Catching Up With Destroyer :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

“I saw you at the castle/your eyes were clearly insane,” Dan Bejar sings on “Saw You at the Hospital,” one of the tenderest songs on ken, his twelfth album under the Destroyer banner. It’s a line that typifies the way a Destroyer song works: though not a single album in Bejar’s discography has sounded the same as another, a unifying thread of bemused absurdity makes each immediately identifiable. On ken, Bejar and producer Josh Wells dismantle the lush rock of 2015’s Poison Season, employing a mostly electronic palette. While that might sound familiar to listeners recalling 2011’s breakthrough record Kaputt, ken departs from that template as well, its harsh edges never quite allowing for the gauzy drift that defined that album.

It’s a record about the wildness of youth, as much as Destroyer records are “about” anything. Individual moments may evoke New Order, the Cure, or Tears for Fears, but Bejar’s uncanny ability to synthesize influences continues to shine. It’s romantic but distant, often vulgar but also more direct than Bejar’s records in the past. A new Destroyer record always feels like a singular thing; Bejar’s voice, sonically and literarily, does too.

Aquarium Drunkard reached Bejar on the phone to discuss the record’s genesis, the role of cinematic images in his songs, and the freedom of writing from the view of “bad” characters. | j woodbury

Aquarium Drunkard: You toured by yourself in 2016. Did approaching your body of songs that way, in a solo fashion, influence the work you were doing on ken?

Dan Bejar: Probably, I’m going to say. Part of what that tour was about was playing about half of the songs of that album in front of people, kind of forcing myself to figure out how they go, you know? I had just written them, and I wanted to put them through some hardship. So I got in a car by myself in Spokane and drove to Florida, and then flew home and started making the record. I was going back to my hotel room at night [and demoing songs], which sounds insane after having played a show, but I guess I didn’t have anything else to do. I would just open my computer and make demos for most of the songs…most of the songs were written before that tour, but they were pretty vague…they were all pretty simple and direct, obviously made by someone strumming the guitar and writing instead of whipping up dramatic movements in his mind and then piecing it together [in the studio].

AD: I feel like the last couple times that I’ve seen Destroyer, you’ve performed more as the straight-up frontman. I don’t even know if you’ve picked up a guitar.

Dan Bejar: Yeah, I haven’t played one live in probably close to 10 years now.

AD: Over the course of those 10 years, you’ve spent a lot of time refining your vocal approach. At this point, does it feel comfortable for you to perform that way, just focused on singing? Do you feel like you’re directing the band in that format?

Dan Bejar: I guess I do a lot of listening. I am a big fan of the group. [Laughs] The band that’s been touring as Destroyer for the last five years, I really liked playing with that group. The most peculiar things happen when I actually look forward to getting on stage. I’ve always liked playing, but I’ve never been a natural sight to behold on stage. I do feel oddly comfortable and confident with this band. Listening to them was part of the inspiration behind Poison Season. I [wanted to capture] what it is I think we sound like together.

It represents a little bit of that dual between what we do and my ongoing fixation with the orchestrations you hear on classic 20th-century ballads. For the first few records and first 100 or 200 shows with the early and middays of Destroyer, it was a lot more of “get up there and go.” In my mind, I was more of a performer. As a singer, I would just spit as much things out as intensely as possible. And that’s no longer how I approach it. I like to just close my eyes and listen to my voice and actually control it a bit.

AD: You say in the notes that accompanied the album in my inbox that ken wasn’t approached the same way as  Poison Season  in terms of being a “band record.” Obviously, the band is still on the record, but it feels orchestrated in a distinct way. How did the process work? Were you recording and then editing with producer Josh Wells?

Dan Bejar: I think that part of it is me starting to play guitar again and write on guitar for the first time since Trouble In Dreams, which we recorded 10 years ago. I did have a crazy idea that I would make a solo record and play everything that I could, and I chickened out of that pretty fast. Like pretty much immediately upon getting home from that tour. Part of that is just not having confidence in my engineering skills. I had made music with Josh for quite a while at this point and knew the other records he worked on. I knew the era I wanted to draw on sound wise and I think he lives pretty deep inside that era, and has a certain amount of expertise when it comes to it. So, what I thought would start off as him just helping me record the record, within one day, became something quite different. His ideas were so distinct and drastic from what I had demoed for more than half the record. It turned out quite unrecognizable from the songs I had presented to him. That was exciting.

