Indie

Destroyer’s Dan Bejar Is Indie’s Dark, Twisted Genius

The last we heard from Dan Bejar, it was early 2020 and he was touring behind a spooky and prescient Destroyer album, Have We Met. A sinister work rife with apocalyptic warnings about the future, the album hit almost too close to home when, just over one month after it was released, the world was forced to shut down due to Covid-19.

If the Vancouver native earned some credibility as an oracle on the last Destroyer LP, his latest effort, Labyrinthitis (due out March 25) points in a more upbeat direction. While the lyrics contain some of the darkest lines of Bejar’s career — so dark that Bejar talks about “the singer” on this record in the third person — the music grooves hard, drawing on an unlikely but somehow compatible combination of influences drawn from techno and rave cultures as well as gloomily catchy ’80s English alt-rock bands like New Order and The Cure. It’s similar to the musical palettes utilized on Have We Met and 2017’s Ken — Bejar considers Labyrinthitis the concluding part of a trilogy with those records — but on the new album there’s a greater feeling of exuberance. It surely is the most danceable music Destroyer has yet made.

Bejar’s latest musical direction is informed, in part, by his desire to get back on the road after a two-year break. The physicality of these songs — which, at one point in our interview, he likened (I think seriously) to the German industrial act Rammstein — ought to really pay off in a concert setting. But even on record, Labyrinthitis is yet another example of Bejar’s consistent ability (exhibited over the course of more than 25 years) to make excellent new music that doesn’t repeat what he’s done in the past. Six months shy of his 50th birthday, he remains one of indie’s most interesting, vital, and unique voices.

He’s also, despite his dour image, a very funny conversationalist, which I discovered yet again when we connected recently over Zoom to talk about Labyrinthitis, Van Morrison’s bonkers Covid era phase, whether he should make a bluesy Americana record, and his grumpy reputation.

Pitchfork once called you indie rock’s most lovable curmudgeon. Do you take that as a compliment?

[Pauses] No, I don’t.

Why do you think you are considered a curmudgeon? I’ve interviewed you before, and I don’t really feel like you are. I think you’re a pretty funny guy actually, but where do you think that perception comes from?

I don’t know. Maybe it has different meanings to different generations. It could even have a different meaning to an American person versus an English person, or someone in between like a Canadian person.

I don’t see myself as grumpy. Maybe that’s what I am, or that’s how I come off, which is unfortunate. I think there was a time when I was younger that I got off on being critical of things and trying to voice that in a poetic way, in a way that didn’t usually show up in rock songs. But I’m not sure it was any more than, say, a Mott The Hoople song.

I would say I’ve noticed there’s a general posi — to use the language of the kids — like a posi vibe out there on the internet and in media in general. So maybe I don’t fit in, or maybe it just stands out like that. Maybe I’m negative. I don’t know.

To be fair, they did also say “lovable.”

I don’t see being negative and being curmudgeonly as being the same thing. Curmudgeonly is more like those two dudes in the Muppets up in the balcony.

I think you’re right that there has been a shift to a kind of sanctioned positivity, especially about mainstream culture. Whereas in the past, making fun of mainstream culture made you discerning, rather than curmudgeonly.

I have a lot of what would still be seen as kind of ’90s stances or hangups, which I guess would be seen as curmudgeonly. But to me they’re just what me and my scene took for granted as being normal ways of looking at the world, and maybe it’s really outdated and actually maybe there is shit wrong with it. But it’s kind of the natural place that I come from, you know?

At this point in your life, do you feel pressure or an obligation to keep up? Do you follow the news closely? Do you try to watch the most zeitgeist-y movies or television shows?

I’ve always been really into discovering new music, new movies, new books, to the point where if I don’t find something that speaks to me out there, I get kind of depressed. But there’s a slew records that just came out. For instance, there’s this movie that is getting a lot of attention that came out last year called Drive My Car. I saw it a month or two ago and the soundtrack came out recently, and I feel like I’ve been playing it every single day. I love it. Aside from that, the Cate Le Bon record that just came out, it’s really good.

