Destroyer’s Dan Bejar on His New Album, Giving Up on Irony, and How the Doors Are Actually a Good Band

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Photo: Jordi Vidal/Redferns

In 2002, Vancouver indie savant Dan Bejar, better known as Destroyer, released the sprawling This Night. It was a towering, obscure record that pushed Bejar’s knotted lyrics, yelping vocals, and fascination with chaotic guitars to their extreme. At the time, This Night felt like a culmination. In retrospect, it’s clear this was still only the beginning for Destroyer.

In the 15 years since This Night, Bejar has established himself as one of pop’s premier shape-shifters, changing course regularly to suit his obsession of the moment. His next release, 2004’s MIDI fantasia Your Blues, marked a sharp departure from his art rock classicism. 2008’s Trouble in Dreams was boisterous orchestral pop; 2011’s Kaputt, was a deadpan fusion of AOR and Roxy Music’s Avalon; 2015’s Poison Season dabbled in haunted chamber music. Early on, Destroyer’s theatrical bent and ’70s-inspired riffs drew David Bowie comparisons. These days, it’s Bejar’s ongoing musical evolution that calls Bowie to mind.

Destroyer’s latest, ken, is a knowing riff on new wave and shoegaze that couldn’t be further from This Night. Bejar’s vocals are clear and restrained; the hyper-literacy that’s long been his calling card has been boiled down to earnest couplets. There’s a brash economy to ken that’s both catchy and uncanny, emotive and estranged. It’s like nothing Destroyer has recorded before. Then again, at this point in Bejar’s career, that’s probably the point.

This might be your most streamlined record yet.
I was conscious with this album of making a short record. I wanted it to go by fast. I started playing guitar again for the first time in ten years and maybe that has something to do with the nature of the songs. They were all written on guitar. They were all meant to be two or three minute songs. I can’t remember the last time Destroyer had that many songs like that, maybe in the ’90s? It was a conscious effort to make as close to a minimalist album as Destroyer’s going to get, as far as it being a fleshed out album that still has a lot of space to it.

There’s something about strumming a guitar that brings out the ditty writer in me. On this record there are songs like “Stay Lost,” which almost felt like a campfire song. I wanted to pare down the chords. I just wanted to write simple things.

Do you think that rubbed off on the lyrics?
Lyrically, I think I was taking way more cues than usual from rock music. One of the main projects for Destroyer, at least through the first 10 or 12 years of its life was taking inspiration from outside of pop music when it came to writing things. Taking things that sounded like they had no business being in a song and sticking them into a song. I don’t really know if ken is part of that project or not.

With this record I was going back and listening to the very first records that I got into in my life, the records that predate me as a musician and were just me as a teenage music obsessive. Maybe I abandoned them purposefully because they seemed too teenager-y or maybe I just felt too old to be listening to a John Hughes soundtrack cassette. They’re foundational things that will always be integral to everything I do.

What else is on that list?
Basically U.K. new wave groups from the mid-’80s. Later I got really into Manchester bands and shoegaze groups. [Stuff] I never really looked to [before] for lyrical inspiration. And just bands that were never really cool, like Church, I started listening to them again. It’s kind of ’80s college rock by numbers but I started hearing this poetic, mystical influences in Steve Kilbey’s writing and his vision. Hokey as it sounds, that really started to speak to me. And bands like the House of Love, which nobody really gives a shit about but whose first record, again, sounds like typical U.K. college rock but for some reason there’s a kind of druggy dark mystic bent to what he’s going on about.

So you’re drawing inspiration from music that’s not good?
It’s not like I’m going crate digging to find something that everyone says sucks and holding it up to the world and saying “this rules.” It’s more reconnecting with something that I’ve always loved and finding new things in it that I hadn’t noticed before. I started listening to the Cure again, which is something I really hadn’t done in a long, long time because I thought that was teenage angst music. [Going] back to a Cure record that you haven’t heard since you were 17 and finding cool shit in it … I don’t know if I’ll do it again, it’s just what happened with this record.

ken was produced by Josh Wells. Why did you decide to use an outside producer?
He has an aesthetic that lines up with this kind of music. He would take things in directions I’d never dreamed of and was doing things in much more of a producer capacity, which was exciting to me. That’s kind of why I signed up for this. I feel like this record is the first one where I said, “wow, I don’t know how I feel about that but we just have to get to the conclusion of this sound on a particular song” because that was just more interesting to me. I don’t know if it has to do with it being album eleven and your own musical instincts being too familiar to you and wanting to bring someone from the outside in.

