Destroyer :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

Daniel Bejar has been making oblique, urbane pop symphonies as Destroyer for 13 albums and nearly three decades now, but Labyrinthitis is among his best. It pulses with dance rhythms, bristles with literate asides, unspools a hypnotic stream of film-like imagery, hazards a long, rap-inspired spoken word interval, and, once or twice, rocks unabashedly. It’s the kind of album, you can get lost in—or perhaps a little dizzy from. You don’t know quite what’s happening from moment to moment, but there’s a swirl and a sweep and an urgency to it that propels you ever forward.

Recorded remotely during the pandemic, these songs took shape over the internet, at first in a dialogue between Bejar and long-time producer John Collins, later as a broader conversation among all seven Destroyer members, scattered from Vancouver to LA to Chicago. We spoke with Dan about the process, whether his songs are confessional or not, his fascination with film and surprising indifference to visual art, and the foundational importance of lyrics. “Even if everything else sucks. The chords can be lame or the melody. There’s always tons of room for improvement and us singers can do that when we interpret songs, but what we need is a decent line that we can get our hooks into. It’s inspirational,” he says. | j kelly

Aquarium Drunkard: This one is called Labyrinthitis, which is a word for an ear disorder, but it also seems to resonate with this idea of complication and a twisting path, which seems relevant to what you do. Did you mean it that way as well?

Dan Bejar: Yes. I think so? I didn’t put too much thought into it at first. It was a word that I really liked the look of. I really liked that it looked like a fake word. It seems invented, you know?

AD: Although any word seems fake if you look at it long enough.

Dan Bejar: It’s true. But I looked at it, and right away, it seemed to have a magic realism quality to it. I like the idea of invented diseases or afflictions anyway. But I also …anything to do with vertigo and disorientation and nausea intrigues me.

AD: That track that’s named “Labyrinthitis” has a lot of interesting sounds on it, some outdoor sounds and bird song and maybe a kid beat boxing or something. Can you tell me a little about that track?

Dan Bejar: I can tell you barely anything about it. I heard that track about eight hours before the record was done.

AD: John Collins did most of that?

Dan Bejar: It’s all John, and you can hear the background noises, a lot of musique concrete stuff put to a gentle beat, taken from his island where he lives on one of the Gulf Islands in British Columbia. He lives there with his wife and his young daughter who I think can be heard chirping in the background. Her voice gets mutilated just like anyone else.

AD: It’s an interesting collection of sounds. This would be a good time to talk about how you work with John Collins. How did you meet him and how does it work when you collaborate?

Dan Bejar: I met him when I was working on a record called City of Daughters, which was the first time I ever went into a studio, I think in the fall of 1996. It was in the basement of a house, and it was run by John Collins and Dave Carswell, who’s played lots of guitar in Destroyer, who’s produced or co-produced Poison Season and Rubies is very much like his kind of vibe. But John is the one who recorded City of Daughters. He ended up playing on it and then he became the bass player/producer for Destroyer on Thief, on Streethawk and many of the other records. Then, we also spent lots of time together because he’s the bass player and also producer for some of the New Pornographers albums.

AD: So, it’s a very long-term relationship. How do you work with him?

Dan Bejar: Generally, I like to throw as much stuff at him as I can, and then watch him pull things away until the whole thing is on the verge of collapsing but doesn’t collapse. That’s kind of his trip. He’s kind of a weird minimalist and maximalist at the same time. More maximalist, really, I would say. But I feel like in Have We Met, we had a pretty straightforward way of working. I had demos that I tracked, and then I started sending them to John. We had a lot of back and forth, manipulating those demos but keeping the vocals, the basic chord progressions that I’d laid down, some kind of synth, a few melodic things, the general BPM. On this album, he really went to town a lot more. Things got really distorted. Also, the band is way more present, even though it doesn’t really scan as a band album. Everyone’s on there. They were all throwing tracks at John from their various corners of the world.

