Destroyer's Dan Bejar on the Music of His Incredible Career

Destroyer's Dan Bejar on the Music of His Incredible Career
Photo by Nicholas Bragg
Photo by Nicholas Bragg

‎Dan Bejar's music as Destroyer really clicked with me when I was 19 and listening to City of Daughters constantly. After playing that out enough, Destroyer's Rubies made a lot more sense to me, and I've loved his work ever since even though (as any fan would) I have strong opinions on which records I prefer at any given moment. I've loved talking to Dan in the past and it was great to spend an hour talking through the records of his impressive, labrinthine career.

Speaking of: we didn't talk about his new one, Labyrinthitis (out this Friday), because I honestly figured that if you're coming here to read this right now, you've probably read an interview or two with him about that record already. We also didn't talk about Kaputt directly, because it's such a well-worn topic at this point, but we did talk about that time and how it affected his career. Hope you enjoy!

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We'll Build Them a Golden Bridge (1996)

Destroyer definitely wasn't a project back then. It's not that it was me killing time, but it was literally the sound of me learning how to play guitar, only recorded for the world to hear. [Laughs] It's me messing around on borrowed four-tracks. ‎I think of that time as two phases: One where it's extra-indie rock, and a second batch of recordings where I was trying to be Syd Barrett and '60s-sounding, which paved the way towards City of Daughters.

There was a year between me recording it and releasing it, and in 1996 I was completely over it. I felt like the record didn't represent where I was at, at all. There's a germ of what would come—the New Pornographers ended up covering a couple of songs—but it's hard for me to locate the Destroyer aesthetic in that record. Unlike City of Daughters, which I started recording in the fall of '96. That's really different from what I do now—I don't even know how to sing those songs—but I can draw a throughline.

This was the sound of me discovering the idea of writing songs, singing them, and playing them. By the time '96 rolled around, I was writing songs at a tremendous speed, strumming the guitar and writing in my notebooks all day long and mashing the words together into songs. I was progressing pretty fast, in my mind—not that the world saw it that way. It wasn't until City of Daughters that I took on a voice that was constructed to suit the words and reflect my insane Anglophile concerns.

What were you doing in terms of making a living around this time?

I was kind of a gadabout. I was a recent college dropout, and I'll probably just leave it at that.

Aside from music, are there any odd jobs you've held over the years that have stood out?

I had a crappy warehouse job in the early days. Nothing that I held for very long, some dubious jobs. Everything was super scattered. By the time the '90s were over, I didn't have jobs. Don't get me wrong, I lived on or under the poverty line from 2000 to 2004—but that was fine by me. I scraped by with music, and a big part of that story would be my songwriting credits on Mass Romantic, Electric Version, and Twin Cinema. Those really helped.

City of Daughters (1998)

When I recorded We'll Build Them a Golden Bridge, I put together a tape and ‎made ten copies. I gave some to the college radio stations and local record stores, and someone who worked at one of the stores heard the tape and wanted to put it out. That was already the endgame—the idea that someone would want to pay for the production of a CD was mindblowing to me. Between the tape and the newer songs I recorded, that became We'll Build Them a Golden Bridge—which no one really liked. A handful of people in Vancouver dug it, but really just a handful.

But this person was like, "You should go into an actual studio to record!" They introduced me to John Collins, and I went to his basement studio and started work on City of Daughters. You hear John's fingerprints on that album, all over the place, just like you hear them on Labyrinthitis or Have We Met. That was the beginning of me being swept up in someone's musical take on what Destroyer could be. I think he'd heard in Destroyer a lot of things that I myself didn't hear. He might've heard Gary Numan, for instance, which for me at the tiem was just some weird aberration from my childhood. But he heard synthesizers, where I thought I was strictly an indie folk rock kind of act who was starting to get into glam rock.

It became more of a sculpted thing. There are strange instrumental interludes with John messing around on the sampler with stuff he’d grabbed from my demos. For half of it, there’s a bit of a band sound for the first time ever, which really appealed to me more and more. The album was recorded with them in one major chunk, and some time went by and I ran out of money or something. The guy who was financing it only had a certain amount, so the other half was me going in with an acoustic guitar and recording six songs, back-to-back.

