Interview: Destroyer’s Dan Bejar talks new album ‘LABRYNTHITIS,’ sandwiches, New Order and more
The original idea for Destroyer's new album, LABRYNTHITIS (pick it up on jade & ivory color vinyl), was to dive into house music, "slamming techno," or a Cher style record a la "Believe," but as usual things changed after Dan Bejar sent his demos to regular collaborator John Collins. "That's not what we made because we make what we know, and we don't really know those things," Bejar said. "Much in the same way that we didn't end up making a trip hop record for Have We Met."
By the time the rest of the band added their parts, drummer Josh Wells most crucially, the album went from its house/techno origins into one influenced by early-'80s dance music, in particular New Order and the over-the-top production of Trevor Horn (ABC, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Art of Noise). In some cases -- like on the wild six-minute psychedelic disco odyssey "June" -- Collins had added whole new sections to them. That puts LABRYNTHITIS somewhere between the warm, jazzy Kaputt and the shiny metallic gloss of 2020's Have We Met. One thing stayed the same through the whole process: it's Destroyer's most danceable record to date but also one of the darkest, lyrically, perhaps not a surprise given the circumstances under which it was created.
I talked with Bejar over Skype earlier this month about LABRYNTHITIS, the pandemic -- Destroyer were wrapping up their 2020 tour just as lockdown hit -- and the process in which this one was made, plus New Order, John Hughes soundtracks, eating on the road, movies, actual labrynthitis, their upcoming tour, and more.
Read our interview below.
So Destroyer's show at Brooklyn Steel was the last show I saw before lockdown. How many more shows did you play before.
A few. Philly, DC...I remember I woke up in a parking lot outside of the venue in Atlanta. That must have been the 12th maybe. I can't remember the exact date of the announcement that this was a global pandemic. Played that show in a very solemn, confused manner. I think tried to get out of the Nashville show, but somehow got talked into doing it. By the time we made a decision, we were already at the venue pretty much. And then the last week got canceled and we just made a beeline across the continent from Nashville to Vancouver.
Lockdown is a narrative with so many records that have been coming out in the last year. How much did the pandemic actually play into the writing or recording of this record compared to a normal Destroyer album?
I don't really know. It's hard to say. I feel like I would've gotten together with John more, he's the person who produced the album, if it wasn't a pandemic. There was a travel ban on. We weren't really allowed to hang out until essentially it was time to mix the record. That being said, we did it in a way that was similar to how we did Have We Met, except there's way more of the band on this new one. Everyone throwing their stuff at the song from different corners of the world. Something about when it's your choice, like on Have We Met, versus when it's just the way it is, that I maybe in retrospect found more stifling and made me angry.
I know you said that Have We Met was your idea for "computer music," or like soundtrack music for David Fincher movies. Did you have an idea of what you wanted to do this time going in?
I think I wanted to steer really hard even further into that. I wasn't really expecting to do another record with John. But when we first started talking about it, I got a text just saying like, "Hey, what do you got?" And our initial conversations were always about making house music or just really slamming techno, or a Cher style record, something just relentless. In the end, that's not what we made because we make what we know, and we don't really know those things. Much in the same way that we didn't end up making a trip hop record for Have We Met. But there's always these dialogues that happen at the beginning that get the ball rolling. In the end, I think it ended up being more of a band record in some ways than anything we've done since Poison Season.
I think that the drumming on this album is especially good. It adds a really nice feel to the songs.
Yeah. When Josh [Wells] started throwing all that stuff at us, he was recording from his studio in Chicago. My mind was blown and I instantly got really worried, because I felt the initial idea of what the record was being thrown out the window before my very eyes, which is an exciting feeling. But just when all these other things opened up that you didn't have planned, I don't know. It was just cool. The record, just all of a sudden became way more rocking and in a strange, staggering, clattering way.
There's some wild moments on the record. The way that "Eat the Wine, Drink the Bread" begins you think it's going to be one thing and then all of a sudden, whoosh, it's off to the disco.
