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Conflicted Soul

28 August 2015, 10:31
Words by Thomas Hannan
Original Photography by Fabiola Carranza

It’s taken four years for Dan Bejar to follow up Destroyer’s last record, and Poison Season has left its creator bewildered. Thomas Hannan finds out why.

“I think Bruce Springsteen is a simpleton”, says Dan Bejar. “I’ve often had this theory, people don’t like it, but there’s something kind of off about Springsteen, like, I think maybe he’s actually kind of simple. I don’t think my writing or my singing has anything to do with him, and I don’t think Joseph’s wailing sounds anything like Clarence Clemons, but this speaks to the disconnect that I always feel. I hear a saxophone and think, ‘cool, it sounds like Albert Ayler’, but other people are like ‘yeah, really cool, it sounds like Huey Lewis and the News’.”

What Dan Bejar thinks he's doing and what other people think he's up to rarely correlate. Take last time around, when his band Destroyer were touring the impeccable Kaputt - released in 2011, it was a highly polished record heavily indebted to '80s synthesisers and smoother than smooth rock that unexpectedly catapulted his previously cult concern of a band on to late night chat shows, huge festival bills and the upper echelons of end of year polls. Bejar, however, thought it was best suited to another environment.

"I thought we could just play jazz festivals. It became apparent quite quickly that there was no way in the world we would actually be accepted as a jazz band, and the three jazz festivals we did play were bogus. One wasn't even a jazz festival, maybe someone just said it was to please me. That was a big joke among the band. In Toronto we supposedly played a jazz festival, but we just played at one of the standard venues that everyone plays. There was no banner saying 'Toronto Jazz Festival'. Everyone was like, 'Bejar, I think they just fooled you in to thinking you were playing a jazz festival because of your cockamamie scheme'. In the end I realised it was a kind of hare-brained idea. I always think I'm doing one thing, but in the end, I'm doing something quite different."

At least this time around, whatever it is he's doing, Bejar wants people to know that it's certainly different. As with every Destroyer album, Poison Season may as well come with a sticker on it proudly proclaiming 'SOUNDS NOTHING LIKE THE LAST ONE'. Johnny-come-lately Kaputt enthusiasts might be thrown, but Bejar doesn't seem to care much for them anyway.

"Kaputt was a pretty hyped record, but I distrust that. There were people coming out to shows who wanted to hear, like, one song off the record. That's fine, I wouldn't mind, but the fact is it was our ninth record. I think if I was younger I could have really steered in to that, but when you're 40 and you've done nine albums, it's like, 'fuck it - too little too late'. I wouldn't even know how to please an audience if I tried. Actually, when I have tried, that's when it's come out the worst."

The four and a half years between Poison Season and its surprise hit predecessor was the longest gap in Bejar's nigh-on 20 year recording history as Destroyer. It was period of frustration, but one born out of necessity.


"I'll never do that again. Between Trouble in Dreams and Kaputt was three years, and that felt super long, but also OK. I had a kid, things had to slow down, but this was different. I guess I just didn't think I had the songs. I didn't really know what to do, which I think comes across. I hope the record sounds lost. I had a couple of ideas that I cast aside, trying to stick close to the idea of - like Kaputt - making a very concise, unified sounding record. But in the end I tossed that out and thought I'd just write some songs, confront them on an individual basis and see what they sounded like - which is not a recipe for pop success, but I'm not a pop singer, so it doesn't matter. I wanted people to forget about the last record completely, and I thought four and a half years was a long enough amount of time. That's at least one indie rock generation. There had to be a whole new world of indie rock consumers who wouldn't even remember Kaputt existed."

"It's not a recipe for pop success, but I'm not a pop singer, so it doesn't matter"

When talking with Bejar, it can seem like he's entertaining two contradictory opinions, both of which have merit, but neither of which is he keen on committing to fully. Part of him seems to think Destroyer are doing something revelatory that nobody in the world really understands, and another part doesn't get why the level of attention Destroyer receives is quite as high as it is. I wonder if he's deliberately dodging the limelight Kaputt shone on him. Does he just not want Destroyer to get any bigger?

