Destroyer :: The AD Interview

In twenty-five years, Destroyer have never made the same record twice. It’s a band that works like a nomadic tribe, like transients traveling uncharted terrain. It constructs a community indicative of the environment in which it settles, though it never stays for long. Once the creation is finished, it migrates from the site as the remnants of its last work lays mummified like ruins to be solved. Its eyes always forward focused.

Singer-songwriter Dan Bejar, also of indie rock collective The New Pornographers, spearheads the re-birthing apparatus. What started as simply a voice and a guitar from the late 1990s lofi period—including We’ll Build Them a Golden Bridge and Ideas for Songs—evolved into a full band which saw his first collaboration with producer/bandmate John Collins on 1998’s City of Daughters. Collins, along with the addition of guitarist Nicholas Bragg, acquired during the production of 2002’s This Night, round out the unit Bejar chose to work with on Destroyer’s anticipated thirteenth album Have We Met.

Inspired by the sounds of late 90s futurism, Have We Met finds Bejar in the most intimate role he’s ever taken on. Despair settles over Collins’ passé digitalist production like fog floating on thick asphalt. Its production was a relatively isolated process—Bejar recorded the album’s vocal takes at his kitchen table at night while his family slept upstairs; Bragg plugged his guitar directly into his computer to record. The result is an album that feels like a 1998 iMac being plugged in for the first time in twenty years—vintage, cold as chrome, yet warmly nostalgic, and just a touch away from unearthing its withheld contents.

Every laugh was followed by a coughing spree when Bejar spoke to us on the phone from his Vancouver home—he was recovering from a particularly nasty flu. He took a breath before responding to each question, taking time to answer as thoughtfully as he could. As the release of the new album approaches—January 31 via Merge Records—Bejar spoke to us about recording in isolation, the principal role of John Collins, songwriting inspirations, the end of the world, and the influence of futurism on Destroyer’s thirteenth album Have We Met. words / c ruddell

Aquarium Drunkard: You’re 13 albums in—what do you think keeps bringing people back?

Dan Bejar: I don’t know. I know what makes me check out people’s records. It’s not like some kind of loyalty; it’s more like something that that singer does which I get off on, and I want to continue that feeling of getting off on it. Also, I don’t know if most people do this, but because it’s pretty popular to pick one or two records by an artist, focus on those, then write off the rest, it makes their catalogue kind of mysterious. The records that aren’t those records. For me, that was something that happened with Van Morrison to – maybe this has changed now, but at least 10 or 15 years ago – people would talk about Astral Weeks or his first few solo albums up until Veedon Fleece. I started listening to his music and buying stuff, and then his 2000’s record was stuffed to the seams, and completely undocumented as far as my circle of whatever world I listened to. It may have well not existed. It was kind of interesting to see what you’d find in there because people seem pretty cool when they start to get old. Things change and they change in a way that is spectacular but is good to me. I’m not just saying that out of self-preservation because I’m old now. I don’t know if those are things that make people come back. I have no idea what people do with music. I actually don’t really understand even how music is ingested or appreciated for the most part these days. The whole thing’s a mystery.

AD: What’s the idea behind the album’s title?

Dan Bejar: It just kind of came to me pretty late in the game. There was a lot of other titles floating around that were more poetic or elusive. Half of them that came out, I don’t know where they came from. I think I was watching an old movie or something and maybe the woman said to the man “Have we met?” or vice versa. I realized it’s such a common expression and so recognizable, but I thought I’d never heard it in real life before. The words stuck with me. They kind of sound really personal, but when you take the question mark away, it sounds empty at the same time. I like that you can’t remember. Not that I like that feeling, but as it becomes more present in my life, it’s something that I like exploring. How memory washes up. It’s not all together bad even though it sounds bad. How it kind of erases things and how you fill in the blanks of that. I also liked the commonality of that. It’s a bit more inviting than your standard Destroyer title. I thought maybe it humanized the record a little bit because there are points where I thought maybe the record was too synthetic sounding or erred too much on the side of dread. I thought the title could give it some levity.

AD: John is a significant part of this record. Was that an original plan entering production or did it just unfold that way?

Dan Bejar: No, it was always the plan. It’d be me coming up with these songs, simple arrangements, kind of placeholder bass lines that I would send to him. I’d do it on my computer and zap them over to his computer in Seattle. The mandate was just, ‘John make my lame canned drums and lame bass – swap out the rhythm section, make it sound cool’. I’ve played basic synth pads and my little melodic bits, so in his hands it became way more embellished and a world unto itself. About halfway through, I had this creeping feeling that I didn’t have enough music to work with and that the record was gonna sound too Ipad-y or something. I did what I always do which is just get Nick Bragg to blaze over. He’s also in his living room late at night with his guitar plugged into his computer essentially. It sounds like he’s really going for it. John has a knack for how to use Nick’s parts in songs because what Nick sends often is pretty chaotic and you don’t know at first glance how it makes sense with the music. Slowly but surely, you start actually hanging the song on the parts. It’s a weird process. It’s been about 17/18 years running of this shit now.

