The Weight Of All This Melody: An Interview With Dan Bejar Of Destroyer

As Destroyer release Kaputt in the UK, Dave Peschek talks to Dan Bejar about the making of the record, and his lifelong love affair with British music, Momus and why "I can no longer afford to be held under Dylan or Lou Reed's sway."

The glistening shimmer of Roxy Music’s Avalon or the giddy richness of peak-period Prefab Sprout don’t immediately spring to mind when you think of Destroyer. The records Dan Bejar and his collaborators have released under that name since 1995-ish – if you can pin them down at all – suggest, maybe, a kind of Pavement-Bowie hybrid: lyrically dense, as if Bejar was daring the music to carry the greatest amount of words possible, and increasingly musically expansive; plotting a definite evolution, but recognisably of-a-piece. Along the way, he’s also released stuff with a lot of other bands: from 2008, the year in which the last Destroyer album, Trouble In Dreams, came out they include Swan Lake (with Spencer Krug of Sunset Rubdown and the criminally underrated Wolf Parade, and Carey Mercer of Frog Eyes), the New Pornographers (to whom he’s been a regular contributor), and Hello, Blue Roses (with his girlfriend, Sydney Vermont). Prolific doesn’t cover it: this is like Prince in 1985 (and probably with better quality control).

Then there’s Kaputt, the new Destroyer album. Yer actual seismic shift. It is an utterly glorious record, dripping with melody but full of space, lush with sax, trumpet and flute. It has a collaboration with African-American visual artist Kara Walker, which finds Bejar singing someone else’s words for the first time. It touches on America’s status as a fading quasi imperial power, the ‘war on drugs’ and what it is to be black in America – it also name-checks Melody Maker and NME.

The first signs came with 2009’s ‘ambient disco’ EP Bay Of Pigs – though last year’s characteristically unexpected Archer On The Beach EP, made in collaboration with Kranky artists Loscil and Tim Hecker, might have thrown you off the scent. But Kaputt sees the full flowering: a smooth, elegant sound spiked with uncertainty, like Paddy McAloon reinvigorated as a kind of Blakeian Adam Curtis. Yet as much as it is headily redolent of a certain period of 80s high-concept auteurist pop, Kaputt isn’t ‘retro’ – it’s much too clever for that. But Destroyer has never worn its cleverness so lightly, or with such grace.

From 2008 onwards you’ve put out a lot of music, of wildly various kinds. How does that output affect Destroyer, and how do you navigate between those different identities?

Dan Bejar: It’s all pretty clear cut. I spend most of my energies on Destroyer, as it is the one that lives and dies with me. With New Pornographers I contribute three songs every three years, and they are usually things that are from way back in the catalogue or songs which I think could benefit from a streamlined rock & roll treatment. Swan Lake is strictly a recording project that involves me handing over some songs and doing a bit of singing with some friends who I implicitly trust (and greatly admire) as musicians and record producers. Hello, Blue Roses, seeing as I don’t sing or write the songs, is about running amok in the studio as an arranger or producer. That record was the most fun to make!

What was the point at which you thought/realised Kaputt was going to be so different from previous Destroyer records, and has it opened up/freed Destroyer for you, looking to the future?

DB: I could tell that the songs demanded something different, as they came down the pipe. And I knew that my days as a rock & roll singer were behind me. That I would have to be some other kind of singer, even if it implied delving into the world of pop music or standards. I definitely see myself more embedded in questionable lounge schmaltz these days – which, a few years back, would have disgusted me. But what can you do, things change… The future is blurry ‘cos I now base all my moves on a song-to-song basis and I haven’t written very much since Kaputt, so I have no idea what’s gonna happen. If I don’t write a bunch of songs that seem worth it, then I have no idea what I will do. Collect cans..?

Listening to previous Destroyer records can sometimes seem a bit like trying to unpick ivy from around something – and there’s no much air and space in Kaputt.

DB: Yeah, I really wanted to cut the music a break on this one. I did not want the sensation of music chasing after words, which is definitely present in full force on a lot of Destroyer records, and it is present ‘cos I really love that sound, but that’s not what Kaputt‘s about. I don’t know if I still have that kind of energy in me – for the chase, that is. I think I need a new kind of energy, maybe the kind that happens when you stand still and stare ahead of you… I also haven’t had too much interaction with society in the last couple years – I wonder if that has something to do with anything.