I mostly remember being extra non-structured and bohemian. It’s the only time where the bohemian pose of the songs on the Destroyer records really matched with my lifestyle—a lot of drifting, a lot of being hungover. Writing City of Daughters was me discovering a muscle I would use, and using it non-stop. At that point, music became a sickness for me—it was all I thought about.

What's the importance of outside input in your work?

For me, it seems to be integral as far as the music goes. As far as me being in a recording studio when I was 24 years old, I was on another planet. I knew nothing about recording. So any kind of studio was already really intimidating, and as far as arrangements of songs outside of writing them, I was learning a lot from John and from being in the New Pornographers with Carl, because that’s where they lived.

In the late ‘90s, though, I became more into the band vibe. I wanted Destroyer to be more of a bar-rock band, and you can hear that more on Streethawk: A Seduction, where it sounds like a fixed lineup.  It was more traditional, in that we did fleshed-out versions of the songs I’d write and present to them. Starting with This Night, the band would take a different role in song mangling.

This Night (2002)

I’d left Vancouver at the end of 2000, a couple of days after putting Streethawk in the mail, and I quit the New Pornographers around that time also, and I left with no intention of coming back. When I did come back thirteen months later, I put together a new band that didn’t have too much overlap with anything I’d ever done before, and that’s the band you hear on This Night.

I felt that my approach had changed a lot. I was doing a lot of three-chord vamps where I’d speak-sing in a Lou Reed way. The English early ‘70s art-rock that held me in a firm grip in the late ‘90s seemed less pronounced. I seemed less into John Cale and more into Lou Reed. It was all over the place, and we were playing at ten times the volume we normally played at. Nicholas Bragg was playing a lot of dense guitar textures, and Fisher Rose just kicked the shit out of the drums. The travesty is that we didn’t figure out how to record how he played, because it was so strange and so loud.

With This Night, I started taking an interest in tone and ambience—things I didn’t think about or care about in the ‘90s at all. I think my writing also became more imagistic. I was starting to really write for myself and take pleasure in the flow of words in a far less structured way. I’ve been trying to chuck off song structure more and more since that record, with varied success.

I see Streethawk as the end of one phase and This Night as the beginning of another. Streethawk was the first time someone gave me money to record an album. I got an actual advance. It was recorded before Mass Romantic but came out after, so there were people listening to it that were disappointed because it wasn’t trying to do things that the New Pornographers did, and then This Night extra didn’t do those things—it was kind of an attack on those things. It was, in my mind, an extreme record, which was followed by Your Blues, which was an even more extreme record.

What's been your perception of public reception been over time?

If the gradations are subtle enough, it’s actually really simple to not think about it. That’s the great secret about all of this. If I put out a record at 23 and the world was lit on fire all of the sudden, I can’t even think about what that would be like—even though that’s the norm. You put out your first record, and the world flips out over this new thing, and by record five you’re gone—or maybe you don’t even get to record five and no one cares. Destroyer has had nothing to do with that trajectory.

Did I flip out when I noticed that a couple of people in Canada liked City of Daughters, or when a song from Thief was played on WFMU, or when someone in Other Music got into it? It’s been really gradual. I was working in Vancouver, which was very isolated from all of that stuff. There’s not a lot of spotlight on the city. I didn’t know anyone who was on the trajectory of being a professional musician. That wasn’t even desirable, because people who made music professionally made terrible music.

I was a member of the rock and roll underground, and success was bad. I probably made records that I wanted my peers to like. I’m not some invincible superhuman. I wanted my friends to think they were cool, I wanted to present a song to the band and have them like it. After going on tour for the first time, which was really late in the game when This Night came out, I probably thought it would be cool if people showed up to our shows [Laughs]. Sometimes they did, sometimes they didn’t.

Whatever obstacles were lifted, it was in slow motion enough that I didn’t notice. Whatever part of my brain thinks like that, it doesn’t activate until I’m in the thick of it. I’ll be playing live and I’ll think, “I wonder what anyone thinks of this. Who’s come to this before but won’t come this time because it doesn’t speak to them?”