Once Josh [Welles] got his drums on there, the songs took on a new life. “Tintoretto, It’s for You,” was kind of a lark. It started off as an idea and became scarily real in a kind of nu metal, almost, way, once Josh became present and really committed to the idea.

For a lot of it, also, John and I just started off with just talk, texting back and forth. I wasn’t really expecting to get to work with him on this record. I wasn’t really expecting to start working on a record at all. He seemed anxious to do something, which I was surprised by. Mostly we talked about strange things, at least strange things for us, like doing club music. We talked about doing a full-on techno album. We didn’t end up doing it.

AD: There’s a lot of dance influence on this record, and you chose this moment where everybody was holed up at home and there was no dancing to make it.

Dan Bejar: Yes. I don’t know. It doesn’t, to me, seem like club music anymore. I have a far more traditional idea of what that sounds like. I find it relentless and really fast. Without too many dead spots. Most Destroyer records have little breaths in them. This one is pretty speedy. And I think that’s something that we wanted… aggressive, disorienting production that is kind of relentless. That’s one of the mandates that we went for.

AD: I’ve always felt that your songs are elegant and evocative, but not very self-revealing. They’re like a series of carnival masks where you take one off and there’s another one underneath it. To what extent is your work confessional, if at all? Does it reflect what’s going on with you, however obliquely?

Dan Bejar: All I do is say things that occur to me. I would say yes. All the lines reflect things that I’m thinking or doing. I guess I have a different idea of what a confession sounds like, or even what narrative sounds like.

AD: What do you think a confession or a narrative sounds like?

Dan Bejar: A confession to me is when you feel that you are seeing someone’s true self for real. I feel like I truly have revealed something over the course of the last few hundred songs. There’s something specific about it. Something specific to me that seems real, as opposed to vague or an afterthought. Even if the images and whatever story lines are abandoned after a couple of sentences, they’re still supposed to be poignant or evocative or stick with you or stop you in your tracks. That’s how I appreciate art, I guess. I guess as far as narrative, I’m into memory and how it fails us and mysteries that have no resolution. All those things are my hang-ups, and they get reflected in Destroyer songs.

AD: Taylor Swift has this song about a scarf, and everybody’s like, where did she leave the scarf? And it’s very grounded in the here and now. Your lyrics may be confessional in terms of what you’re thinking, but it’s not as direct. I can’t imagine how you spend your day from listening to your songs.

Dan Bejar: Right, but I don’t trust the scarf. I don’t know what that song is, but I mean, I feel like you know. There’s always a line. If a line strikes me, it’s because it evokes some real feeling for me, even if I can’t relate it to a specific action. It’s more like, oh wow, the veil is removed. You get a sense of the real world, even if it’s just a second out of the 24 hours. I don’t know if that sounds too mystical, but I feel like mystic is something I’m cool with.

AD: I know that you made these songs during the pandemic, and I was wondering how that affected things. I was thinking that when I’m under extreme emotional stress, like when somebody dies, I don’t want music at that moment. And then sometimes later, I start to feel better, and then I want music. How did you feel during the pandemic? Was music something that helped, or did you have to put it aside for a while?

Dan Bejar: I have music on all the time. I would say it’s probably almost a problem.

AD: Why would that be a problem?

Dan Bejar: I don’t know. I think maybe that those who are close to me might think, “Why does there need to be a running score through your day?” That being said, I would say in 2020, I was definitely creating a certain zone for myself. Applying music like a balm. In general, I was playing music that I knew really well. I have a history of gaining comfort from music or watching films that I’ve seen a hundred times.

AD: For instance, what? What music or what films were like that for you?

Dan Bejar: In 2020 and 2021, I had Bill Evans on a lot.

AD: Oh, that’s funny. I just talked to Mac McCaughan. Same thing. That’s the pandemic soundtrack.

Dan Bejar: It must be a tool. I like him a lot. It was like a blanket I wrapped myself in. Before, there were only a handful of records that I knew, and I started having a running catalogue on all day long. I was listening to ECM records that I knew a little bit about, but I haven’t spent much time with. I was always listening to Billie Holliday.

