In addition to being a prolific songwriter who has produced nine Destroyer records over the past 16 years, a brilliantly poetic lyricist hailed by critics and indie kids the world over, and a crazily accomplished musician who also used to be in The New Pornographers, Dan Bejar seems like a pretty nice guy.
At least, he was really nice to me when I wrapped up my interview with him — a good 40 minutes that covered territory from his literary influences to how he decided which songs to use for Destroyer versus for New Pornographers to his excitement about playing the Fillmore for the first time ever on June 5, 2012 as part of a massive tour he kicks off this week — and then discovered that my recorder had crapped out halfway through. I probably wouldn’t have suggested we reschedule — I felt lucky enough to have interviewed him the first time. But Dan immediately suggested we reschedule himself, then submitted to another round of my inane questioning.
In other words, this guy is a fuckin pro. Not that there was any doubt, but, you know. Just wanted to make sure I said it.
Probably the question I’m most bummed about not getting on tape is when I told him about my friend Pete, who wrote in his year-end top albums of 2011 blog post that the newest Destroyer album, Kaputt, was like “Yacht Rockxy Music.” Roxy Music is an obvious influence, one Bejar himself mentioned to me in the course of both interviews. But does he agree with the yacht rock comparison? Or should I kick my friend Pete in the nuts for saying something so ludicrous? Inquiring minds, and all that.
Seriously though, Kaputt represented a pretty drastic shift in sound for Bejar, throwing sax solos and breathy female backing vocals on top of his arty indie rock while exploring everything from jazz to ambient to disco. You’d be forgiven for thinking this was some kind of indie yacht rock experiment, but nothing could be further from Bejar’s intentions.
Here’s the video for the title track off of Kaputt, which has the new sound on full display. Check the interview after the jump to find out how Bejar really feels about yacht rock, the Miles Davis records he was listening to most when writing Kaputt, and why he has no interest in ever writing another rock song.
Destroyer, The War On Drugs
June 5, 2012
MG: San Francisco is towards the start of the tour. How do you generally feel on tour — do you warm up out on the road, or do you come right out swinging?
DB: I think we probably warm up a bit on the road, but it’s kinda like a bit of both. I come out swinging, but at the same time, maybe swinging blindly. Just going for it more. Partially cuz there always seems to be these constantly evolving formations, a new band. It kinda takes a lot to find your feet, even if you’re confident. These things generally take a while to develop. But at the same time there’s maybe more of a manic quality at the beginning, which I always like.
MG: Does your setlist develop as you settle into the tour?
DB: Yeah, there’s probably stuff that you figure out works more than others, and you start leaning into that a bit more. While maybe towards the beginning you’re still trying out things a bit more. I think that’s the pattern that I’ve seen.
MG: And you’ve never played the Fillmore, right?
DB: Yeah I’ve never been there.
MG: It’s a good spot. What are some San Francisco venues you’ve played in the past that you dug?
DB: I kinda like all of them. I don’t know what the various reps are. I played a place called the Swedish American Hall that I thought was pretty nice for a stripped down show. Cafe Du Nord, that’s always fun. Bottom of the Hill we played and that’s fun. I think Great American, where we played last time, is probably close to the top for me, just cuz of the feeling of the room. Things sound pretty good, at least with people in it. And when you first walk in there, it’s pretty impressive. It’s kinda tattered and stuff, but I think that really adds to it as well.
MG: In terms of set list, what can people expect from this tour? You going to be playing mostly Kaputt, or you going back to the back catalog as well?
DB: One of the main goals of this band was to learn a bunch of older songs, so I think for the first time in Destroyer history we actually have a good chunk of songs from the last 15 years on hand that we can pick from. We know most of the Kaputt stuff as well, we’ll probably play a lot of that. But we’ll try to mix it up as much as possible, I think. And hopefully there’s still space for it to be cohesive, the stuff kinda runs all over the place. I think the band does have a distinct sound, we’re perhaps still looking for the ones that fit in to that.
MG: Yeah, you were saying the band for this tour is mostly people you’ve toured with in the past, right?
DB: Yeah, everyone except the drummer, and I’ve known him for quite a while, and I know his other bands were just phenomenal. But everyone else has been fairly heavily involved with the recording of Destroyer records at some point in the, however long it’s been, like 16 years. It’s kinda an all-star team for that.