Yeah. I think when we discovered, as per yoozh, that we weren't going to be making a techno record, it wasn't going to be sidelong Donna Summer style tracks, the idea then became -- especially once John really started being inundated with bonafide music made by actual humans -- to make the most disorienting record we could. It is relentlessly upbeat, compared to most Destroyer albums, especially compared to the one before it. There's not a lot of downtime. There's not much space. There's just a lot of wild moves. We mixed the record in a real rush and while it was all done on a computer, you can really hear your hands-on faders. I would say for John Collins it's a messy record, which was exciting to see go down. Also really nerve-wracking.
Can you maybe walk me through an idea to finished product on a song? And the one I'm thinking of that interests me most is "June "because it goes through such a journey over those six minutes. I'm just curious how something like that gets created.
"June," structure-wise, doesn't really veer that much from what you would call the demo that I first sent to John. But what happened with the first half is the push and pull of this really wonky rhythm section, this army of basses all with their different sounds in their own way, refusing to find the one or the four. Really just playing a lot of offbeats, and Josh really responding to that and playing a lot of strange sideways drums and weird little fills. So it's groovy, but also really falling apart. Then something happened for the second half, which I guess some people called the spoken word or the rapping section.
I call it the Barry White Section.
Oh, really? Okay. Yeah, I don't know. That's me at my most beatnik poetry, so I'm not sure I remember the Barry White songs. John essentially took a small chord progression and just invented a second half of the song without me knowing about it. He just said, "What about this?" And all of a sudden, what was a three and a half minute song, turned into a six and a half minute song. He just grabbed some acapella rap track off of YouTube, which I guess you can do pretty easily, just the vocal from some song. He stuck it there as a placeholder. I was like, "That's amazing. The song is really epic now. We have to find a way to make this work." I was like, "Can we use the entire budget of the album to sample this two minute, this two minute rap that you sped up by 60 BPM, so it's vaguely unrecognizable?" [Laughter] And that quickly became not an option. I was like, "Well, maybe I should just try and do something myself."
The second half is pretty wild.
First, the music seemed like I don't know... I just wanted to be in it. And so always when push comes to shove, I err on the side of "American Prayer" Jim Morrison-style, poetry. That's what I was going for, but it took on a much more rhythmic quality. And then also in spots, John started to manipulate it in a way more Max Headroom way. And then we started fucking with the vocals at the end, slowing it way down just to give it a HAL 3,000 at the end of 2001, dying computer vibe -- or a computer getting killed more like it. Just a sense of collapse, which also the music really had towards the end of the song as well. So yeah, that's how that one came about in a very strange way. I felt super nervous about it because me and spoken word, we don't really live together. But people seem to be into that song. It did feel oddly liberating, the second half, because I have a lot of writing that doesn't make it into music just because it seems unsingable. That's what that writing in "June" is. I have reams of that shit. It was fun, in a very loose way, just to throw it at a song the way an actor would a narration.
The pitched-down part is what I meant by Barry White, and he does a lot of talking through his song with that smooth baritone.
It would be a pretty far stretch for my voice to get there otherwise without the aid of a lot of technology.
You mentioned Max Headroom. The press notes for the album mention Art of Noise as being an inspiration, and Max guested on their famous single "Paranoimia." I don't know whether Art of Noise was something that was just invented by the publicist or something that you guys thought of.
I haven't read the press release but as far as Art of Noise goes, that really started to rear its head on Have We Met. And just more than Art of Noise, I would say some of Trevor Horn's productions in general, like the cartoonish arrangements on "It Takes a Thief." You could just tell that John was really thinking about a schizoid version of ABC.
The horn charts are very in-your-face.
Yeah, but ours are just all just really... cyber. I don't know, just the very careful, nausea inducing, in your face arrangements that I associate with Trevor Horn.
I know what you mean.
That's definitely John's bag and I got into it too. It's from an era we know about. That and "Pump Up the Volume," Adrian Sherwood kind of stuff.
Have you considered giving these songs to people to remix?
If John had his way, he'd be working on a remix album already. The thing about it is what people are going to hear in a lot of ways is the remix. I'm curious to hear how the songs were going to go originally. I wouldn't mind somebody working our way back to what's actually the recorded music. That being said, I'd love to hear things disintegrate even more.
It's only been since Kaputt that I could imagine Destroyer songs being remixed by somebody but there are songs on this record like "It Takes a Thief" or "Eat the Wine," that you could hand over to Hot Chip or Todd Terry, or somebody like that.