By the time any professional sense started to well up in me, it was already late in the game—I’m talking about album seven, maybe Rubies, when I thought, “I could actually support myself doing this.” But before then, it was all crazy, especially because Destroyer fans couldn’t agree on one record. In general, the people who really like Streethawk despise This Night, and the few weirdos who liked This Night really didn’t like Your Blues. I’ve said it before, but one of the reasons why Rubies did well was because Destroyer fans in general could agree that it was pretty good. I don’t know if it’s anyone’s favorite.

Destroyer's Rubies (2006)

This really did seem like the first record where people really got into what you were doing.

‎‎Everyone points to Kaputt, but I’d say Rubies is the one where Destroyer seemed like a sustainable thing. I’d developed a singing and writing style which was coming very easy to me at that point. That band was, in its own way, mellow and laid-back—very easy to sing to. It came together really easy compared to the previous two albums, which were strange to make and more ambitious. Rubies was just about trying to get the sound of us playing. I remember practicing in my living room with the band, thinking about how good it sounded—better than anything we’d done in the studio or on tour. All we had to do was do that in the studio, and it would come across.

I was singing a lot of words in my standard drunken agitated way, but in a way that was really effortless to me. I seemed to be landing them. At that point, the words were spinning off by themselves. There was a lot of dense, tricky writing that I wasn’t giving a second thought, it was just coming out of me. I was really embracing a rock’n’roll poet stance for the first time, in some ways. It was the beginning of my first serious Dylan phase, and was getting into Van Morrison too—and the beginnings of me getting really into Joni Mitchell. I don’t think anything I do echoes them too much these days, but their fingerprints are still on me, and the Rubies era is the beginning of me being awash in that.

Tell me more about how your lyrical approach had taken shape at this point.

In that I can still sing songs off that record, I think it seems to have a lot of what I started with on This Night—the project of trying to stick nonmusical language into songs. I was just landing a lot of the lines. They felt like very strange, dense words that also felt very natural in my mouth. My writing process was still the same, just scribbling things into notebooks for the most part. I remember being slightly more weed-y. [Laughs] I think that would affect the melodies more. It’s probably the apex of what I was into for a certain version of Destroyer—the idea of song lyrics blowing my mind as much as any poem, book, or play. The mid-2000s is about as good as I was gonna get as far as me punching up and thinking about pop songs as this art form where you could say a bunch of really cool stuff.

In some ways, Rubies is the success story of that, and Trouble in Dreams is where that idea gets dashed a bit. For me, that’s all my best writing got left—not Rubies, but Trouble in Dreams. If I were to look at the lyric sheet, that’s the one I’d be the most proud of. But musically, I’d already lost the thread of what it was supposed to sound like and how I was supposed to sing. I was over that style of singing, even though I had these dense lyric sheets that lent themselves to that kind of stuff. I didn’t really know what to do with music at that point, and maybe it shows.

Trouble in Dreams (2008)

It was the culmination of a certain style of writing I was leaning towards for years. It was me discovering, on album eight, that lyrics aren’t gonna cut it. They’re not what you hear—what you hear is music, and sound. That seems very obvious, but it is a revelation in that you realize that this thing that’s the most important thing to you is actually the eighth most important thing. Which makes you question every last thing.

This was a fairly prolific period for you. You were also in Swan Lake with Spencer Krug and Carey Mercer.

That was borne of the European tour we did for Your Blues in winter 2005, where me, Carey, Melanie Campbell, and Spencer did a terrible tour as Destroyer and Frog Eyes, the four of us in both. The conversation of doing a record probably came up then. For me, it was pretty easy, because those guys are such good and distinct players. Carey was really taking off as far as his interest in the studio, so I was really just someone providing songs. I’d sit down and sing it, and they’d go to town on it. I had a lot of songs kicking around. But timeline-wise and energy-wise, they were the aesthetic leaders of that group.

As long as I was writing songs pulled from my notebooks, I was always writing songs. I was still strumming my guitar all the time, too. It wasn’t until after Trouble in Dreams where there was a longer break and everything changed. I stopped playing guitar and making songs from writing, and I started making songs from mumbling and melodies and little bits of words coming at the same time—which is the biggest shift that’s happened in Destroyer, in that sense. There’s been a couple of moments here and there where I go back to the old way, but for the most part that break happened in 2008 or 2009, and it was pretty decisive.

Poison Season (2015)

The gap between Kaputt and Poison Season was your longest gap between records to date.

