an interview with Destroyer’s Dan Bejar about new LP ‘Poison Season,’ songwriting, embracing accidents, and more
On his eleventh studio album, Poison Season, Destroyer's Dan Bejar has moved beyond the quiet confrontation of 2011's Kaputt and into a musical realm more orchestral and far-reaching. That's not to imply that the Canadian singer-songwriter and reluctant indie tastemaker has embraced a newfound love for tawdry composition. It certainly suggests, though, that Bejar's creative inclinations have rarely if ever remained fixated on any one path to the music. Having created music as Destroyer since 1995, Bejar is understandably averse to the attitude of pop culture immediacy that assumes impact is equal to investment in one's art form. In a way similar to that of his just as notably talented bandmates in indie pop supergroup The New Pornographers, Bejar is content to let the music go where it will, allowing him to be a sort of vehicle for whatever destination great or small it may lead. It's a topic he and I discussed at length in a recent conversation in anticipation of his current tour with Jennifer Castle that hits Webster Hall on October 4.
Poison Season is very much a departure from Kaputt just in terms of the instrumentation that's involved and the altogether broader sound. Was that shift something deliberate on your part?
I don't think it was a deliberate move, though I agree with your reading of what it sounds like. I think the main thing is that I've never tried to start from scratch. If you look inside the records you'll see that there are tons of overlaps as far as the actual music making goes and as far as my songwriting goes. I feel like it's kind of more etched in stone than probably 99% of other songs out there, I mean, to a fault. If anything, it's like: Oh fuck, this really stands out me being myself, or here's me being me again. I don't think that changes too much. I guess in the postproduction, which is pretty elastic, I agree that sonically speaking, Poison Season and Kaputt couldn't be more different, but that's just like a world of weaver plugins and EQs and a certain approach to compression, which just got ignored in favor of classic 70s hardware and fancy microphones and a fancy recording space and the sound of a bunch of people playing in a room together. I don't think we were lampooning anything at the time, but when you listen to it now, the record that I did that came out in 2004 called Your Blues - I don't know, you can see the seeds of it. Even its use of a bunch of midi orchestral sounds, which sound like an orchestra really to anyone but me. The general feel of it is basically like a carbon copy or a blueprint of what we sounded like on stage in 2012. That was really a hyped tour and like the one in 2011, which was more of a Kaputt cover band tour, played more into Destroyer sounds, I guess. But anyone who saw those shows is going to listen to Poison Season and not blink an eye. It's like, oh I see, you guys went out and made a record. I think the one thing was this approach to strings and maybe an approach to the woodwind arrangement, which is faster but also has kind of a classical American film score style arrangements or something like jazz arrangements as opposed to just having Joseph shred all over the record like he did for Kaputt. But the instincts in Poison Season, you could find them on being used on any of the Destroyer albums.
Speaking of those instincts, is that something you find yourself relying on more than deliberate effort when it comes to your creative approach?
It's totally lopsided, but you have to think that it's two different things. When I'm writing the words and the melodies, it's completely instinctual and it happens really fast. I don't know how to change it, and I don't know how to wield it. I can't sit down and write a song, I never really have, and I think it'd be good for me to learn because I've heard that getting these things like an office space and having some kind of work ethic is probably healthy and good for you in the long run, but I still haven't done that. I'm going to be 43 soon, and I'm not sure how much time I have to curb my habits after 20 years. Once a song is done in my head, and it exists in my head like these Poison Season songs which existed in my head for an abnormally long period of time. They became like this strange abhorrent limb. It didn't feel too good. Kaputt isn't bad, but I think the most painful thing is deciding on a structure and that's where I sometimes pick up on myself being repetitive. But the laborious part, and it's super laborious because I'm not an actual musician, is the actual creation of the sounds, knowing what it is you want, and knowing what's good when you hear it. I think the only thing I'm really good at in that context is knowing what I like when I hear it, but how to get there can be a really strenuous and vague process. I'm not like Prince. I can't just go into the studio and whip up the magic. A lot of it's collaboration. Words and melodies, I never know when it's going to come, and it seems to be a longer and longer gap, and every time I've done a record it seems like a real mystery of how I'm going to write a song again, and then it just happens. It's like it's thoughtless almost
You said that you're not an actual musician. Where does that self-perception come from?
