“Once You Break With Rock Music, It’s Hard to Find Your Feet Again”: A Chat With Destroyer’s Dan Bejar
In case you're wondering, Dan Bejar, the singer, is aware of Dan Bejar, the artist, who impersonates Dan Bejar, the singer, and posts the photos on the Internet. "I've never met him, so I don't know what to think," said Bejar, the singer, in a phone interview a few weeks ago. "It's kind of a funny project. I'm curious to see what emails he's received of mine." Actually, Bejar's doppelganger has been posting his fan mail online, I told him. "I have a feeling, were I to be honest," said Bejar, the singer, "I would say I've unconsciously gone out of my way not to think about it too much."
It feels somewhat strange that the flattery via performance art has arrived only now in Bejar's career. With last year's Kaputt, Bejar's project Destroyer moved away from the idiosyncratic, ironic, and discursive electric folk sound it's poked from different angles since the 1990s. Kaputt is disco-touched, ambient expat sophistipop—hazy, artful but assured, and not beholden to the tics and quirks that made past Destroyer records so thrilling. It was my favorite album last year.
I spoke to Bejar in advance of his show Saturday night at the 9:30 Club, where he's playing with Sandro Perri—another Canadian who marries a sophisticated vocal delivery and longform, ambient instrumentals. I liked his 2011 album, Impossible Spaces, a lot, too.
Bejar and I spoke about what he does in the time between albums, what happened after he put down his guitar, and why he thinks he's done with rock 'n' roll. The interview has been condensed.
You’ve talked about how you have a different relationship with the lyrics on Kaputt than you do with the ones on your other albums. With those you were able to pinpoint what every word meant. But for the new record, you've said the words exists at more of a remove. Now that you’ve sat with it for a year, how has your relationship with Kaputt changed?
I don’t know, it kind of has and it hasn’t. This band that I am going on tour with is different from the one that toured last year for Kaputt, and for the first time ever, [we're] kind of consciously trying to learn a bunch of back-catalog stuff in addition to stuff from the new record. We probably know twice as many songs as any Destroyer formation has ever learned. And doing that, it’s interesting to see how the older songs knock up against the new ones. They’re a fair bit different, but I guess I see it outside of thematics. It’s really noticeable in the sense of space on the Kaputt songs, in, like, an effort to flatten out as many chord changes as possible. There’s a vocal delivery required in the older songs that seems divorced from the way I was singing on the Kaputt record. Maybe to try and sing in an even manner, I had to try to achieve...distance in the studio, just because I was so used to yelping or orating. I think maybe I can find a happy medium between the two.
Is that also in terms of the sonic reading, or just the way that you sing?
It’s kind of the sonic reading, because that’s mostly the kind of reading I do—the music is a challenge for me while the writing seems to happen of itself. I haven’t done too much writing in the last few years, since writing the batch of Kaputt songs, which happened a while back. It seems like there’s some kind of overarching poetic project to Destroyer before Kaputt that I do think has changed or is kind of over. I remember saying that a year ago, and it’s probably still true. I don’t know what I’m cast off into from Kaputt, but it seems to be a kind of void or something. Once you break with rock music, the kind of music I listened to for so long, it’s hard to find your feet again. [Laughs] I don’t know, I’m really enjoying playing with the group, more than I ever have, but at the same time I feel more distant from rock music, or even pop music, more than I ever have. It’s weird. Maybe Kaputt was like the kiss-off.
Have you run through the motions in your head of what to do now?
I don’t really think of it in terms of what to do now. There’s always stuff that I’m into, and it seems somehow insane or overly far-reaching or something or just out of my grasp even though I like it—musically. It kind of hard to figure out how to get a piece of it. Which I usually my first reaction when I really like something. I’m like, “I want that.” That’s kind of what happened with Kaputt. I started listening to detailed production works that came off of, maybe, like English commercial radio, for the first time. Whether it was a record like [Roxy Music’s] Avalon or even David Sylvian’s records in the ‘80s. These were records that were kind of ambitious and had elements outside of pop music and kind of, like, bridged worlds of jazz and world music and avant-garde but they’re still radio hits. That was something that gave Kaputt its cohesive nature, the way it all managed to stick together. And, you know, it made it seem to people that it was a real testament to a time and place, which wasn’t my intention. That kind of part of it doesn’t really interest me, as far as, uh...
...capturing a milieu, I guess?
