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.