When you reach Dan Bejar’s voice-mail, the first thing you hear sounds like a child playing.
Actually, that’s not completely true. First, you hear an automated message telling you that “you have reached the voice mailbox of…”
Then a child starts banging on things. Or maybe it’s a Casio beat. Someone in the distance lets out a giddy “Woo!”
It only last a few seconds, and then comes “Dan Bejar” in the flat, slightly effeminate, slightly bemused, thoroughly enunciated voice that – for better or worse – is immediately recognizable to anyone who’s been listening to indie rock since the turn of the century. This is punctuated by another high-pitched “Wee-you!”
And then it’s over.
I can’t say that I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what Dan Bejar’s voice-mail might sound like, but this is about as fittingly odd and whimsical as I could have reasonably hope for. A “la-da-da la-da-da” or “sha-la-la” would have been nice, but I realize that’s a slightly unreasonable ask.
I hear the message over and over again as I phone Bejar at our designated chat time. Each call goes straight to the automated welcoming party.
Twenty minutes later I receive a call from a Vancouver area code. It’s Bejar. He offers nothing in the way of explanation for his unavailability, but for the next thirty minutes he is as forthcoming and friendly as you can be when engaged in conversation with a complete stranger.
There are many long pauses. There is the occasional sigh. Sentences don’t end so much end as float away. In fact, it’s sometimes hard to determine where one thought ends and a new one begins. A statement like “There are too many Destroyer songs to just start rattling them off, but they’re there” could just as easily be interpreted as three related but separate thoughts: “There are too many Destroyer songs. To just start rattling them off… But they’re there.”
But Dan Bejar is someone who has done things his own way for as long as he’s been doing them. His music with Destroyer has been uncompromising and often brilliant. Prior to last year, he already had two classic albums under his belt (2001’s Streethawk: A Seduction and 2006’s Destroyer’s Rubies), in addition to several cult favorites (2002’s excessive This Night and 2004’s MIDI-fest Your Blues, in particular). But it’s 2011’s soft rock paean Kaputt that may be his finest work yet, both a departure from and a refinement of the Destroyer aesthetic. Oddly enough, it was also the album that brought him to his largest audience.
Bejar talked with BYT about that album’s unexpected success, as well as his onstage presence, mellowing out, and the future of his other band, The New Pornographers. Destroyer makes a visit to the 9:30 Club this Saturday night as part of a pleasantly unexpected summer tour, his second behind Kaputt.
BYT: Is this tour another full band effort? What made you want to head back on the road behind Kaputt a second time?
Dan Bejar: There’s eight of us again, but the band’s different – half different, half the same. The band’s kind of trying to do something that Destroyer’s never done before, which is learn a shit load of Destroyer songs from the last few decades and play them in front of people. That was kind of an impetus for going back out again. The last tour felt like a Kaputt showcase, and I wasn’t interested in doing that again, so it’s good to have a wider breath of material. I’m really having a good time playing with this group. It’s good.
BYT: What are some the oldies you’ve dusted off?
DB: I don’t know – there’s a bunch. [Laughs] There are too many Destroyer records to just start rattling them left them off, but they’re there.
BYT: Would you entertain the idea of recording those new versions à la Notorious Lightning?
DB: I hadn’t really thought of that, but some of them are really good, and I want to try to find a way to capture them at some point. There are a couple of songs that are fairly faithful to the recorded version, because they sort of fit the way this band is working right now, but then there’s other ones that are just completely mangled and changed to suit our purposes, and way more fleshed out, or fleshed out in a totally different way. Those are the ones that I think it would be good to try and save for posterity. I’ll find a way, even if it’s just to get decent live recordings.
Kaputt was just a record that did really well for us, and therefore our record label and our booking agent said that we should go out and take our message to the world. We’ll see if there’s any demand for that whatsoever. Who knows? I don’t really know how these things work. There are lots of places we’ve never played before on this tour also. Generally, when Destroyer tours we’re kind of like professional assassins, we just kind of burn through the content as quickly and effectively as possible around the time that the record comes out, and there’s lots of places between the coasts that we skip over. We’re going to try to hit some of those spots. We’ll see what tumbleweeds await us.
BYT: You alluded to the critical indifference that greeted [Kaputt predecessor] Trouble in Dreams on “Grief Point”, saying the “message” was “quite clear: we will not be listening to you any further.” Did the overwhelmingly positive response to Kaputt surprise you then?
DB: Firstly, I don’t know if that’s what I was referring to in that song, but I’m not going pause at my reading. I don’t know if I’m surprised by the critical reaction to Kaputt. I think we’ve put out records that got good reactions before. Well, maybe one – the rest seemed fairly divisive. But Rubiesprobably got better write-ups than Kaputt did; those just got less of a word count and weren’t published with a big photo.
One thing did happen with Kaputt that I was surprised by was that it seemed 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. I didn’t really see that coming, mostly ‘cos I am so old, and so it’s weird to be lumped in with a bunch of bands that are 15 years younger than you.
