Destroyer – My Bloody Valentine Were Like A Sickness To Me

Siobhán Kane talks influences, lyrics & the critical importance of shoegaze with Dan Bejar, the man behind Canada’s Destroyer.

Siobhán Kane talks influences, lyrics & the critical importance of shoegaze with Dan Bejar, the man behind Canada’s Destroyer.

1996’s We’ll Build Them a Golden Bridge announced an idiosyncratic talent in the form of Dan Bejar and his thoughts of Tolstoy’s War and Peace; since then we have had treatises on the music industry (Thief, 2000), theatrical explorations of orchestration (Your Blues, 2004), and constant returns to his often sorrowful touchstones of love lost and hopes dashed. His lyrical talent soared on Destroyer’s Rubies (2006), and on 2007’s Trouble in Dreams; around this time he remarked that so many of his recurring themes are to do with nostalgia, fascism, poets and poetry, the beach, and light and darkness – which he equated with something so many poets explore, a way of trying to see, “a classic poetic concern“. All of these “concerns” coalesce to make a dreamy kind of songwriting, sometimes surreal, yet strangely human, and always atmospheric.

The soundscapes, whatever they are, whether the grandiose nature of Your Blues or the stripped back nostalgia of this year’s Kaputt, ably frame Bejar’s inspired sense of language, which is part Edward Lear, part Steven Patrick Morrissey – the absurdist, and the absurdity of everyday life. Though Bejar is a huge part of The New Pornographers, his most interesting work is as Destroyer, and the man who started this as a home recording project has run the gamut of music over the last fifteen years, from early work that took in folk, to later work that explored electronica, classic rock, dreamy pop, blues and jazz.

This year’s Kaputt is a kind of masterpiece that goes in tandem with something like Destroyers Rubies, and in filtering so many of the influences that have inspired him over his fifteen year career, he has created something of a classic record, but more than this, once more he has provided an interesting document of cultural history, since so much of his work is about commenting in some way topically (though sometimes historically) on what he sees around him. In kicking against what is stagnant,he manages to create work of movement and beauty. From the brilliantly jaunty ‘Savage Night at the Opera’ (try not to dance when he sings “just set the loop and then go wild”) to the tender ‘Poor in Love’ or haunting ‘Suicide Demo for Kara Walker’, Destroyer is seeking to build, and when he wryly sings on ‘Blue Eyes’, “I write poetry for myself, I write poetry for myself”, we can be confident that the converse is true. Dan Bejar talks to Siobhán Kane.

 

With Kaputt, your vocal is so evocative, pushed to the forefront of stripped back arrangements, it lends itself to a truly atmospheric record, and a complete experience, not to be listened to haphazardly, but deliberately, fitting in well with the often sacred ritual that is listening to a record.
That’s great that you can get from the beginning to the very end, it’s kind of rare these days. I think there is something about vinyl I love better than anything, it physically requires a bit more attention, and it forces the music not to be background and random, you deliberately get a record, pull it out of its sleeve, place the needle on the record, flip it over, and if you want to skip ahead, it’s a real chore, you have to really want to, instead of skipping around. Most musicians would be pretty excited to know that there are a few people out there that still think that way.

It is over fifteen years since you formed Destroyer – can you recall the impulse, what you wanted it to sound like? Do you think you have veered much from your original principles?
I have to say, I don’t know. My memory is foggy, so looking back to 1995 is hard, it feels a long time ago, but I don’t think I am lying when I am saying that the one impulse is not far removed from the other. I think that the initial whatever it is that makes you stop in your tracks to write something….that is still a mystery to me, and was back then. For me it was leaping into a void with a certain amount of joy, and wanting to do it because I loved it so much. I was almost coming at it from the point of a fan, I guess. Kaputt was such a strange unnatural beast compared to that [laughs], it was really different. The process was not immediate at all. The collection of what turned into songs came really fast, in a jumble, altogether, but the way the record was recorded and how it came to sound was really drawn out, it was really methodical, but in a mad scientist kind of a way, I still don’t understand [laughs]. It didn’t involve me really touching instruments for the most part, which was different to the old days with the guitar, and now huge expanses of time goes by where I don’t really write a thing, or touch an instrument. Things have changed.

Around 2000 with Thief, there seemed to be a sea-change, a different kind of incarnation of Destroyer, do you think in part your time in Spain, and a break from things, helped you to strip everything right back down?
I think that definitely happened. The most regular line-up that Destroyer ever had was around the recording of Thief, and we were a semi-functioning band for about three years, which doesn’t sound like a long time, but in Destroyer world is pretty long. At that time I was completely immersed in classic rock and constantly writing and just felt I was throwing myself into the history of a certain school of music, I guess. In the early 2000’s things changed, I moved away from Vancouver and when I came back things had kind of fallen apart and I was writing a different kind of songwriting, so Thief was the first record that I felt could stand up to the sound and style of the records that I loved. Before that it was me cranking out songs and recording them in any way I could to get them out, recording them mostly by myself.

