Interviewing Dan Bejar of Destroyer is a bit like interviewing the wind. We greatly enjoyed our conversation with one of rock music’s most opaque conversationalists. Fire up Kaputt, his lyrically rich, densely layered synth-jazz opus, and read about “chord baptisms,” “dead forms,” and other interesting subjects below.
On Kaputt, you’ve said that the songs, with a couple of exceptions, are basically structureless. Was that something you were trying to do, or is that just how it happened?
I think I’m really against trying, but yeah, looking out, it’s like idle grazing as far as a few songs go. Just patches of things or just three or four chords, essentially, running as a loop for a few minutes that I would rap or scat over. It was definitely one of the most formless things I’ve done. There are verses, but there’s no relation to the verse that came before them besides being in the same key or something. I’m not sure how that came about, aside from the fact that I didn’t write a lot of the songs with the aid of any kind of instrument, which maybe forces you into familiar patterns.
So you would come up with the melodies in your head?
The melodies and words descend upon me at once. Yeah, that’s just the way it goes. I wish it was different, but it’s not. They generally seem to come at the exact same time. Maybe you get slightly more melody sound once there’s a chord baptism, but that usually happens pretty late in the game. It would probably be the same without any musical accompaniment, but I still don’t know how to play them.
Is that a new approach for this record, or is that something you generally do?
I don’t know. It feels new to me, but I don’t really take stock of the Destroyer catalog, or go sniffing around for patterns to gather anything. Most of these songs could change shape and turn into something completely different, even after a year and a half of working on them, even in the mixing process. If the song doesn’t work, we have to try mixing it completely different. And they’re all recorded from ground zero, up onto the grid, so there is a lot of freedom that way as far as the computer-generated stuff goes.
Tell us about the song “Suicide Demo for Kara Walker.” That’s an intriguing title.
Yeah, I like that title. The term of the title is that it just describes what the song was. Which is when I first recorded it, it sounded like maybe a shitty demo that the band Suicide might have done. And it was for a song co-written by Kara Walker, but I had a different treatment of the song, a more fleshed out one, even back then, that I had demoed. It just kind of stuck with me. I wanted to blow it out, and so then I just started thinking of the title. I really liked the title of the song, I really wanted to use the song. I had to start thinking of the title more, and keeping with what the words actually meant. Suicide, meaning killing yourself, was about Suicide the band. Demo, meaning a demonstration, as opposed to demo, as in a rough version of a song that you would then record for real for a record company. And then the meaning of “for” and “Kara” and “Walker” would stay the same.
How did you come to collaborate with her?
Merge hooked us up. They did a massive project for their 20th anniversary that involved all sorts of people and she was one of them, and I think they [handed] her their catalog to do something with. For some strange reason, Destroyer is what spoke to her. And she sent me some kind of text pieces that she had done, had this idea of turning them into a song of some kind, so I did. It was the first time I’d ever done something like that, and it was really, really fun, and really easy. Maybe that’s because I liked her writing.
When you sing “I wrote a song for America” on Kaputt, are you referencing a specific song, or is that more of a poetic statement?
I don’t really see the song as a true story. Aside from the part at the end. Well there’s the part in the middle where Jessica goes on vacation on the dark side of town forever, and the part at the end where animals crawl towards death’s embrace. That happens. And then, punks kicking a ball in the rain, strung out. That also happens. But “Song for America” — the “I wrote a song for America” part — I wasn’t really thinking of this becoming factual.
You’ve recorded under the name “Destroyer” for many years now, and people have been able to catch up to what it is. Do you ever have people confused by the name?
Like a metal band or something?
I don’t think so. I’m sure people have been turned off by the name, but not people who wouldn’t be turned off anyway. I don’t really think about it. It’s null to me. Yeah, I haven’t really given it much thought.
So people aren’t coming up to you and being like, “Oh, Destroyer. What a crazy name.”
Yeah, people don’t come up to me generally. Even when they don’t say stuff like that, they don’t come up to me.
You’re also in the New Pornographers. Do you write the songs that you use in the band separately and then bring them in?
Do the New Pornographers write songs collaboratively?
Nope. Not that I know of. You’ll have to ask them. I’m around very little for any of that stuff.
How do you decide which songs you are going to present to the band, or how do your songs get picked?
Sometimes there are songs that are 15 years old that I’m not going to record. That’s happened more than once. Once I wrote a song about the New Pornographers that was called “Myriad Harbour,” and that’s about it. They weren’t really songs, more lyrics, so they were less important. I have songs I’m not going to have complete control over, but they may have some chance of existing as some kind of more defined rock and roll genre. Those are the few criteria.
You’ve talked before about the pointlessness of writing songs for today.
I do see songs being kind of quaint these days. At least there’s a certain element of writing songs that seem kind of backwoods, and not particularly playing for this century. But, that’s not really a condemnation. I mean, if you think of poetry or plays, there are also things that seem to a certain extent really good, and not really a part of the happening culture. I think a lot can happen inside of a dead form. Maybe that’s the optimistic view of the pointlessness and hopelessness. Just because something is pointless or hopeless, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it as much as you can. That’s mostly what I’m talking about.