And it was also weird just ‘cos that’s never happened to Destroyer in the past. There have been times when certain people like one Destroyer record, but not the other. That was really common for a while. But I didn’t really predict that people who had never heard of Destroyer would all of a sudden really like the band. And I certainly didn’t predict people who spent years actively disliking the band to all of a sudden like the band. That’s pretty funny to me, and it makes playing live kind of interesting, ‘cos we’re doing lots of things that don’t really have a lot to do with that record, and even presenting the songs off that record in a way that’s a little more muscular and without as much of the sheen, which is what I think part of what people really liked [about Kaputt].
BYT: Why rework that material now?
DB: I don’t know. It was so much work just coming up with templates for the Kaputt songs a year and a half ago, or whenever we first started trying, just because they’re such studio concoctions, that I didn’t really have it in me to try and rework that [then]. In anything where the music is kind of groove-based though – which I would say is what defines Kaputt in my mind, as funny as that might sound to people – if you completely switch up your rhythm section, I think the feeling changes.
BYT: You’ve described Kaputt as a distinctly pop record, in comparison to the rock and roll of earlier Destroyer albums. Where do you draw that distinction? Is that what you mean by groove-based?
DB: No, not really – I actually do see rock and roll as pop music. I think the distinction I was making was that I was going out of my way to have a very consistent approach to production, where nothing kind of punctures the reality – or, I guess, the fake reality – of the album and what you’re listening to from beginning to end. That seems to be something that’s very important in pop music. And pop music is kind of a producers’ genre, and this was, like, a real production record. And it’s the first time that I really wanted to nail that. I don’t think I had even thought about going in [to the process], but as it became more apparent over the course of a year and half that that’s how things were shaping up – that we had this really cohesive sound and group of songs – it felt like something to strive for. I’ll probably never make another pop record though. I can’t say it’s something that could hold my attention full time.
BYT: Given all that puts Kaputt at odds with your other records – the production style, the vocal delivery, the instrumentation – have you thought about where you go from here?
DB: Not too much. I’m kind of waiting to take dictation from the songs these days, instead of throwing them at a preexisting overarching concept. That’s one thing that’s changed in my way of working. I can’t imagine going back to a spew of words and images and demands and insulations and condemnations that would make up Destroyer songs in the first ten or twelve years of the group. I think that style’s kind of over. I mean, Kaputt doesn’t really have that. I’m probably more into a more spacious, even meditative, quiet delivery of singing.
BYT: Does that reflect your general approach to life? Have you mellowed with age?
DB: [Laughs] I’m sure that I have. I don’t really know how these things work. I’ve seen them at work with other artists, so it’s actually really stereotypical that someone should be 40 and mellow out, but I think it’s more about trying to conjure up a different intensity in my head, one where I’m more focused as a singer and hands-on with music and more exacting, and less trying to furiously fit a thousands thoughts into a four minute song.
BYT: Have you been working on any new songs, whether on your own or with the New Pornographers, Swan Lake, or another band?
DB: No, I’ve been doing nothing. Nothing like that. Last year was kind of just touring on and off, and the year before that was spent in the studio. Swan Lake is pretty dormant. I don’t really know what’s going on with the Pornographers – everyone’s kind of doing their own stuff. I mean, they play shows here or there.
I think next year I’ll probably sit down and hope to achieve some stillnesss and quiet for a bit, and maybe make some things. Or not. I’ve never had any kind of work ethic. I’ve never sat down with the intention of writing a song. But I think I have enough – it would be cool to look at it and see what it is exactly. I do have one specific project that I want to do, but it’s super top secret. I don’t want to jinx it. I don’t want anyone to steal my idea. It’s really great.
BYT: I won’t pry then.
DB: [Laughs] All you need to know is that it’s super top secret and really great.
DB: Destroyer’s music has been marked by stylistic restlessness. The New Pornographers, on the other hand, has stayed within the confines of fairly straightforward power pop. Do you find yourself still getting excited about that project?
BYT: I don’t really listen to rock music anymore. But were I to write a song that sounded like it could be a rock song, I’d probably give it to the Pornographers, and I’d be excited to try to make it work.
The band is kind of scattered to the winds, just geographically. Everyone is off doing their own stuff. Everyone is kind of older. Everyone is incredibly old. [Laughs] It’s kind of a very nebulous thing. You know, we’ll fly in from airports and play a one-off show and fly home. At some point, maybe, we’ll find ourselves in a studio and a record will come out. I think the band could still make really good music. Most of those questions would be better answered by Carl [Newman], I guess.
BYT: Does a New Pornographers’ album generally take shape, and then you come in towards the end and offer what have?