AD: That’s a good thing.

Dan Bejar: Yes, that’s kind of been a thing. That’s me doing my calisthenics. Just listening to the greatest singer of all time, just hoping that at some point, you learn one hundred thousandth of the innate knowledge that she has about how a song and a voice works. It’s also really comforting to me. I’m trying to think of movies that I watched. They’ll come to me.

AD: I was wondering about your connection to the visual arts because you’ve been writing about painting for a while and you’ve got a song about Tintoretto, but my favorite line is about the Cubist judge?

Dan Bejar: Who’s looking at it from all angles?

AD: Yes, that’s brilliant. Have you studied art or just interested in it?

Dan Bejar: I have no interest at all in it.

AD: Really? Because you’re always referencing it in your lyrics.

Dan Bejar: I know. I like the demimonde of it. I was interested in the art world maybe 20 years ago as a place for backroom politics and high court treason. There’s something catty about it. More than the music world or the literary world. But I don’t have an emotional reaction. I see stuff, and I think, “That’s cool.” But I don’t have an emotional reaction in the same way with listening to music all day long or having a line from a book, like having to throw the book across the room and sit down and catch my breath. Or the way I obsessively think about film all the time. Of all the mediums, that’s the one I probably think about the most.

AD: We got Criterion during the pandemic and …it helped. I think we’re going to watch Drive My Car tonight. Have you seen it?

Dan Bejar: I love that movie. I’ve been listening to the soundtrack of that movie on an almost daily basis for the last couple of months. I like how the music so powerfully and immediately brings me back to the feeling of the film. It works really well in the film.

AD: Do you want to talk about what you get from film and how that affects what you do musically? Is there a connection there?

Dan Bejar: I don’t know. I gobble up art stuff and spew out my emotions. I don’t know, I don’t know what the process is.

AD: Do you see a visual narrative for your songs? Do you think of them as little movies?

Dan Bejar: I prefer to think of them that way. I have a harder time using music metaphors or literary metaphors to describe what I’m trying to get up to. Partially because in writing, I like collage, but not in a stream-of-consciousness, pulling-words-out-of-a-hat kind of way. I like collage in the sense that that’s how film is put together. Just telling a story through images. Most of my relationship to instrumental music or music that creates a mood, a lot of that is through film.

AD: Have you done any soundtracks?

Dan Bejar: No, I’ve never done one. I’ve heard stories from people who’ve done them. People like me who have very minor chops as musicians and in the studio, and it’s always ended up being three hundred times more work than they thought it might be. That scared me off. Also, I don’t think anyone has ever asked me. They might ask me to write some songs for their film.

AD: Which is a whole different thing.

Dan Bejar: Yes, which is a whole different thing. I don’t think anyone would ask me to do a score, and they’re probably right.

AD: How do you feel about the album now? It’s been a couple of years. Are there parts of this album that you really like, a cool sound or a lyric or anything like that?

Dan Bejar: I really like the first song. That seems like a gift that John gave me, because the demo for that song wasn’t supposed to be this kind of wide-screen, meandering, Cure Disintegration type of song, which, push comes to shove, is the style of music that I really, really like, going back a few decades now. It’s not very indicative of the rest of the record.

AD: The record is kind of all over the place. You’ve got that and then “Suffer” which is a rock song, and then these really elaborate synth symphonies and at the end you’ve got that song that’s just an acoustic guitar ballad. It’s pretty varied.

Dan Bejar: Yes. It’s worrisome.

AD: How so?

Dan Bejar: I don’t know. I feel like it’s all over the place. The one thing that connects it is the production. The tone of the production connects it all together. It’s kind of aggro in its way. You have to reckon with the production of each song, aside from the last song. Probably more than in any other Destroyer album. The last one was a bit like that, but it was also more intimate and there was more space.