"No. I welcome wealth! But there's no real precedent for a 42-year-old in showbiz having their breakthrough moment. I'm just not going to get more popular. I've never really courted that in the first place, so it feels like to try would just be a terrible semi-public failure and embarrassment. I don't need that. I think I can scrape by doing what I'm doing. Possibly. Worst case scenario maybe I can pull some strings, get a job at the library."

Though it gets a bit of a dressing down from its creator these days, it's important to note that Kaputt's success was no fluke - it's a truly astonishing record that succeeded in virtue of that very "concise, unified" sound Bejar mentions, much of which was down to the prevalence of saxophones and synthesisers. While the saxophone is as much of a feature on the more sprawling but equally excellent Poison Season, synths have "almost 100%" been ditched in favour of luscious pianos and orchestral strings.

"There's no precedent for a 42-year-old in showbiz having their breakthrough moment. I'm just not going to get more popular."

"I think all that jazz music I was listening to while making Kaputt finally caught up with me", explains Bejar. "If you hear Miles Davis and John Coltrane cover enough George Gershwin songs, eventually those phrasings and chord progressions - no matter how dumbed down you make them - are going to seep in to what you do. I started thinking about music recorded before The Beatles for the first time in my life. Usually that was an era I thought was completely onerous. I was just sick of pop production, sick of compression, sick of radical EQs. I spent all of 2012 playing with an amazing drummer, and I wanted real drums, not programmed drums, not highly edited electronic drums. As far as the orchestrated stuff goes, it's been a long time gestating, and it's probably the way I'll go with things in the future."

Though Destroyer albums have never shied away from the grandiose - the scope for embellishment is evident even on the early solo recordings that made up Bejar's debut We'll Build Them A Golden Bridge - it's remarkable how instantly smitten he is with the orchestral method, especially for someone who had never arranged strings before.

"String players are crazy. I think they thought I was scum. And I was!"

"It was the most intense, foreign, alien musical experience I've ever had in my life. String players are crazy people. I think they thought I was scum. And I was! I can't even read the charts, and it's my own music, so what respect am I due? There's a rigour present with strings that I'm just not used to. Things have to happen a certain way, and if they don't happen that way, you're fucked. And I didn't want to be fucked, because that part of the record was really important to me."


It'll be interesting to see what shape Poison Season takes live, what with half of it very much sounding like the world's best bar band bashing out the hits, and the other operating in more a sombre, classical realm.

"I was kind of worried about that. The band stuff just seemed to be a product of us having done a shit ton of shows in 2012, and I think we have a good dynamic. But then there's this whole other half of the record that's quite different. I guess I thought that would make for a schizophrenic album, which when I was younger, I wouldn't really mind - in fact, I'd revel in it. But I also have the idea of this thing which is all 'of a piece', and I don't think this record is really like that."

In comparison to its predecessor it certainly isn't, but there are still distinct themes that bind Poison Season - "Times Square" for example rears its head at its beginning, middle and end, albeit in three very different guises.

"I was conscious of finding a way to create threads in the album, because I know they do exist. I myself as a listener like threads. They help you get through it. It's a dark listen, as a whole. I think of it as a difficult record, but those things - prologues, epilogues and groovy rock bass in the middle - they help anchor it. I don't necessarily think of "Times Square" as a linchpin song, but the fact that there are different versions, and that I was really torn about how to present those versions, is kind of indicative of me and my relationship to the record as a whole."

I mention it's rare to come across an artist who seems so conflicted about the merits of their brand new record quite so soon after finishing it, to the extent of sounding even a little perplexed about how exactly it ended up the way it did.