I really didn’t start looking at the news until around March 13, 2020. And then, like everyone, I started being slightly obsessive about it. I’m coming out of that a little bit.

Your new album is called Labyrinthitis, which I assumed at first was a made-up word. But then I Googled it and learned that it’s a term for an inflammation of the inner ear. Why did you name your album after an inflammation of the inner ear?

I was in a bit of a health spiral. I was suffering at one point last year from what I thought was a really aggravated case of tinnitus, to the point where my ears were ringing badly. I couldn’t really listen to music. I wasn’t really reading. It even affected my vision. I would get bouts of vertigo, which I still seem to be having a little bit.

I was like, “What the fuck is this?” And I looked it up, and I remember looking at the word and being like, “This seems fake.” It seemed like a word that Kafka would make up, an invented affliction.

All Destroyer titles are usually me just liking the look of the word. Kaputt was the same way, really independent of its meaning. But increasingly with this record, as we worked on it, I found it more and more disorienting and confusing to me. I felt myself lost inside of it, and I thought that fit well with a word which, when you first look at it, could mean someone who’s addicted to mazes, or someone who chronically takes the wrong turn. Like chronic disorientation. It’s an aggro-disease title that reminded me of Tool or System of a Down. I thought there’d be a couple of songs on the album that might go in that direction. But that wasn’t really the case. There is one that kind of reminds me of Rammstein a little bit.

Which song reminds you of Rammstein?

“Tintoretto, It’s for You.” That seems like very much John Collins running away with a song and me being excited by the momentum of his vision.

But I liked the sound of Labyrinthitis. It could be a prog-metal title, or it could be questionable ’90s electronica, or it could jazz fusion. It seemed to span all these questionable forms, which I like the idea of dabbling in, at least on a words level.

It’s interesting that you were going through some health issues while making this album, because I feel like it’s one of your most physical records. The songs really groove to the point where you can actually dance to them.

I really don’t want to play up anything that I was going through because it was a phase and it happened pretty late in the day. The initial conversations I had with John when we first talked about doing a record again — which really came out of nowhere, I wasn’t expecting to do another one with him — was about doing a full-on techno record. Just have a 4/4 beat that runs through Side A, and then another 4/4 beat that runs through Side B. We didn’t do that, but there was a notion to keep the songs fast, and to keep the production in your face. It’s a lot less minimal than Have We Met. There’s really very little downtime. That was the idea from day one — keep things jarring, and to a certain extent, cartoonish.

Why did you initially want to make a techno record?

For a really long time, I’ve thought that a steady beat was my best accompaniment as a singer. Just to have a basic slamming beat with some kind of bass that’s really present in your face, and some sound effects, and me crooning along seems like an easy recipe. But neither one of us listen to techno music and it’s actually a lot harder to do than just saying it out loud, or saying it in a text or an email.

The album also has a New Order/The Cure vibe.

That music is definitely stuff that’s coursing through me, and it’s come out in the last three albums. They’re probably of a piece — Ken, Have We Met, and Labyrinthitis. It just so happened that I landed on John Hughes soundtracks and things like that. And for John, he really liked the idea of going into Art of Noise territory, and the kind of stuff that Trevor Horn would do when it came to arrangements.

I will say — I don’t know if I say this with every album — but I will say this record is the most distant from what our starting point was. Some of the songs, I don’t exactly know where they come from.

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I don’t know if “optimistic” is the right word, but Labyrinthitis certainly seems more upbeat than Have We Met.

Have We Met had a strict mandate. The main mantra was keep it dark, keep it depressing, and be more depressing.

For this one, it was more Spike Jones, more Carl Stalling. Just more absurdist and more aggro. That being said, I find it to be maybe the darkest Destroyer record when I listen to it as a whole. The singer seems to be at least 60 percent of the time singing from the vantage point of a petty villain, or an evil sidekick. Just not a likable person. Someone who insults children and points at people and revels in their pain. That’s a strange character to sing from. I feel like that’s a kind of a persona that’s creeped into Destroyer songs in the past, in lines here and there, but it has never been so sustained as on this album.

