Trailers for Films That Don't Exist: An Interview with Destroyer
Dan Bejar is a man of many talents, but after the burnout of promoting his breakthrough Kaputt, the man behind Destroyer made a record on his own terms.
I was in high school when I first heard Destroyer's This Night. It was on the way to a gig with my band; our singer/guitarist, Adam, was driving me and our tuba player, Matt, through the backroads of Connecticut and put it on. Matt and I had never heard anything like Destroyer before, it struck me as theatrical -- even musical theatre-y -- while Matt drew the ever-popular parallel to Bowie (though I had no context to agree). In the ten years after that night, Bejar's music would come to mean the world to me and open my tastes to understand Matt's comparison. Destroyer has had a strange reverse-influence effect on me: rather than start at Bowie or Reed or Cohen and end at Bejar, I started with Bejar as the benchmark to hold that trio against.
In preparing for this interview to discuss Bejar's latest album Poison Season, I went through Bejar’s past sit-downs. As a fan of his work, I’ve often been unsatisfied by the focus on Destroyer’s commentaries on art and artists in interviews. These themes are explored pretty deeply on his records, so I’ve never really felt lacking for clarity on his perspective. A lot of his interviews also seem to run on the shorter side. I started panicking a bit. My reporting editor, the fair and encouraging Evan Sawdey, suggested that I take Dan’s history of short interview lengths as a cue to structure my own questions into a strong 20 minutes and see where we go from there. Under his guidance, I narrowed my interview to a single core query about Bejar's relationship to his masculinity as an American songwriter, surrounded by standard "new album" fluff. I expected to have him on the phone for a half minutes, max.
We talked for an hour.
His interviews can sometimes have an aura of crotchetiness. As a reader, I’ve never been sure if that is imposed by the writer or a virtue of Bejar, himself. My experience might have been unique, catching Bejar at home with his daughter on an early Vancouver morning, but the time I spent speaking with him affirmed that he is a thoughtful, sharp-minded person who just has a dry sense of humor. While he speaks with caution, it is with deep intention. This lends his listener (both musically and in conversation) the sense of someone who really enjoys the taste of words, which makes the prospect of further discussion very exciting.
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Though it's been very "in vogue" lately to dissect North American masculinity, it's been a thing I've always been conscious of, growing up with a single mother. So, I wanted to talk specifically about the way you write your female characters in your songs. Even how you perceive your masculinity as a male in rock, if that makes sense?
I have to say, I've never really, I guess I haven't thought of it in those terms. I think it's kind of basic, to me. There's things that have to happen: romance and adventure. [laughs] In the very small "r," small "a;" in ways that seem knowable. And with some form of minor doom. And maybe for some reason I kind of prefer heroines as the stars of those little short films than I do heroes. I feel like you get enough of that from me. Not that I have a traditional macho-songwriter vibe, I'm not really a Kris Kristofferson type. I don't fit into the American tradition, in general. That's probably why people always talk about Destroyer in English terms. And to be honest, that's more of where I come from as far as what I've listened to up until recently.
But I don't know if my own sense of identity is very recessed or possibly divorced from the music that you hear. [laughs] And I don't know if that accounts for some of the strangeness or if that accounts for, if you were to be critical of it, [it being] some sort of a put-on, maybe to capture some of that. And often, if you do locate characters inside the songs, it's just me delving into the tradition of even the sound of women's names. Sometimes it's that and other times it's me putting words into someone's mouth, but usually it's not me trying to create an actual picture of someone or even bonafide commentary. It's more just like putting together the trailer, you know? A Destroyer record is usually composed of 12 trailers for full films that don't exist.
I think the first time that I was struck by that sense of your music was, I'm blanking on the name. The "hangman's daughter ..."
Oh, the song "European Oils"?
It has this line that people shout in my face when we play it. [laughs] Even if I'm just playing it incredible quietly, in an acoustic bar by myself I get a crowd that throws the words "the fucking maniac" in my face, which is the last line of that middle break.