"I'm conscious of the fact that I'm never supposed to say anything negative about the record in exactly this situation. But fuck it, I'm going to say what I feel. I like dark records, I like grandiose failures, I like records where the person singing sounds lost in it. It doesn't always have to be Born In The U.S.A. or Purple Rain or some shit. I mean, those are great, but it doesn't have to be a crystallized vision where it shows up intact, from beginning to end. That's not how art gets made, not in my experience anyway. There's struggle, you fuck up. But you're reaching for something, and the moments when you get it are good moments."

It doesn't have to be Born In The U.S.A., but sometimes, it can still sound quite similar. The album's superb lead single "Dream Lover" - with its blaring saxophone, hammering rhythm and general anthemic three chord barroom rock shtick - that has been the reason those Bruce Springsteen comparisons have been more regular of late. As Bejar has made clear, he's far from a fan of The Boss, but having people compare his work to that of folk he's never actually taken any influence from is now like water off a duck's back.

"I was happy with my singing for the first time, I thought that was a good sign - usually I'm shitting my pants, or getting wasted."

"I'm so used to it. People only listen to what the production sounds like - for example, the production on Kaputt couldn't be more opposite to that on a classic jazz record, but the music inside of it is - it's devastated. I do think that with the band stuff on Poison Season, I was thinking about Jersey rock, Philly stuff, the early '70s bar bands that Bowie probably really liked when he first started thinking about doing Young Americans. I don't listen to American music aside from Bob Dylan and Lou Reed, I just don't. But there's this American urban street rock vibe to "Dream Lover" or "Times Square" which I think this version of Destroyer does pretty good, maybe aside from the singer - he's the weak link."

This is admirably humble of Bejar, but it's also bollocks. Where Kaputt made a feature of him singing in a semi-whisper, very close to the microphone a la Leonard Cohen circa I'm Your Man, Poison Season is easily the most confident his vocals have sounded on any Destroyer record.

"Michael Jackson's vocal coach before Thriller told him the secret was to convey the maximum amount of intensity as quietly as possible. Apparently he was a really quiet singer in the studio. I did that on Kaputt for sure. I had to concentrate really hard, because my usual way of working would be to down a fistful of whisky and bark poetry at the microphone, and not record with the band live. But with this one, I wanted to keep the vocals that I sang with the band. I feel like this is the most emotional singing that I've done, ever. I'm happy with it for the first time. I thought that was a good sign - usually I'm shitting my pants, or getting wasted. Kaputt had a lot to do with me removing myself from the singing process, this was a lot to do with re-injecting myself in to it, with feeling, in a very personal way."

Personal indeed. Poison Season as a whole is meant to sound like the work of actual human musicians, rather than electronics trying to sound as much like musicians as possible. It's a subtle, but important difference.


"Kaputt created this misty world that was more of a producer's world. I wanted that. And with this record I didn't want that - there were a lot more frequencies that I wanted involved. I'd never really done it. With Rubies or Streethawk the idea was to make it sound like 'us', but we never had a giant studio, it was always an illusion. In my head I thought it sounded like a band trying to sound like a band, but it never really sounded like us. I don't know when it became important, but I think that music just became insane over the last couple of years. I think the cult of the producer musician is out of control."

So what's to be done about that?

"I don't know. It's not really my war. To me it's like a war between D'Angelo and Kanye. They'll fight it out. I'm on D'Angelo's side, 100%. To me that record (The Black Messiah) is very inspiring. I'm not saying Kanye is bad or good - actually, he is good - but that bag of ProTools tricks, it's... it's done. People's ears are maxed out to it. It's for babies. It shouldn't be something that rules the lives of adults."

"There's a war between D'Angelo and Kanye. I'm on D'Angelo's side, 100%. That bag of ProTools tricks, it's done. It's for babies. It shouldn't be something that rules the lives of adults."

