Destroyer's music is not for everyone, Dan Bejar knows that too. “It's all too specific and too abstract,” says the 47-year-old Canadian in an Amsterdam cafe. “The listener has no idea what he or she is listening to, what it all means. And I don't think I know that either." Bejar is an enigma for everyone, himself included. His music offers no support in difficult times, is no guiding light – he is convinced of that – but it does have something. What? No idea, although with his twelfth album Have We Met he comes a small step closer to finding an answer.
Written by: Ruben van Dijk
Photos: David van Dartel
Destroyer, rule number one: with each album everything is always different. Nobody expected that Bejar would go full on smooth jazz & soft rock with Kaputt (2011), but there was no doubt that its successor would not resemble it in the slightest. Bejar and his band landed in a “honeymoon phase”; Poison Season (2015) and ken (2017) were supposed to reflect the organic sound of a live performance. The key track on the former, ‘Times Square’, has become a live favorite in recent years. Bejar: “Guess what? We're really good at playing that song, because that's what we sound like.” That honeymoon phase now seems to be over; Bejar realized that his next record had to be an ugly, synthetic record. “I felt the lyrics were very dark and disturbing, sometimes even nightmarish. The idea was that it was going to sound very minimal, industrial and grim.”
Very little of all those ideas has come to fruition in practice; Destroyer, rule number two. Yes, Have We Met came about mainly on the iPads of Bejar and band member/producer John Collins. And yes, music was made, à la Kaputt, without taking future live performances into account. “There's a lot of stuff on Have We Met that doesn't resemble anything a human would do.” But it never gets grim, let alone nightmarish.
“If we hadn't finished it in time, I would have thrown the whole album in the trash.”
“It happens with every Destroyer record: the words say one thing, but musically it goes in a completely different direction. And that's because of John. He loves creating weird soundscapes – and he's really good at them too – but it's always anchored in pop music, albeit pop music from another time and from another planet.” The fact that Collins was about to become a father as the deadline approached also left its mark on the final product. The album had to be finished. “If we hadn't finished it in time, I would have thrown the whole album in the trash. Waiting, or moving on with someone else, was not an option. I don't think anyone else could have made this album into anything. It was pure misery, but at the same time it was such a euphoric period, because he was entering a whole new phase of life. Somehow that seeped into the music.”
And so Have We Met sounds “much happier than intended” and at the same time is imbued with a certain tension. “There's a kind of push and pull that I don't think is present on other Destroyer albums. It is controlled and chaotic. I've never made a record with so many strange sounds." Horrible fake drums, wind instruments that have been cut straight out of Kaputt and Poison Season, “all over the place” guitar playing by Nicholas Bragg, who was sent a rough mix of the record and was given free rein. “In any case, it has not become minimalist.”
Crimson tide, crimson tide, crimson tide
A conversation with Dan Bejar is a conversation full of contemplative silences. Perhaps because he himself does not have the answers ready. Perhaps because he wants to avoid misunderstandings, such as when a journalist at the time of Kaputt wrote how Bejar had been making sandwiches while recording the vocals for the album. “That was just a manner of speaking,” Bejar is keen to point out. “At one point I lay down on the floor in the studio, instead of going to the vocal booth, where someone would normally ask me if I was ready for my performance, if I was ready for the final version of the song - for all eternity. It was a trick by the producers. After ten years I was so used to singing the same way over and over: a little drunk, a little hysterical; I was trying to get a million words into one sentence. That was my thing. But on Kaputt, there were fewer words and much more breathing space for the music, so I tried to sing much more slowly – almost as if I was doing it unconsciously. I'm not nuts about my singing on Kaputt, but it all led to this album. I think I finally know how to sing in a quiet, intimate way, without sounding empty or emotionless.
"If the vibe is good, if it feels good, then I don't care if a word is wrong here and there."
Bejar has indeed never sounded as intimate as on Have We Met, if only because the vocals were actually recorded at the kitchen table this time. “The plan was always to re-record the vocals later, in the studio. We skipped that part. These performances have something. Every song sounds like I had just finished writing, and half the time that really was the case. It was the first or second time I ever sang that song, and that's what you hear on the record." According to Bejar, he also sounds more like himself than ever on Have We Met. Not for a second did he have the idea that there would not be a second recording; there was no pressure at all. “I didn't even use a good microphone. There were words I wanted to change later. I just never bothered. I think that's the big difference with ten years ago: if the vibe is good, if it feels good, then I don't care if there’s a wrong word here and there."