I do like the second half of “June.” I always look for a way forward in these records. Thinking about it now, it’s early in the game, it seems like it might be one.  It was nerve-wracking for me. I questioned it and was really nervous about it. But it ended up being a fun and also liberating thing, that allowed me to use writing that I’ve never been able to use before in a Destroyer song.

AD: But you’ve done spoken word parts before, haven’t you?  

Dan Bejar: I’m trying to think of what…I’ve collaborated with someone named Loscil, and there was a spoken word thing that was a fake making of the song “Bay of Pigs,” that’s what it was supposed to be. Like a journal that you would keep in the studio. And that was 13 years ago. I haven’t done it too much.

AD: In the second half of “June,” you were thinking about rap, weren’t you?

Dan Bejar: Yes.

AD: Rap is a form of spoken word.

Dan Bejar: I knew I wasn’t going to be rapping. When we decided, okay, there’s going to have to be some kind of vocal that goes straight down the middle of this collapsing ruby robot. My go-to was…what I thought I was doing was An American Prayer, like when the Doors put goofy 1970s jazz rock behind Jim Morrison’s poems after he died. But I think through John’s digital edits and his kind of Max Headroom style distortions, it became more rhythmic and driving. Even slightly rhymier.

AD: But Caucasian artists used to feel freer to borrow that sort of thing. I was just listening to Beck’s Mellow Gold for the first time in a hundred years and it’s essentially a rap record.

Dan Bejar: That was rapping. He was trying to rap.

AD: You couldn’t do that now. People would see it as appropriation.

Dan Bejar: Probably. I kind of saw it as appropriation back then as well. He was just going for it. I guess there’s different dialogues around it but it’s kind of the same thing.

What interests me is narration over some kind of soundscape that’s not song-like. “June” it made me think I could do more of that. I don’t know in what context or how long people’s attention could be held by me just rattling off what I have written. I gave it very little thought. I did eight takes over the course of 25 minutes and John just grabbed the first one because it sounded like the most natural. I wonder if I was like, “Okay, it’s time for me to do my spoken word album,” if it would become too mannered and considered and boring.  

AD: But you have to try it to find out, right?

Dan Bejar: Exactly, you have to try it to find out. That’s something that surprised me. And I like my singing on “Eat the Wine, Drink the Bread,” because that reminds me the most of where I’m at. A lot of the other music doesn’t remind me of where I’m at.

AD: Where are you at?

Dan Bejar: I don’t know. But all I know is that singing that song…it has a kind of Marlene Dietrich vibe, which is a thing I’m going for these days.

AD: That’s interesting, between her and Billie Holiday. It’s quite the vibe.

The first time I ever heard one of your songs, it was from Streethawk, and I was driving into Boston and listening to a college radio station, and I thought, wow, this guy really likes David Bowie. I’m not hearing that so much anymore. It’s interesting to hear you reference Marlene Dietrich and Billy Holiday. Are there other singers that you’re obsessed with?

Dan Bejar: I don’t listen to singers that much. I’m really into piano players. Generally, jazz. There’s this guy Mal Waldron who I like. I was listening to a Red Garland solo record the other day, kind of a traditional record. There’s this one Keith Jarrett record I played a lot during the pandemic. It was really relaxing. There are other things I always go back to, like Ryuichi Sakamoto.

I’ve gotten really into the Pogues lately. If I get into a rock and roll mode, that’s where I go. The Pogues. That’s something that’s not …it’s something I’ve always liked but I’ve never been too rabid about up to now. I don’t know what that’s about. And then there are just things that I always have listened to and always will like Joni Mitchell and Lou Reed. That’s ancient history for me. And then new music that I find.

AD: Have you heard anything new recently that you liked?

Dan Bejar: Yes. I like that Drive My Car soundtrack. I do like the new Cate Le Bon record. All her records are good. What else has come out this year? I’m trying to think. There’s a singer I really like, Josephine Foster.

AD: Oh, yes, she’s amazing, that really old-fashioned voice.

