All due respect to the Ryan Adamses and Bob Pollards of the world, but few artists are able to be both super-prolific and stunningly consistent. Dan Bejar is just such an artist. Over the last two years, he’s provided his loyal fan base with a steady stream of off-kilter power pop (with The New Pornographers), chaotic art rock (with Swan Lake), and left-field electronic experimentation (Destroyer’s Archer on the Beach single from last year), all without releasing a proper follow-up to 2008’s Trouble in Dreams. That follow-up — Kaputt, Bejar’s ninth LP as Destroyer — is coming Jan. 25, and it proves, once again, that Bejar has no intention of staying put creatively. We spoke to Bejar, via e-mail, about his notoriously dense lyrics, his musical influences, and Kaputt‘s recording process.
There’s a line on Kaputt that goes “I write poetry for myself.” People will always try to grasp the “actual” meaning of your lyrics, something you’ve said time and again is sort of besides the point. Is that line a comment on that, or am I engaging in the same sort of futile analysis that plagues most Destroyer reviews?
I’m into the point, just not the grasping. Just constantly at odds with critical definitions of “actual” and “meaning,” I say critical cause I think in the normal day-to-day use of language people would side with me, but when we sit down to analyze (don’t get me wrong, I dig analysis!), things get weird. The idea of words meaning something as opposed to doing something. As opposed to the effect they create. I look for the latter in all art forms, and if it’s not there I tune out, which is why I have a hard time caring about who does what or what happens next. I always think of it (up until this record) in terms of function. And then how I really probably think of it is just purely emotional, or instinctual, the physical effect that art has on us. Like the feeling of being clocked in the jaw by a line in a book or a song or a film, where you just have to stop what you’re doing and reel for awhile.
“I write poetry for myself” might be a survival instinct for someone who thinks that poetry is dead to the world, and therefore they are dead to the world. A super noble and doomed instinct, in my books….
I don’t know what any of this has to do with Kaputt lyrics, the most confusingly literal set of lyrics I’ve ever put together. As if it came to me in a series of very straight dreams. Or death-bed memoirs.
You’ve said that the first kind of music you ever seriously got into, as a kid, was U.K. New Wave stuff, and there’s a definite New Order vibe on Kaputt tracks like “Savage Night at the Opera” and “Kaputt.” Why is that particular influence showing up in your music now? Do you still find inspiration in the music you listened to as a kid?
I first got into the act of making music through american indie rock, like Guided By Voices (shorthand for Richard Davies) and Pavement (shorthand for Silver Jews). And when that happened a lot of stuff that I was into as a teen got kicked to the sidelines, for 10 to 15 years. And I listened to mostly indie rock, or classic rock of the English variety, with a lot of Dylan and Lou Reed thrown in for good measure. But for some reason, in the last couple years, as that music was feeling a little more exhausted to me and I got more into instrumental music whether it be ambient standards like Eno and Harold Budd and Ryuichi Sakamoto (is that ambient?) or jazz standards (I say standards ’cause seriously a lot of Mile Davis and John Coltrane, which I guess is like being really into reading, but only reading Shakespeare), I also got more into the music of my youth.
I actually had very little exposure to rave music while it was happening, or Soul II Soul for that mattter, but I remember always really liking a lot of what I would hear. I was psycho for Manchester music, and then what got termed shoegaze music, which I guess is any band whose influences can be traced to the band The Jesus and Mary Chain. Screamadelica was another massive album for me.
I didn’t specifically think about any of those records when making this album, aside from maybe Durrutti Column’s role in the manchester sound. Or Primal Scream’s choice of producers, or their love of Sun Ra. Or a couple early electronic singles. I guess I started thinking about music that I liked before I gave a shit about lyrics, an idea whose germ can be found in the early songs of Stephen Malkmus, were I to be honest with everyone/myself.
New Order has always been a huge influence. You can really hear it in small isolated spots on every Destroyer record from This Night onwards. To me they are like the Rolling Stones, the way they build a song from the shakiest of parts. Also, Bernard’s always been one of my favorite singers.
Also, I followed Bryan Ferry into his post-Siren work for the first time, and was oddly completely sucked into certain aspects of that world, especially Avalon, Boys and Girls, maybe Bete Noire. I also thought about This Is Not America and the soundtrack to The Falcon and the Snowman, and thought about Pat Metheny for the first time ever. But this is less relevant.
