Nine Songs: Destroyer
For a man whose career has been built off the back of some of the densest, most elliptical lyrics in indie rock, Dan Bejar is remarkably plain-spoken.
He's also extremely well-informed about the things he loves, but in a way which comes off less nerdish than deeply interested. Bejar can talk at length about the thematic path he’s forged between Genesis, five-hour art-house movies and pre-millennial depictions of the future, but he keeps hold of your hand while sending you down that rabbit hole after him. Still, he’s unassuming enough in person that “I bet that guy's inspired a drinking game” is not your first thought after meeting him.
Have We Met is Bejar’s latest album under the name Destroyer and it removes the nods to the humdrum melancholy of ‘80s British indie of its predecessor Ken. Instead, his alluring non-sequiturs are backed by atmospheric soundscapes that don’t sound like they come from anywhere you can easily find on a map. Bejar is delighted to hear this.
“Good!” he exclaims, grinning. “I think people will hear a synthesiser sound or drum machine and still call that '80s, but to me it doesn’t sound like an '80s record, partly because I know the software involved. I really think it just sounds like the available air out there.”
But for such a hermetically-sealed album, much of the charm of Have We Met came from exposing its songs to the world early, and in radically different forms, on solo tours. “It’s a weird pattern I’ve fallen into between records, taking a break from touring with the giant band and hopping in a car or getting on a train with my acoustic guitar. Just being like a folk musician, playing really old Destroyer songs which we never touch, and also trying out new songs. I don’t know what it’s at the service of, but I feel when it comes to the time to sing new material into a microphone I have a better idea of the phrasing of the music and how it can go, even though I have no idea how the music itself is going to be.”
Despite an obsession with the great American songbook, which began around 2015’s Poison Season, Bejar wound up tracking some of the vocals on Have We Met without even trying. The finished album features some first or second vocal takes, done before any arrangements had been fleshed out, which were recorded “sitting around my living room table at one o’clock in the morning, quietly singing into my computer so I don’t wake anyone up.” He adds, “I always thought that once I knew what the music would be, we’d redo them properly, because they’re really crappy recordings, but I kind of dug the performances. They seem to anchor the record in a way that I like and it’s probably the most true to how my voice sounds that I think I’ve ever gotten.”
The nine songs Bejar has chosen seem to get to the core of what makes his intoxicating new album - and the man responsible for it - so unique. Have We Met somehow sounds simultaneously more and less like the band you know and love than any of his other work. It opens with a song whose lyrics he’d abandoned as “not singable, or not melodious-looking” and ends with a “waltz-time lullaby” written a decade ago, which nearly made the cut for Kaputt until it was deemed “too hard to sway to.”
More to the point, as a songwriter approaching fifty and about to release his thirteenth solo album, it stands to reason that Bejar’s nine songs, which he insists were picked “as quickly and intuitively as I could”, reflect his current lot in life. Much like the songs he’s chosen, Have We Met is a bold addition to a rich catalogue of work and the sound of an artist using the newfound limitations of aging as an excuse for reinvention. It’s a conundrum that fascinates Bejar and provides a curious throughline to our conversation.
“As a middle-aged person,” he puts it to me, “It’s like a topic amongst us who are still kickin’. We challenge ourselves in the world of rock or pop music to hear old singers that are good.”
“I’m a big Leonard Cohen fan, but I was really late to that record. This song and the production of it was, maybe more than any other song here, a kind of spark for what I thought the new record could sound like.
“In the end, Cohen’s record is too generic and too geriatric to really spark John [Collins, Destroyer producer]’s imagination. As someone who’s very material-oriented when it comes to sound, he likes to dive into mixes and create soundscapes that are catchy but still interesting. The production on “A Thousand Kisses Deep” is almost a flatline, but I love that.
“For some reason it really captured my imagination. Partly because I was thinking about music from that era, which is probably the hugest blind spot for me of the last hundred years, even though I was in the most accelerated stage of music-making of my entire life.