But also the way he works is kind of—you can hear it in the songs—it’s quite methodical and mechanical. The process of having people come in and blaze away from beginning to end on a song or all of us getting in a room together and just going for it —which are the two main ways we’ve done things in the past—that didn’t happen. It was all quite conscious. The record’s songs were quite formed before we started bringing people in. People played in spots and we’ll give them direction. It was my first glimpse of how a producer might attack things. In that sense, it was kind of a Destroyer first.

AD: You also remarked in the bio that you were sort of thinking about the end of the Thatcher era. Is that when music first took hold of you?

Dan Bejar: I don’t know if I was really thinking about her at all, Thatcher or England and the tail end years of her reign there. That just [coincided with] when I got deep, deep into music…it happened to be in the mid to late ’80s, when I was a teenager. That happened to be what was going on in England and what I happened to be into was UK indie bands. That being said, I like thinking or dreaming about what kind of sound comes out of specific political or economic situations. I can’t say what they are. I don’t want to start graphing it. Especially when you’re a teenager in Vancouver, you couldn’t really be more distant than whatever was happening in Manchester in 1987. Most of it is just going to be a distinction that you concocted in your head, this conviction and fantasy. What did I really know about the Hacienda compared to what I had pictured with my friends listening to the first Happy Mondays song? [Laughs] That’s basically how art works and how music works.

AD: My thoughts and interpretations about what a Destroyer record means—or what you’re singing about—usually change over time. When I listen to the record, I got the sense that some of these songs feel like character sketches about a certain spirit that accompanies youth. At that age, every idea feels  mindblowing in the moment. You slip into a kind of casual radicalism. It feels like the record is reflecting on that spirit.

Dan Bejar: What I noticed when I quickly scan the song, and I don’t really do that unless I’m forced to, [is that] they seem direct and they speak in extremes, but in a way that’s, like you said, casually tossed-off. [It does] remind me of all-or-nothing ingestion of things. In my teens or late teens, the world was shit and I wanted no part of it and yet there were voices floating out in it that provided this incredible antidote. And it wasn’t an antidote that was a ray of hope; it wasn’t like, “No, it’s okay.” It wasn’t a positive lifeline. It was actually much more dire and grey than anything I knew in my immediate surroundings. But I loved it. There was a romantic quality to it, even it was belched out of some industrial city covered with smoke. I could really taste it.

AD:  Do you feel like in a way you wanted to convey that same sort of harsh reality with this record?

Dan Bejar:  I have a hard time sometimes hashing out the writing which is, I’ve always maintained, very unconscious and very distinctive and me literally just getting off on the sound of words and whatever feelings those words strung together sum up in me. And then there’s the making of the record. With each [album] I make as I get older, it becomes more mysterious and in some ways more arduous, as I become more aware of the craft of it. What sonic world does this voice exist in? What new meanings are created by that? What’s played off of that?

In this case, I would say, because my background is way more in wimpy John Hughes music as a teenager, and then after that, baggy or Manchester, then culminating in my obsession with the shoegaze scene, [all the things I liked were] kind of gauzy in that UK way. The record really does have Josh’s stamp. Before on the Destroyer records, it had always been very cushy and ambient, kind of dreamy and orchestral sounding, and these songs are very percussive, dirty, in your face, hard and cold. Which is not something I brought to the table. I had really no background with that. I was shocked to see actual analog synthesizers that work instead of messing around on the computer, the same thing with the drum machines. My vision of a drum machine has always been something to blend in with dreamy, percussive attack, like my obsession with [Roxy Musics’] Avalon.  Kaputt is an example of that.

Josh is more involved with [ken]. It’s the most goth record that Destroyer has ever made. That means nothing because I’ve never made one. It will be the most goth one I’ll have ever made. I don’t sing like Peter Murphy, but some of the music kind of exists in that world, which is not where I predicted it going in. And in some ways, I really like it, because it actually plays off the lyrics much better than my plan of running a bunch of guitars through like BOSS chorus and tremolo pedals, which we did do as well.

AD:  You mentioned romance earlier, and the record does have a gothy sense of romance. It taps into that doomed, sort of tragic vibe.