Yeah, it's wonderful that people find such power and raw energy in that, but that's probably disruptive, too.
[laughs] It’s cool, but I’m also like -- for the most part I have a strict rule of not speaking to the audience -- but those are moments where you wonder, “What exactly do you get out of that line that you want to yell it like you would say the line ‘thunderstruck’ or something like that? Like it really sounds like AC/DC when you guys shout it back at me, but you’ve taken it someplace where I never foresaw that song going.”
It's like the Michael Bay version of the trailer you're trying to put out there.
Yeah, yeah! It's Michael Bay's remake of, I'm not sure what movie "European Oils" might be, but, it probably wouldn't involve half a billion dollars worth of computer-generated explosives.
"I visit the symphony and I smell a rat ..." ("Midnight Meet The Rain")
I want to go back to where you said that people consider the way that you write or the things that you talk about a "put-on." I just want to get more of what you mean by that.
From the very sound of my voice to my, what in America you might call "pretentious," writing style. And I'm thinking of Destroyer from 1998-2009. I think my singing and writing did kind of change on the record Kaputt. And Poison Season is maybe a continuation of that a little bit? But definitely the initial Destroyer project was, I think, pretty abrasive to a lot of people. A lot of listeners. Like, a strange form of abrasiveness. But that's when I think of 'put-on', like someone who's speaking inauthentically.
That makes sense.
[laughs] It's funny, because the people that aren't put off seem to embrace it in a very wholehearted way. But the people who don't get it really don't get it. So one of the big things that happened with Kaputt was not just people who had never heard Destroyer, but people who actively invested energy into completely rejecting and hating Destroyer records came around to that one. Or actually liked it, you know?
But, with that shift, with Kaputt, by that time, it's 15 years into your career. And I think that in a more green timeline, the hardcore folks would be thinking "Oh, he abandoned what he was doing. He jumped the ship on this one." But you've spent so much time refining and pushing through different variations of Destroyer. I think everyone's favorite thing to say about your discography is: "No album sounds like the others."
But I think that there's a consistency of exploration and, if anything, that's a unifying theme. And obviously your writing gets better, but there are still those turns of phrase, you throw in a lot of mundane bits of popular language and wrap poetry and metaphors around that. Looking back at Kaputt now, from the interviews online it seemed that you were a little "upset" about the popularity that you were all of a sudden having.
No, I think for me it seemed that, like you said 15 years in or like record nine, it seemed foolhardy to take it as some kind of "breakthrough." In all senses of the word, not just the commercial one. Because it hardly was. I mean, it sold way more than most Destroyer records, especially in 2011 terms where the music industry was already starting to take its eternal dive. But also just as any kind of artistic breakthrough. I think that none of that made sense to me. It seemed like it would've been embarrassing, you know? For a guy now turning 40 to lead it like that. And it would've been damaging. I think also, like you said, I'm always struck by the similarities of the two or three distinct things that I do, that's been running its course through the last seven or eight records, than these massive breaks. Like you said, that "every record sounds different" thing, I don't think is a very interesting way to look at it. It sounds like someone quoting someone else.
I wanted to make a pop record when we made Kaputt. It was a record designed to be consumed in public spaces, which is not how I heard any other Destroyer album. And I was a little shocked by how close to the mark we got. It was kind of effortless, in a lot of ways. It wasn't an effortless record to make, it wasn't some pop algorithm we were working from, but it all cohered at the end. And from there, I just kind of made the leap to dress up for a couple promo photos and actually put a giant band together and get a tour bus and hit the road and make a rock video (which I'd never done) and play television. All this stuff, which I'd seen people around me do for years and years and years. And it's possible, looking back at it, that it wasn't the most comfortable fit, playing it "pop music" is actually quite difficult if it doesn't come naturally to you. [laughs]
And it couldn't really sustain my interest. The first year we toured Kaputt, it kind of drove me crazy towards the end because we were a Kaputt cover band. All our strengths went into learning just how to play this kind of inhuman music as a group of people on stage. And I think it's in 2012 when things kind of changed, I put together a slightly different band, one that could start attacking Destroyer songs from any era. Kind of putting it through this grinder that seems very familiar to me but at the same could seem like a good setting for this new thing I had. And from that is kind of born what you hear on Poison Season, which is kind of a fun and natural balance, I think, between the changes that happened on Kaputt but just me holding onto the spirit of what I'd always done. You know?
