Destroyer songs don’t lend themselves to easy black-and-white interpretation. Over the last two decades, Dan Bejar has assembled a beguiling and occasionally maddening body of work under that name, uniting albums of glammed-up folk, melodramatic MIDI orchestrations, and louche soft rock under his oblique and archly grandiose poetic sensibility. His is the voice of the smartest and possibly drunkest guest at the party, who seems to mock the world’s pain even as he feels it more deeply than anyone else in the room. In a recent conversation with SPIN, Bejar lingered over a particularly sly lyric from from ken, his wispy and multivalent 12th album, and decided that even he was not up to the task of figuring it out. “What does that even mean?” he asked, clearly not expecting an answer. “What would that even look like?”
Bejar’s records tend to be accessible in an inverse relationship to their word count, and like 2011’s widely beloved Kaputt, ken is on the laconic side of his catalog. (Which means it’s still about twice as dense as most other indie rock albums you’ll hear this year.) Also like Kaputt, ken’s music is both straightforwardly gorgeous and rich with pointed references to the decadence and glamor of the ‘80s, the era of Bejar’s adolescence. Songs like “Sometimes in the World” and “Stay Lost” play like elegies for the abandoned idealism of young people and of America in its pre-Reaganite youth. Occasionally, Bejar finds strange mirth in the decline of western civilization. He is a resolutely unsentimental writer, always pulling your heartstrings with one hand and your leg with the other.
For a devoted trickster figure, Bejar is remarkably willing to investigate his own artistic motivations and proclivities. And though he may not always have the answers, he is nearly as good at talking about his songs as he is at writing them. He speaks in circuitous sentences whose endpoints are visible only to him, arriving sidelong at punchlines and offhanded insights like treasures at the end of a private map. Below you’ll find a lightly condensed version of our conversation about ken, edited with an eye toward keeping Bejar’s singular syntax intact.
SPIN: ken has one of the best song-opening lyrics I’ve heard in a while, on “Sometimes in the World: “I can’t pay for this / All I’ve got is money.”
Dan Bejar: Me five years ago would have shirked away from singing that song, or singing that line, anyway. I don’t know why. That song is made up of a lot of bold, direct statements, which isn’t really the kind of writing I saw ending up on [2015’s] Poison Season or Kaputt. It reminds me of something off of [1998’s] City of Daughters, the second Destroyer album. Something I would have written 20 years ago.
Was there something about your mindset or your creative process that changed and made you more comfortable with doing that kind of writing?
I don’t really know where it came from. It’s always a pretty unconscious thing with me. The big difference is that for the first time in ten years, I started writing on the guitar again. And there’s a brevity and a directness to most of these songs that I assume is a result of that. As opposed to me in ringmaster mode, spinning dramatic movements, which is a feeling I had making Poison Season, and maybe even Kaputt. These are all songs I can just pick up a guitar and sing from beginning to end. There’s not a narrative or topical directness to them, but they seem more explicit to me.
A lot of ken’s lyrics–certainly the one I just brought up–have an aphoristic, almost mantra-like quality to them.
That’s the style of writing that I do as I get older, even though in a lot of ways this record was me singing to my teenage self. Conjuring up my teenage self–I might as well be singing to a dream. But for some reason, the mantra, or the prayer, or the aphorism, is the mode of writing that I’m attracted to.
Someone pointed this out, and I kind of like it–not just the sound of it, but I also feel like it’s true: There’s a casual extremism to the writing, and that feels like it’s coming from a young person, even though my voice sounds more decrepit and distant than ever. I like that contrast.
Can you elaborate about what you mean by singing to your teenaged self?
Picking up the guitar, especially the electric guitar. I always revert to the U.K. indie bands from the mid and late ‘80s, which were the first bands I started really digging when I got into music for real. There’s a simplicity to their melodic lines, and an urgency. The sounds are trippy, but in a very blatant, basic way. That music is my fallback when I pick up the guitar, and I was thinking about those sounds a lot when we were first making the record, maybe even when I was still in the writing process.
When you say the casual extremism of a young person, do you mean the way that young people are sometimes swept up into holding polarized opinions about the way the world works?