I’ve also had a real thing for the Style Council for the last few years, which maybe I did less than ever to disguise. And he was not on my radar till I got into my 30s … weird even talking about it.
And David Sylvian’s influence became formidable once again, though you could probably sense that on Your Blues, or maybe not….
There are some songs on Kaputt that could be interpreted as vaguely political (“Suicide Demo for Kara Walker,” in particular), but I don’t want to overanalyze. So I’ll just ask: What’s with, say, a line like “as proud Americans”? What with your being Canadian, and all.
The lyrics on “Suicide Demo For Kara Walker” were co-written with Kara Walker, and I don’t think it is outlandish to say that there is a heavy political element to her work. As for Destroyer, even the tenderest love song always exists with the backdrop of a nation in flames, or in rubble. Which is not unromantic. I wonder if nostalgia always exists hand-in-hand with a sadness or exhaustion with the current state of the world. A point you reach where the present seems as distant to you as the past. Destroyer music is always unsatisfied with the state of things, even if Dan Bejar is cool with the world.
You’ve said that Trouble in Dreams was one of the hardest albums for you to record. Was Kaputt any easier? How did the process differ?
Also hard, but for different reasons. I think I had a really hard time singing some of the songs on Trouble In Dreams, even though I was really into all the seperate parts. I really had to work at it, aside from the typically drunken rave-ups that sounded most like us as a band playing (“The State,” “Plaza Trinidad,” “Leopard of Honor”) and not-coincidentally turned out the best. On Kaputt I sang in a completely different manner, almost unconscious of even singing, more like speaking into a vacuum, and was really happy with the results without even thinking about it. Probably ’cause I’m currently really into the sound of ease. But because the music was built up bit by bit from scratch, it was tough to make sense of a lot of what was going on. And sometimes it seemed a real challenge to fit in a lot of initially disparate-seeming ideas. Kaputt took about 10 times as long to record as any other Destroyer album, in large part due to our leisurely recording schedule. But also because “fucking around” is somewhere at the very heart of this album. Or maybe not fucking around, but wandering around.
You’re slated to tour the U.S. and Canada with an eight-piece orchestra next year. Does that mean the more electronic-based songs on Kaputt will be given a full-band makeover a la the Your Blues tour? And, if so, may we expect a Notorious Lightning-style EP anytime soon?
Well, the palette for the 10 songs on Kaputt is shockingly consistent, for the most part. And the band is, for the most part, the people who played on the album, so maybe the rhythm section will be slightly groovier, and maybe the soloists (trumpet, lead guitar, sax) will lay in a little harder, but it should be consistent with the spirit of the record. As opposed to the Frog Eyes incarnation of Your Blues, which was all about killing the thing we loved.
Kaputt explores sounds and styles that are far removed from the (relatively) straightforward rock of Rubies and Troubles in Dreams. What compels you, as an artist, to be constantly changing, and what sorts of things spur that change?
Well, probably because I’m not a real musician (the guitar or piano is purely a tool for composing, as far as I’m concerned — no part of me can actually be expressed through the playing of those instruments. A cruel trick god played on me!), I have no real attachment to specific instrumental attacks. And so when I listen to a Miles Davis record, or a Jon Hassel record, or certain songs off Pet Shop Boys’ Behaviour, or the approach to percussion on Avalon, or certain Michael Mann soundtracks, I get excited by it and want a piece of it. As for sax, I’ve always loved it, and have always longed for its inclusion, whether secretly or in the cold light of day, on Destroyer records. It’s all over Lou Reed records or Stones records. Also, bands like Bark Psychosis or Primal Scream didn’t blink at the idea of having trumpet solos or sax solos blaze.
And all that being said, all the elements that you’re probably referring to, aside from Sibel’s back-up vocals, which are a raging first, are hinted at on other Destroyer albums. They are just particularly muscular on Kaputt. Especially cause the lyrics and singing exist in a more ambient, less orating space, so there’s more room for things to go wild.
As you’re not a member of their touring band, what’s your involvement with a New Pornographers record after you’ve helped record it?
It might be selfish to ask this, seeing as how you’ve released an inhuman amount of music in the last few years, but when might we expect the next Bejar-involved album?
I would have to write a song before I could even begin to think about such a thing. Right now I’m focused on the play…