MG: There seems to be a distinct shift on Kaputt towards a jazzier sound, and you were saying last time we spoke that that was more of a natural progression for you and your songwriting as opposed to there being any one experience or influence that caused that shift. But you did mention that you’ve gotten into a lot of American jazz for the first time and that might have helped shape the songwriting. When you hear Kaputt, are any influences, musical or otherwise, that you hear?
DB: It’s hard for me to say the songwriting came from one distinct place. The concept for what the sound should be came after the fact. So yeah, I probably was listening to a lot of jazz records, and maybe some ambient records, and maybe even some songs that dabbled in danceable rhythms, for the first time in a long time. I’m trying to think of specific things that, when you put them all together, equate to what Kaputt sounds like. Cuz it doesn’t sound like a jazz record, it doesn’t really sound like a techno record or a disco record, and it doesn’t really sound like an ambient record. But I guess the history of pop music, especially maybe from the 70s and the early part of the 80s, I took similar influences and turned them into radio fare, essentially, with differing degrees of success. I was knee-deep in a Miles Davis phase
MG: Was there any particular Miles era that you were into?
DB: I was kinda consuming a lot of it. I still am working on getting into really hard, funky Miles. But basically late 50s and through the 60s. I was also really into the orchestration, for some reason, and the harmonics that he would hit on those late 50s early 60s records. Not that we had anything remotely carefully arranged on Kaputt. It was the exact opposite, in fact. It was mostly solos, that we layered. But there’s some kind of mournful, romantic, lost quality that I gravitate towards in that music. It’s also very confident.
And then there’s templates from pop music that I thought I’d take a look at, maybe for the first time ever. Mostly English stuff, whether it was Roxy Music and Bryan Ferry, or David Sylvian’s early pop records, or early solo records I should say. There’s a song from this one Pet Shop Boys record called “Behavior” that I really like. I’m not sure that ended up coming through too much, but those are some of the things that were maybe like guiding lights.
MG: And when you say that you were listening to ambient stuff, was that Brian Eno-type stuff? Or other stuff?
DB: I was listening to the early stuff, like Harold Budd and Jon Hassell. I guess people who maybe played and collaborated on David Sylvian records? Like someone like Ryuichi Sakamoto. I tried going back to see what I missed in the 90s, when I turned my back on that stuff, cuz I remember always hearing Aphex Twin and stuff in the back of my head and liking it but never paying that much heed to it. I’ve been putting on old records from raver days, giving a second thought to them, seeing what they’re all about. Like maybe old Orb records. But that was just passing through, I don’t know how much I really embrace that tradition. As a vocalist, singer-songwriter, I feel a little at odds with it.
MG: Maybe I’m totally wrong, but I feel like you must be someone who likes the guitar. When I listen to Destroyer songs, the guitar work seems like an important part of the music. It’s interesting that none of those influences are very guitar-driven. Even Miles, who went through his fusion phase with John McLaughlin, but that wasn’t the era of Miles you gravitated to.
DB: I’m just starting to right now, I think. Back in the early days of Kaputt, I made a conscious effort to put down the guitar for that record. And I still put it down, and have no plans of picking it up again. I’m not that good as a guitar player, it’s what I would write on for 15 years or however long. And you hear stuff I do here and there on Destroyer records, but it’s mostly boneheaded riffs. Anything that’s interesting is Nick Bragg.
I had to just drop rock music, and stop listening to a lot of it, and I haven’t really picked it up again. I have to say, as far as live is concerned, it’s kinda nice not having a guitar on my hands, it’s kinda liberating. It was really nerve-wracking at first cuz I have no idea what to do. But I still think I’m enjoying it, and it’s the right move. I think it helps make me a better singer.
MG: You mentioned last time that you have no interest in writing rock music any more. Do you have some trajectory in mind for Destroyer after this tour and for the next album? Are there any new styles you want to get into? Make a jazz or ambient record?
DB: You know that’s stuff I listen to, but I would be so much at the mercy of whoever I collaborated with, aside from me saying “I like that” or “I don’t like that”, because it’s stuff that’s technically so beyond me.
So maybe more orchestral music, or kind of severely droney or ambient music, without the disco ballad backing that we put on. Also getting back into songs for the first time in a while. I think that might have happened through listening to a lot of jazz, you get exposed to these older songs, and the classic American songbook songs, which was something I wholeheartedly rejected for a while even though it’s part of my background, listening to my grandpa play Gershwin on the piano. It’s stuff I’ve become interested in again, but I don’t know if on a writing level. That was definitely involved in getting me to go back to “chord school.” But it’s hard to say. I’ve kinda made a pact with myself to attack these things on a song-by-song basis, and not come up with some over-arching concept, to let the song dictate things.
