For someone who’s been in the indie rock limelight for over two decades, Dan Bejar has managed to retain an enviable degree of mystery and privacy. The singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist is the driving force behind Destroyer – a project that feels deeply personal, even if it’s an outlet for a sense of drama and tragedy that Bejar insists doesn’t exist in his daily life.
“The writing inside of Destroyer songs – it definitely has a Quixotic vibe,” Bejar says with a knowing laugh. “It’s got the sense of heroes on a voyage that’s totally futile. I like passion for meaningless things. Is that in my normal life? Probably not.”
In this capacity as an artist, as well as in his role as a member of indie rock supergroup The New Pornographers, Bejar has painted a portrait of his narrator as a figure from the Romantic era – never short on adventure and specificity, while shrouded in enigma. And he recognizes the distance between Dan Bejar the man and “Dan Bejar”, frontman of Destroyer.
“That’s why there’s such a big strain in Destroyer songs – because I’ve led more of a quiet domestic life,” Bejar continues, softly trailing off as the phone line continues to hiss in the background.
“I don’t know if any people who know me would disagree with that but I see myself living a normal life, probably not too different from most 45-year-olds living in North America.” He pauses to collect his thoughts, and then bursts out in soft, self-satisfied laughter “besides the fact that I live on a bus like a pirate for a couple of months of every year.”
Brightest Young Things: Back in 2016, you told my colleague Phil Runco you were surprised by how it “seemed [Kaputt was] swept up in some kind of youth culture zeitgeist that celebrates the softer sounds of the late 70s and early 80s commercial and new wave radio” – which had never happened to a Destroyer album in the past. You also found yourself dealing with a slew of new fans in “people who had never really liked Destroyer in the past”. Did that experience inform the making of ken?
Dan Bejar: I don’t think it did. I feel like after seven years – which is many indie rock years; it’s like dog years – seven years between these two records feels like a generation and a half. I can probably look back and comment with what happened with the Destroyer audience when Kaputt came out, but it’s definitely not a source of inspiration of any kind. That’s not what I think about when I’m writing songs or when I go to the studio to try and figure out what sonic world a song should exist in. It’s more of something that if I’m out in the world and on stage, or someone asks me, I’ll think about that. In some ways, ken and Kaputt have some similarities, but I feel that sonically they’re quite different.
BYT: The opening of the first track, “Sky’s Grey” – the shuffling beat, the piano keys, and your first verse – do an amazing job of setting the mood for the record. Knowing that the record is titled ken – and not after this song – I’m still curious as to whether this sense of trying to capture the vibe of the late Thatcher era actively affected the way you put the entire record together. Did you thought with a vision of that era and write all the songs with that in mind?
Bejar: No, no – definitely not. You know, I write in a very unconscious way. One thing I did do was write all of these songs on the guitar, which I hadn’t done in years. That probably defines the record the most, as far as the songs go: their extreme brevity, their simpleness, they’re more traditional in terms of verses and choruses, which is quite different from Poison Season or Kaputt.
I was asked to think about the sound of the record and I was definitely going back to the UK indie bands of the mid 80s and late 80s, just because that was the music that I was really passionate about back then. That was my introduction to being a music obsessive, and for some reason I started listening to records of that era again – stuff that I’ve kind of abandoned for 25 years, or hadn’t really thought about, but still kind of liked. I put them on and started listening to them and listening to different things. I don’t think it was as much of a specific exploration of the Thatcher era because as a teenager in suburban Vancouver, any perspective I had on that would have been a complete invention; it would have been a fiction to me, which I prefer anyway.
BYT: The more I listen to the record, the more apparent the influences – or references – to British indie bands reveals itself. But you’ve done a good job in making it relevant to 2017 and 2018.
Bejar: Yeah? I mean, I think so. [Long pause] I’m an animal when it comes to songs. [Laughs] You can cloak them up in whatever you want, but I feel like when a song is distinct and has a distinct voice behind it, that is a thing that comes through always. So, in a lot of ways some of these songs are extremely traditional Destroyer songs to the point they sound to me like something I would have put out in the late 1990s. Some of these songs sound like they belong on the second Destroyer record, City of Daughters – traditional as in proto-Destroyer. There’s also the fact that a lot of it sounds like New Order, which has always been a guiding light for Destroyer throughout all the records, even if you can’t always hear it all the way through.
There are also more obscure records that serve as a reference point – other crazy stuff that sounds like House of Love or Ian McCulloch’s solo record, albums I hadn’t dusted off in a long time. And maybe because I was starting to play guitar again, that’s the style of guitar playing that I always default to.