Sure. I would love it. I would love it. "Eat the Wine" and "Suffer" in specific, in their original incarnation, were just supposed to be out-and-out club music, which isn't at all really what they turned out to be, but that's always the case. Everything always turns into something else.
I think "It Takes A Thief" is about as close as pure disco as the record gets.
Yeah. I think you're right. It is more disco than the world of raver disco that I was thinking of. I think when John was working on it and working on his bassline, he just had his sights set on an Earth Wind & Fire bass attack, which I guess if you're a bass player, that's pretty much being a Leonardo da Vinci, or the masters. I don't know if anyone's ever noticed, but Earth, Wind & Fires loomed pretty large for Destroyer in the last 10 or 12 years.
I was talking to a friend last night and I was saying that I was going to interview you today, and she'd never heard Destroyer before. She asked me if it was a metal band, which is something I'm sure you get a lot.
I described you as Al Stewart fronting New Order.
That's basically Electronic, I guess, because I remember that Neil Tennant would get a lot of Al Stewart comparisons in the early days.
Oh, I never thought about that but I totally hear that.
Yeah, apparently. I remember reading that before I even knew who Al Stewart was. And I guess Neil Tennant with Bernard Sumner and Johnny Marr, that would be that first Electronic album, which was always a massive record for me when I was a teenager. I can handle that. When people ask what they sound like, Destroyer. If they're asking about what our live show is like, because I don't know if really the live show and the album speak that much anymore. But generally, when people are like, "What do you guys sound like?" They're wondering what they're going to hear if they come see you play. I'd say like a really loud jazz-rock band.
That is accurate.
But then if people ask me what I do, then I tell them I'm a rock and roll poet.
You mentioned that Electronic record. I know New Order is mentioned in the press release, and I just mentioned them too, but you can definitely hear the influence of that on this record and Kaputt. A lot of that, I think, comes from the bass. To you, what is the allure of Peter Hook's bass style?
That's a good question.
You really hear it on the opening track, "It's In Your Heart Now."
Yeah. Look, this is probably the most John Collins, the purest expression of him that might be even out there in the world. I'd say more than on those first three New Pornographers albums, more than Kaputt, more than Have We Met, or Your Blues or your Streethawk. This is the most he's ever just run rampant with music and just done what he felt like. And a lot of that is bass forward, that's his instrument. And he knows that I love New Order, I know that he loves New Order. And there's a lot of lead bass and there's a lot of bass played as a guitar, as a melodic instrument.
And so the first song definitely is a testament to that, even though to me, it has a bit more of a Cure vibe, though I guess The Cure also dabbled in that sound. I don't know, I like that lead bass feel because there's something more emphatic about it. It's still really melodic and usually simple, driving melody lines, but there's something more forceful than it's equivalent on a guitar. I've always dug it just because that's the music that first got me into music, in the mid '80s, when I first became a rabid music fan, and buying John Hughes soundtracks on cassette and stuff like that,
The Pretty in Pink soundtrack was a gateway for me for sure.
I think for people who are 12 or 13, that's I guess how old I was, it just had a lot of the new wave or post- punk bands that were bigger in England at the time. I loved them all, they all ended up being really foundational for me. Maybe not OMD.
They had some good stuff!
No, they're good. Don't get wrong. I'm willing to go back. And definitely I think with John, he would argue the point that they're perhaps the finest.
Andy McCluskey from OMD, the singer bassist. I think he and Molly Ringwald both are the reason that '80s Style Dance exists. She did it in the Breakfast Club in the musical montage.
You watch OMD play live, even the super early years, and there he is doing it while rocking the bass.
I haven't seen that, but that's amazing. That seems like a really a vigorous dance to me.
A friend wanted me to ask you about the "Tintoretto" video. In one scene, you're wearing a priest collar. She wanted to know if that was a reference to Paul Schrader's First Reformed?
I had a specific scene in that video, which didn't work out where I was going to be dressed as a priest, feeding a 12 foot sculpture of a bird out of my hand like someone might feed a horse. But because that video was shot on the fly -- no budget, just me and my friend roaming around with a borrowed camera -- it didn't really quite work that out. In the end, the priest outfit, just to rationalize the fact that I purchased it, made it in for about one second of screen time.