AD: Was recording in isolation between the three of you part of a larger concept?

Dan Bejar: I knew that I wanted to do a bunch of stuff by myself. I knew that I wanted the record to sound mobile in the sense that I wanted John to make whatever kind of sonic world he wanted with it, which means that sonic world is going to be fake. I kind of knew where Collins was at. Definitely in the headspace of messing around with apps on his Ipad or all this stuff on his computer. The initial idea kind of steered into that, but the initial idea was pretty different from what we ended up with which is not that uncommon. My initial idea was something quite stark, quite minimalist. Just incredibly loud drums, super loud bass and sound effects like glass shattering. Not much in the way of melodic arrangements.

AD: What brought you to that point where those were the things you wanted?

Dan Bejar: It was just an intellectual conceit. I don’t think I actually wanted that. When you get me and John together in a room, which we did in the last few weeks working on the record, we always seemed to go back to the same place. Even if I’m like “Let’s make it sound like this dismal horror movie abattoir” it always ends up sounding like hard noise. A lot of that is era specific, maybe because of our age. I think whether we want to or not, especially when we’re making synth and programmed drums and bass music, we seem to end up in the ‘80s, regardless of our intention. Probably because that’s the decade that made us. Usually, once you actually start working on the music instead of just writing emails back and forth, getting each other excited about what you can do, once you actually start getting your hands dirty you kind of end up in a natural mode. I hope, because that’s way more interesting than slopping through. Otherwise it’s like all you’re trying to do is get a rise out of people. You have to have some kind of emotional connection to it.

AD: I know you’ve mentioned the Wim Wenders movie Until the End of the World was a big influence.

Dan Bejar: I think the sound of 1999 was something that was an early discussion. I like movies that take place in a really near future, so a 1991 version of 1999 kind of interested me. I have a soft spot for ‘90s futurism. 

AD: Could you talk a little bit about the character in “Cue Synthesizer?”

Dan Bejar: That song’s a weird one, both musically and the song. Musically, it really sideswiped me once it got into John’s hands. I initially wrote it as a dour sort of later Leonard Cohen style song. Like when he would sit down at his Casio, like Ten New Songs era. I was listening to that record a lot. Just real flatline kind of production, which is very much the opposite of what John does, which is good. I don’t know who that is or what the character is supposed to represent. It’s kind of divvied up between the last verse which is more hysterical and supposed to sound like someone exasperated and at the end of their rope, and the first part which is someone walking through the construction of the song. I think I just wanted to sing the nuts and bolts of making music that somehow made that sound gloved or menacing. I knew the last verse was going to be lashing out at the world for being shit. You can’t just lash out, you have to lash in. You have to include yourself in the world of people. How can you render yourself evil.

AD: The video is great, too.

Dan Bejar: When it comes to the videos, they just put me in the corner and say, “Stand here and do this.” I had nothing to do with them, so when I see the final thing I’m like holy shit. That one seemed to be quite a production as far as Destroyer world goes.

AD: I loved the video for “It Just Doesn’t Happen,” too. That one really struck me.

Dan Bejar: Yeah, that was cool! That was with like 48 hour’s notice. The label wanted some kind of image that went with the album cover to run with that song when they released it. There’s a couple ideas we didn’t think were very good. David Ehrenreich, who directed the last three videos, said “I think I have this footage of me driving around on a snowmobile up in the Arctic next to a plane in the middle of the night. It kind of works on a loop like their asking for.” I was like yeah let’s totally use that. I thought it fit the music really well.

AD: Would you consider Vancouver as one of your long-standing muses?

Dan Bejar: Muse has such a positive ring to it, and I would never want to cast Vancouver in such a positive light. I have lived here for the bulk of my adult life, and I was born here also. I’m sure I tangle with it in songs and outside of songs without even knowing about it. I don’t see how it couldn’t play a part of what I do. It’s so much of what I know. I definitely don’t wake up and look at the mountains and sing to the mountains or go for a hike in the rainforest. I don’t serenade Vancouver, that’s for sure.

AD: One thing I thought was strange about your Rolling Stone profile was the mention of the Y2K theme, but you didn’t seem to connect with that—have you embraced it anymore?