Yeah, I mean having three iterations of a single song ("Times Square, Poison Season I", "Times Square", and "Times Square, Poison Season II") is very "Destroyer" to your usual consumer.
Yeah, that kind of thing is something I guess I've always done, taking multiple stabs. And I think I'm torn in many different ways as a musician. There's different things that really attract me, or different settings. You know, settings that I kind of flourish in that are ones I don't even want to flourish in. Like, I think I do best with a very steady, monotonous beat, I think I'm a good dance music singer . [laughs] I'm a good kind-of techno diva, in my own way.
But that's not really how I want to spend my life, it's actually not what inspires me. In fact, whenever I picture myself it's always as much more of like a soul singer or a jazz singer [chuckles], which most people would at some point want to sit me down and have some sort of intervention. "Look, we have to tell you something: this is not the position that you exist in. You don't even orbit this, you don't even orbit on the peripheries of the spirit of this music." So, that kind of disconnect has always been strong in Destroyer, what I think I'm doing and what I'm actually doing. I think that chasm has to be greater [with Destroyer] than it normally is with most recording artists.
I think it has to be, to sustain interest for both the artist and the listener. When you consume an album, you assume you know the way things are going to work. And maybe that's why people walk away from your work and say, "Oh that album is so much more different than his other albums", every single time, maybe because we assume we know where it's going and you assume you know where it's going, but the reality is different from what we both expected.
Oh, yeah, I know even in the making of the records, they always get away from me. Every single time, [they] end up being a different beast. Even Kaputt, which is the most controlled thing I've ever done, when I first started working on it, I thought it'd be way more of a series of misty, synth-led Robert Wyatt-style lullabies. And in a lot of ways, it is, but I didn't ever picture it becoming this kind of groove record. You know? Or a 'Quiet Storm'-style record. That just kind of happened, over the course of 20 months.
"You've been standing on deep waters ..." ("Midnight Meet the Rain")
There's something a little Sinatra about Poison Season. You take a lot of cool vocal risks, and you always have had a unique voice, but this one sounds much more comfortable or just bold. Do you feel like you're getting closer to what you wanted?
Yeah, I think so. For me, that's one of the main things about the record, approaching a sound that sounds like you. You know? It's kind of starting to sound like me, a bit. Sort of around the making of Your Blues, I started listening to Sinatra a little bit. [He's] someone who I listened to a lot since my Scott Walker obsession started in the mid/late 90s. But that kinda went off in the last five years. I started taking in a lot of his records for some reason, I started listening to the material for the first time ever, not just his voice and his phrasing. Started listening to the arrangements, the Nelson Riddle and Gordon Jenkins ones, and taking it in. And I think it, maybe for the first time, starting seeping into the actual songs I was coming up with, as opposed to a cloak that I would try on. It kind of snuck its way into the ground zero of the actual compositions on some of the songs.
Poison Season probably betrays the fact that starting with Kaputt I started listening to a lot of "pre-rock" music, kind of for the first time ever. I spent a long time distrusting anything that came before the Beatles. But just getting into these classic jazz records, the actual compositions, the American songbook they were pulling from started to capture my attention. I guess that has to play a role in Poison Season, whether I want it to or not, because that Americana is what I actively rejected for quite some time as a musician. That world, or even this world of show-tunes. Even though I have a history with those as kid, those movies or those songs.
