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

It’s been a while. You could just drop the mic with “The Last Song” and be like, “No, this is the actual last song. We’re done.”

I mean, the world of college rock is a cutthroat world, and I’m turning 50 this year. It’d be a very graceful way to bow out. I’d have to come up with a plan B, but I don’t know. I’ll always write and I’ll always do music of some kind. And, you know, Destroyer’s just a tag. I can put it on anything. I can put it on my frescoes. I can literally just write on the wall.

It’s your brand.

It’s my brand. I’m not good enough at any particular instrument; I don’t have what’s been called a particularly good singing voice. I don’t really tell stories in any kind of compelling way; I wouldn’t sell myself as some kind of storyteller. All I have is this kind of aesthetic that I impose on things, and I just gave it the name Destroyer. I could probably bake a cake or something and call it Destroyer.

It’s funny that you describe it as an aesthetic, which is a term that seems so nebulous, and yet it has reached so many different people across the decades.

Well, all you have to do is be specific with your style. It’s not hard. It just needs to do something that’s distinct. You’ll probably get punished for it for a few years or a few decades. But at some point, it’ll come off as like, “Oh, that kind of stands out from the morass.” There’s just so much stuff where it’s like, “Man, that seems really well produced, but it sure seems like the product of where it’s supposed to end up.”

I don’t know if that makes any sense. Whether it’s marketplace demands or whatever media is supposed to cover it, or it seems like the product of youth culture, and there’s always like a handful of like vibey people who are going to seem pretty cool and attractive — not attractive as in visual, that also helps, but attractive as in they have a quality that interests people, you know? And that lasts a few years, but generally, it all fades away for the most part.

When I think about who’s left kicking around from when I first started making music in the late ’90s, there’s a lot of like dead bodies out there. Not actual dead bodies (there are some of those), but it’s also just like, “Where’d everyone go?” Because, unfortunately, if you’re, say, a singer, it’s almost like being an athlete. If you’re a 50-year-old singer, you’re fucked. Which is weird because I find that people get their singing gets way better as they get older.

Maybe their writing will falter, or their sense of what sounds good and what sounds bad will falter, but the actual grain of their voice and their delivery is usually better. When I hear someone in their 80s going for it, I’m always stopped in my tracks.

There is something to be said too about how, currently, things don’t normally fade away as they’re intended to. We’ve got a lot of pop culture necromancers on sites like TikTok where old songs will just come back for no reason. It’s possible that something you wrote for City of Daughters might come back for a hot minute. And it’s usually never really substantial in that regard. It’s chaos, it just happens. There’s a moment, and then it fades away in that very mercurial way.

That’s already a world I understand so little.

I’m 30, and I don’t understand it.

I must be like my grandparents: I’m trying to think of what the equivalent would be from the ’80s for them, but I actually can’t think of what that equivalent is. It’s all whizzing past me, and I feel that the more I ignore it, the stronger I feel for sure.

That’s worked historically for Destroyer.

I think in the past, I was kind of willful and proud and arrogant about ignoring things, and now it’s more out of senility. I’m literally just befuddled, or I just don’t even hear about it, period, because I just don’t move in that circle. And I think, in a way, it’s even better than saying, “I know exactly what that’s about, and it’s a complete waste of time, and it’s not cool, and I won’t address it.”

That’s like me from 20 years ago. That’s not where I’m at right now. I think I’m a lot more zen about it, hopefully. Even though LABYRINTHITIS is maybe one of the least zen records I’ve made, I think it’s a purge, the last spew of a certain part of myself. I’m hoping that what I do next, at least for a while, will be something simpler and more peaceful.

Destroyer
Photo: Nicolas Bragg / Courtesy of Merge Records

That would be cool. Or something instrumental. The title track from Have We Met and the title track from LABYRINTHITIS are the only two instrumentals that I can recall in the catalog.