DB: It seems that way over a lot of the last ten or so years. At the start, I was one of the first members of the band. I was a member of the band before it was a band. I was a member of the band when it was just, like, a conversation at a bar. Then we constantly practiced, we played shows, we tooled around in the studio. And then, when I moved and kind of bailed on that, is when… So, yeah, for the first, Mass Romantic, I was heavily involved. Then, for a couple records after that, I was not really involved at all. It was like Carl maybe would drag out an old song that I had written and try to do that. Or there were a couple of ones from the late 90s that we had never gotten around to, and I would just throw in one new one. I think just for the last record [Together], I was more in the studio, and I actually flew out for the mixing of the stuff.
But at the end of the day, it still feels like – what do you call it when a director has final cut? It feels like someone else has final cut. Not that there’s stuff that I would change, because at this point I kind of know what the band is. I know what the its strengths are. I know who I’m working with. We’re all friends and we’ve known each other for a long time, so I’m offering up things that I feel like the band might be good at, or take to its logical conclusion, like “Myriad Harbour” – which I actually wrote about the New Pornographers for the New Pornographers. I’m trying to make whatever contribution I can make really site specific, which is pretty different from the old days in the ’90s, when songs could end up as a Destroyer song or songs could end up as a New Pornographers song. Generally, if you could picture a bunch of rock and roll momentum behind a song and it was particularly melodious, maybe the Pornographers would do it. If it was kind of moody and more lyrical, then maybe it would be a Destroyer song. Anything that’s really lyrically driven I would keep for Destroyer.
BYT: Are you involved with the effort to rerelease the Points Gray material?
DB: Um… [Laughs] I’ve okayed it. I’ve signed off on it. Most of the effort in that has been with Robert Dayton – he’s the singer and wrote the lyrics. But it would be cool if it came out.
BYT: In contrast to the traditional singer-songrwriter archetype, your output – at least since since the late 90s – has been the product of a large degree of collaboration. What drives you to work with others and what do you get from it?
DB: It’s hard to say. Points Gray was kind of born of friendship. We’re also talking about something I made in the late 90s – it seems downright foggy to even remember the genesis. But even in Destroyer, I can’t emphasize enough how much of a collaborative effort things are on the musical side, whether it’s in the studio with John Collins and David Carswell – who I’ve done countless things with – or whether it’s on a record like Rubies, on which, more or less, I was just trying to document the sound of us playing those songs in a room.
Plus, I think I really need it. [Laughs] That’s one of the conclusions I think I’ve come to over the past couple of the years: I can’t fool myself into thinking that musically I don’t need other people, whether it’s as a foil or just to come in and make real the ideas that are kind of vague and wispy in my head. They’re partly vague and wispy because I can’t fucking play the trumpet, you know? I think that’s become more and more of the Destroyer reality. I kind of enjoy the massive blank slate that’s filled up by other people. I’m not really interested by my own musical talents. I know the kind of shit I come up with, and I need to constantly jar that for it to be good.
BYT: You don’t have much of an online presence. No Twitter, no Facebook, not even an updated website. Is that an effort to maintain some mystery?
DB: I think it’s more a real nod to that early 90s slacker culture that I rose out of. I’m just kind of lazy and messed up and self-managed – self-mismanaged. [Laughs]
Facebook came up the other day and I was like, “Fuck it – can someone, like an intern at Merge, just make a Facebook page so we can post these stupid dates, if that’s what the world needs?” I think there’s a fan page.
And as far as Twitter goes: I just have nothing to say, like, to anyone. When I’m on stage I don’t say anything. The last thing I want to do is share my thoughts. I don’t know if that’s mysterious – maybe it’s just old fashioned.
And a website? You know, yeah, I really let that one slide. [Laughs] I’ve been meaning to get that for the last few years now. There’s been some talk. I’ve made slow progress on that.
BYT: It’s funny you mention not engaging in banter with your audiences. I think that to a lot of people you can come off as disengaged during your concerts. Do you like performing?
DB: Yeah, I do. I like playing music. I don’t always like the feeling of people looking at me. I don’t think I’m, like, a natural performer, but I’m getting better. I’m not really sure that I have the same definition of things as other people. Like, when people talk about being “engaged” with the audience, I’m not exactly sure what they mean. Do you mean like a carnival barker. Like, “Step right up? Get your red hot art!” Or do they mean someone who’s really trying to hone in on what they’re doing at that second.
Generally these days my eyes are closed and I’m slumped over the microphone and I’m trying really hard just to hit the notes in a way that feels good to me. I don’t think me pausing to tell a joke is necessarily to going to make that experience any richer. And I don’t think I really invented this school of though either. People I like have always been like that. When I go to a show, all I really want is to hear a performance that sounds legitimate, and not just going through the motions. I’m not sure any amount of jumping up and down really persuades me in either direction.
I don’t think that many of the people who really know Destroyer are shocked. It’s just that if people come to some festival and we happen to playing, then there’s a lot of: “What the hell is that guy’s problem?” Maybe in the New Pornographers I’ve done lots of stage banter in the past – less so these days. Maybe I shouldn’t have a weird sore spot to people listening. I don’t know – I don’t think anyone’s really shocked by anything I do.