Dan Bejar: Yes, and her new record is kind of synthy, which I think is a good mix. There are records the last year that I like a lot. The Rosali record. We’re going on tour with her. I like that record a lot. I like the Fiver record.

AD: Yes, me, too.  

Dan Bejar: I listen to Loscil a lot. His record called Clara. I listened to the Archie Shepp record from last year, the one with Jason Moran on it [Let My People Go]. There’s a bunch of them. I’m blanking on stuff.

AD: Given that you recorded this album with everybody in different places and put it in a blender to create the album that it is, is it going to be hard to recreate it live?

Dan Bejar: I think, no, because if we come to any roadblocks, we’ll just throw them out. Either throw the song out in its entirety or throw out the recorded version of the song. Because the band is actually more present on this album than they have been since Poison Season. That onewas essentially just us going into the studio as a live band, aside from the ballads that had a string section on them.

The band’s kind of a beast. They’re kind of a machine. I’m really confident, even though I’m nervous.

AD: Have you started on that, getting ready for the tour?

Dan Bejar: No, the drummer lives in Chicago. The keyboard player lives in LA. We’re all scattered, but I think starting April 9th, we’re just going to hit it really hard until the first show, which is the 22nd. They have a really bloated jazz rock/Crazy Horse way of making things sound like us onstage. Because, in a lot of ways, Have We Met was a bit of a headache to figure out. The drums are totally canned on that.

AD: Queue fake drums.

Dan Bejar: Yes, it’s way more on the grid. So is this record, but at least it’s more dynamic. Which in a lot of ways, dynamic did not suit Have We Met. It’s more of a static vibe. So, I think we can do it. We haven’t been in the same room together since our last show two years ago, so it’s going to be weird that way.

AD: Do you think that these songs will sit alongside other Destroyer songs, or will you have to really think about set lists?

Dan Bejar: I think it’ll be easy, because the band just kind of chews things up and spits them out as stage Destroyer. We know pretty quickly which ones will work and which don’t, and it all ends up sounding like one thing, which I really like. Over the last ten years — and I know I have a rep for hating live music, but it’s not true — I feel like a lot of the best versions of the songs have lived on stage. Especially because on the last couple of records, you’re hearing the first or second time I’ve sung the song. That’s kind of been my modus operandi. Sing it. Throw some things on there. Send it out. But just keep the vocal. And, if the song is worth its weight, with the vocal, which is the song, can withstand whatever madness you throw at it.

AD: About that, do you have any thoughts on what makes a great song a great song? What’s the difference between a really good song and one that isn’t?

Dan Bejar: It’s hard to say.

AD: It seems like it’s not any of the technical things.

Dan Bejar: It’s really not any of the technical things. I could be coming around, but I’m definitely pretty anti-songcraft these days and for the last few years. I’m kind of really into – if you’re going to sing something, I’m really into a vocalist that can just stare me down. Even aside from whatever the words are, it’s a level of engagement in the song.

I remember seeing this one Billie Holiday documentary and I can’t even remember who was talking, maybe it was Carmen McRae, talking about how words were really important. Everything else, they could change and make it better. It was Tin Pan Alley, so all the white singers got the A-list material anyway. But it didn’t matter, because when you’re singing, you can move stuff around, you can change the chords, but if you have a lyric you can sink your teeth into, that’s really how you make the song. Which was mind-blowing to me. Because I’d been anti-lyrics for so long. It’s what I do first. It’s the main thing. For me, the song is done when I can sing it from beginning to end, and only then do I begin thinking about a chord structure and an arrangement, but in the back of my head, it’s like, what are you doing thinking about lyrics? No one cares about them. It’s the sound of your voice, it’s the production, it’s the vibe, it’s all just gesture, that’s what people care about. So, it was a weird little pep talk from Carmen McCrae.

AD: It does matter.

Dan Bejar: Even if everything else sucks. The chords can be lame or the melody. There’s always tons of room for improvement and us singers can do that when we interpret songs, but what we need is a decent line that we can get our hooks into. It’s inspirational.

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