"You don't start the fire. You just turn it on." ("Sun in the Sky")
More than anything, I think the big thing that happened to me after Kaputt was just negating a musical idea after having no ideas. Spending two years on stage, being on tour, I can't do more than one thing. So there was actually a long period, the longest period I can think of, really after Kaputt came out, of me not doing music. Not writing. But the first thing that happened was I became obsessed with was the song "Mack the Knife" and all the different generations and iterations of that song, from its original form to the Americanization of that song. And what a complicated song I thought it was. When you listen to the original lyrics, what a sinister song it is. And what a kind of demented protest song it is and how it seemed so fitting, so apt for the last couple years of the world. So the very first thing I wanted to do was cover "Mack the Knife", as a musical thing. I think I first had the idea in late 2012, early 2013. It become apparent I couldn't sing the song, I listened to it over and over again, the many different versions. I couldn't really wrap my head around it, but I think the spirit of that song is everywhere I look on the new record. [laughs]
Yeah, there's so much orchestral music in the entirety of the record, these beautiful moments when it all cuts out and we're suddenly surrounded by strings. And going back, you have so much of your career and if you didn't have all of that, a) I don't think the suit would fit as well as it does and b) in the interest of authenticity, none of it feels false, even though all of it is a risk. Culturally, there isn't much recently that you could point to that spends as much time, that has as much patience to dive into orchestration. It's something I really appreciate as a listener and was struck by.
For me that was the heart of the record. I think the band sounds amazing and the band part was my failsafe. You know? At the time I had two ideas, one was to create a record of sad but sinister sounding ballads that were heavily orchestrated in these neo-romantic classical styles. I don't really know much about orchestration and I had basic ideas, the person I asked is actually much more steeped in 20th century avant-garde traditions or religious music (early religious, liturgical music), which has strange moves in the strings that are almost muzak-y. But the band stuff came together in couple of days, because we knew, we had spent so much time together, the dynamic is set. And they're so good at having a song thrown at them and knowing pretty fast whether it's going to work or not. So, two very different ways of working.
But definitely the orchestrated stuff was the scariest, because I had no experience working with charts or classical players. I don't have experience in working really with complete strangers. And I had the lurking feeling that if it didn't work, that the record was fucked. [laughs] And that created an extra tension. Also because a lot of it was out of my control, really. I had heard the arrangements demoed, but when you hear a string quintet actually play them, it's quite different. Especially if you're layering things, editing things. And a lot of it was trying to mix [it all] together, what the band had done, what Joseph (who was playing the woodwinds) had done and what the strings were doing. I've kind of come around to it, but when I first really listened back to [Poison Season] it seemed this certain schizophrenic approach to 20th-century music that was happening. And I was some weird traveler through it. But then it started to take it on its own style, that I feel was kind of distinct, this album. And that's the view I've embraced. [laughs]
"You can follow a rose wherever it grows." ("Times Square")
You have all these older interviews where you talk about how much time you spend grappling with the music of a song and that you've often had to force what you write into a form that could be recognized as a song. So, it sounds ideal for you and your way of working to have this much be out of your control and to have to lean into a group of people, some of them strangers. It must have been an exciting energy to then allow you to push further on what you wanted to do with singing and the way you structure your words against that music.
Yeah, I think so. The songs came pretty intact, you know? The ones that seem like more orchestral numbers, I essentially wrote as piano ballads. And they can be played like that, they can exist like that. I just didn't want them to.
But yeah, I need that because that's how I get excited. Maybe it's false excitement, I hope it's not just a kind of tourism, me getting off on fresh settings. It has to be something more integral to the music than that, but I was thinking about it, these songs kind of festered for a long time. Longer than any other group of songs have. Too long; they lived in my head alone for, I'd say, not a healthy amount of time. I should have tried to get them out earlier but [also], it was kind of cool for me to wrestle with them like that. Try and know what they were. I think that's more and more becoming a part of the process of what I do, compared to ten years ago where I was like, "Here's my song, world. Whatever goes to tape will just be the document of who's here and where I am in life."