I think that's partially true. I mean, don't get me wrong, I know more chords than most people [laughs]. I can sit down with a guitar or sit down at a piano and play these songs. But I'm not interested in that. I'm not interested in generically presenting music like that, but I think I'm warming up to the idea. Still not there yet. I think with Poison Season, for instance, I kept seeing things in a cinematic light, which as far as what I can personally do, outstretched me. And also I love surprises in music. I love accidents, and I love people who are going to do things to songs that I would never do. I like disorder recorded within songs. Tension within music is exciting to me. I love those things and those things are what other people bring to it. I think maybe when you make a Destroyer record, or when you get on stage to play one of the songs, there's a certain aura of freedom compared to other bands, when you're supposed to just be a singer/songwriter band. And people react to that freedom. I generally play with people who can take that spirit and run with it way farther than I could.
Is there a kind of narrative you've seen thread itself through your work with Destroyer, and how that's evolved for you personally and creatively?
I can't really tell. I recorded the first Destroyer record in 1995, and I played the first show approximately 20 years ago, so I've been doing this almost the entirety of my adult life, and I have as little perspective on my life as I do on this art thing [laughs]. I'm reticent to attach a narrative to my life because that's not how life works, and I wouldn't want to do that with Destroyer either because I would get it wrong. I would get the narrative wrong. When people do attempt to aim for a summation like some kind of overarching narrative to these things, sometimes they whip up some beautiful, poetic image, but it's still naturally going to be wrong. It's kind of like a lie. Whatever perspective I have is composed of too many tiny steps. I could think in terms of some sudden, giant break that happens. I could say: okay, here this happened, and here this happened. But it wasn't really like that, you know? There wasn't some moment where everything clicked for the band, and people like to say that maybe Kaputt was that moment but that's insane. Having been there, having lived my life up to those 39 years, that's insane.
Fair enough. But again, regardless of perspective, the narrative is there and exists whether we want it to or not. It obviously exists with your music simply based on the slight changes in sound that stay grounded to a common thread. From that standpoint, have you seen yourself evolve as a musician from that first Destroyer show to now?
I think so. I mean, it ties into your earlier question about songwriting. These things just come to me in the same way. In fact, the way that I write songs now is way less songwriter-y than when I first started writing songs where I'd be strumming the guitar all day long, and I'd be writing in my little notebook all day long, and once in a while I would extract particularly musical passages from the notebook and stick them in these chord structures that I pieced together. That's way more of a songwriter thing than just wandering around and all of a sudden you start going to yourself: [sings] Wasting your days, chasing - where you have actual lyric and melody in one coming to you in bits and pieces like a kind of musical language. I do pick up the guitar, because once in a blue moon, something will come out but it's super rare. Making the record is kind of the same thing. It's just more of a document of what I'm into at that time. And yeah, it flits around. I guess I'm into lots of different kinds of music, and I guess I just try to make an attempt at interpreting that or taking a varying stab at it.
Do those eclectic tastes still exist as far as newer music goes? Are there things being created by other artists now that sort of inform what you do?
