Dan Bejar (Destroyer) In His Own Words
[My first feeling after interviewing Destroyer’s Dan Bejar was: Well, that didn’t go very well. In the course of our 25-minute phone call, I don’t think he agreed with a single thing I said, and I got the impression he was seriously annoyed with my questions and/or the fact that he had to wake up at 10 PST to talk to after reading and watching some other interviews with him, it became apparent that he has a notorious reputation for being contrary and self-deprecating to everyone. And I’m actually quite pleased with the finished product.]
With In Their Own Words, we talk to a well-known artist, and cut out our own conversation to let their statements speak for themselves. In this edition we talk to Canadian indie veteran Dan Bejar. Perhaps best known for his unique lyrics and vocal work in the New Pornographers, the Vancouver-based singer-songwriter has been making music under the moniker Destroyer for the past 20 years, as well as featuring in the indie supergroup Swan Lake, among other collaborations.
Following 2011′s excellent Kaputt, and the beautiful 2013 EP, Five Spanish Songs, Destroyer is freshly out with the new LP, Poison Season — TIDAL’s Album of the Week. On it, Bejar and friends craft a wistful, eventful and cohesive exploration of city life, underlined by the noir melodrama of a dime-store murder mystery. Twenty years and 11 albums after its conception, Destroyer remains full of surprises and a vivacious spirit.
Below, Bejar talks about struggles and successes of the new album, working with an orchestra, and what he’s learned (and not learned) over his two-decade career.
* * *
It was along time ago when I came up with the name Destroyer – we’re talking 20 years. When Destroyer first started it was just flow track music; mostly acoustic songs with me quietly singing, so as to not wake up my roommates as I recorded. I think I wanted a name that could contrast that and make the music sound a bit tougher. I wanted it to still sound like a rock band, not just some weird side project. Rock music was what I was really into and still am. I think Destroyer is more abrasive than people give it credit for, although maybe more so in the past.
I think I probably had a premonition early on that, in the coming years, listeners and music writers were going to be saying that my voice was unlistenable. And deep down inside, I probably knew that was true. I’m pretty used to my voice by now; I’m aware that it’s still an issue for some listeners, but I’m kind of over that. If I’m conscious of it, it’s when there are certain styles or modes of singing I want to adopt, but my voice just doesn’t have that in it. My voice is pretty specific. It’s more like a ballpoint pen than a paintbrush.
I don’t think [the name] ‘Poison Season’ means anything. I think I invented it. When I come up with titles I usually like something about the phonetics, or the look of it on a page. I guess Poison Season kind of has a community theatre vibe to it — like a murder mystery or an Agatha Christie story or a bad spy novel. Murder and espionage are important themes on the album. And even though it’s kind of romantic-sounding, it’s supposed to be set in a world of dread, maybe even political dread. Hopefully, though, Poison Season is hopeful in the end; a season is something you pass through, something you get to the other side of.
I don’t really agree that all my albums sound drastically different. I know it’s been said but I just don’t hear it myself. I don’t think anyone who saw one of the 70 or so Destroyer shows in 2012 would even blink an eye at this album. Besides the addition of the orchestra, most of the people who played on this one played on Kaputt. And a lot of those people play on earlier Destroyer albums. Maybe there’s a difference sonically, in the style of production, but as far as the actual music and playing goes, I think there are more similarities than differences.
At this point I almost feel like Destroyer is kind of a genre of itself. No matter what I do it just sounds like Destroyer songs to me — much to my aggravation. After 20 years it seems I have these one or two modes of songs that I work in. I’m not going to fight that.
Working with an orchestra — or rather a string quintet — was cool, but stressful. It was the first time I’d ever worked with string players. It’s a whole other way of working than I was used to: a lot of working soft, a lot of rigor, and with everything written out. I was definitely on the outside of the process. It’s was a strange way of working. It was like the album followed two separate paths — the band path and the orchestra path — and they didn’t really meet each other until the very, very, very end, when we were mixing.
Stressed out is always going to be the way I am when I make a record. It’s never going to be any other way. It’s been ten years since I just breezed through one. I think [Destroyer’s] Rubies, back in 2006, was the last one where I just waltzed into the studio and the rest was a bowl of cherries.
The album does jump around a lot stylistically, even though I think the mood and the sonics are consistent, so it was a difficult set of songs to sequence in any kind of order… I found that when I put then rock version of “Time Square” in the middle, and split up the classical “Times Square” as the prologue and epilogue, like bookends, it helped all the other songs settle into place.
I have favorite moments [on the album]. I really like the last minute of “Forces From Above.” I like the instrumental, the way it amps up and comes together really well. My favorite song is maybe “Bangkok.” It’s kind of a peculiar song, kind of written in the voice of a character, which is not the norm for Destroyer songs. I really like the playing of the band, and as far as [string composer Stefan Udell’s] arrangements go, it’s probably my favorite.
If you want to know Vancouver, you’ll have to come see for yourself. All I can tell you is that there are some mountains, and it’s in the middle of a rain forest, and that rain forest is on something called the Pacific Ocean. That’s about all I can say about Vancouver.
I’d like to think of myself as an outsider. My parents aren’t Canadian — my dad is Spanish and my mom is American — and I moved around a lot as a kid. I’ve never quite figured out what the Canadian identity is, or how I fit into it. I think I look at it as a critical perspective more than just an outsider’s perspective.
I don’t think I have a real eye for detail or the important qualities of a traditional writer. But I think that feeling like you’re on the outside of something is important for making art of any kind, or else it’s just a forced high-five.
I’m not really inspired by travel. I don’t know anything about Bangkok; I’ve never been there. I think movement inspired me when I was younger, but I can hardly say I have a thirst for the road, especially as I grow older and more weary of the world. I’ve probably seen more places than a lot of people, but I’m not sure I count living on a bus for few months of the year as the same thing as seeing the world. It’s more like army life really.
I don’t feel like I’ve learned any lessons [20 years in]. [laughs] It hasn’t gotten easier. Ithas gotten easier, in the last few years, to get on stage and sing. I used to be really wrapped up in that stuff, more than I realized, to the point it would ruin my day. I’d feel good about it if the show went well, but if it didn’t, I’d feel really shitty about it for the next couple days. I feel more confident and relaxed about it these days, so that’s something that’s changed over the last 20 years.
Making records just gets harder and harder, even if I’ve learned a lot of tools along the way. It gets harder all the time, but I hope to continue.