Did that experience change again for Kaputt?
I was with the same people I worked with from the beginning of my studio albums – JCDC studios in Vancouver, run by these two guys David Carswell and John Collins. The skeletons of the songs were all on the computer, and it is a skill that after a decade, I still do not have, so I came in with demos really quickly to the studio, then we fleshed those out, and it came together over a year and a half. It’s a really long time, I think two months is the longest I had ever taken on a record before that, we worked on them intensely, but took pretty big breaks. The songs were quite specialist, sometimes we would take a break and go back into the studio, press play, and have no idea what we were listening to, and sometimes you can get lost in that, but in what I would call the home stretch of the last couple of months of working, everything got piled on to songs, the trumpet, the sax, the back up vocal, the lead guitar stuff, then these apparitions started to form. Oddly enough, it was in a lot of ways kind of how I pictured it, which is rare, it could have easily turned into different things, but we somehow made it consistent, I am not sure how that happened, it’s cool!

You make the words central to this record, though there is a real nonchalance to your delivery, although I could feel that happening on Trouble in Dreams, also, was this a conscious thing?
I don’t know if people if people get the tone of what I am saying, some people do, I thought it was time to keep it as casual as possible, at least in my delivery and my presence on the record, because sometimes I get a little overexcited on Destroyer records [laughs]. That didn’t seem to fit the music on this one. We worked a lot on the vocal tracks, which were scratch vocals, most of them were done first take as well, so it is basically me talking in a room [laughs].

Sometimes it does seem as if you are simply talking, delivering back-handed compliments or throwaway remarks in the midst of these layered compositions, for example on ‘Savage Night at the Opera’ where you say “I heard their record, it’s alright” – it must make you laugh as well. I believe that you recorded some lyrics while lying down on a sofa, that sounds very relaxing.
Yeah! It’s like I am an animal grazing in the fields, and then all of a sudden I will think how shitty things are and want to document it. Previously I would write a lot and want to get it all in. I would have reams of words and try to find a way to gracefully stuff them into a song, Destroyers’Rubies had more than a few moments of that, where I was desperately trying to sound casual, but I would rush all this stuff into one line, like I thought it was going to be the last record I made, and that the world was going to blow up or something [laughs]. I definitely don’t think it is something I have in me anymore, Kaputt is not about that. Aside from ‘Bay of Pigs’ which is a bit of an anomaly on the record, and maybe ‘Suicide Demo for Kara Walker’ as well, because I didn’t write all of those lyrics, there isn’t an exhausting urgency to the sound which kind of was always there in Destroyer music previously. I think I like long passages in music, and the texturing.

There is that lovely contradictory aspect in the record as well of the melancholy and the joy, something artists like Junior Boys also do so well, this is the line you continuously tiptoe along.
That’s true, and even though there is a melancholic aspect to it, I still think the record is pretty joyous, not in a marching band, celebratory way, but in the playing, and the way that it has all fallen together, and it is a contrast, but ultimately I think it is hopeful. I think that change happened around my fourth record, and now you can always feel the push and pull perhaps in my music, but it’s more warm and involving in this one, more than what I am used to, anyway [laughs]. You know, in my mind Kaputt is like the first Destroyer pop record. That being said, the songs themselves were never concerned with trying to be anything specific, especially songwriting, I was more concerned with trying to come up with a specific atmosphere that could last from beginning to end. And I was really specific with the choice of instruments as well, that is how the whole thing happened. When you are working slowly, and on a computer, for better or worse it gives you real freedom to not make choices [laughs]. Instead you muck about and wander around in the music aimlessly.

Your contradictory nature also extends to influences and culturally interesting bits that find their way into your music, from Pavement to Ronald Reagan – are you a collector of things? Do you see things and clip them out of books and such, knowing that at some point they will end up in a Destroyer record?
I should, because my brain is not good, and I am getting worse and worse at remembering things. I think somewhere I take stock of it. If I see something that affects me enough on an emotional gut level, where I will stop what I am doing, and allow myself to feel a little bit, I might forget what the words were eventually, but the part of me that was affected will have a memory of that, so it goes into the best library of things, where I don’t have a hard copy, but it’s somewhere in there. I used to think that if it was really important I would remember it, but it doesn’t often happen. I do it with my own stuff as well, I come up with really great songs and then think it will come back again, but then I don’t write it down and it goes into the ether. As I am becoming more senile I am erring on the side of thinking I should grab hold of these things a bit more [laughs]. With Kaputt I used a hand held recorder for the first time in my life, and it was just me speaking into it. It was the first time I had also remembered in that way. It was quite an interesting thing, and I didn’t try and change it into a certain kind of more logical song, I just went with it, and if the songs didn’t have a proper structure then that was fine. That is what is very different from other Destroyer records.

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