That being said, and I don't know if everyone agrees with me on this, but I think First Reformed is one of the best American movies of probably the last 10 years. There's not that many that I can even think of because movies don't really seem that alive in the states right now. I was super into it. I thought that if I taught an English class, I would teach that screenplay. That's the answer to that. Yes. Maybe slightly connected, in, that movie really affected me.
Subconsciously, but there was a specific plan with the pre-shot.
In that video I noticed there's a scene where you're at a restaurant. I zoomed in on the mirror in the background. It's a place called Acorn, right?
The Acorn, yeah.
It's a vegetarian restaurant?
Yeah. I just happen to know the person whose restaurant it is. That whole video and all ensuing videos are all about just calling in favors.
I think that's just the movie business. I guess I'm a bit of a foodie or whatever but I'm always curious when I see stuff like that. And on a similar subject, in the Have We Met film that you made, there's that scene where you're alone in a diner eating the biggest sandwich I've ever seen. I'm just curious if you remember where that was and what you were eating?
I totally remember. That's the only staged scene in the entire thing. That was a very hands-off film. I think the orders, the parameters going in for [director David Galloway] and his crew were pretty much, "You have to make this movie as if we'd never gave you permission to make this movie." That's why in the end, it's mostly this footage of us pushing amps and wrapping cables around our arms. It's basically, a Scared Straight video for anyone who's thought about becoming a touring musician. That's the one staged scene. I don't remember where it was because no one recommended it. It was just the place closest to the venue. I went in with them and it was in Philadelphia. I ordered something called a Philly Cheese Steak, which I'm not accustomed to eating. I just kept eating because that's what they wanted. That's how that went down. Much to the peril of the show that I was supposed to play later on.
That seems like a lot to lead into a performance with.
It was hours, and hours, and hours before, but even still, it's playing with fire.
What do you normally eat on tour? Do you try to eat well? I know for bands that are in a van, they're trying to find anything that isn't terrible.
I'm really bad. I generally have to eat. I have this thing, especially as I get older, I'm turning 50 this year. I have to eat really far away from the time when I sing. I don't give it as much thought as I would, if I just happened to be traveling. Some people really go make an effort to eat well and to find places that are cool. Once in a while, I'll tag along. But because of my weird schedule, I usually end up eating alone, which is probably something that the film crew noticed and said, "Hey, time for your alone 3:30 in the afternoon dinner. Mind if we film you?" So that's me, I have a weird schedule. I also generally wake up super late because we travel on a bus. I find it really hard to sleep on in a bunk on the highway in a moving vehicle. I'll wake up in the early afternoon, help load in and go wander around, and look for my meal of the day. Yeah, it's not the healthiest.
Are there any cities where you are going and you look forward like, "Oh, there's someplace I want to go," or anything like that?
Yeah. I can never remember them. There's definitely weird stuff. I feel like there's a Tex-Mex place in Salt Lake City that we would always go to, stuff like that. I wish I could remember the names of these places. Other people in the band have it really clocked in their mind, and their internal maps are really strong, and they find these places every time. But for me, unfortunately, when I'm on tour, these basic pleasures fall by the wayside. I'm just in a fog usually.
Speaking of that, you guys are starting a tour next month.
Yeah. The tour starts here in Vancouver, I think on April 22, which feels soon all of a sudden.
Have you started to it to rehearse for it?
No. We haven't been in the same room together since Nashville.
It'll have been more than two years since we've gotten together because Josh now lives in Chicago. He's the drummer. He pretty much moved there almost right after we got home, right at the start of the pandemic. Ted lives in Los Angeles, he's the keyboard player. He flew there from Nashville. I'm not even sure he's been back to Canada since, so the band scattered a bit. And so hopefully, second week of April, we'll just hit it really hard and see if we can figure out how this music goes.
Are there any songs on the record that you're particularly looking forward to hearing how they turn out live?
There are ones where I'm just like, "How the hell are we going to do this?" "June" is a good example, but it's also one of the songs I feel really strongly about. It's like part of me is excited and part of me is scared shitless.
One thing I want to know about is "The Last Song," which closes the album and is totally unlike anything else on there. How did that end up being on the record?