It isn’t stream-of-consciousness, by the way, never has been. But Bejar likes to create the illusion. “I think the idea that you're just mumbling, talking to yourself, and it just so happens to be recorded is really cool. When I started I was very into classical singer-songwriters like Harry Nilsson; I wrote a lot of choruses, played with chords and pop structures a lot. Now I would rather ignore all that and just sing over a single drone sound, because it gives you so much more freedom.”
Bejar cites ‘Crimson Tide’ as an example, a song that was never intended to be a song. The first sentence was created in 2009 and for a long time every sentence that followed was filed as 'unsingable' - until suddenly it no longer was. “Someone recently told me that 'Crimson Tide' reminded him of 'Bay of Pigs' [on Kaputt, ed.] and that was the last time I wrote a song like that: an endless deluge of verses, all of which seem entirely disparate. It felt great to sing, but somehow I knew it was hardly more than a surreal, melodic rant.”
“When I conjure up words, it's because to me there's a kind of inherent logic. I have no idea why, but with 'Crimson Tide' I suddenly had the words 'crimson tide' in my head. I thought: if I sing this after every verse, and then a few more times at the end, the meaning, the emotion that goes with it, comes naturally, whatever that may be.”
User's guide to a world that makes no sense
The conversation falls silent again, this time when the subject of David Berman comes up. In 2017, Bejar spent months working with the late Silver Jews frontman on new music for what would eventually turn out to be his final album. On that album, Purple Mountains, which was released a month before Berman's suicide in August 2019, nothing of this collaboration can be heard, just as Berman's months-long sessions with Dan Auerbach, Jeff Tweedy, Black Mountain and Stephen Malkmus ended up in the trash.. “One day I will be able to talk extensively about that experience. It's been a few years now, but I'm still trying to process it all, to figure out exactly what we were doing back then. The longer we worked on it, the more pointless it all seemed – and at the same time I am immensely grateful for that period.”
“In my opinion, art, even the most desolate art, is somehow uplifting.”
What made the process so uncertain and so difficult, Bejar cannot say with certainty. “In retrospect I think: of course, with a lot of songs he was still at a much too early stage. There was no finish line yet. But at the time, we just wanted to finish it, see what a final product would look like. We had already come this far.”
Especially in light of what was to follow, the final Purple Mountains is a jet-black record, even by Berman standards. And yet in a lyric like that of 'All My Happiness Is Gone' there is almost cheerfulness; the same discrepancy between music and lyric as on many Destroyer records. Bejar: “I have always found great comfort in his lyrics, no matter how dark they were at times. That darkness was rarely the end goal. It was always: I've been through terrible things, this is how I got through it, this is the wisdom that I have gained and want to share with you. In my opinion art, even the most desolate art, is somehow uplifting. And of course it will be a while before I can hear David's voice that way again. The most terrible thing that could have happened has happened, but his music is still joyful, playful in my eyes; a user's guide to a world that makes no sense. I can still see the positive.”
In that sense, Bejar has a deeper emotional connection with Berman's music than with his own work, partly because he often has no idea what lies behind his own work. “I don't think my lyrics are uplifting, not in the way so many Silver Jews fans now share how certain lyrics have given them the strength to get through a difficult period. I don't think my writing has that. But it does have something, and I have no idea what it is. I just don't know, because the writing process is a mystery to me. David was a very meticulous songwriter. There was so much work and skill in the writing, the rewriting; what real writers do is completely foreign to me. I write so quickly and so intuitively. It's the rush I get when I sing certain words that makes me realize that it's good, that others might experience a similar rush when they hear it.”
And perhaps this is how Bejar himself summarizes the appeal of his own elusive, inscrutable music: “When in 2001: A Space Odyssey a gigantic fetus floats through space, what is that rush that people feel? Is it an intellectual puzzle, the pieces of which suddenly fall into place? I have no idea. If I'm blown away by something, I don't really know why. I never know why something is.”
Have We Met will be released Friday January 31 on Dead Oceans. On Friday 17 April Destroyer will play at Motel Mozaique in Rotterdam and on Thursday 30 April in Paradiso, Amsterdam. Editor's note: this article was originally published in Dutch. Some quotes may have been altered in the translation.