“I was in my mid-to-late twenties and all I did was think about music, write all day long and play guitar all day long. I was the most deeply invested in music that I’ve ever been, or ever will be. Yet so much of the music of that time I completely ignored, including the Leonard Cohen records of that era, where I thought ‘He’s too incredibly old! There’s no way it could speak to me.’
“So when I heard this song fifteen years after the fact it stuck with me in a way that made me confused about why I found it so potent now, even though twenty years ago it would have just sounded like the demo function on a synthesiser or an early version of Pro Tools.
“And he would agonise over the lyrics. He would write, rewrite; the editing process was insane! With most writers I know, that rings a bell with them, which is the main thing that makes me think I’m not a writer. To me, it seems so alien, I write really fast, I sing it really fast or I just walk away. It’s always ‘First thought, best thought’ and I really still distrust my third or fourth thought, which seems really juvenile for someone pushing fifty and who’s written a lot of songs. But I still cling to that process, and I don’t really see it reflected back in the writers who I really admire and love.”
“There’s a different version of this song that’s more ambient. I think I was listening to that a lot back when we were doing Kaputt, but then I discovered the ‘real’ version, which is the one with the beats. And beats – especially fake, shrill beats of a certain era – were always going to be a big part of this album.
“David Sylvian is a massive influence. The more I think about it, the more I think he’s been really integral to so many different records that I’ve made. I also like the idea of people like him or Mark Hollis or Scott Walker, people who come from a pop music background who then completely turn their back on that to embrace artmaking.
“As a teenager, I stumbled on a cassette of Brilliant Trees, maybe after reading some write-up in Smash Hits. He still looked really new wave-ish or teeny-bopperish but he was wearing a blazer. The music really reminded me of Nick Drake in some superficial ways, who was someone else I’d stumbled upon back then.
“There were parts of that David Sylvian album that I found really hard to get into, all the jazz fusion elements - which now I’m completely obsessed with and love about those records - but as a younger person I liked the songs,but found those parts kind of alienating.
“Now, I probably listen to Ryuichi Sakamoto more than David Sylvian, but it’s weird how much music I got introduced to unknowingly just by listening to those solo records, whether that’s Robert Fripp or Ryuichi Sakamoto or Holger Czukay or even Kenny Wheeler. It’s probably how I first heard Fennesz or Derek Bailey.
“He’d always go out of his way to get these really interesting collaborations that would blow his songs wide open. I also found out that when he comes up with songs he just sings it right away and everyone plays around that, and that’s something I want to do. I feel like this record was kind of a first step towards that.”
“Was I making a direct homage to this track when I dropped coins on my kitchen table and held a mic up to it for the intro to “University Hill”?
“When we started off talking about the record, I didn’t have much to go on. I knew that I wanted really loud, dirty drum samples, abusive low-end bass and sound effects. We dropped the ball on the sound effects a little bit, there’s some smashed glass and ripped paper, but that’s all fake. John made all of those, but the coin sample? That I actually did.
“In 1995 I was bitter, because all of my friends stopped listening to rock music and started listening to Aphex Twin and Wu-Tang Clan. I don’t think that rock’s really bounced back since then vitality-wise, those things really took over. I’d hear that stuff and think it was really cool but, especially in the late ‘90s, I missed the human voice. A lot of bands were just pulling the singer.
“Now that I think about it I think it’s a great move, because when most people sing it’s really uninteresting, so I wish they would go away again. But at the time it felt like if you were really into Mott The Hoople it was really a personal attack on everything people hold dear.
“My wife put this song on a mixtape for me during our early courtship, so I’ve always thought it was really romantic. That’s how I first heard it. When I delved into the discography after that I was pleasantly shocked to discover how much of it I simply could not listen to!”
“For this album I had all these ideas for making a stark, Musique concrète record, with beats and bass and poetry which John would produce.
“I started getting really worried and rocking myself back and forth, because I knew that John was going to be like ‘I’m going to make a “Moments Of Love” record.’ If he’s given absolute freedom, that’s the kind of song he’s going to make. When he thinks of sound effects, he thinks of really exposed samples and he thinks of Art Of Noise.
