Dan Bejar is a difficult man to define, concealed among a constant shifting set of collaborators and shrouded in the overt poeticism of his lyrics. He’s even (unwittingly) accrued an online impersonator to augment the enigma. “Kaputt” however, feels like something of an unveiling. His first “pop record”, it resonates with masterful simplicity. His vocals are consciously pulled into focus, with Bejar confirming that “it’s probably the most natural sounding version of me that there is.” Bejar talks about the humanity in fallibility, celebrating “grande, exquisite failures” and artists who put “themselves out there”. His responses are suitably –and wonderfully– inconsistent in tone. His pausing, considered eloquence is underscored by laughter and a self-effacing search for affirmation. It is perhaps suitable then, that Bejar cites cinema as his “first love”. Like dust defining the edges of a projector beam, the fallibility in “Kaputt” allows us to define the man – or begin to, at least.
“Kaputt” feels like quite a shift in sound from your previous releases in terms of production and execution. However – at its core – it still feels like a Destroyer record. Can you identify anything that is quintessentially Destroyer, a common thread that runs through all your releases?
I imagine that after doing this for 15 years – not to make myself sound too old – there is probably a very specific sense of melodic progression, chord progression and phrasing that I employ. There are certain sounds in singing and song writing that I am attracted to, no matter what instruments or arrangements you are dancing around with. It is probably pretty unchanging at this point. That might be something that is at the core.
The vocal quality in particular feels more distilled –less affected in a sense– less hidden by the production.
Yeah, I think so. I think “Kaputt” is a big change from the ones that came before - from the writing process to the mixing process - it’s probably the most natural sounding version of me that there is. I think that is because the record was done in such an abstract way. We tried to do a really loud rhythm section, but then all the music over the top is really ephemeral and constantly moving around. It allowed for the vocals to be really relaxed. Relaxed, but still really dry and upfront in the mix. Without sounding forced, you know? It’s the thing the music is tethered to.
Tethered to? Do you start with the lyrics and then build around them?
Yeah, it’s always the vocals first – before I have anything – and then slowly trying to make sense of them. They formed the structure we worked with. We had completely written vocal parts from beginning to end and I’d force myself to come up with these synth chord progressions to play underneath. There were a couple of songs I had demo’ed – but usually we’d go in with only vocals – and then it would be a 20 month process of figuring out what kind of options lay underneath!
So that’s the lyrics and the vocal melody?
Yeah. On Destroyer records in the past we’d cull lyrics from stuff I had written down. Sometimes there would be a melody attached and other times I would impose one. But on “Kaputt” it was different. “Kaputt”’s lyrics were basically all written from voice memos. It was completely aural and a very intimate thing; when you are talking into a recording device in public so that you can remember something. Which is a bit different from how Destroyer vocals have been in the past. So yeah, the melodies all came with the lyrics attached. That was the foundations of the album.
Making recordings in public must have led to some interesting situations.
Yeah, sure. I had a lot of people stare at me. Yeah, it’s a bit strange to be buying produce . . . [laughs] I guess it was important for me to keep that vocal sound. Sounding very casual, of the moment and quiet.
I understand there is a visual artist – also called Dan Bejar – who has started an online impersonation of you. Can you tell us a bit about that?
Yes, it’s been bought to my attention over the last couple of months. Particularly as we played a television show in New York City a couple of months ago. There’s a magazine called the New Yorker who came to the show with this person – I didn’t meet him, but he was there. He’s a conceptual artist from New York City who has the same name as me. It’s one of those Conceptual Art projects. He dresses up and recreates different Destroyer promotional photos. [laughs] I guess it started because he was getting emails addressed to me. I don’t think he had ever heard of me or Destroyer. He started looking at me and it became part of one of his projects. It’s more of an art thing. I don’t think he really cares too much about Destroyer. I don’t think he’s a deranged stalker or anything like that . . .
How do you feel about it?
I think it is pretty funny. And it’s getting funnier now that it’s gaining popularity. I’ve seen college newspapers in America who will write a review and then just grab a photo off the internet. And they are starting to grab the wrong photo. Grabbing him dressed up as me by accident. It’s pretty cool.
Talking of visual artists, I understand you collaborated with Kara Walker on “Kaputt”. How did that come about?