Sure, or just chiming in on things in an impassioned and extreme way, which you don’t always feel comfortable doing when you get older. That’s always there in Destroyer songs. There’s always something dogmatic about them, but it’s usually couched in a lot of other images. I don’t know if it’s the simplicity of these songs, or the lack of word count, or what it is, but they don’t sound like Poison Season, which was a more intimate and rambling record. These ones seem to be harping on certain facts. Constantly, in almost every song, there’s three or four themes that come up: madness, or disease, or violence, or decadence and depravity, and how all of those things can be tied together using some overlapping terms. And usually there’s a specific voice or narrator, maybe there’s one or two, and they sing from a place of isolation, or craving isolation, or some form of wandering away from a song or a world that’s hostile.
Since you bring up decadence and depravity, I was going to ask you about the song “La Regle Du Jeu.” I assume it’s titled after the film by Renoir, which paints a picture of bourgeois decadence on the eve of the great crisis of World War II. Do you see that condition reflected in our world today?
I don’t see that as a topical song, but when I first wrote it, it did have an “All Along the Watchtower” vibe. Now, “All Along the Watchtower” is an interesting song. People sometimes see it as a protest song, but it’s really just a series of images, which–for some reason, when you put them all together–summon up something terrible looming on the horizon. That’s how “La Regle Du Jeu” is built.
It’s built from the title down, which is something I never do–titles come way, way after the fact. This one, I just started singing the words over and over again, like you said before, in almost a mantra way. And I derived a lot of pleasure from that singing, but it was a strange pleasure. It was kind of creepy. I was really into that phrase, “The rules of the game.” At one point I was even thinking of titling the album that: The Rules of the Game. It sounds really different to me in English than it does in French. For some reason, “The rules of the game” felt so ominous. And I don’t know if that was always the case, or if that’s just the case in 2017. But it summed up something terrible, some imminent, violent, overarching collapse.
But then, the Renoir. That movie is so weird, you know? His aesthetic is so strange, because it is pessimistic and damning, but there’s a lightness to it, and a dreamlike quality. I can never even remember what happens in the movie. I like that duality. I think, for better or for worse, Destroyer songs are also trapped in that mode.
That imagistic quality of “All Along the Watchtower” as a protest song contrasts in an interesting way with what you mentioned earlier about the songs on ken having that element of youthful extremism. Recently, some friends and I were talking about our frustration with the way that a lot of political music and art today feels a need to be didactic, strident, polemical about its viewpoint. It’s a relief to hear a new Destroyer album, because–to me, at least–your music never feels that way. It never guides you by the hand about interpretation.
This sounds gross, but to me it’s just a pleasure principle. That kind of writing is just not fun. I just don’t get off on that. I don’t end up in a place that I like. And I don’t like narrators that are particularly trustworthy. I think a lot can be said for putting words, images, inside of an evil mouth, and seeing what that sounds like.
Let’s say in the last year or two, there’s been a spate of new political music, which just hasn’t been the case in quite some time. But the idea that the world that we live in right now, the situation that America’s in for example, is some wildfire from out of nowhere that’s gotten out of control, is insane and dangerous to me. I’ve always seen it as a slow, steady crawl towards this very specific point on the horizon, which is where things are at now. It’s the violent conclusion of things. I don’t know if that’s just romantic despair, or if it’s just how I’ve always seen it. But if I was going to write towards something political, it would be that feeling.
People seem to have forgotten that George W. Bush was the president, like, eight years ago.
Yeah. It’s a strange blank. And there’s all sorts of confusing blank spots that come up when discussing what a pile of shit America is right now. I really don’t want to throw my two cents in. Because one thing that I discovered, and was really hammered home when I got in a car in Spokane a year ago, and drove to Florida, and up to Pittsburgh, and flew home, with the main purpose of playing these songs in front of people, and going back to my hotel room and demoing them and figuring them out. Because that’s something that I’ve heard of people doing, trying out new material on the road in front of people. I’ve heard about this myth for decades and could never in my life picture it, and I wanted to try it, so I did. I think that informed some of the music somehow, though I’m not sure how–but the one thing I decided is that America–I’m part American–is a mystery to me still. There’s forces at work that I don’t understand, that for most of my life I thought I did. In that sense, I don’t really value my own commentary too much.