I don't know. I think it was born of a very tranquil panic attack. It's the last song I've written. I haven't written one since then. I wrote it towards the tail end of working on the record. I hadn't totally decided that I was going to put it on the record till maybe the second to last day of mixing. The whole thing was just disorienting to me. It was feeling a swirl of noise, which was really exciting. But after being deep inside of that, I wanted a sorbet. Is that the food term?
A palate cleanser.
Yeah. I needed something to just ground me, even if it just happened to be the sound of me with an acoustic guitar. And it's a solemn song, but it's not totally dirge-like and depressing. It turns into a solemn and dark sing-along...
It's like a "beers aloft" bar sing-along.
Yeah. It's supposed to be a beers aloft on the Last Night on Earth. I don't know, it just felt like it gave the album some actual closure. Hopefully, it doesn't feel too forced and out of place. In the same way, the first song, "It's In Your Heart Now," sticks out as well, in that it is more dreamy. The vocals are more plaintive and not as nasty. You can maybe tell that it's a song that I wrote during the Have We Met era, as opposed to all the other ones, which are newer. There's this more inward quality to it and just more ambient. I like those two songs as book ending the beast that is the guts of this record, which to me, even though it's like we said, upbeat and there's a lot of melody. At the core of it, there's something dark, and brittle, and vaguely mean to the singing in the record, the words and just the vocal approach in general.
What about the title? Have you personally experienced Labyrinthitis?
I don't know because no one will give me a diagnosis. I refused that diagnosis, so I'm not sure most doctors will say that it exists. Part of the appeal to me of that word, because usually a title for me, whether it's Kaputt or Labyrinthitis, is just I like to look at a string of words on a page. Labyrinthitis looks to me and sounds like a particularly invented word. It looks like a fake affliction, a fake disease, whether you're addicted to mazes, or someone who chronically takes wrong turns. Who knows what it's supposed to be? It seems some magic realist writer came up with it, or maybe even something that's vaguely sci-fi. It also I thought had a '90s prog metal vibe or a Tool sound to it.
It does sound like the title of a Tool album.
Yeah, or questionable electronica or jazz fusion. It straddled these different super shady worlds for me, which intrigued me. And I just went for it. Also, I thought for me, the record is just disorienting and vertigo inducing, as a listener.
I had never heard this term before this album came out. Do you remember where you came across it?
I think I was probably experiencing what I thought was extreme tinnitus, having some kind of inner ear affliction, coupled with getting up and wanting to fall down. I was wondering what was maybe going on with me. And like many of us do, I did go onto the internet for a little bit just to check it out. That's one thing that came up. And the words stuck with me long after I stopped feeling that way.
Right. Well, I'm glad you're feeling better.
I think I am. I have little flare ups, but I think it's just the new me.
Destroyer on tour:
Apr 22 Vancouver, BC – Vogue Theatre
Apr 23 Seattle, WA – The Neptune Theatre
Apr 24 Boise, ID – The Olympic
Apr 26 Salt Lake City, UT – Urban Lounge
Apr 27 Denver, CO – The Bluebird Theater
Apr 28 Omaha, NE – The Waiting Room
Apr 29 St. Louis, MO – Blueberry Hill Duck Room
Apr 30 Nashville, TN – Mercy Lounge
May 02 Carrboro, NC – Cat’s Cradle
May 04 Asheville, NC – The Grey Eagle
May 05 Washington, DC – Black Cat
May 06 Philadelphia, PA – Underground Arts
May 07 Brooklyn, NY – Brooklyn Steel
May 08 Cambridge, MA – The Sinclair
May 09 Montreal, QC – Theatre Fairmount
May 10 Toronto, ON – Phoenix Concert Theatre
May 11 Detroit, MI – El Club
May 12 Chicago, IL – Thalia Hall
May 13 St. Paul, MN – Amsterdam Bar & Hall
May 14 Lawrence, KS – The Bottleneck
May 15 Oklahoma City, OK – Beer City Music Hall
May 16 Fort Worth, TX – Tulips
May 17 Austin, TX – The Mohawk
May 19 Phoenix, AZ – Crescent Ballroom
May 20 Los Angeles, CA – The Belasco
May 21 Berkeley, CA – The UC Theatre
May 22 Portland, OR – Revolution Hall