It’s definitely dark, but there’s an exuberance to it. You see villains on-screen and there’s usually something electric about their presence. Labyrinthitis has that same vibe.

I find the exuberance mixed with what I’m actually saying to be even more disconcerting. Like the song “Suffer,” it’s about suffering, murder, terrible acts. But the music has this mid-’90s Glastonbury vibe, which is unsettling to me. It almost makes what I’m saying, instead of cautionary, downright immoral. Like an immoral song. As opposed to a song like “Kinda Dark” off Have We Met, which was foreboding and kind of nightmarish, but also the music reflected that. It wasn’t a party anthem about terrible shit.

Before you talked about “the singer” on this record in the third person. Do you normally separate yourself from what you’re doing on Destroyer records? Or is this record a unique case?

It’s hard to say. Definitely there are songs where I feel like I’m assuming a voice, by collecting a certain style of words or collecting a certain group of images that I take on. I sing it from a kind of persona I don’t totally recognize as myself. Maybe I’m doing that more and more, which is kind of disconcerting.

The first song [“It’s In Your Heart Now”] is kind of dreamy and in a lot of ways very heartfelt. And the last song [“The Last Song”] is supposed to be a tonic, like a palate cleanser, even though it’s really solemn. In between is all this stuff that is more like what we were talking about. Like characters in a crumbling world. The second to last song is filled with autobiographical stuff, probably moreso than any song I’ve ever written. But I don’t know if that makes it necessarily personal.

You’re referring to “The States.”

It’s very much about being stuck at some bus station in the middle of nowhere, lying your way across the border, packing your bags and splitting from Montreal, packing your bags and splitting for Spain, thinking that your life will somehow be different but it’s not.

You were in the middle of a tour when Covid hit. How did you feel about being on lockdown?

Every year I become more hermetic and so I was like, “Oh, I can do this standing on my head.” But I probably was accumulating anxiety in ways that I didn’t know. You know, just thinking about sickness more than I ever have, thinking about things that I’m really attached to that I could never do or see again. Just the world all of a sudden becoming a very strange and disorienting place, which is something I’ve always liked to write about. In a lot of ways, Have We Met scans as a Covid record way more than this one. Even thought it was written and made before I knew what Covid was.

To be crass and superficial about it — considering the kind of loss of life and just the amount of pain that the last two years has caused — in Destroyer world, the tour was going really well. Probably our best tour. I haven’t been in a room with those guys for two years now. That part was a drag. I started to wonder if I’d ever see a live show again, let alone play one. The more the world dabbled in normalcy in opening up, I was like, “Who the fuck cares?” If I can’t wander into a random bar and see a bunch of people making noise up on a stage, the world doesn’t interest me that much. I don’t care if you can go play racketball or whatever.

I was starting to become really embittered at that idea. I hope the singer —I will refer to that person on Labyrinthitis as “the singer” — doesn’t come across as too embittered because that can come off as curmudgeonly.

The physicality of this record suggests to me that you made it with the hope of playing these songs live in front of an audience.

I wasn’t interested in making a record that reflected any kind of solitary existence. I don’t think the record sounds like someone really embracing society, but it definitely embraces cacophony and I’m ready for volume, even though it might make me fall down. I think I was really fetishizing those things.

The record is kind of complicated. I actually don’t know how we’re going to do it, but I do know that the band has it in them to do it. I know that they’re hungry for it, so I’m pretty excited about it. I will say the last two years has made me realize how important the live experience is. Even if it is just us in a room by ourselves, playing music with people is increasingly more important to me. I think my rep was I was really shy about it, and I do still have anxiety around it. But I think about playing songs with people all the time.

I thought it was interesting that the documentary about the Have We Met tour seems to show every aspect of tour life except playing live. It seems like a deliberately boring film.