“We had this idea - ‘What was music like in the late ‘90s?’ - and in the end, we realised we had no idea. It was an aesthetic concept that we abandoned, but John’s primal instincts are so much in that earlier time period of Trevor Horn’s early productions. So I included this song because there’s a chunk of the list that has to be owed to what John Collins likes and this is definitely up there.”
“I remember John blaring this song out of his computer speakers. This one, specifically. She’s always been kind of a touchstone whenever I work with him.
“There was a lot of Grace Jones that I listened to when we made Kaputt, but there’s a rawer version of that which we wanted to get into on this one, as opposed to that slick “Slave to the Rhythm” sound. It was a more mechanical, propulsive quality, which I think her version of “Love Is the Drug” has. It’s definitely way more Danceteria, later days of Studio 54 than I’d pictured.
“But when I work with John, there’s always a point where I go ‘You just go wild, make it so that you like the way that it sounds’, because it always has to be that way with him anyway. He has a very distinct way of working and you can talk about all sorts of shit, but at the end of the day, it just gets thrown out the window, which I love about him. It’s also infuriating.”
“I remember this song really well, partially because it had a really famous video that takes place in a bathhouse or something, with models walking around. But I think at some point we had yet another idea for this record which we threw out the window, where we wanted to use vocal samples from other places.
"We might have even talked about things like opera samples and John said that this was like ground zero for that. I don’t think he’s right, but it’s definitely a song that makes me think of his aesthetic a lot.
“I can’t say that Malcolm McLaren is someone I give too much thought to. Though I think I first heard this around the same time as I was becoming aware of the Sex Pistols, so it was probably really confusing.
“I was around twelve when I heard this song. The aesthetic was really weird and I actually found it really creepy and really unnerving - the video and the song. It was definitely not something I could put together with the Sex Pistols, though somehow I could feel a connection to Adam And The Ants or Bow Wow Wow, and obviously McLaren had a hand in that shit, but it didn’t make too much sense with my understanding of punk rock, which was still pretty basic at that point.
“Between the spoken word bits, the ridiculous opera bits and the downtempo, techno clubby bits, that song speaks to a lot of things I like in music. Even if I’m not sure if I like that song, I like it in theory, whereas a song like Neneh Cherry’s “Buffalo Stance” is one of my favourite songs of all time, it’s very near and dear to me. I should have put that song on this list. Can you put a little asterisk to say that?”
“I’d never heard this song until recently and I only got around to listening to Republic, that record from the early ‘90s, in the last couple of years.
“I never made it past the ‘80s with that group, even though they’re one of my favourite bands of all time, but I was dabbling in the reality of what we were doing and what its destiny was, so I literally said to John, “Hey, John, you know how we’re like really old and we always like to listen to New Order when we’re making records? What does really old New Order sound like?” He had a better idea than I did, but I was clueless.
“I wanted to see what they sounded like when they were truly middle-aged. This song might have had a star next to it on Apple Music - something really basic like that - and it was the title track, and I really got into it. It wasn’t deflating in the way I thought it was going to be, there were elements to it which still have some kind of essence of what makes them singular and kind of classic.
“New Order were always corny, but their version of corny isn’t quite as cool here as it was on the early records. There’s kind of a flatness to the production again, but there’s something coming through that I still like. And I think Bernard sounds good old! He was kind of born to be an old man.
“This sounds defeatist and I don’t mean it to sound that way, but these days I’m less interested in finding obscure stuff to herald. That’s the cool, fashionable thing to do and I spent a good chunk of my young adult life obsessing over that. Now I’m more into following people whose work I loved down the rabbit hole into dark, hopeless places, to see if there’s some kind of kernel of light in there.