Listening to Kaputt, which I’ve been doing obsessively, made me think for some reason of something Simon Reynolds wrote in Melody Maker in 1990 about two of my favourite records from that year: "Marvellously intricate, angelically forceful. That’s Jordan The Comeback, Prefab [Sprout]’s first album for two years… No record has sung inside me more insidiously, more irrepressibly this year, apart from Ultra Vivid Scene’s Joy."

DB: I’m trying to remember the Ultra Vivid Scene album. I remember it as a 60s guitar pop album.

Yes, but it’s very… lustrous.

DB: Jordan: the Comeback – there’s kind of an excruciating abundance of music on it. It’s almost too much. Burdened. It’s kinda bursting at the seams with it. And someone like [producer] Thomas Dolby, with his aesthetic, is probably handy to have around, because he knows how to carve things up in a way, so you’re not overwhelmed by it. There are certain saccharine levels that were really impossible to digest at the time, and still are, but it’s part of what makes those records perverse, and good. The person who did most of the mixing on Kaputt is probably a similar sort of figure – John Collins, who I’ve worked with a lot. He’s a bit older than me, and a real student of that era, well, from having lived through it.

The way this record was made was really an assault of sound. There was no orchestration involved, people would just come in and blast away. All the stuff with the horns and the back-up vocals and a lot of the guitars – was just soloing, in a lot of ways. They’d leave a whirl-wind grab-bag for us to comb through. That’s how we did it. That wasn’t in my initial plan – which was to create something more dense, but with the strength of what the players did coming through, the lines were so strong – with that sort of muscle that comes from the jazz world – I just wanted to start isolating them and having the songs ride them a bit more. There was a whole year and a half’s worth of building things up and then scrapping them.

I don’t always think of Destroyer as having that aesthetic, but when I decide to work conceptually, or create within a studio, have a studio production – I tend to have a maximalist approach. I don’t always appreciate that about myself. I do have a tendency to run hog-wild.

Tell me about working with Kara Walker. How did that come about?

DB: Merge was putting together a very ambitious and massive box set for their 20th anniversary. They were asking all sorts of people to contribute: people not involved in the music scene – actors, visual artists. Kara was one of these people, she was then inundated with Merge back catalogue and for some reason I guess the Destroyer stuff really spoke to her. She wanted part of her contribution to be me making a song out of some text that she had. I of course was super hesitant (I never told anyone that) ‘cos her politics seemed heady and bad-ass and mine seemed vague and cool (temperature-wise). But in the end I was wrong about all that stuff, as always. And I found making that song, and singing someone else’s words, and fusing her words with mine, a really liberating experience and probably something that lent confidence to me as a singer, a singer being someone who interprets songs (singing ‘Suicide Demo’ is probably the first time I ever thought of myself as an interpreter of songs, which is all I see myself as these days). I’ve only ever exchanged about 10 words with her, so I don’t have too many stories about the collaboration itself. She gave me some cue cards and I ran off with them for a year.

Something else that’s really new on Kaputt is the backing vocals – courtesy of one Sibel Thrasher. There are moments when the mixture of sustain and vibrato she’ll bring to a note are heart-melting.

DB: John and Dave had worked on a record years ago where she had done some singing. I only know her through them. She has a history as a vocalist. She’s from Cincinatti, she used to do backup vocals for Roy Ayers. She moved to Canada, I don’t know why, I’ve only known her for the few hours she came in [to the studio]. And she was the backup vocalist for this British blues guy, Long John Baldry. She’d tour with him, and I think she’s done acting work.

That voice is like honey, but it’s not really obviously a black voice, whatever that means.

DB: No, people have said that. It doesn’t sound like a black woman from Ohio in her 60s.

There’s a sweetness to the tone.

DB: Yes. We got her to come in and do as much as possible. She was into creating these classic 70s R&B harmonies, that were her bread and butter, she’d sing these lines that might sound really off-key but when you’d hear them with the other parts they’d sound really amazing. That was not part of the plan when I started out.

It’s interesting given how de rigeur black backing singers became for white pop musicians in the mid-late 80s.

DB: That was really a British phenomenon.

White soul boys appropriating a ‘black’ sound, which probably reached its nadir when Tears For Fears thanked Oleta Adams for ‘authenticating our soul’ on the sleeve of ‘Sowing The Seeds Of Love’. With Sibel’s presence, alongside Kara Walker’s on Kaputt, it’s almost as if you’re making explicit the nature of that appropriation.

