Have We Met: An Audience With Destroyer's Dan Bejar
Before Clash joins Dan Bejar at the table in The Betjemen Arms, he sits alone facing the wall, hand around a half-full pint, his frizzy hair caught in the light of the window like a halo. He seems completely at home; he could be a habitué of this boozer named after a poet. There’s something about his stillness that could make an ideal painted portrait - he seems pensive and unhurried, his silence somehow noble and sardonic.
Perhaps he’s wondering how he got here, doing an interview at a pub in St. Pancras before he gets on a train to Europe to speak to more people about his new Destroyer album ‘Have We Met’, thousands of miles away from his partner and child in Vancouver. “It definitely feels weird to be a middle-aged rock and roll singer,” he tells Clash. “It’s not how I pictured it going down 25 years ago when I first started doing music.”
As he points out, Bejar is more of a “day-to-day person”, not looking too far ahead or behind. This has allowed him to keep evolving and trying new sounds and styles, which, over the course of 11 previous Destroyer albums, has seen him jump from lo-fi indie, to glam, to jazz-pop, to baroque pop – and pulling them all off, too.
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The latest, ‘Have We Met’, he describes as a “vocalist record”, something he imagines you might have found next to albums by Perry Como and Tony Bennett in a 20th century record store. Although the album is the sparest we’ve heard Destroyer in a while – aside from Bejar’s voice, the only other people on the recording are multi-instrumentalist John Collins and guitarist Nicolas Bragg – it certainly would jar played in between cuts from those golden age crooners. ‘Have We Met’ is a synth-based album, full of unusual production choices and genre-skewing sounds, which is a much better canvas for Bejar’s unmistakably nasal and detached voice.
Part of the reason for the stripped-back sound is that they were working under a time constraint, with Collins’ wife due to give birth right around the time they needed to be wrapping up. “We were mixing songs the night before we were supposed to send them to the mastering plant, and the day after that he was supposed to go to the hospital,” he says, reliving the pressure. “But it only seems weird to middle aged me - 23 years ago when I first started working with John it was always extreme like that.”
Although he was stressed at the time, Bejar believes it worked well for the record: “It makes you make hard, fast decisions that if you had a moment to think about it would maybe seem insane.”
He points to “fucking perverse” album highlight ‘Cue Synthesizer’ as a perfect example of that mania: “It’s unlike anything that’s been on a Destroyer record before: slap industrial bass, that clickety clackety hip-hop percussion style and duelling cyber blues guitar samples. When we first finished it, I was like, ‘This is either really good or really bad, I’m not sure,’” he says with a note of pride. “I love that feeling.”
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The through line between Destroyer albums is Bejar himself, a vessel for off-the-wall observations, cutting judgements and lovably unlovable personalities – and there’s no shortage of them on ‘Have We Met’. He recorded his vocals at night, “hovering over his computer”, and this nocturnal energy blankets the songs, allowing the listener to feel like a spectre floating briefly into the minds of his dishevelled cast of characters, discovering their secrets, and then leaving them to wallow in their despair.
Among these are the petulant goof of ‘It Just Doesn’t Happen’, who “casts a poisonous look to the sun” and throws himself down on the playground in a sack. There’s a dream-like foray into the thoughts of the ‘Television Music Supervisor’ with “famous novelist brothers Shithead No. 1 and Shithead No. 2” who is horrified by some unspecified act they’ve just committed. On ‘Cue Synthesizer’ our cynical singer huffs “been to America, been to Europe, it’s the same shit,” then looks at the people around him and sees “a room of pit ponies drowning forever in a sea of love”.
However, the most commonly recurring theme – and character – is death. “It’s natural to harp on death as you get older,” Bejar believes. “It just becomes more tangible; it gets more real, more poetic.” He also believes that “it’s a way to reach for something profound; if you can write around a subject which is instantly poetic, like death or transcendence or bittersweet melancholy, half the battle is won.” There is a truth to this, but it sells short the amount of personality Bejar puts into his lyrics; his unique combination of macabre and bizarre means ‘Have We Met’ is far from a grave affair.
This idiosyncratic balancing between morbidity and humour starts with the album’s opening track, ‘Crimson Tide’, which he describes as the “fanfare”, introducing the “end of the world connotations, which is language that’s seen peppered all over the record.” Atop driving new-wave, Bejar unleashes a litany of images, from sickly people cooped up in hospitals to “chickenshit singers paying their dues” to a funeral that “goes completely insane”, with much more in between – and it’s a riot.
‘The Raven’ strikes a similar tone, following a drunkard calling out to the deceased, and in the silence concluding “The Grand Ole Opry of Death is breathless”. Bejar at first denies that ‘The Raven’ was inspired by Edgar Allan Poe, but then coyly does an about face, saying: “I wanted to wrestle it away from him. It’s just a classic image, a classic symbol, it seems insane that he should have it all to himself.”
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Death once again appears on ‘The Man In Black’s Blues’, rocking up to someone’s front door to take someone away, but it’s sung in a nursery-rhyme “knock knock” refrain that instantly removes any fear that the image would usually conjure.
“It’s really about human beings in grief and loss,” Bejar muses about his fixation on death. “But trying to present it in a way that’s ultimately not despairing and not miserable.”
‘Have We Met’ ends with ‘foolssong’ a lullaby-like track that feels like it’s transporting you out of the barbaric world of the album – until there’s a sudden swell like a swarm of locusts, jarring you out of your security. It’s another unexpected moment that displays the singular style of the Canadian, who continues to develop, even a dozen Destroyer albums into his career. “I wanted to remind the listener that they’re listening something horrific even though it sounded kind of gentle and sleepy,” Bejar remarks, mischievously.
Thinking we’ll end on a positive note, Clash asks Bejar how he feels about the 2011 Destroyer album ‘Kaputt’ having featured on multiple ‘best albums of the decade’ lists.
“I don’t care about that shit,” he scoffs. “It’s too soon. People don’t know what happened in this decade. That’s not enough time to know anything about anything. Especially when it comes to culture, it always takes long time for all the good books, all the good records, the good movies to really rear their heads - or at least for you to get your head around why they were good. People should still be talking about the 20th century in my books, trying to figure that out.”
Given we’ve listened to Bejar’s unimpressed reflections across two decades’ worth of music now, we couldn’t have expected him to say anything else.
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'Have We Met' will be released on January 31st. Catch Destroyer at London's Village Underground on May 5th.
Words: Rob Hakimian
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