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

Going back to the difference between “studio Destroyer” and “stage Destroyer”, I remember back during Poison Season, there was a transition in “Dream Lover” in how it was originally supposed to be a little lower-key, and then it ended up being this really ebullient loud song.

I mean that song … I think when I first wrote it and presented it to the band, it was supposed to be like early ’90s Van Morrison, and they were just having none of it. It was the last song that we recorded, and we just tore down the drum walls, and I don’t know, for some reason, everyone just played ten times louder than they’d been playing and way faster. All the levels were in the red; the kick drum all of a sudden sounded like Pantera. Right away, that song seemed really extreme in the context of the album. And then, when we got on stage, somehow the bands discovered five or six more gears, with which, by the end of that tour, I’m sure I’d lost half my hearing at that point and had [been] blessed with some of the tinnitus that I still have.

That graces the title of the record.

I’m sure that playing that song night after night is probably where LABYRINTHITIS was born.

Fitting.

They do what they want. When we’re on stage, I’m the singer. And I just try and stay on. I just try not to fall off the Bucking Bronco or whatever theme park ride, what have you.

Maybe that’s the magic of current Destroyer, that transition between what’s planned and what actually happens.

I think part of what gets me really excited about going into the studio, and then also getting excited about getting on stage, is that there’s a lot of gray area going in. There’s a lot of freedom for people to do what they want, as long as they seem to understand the general emotional tone of the song. And I would say, even at this point, they’re allowed to misunderstand the entire emotional tone of the song completely. [laughs] Somehow, it’s gotten that far.

That’s art, at the end of it. It’s whatever happens between Point A and Point B.

Yeah, the journey is the ride. The ride is the thing. I mean, some people just have a vision, and they just enact it, and it’s flawless, and it’s amazing, you know? And I love art like that, I love watching a Stanley Kubrick movie, but I know 100% that that’s not what I do. I do something really messy, probably pretty flawed, but also, in my heart, I’d like to think it’s a lot more romantic than that.

That’s the difference between a crafted kind of beauty, like a lovely piece of pottery that you’d see in a museum, or a painting, and the kind of beauty you find in the natural world. They’re equally valid, but they’re different.

That’s kind of a cool way of putting it, actually.

My favorite track on this record is “It Takes a Thief”. I put it on when I need to feel good.

For me, it’s a feel-good song but sung by not a good person. There’s lots of songs like that.

There’s a growing legacy of songs like that.

When you hear a Frank Sinatra song, there’s kind of a character lurking behind that voice. It’s very inviting, but also you know that they’ve maybe done terrible things.

It feels good to be a gangster.

But “It Takes a Thief” was also fun in that it’s a throwback to a certain style of song that I used to try and write, a Style Council kind of song, or even the kind of songs you would have heard on Streethawk or something like that. Just having John orchestrate it in such a cartoonish way and really dial in this kind of “aggro-robot Earth, Wind and Fire” rhythm section.

It’s almost comically upbeat.

Yeah, it is. I find it really comical, and when things get really comical in Destroyer World, generally, that’s a dark sign. When things are good, they’re generally melancholic and bittersweet. That’s a path that I know really well in music. When they get kind of overbearing and comical and cartoonish, I know that there’s something nasty at the core of it.

The linchpin of that song is the set of lines, “It takes a thief to catch a thief, it takes a tree and it takes a leaf”. It made me think of, obviously, your 2000 record, and it made me think of the album art because the character on the front of Thief, that roan-like character shows up on this cover with somebody else.

I hadn’t thought of that; I like that. I like that part of the song as well. I don’t know if it comes across, but it’s supposed to be — not just in that song, but maybe even in the album as a whole — a moment that’s kind of pensive. Like, looking outside the window, looking up for once to look at the natural world or the actual world before you just dive back into your own sickness. The light opens up to you for eight seconds, whatever the length of that middle eight is. I don’t know if that really came across like that, but when I wrote the song, that’s what I was supposed to be. The clouds are supposed to part a little bit.

We talked about the state of the world social technology as it is in these times, and also about looking back to what you were doing in your late 20s and where your career was. If you were that age now, do you think you would you be able to self-promote on social media the way that so many new musicians are trying to do?

I mean, it’s a hard question, mostly because I’m convinced that there are 25-year-old versions of myself out there, but I just don’t know where to find them. I don’t know what they look like, [or] what they sound like, because I’m 50. They must be floating around; they must be lurking in some corner that I’m just not privy to, and people like me aren’t privy to.

Back then, I was really down and out, a typical broke bohemian writing all day long and doing music all day long but really subsisting. That’s not me anymore. I’m a middle-aged, well-to-do singer-songwriter. So I wonder. Would I have been able to use the internet in an ironic and savvy way that could satisfy some part of myself, or does that seem even more hateful than just using it in a normal way? Or would I just be a Luddite about it, just completely walk away and exist in some kind of subculture that has nothing to do with that? Which I guess means not being a professional.

But I never thought about being one. It was ludicrous back then to think about being a professional musician. I didn’t know any. I mean, I knew tons of people who made music, but none of us ever thought there was going to be a career lurking in it. And for most of us, there wasn’t. It doesn’t mean that what you make isn’t good. It just means that part doesn’t work out.

It’s such a Pacific Northwest sentiment.

Even talking to people from Toronto, and not even as a generation gap but with people of my own generation, they’re always like slightly taken aback by how quaint this overarching punk-rock disdain for the machinery is. It’s kind of like pat-on-the-head, like, “I can’t believe you still toe that line,” and it could be a real Vancouver thing, but I think it actually is a real Pacific Northwest thing.

I don’t know what I’d do. I’d probably still make stuff, and I’d probably throw it on Bandcamp instead of making my tapes. Maybe there’d be a local label who’d want to put out my record because they still exist. And then, for the second record, maybe someone outside of Vancouver might dig it, someone in Canada. Maybe the third record, like with Thief, maybe some college radio in the states would pick that up, or someone at WFMU or something, or some record stores down there. And then maybe I’d get signed to some kind of American label with a bit more push for the next one — I’m basically recounting the full history of Destroyer.

When I say it out loud, all that stuff seems feasible right now. You still just have to make something that, I guess, connects with someone besides yourself and see how it plays out. I mean, I did all sorts of weird stuff. I didn’t go on tour until I was 30. I think I toured for the first time with Album Five. Obviously, I had it in me to not do anything.

That’s the big struggle with this particular area. As much as you can aspire not to play that game – to just idyllically make art – for it to be sustainable, you’ve got to play the game.

This career arc could exist for anyone, but really it’s just a lot about what I do now, which is that I have the luxury to ignore a bunch of stuff. There’s someone at a record label who does it instead. And so I’m not really all that tough. I basically pay someone. I mean, I don’t actually pay them because they think, “Selling records is our job and you need this stuff to sell records, so we’re going to do it.” But it’s not like I’m so adamantly against it that I’m like, “There’ll be no Instagram page, and there’ll be no Facebook.” It’s just that I don’t want to think about it, so I don’t do it.

But I’m sure if I was in my 20s, there’s music out there that I like still that younger people make, and I’d probably see them engaging in this world and be like, “Oh shit, I should probably engage in it as well, even though it doesn’t come naturally to me or I don’t like it.”

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