Dan Bejar:  There is a cold minimalism to it, which isn’t my natural vibe. I think it’s definitely something that came out more and more as I watched Josh work on the record and I got more and more into that.

AD: Does that process change the songs themselves? Do you find yourself lyrically reacting to those new feelings and changes as the process goes on.

Dan Bejar: I don’t know, because the lyrics are so static and etched in stone by the time the songs come into the studio. I really do wish that wasn’t always the case. I think part of my thinking I could go in by myself [was that I could start] to make musical sounds and then sing over the top of that. That was one of the initial ideas, like maybe I can work in a different way like I’ve heard people doing all the time, yet I’ve never done. I think there are one or two songs that I’ve kind of had musical ideas for them before I started singing over the top, but there are things where the singing changed so drastically that I feel the meaning of the song would change.

I would say, for instance, on the last song which is called “La Regle du Jeu” when I first wrote it, it had a really breezy, folk-pop vibe and I was singing low, in a super casual way and someway this song reminded me of groovy, “All Along the Watchtower” kind of songs. Not Hendrix’s version, but the original version. When we started building the song in the studio it had all these weird staccatos stuttering, and clammy, fake piano. The rhythm of it changed. I took on, as a singer, way more of a strident, Euro/cabaret style vocal take, which stuck.

All of a sudden, the song had way more fangs than I had ever imagined. Which I think is good because, to me, it’s a deeply negative song lyrically. I don’t even recognize it as a typical Destroyer song. I don’t know where it came from. The world that it describes is basically two very negative images butted up against themselves: one in the first verse, one in the second verse. To me, the day and age we’re living in, even though La Regle du Jeu is a very famous French film, the words “the rules of the game” seem very ominous and menacing. I just wanted to say them over and over again, and I wanted to say them in a language that maybe America doesn’t understand or is heavily against. And that was French.

AD: As an American, that strikes me as an instructional insult to some degree. [Laughs] I don’t know if that makes any sense.

Dan Bejar: [Laughs] Well, I mean that’s the most annoying mode that I write in, the instructional song. In my mind, I’ve really only written two songs like that. And one is called “Don’t Become the Thing You Hated” that I wrote a long time ago. The other one is actually on this record, “Stay Lost.” When I played it [on the solo tour], it sounded like a campfire song. It went through a Gary Numan ringer in the studio. That was supposed to be an educational song…I mean it’s verbatim; it’s about what it says.

AD: In “Ivory Coast” you sing, “the future looks bleak/the future looks bright.” Are you feeling that duality in your day-to-day life right now?

Dan Bejar: That is something you could hear in any Destroyer song.

AD: Yeah, absolutely. [Laughs]

Dan Bejar: The future looks bleak, the future looks bright…And then there’s the last line of the verse, which is a kiss-off to the world, a world which is just formed of dust and snow. That song is very imagistic to me. I really liked how deadened my vocals were. That was another one that was really transformed by Josh, with that tom beat flow and menacing [approach]. Even the words “Ivory Coast,” have a very uncomfortable sound and menace to them, though it’s supposed to be a dreamlike song, but a dream that may be had by a depressed mercenary or just a pirate overcome with malaise.

AD: Yeah. [Laughs] That’s a beautiful way to think about it. That little explanation encapsulates so much of what I like about Destroyer songs and your albums. So often they do feel like beautiful recollections or beautiful ideas from terrible characters. Bad people have beautiful thoughts too, or sometimes the other way around. I think you attack both of those things pretty often in the songs.

Dan Bejar: I think the bad person escaping their day-to-day terrible life in some kind of druggy revery, conjuring up beautiful images from a terrible mind, is just a literary conceit that I’ve just happened to dig at over the last 30 years of my life. [Laughs] I don’t know what it is. It just speaks to me to my very core. I think I’m maybe not terrible or evil, so I can really romanticize those things. It [enables] a lot of reckless abandon because there’s no sense of me confessing, or if I am, it’s just twisted deep in there. I think if there’s any kind of confessional mode in Destroyer, it usually happens through luxuriating images, just the way your mind flashes on things. I think some of the images [that show up in songs]—there’s usually some kind of truce or emotional pattern that comes out of that. I don’t think I would react to them for no reason. I have to get my heart rate up when I write that stuff.

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