The keyboards alone are a totally new sound for you.
The album is a lot more synth-heavy than anything Destroyer’s ever done. There’s been synth sounds on Destroyer albums — lots. But they’re usually pretty ambient or misty and in the background and that’s definitely what I gravitated towards. These synth sounds were hard, and dirty and percussive and dark and in your face and very driving and that’s what Josh brought to the table. The music in a lot of places is quite aggressive or stark sounding for a Destroyer song … it’s this English youth music but the singer sounds older and more isolated and more apart from the world than ever. I like that contrast.

Do you feel like there’s less irony than in the past?
I feel like there’s definitely an absence of taunting the world on this record and the last one as well. That was definitely a part of Destroyer albums in the 2000s which has maybe gone away. I don’t know if that’s natural. There’s less of a cackle in the face of the world. Just as far as the very sound of my singing, one big difference is that there’s not really too much difference between my singing voice and my speaking voice. In the 2000s it would be quite easy for me to listen to a song and find myself unrecognizable. I don’t know if that’s a diminished sense of drama in the new music or a different version of drama.

I’d say the same thing about the music.
I’ve never done really the main thing that people say Destroyer does with music which is to go into something that you’re very conscious of as being bad and using a sound or style to mean something, as opposed to being something. Using sound symbolically is not something that I think I do very much compared to what I’ve been told I do.

When Destroyer first got called a glam rock band it was kind of confusing for me. I know that that early ’70s English art rock wasn’t super-popular — there wasn’t really too much of that going on in the late ’90s as far as bands being influenced by that. It seemed like if you were going to get into it, it was for art school purposes of dressing up, which was never something that interested me. Or with a record like Your Blues, the sound was meant to be a mixture of digital chintz and European melodrama that could never be taken at face value. And with Kaputt … I guess that somehow lined up with when young kids were getting into quiet storm records so instead of being questioned it was embraced.

How much of the change in your writing has to do with getting older?
I think it’s very common with writers — I don’t know about songwriters, because they generally just fall off at a certain age and then you don’t hear from them — with writers it’s pretty common to become simpler in your attack, partly because you want to get at some kind of essential truth that you know you can’t get at through reams of language. You can’t just wrap it. You can’t just cover it in streamers.

I could be totally wrong about that. That could just be something that old men tell themselves. But I feel like they’ve been telling themselves that for thousands of years. When I was younger I loved torrents of language and it was enough just to sing them and know that you sang them with love and that was part of your art. Maybe that was the entirety of it, who knows. But now it’s definitely something different. There’s also maybe not the sound of someone discovering their voice or the sheer joy of using a muscle that you know you have and are really good with.

I’m a better writer now than I used to be but like my writing way less.
You can only have done it for so long without the element of craft taking over especially when, with me, the element of craft was non-existent. When I was 25 years old … lyrically it was just supposed to be visions. It was supposed to be me and my visions. I’m not saying it’s not still me and my visions but I don’t think it comes off like that because there’s a certain kind of control there now. In certain ways my taste has become way less conservative and I find myself saying things I would’ve never said before and using expression that I would’ve thought were hammy or hokey. When I was younger I was way more into academic rhetoric or political rhetoric or old language devices, while now I’m way more interested in, like, Jim Morrison. Someone who I think about all the time, while in my 20s it would’ve been ridiculous to contemplate even listening to a song.

Jim Morrison? Seriously?
I’m deadly serious.

The Doors are fascinating because they influenced a lot of great bands and yet no one likes them.
For me, the only way to get into the Stooges is when they remind me of the Doors. And I think a lot of America’s problems would settle themselves if more bands started ripping off the Doors. But it’s kind of a hard thing to rip off. You can’t rip off the sound because it’s so limp. You really have to buy into the myth of poetry … and a certain version of American mysticism which, if you look at it too closely, is probably disgusting or hideous.

I have no idea if I believe you.
I’m not making it up. I’m not pulling your leg.

Destroyer’s Dan Bejar Reconsiders the Doors, Talks New Album