The other thing is that there’s a record producer who plays drums in the band, Josh (Wells), who has deep and heavy synth-goth-punk roots. [Laughs] That totally came out in the album in ways I didn’t expect. The songs morphed under his influence.
BYT: You tend to write songs in a collaborative fashion, but you wrote most of the songs on ken by yourself. What was that process like?
Bejar: I would say that I always write songs by myself. I’m kind of chicken that way – I’ve talked about how I would like to just go into the studio with a blank slate and come up with a beat or some kind of drone, and just say something over it. But in the end I’m very traditional. I don’t go into the studio unless I have a set of songs and I know how to play them and I know how all the words go and all the vocal melodies go, and the little melodic frames that tie it all together. The only record that maybe strayed a bit from that was Kaputt – and in that case I just came and played the songs as simply as possible on MIDI synthesizers or something like that.
ken was probably the most demoed record I’ve ever done, even if at least half the songs got completely torn apart and ended up sounding nothing like the original demos. From the very first day on “Sky’s Grey” – my first version of the song was pretty much like the second half of the track: typical, breezy, dreamy soft-rock song. But like you said, Josh whipped up this crazy ghost beat in the background and it became much creepier and a beast. It made the transition from the first half to the second half quick. Once I saw what he did with it I just let him go. It captured a starkness that I wanted in the song that wasn’t there when I demoed it.
BYT: The entire album has a texture that straddles the line between decadence and decay – maximalist drums with gritty synths and sustained chords throughout.
Bejar: Yes! Yeah. It’s supposed to be really icy sounding, but it’s also supposed to be really luxurious sounding. That’s a sound we both wanted. The play between decadence and decay is also a constant Destroyer theme, in my mind. The difference with this record is that I wanted the actual music to reflect that, not just the words.
BYT: Does living like a pirate on a bus get exhausting or tiresome at this point? Are there times when you’re dreading going on tour?
Bejar: Of course it gets tiresome – it’s not my natural habitat. There’s people at home that I miss dearly. But I’ve been doing it enough for the last 17 years or something, and have established a pattern and a rhythm, that it can also feel slightly normal even though it’s an abnormal, kind of excessive way of living. However I could never do what some other bands do, although I recognize that the amount we go out pales in comparison to the average working band.
BYT: You released an EP in Spanish in 2013, Five Spanish Songs – and it was precisely that, where you played the songs of Sr. Chinarro/Antonio Luque. What originally drew you to his music, above other Spanish bands?
Bejar: Well, I’ll give you the honest origin story: my cousin played in a very, very, very early – pretty much the original version – of Sr. Chinarro in the early 90s. Way before their first record came out. And I just followed them; I followed all of the records, and so I have a history with that music more so than with some of the pop music you might hear on the radio in Spain. Also, I think it’s undeniable – even if I have to strain a little bit to understand all of it – that he has a lyrical approach within Spanish songs that stands alone, you know? Between the lyrics and his phrasing and the way he meshes that with Spanish singer-songwritery sounds and the more English typical new-wave or shoegaze kind of sounds, it’s something I felt a certain kinship with. I never found anyone else in Spanish with that kind of strange, beautiful language that he forms his songs around.
BYT: I think there’s a somewhat interesting parallel between the two of you – you’re both considered the key members of bands with rotating casts that have been around for a while, and both heavily influenced by English bands from a certain era. Have you always been aware of those similarities?
Bejar: Yeah, I kind of knew that because my cousin and I had a lot of shared tastes, and his little cabal of friends in Seville also shared in those tastes. And you know, Sevilla is a very traditional city – coming from Andalucia to make music like that you have to be a maniac, especially in the late 80s and early 90s. There’s not really – it’s not like the North of Spain where you can come across things from outside the mainstream. What I do know of him [Luque] is that he’s way, way harsher than I am. [Cackles with laughter] He is way more of a character and a strong personality, but I don’t know him at all.
BYT: It’s funny to consider how a group of people making music in one scene can shift the direction of kids making art in a totally different culture. That first record by The Strokes was that for me and my friends growing up in the Dominican Republic – we were like “what the fuck is this?” It inspired us to start bands, and a bunch of us still work in and around music in some capacity.
Bejar: Yeah, of course. It’s interesting when you can actually trace the origin story of a bunch of people moving out into doing something like music or art to one particular incident. I really like insular scenes for that – I find it way more interesting.
BYT: In a way that exists online now, as opposed to tied by geography.
Bejar: You’re right – I think that time has passed. But you’re right.