Destroyer
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.

LABYRINTHITIS
Destroyer
Merge
25 March 2022

I remember listening to the record for the first time with a friend and agreeing with each other that the very first song is designed to feel comforting.

That song is different, though. That song was written with the Have We Met songs.

Really?

Yeah, and you can totally tell it comes from a different place. That song, I find that I can get into it. Not that I can’t get into the other songs, but I can get into that one in just a very … I don’t know, I want to live in it. I feel like the singer is speaking to me, not past me: there’s a quality to the vocal, which was recorded around the same time as the Have We Met songs. Even though it’s dense and meandering, it’s not the same kind of aggressive, mutilated production that’s in the guts of the album. It’s much dreamier and contemplative.

So you have that, and then at the very end, you have a song called “The Last Song”, which is the very last song that I’ve written. I haven’t done one since. It’s just me and an acoustic guitar. I put it on the record really last minute — almost in a moment of panic — as a moment where you walk out of the din of the warehouse, it’s six o’clock in the morning, you’re blinking and in the light, and you walk off into what is going to be the rest of your life.

It’s a moment that somehow reminds me of my former self. It’s just me and a guitar, which is an instrument I’ve probably written like three songs on in the last 15 years. I never touch it, as opposed to the first ten or 12 years of Destroyer, where all I did was strum the guitar all day long. So it’s like a reminder of oneself, even though the song is kind of solemn. It’s a bit of a pep talk.

It feels at parts, during this record, that you’re speaking to yourself, maybe your younger self. “The States” is a little bit like that. You’ve mentioned before that that song feels autobiographical to a certain point in your life.

I feel like it has actual words, which pertain to my actual life once lived, which might be the most basic thing that any songwriter’s ever said. But for me, it’s a rarity. I’ve maybe written two songs like that in my life, out of a few out of a couple of hundred, right? And “The States” is one of them.

I don’t know if it comes across as a confessional song. I’m far away enough from whatever moment that I’m singing about in that song that it doesn’t come off like a diary entry. I feel like I’m circling it from above, from really high up. It’s like this kind of speck of emotion that I kind of remember from my young adulthood.

There was a political tone to it, specifically concerning what had happened at the Capitol on January 6th. You hear it in lines like, “It doesn’t make sense, not the third or the fourth time,” or “Trouble’s going to shine through your window or your front door.”

The language of the song is the language of interrogation, which to me is highly political language, the language of political violence. But that kind of language exists in Destroyer songs all over the place. From City of Daughters onwards, it’s in there, and it’s never stopped.

When I noticed that kind of talking, that kind of lyric, in the song — because I always come up with titles of the last minute, because I hate titles — I just called it “The States” because at the time, even though it has nothing to do with the time I’m singing about, all I do in life is see-through lines from one moment to the current moment we’re in.

And I couldn’t help but connect the kind of dread or disorientation you’d feel, the feeling of being lost, that I felt in my 20s. But also, the feeling of being attacked by the world is kind of a political feeling, and also the feeling of being kind of an ex-con, or feeling like you’ve done something wrong before you’ve done it: it all adds up to feelings of political dread that definitely everyone was feeling, and has been feeling for the last few years emanating off of America, at least me anyway.

It’s definitely not just you.

So you say the words The States, which have a connotation that’s really rolled and changed over the years. For me especially, I’m half-American; it’s interesting how those two words stuck together, just over the last few years, have started to feel darker and darker and darker to me, just more menacing as a phrase. So I stuck it on there as a song title.

The disorientation on the record feels a little like art imitating life. Things have gotten so chaotic — the way that social technology is breaking down communication, how we’ve been forced to live our lives online — that there’s a part of this record that feels inspired by that. That chaos been infused into it.

Maybe. It was definitely hard to figure out in the last couple of years what your muse was. Or not your muse, but like, what was the world that you were singing to? Where did your dramas unfold? It felt like negative space out there.

Negativity in a negative space.

Yeah, it felt like not just like negative as in “feel bad”, but it just felt like some kind of a zero-sum space.

A zeroes-and-ones space.

But, you know, I’ve always been a very unconscious writer. I kind of spew this stuff out and then string it together. And it makes sense to me because I sing it as a song before I even think about approaching it as music. I basically have to be able to sing something a capella from beginning to end before I even think about the horror of trying to come up with a chord progression, let alone some kind of melodic arrangement, and then passing it around to people. So it always makes a certain emotional sense for me to be able to come out of my mouth. But I have a hard time knowing how I’m reacting to specific situations in the world.

That being said, to me, the record sounds anxious; it sounds jittery. 

A lot of those things, though, are actually just John Collins’ natural aesthetic: what he likes, what kind of sonic world he gets sucked into, what holds his attention. So I don’t know if I want to blame it completely on a collapsing world. I think maybe there’s a part of his brain dedicated to music that is actually slightly insane and quite something to behold and not always easy to understand. I gave him the most amount of freedom that I’ve probably ever given anyone in the making of a Destroyer record on this record. Which is partially why I’m still shaking my head at certain songs, and it’s been ten months now since we handed it in.

You’re right. Allocating something like “the world-changing” would shortchange the particular musical decisions that went into this record.

I remember that being a very specific mandate. With Have We Met, it was like, “No, we can’t do that; it’s not depressing enough,” even though we’d say it in a certain amount of revelry, which is a good spirit to be in when you’re creating something. We’d also be in the same room when we’d say stuff like that, which changes it. And on this one, it was just like, “No, it has to sound mental. The production quality needs to be exhausting.” And he just went for it.

You two have been working together since the ’90s.

The second album I ever did, City of Daughters, I didn’t know John. That’s how I met him. I walked into a basement studio in West Vancouver that he and Dave Carswell had going, and you can hear some of the things we’re doing on this record on City of Daughters if you really bothered to listen. It’s not out of nowhere. The aesthetic is, to me, shockingly similar in a lot of places.

Because he’s becoming such a significant part of Destroyer’s sound, do you see him becoming integrated into the actual presentation of the band? Destroyer is known with you as the figurehead — whenever somebody reads an article, there’s your face.

A.) It would be up to him. B.) I probably won’t make another record like this one. I mean, maybe I’ve said that before. I said that after Have We Met. I didn’t expect to hear from John again. I thought he was basically going to kind of retreat from all of this stuff in general.

There was a certain vibe to the last three Destroyer albums that I can’t imagine not veering from. I need to get my hands dirty, I think. I need to get my hands on an instrument, probably, for my own sanity. I don’t know what instrument that would be. Maybe piano. I need to not worry about writing songs. I need to just play and not think about what it’s going to add up to, and I need to write in a way where I don’t have to worry about singing the word. Maybe I can make an instrumental record or do some writing that’s not outside of music. I don’t know what that would look like, I don’t know what that would sound like, but at least as a jumping-off point, I think it would be pretty good for me. But that’s looking really far ahead.

Also, I need to ram the point down people’s throats that Destroyer is first and foremost a lyrical concern, that that’s how the songs get written. They’re a bunch of words with melodies attached that I string together, and I could sing them into my phone and release them, and that would be a Destroyer album. But people don’t really want to talk about words too much. It’s pretty hard to do that. It’s easier to talk about production, it’s easier to talk about the general vibe of a record because it’s music, and that’s the main part of music. But I’ll probably go down kicking and screaming, holding onto this other stuff, or just bail on it altogether.

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