By Philip Runco.
Dan Bejar lives a normal life, but he’d prefer not to talk about it.
Or maybe it’s that he’d rather leave any portraits coarsely sketched.
“I’ll just say that life my is probably not too dissimilar from other people my age living in some city in North America with a family and a house and all of the rest of it,” shares the 44-year-old singer-songwriter, who less speaks than sigh out six or seven words at a time.
Bejar has been a fixture of the “indie rock” landscape for two decades now – someone a lot of people have tracked closely since, at least, Destroyer’s Streethawk: A Seduction and The New Pornographers Mass Romantic both hit in 2001. But in the era of information sharing, he’s somehow remained a vaguely unknowable, even mysterious figure. His music has never suffered from a lack of specificity – names and places and dates all abound – but those details feel ripped from diaries and travelogues, and splattered with little context among asides, abstractisms, and erudite observations. And if you’ve ever witnessed a Destroyer live show, you know he’s not one for stage banter.
Twenty years after the release We’ll Build Them a Golden Bridge, we know about as much about Dan Bejar as we did then.
“Well, that’s good,” he says with a laugh on a Monday afternoon in September. “That’s a good thing. I don’t think I have a sense of mystery, but I might have a sense of privacy. I don’t think it’s that different from most people in my generation. It’s just that the standards have changed.”
Bejar does concede one difference between his version of a pedestrian life and the rest of ours.
“Every once in a while, maybe every ten or twelve weeks out of the year, I decide to go live on a moving bus that drives through the night, and I play music in front of people in various bars,” he dryly observes. “So, that breaks things up in a kind of strange way.”
Some people call these things tours. The Vancouver native is in the midst of one right now. Just over a year removed from the release of Destroyer’s tenth album, Poison Season, he’s been playing a string of solo shows, as he often does between album cycles. The catch this time around is that he’s working previously unheard songs into his set. They’re the first songs he’s written on guitar since Trouble in Dreams.
That much he’s willing to share.
When were these songs written? What can you say about them?
Most of them were written pretty recently – this year, I would say. They’re characterized mostly by the fact that I wrote them playing guitar. That’s something that I haven’t done since 2007, which is now coming on ten years ago, I guess. Those are the two main things of note.
I’ve heard of people playing new songs in front of people – or “trying out,” as they call it, new songs on tour. I don’t know if that’s my intention. It’s just that I want I go into the studio right when I get home, and I figure maybe playing new songs over and over again might give me some new insight into how they should go, or where they should sit on a record, or maybe what someone should or should not do to them.
I like the idea of solo tours serving a purpose aside from being kind of a clean break from the record that came before them. And one thing that I like is that I have the luxury to play some song that I just wrote or another song that I wrote twenty years ago. Those are generally the songs that we don’t touch as a band.
Over the past few releases, your singing has become softer and more measured in way that’s run parallel with the music. In light of returning to the guitar, have you noticed a different character to these songs?
I have. I don’t what is about writing songs on a guitar, as opposed to writing them using just a bunch of synth pads or ambient sounds. With Poison Season, most of the songs were written sitting at a piano. There’s something about the way I write songs on a guitar; they somehow end up being more ditty-ish. [Laughs] They’re not, like, hillbilly tunes, but I can’t really picture that spare, kind of crooning vibe of last two records working for these tunes. At the same time, they don’t exactly sound like older Destroyer songs to me.
What made you want to write on the instrument?
I don’t know. I went through a phase of listening to what, for better or for worse, I would call music that I listened to in high school and college. You know, like a lot of Creation bands and stuff like that. English music. The Church.
And that prompted me to go out and buy a handful of ‘80s Boss effects pedals that were popular back in the day, whether it was a delay pedal or tremolo pedals. I kind of started messing around with them, and the sound of my guitar playing became almost palatable to my ears. That’s what kind of roped me into playing on a semi-regular basis again.
Why did “My Mystery” not end up on Poison Season? Why release it after the fact?
I like the song, and I think people who heard it thought that it was a catchy song. I don’t know if the band or I were enamored with our treatment of it, though.
I think what spurred me on to releasing it was that the masterful DJ [email protected] really wanted to do a remix of some kind, and I was like, “Oh, well why don’t you do ‘My Mystery’? The current version of the song is kind of floating in some netherworld. We’ll just put out the two versions of the song.”
I always thought it could work fairly well as a straight-up dance song, though in the end I should have known that DJ [email protected] never quite delivers what you think he’s going to deliver.
You described the song as “looking back not unfondly on time spent and dull misadventures had within the dead-as-a-doornail music industry.”
Did I say that? That sounds like a private e-mail that someone sculpted into a press release, if you ask me.
Why such a bleak outlook?
That’s no bleaker an outlook than I’ve ever held. I was probably spouting off similar things back in the late ’90s. I actually took a long break from saying stuff like that, so I thought it would be fun to throw it out there. And some of the lyrics in the song describe a crossroads for someone who had had some kind of exposure to business side of the music world.
If you’ve been saying it since the ‘90s, what’s changed?
Well, in the late ’90s, my take would have been purely fictional. It would have been speculative fiction because I have interaction with any form of the music industry whatsoever. Maybe I’d asked some guy running the bar if I could have an extra beer that night. Or maybe I went on local college radio and played a couple of songs once. That was the extent of it.
So, I knew nothing about it. It just seemed like a fun thing to write about because it obviously existed, and at that point, it seemed like kind of a banal thing, and I thought banal things were kind of cool to speak of in terms of extreme good and extreme evil. I liked to paint bright colors onto something that’s actually kind of regular and grey.
Then, in the 2000s, that part of my life just kind of took over more, and I woke one day and it was my job. That was the world I lived in.
And late in my life, I made this record called Kaputt, which seemed to find more of an audience than anything else I’d ever done. That gave me a little more exposure. At that point, I was completely tired of even talking about things like any kind of industry, let alone the entertainment industry. I couldn’t even conceive of writing about that stuff.
And I’m still kind of in the same bag. It doesn’t really interest me. But for the sake of not trying to bore myself while writing a press release or getting paraphrased in a press release, it’s something for me to shoot my mouth off about. But it’s not important when it comes to making your art.
Is there any other art that you have your hands on currently?
All I got is this tour and the desire to get back into the studio. I can’t handle four-and-a-half years between albums like the last one. That was ridiculous to me. I like making things. I know that bands wait that long between records, but I don’t know the hell they do while they’re sitting around. I guess they probably tour the world three times over and make other appearances. If I’m not writing and making records, I don’t know what I’m doing.
Why was there such a long gap?
The main thing is that I toured ten times more for Kaputt than I had ever toured in my life for anything. I wasn’t really used to it. That record came out in January of 2011, and it felt like I came up for air two years later.
And then I was involved in the making and the touring of this record called Brill Bruisers that the New Pornographers did, and that was about a year of my life that I put aside.
So, you know, it adds up.
At this point, what do you get out of the New Pornographers?
I don’t know, it’s like hanging out with old friends. I have ideas for songs that make no sense in the Destroyer world, but I can picture them somehow being something more outlandish in a late ’80s, Iggy Pop kind of way. [Laughs] Those guys seem up for that kind of production, even if it never really pans out like that.
I don’t know. It’s a confusing question. It’s a good one to ask but not a good one to answer.