Dan Bejar likes to pause and think. With new studio album Poison Season, Bejar’s 11th under the Destroyer moniker, released this week, there is plenty to talk about, but Bejar is careful in how he expresses himself, even when being flippant. Admirably, he seems to consider even the most basic and transparent question as a serious philosophical challenge.
The new album Poison might be Bejar’s best work to date. It’s certainly one of Destroyer’s most ornate and intricate records, featuring Bejar’s touring band, horns and a string section. With one song (Times Square) split into three parts (more different versions in fact), two bookending the album and one placed in its centre, the whole project has a strong cinematic, storytelling feel, although it soon transpires that Bejar strongly dislikes conceptual or intellectual interpretations of Destroyer’s work.
The one thing that is predictable about Destroyer is that the project is consistently unpredictable. Poison Season therefore eschews the sophisticated smooth pop sheen of Bejar’s previous album Kaputt, instead incorporating baroque flourish, some David Bowie circa Young Americans street cabaret, subtle hints at Afro-Cuban music (particularly on the excellent Forces From Above), atmospheric, loose-limbed funk (Archer On The Beach) and even some Springsteen-esque grandeur (Dream Lover).
However, Bejar is keen to emphasise that Poison Season should not be too surprising to those familiar with the band’s recent work. “A lot of it sounds like the band that plays on it. It’s an actual document of what we sound like. I don’t think anyone who saw us play in 2012 would be that surprised by the sound of it. I had some other ideas that I was going to try and impose on the record but, in the end, they just seemed goofy or forced. Some of these were ideas I had before I had actual songs, which is never a good idea!” Why not? “Plenty of artists often start with an overarching theme or motivation for a project. It becomes a grid that you impose on a song when it might not really want that grid. It’s an unnatural way of working – it’s kinda inhuman. There’s an innate disregard for collaboration when you do it that way.” Bejar clearly regards the band very much as co-creators here, and this is the first sign of his distaste for various critical interpretations of his work.
Destroyer’s music has often been called conceptual. “That’s happened before but they seem to do that because of the lyrics, which I couldn’t disagree with more! The lyrics seem like the least conceptual aspects of the records! Sometimes there’s an overarching sound that I’ve gone for – Kaputt was a good example of that – but this record didn’t work like that. The sounds are pretty disparate, the songs were all different from each other. The natural thing to do seemed to be to just play them with a band that I’ve grown really comfortable and confident singing with. We had a lot of shows under our belt, so I knew we could record it fast. I booked two days of studio time and we just pounded that shit out! Then the other part of the record was just me, my voice, alone with a string quartet.”
This element of the music doesn’t seem to have been highlighted too much in the initial publicity, even though it is many ways the album’s most striking feature. “That’s disappointing to me because that’s really the heart of the record. I know that Dream Lover is the first song that got released but I find it to be the least representative. That’s more a product of labels wanting to put out upbeat songs. I like that song, don’t get me wrong – it came about in a very thoughtless way. It has a distinct sonic quality compared to the rest of the record. It seems like a Destroyer novelty song, but those are often the songs people gravitate towards – there are examples of that on other Destroyer records too.”
“I think I actually left off the two catchiest songs, just because they didn’t feel like they fit. They weren’t morose enough…”
– Dan Bejar
Is he ever tempted to abandon such songs? “There were songs I left off this record. I think I actually left off the two catchiest songs, just because they didn’t feel like they fit. They weren’t morose enough. They didn’t feel like a part of those songs. With Dream Lover, even though it’s upbeat, there’s still a dark, rankling quality to it – it’s like a death song, a sickness song. It might not be something anyone else would pick up on – there’s a snarling quality to it, I don’t see the sunshine in that song.” Although the darkness in the song might not easily cut through its theatrical arrangement, it is certainly there in the lyrics (“You’re sick in the head, you’d love a dog to play dead”) and Bejar’s Bob Dylanesque biting vocal enhances the juxtaposition of exhilaration and darkness.
Bejar uses the word ‘morose’ more than once to describe his current batch of songs. Is there not a risk that some people might find this a bit negative? “I don’t know – it’s a mood that exists in the world. You can’t really put a positive or a negative to it. I don’t think it sounds like a depressed record, but I wanted it to. It’s undeniably a darker record than Kaputt – I don’t think it serves the same function that Kaputt does. I don’t think it would exist in a public space as comfortably as Kaputt did. To me, it seems like a highly personal record, not because I’m telling some story about myself, but just the general mood of it. When I made Kaputt, I specifically wanted it to be *consumed*. I wanted it to work in a cafe, in an airport lounge – I wanted you to be able to get your haircut to it. I wanted it to have that public service vibe. I was thinking about ambience in that way.”
If Kaputt was Bejar’s attempt at creating ‘public service’ music, is Poison Season his attempt at literary narrative or rock opera? The three versions of Times Square involve some interesting sounding characters with Biblical names, including Jacob and Jesus. “I know I say their names on Times Square but I don’t really see myself speaking in another voice on that song,” Bejar protests. “The band did a really rock n’ roll version that I wasn’t really expecting – I was expecting to go with the stark, austere version. The band version definitely made me think of a ’70s Lou Reed quality, which definitely involves talking about people by their first name, especially people like Jesus.”
However, he does concede that I might have a point in relation to a different song. “The song Bangkok is one of the more important songs to me. It does feel that I stumbled on a speaking voice other than my own there, maybe for the first time ever…” How did that come about, particularly if he feels it is unprecedented? “I don’t know… I’m not sure how it happened. All the writing happens in a very instinctive, unconscious way – but when I stepped back, it seemed to be a character that was quite consistently constructed from beginning to end, I think because musically and lyrically it’s in a world very foreign from my own. It seemed to be a fallen character, an amoral character – maybe a killer or a pimp. Someone who is trying to turn things around, people on their death beds, that sort of thing.” This certainly seems to fit neatly with Bejar’s view of the album as ‘morose’ and dark.