I definitely can’t do more than one thing at a time. Considering I can barely read a book while I’m on tour, I definitely wasn’t writing—and I was touring more than ever after Kaputt came out. Partially just because we landed on an audience in Europe that never existed before, so we started going over there more as well. 2011 and 2012 was just taken up by record promotion. [Laughs]

In 2012, Josh Wells joined the band, and the band started to coalesce—as opposed to 2011, where it was just a Kaputt cover band. In 2012, when Josh joined and Ted Bois re-joined, it turned into a real band, which I guess has been the case for the last 10 years. We have a stage sound, and we have records that we make. Those two things don’t necessarily talk, but I’m fine with that. I also probably didn’t really know what to do at first, because I had two ideas and one was to capture this band that I was really into singing with—and you hear that on songs like “Times Square” and “Dream Lover.” It’s the sound of us being us.

My other idea, which is one that I always wrestle with, is strange orchestral ballads reflecting my time in the previous few years. I was listening to a lot of jazz music in general. My interest in people like Scott Walker, which you can hear all over a record like Your Blues, morphed into an actual interest in Frank Sinatra. Once I put the guitar down and started to think of myself as a vocalist in a conscious way, it changed my writing. My singing really started to change, with capturing vocals in a thoughtful way instead of a way in which you just take a few swigs from a bottle of whiskey and storm the mic—which was the old way. That no longer seems good, or it didn’t seem to represent where I was at.

I think it was also a darker phase. The songs on Kaputt were very sweet, almost lullaby-like, and the ambience was very comforting. Poison Season sounds like someone approaching middle age, or in it. I probably had more resources than I’d ever had to make a record, and I was probably thinking, “It’s time for me to make the record that sums up what I’m into, and what Destroyer is about.” And so I did, and that’s what Poison Season is. That’s probably not the best frame of mind to go into making a record—it’s probably best to do something a bit more conscious about what your project is. It’s a conflicted album. The dialogue between the orchestral and ‘70s rock parts is strange and slightly confused, but no more confused than the whole Destroyer thing is overall, right?‎

What is your experience with record promotion in general?

The nuts and bolts of it already seem far away. This new record, I handed in back in the end of July. But the essence of it still seems too close, and that’s the pattern. The mechanics of making it, you’re trying to recall it, and it exists a bit in a fog. But the essence of the songs themselves I never figure out until later—not that I re-listen to records. Maybe I’ll be talking about an older record in a casual way, but it’s never when you’re actually promoting it in an album cycle.

When I hear myself talking, I’ll get to the end of the sentence and think, “Wow, that sounds convenient, or like a lie.” That’s one of the painful things about promoting a record. And sometimes you talk about a record and it’s good. It’s like how there are good shows and bad shows. Sometimes you talk about a record and you’re conscious from the very first second that this is slight coverage—there’s no dialogue to be had about whatever ideas are inside the album.

Have We Met (2020)

You put this record out six weeks before the world shut down. What was that like?

It was pretty strange, and kind of revealing in that it goes to show that you only really get six weeks anyway. [Laughs] I don’t want to be super crass about coronavirus, which is devastating for the world, but Destroyer beat it, because in this fucking world your album exists for six weeks tops no matter when you put it out. By the time March 11 rolled around or whenever it was, that record managed to make a real dent before the world completely shut down and focused on things besides albums.

We also got three weeks of a month-long tour, which is pretty good. I was painfully unaware of the lead-up to the pandemic, because I was so out of it and was not in the habit of flipping open a newspaper and seeing what was going on in places like Europe. We went from really busy to nothingness. The record does seem to float around still in this strange liminal space—like it has unfinished business. In some ways, the band was really just starting to get its fangs into the songs live. We never got to go to Europe with that record. It had a strange life.

It’s so weird, because time and memory over the last two years are a strange thing for me. There’s a rolling fog all over it. That month of February, as I remember it, it exists in this weird in-between phase—and it’s also wrapped up in what feels like my last normal adult memory. [Laughs] I’m sure there’ll be some normal things I feel for the rest of my life, but for me it seems like such a decisive break in things. From here on in, the world will always feel like a very foreign and hostile place, no matter what it actually is.


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Jamie Larson