I don't really know. I think I was a huge fan of music in my teens, and in my early 20s I was kind of adrift, not really knowing what I'd do from one day to the next but seriously into music. And I think being exposed to an actual music community of people more or less my age who were actually making records and playing shows. Maybe also the fact that that corresponded with an era where when I first started getting into American music, these American indie bands, a lot of them were recording on four tracks, and just writing weird little songs recorded in a very rough way and putting it out in kind of a personal manner. That kind of made me think that I could do something like that, and once I did dive in, it took about two years, but after the second year, probably around 95, I started getting into classic rock for the first time ever. Like David Bowie, T. Rex, all the English stuff, and after that I became consumed by music, and I wrote songs all day long for a few years, and that would be the songs that you hear on City of Daughters, Thief, Streethawk - those all came from that era where I just immersed myself in what you would call classic songwriting, and it was like a muscle in myself that I discovered and I just extended that muscle constantly. Then things kind of changed after that, but definitely that initial spark from when I was in my early twenties and seeing people around who looked like me and talked like me who were actually just doing it, and who made it tangible - it was no longer a thing of fandom for me. It's never really something I aspired to earlier because I always thought show business was just the most gauche thing possible despite some things that I liked. I definitely thought it was crude and silly, and getting on stage and being looked at and singing a song was something I loved to be the audience of but the idea of actually being on stage and doing it...uh no [laughs]. I thought: don't be ridiculous. I never wanted that. And that's something that's probably stayed with me still. I'm much better at ignoring that bullshit now and just embracing my day job which is being an entertainer or a singer, so that perception or mindset, it's just not really a part of what I do anymore.
Destroyer -- 2015 Tour Dates
09/23/15 Austin, TX The Mohawk w/ Jennifer Castle
09/24/15 Dallas, TX Trees w/ Jennifer Castle
09/25/15 Lawrence, KS The Granada w/ Jennifer Castle
09/26/15 Minneapolis, MN Fine Line Music Cafe w/ Jennifer Castle
09/27/15 Chicago, IL Thalia Hall w/ Jennifer Castle
09/29/15 Ferndale, MI The Loving Touch w/ Jennifer Castle
09/30/15 Toronto, ON The Danforth Music Hall w/ Jennifer Castle
10/01/15 Montreal, QC Theatre Fairmount w/ Jennifer Castle
10/02/15 Boston, MA Royale w/ Jennifer Castle
10/03/15 Philadelphia, PA Underground Arts w/ Jennifer Castle
10/04/15 New York, NY Webster Hall w/ Jennifer Castle
10/05/15 Washington, DC 9:30 Club w/ Jennifer Castle
10/07/15 Asheville, NC The Grey Eagle w/ Jennifer Castle
10/08/15 Carrboro, NC Cat's Cradle w/ Jennifer Castle
10/09/15 Atlanta, GA The Loft w/ Jennifer Castle
10/10/15 Nashville, Tn Mercy Lounge w/ Jennifer Castle
10/11/15 St. Louis, MO The Ready Room
10/13/15 Denver, CO The Bluebird Theater w/ Jennifer Castle
10/14/15 Salt Lake City, UT Urban Lounge w/ Jennifer Castle
10/15/15 Boise, ID Neurolux w/ Jennifer Castle
10/16/15 Seattle, WA Neptune Theatre w/ Frog Eyes
10/17/15 Vancouver, BC The Commodore Ballroom w/ Frog Eyes
10/29/15 Paris, FR Pitchfork Music Festival Paris
10/30/15 London, UK Islington Assembly Hall
10/31/15 Brighton, UK The Haunt
11/01/15 Leeds, UK Brudenell Social Club
11/02/15 Bristol, UK The Lantern
11/04/15 Brussels, BE Botanique
11/07/15 Bologna, IT Covo
11/08/15 Milan, IT Biko
11/09/15 Luzern, CH Sudpol
11/10/15 Lausanne, CH Le Romandie
11/11/15 St. Gallen, CH Le Romandie
11/12/15 Vienna, AT Sczene
11/13/15 Munich, DE Kammerspiele
11/14/15 Cologne, DE Luxor
11/15/15 Berlin, DE Lido
11/17/15 Bergen, NO Hulen
11/18/15 Oslo, NO Parktheatret
11/19/15 Stockholm, SE Kagelbanan
11/20/15 Copenhagen, DK Pumpehuset
11/21/15 Utrecht, NL Le Guess Who? Festival