“Scott Walker is someone I’ve been generally been obsessed with for the last 20 years of my life…”
– Dan Bejar
Bangkok is one of the album’s lush, richly orchestrated moments, with a lingering sadness as well as a dramatic quality. Many have picked up on the influence of Bowie or Bruce Springsteen, but some different musicians that spring to mind on listening to Poison Season, particularly on this song. There’s Bill Fay, now a labelmate of Bejar’s on Dead Oceans, an eccentric songwriter who collaborated with the great arranger Mike Gibbs on his first album. There’s also Scott Walker, an enigmatic figure but one who luxuriates in darkness and drama.
Bejar becomes more animated. “I love Bill Fay! When I heard the first Bill Fay record and Time Of The Last Persecution, I thought maybe God had made two records with me in mind. A lot of other people think that of course, but the music spoke to me in such a direct way. Scott Walker is someone I’ve been generally been obsessed with for the last 20 years of my life. I’ve always thought about doing orchestral music – even when I was doing Your Blues (2003 Destroyer album heavily characterised by synth string pads), which I know is very synthetic sounding and some people think is cartoonish, in my mind I tried to speak those higher things. I tried to aspire to them.”
“Listening to music is the most important thing there is – definitely more important than making it.”
– Dan Bejar
Bejar feels there is actually a consistent thread through his work that might be culminating with Poison Season. “I think this record has been brewing for longer than some people might think. I’ve been working up to it. I don’t think I’ve been confident as a vocalist – maybe confident isn’t the word. I’ve been a confident singer before, but erroneously so.” This seems oddly humble and self critical for such an acclaimed artist. “I don’t mind getting it wrong, that doesn’t concern me. I like glorious failures. But sometimes I’ve listened to things years later and think ‘that’s not what I had in mind’. Now I feel like with this record I finally sound myself – it’s much closer to my intentions.”
Is not achieving his intentions something that sustains Bejar, given that he is now on his 11th album? “I think it keeps me going. I never really feel like I’m nailing it. I never really walk away feeling my work here is done. It’s often frustrating. I’m not a musician…” That is a big statement. Bejar might have largely abandoned his guitar playing for now (at least with Destroyer), but is the voice not an instrument? “I think the voice is an instrument but it took me a while to get past the idea that my particular voice is an instrument – this was an absurd idea. For a long time, I just revelled in the absurdity because I liked that, and I could use that. I liked the idea of just spewing. But at some time, I wanted to stop spewing and just become part of the music. I definitely got to be a better singer the minute I stopped playing the guitar. I think I’m a better listener – that’s kind of what my main job is really, just listening to what people are doing. Listening to music is the most important thing there is – definitely more important than making it.”
Bejar is clearly a committed listener, having absorbed a wide range of music. What started him on this journey? “Oh, that’s easy. New wave, no competition. I was a typical mid-’80s John Hughes soundtrack person. Echo & The Bunnymen, The Cure, all that shit. When Psychocandy came out, it was all over for me. I think this was mostly visual – y’know, big curly hair. I love the marriage of melody and noise but I don’t listen to that record very much any more. I listened to it 1,000 times as a teenager.” Is his movement between musical spaces connected with his background, having moved around a lot as a child? “I don’t really know. I’m not steeped in any particular culture, that could have something to do with it. I’m not a master guitar player so I’m not entrenched in one style. Some people bring a very specific quality or sound to what they do. I don’t have that. I like too many things – everything captures my imagination in music, except for country music.” Why does Bejar single out country music for disdain? “I don’t like the chord progressions or the vocal melodies,” he explains. “They’re too circular. They always come full circle too fast.” Isn’t Harlan Howard’s famous definition that it is ‘three chords and the truth’ pretty accurate? “I don’t mind that but it just depends which three chords! There are a punk songs I like. I like two chords. I like one chord more than three chords. I’m way more in to that.”
“When I read something I really like, it’s like someone punches me in the face. I’ll throw the book across the room…”
– Dan Bejar
That said, Bejar clearly likes to keep an open mind. “I’ll try it all. Music changes your words so much that it’s really exciting as a writer to see things fall apart or grow into something else when the musical map that you’re working with changes. That’s what it’s all about, I don’t really know how you stay interested otherwise. Some people just have a very pure voice and pure vision. I envy that. There’s great players and great singers, but the songs don’t really grab me.” Again, this seems to emphasise the importance of interaction and collaboration in Bejar’s own musical vision.
Everything Bejar has said seems to dismiss the notion of his work as abstract, surreal or impressionistic, or that it should take time to appreciate fully. He explains this further. “I have a very visceral reaction with music and all art. When I read something I really like, it’s like someone punches me in the face. I’ll throw the book across the room, it’s a physical reaction. When I hear a piece of music that blows me away, it usually happens right away. The idea that Destroyer is intellectual, or abstract, or that it takes a few listens to sink in, it’s like little daggers to my heart, because I don’t work that way. I want everyone to experience art the way I do, but I know that’s impossible!”
With this desire in mind, what would be the ideal listener reaction to Poison Season? “All I want is for people’s life to be changed.” He seems to realise that this sounds a little absurd and laughs. “I know that’s not likely to happen but it’s pointless for me to do these things unless I believe that’s the case. It’s not so much that I have a desire to change people’s lives, I just like art that does that, and I want to make the kind of art that I like.” Long may he continue trying.
Destroyer’s Poison Season is out through Dead Oceans on 28 August 2015. Tour dates and further information can be found here.