DB: I have a close friend who when he heard the record he really was surprised that I would have race, and specifically being black in America, be such a focal point. I, of course, didn’t really know what he was talking about, though the Kara Walker song does seem more pivotal than I ever intended. I totally had no intention …[laughs]. I have no real idea of how instinctual and unconscious a songwriter I am. So many decisions on the record were made over a fairly expansive period of time that it’s hard for me to think of the album as [governed by] bold conceptual gestures.

So much of the 80s that has been fed off of over the last few years, without thinking much about the political connotations, or drawing scary parallels between the politics of the 80s – which were shit, whether Reaganomics or hardcore’s reaction – and the politics of the 2000s. I guess I come from all of this as quite an outsider, cause when I think about pop music that I like from the 80s it’s always English, and I’m not English I think Kaputt is a conscious trashing of all the American influences I’ve ever had, by the way. I can no longer afford to be held under Dylan or Lou Reed’s sway.

It’s all the trickle-down shit of the 20th Century – the 80s being the death rattle of the Cold War, as well as having a ‘plague years’ quality, however couched in excess and decadence. [Then there’s what I call] the "asiatic" qualities in 80s culture, a quality that I see and feel in the filigree approach to mixing in Avalon, or in a very tangible way in the music of David Sylvian. Or even in some of the more zen moments in Michael Mann films, and the music that would go along with it. The floaty drones that western ambient music would borrow from. I guess I started to think about these patterns, which are both seriously questionable and seriously alluring! I think that’s when I started to think about colonialism. That and the fact that Avalon and a lot of David Sylvian’s 80s stuff reminds me of missionaries or British officers who go native, are lost to society, kind of just cast adrift, as they can never really be a part of the culture they’ve landed in and are parasites on, but are cut-off from their Old World. Obviously this leads to thinking about opium, which isn’t a drug I know very much about, but I imagine the world to sound a certain way while ripped on it. I’m not sure anyone else has put too much thought into the Heart of Darkness angle of Avalon or Japan’s Ghosts. These are the fictions I invent in my head. But what no one’s ever being able to really get is that Destroyer songs are more essays than fictions. But hopefully super passionate essays, where the world is at stake. Does that genre exist? Kaputt‘s different, that’s just like deathbed memoirs, and I’m ripped on morphine, and memories float by…. And there is a voice activated recorder in the room… And I’m in the habit of singing myself to sleep… Except in real life I’m not dying, and I’m not on morphine, and I don’t fall asleep at the wheel…

There’s a line in the song Kaputt itself – “Sounds, Smash Hits, Melody Maker, NME, all sound like a dream to me” – and obvious nods to New Order on other songs; you’ve talked about David Sylvian and (elsewhere) Durutti Column. Tell me about your relationship with British music.

DB: Hmm, I have a failed relationship with American music. I’m still working my way through this. Why English music speaks to me more, I can’t say – probably a melodic sense that is a little less direct, and both sweeter and sadder. And lyrically there is a stronger tradition, not that I really think about lyrics any more, and I especially never thought about them when I first got into music. My introduction to being obsessed with music was with the Manchester movement of the late 80s, and then shoegazer music of the early 90s. Music that had no real lyrical attack. Durutti Column, that’s just an extension of Factory Records stuff, and I remember liking them but only really getting into it in the last couple years, since it’s only in the last couple years that I’ve had any real patience for music without any real vocal presence (pretty much all I actually listened to during the Kaputt era was classic jazz records and early ambient stuff, you know Eno and Harold Budd and Jon Hassell and Ryuichi Sakamoto and 80s film soundtrack kind of stuff). When I first heard Durutti Column as a teen I just remember being turned off by how new-agey it sounded – though for some reason David Sylvian did not turn me off. I just listened to him in secret through the 90s, as I pretty much became dedicated to American indie music alone once Slanted and Enchanted came out, and veered into only listening to late 60s/early 70s classic rock after that. I remember very little about combing through those English mags back in the 80s, though did it incessantly. So many bands I’d never heard of, with such a constant turnover, it was like a different language. New Order is the longest standing influence I’ve ever had. I’ve loved them since I was 13, and it is a love that has never faltered. Can’t think of anything else that I’ve been into for that long. Obviously Bernard’s singing was a huge influence on Kaputt.