I have to sit down and actually write some songs to allow them to dictate something [laughs], and then I’ll see what happens with all this other stuff floating around my head. I guess Kaputt kept me busier than I’d planned, which I guess is good in some ways. I really haven’t had time to sit still and look at a pile of writing and see what it means, try to construct something out of it. Usually I don’t have to put too much effort into that side of things to make it happen, but maybe my style of writing is on the verge of going through some kind of change, in honor of turning 40.
MG: Last time I asked you about the whole “yacht rock” thing and how that gets bandied about in regards to Kaputt, but you mentioned that you weren’t really aware of that or listening to that when you were making the album. What do you think of that comparison?
DB: I don’t really care. It kinda ignores any lyrical element to the record, would be one thing, maybe it would be a comparison that you could make if you ignored my vocal contribution altogether. Which doesn’t really bother me, that someone can do that. I think I maybe went off on a “Quiet Storm” speech, which is a comparison I don’t really mind. I love being compared to late 70s Smokey Robinson, or latter-day Bill Withers.
I don’t find Kaputt that upbeat. I know that yacht rock isn’t necessarily a beat, but it has kind of a “one margarita too many” or “one line of coke too many” quality to it, which I find is the only interesting thing about it. And the product is a certain thin, squashed quality, verging on ambient, like it’s made for an airport or a doctor’s office. But I think the dissimilarities outweigh the similarities. There’s similar instruments, but the way those instruments are played is quite different, I think.
And like I said, to do that you’d have to ignore the entire lyrical intention of the record, which is fine because I find most lyrics get ignored anyway. I found that before with the other Destroyer records, the lyrics get written off as gibberish or something. I’m fine being written off as easy listening though, that’s fine.
The stuff I do like I just don’t know if it qualifies as yacht rock. There’s a certain era of Sade I kinda like, there’s a certain era of “Slave to Love”-era Bryan Ferry. But I don’t think that counts, I don’t think that’s the same as Doobie Brothers.
It’s very American, yacht rock. I don’t think Kaputt sounds very American.
MG: I was intrigued by our conversation about scenes last time we spoke. It came up in relation to me saying that I interpret a lot of your lyrics to be about the music industry or the scene you come from, and how I assumed it was the Vancouver scene you were talking about, since that’s where you’re from. But you were saying that you feel not part of the Vancouver scene any more, or any scene. Did you feel rooted in the scene in the past, and did that shape the music? And do you feel that not being rooted in a scene has freed you in some way, or had any other impact on the music?
DB: I think so. I feel like Kaputt sounds way more disembodied and kind of ghostly. [Laughs] I think that must be the way I cruise through the city, you know?
At the same time, I don’t think I’m saying anything exceptional, I think it’s very age-specific. You get into your late 30s and if I was doing the same shit that I was doing in my early 20s or mid 20s, when I was knee deep in local music culture like anyone is, where I’m just going to play in a ton of bands and hang out at the bar — that’s just not what my life is about right now. That’s one of the more standard changes that I think can happen. It’s not headline news. But if you continue to actually make music, then I’m sure there’s artistic repercussions to that.
I mean the most common thing that happens when you stop hanging out is you stop making art. At least that’s what I kinda noticed with my friends and my general age group. I don’t know what it’s like for San Francisco, maybe people rage for much longer. But I can’t say exactly what those repercussions are, if what I make now compares to what I made.
Your standard underground culture formed the backdrop of countless Destroyer songs from the 90s and early 2000s, but that was just cuz that’s what happened to be my life, so I used that as a backdrop. And I think it’s only interesting as a backdrop. It grounds what you’ve written. But the imaginative work — not that it’s work — the imaginative play, or whatever it is that happens when you write something or you sing, I like to think the value of it lies elsewhere than describing youth culture.
I might have said last time that I found scenes interesting in the same way that I find armies interesting, or any kind of functional, formatted unit of people, whether it’s a gang or a SWAT team or a country club. Or a den of thieves. All that stuff is good, when people organize amongst themselves, and wanna talk the same or act the same. I think those things get interesting. But I’m holding it at arm’s length, at the moment.
MG: Those things can also enforce a certain rigidity of thought or expression.
DB: Sure, yeah, that can happen. I think people in bands or people in art school think of themselves as wild, which is what you do when you’re young, I guess. But the most striking thing is the homogenous quality of it.