The Art of Destruction
An Interview with Destroyer's Dan Bejar
up Destroyer and you'll find yourself neck-deep in Kiss
fan sites, gamer's portals, and naval history home pages.
Secreted amongst the web fodder you'll be lucky to find
a handful of references to Destroyer, the Canadian indie
outfit masterminded by Dan Bejar. But with the release of
the band's extraordinary fifth album, This Night, Destroyer
isn't long for the underground.
Unlike the band name suggests, Destroyer rely on subtlety
and innuendo to drive their message and their music. Shimmering
guitars, elegant compositions, and feathery vocals do the
work of a truck-load of dynamite. "I kind of wanted
to go for a rock 'n' roll name. In our own special way we're
tearing shit apart, you just have to listen very carefully.
Musically I knew it was never going to be a metal band,
but I thought lyrically there were fangs to the music,"
says Bejar speaking by telephone from his home in Vancouver,
British Columbia as he prepares to take Destroyer on tour
in support of This Night.
Around Vancouver Bejar has steadily gathered a following
for his poetic balladry and inimitable pubescent warble.
His notoriety has grown substantially in the past year due
to the success of Mass Romantic, the much-touted debut album
by Canadian supergroup - apparently there is such thing
- The New Pornographers, which in addition to Bejar features
a collective of up-and-comers including country songstress
Neko Case and Zumpano's Carl Newman. Instead of basking
in the afterglow of Mass Romantic's success, when it came
time to take the album on the road, Bejar side-stepped the
spotlight and split for Spain. There, he wrote the bulk
of This Night while aimlessly navigating the streets of
Madrid, and as he puts it, "getting lost."
The remaining Pornographers toured in his absence leading
to media speculation as to whether Bejar was still part
of the band. In our interview he set the record straight.
"I recorded three songs with them just recently. I
think a couple might make it onto the next record. I just
don't tour with them, and I don't really play on the other
songs." He pauses and laughs, "And I don't really
play too much on my own songs."
Bejar's aversion to the business of music is a theme well-documented
on Destroyer's two previous albums, Thief (2000) and Streethawk:
A Seduction (2001). Sardonic wit ablaze, he questions the
shortcomings of popular music on "City of Daughters"
(Thief). "A minor bone of contention/It's the soullessness
of the convention/Rock 'n' roll shirking through for you/Why
would anybody want it to?/What is it about music that lends
itself so well to business as fuckin' usual?" On Thief,
Bejar's narrative examines the recording industry as an
outsider peering in. Another year, another album, and a
new label later his tone on Streethawk, while still accusatory,
finds a new mark: Bejar himself. After all, "even Destroyer's
have a price" he sings on "The Sublimation Hour."
Newly signed to Merge Records - another significant step
up on the indie rock food chain - Bejar's outlook evolves
further on This Night. References to rock 'n' roll tyranny
are all but extinct and those that do surface are neither
reproachful nor self-deprecating. In fact, on "Makin'Angels,"
amidst a ragged orchestration of Beefheart-esque guitar
lines and pixyish back-up vocals, Bejar grandiosely offers
to carry the flagging spirit of rock aloft himself if he
has to: "Hey, rock 'n' roll's not through (yet)/I'm
sewing wings on this thing."
Bejar's critics liken him to a latter-day Bowie with a
Pavement complex. Chalk the Bowie up to Bejar's theatrical
delivery, the shades of Malkmus to his quirky stream-of-consciousness
lyricism, but really Bejar's Destroyer is one of the most
non-derivative acts to arrive on the scene in quite some
time. He crafts irresistible hook-laden pop songs, peppering
his compositions with rye observations and poetic wordplay.
You're already singing the words before you've had the chance
to probe the depth of their meaning. Though keeping up with
Bejar can be a trying experience especially when you're
struggling to follow along with This Night's "Self
Portrait With Thing." ("Soon, the feral beast
did beautify our wounds with a body that knew/You shouldn't
hurt the ones you love/Unless you really want to.")
In terms of his influences, Bejar is still waiting for his
critics to call his bluff. Apparently he's been massing
quite a collection of Morrissey records lately.
More than just the sum of his predecessors, Bejar, and
his line-up of back-up musicians borrowed from various bands
around Vancouver, strike a unique balance between pop and
poetry - two descriptors, which under normal circumstances
would mutually disqualify each other.
"I think there's a tradition of people who tried to
marry - this horrible word - poetry to rock 'n' roll, and
we're part of that tradition hopefully. I mean it doesn't
seem to be one that's shining so brightly these days,"
says Bejar when asked about his poetic take on rock music.
"A lot of things that work on the page don't work well
when they're in a song. I always keep that in mind, the
sound of words when they're sung. Things change once you
spit them out, and it gives them a new meaning depending
on the way you sing them," he adds.
Much like Bejar's vagabonding ramble in Spain, This Night
is an album that wanders rootless and uninhibited by a specific
through line. This Night, he says, refers to "night
as a place for something to exist, an inner state. Something
you have to pass through." I point out that "this"
and "night" are capitalized whenever they appear
in the liner notes - which is quite often - giving the impression
that there is, in fact, a unifying thread that ties the
album together. Bejar gets a kick out of this. "I thought
I would do that just to make sure someone gets led on a
wild goose chase." He confesses that he originally
toyed with naming the album "Night Moves." "People
convinced me not to use 'Night Moves.' They said I'd suffer
the same fate as Bob Seger," he explains.
As our interview comes to a close, there's one final thing
I've wanted to ask Bejar. Noting the absence of record industry
oriented tongue-lashings on This Night, I ask him whether
he's finally started to come to terms with music as a business
as well as an art form. He answers in full stride. Simply