Kaputt, nonetheless. Celebrated collage artist Kara Walker contributed lyrics to "Suicide Demo for Kara Walker", a process Bejar says was "very liberating". As for where the sphere of visual art fits into his own life, as a whole, Bejar says: "I have to be honest, I find visual art completely uninspiring. I'm just not hardwired to react to it the way I react to film, or writing or music. I only find the world of contemporary art inspiring in the same way that you could find the last days of Rome inspiring ... insidious, decadent, desperate, only of social interest, like examining a horrible thing."
So be it. After all, Bejar's not sculpting or painting, he's writing songs. In that world, one would imagine he'd have a strong sense of community, be it from his success with the Pornographers or with his bandmates in Swan Lake, Carey Mercer of Frog Eyes and Blackout Beach and Spencer Krug of Wolf Parade and Sunset Rubdown. When reflecting on the recent success of The New Pornographers, Bejar says the band "occupies a different role in my life than Destroyer does." He assumes, perhaps fittingly, that "people who are drawn more to the lyrical side of what I do, both in the words and the musical sense of the word, are more drawn to Destroyer." He goes further -- and further into real candor -- by saying, "Needless to say, it is obvious that my best work does not lie there, even if it might be what people like best of what I do. Were people to speak frankly, I think they would say that the success of the band has little to do with my presence, and that I provide a foil at best to the proceedings, or maybe an extra sentence or two that a writer could pitch in when drawing up a capsule of the band."
If refreshingly honest, the answer shouldn't come as a surprise. Destroyer is much more of Bejar's own project, so much so that comparing the two groups may be needlessly unfair. As for Swan Lake, in which he shares one-third of songwriting duties with Mercer and Krug, Bejar seems to sense a distance, as well, if one of a different shade. Rejecting a comparison between him and Krug as songwriters that have found greater commercial success in their more collaborative projects (The New Pornographers, Wolf Parade) than their more solo-driven bands (Destroyer, Sunset Rubdown), he says, "For the record, Krug's role in Wolf Parade is tenfold what mine is in the Pornographers ... he's not some mercenary wandering in and out of the scene." When discussing Mercer's work, Bejar becomes protective: "I think it is vital not to play down the royal 'Fuck You' handed out by the world to the Frog Eyes/Blackout Beach records of late. The current state of vocal music with guitar-based accompaniment is not one worth taking seriously in my mind, until more people start owning up to Carey's music and going to see him play. And I think it is a failure in large part on the critical community, whoever you are. Or whoever it is whose job it is to cast a critical light on new music." (For the record, while we're at it, this writer claimed Frog Eyes's Paul's Tomb: A Triumph as the number two indie rock album of 2010 here at PopMatters. Still, Bejar is once again onto something -- Carey Mercer and Frog Eyes remain tragically underappreciated.)
Indeed, Bejar acknowledges that commercial and critical success alike doesn't always come for purely musical reasons. As he puts it, speaking again of the wide-scale reception of his Swan Lake compatriots' work, "Spencer and I have fared slightly better, for various non-artistic reasons, and no, I'm not talking about how handsome Krug is." Though he seems to delight in his friends' acclaim when it comes, for Bejar, "As I get older, the need for community dries up and blows away, as a whole. I've become quite reclusive and am unsure what other people think about, in general." Kaputt stands as the product of this sense of individualism. Bejar claims the writing of the album to be "the most insular thing I have ever done, by a country mile." He goes on, saying, "I'm still making sense of it, which is weird, seeing as it is on first-glance some of the most cut and dry singing I've ever done. But it all came very fast, and there has been little to nothing since. Can't explain it. Or I can but I can't explain it here. It's part crystal ball/part jailhouse-exposé/part hospital-bed-memoir ... or that's what it feels like."
It also, perhaps ironically, feels like the most expansive record Destroyer has produced to date. Whatever his feelings on the visual arts, Bejar can craft visions of his subjects that become as vivid as any collection of paint on canvas. Kaputt is an urban album through and through, its songs creating and populating an unnamed city and shading it with an impressive amount of emotional shades. In "Chinatown", Bejar sings, "the wind and the rain to your detriment, you try to explain a government swallowed up in the squall / I can't walk away at all / in Chinatown". The urban setting here and elsewhere on Kaputt is, as Bejar characterizes it, "bustling and derelict, with one eye on the door." When asked if he finds particular inspiration in the city, whether his own Vancouver or in general, and if the city can still be a place that fosters artists young and old alike, Bejar doesn't mince words. "As for the artist," he says, "they love hanging out and going to bars and shows and openings and hanging out with as many people who are as physically reminiscent of themselves as humanly possible. So in this way, the city is ideal, and probably always will be."
Wherever and in whatever contexts Bejar finds inspiration or community, he continues to craft artful songs of often confounding depth. Kaputt may well be his masterwork, though one shouldn't expect him to stop moving forward, whatever the critical appraisal of the album turns out to be. In the end, those questions are secondary. The real relationship that interests Bejar is three-pronged: singer to song, song to listener, singer to listener. In that sense, listening to his music is at once private and collective. He takes responsibility, saying, "The onus is on the singer to create meaning" for the listener. At the same time, his listeners will bring their own experiences to his material, letting it open up in ways singular to each individual and, somehow, the kind of thing that can be shared in a small club or in a bedroom with a record player. Dan Bejar creates that significance, he does it on Kaputt, and he will continue to do it as long as he writes songs.