What about that trip gave you that feeling, of not understanding America?
I don’t really know, it was more just a sensation. It could just be being older, and feeling more removed from the world in general. But I always thought I had my finger on it, that I could understand it, understand the angles, and I just don’t think I do. I was also really taken aback by how beautiful some of the drives were. It’s like, ‘Wow, what a pretty country,’ constantly coupled with, ‘Wow, this country is fucked.’ A forced three weeks by myself in the car, you know? And when you do that, and maybe you have the Doors playing, it’s a foul brew.
Not that the Doors are foul, at all. In fact, I feel their presence on this record in a big way.
There are a few lyrics that jumped out to me on the record. The whole of “Sometimes in the World,” the line about “Dear young revolutionary capitalists” on “Sky’s Grey,” “The girl thinks you are a blonde Che Guevara” on “Cover From the Sun.” It feels like there’s something about a political ideal that’s been sold out, some beautiful, utopian thing that has been lost to a crass world around it. Were those sorts of things that you were thinking about when you were writing?
Probably. Those kinds of things aren’t strangers to Destroyer songs, but they seem to be more constant on this album, more exposed. “Sky’s Grey” was maybe the first song I wrote, going into this record. Lyrically, in a lot of ways, it’s the one I’m most attached to. Once in a few years, I write what I think is a sort of state of the union address–the state of the union meaning, like, Destroyer-world. That one I think is one of them. I like to sing it. I was singing it a lot on that tour I just told you about.
It’s a strange song. It starts off at a gray remove, dour and drizzly, something that revels in canceling the world, or canceling a parade. (The song’s opening lyric is: “Sky’s grey / Call for rain / Every day / You cancel the parade.”) Especially in this day and age, could there be anything more menacing than a parade? And then there’s a lift to the song, where it takes off, and cackles and revels in its own delight, in its own absurdity. That’s something that I’ve always liked. The world is fucked, but just romanticize. Find beauty in this dance with death. Like the end of The Seventh Seal, where they all link hands and dance off on the hill, into the horizon, with the grim reaper. It’s not a negative image, somehow. It’s not a feel-good image, but there’s something intoxicating about it.
That song in particular, it’s a surprise to hear that it was just written on a guitar. There are the drum machines, the big break in the middle of it.
That stuff came as a surprise to me. This is the first record that really feels like a producer swept in. More than half of the songs are unrecognizable to me, when you listen to the demos I made last fall. And much of that is just [producer Josh Wells’] aesthetic, and his vision. We talked a bit about the era of music that I was thinking about, some of the sounds, and I knew that was something that he could dial in. But still, the record became much more minimal, as far as Destroyer goes, and in a cold, dark, percussive way. Some songs, to me, are as close to goth as Destroyer is probably ever going to get. Maybe that’s why I was talking about a certain teenage sensibility. Maybe that’s wrong of me to associate goth vibes with teenage vibes, I don’t know.
Did you make a conscious decision not to work on the latest New Pornographers album?
Yeah, I did. I knew I wanted to put out a record this year, I knew they were going to put a record out this year, and I knew there was no way I was going to do both. I was definitely not going to tour both. Even aside from the pragmatics of that, I was sitting down, looking at what I was writing, and I just didn’t hear a New Pornographers song. Also, being conscious of the aesthetics and the vibe that they were going for with the new record, I just didn’t hear it. For the last few albums, if I had a New Pornographers song, I thought it would be really fun to make one and sing one. But I wanted to write specifically towards that band, and this time I just didn’t have anything I wanted to record with them.
Have you listened to it?
Yeah, I have. They were just in town, in Vancouver, and I got up and sang a couple of songs with them. It was fun.
An open-ended final question: Do you feel like you accomplished what you set out to do with ken?
Yeah, I feel like I accomplished it in spades. But I also have a really hard time embracing any sense of accomplishment in general, in the world. I don’t really like it. I really like the record, but I try not to feel pride. There’s always things that I would, in retrospect, try to do different. Question this, or question that. But I really enjoyed the process of making it, and it feels really different to me. On most levels, it’s a curious record. I’m kind of wondering where it came from, and wondering whether I’ll ever make something like that again. I’m eager to get onstage and mangle these songs, which is a good sign, I think.