Dan Bejar: Not at all. To me, it’s like whatever. I don’t care. It makes for comic moments in an interview when you’re like “What? That’s in the press release?” The Y2K thing is the first idea that we abandoned. Like being a Y2K record, of all our ideas, that was the very first one we threw out simply because we had no idea what that even meant sonically. I haven’t really wrestled with it at all. I think maybe when I first approached John and described the sound, loud drums, loud bass, with samples and sound effects, maybe it sounded kind of trip-hop like. Maybe that style of music is associated with that era? Though I don’t even know if that’s true. That’s something that maybe you would peg on the late ‘90s. I don’t know. My late ‘90s was all about listening to Tim Hardin or listening to Roxy Music, stuff like that. I’m curious as to what people think that sound is. I was trying to remember the sensation of going out into the world 20 years ago and what things sounded like. Right before rock music made that last effort to come back with The Strokes and The White Stripes, but 1999, 2000, there seemed to be a lot of faux ambient, faux industrial pop. Those early versions of that that you’d hear floating around cafes or restaurants. I don’t know what the words are to describe that.

AD: So what do you think the record sounds like?

Dan Bejar: When I first heard it and listened back to it, we were like this record is kind of all over the place. But what I like to do is I like to – not to sound megalomaniacal – because I know the first thing recorded that never got changed was the vocals. I sent John all the music, I thought for sure we’d keep some of it and revamp a lot of it, and then I’d probably sing the songs for real. We never did that, so the vocals were a constant presence down the middle as things swirled and changed a lot around them. But to me, it’s a really intimate sounding record in a lot of ways, more than any other Destroyer record I can think of.

AD: Do you like it more than other Destroyer records for that reason?

Dan Bejar: I like the sound. I don’t know if I’d say more. I think I liked recording my own singing. I think I might be addicted to it. Even though I did a terrible job recording quality wise, really piss poor engineering there. There’s a quality to the singing there that when I heard it a few times, I realized I wasn’t going to get this again.

AD: That freedom attracted you.

Dan Bejar: Yeah, and just singing to a lot of open space. Singing to a beat and a pad seemed to really work for this record, maybe because I pictured it really minimalist, even though it became not that. It was a certain style of performance that I don’t think I would’ve gotten in the studio – that I know I wouldn’t have. Or even if I tried to sing it over again in the same way, but when all is done, I don’t think it would’ve been the same. Maybe it could just be specific to this record. I don’t know. They’re all just super rough. They’re torched sonically, but performance-wise, pretty wobbly still.

AD: So it was John’s idea to keep the rough vocal takes for the master tracks?

Dan Bejar: It’s so funny. He gets lost inside the sound of a weird high hat that he’s put seven different kinds of reverbs on that kick in at a different times. Then, he’s like “Oh, the record’s getting mastered tomorrow. Let’s listen to the vocals.” By the time that it occurred to him to check out the vocals, it was way too late. It was not so much an idea to keep them, more that they didn’t bug him at any point, so they stayed.

AD: Circling back to a lot of the dread that you find in the lyrics on this record, I’d like to know how you ultimately see civilization coming to an end.

Dan Bejar: I see myself as someone who has a real hard time seeing past the next couple days. I think I’m more of a hopeful person than I used to be. I’ve never seen myself as a pessimist. I think as you get older, it’s super normal for the world to start to feel more dire to you. I’m not panicking about that. I think the world maybe is dire, but also I have some sort of faith in something working out. I think more than anything, when I’m writing lyrics, I just love to paint with super dark strokes. It’s just how I do it. The mood I’m in when words rush at me. it’s actually not darkness, it’s just I’m at ease in the world to let my mind go there. That’s the colors I use. Even though this kind of world dread seems like an arrow that shoots through the record, I feel like there’s also a lot of more explicit humor, for instance, than on other Destroyer records. All the elements seem extreme to me, but it doesn’t seem extreme in one dark, goth blast. 

AD: For me, this record feels like an anthology—there’s characters, there’s vignettes, and they all tie into this one sinking feeling. But within that, there’s all of these different perspectives. 

Dan Bejar: I don’t know if all that’s my long-winded way of trying to avoid how the world’s going to end. I don’t have a pressing vision like some people I know who can’t stop thinking about it. 

AD: Do you think you’d be a bunker person?

Dan Bejar: In my most feverish state this weekend, I was watching something lying in bed, and I thought I don’t think I’d fare very well. It wasn’t exactly a bomb shelter, but some kind of bunker scenario. I wouldn’t cut it. When things get really bad, I don’t know what form I’d take. 

AD: Are you reading anything interesting at the moment worth mentioning?

Dan Bejar: Not really. My mind feels shot. I keep being in this Emily Dickinson phase because her poems are so tiny. I can look at one and finish reading it. They seem to be affecting me more than the last time I read her. Maybe it’s like a form of art we should all just aspire to. I’ve also decided to keep trying to get into Kafka once and for all. Again, incredibly short parables and short stories. 

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