I didn’t have anything to do with the making of that movie. I think when [director David] Galloway first said that he wanted to do it, I was like, “Well, you have to stay out of the band’s face, so you can’t come backstage. And you can’t come on the bus, and you have to do it as if you were going to do it whether I said you could do it or not. It has to be a guerilla operation.” The only music in it is us trying to learn Lou Reed’s “Ecstasy” during a soundcheck, and I don’t even know if you see us.

The dramatic high point of the film is you eating a sandwich.

That’s the one staged thing. That was like, “We’re going to film you eating a sandwich. Are you cool with that?” I was like, “Okay, this I’m going to give to you.” And I ordered a Philly cheesesteak in Philadelphia and ate it.

The drama for me was, “Is he going to finish the Diet Coke or not?” And I think you left about a quarter of the Diet Coke in the bottle.

I definitely suffered for my art during that scene.

I know you’re a fan of Van Morrison, so I’m curious if you listened to his most recent album, Latest Record Project, Volume 1, and if you had any thoughts on it.

I haven’t listened to it. Aside from being blown away by the title, which struck me as magnificent, I’m trying not to be on the side of that guy right now. Just because I don’t know if it’s any good; surely it can’t be as good as Born to Sing: No Plan B. Also, if I put it on there are people in my house who would just unplug the stereo and throw it out the window, because, you know, fuck that guy. The last thing we need is more rich old men just spreading contempt in the world.

I will say, as someone who has heard it, that if you ignore the lyrics his voice sounds really good.

His vocals in his senior years, his senior discount years, they’re good. It’s undeniable.

As artists like Van Morrison and Bob Dylan have gotten older, they’ve leaned more into traditional music styles: blues, folk, country. You’ve never delved into that kind of music. Do you have any interest in ever experimenting with those ancient forms?

I think about it sometimes, but just as a way to get played on NPR, honestly. As someone now turning 50, as a mature musician, if I just keep on cranking out new wave art-rock records, I’ll probably be punished for it. It’s fun to plug myself, the few times I’ve done it, into uncanny situations. So I guess that would mean making a rockabilly record.

There are a couple of bluesy songs I’ve tried to write in the past, probably when I was deep under the spell of Bob Dylan or Van Morrison. It’d be kind of funny to steer into that. Every second that I don’t somehow turn this aging outfit into a roots or folk band is literally endangering the life of my daughter. I’m literally stealing food from her mouth. The sooner I do that, I’m sure the better. At least as far as American and U.K. music scenes are concerned. There’s no real path forward if I don’t somehow take on a gentle rootsy form of music. Unless I just go full U2, but you have to be a stadium act to do that.

I think you have another 10 years.

Age 60 is the new 50?

Exactly. At that point, however, you’ll have to start wearing a fedora on stage. But you’ll otherwise be grizzled enough to pull off a bluesy turn.

For me, the more feasible angle, and something I’ve kind of gotten into recently, which is not music I’ve listened to since I was a teenager, would be Tom Waits. “Tintoretto, It’s for You” really was supposed to be more like a Tom Waits song, just run through a distortion pedal. It ended up being something else. But if you actually isolate the vocal, and if you actually heard the original electric piano that I play, you’d be like, “Oh yeah, that’s kind of like Bejar doing Small Change or Blue Valentine.” It just kind of disappeared in our treatment of the song, but I might have my revenge on the band and do a bunch of songs like that, where they just have to play it in barfly mode.

All kidding aside: Do you see yourself still making records when you’re in your 70s?

I picture myself doing something, and I do like playing with a band, and I like recording music. I just feel like there’s stuff that I write that doesn’t get used because it makes no sense as song language. Maybe someday I’d like to steer into that. I just don’t really know-how. There’s also music that I tool around with that doesn’t come out as verse-chorus kind of songs. I don’t know what to do with that.

I’m still in this mode of singing, and thinking of myself as a singer-songwriter, which is good because I’m kind of traditional that way. But at the same time, it would be cool to bust out of that in a deranged, old man kind of way.

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