Photo: Nicolas Bragg / Courtesy of Merge Records

A Labyrinthine Conversation with Destroyer’s Dan Bejar

Destroyer’s Dan Bejar discusses the making of the band’s stellar new record LABYRINTHITIS while looking back to his past and forward to what might come next.

25 March 2022

Two distinct things strike me about Dan Bejar as I interview him about his band Destroyer‘s 12th record.

For one, he’s actively aware of his outlier status: a middle-aged singer-songwriter still operating in a field constantly filling with fresh batches of self-conscious 20-somethings. Parts of LABYRINTHITIS contain rare moments where the college-rock stalwart looks back at that period in his own life with experienced eyes, recounting the cross between excitement and terror that accompanied his first tour. That man is still here, finding something challenging to do and doing it, except where once he sang about openly resisting “The Bad Arts”, he now merely practices his own, comparisons be damned.

For another, if I weren’t looking right at him through Zoom, I probably wouldn’t be able to guess his age. Now, as then, he speaks in the same calm, contemplative manner as he did ten years ago and likely would have if interviews in his 20s were readily available to watch. He name-drops references nonchalantly, pauses to choose words carefully, and cracks jokes with a wry wit. He also has the critical ability to separate from his work and approach it as a fellow analyst. His demeanor, youthful and wizened at once, encapsulates why he’s built up an enduring cult of personality as Destroyer has transitioned from an experimental singer-songwriter project to a full-band clinic in rock’s expansive breadth.

Sitting in his wife’s art studio, with a striking fresco of hers taped to the wall behind him, he talks at length about the making of LABYRINTHITIS: what influenced it, his dynamic with fellow bandmate John Collins, the circumstances of its creation, and what could come next for the project.

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You’re coming up on your first tour since the pandemic started. Are you looking forward to getting back out on stage?

I’m looking forward to making music, for sure, and the band does that best on stage. We do better on stage than we do in the practice space. It’s strange; I don’t get it.

Maybe it’s because of the energy you’re sending out into the crowd.

It’s this particular lineup that we’ve had for the last ten years; it’s been extra the case. Sometimes I think I’m better in a practice space, but definitely, the band is better on stage. We haven’t seen each other since our last show in Nashville, which is now over two years ago. I mean, we’ve kind of seen each other, but we haven’t all been in the same room together.

I hope it goes well. I imagine the shows are going to have a new vibe, considering how upbeat and danceable this new record is.

It depends on how we do it; I’m not sure. The band has a long history of taking Destroyer songs and turning them into “Destroyer band” songs, you know? Like “stage Destroyer” and “studio Destroyer”, — it’s a lot of the same people. We don’t necessarily talk “stage” Destroyer and “studio” Destroyer. But it’s not a concern. I hear the record as a rock record anyway. Even if there are beats and even if there are synths gurgling in the background, and even if there’s a lot of cut-up stuff and manipulated stuff, to me, it still seems like a rock record, which is a kind of music we know how to play.

“Libby’s First Sunrise” off of Trouble in Dreams changed in live performance: I remember seeing a performance of that on YouTube and thinking, “No matter what’s going on in the rest of the records — especially the one’s that came out last decade — it’s its own vibe because of that band.”

I think so, yeah. Because otherwise, I think I’d be really nervous, really nervous. Because the record, just to listen to it, is pretty confusing as to how you would mount it, how you would replicate it. You’d probably just want to walk away from the whole project. And it’s not like these guys didn’t plan on it, but muscle memory doesn’t really come into it with LABYRINTHITIS, because stuff just got so twisted and contorted, the way it actually got used.

But the band, once we all get together, is just like a big ol’ meat grinder. You give us a song, and we’ll grind it out in our own image. Or we’ll just walk away, abandon it altogether.

That’s ideal for a live setting because then you never know what it is you’re going to get.

Me too. It keeps us interested. And as a singer, these are songs I’ve only sung once or twice in my life, and they’re the versions that people hear on the record.

They just sort of become set in stone.