Yeah, you know, the kind of studio pop production—the bemused bedazzlement. I think it’s good for me to wrestle free of pop music, as well.
You mentioned getting into something and grasping toward it. Is there such a thing right now, that interests you post-Kaputt?
Yeah, I’ve been listening to lots of jazz music the last few years, around the time we started working on Kaputt and also getting more into heavily arranged music and orchestrations, which is kind of a phase I’ve gone through in the past, when I was working on a record called Your Blues, but that was more of a deranged project. I knew it was going to have a kind of tinny experimental bent to it.
And you kind of had an orchestra in your pocket with that one.
Yeah, were I to go in that direction again, it would be something completely different. I don’t know, I still kind of like slow disco music. It seems to be really easy to listen to—on the Kaputt record, the kind of disco ballad feel. Maybe I’ve written a song or two that would still fit that kind of mold. It’s hard to say. One thing I swore to do was to look at songs on a song-by-song basis and not look come up with an overarching concept and then impose it on the songs. And so any work that I have right now that is kind of so scattered and weird right now it’s to even picture what would fit it. I think I have to stop traveling around and sit down and figure out what I’ve got.
Have you done much traveling, outside of touring?
I don’t know, a little bit. It feels like the last year and a half has been kind of disjointed and I don't think I really thrive on that as far as creative work goes...Lots of touring, at least as far as I’m concerned. And then more this year—and things at home I won’t go into. I think I maybe operate better inside a pocket of calm. It’s probably completely really dull compared to a lot of people. I have to be really static and idle before a little bit I can start conjuring up ideas. And once I get to the studio I can gain momentum off of that.
So do you have time for productive nothingness after this tour?
We’re touring June, we’re going to Europe in July, and then we’re going to Europe again in the fall, and then we’ll see. I think I’m just going to not worry about this year so much and then try to forge some space next year. I’m not in a huge rush to make records. I’ve never sat myself down and said, “Now is the time to write a song.” I’ve never done that in the past. I’m not going to start worry about that now.
I’ve seen you play a lot of times, and at different shows you’ve been in different moods and engaged with the audience in different ways—and sometimes not much at all. And sometimes you’ve appeared to be more intoxicated than at other ones. Where you are on a given doesn’t seem to have any straight correlation to what the show ends up being, but what do you want your live shows to be? What do you want that experience to be like?
I don’t know. These days I’m really into crouching down and listening to the band play—it sounds really good to me generally. It’s the kind of thing I like, so I just make the natural leap thinking that maybe it’s the kind of thing other people like. I don’t really know if that’s true or not but all I could do is operate under the assumption that it is, or at least try and do something I think sounds cool and that the band thinks sounds cool. Whatever happens after that will happen with or without us. I probably have good days and bad days. I might not be the most suited person to play live music in front of people for weeks on end, living on a bus and stuff like that. I know for a fact that harsh moods have made a show good and good moods have made a show bad. As far as how I interact with the audience, I really have nothing to say to anyone. I don’t stop on the street and talk to strangers; I’ve never gone to a show wanting that from someone. So again, worst case scenario, I’m forgetting that not everyone’s like me, and maybe they do want want some kind of Destroyer outreach program. But I feel less and less giving in that regards and maybe more giving in other regards. Hopefully more giving in the artistic sense, or something. I think generally these days I’m into trying to hone in on singing, which I’m kind of new to—just closing my eyes and trying to be still and hearing how I hit the words. Because I’m not doing anything else these days, I’m not playing guitar, I’m not hyping the audience jumping up and down, so I might as well just be still and try and lay into what’s supposed to be my craft as hard as possible.
How has focusing on the craft of singing—and putting down the guitar—changed things for you?
It's really good. I’m really liking it. I’m still getting used to it. I held a guitar and thrashed on it for so long. I feel it’s kind of emblematic of something, for one: Putting down the guitar. There’s something else going on. In my head, I feel like there was a real break that was a symbol of. And on a more functional level, I’m just not into my guitar playing at all. I’ve never really been good. I can use it to compose songs or come up with simple riffs. But it doesn’t need to be there. In music, there’s a lot more going on that using an army of rhythm guitars, especially these days. I think it’s making me like playing more, even though there are vast stretches where I’m doing nothing at all. [Laughs] Maybe that’s why I like it.
Destroyer performs Saturday with Sandro Perri at 8 p.m. 9:30 Club. $20.