I think maybe on the record from 2000 (there’s one called Thief) and then on City of Daughters, John made these weird little sample-based instrumentals out of stuff that we cut out of my four-track demos. But I have a hang-up — I’ve probably said it a million times — where a song is not a song unless it’s a bunch of words that I can sing from beginning to end. It’s going to be a lot of work to snap myself out of that. I wonder if I can. I’m not always convinced that people can change or that at a certain age, you can change.

People expect it from this act. You have fluctuated between so many styles that part of the reason why the people that love your band are attracted to it is that they don’t know what’s coming next. Some people interpret a name like Destroyer in that way. You raze it, and then you build it back up again. So maybe it’ll be easier than you think.

I hope! That’s good; that’s what I wanted to hear.

Speaking of which, the title track from this record is part of that disorienting, we-don’t-know-where-this-record’s-going-next feel. It creates a pensive moment with this child’s voice sampled in the background. How did that track come about? It was John, I’m assuming.

I think he came up with it maybe eight hours before the record went to the mastering plant.

Really?

Yeah. Because he was supposed to do it, but he’s a master procrastinator. I was like, “Okay, we have this new tradition where someone that’s not me does an instrumental track, and that’s the title track, and it’s going to be you this time.” But I mean, the record was nuts. Because of the worldwide vinyl crisis, our deadline got pushed from the end of August to mid-July, so we had seven weeks we thought we were going to have that we didn’t have.

So it’s actually a really rushed record. It’s really messy sounding, which I kind of love because I know John hates that. There’s a lot of loose threads stuff that you wouldn’t hear on a record like Have We Met or a record like Kaputt or Your Blues. Everything’s not in its right place. It’s kind of wild. There’s a lot of fast decisions made towards the end.

So his instrumental thing was the very, very last thing because we finished mixing “The Last Song” the day before he was supposed to leave. He played it for me, and I thought it was amazing; I thought it was perfect. We were conscious of where it was going to be in the record, and it was like the kind of the perfect breath. It still incorporated a lot of the production aesthetic of the rest of the record but in this non-frenzied way, without this, like, cackling villain over the top. It was so slow, which felt so nice after like a lot of the BPMs.

There’s a solemnity to it.

It’s kind of musique concrète but also has this ’80s new-wave pop vibe which sums up John and a lot of what he likes. It has his daughter in the background, whatever weird sample he got of her. I feel like you can almost just hear the island itself kind of in the back in the background. It’s great. I wish he would do more stuff like that. I wish he would do a record’s worth without me having to prompt him or without someone saying, “We have to master a record in six hours; you better come up with something.”

Sometimes that’s how people work.

That is sometimes how people work, and he’s one of them.

Speaking of this villainous character, it’s one of those things that isn’t apparent when you listen to the record for the first time but makes a lot of sense in retrospect. When I listened to the record for the first time, considering how exuberant the song “Suffer” is, I was thinking about how Buddhism tackles suffering: suffering is inevitable and so confronting it is almost medicinal. But here, it seems like that sentiment is more of a spiteful variety.

I think when that song was going to be a deep house song, it was definitely going to be more about what you were just saying. It was going to be really even-keeled; it was going to be about accepting the suffering. The line, “Suffer beneath the weight of the grandeur,” was supposed to be kind of a mysterious and comforting line.

I don’t know if I sang it in that tone to get that across. I feel like, without knowing it, I sang it in a different way, and that must have informed the way things went because once John built up his template and the band got in there, and the more joyous and kind of like raver rock the music got, the more nefarious the singer seemed in a way that I did not see coming at all.

It sideswiped me, especially the middle bits about “hunting in the dark for an animal,” and “the man feels alive when the women arrive,” “the tent where the accidents happen.” It becomes this gruesome Thunderdome, but all super upbeat, which makes it to me even more disturbing. I don’t know how it happened; it just did.

I love that. That’s the best kind of “pop” – where the surface is jovial or comforting, but there’s such a darker tone underneath that you can read into.

For some reason, with that song, I thought the music would be slinky and dark, and then the vocal would be intimate and comforting, and it ended up being kind of the inverse.

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