I’m ready to abandon those versions. It’s pretty standard for Destroyer, especially the last couple of records since I’ve been basing entire albums off of vocals that I lay down from the very beginning in my house. That goes unchanged. Everything else changes and swirls around it. So you really are hearing me sing the songs for the first time. It always changes the minute we start playing it as real music and real-time and traveling around with it.

It’s funny how you describe this record as a “rock record” considering how much was made of its intention to bring a disco influence into it.

Yeah, I think I was just really misquoted a lot. That’s just the standard snowballing of misquotes.

“If I have to read “Donna Summer” one more time … “

Yeah, I think I said that the very first text conversation I had with John [Collins] was about making a techno record, or we had an idea of all the songs running together like Donna Summer’s Greatest Hits. And I think the second sentence maybe that I said was that “We completely abandoned that,” and all anybody heard was the first part and not the part of “Completely abandoned that, like 100% abandoned that.” So now I’m stuck talking about disco and techno and Donna Summer. I did it to myself.

It happens. I was about to say, I probably won’t now–

No, it’s fine! I like talking about that stuff because it was my intention — not to make a Donna Summer record, because I didn’t really feel like making a ’70s disco record, but I felt like making a techno record: a record that was a slammin’ four-on-the-floor beat, just minimal sound effects, really loud bass, and me singing.

And I think also it’s interesting to have a conceptual idea, but when it’s not born of your own lived experience because I know nothing about club music really. My version of club music is, you know, dancing to some Cure 12-inch 35 years ago. When you don’t have that in you, it always falls by the wayside; it’s not real. And you end up landing in your own comfort zones. For John and me, those comfort zones are this weird choppy dance-rock that we’ve made a couple of albums worth of now. But it’s not like I don’t want to hear about dancing or disco, because grooves are kind of important to me even though I don’t find this record very groovy.

There are parts with an undeniable groove, but there are also parts that are not, so I can definitely see that.

It runs the gamut. I have a very traditional version of what “groovy” is, and I just find the record a lot more experimental than that. I feel that it’s a dark record, and it’s an experimental record, and it’ll be a while before it’s maybe seen as that.

The concept of experimental music, in the case of “experimenting” as a verb, is changing. There’s a whole generation now that’s growing up with access to all recorded music. Where once you would have a point of reference where “breaking out of the box” meant experimenting with a bunch of styles, there’s this group of people who’ll listen to this record and not think it’s that experimental. That there’s still a mood and a vibe that’s consistent with it.

I don’t know. I don’t really think of “experiments” as the sound of a fridge drone for an hour — although I like that a lot, that could be quite melodious — or recording environments. All that stuff is good; that’s just process.

I think when I mean “experimental”, I mean it’s emotionally experimental. I wasn’t conscious of it, but it has perhaps intentionally alienating moments, more so than a lot of Destroyer records and more than most “song”-based records, because that’s not what songs are supposed to be doing, at least not our popular understanding of what songs are supposed to do. You’re supposed to sing along to them, you’re supposed to dance to them, they’re supposed to be backdrops for shared memories. I think I wrote a bunch of songs that are a really awkward fit for all of that. A lot of people say, “Well, guess what, Dan? That’s not the first time that’s happened.”

I’m gonna say that, in retrospect, the record Have We Met, which I thought was at the time a dark, almost depressing, abrasive record now strikes me, in the light of LABYRINTHITIS, as a very warm, intimate, inviting record. Even though it has a lot of dark lyrical passages and a few creepy sound moments, it’s more about being welcomed into someone’s world than LABYRINTHITIS. Because this record is relentlessly fast and there’s lots of things going on, it seems kind of upbeat, almost joyous in parts. But I think when you really look at it, it’s pushing at the world, it’s pushing at song structure, or maybe abandoning song structure as you listen to it. Maybe it’ll be the last record of songs that I do. That’s what I hear when I hear it.

It’s almost like a facade.

It’s almost like a facade, yeah. I feel that it’s a facade. [laughs] Now that we’re at the end of the press cycle, I can go on record and say, “LABYRINTHITIS is a facade.”