Some of Momus’s late 80s records spring to mind, too.

DB: I know Momus through different periods. I was a big fan of the Tender Pervert record, if you can believe that – which wasn’t an encouraging sign in a suburban teen from the Pacific Northwest. My biggest fear at the halfway mark of making Kaputt, knee-deep in it but still very little making sense, was that I was going down some path on which I did not belong, on which I was truly clueless and Momus’s engagement with disco music was the first thing that sprang to mind. A wave of nausea rode through me.

I will always listen to what Momus does, out of curiosity, but it is rare that I will defend it. He has written some amazing songs – ‘The Gatecrasher’ is probably the first song of his I ever heard, so good. His fucked-up courtesan pirate vibe doesn’t really speak to me, and when he was hoodwinked completely by the electroclash movement I thought that was a good example of someone being too old to understand something. But at the end of it all he’s probably one of the greatest writers to try his hand at songwriting. It’s too bad those things are so incompatible.

On an album like Don’t Stop The Dance, it feels like he’s trying to be the Pet Shop Boys, of whom I know you’re a fan.

DB: It’s funny how different it sounds from Pet Shop Boys or even the Beloved. Momus has no business producing his own music. It is an assault on the listener, and more than anything an assault on his own melodic tendencies, which are so folky at heart.

I’ve always thought my own hang-ups to be quite the opposite. Melodic tendencies which are generally pretty easy listening or Lisa Stanfield or something, but that I would try and filter through lyrical visions which floored me: Syd Barrett, The Fall, Bob Dylan.

Let’s talk about Avalon.

DB: We were like, how did they make this record? It’s so blurry and it’s a pop record. I mean you hear kinda Enoesque production applied to vaguely mystical sounding disco ballads, and it’s a pretty interesting mix. It stands out for me. It’s covered in a mist, it’s so much lacework, and the structures are not really all that apparent, and the vocals are pretty ghostly and yet the songs have the presence of pop songs, and the momentum of pop songs. I was especially obsessed, or mostly obsessed (‘cos nothing about the songwriting actually speaks to me), with the approach to the rhythm section and percussion, which seems so soft and to come from so many directions.

I was a really rabid fan of early Roxy. Everything post-Siren I didn’t give much credence to until the last couple of years. The same with Bryan Ferry’s later solo stuff. I don’t know what it was about that point in my life that I started gravitating towards it… I’ve always loved crooners but there’s a certain version of polish on those records that [can be off-putting]. I had an inherent tendency in the 90s/early2000s to disregard records that just sounded too 80s me. Avalon would qualify, seeing as it practically invented the "80s" sound, as far as commercial sound is concerned. Aja would also be in the running, even if it wasn’t made in the 80s.

You can almost see the song ‘Mother of Pearl’ as the whole of the Roxy canon in microcosm.

DB: Yes

Talking of crooners, tell me about the different approach you took to singing on this record.

DB: I have been coming to terms with my role as a singer, doing away with my old idea of myself as a writer or poet who was in a band – being a musician and my contribution being the sound of my voice. I’ve always thought of myself as a good singer, I think I’ve had a handle on diction and phrasing for quite a while now, and I always knew I could hit notes, but I never wrote songs which demanded that they be hit. The force of the thing came from somewhere else. With Kaputt that changed. It’s not a less stylized delivery, but the style’s changed – it moves less, in a way that lets you focus more not only on what’s being sung, but the other sounds swarming around the voice. In this sense, it’s less challenging than other Destroyer work. The words are also less challenging, more direct, less about my idealized version of language and art-making. Now, if the words don’t come with melody attached, they are instantly rejected.

I get the feeling the lyrics on Kaputt are more about creating little moments, glancing at things, than overall meaning.

DB: Yes, I think so.

Finally, there’s a great tradition of studio-album masterpieces that are unplayable live. How’s it been translating Kaputt into a live band context for the tour?

DB: Really good. Maybe some of the ambient touches take a bit of a beating, i don’t know, but there is a lot of hardened, legitimate playing, soloing with real guts, and a real band dynamic. I think people that see us do away with any nouveau soft-rock mumbo jumbo ideas that they walk in with, for better or for worse.

Destroyer’s new album Kaputt is released this week via Dead Oceans. The band play Heaven on June 28th.

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