I had quite a cavalier approach to the music once I had the words and chords and the vocal melody. It was more like, surround myself with the people whose playing I loved and press record and press record over and over again and see what we can come up with. Or a record like Your Blues, which is just like, "I have this concept. Let's follow it through, even though in some songs it can be considered even a form of abuse. They just don't want this treatment I'm giving them, but they're gonna get it." [laughs]
Yeah, I was gonna say, the way you're describing working on Poison Season just sounds more respectful.
It is, yeah! It's just more considered and I think I'm kind of more of, it's just how I'm singing these days. I don't need...don't want the vocals to be a Chorus to the music. I don't want to be running commentary or some kind of broadcaster or someone delivering a sermon over a piece of music. The vocals, I don't know, I guess I'm older and I've become, in a lot of ways, more traditional, they have a melodic value that plays a role in the composition, which is the song. And I wanted to achieve that. I think I said, in places, that the big shift in Kaputt was that my role was diminished. Quite literally; the word count shrank by 60%. And I just sang much quieter, there's more room for music to exist. And I think with this record, there was a continuation of that, but it was less forced. There's an attempt to think quietly, but with intensity. An attempt for the words to blend with the music in ways they hadn't as much in the past. In the past, that wasn't what I was shooting for, the role of the singer was someone who was attacking the listener more. And I don't think that's what I'm doing anymore, you know?
I think it was very "of the fashion" at that point, too. Twenty years ago, if you weren't strutting and fretting, then you almost couldn't get paid attention to. But the same way we're now receding our junk food intake, there's almost a sense of that happening a bit more in our current culture as well. Not on a big scale, but I think that Poison Season is very responsive and could hold up for a long time as more and more people make that transition.
I mean, that's kind of a nice image. [laughs] It's a rosy view of the future, I have to say. I mean, another reason is that Poison Season sounds to me (in its own ways) as a record most shut off from the world that I've ever made. Destroyer records in the past have tangled with the world, actively. They've grappled with it, it seems. And Kaputt, in its own way, is a record that seemed to be a part of the world? Even if it's just like, misty bits of nostalgia fragments that kind of float around in songs that for some reason people pick up on. But I don't know. When I listen to Poison Season, I think it's quite dark. Something that's lost in the world, or lost to the world, more than other Destroyer records. And I expect, at least in the American theater of listeners, for it to be treated as such. In a lot of ways, it sounds like an "old man" record. I don't know what segment of culture it really speaks to.
I do also believe that there is rejection of the current state of things is inherent to that kind of growth.
Right, yeah yeah. I think I see what you mean.
So a "shut-in" record may be exactly the best case scenario. To have this dark, blinds drawn record.
Right. I mean, if I'm a shut-in, maybe I'm just someone shut in their basement in their tux. And I don't want to be too moral about it! I like the way the record sounds, I like the idea of singing live in a studio with a bunch of musicians playing. That's what you hear. And I have a version that sounds good, that's kind of a traditional version of that. It's not necessarily super old school, but it's a bit old school. I think of early 70s fidelity as the peak. And I wanted to make a record that had that, for once in my life. I wanted to reach that. But when it comes to the brutality of techno music, I like it. I'm not against it. I just don't think it's found its Dylan yet. [laughs] I can't put myself in that tradition because as much as I do like it and have a history with some of it, whereas New Order and early rave music.
The fact is that as a form of poetic expression there's just no singer who's taking up the mantle. And I'm just, I can't be the shock troops. I don't know why that is, why it's taken so long, but no one who's seriously into the possibilities of what you can do when you sing language has gotten into techno music. I don't know which generation is gonna be the one. But there's something about it that rejects that. And I think that it's interesting and I'm curious to see why that is the case. Techno music has totally captured the imagination of modern composers, for sure, but I don't know what it is, I find it totally bizarre that people who sing songs and write in ways that aren't the simplest YouTube-pop ways, for some reason it hasn't captured them. I don't know if it's the idea of strumming a guitar or sitting down at a piano is just so mythic and so engrained still. We forget how not very far away the 20th century actually is, you know? As crazy an exciting as the world has become in the last 15 years, we forget that it's still pretty '20th century' out there. And those images still have a hold of us.