“I don’t know if I do that out of some kind of self-preservation instinct as I push fifty, but I think we dismiss these acts too easily. And I just love the sound of old people singing, I go a little crazy with that stuff now. Tempest by Bob Dylan is probably my favourite Dylan record. I think a lot about new Van Morrison records, which is kind of a conversation stopper.”
“I know that record, but I never think about it and I don’t care about it. I don’t care about Peter Gabriel. I don’t care about Genesis, but what I do care about is the five-hour version of Until The End Of The World by Wim Wenders.
“It got butchered into a two hour and twenty-minute version. It’s a global road movie that’s supposed to take place in 1999 and it has a soundtrack that I remember quite well; it probably had more traction than the movie itself. Nick Cave had a song on it called “Until The End Of The World”, there’s definitely an Achtung Baby!-sounding U2 song called that. What I don’t remember being on the soundtrack is the song “Carpet Crawlers”, which is used really effectively in the movie.
“I was thinking about end of the millennium movies a lot. I think about films a lot more than music these days and I mostly take my inspiration from films now. I was thinking about this Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien, who has a movie called Millennium Mambo, which takes place around that time. I don’t know when the movie came out, so I’m not sure if it’s set in the near future or the near past, but I really like the way they used techno music in those movies in that era.
“I love the way "Carpet Crawlers" is used in that film. I thought about it a little bit when we were making the song “The Television Music Supervisor”, which has the same kind of floating, arpeggiating synths in the background which the vocals float over. I liked it as an almost ambient pop song from almost fifty years ago and it definitely feels like the kind of shit I like which, when you listen to the rest of Genesis, is definitely not the case.
“Friends of mine really rep for those first Peter Gabriel records too. I’ve tried, I remember when we finished Kaputt and John was comparing it on a stereo to a new crazy 5.1 surround sound quadrophonic remix of So that had just come out, and I was ‘What the fuck are you doing? What does this have to do with what we’re…’ And he kept telling me ‘No, man, you have to hear this!’ No, I don’t have to hear this.
“The only real link I’ve ever found is the fact that someone whose music was really influential to me when I first started writing songs back in 1994 was Guided By Voices. I think Robert Pollard might be the biggest early Genesis fan who walks the earth; there’s a real link there that hasn’t been discussed enough. I prefer Guided By Voices, though I see the touchstone, but you should find any excuse to steer clear of it. That’s a good impulse.”
“You know how you listen to language tapes to learn a language? I listen to Billie Holiday in the hope that it’ll teach me how to sing. This sounds ridiculous and delusional, but at least when I’m hunched over a microphone by myself and not onstage in front of people, that’s what I try and channel. I feel like I’m getting close!
“I don’t really listen to her earlier more swinging music, where her vocals are incredibly adept or elastic, but from that era onwards, her more orchestral, broken-down sounding records from the mid to late ‘50s are probably the thing I’ve been most obsessed with in the last ten years. For some reason, there’s a gravitas in those albums which I don’t hear anywhere else. Before then I knew her voice because it’s so iconic but I never gave it a second thought; she wasn’t a popular singer in the underground, she was considered too basic, too 'Starbucks', as we would say in the ‘90s.
“Maybe that’s changed. I don’t know, you’d have to ask a young person. I feel like people’s renewed interest in Sinatra - if that’s actually happened - will maybe lead to people discussing her in a different light. I know those records I’m talking about are traditionally super scoffed at, and legitimate jazz people like to talk trash about them because they’re considered easy listening music with a broken-down singer, but I don’t really care about that.
“That description should make you want to hear it, but for decades they’ve kind of been frowned-upon records. When I got really into vocalist music, ground zero for that was when I became obsessed with Scott Walker in the mid-‘90s, then finding out that Frank Sinatra’s favourite singer was Billie Holiday, it was an easy line to make.
“It’s definitely what sparked me getting into caring about singing more than writing. I don’t know if that’s still the case, but when I made Poison Season I was probably cresting that idea, and that album’s a desperate grab at that, which I like.
“I’ll always punch above my weight. The de facto Destroyer mode is to always take on a fight you’re not going to win and go down swinging.”