Poison Season is a very grown up record, but that's OK, because Dan Bejar - as he points out on numerous occasions across our chat - is a 42 year old man. His audience aren't kids either. But while the music on Destroyer records has long been treated with the utmost reverence, there's always been a sardonic playfulness to the lyrics that's largely absent on this outing. I tell him I laughed out loud less this time (other than at the record's opening lyric, "Jesus is beside himself", which I think is one of indie rock's funniest, greatest opening lines).

"Well, I don't know where you'd laugh. I didn't feel funny writing it. Lyric writing is the most thoughtless, instinctive part of me. It's the first thing that happens, lines arrive, usually draped in some melodic phrase, and then they turn into a song, and literally years later it turns into a record. I just have a version of myself that I like to put in to the world, and it sounds like Destroyer lyrics. I'm not very conscious when I do it, which is the opposite of the music, which is something I slave over. Lyrical questions are always tough, because people want to talk about themes, topics, characters - and I don't believe in any of those things. Words are the things I react to first in the world, unfortunately. I wish it was music. For me if the words are good it's an added bonus, but music is a physical thing, it needs to hit you on that level or else it'll fail. But if you're going to open your mouth, it's nice to hear something cool come out."

Though he's often referred to as a poet, and his lyrics remain a delight to read as well as to hear, Bejar thinks nothing of a good line if it's not set to good music.

"If you're going to open your mouth, it's nice to hear something cool come out."

"The days of Destroyer being a literary project are over. That probably ended with Trouble in Dreams. As a lyric sheet, that's the one I'm most proud of. As a record, it's my biggest failure. I didn't sing it well, the singing is bad. I don't know, I didn't nail it. I had this set of writing that I really felt excited about and was really proud of - maybe the pride is what did me in - but I don't feel like I got it. You can be at the top of your game with the words, but it means nothing. The music is the thing, the singing is the thing."

Having called Poison Season "difficult" and Trouble in Dreams "my biggest failure", it's perhaps no surprise to hear that he describes his relationship with the rest of his older material as "strange".

"I put on Your Blues a while back and it sounded like someone who was clinically insane. None of it made any sense, but at the time it made complete sense. I don't listen to too much else - I like This Night a lot, that's closest to the rock music that I listen to in my daily existence. Rubies I like because it was so easy and we were all just really comfortable, it was the apex of me successfully jamming a shit tonne of words in to a song. I'd be intimidated by doing one of those songs live, but the band itself when we played them it was a bunch of guys in our early 30s sitting around jamming."

The 2015 Dan Bejar is clearly revelling in being the leader of a band of guys now in their early 40s sitting around jamming, but the prospect of recording solo once more does occasionally play on his mind.

"I just started to think about it again. I feel like every 20 years I should try to make a solo record. I did We'll Build Them A Golden Bridge 20 years ago, so I'm due for one where I play everything myself. But whenever I think about an idea, it's always before the songs that come up, and they seldom agree on what they should be. I don't want to have to fake it with a song that's asking for a 40-piece orchestra, and I'm sat at home with my four track, trying to figure it out."

Next up then, might be a solo record. Or a fully orchestral album. It's probably not going to be another round of late night U.S. chat shows and Coachella slots. But then again, it might be. I've given up second guessing Dan Bejar, and so has he.

"I don't think I made an accessible record so I don't see what the point is of trying to ram it home on people."

"When you make pop music it makes sense to play it in pop music places, and if you don't make pop music to put it in pop music places feels a) destined for failure and b) really wrong when you get there. It's popular for bands to say 'oh, TV sucks' or 'these giants festivals suck', but I think they're lying. But when I say it, I'm telling the truth. I don't think I come off well in those situations. I don't think I made an accessible record so I don't see what the point is of trying to ram it home on people who are used to a theme of 'access'. I'm not against commercial music, but I also constantly contradict myself, say I'm not going to do something and then I do it, or say I'm going to do something and then I don't do it. You can hear all of that in Destroyer's music I think. A conflicted soul."

Poison Season is released on 28 August via Dead Oceans. Buy it on iTunes or Amazon.

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