It was through the record label. They were doing a big 20th anniversary project. Approaching different people from outside of the music industry – some visual artists for example - to do something for this giant box set they were putting out. Kara was one of those people. I guess she’d heard some Destroyer music and really liked it. She had the idea of sending me some text pieces she’d written and me trying to turn them into a song. I was a little hesitant at first. I guess I wasn’t sure how our specifics would blend. Her work is heavily politicised – or there is a heavily politicised element to it. Which, in the end, made me realise we didn’t have a heavily politicised element to Destroyer. I just never think about it. But it was cool. I had a bunch of cue cards in front of me, a house beat in the background, a piano progression and I just kind of winged it. I just kind of improvised. I just grabbed the words the seemed the most singable to me and threw in a few of my own to get from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’. It’s the only song I have ever written like that (on the fly) it was cool. It gave me some confidence as a crooner, as an interpreter of other people’s songs and words. That was something I had never really done before.
Is collaborating with artists outside of your medium something you would consider doing again?
Yeah, more and more as I get older. It’s something I think about all the time - how to get out from the Indie Rock ghetto [laughs]. It’s hard to incept yourself into something outside of music, but I have interests outside of it. I have done fairly well at this one thing for so long – you fall into a certain way of working – but when a project like that comes up you leap at it pretty quickly.
Do you find you are heavily influenced by work outside of music? By visual artists for example?
I wouldn’t say visual artists – but I would say that film has probably always been my first love. And - in respect to writing - I was definitely more influenced by poetry and plays than rock musicians in the past. But not so much on “Kaputt” - it’s a real natural lyric sheet. A lot of older Destroyer records employed a lot of unnatural words, a conscious style. With “Kaputt” I thought of myself as making a pop album, maybe the first time with Destroyer – I was conscious of the words not bucking the music.
Could you see yourself moving into different mediums?
I could see myself trying and failing. Know the feeling?
I’ve always found that someone striving beyond their reach creates more interesting work than someone perfectly executing something they know is attainable. It seems more human.
I think the exact same way. A lot of my favourite things are grande, exquisite failures. It’s always good to see someone really putting themselves out there . . . and taking a huge hit for doing so.
I understand you have spent a lot of time in Spain. Did you find the change of scene had a significant effect on your output?
I have two records which I wrote the bulk of in Spain. One is called “This Night” – which I wrote most of in Madrid in 2001 – the other is called – I wrote most of that while living in Malaga in the fall and winter of 2006/7. It’s hard to say how it effects the writing itself, although I always write a lot compared to when I am at home. Upon their release however, they generally seem to the least well-received! [laughs] It’s something about the Spanish air – when I take it in, North American critics don’t like that part of it. In the first case, the songs became very rambling and loose compared to what I had done in the past. In “Dreams” I was thinking a lot about the writing – a really purist approach to music, rather than a pop approach to music. “Trouble in Dreams”
Your lyrics get a lot of attention, particularly in regards to their poeticism. However your work is very popular in places where English is a second language – Spain for example. To what extent do you feel the poetry is conveyed in the delivery, rather than purely the words themselves?
[Pause] I don’t know. My answer to that has probably changed over the last few years. Before “Kaputt”, I imagine Destroyer records being difficult to really appreciate without having a grasp of what is going on in the vocals. However, with “Kaputt” I honestly think you can appreciate it for its sonic properties. For the sound and the phrasing in the voice. Like I said – for the first time I tried to make a pop record. And with a pop record, probably the first thing it does is transcend. It transcends the boundaries of language; the voice is first and foremost an instrument that people react to – or don’t react to. Also, I think “Kaputt” can be appreciated – not just in any language - but in any public space or scenario. Which is also another first. I think before, if you played Destroyer in a café you’d probably get at least one person begging you to turn it off. I think “Kaputt” can operate in different social milieus. That said I am sure language is still a problem. I have no idea how Destroyer music is consumed outside of America. This tour of Europe should be a real eye-opener.
As an extension of that – do you think Destroyer is rooted to a specific time or season?
I never thought of that. I live in a place called Vancouver. It rains for about five months of the year. Mainly I think of Destroyer music happening in the rain, whatever season that happens to be. I don’t know if it’s night time music. I know I prefer playing in the night – as opposed to playing in the day which seems unnatural and strange.
It’s interesting that you say it feels unnatural during the day and that cinema is your first love. I’ve always found going to the cinema during the day odd . .
Yeah, I’ve always really liked going to see movies during the day. Being enclosed in this dark world, you know? “Kaputt” “Kaputt” shows a slight change in the aesthetics of Destroyer: a glimmery twist into 80s adult pop, with elegance, charm and crisp production rolled in. We talked to Dan Bejar to find out more about his methods and opinions.
Photo by Studio Köln