Destroyer: The Mad Genius of Dan Bejar

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Dan Bejar sounds remarkably relaxed for a man in the midst of releasing a new album and preparing to embark on a major US tour — all within the next two months. The famously prolific songwriter and charismatic founder and frontman of Destroyer has been linked to more than a half-dozen bands.

On this February afternoon, he’s sitting in his Vancouver apartment, reviewing the laundry list of side projects and collaborations he’s recently worked on. For the time being, Bejar’s musical endeavors are limited to a handful of projects: in addition to Destroyer, he is part of the so-called Canadian supergroups the New Pornographers (alongside AC Newman and Neko Case) and Swan Lake (alongside Spencer Krug of Wolf Parade and Sunset Rubdown and Carey Mercer of From Eyes); as well as a spot with Hello Blue Roses, the quiet folk-pop group fronted by Bejar’s girlfriend Sydney Vermont. It’s an intimidatingly full plate, but Bejar seems unfazed.

“It’s all pretty well-defined, you know? The Pornos and Swan Lake involve me coughing up 3 or 4 songs every two years apiece, and I kind of just show up and teach them the songs and sing, but I’m generally not around for the mixing process. With Hello Blue Roses, I get pretty hands-on in the studio with that, but it’s still a pretty stripped down project. And I don’t write the songs, so that part doesn’t fall on my shoulders. Really, as far as my own stuff goes, it’s just Destroyer that I’m there to you know, deliver,” he admits, before revealing the secret to his inner calm: “It’s not like I’m on the road much — that’s the kind of stuff that keeps bands busy and burns a lot of people out. I can’t even form a sentence on the road — I can’t even read a book. Destroyer tours a really minimal amount [and] Swan Lake hasn’t toured recently.”

He’s got a point — Destroyer’s tour schedule has always been sparse, and even during their last tour in support of their groundbreaking 2006 record Rubies, the band elected to co-headline most of their gigs with Magnolia Electric Company. Perhaps against their better judgement, Bejar and his bandmates are preparing for their most ambitious tour yet, serving as headliners in support of Trouble in Dreams, their much-anticipated follow-up to Rubies. The record hits stores in late March, right after the band plays a string of showcases at SXSW, which Bejar fondly deems “a rock and roll Mardi Gras with lots of publicists.”

The subsequent tour, which extends through April and May, will be “pretty intense by Destroyer standards. I’m sure there will be good shows, but I’ve kinda done the circuit a few times. It’s not that I’m jaded or anything, but I kinda get tired of constant touring,” says Bejar. But he concedes,”I like going to Montreal, that’s always nice. I like hanging out in the South,” noting that he recently saw Jim White’s deep South documentary-cum-music video Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus.

I know the chords and the words and the vocal melodies, and on maybe half the songs, I’ll have one or two parts that I’ll throw down on the guitar, but a lot of it is just banging it out in the studio and see what people come up with.

Destroyer has existed in various incarnations, and with various lineups, since 1995, when Bejar recorded the band’s first album, We’ll Build Them A Golden Bridge, in his own house. He was soon joined by John Collins (also of the New Pornographers), but the duo split in 2000 after releasing one joint effort, City of Daughters. Shortly afterwards, Bejar returned to his studio and began releasing solo albums under the Destroyer moniker, quickly developing a reputation as a quirky, deeply imaginative songwriter whose lyrics often read more like the work of a mad, gifted poet rather than those of a musician.

Likewise, Bejar’s melodies have drawn comparison to everyone from David Bowie to Pavement, although attempts to assign Destroyer’s repertoire to a single genre or style are utterly futile. Over the past eight years, Destroyer has released seven albums and acquired an ever-rotating collection of musicians who serve as Bejar’s co-conspirators in the studio and on the road; the current lineup features Bejar, keyboardist Ted Bois, guitarist Nicholas Bragg, bassist Tim Loewen, and drummer/ percussionist Fisher Rose.

While Bejar is the group’s sole lyricist, “the music part of Destroyer is always really collaborative,” he says. “I know the chords and the words and the vocal melodies, and on maybe half the songs, I’ll have one or two parts that I’ll throw down on the guitar, but a lot of it is just banging it out in the studio and see what people come up with.”

Trouble In Dreams encapsulates much of what Bejar’s reputation is built on: songs full of earnest vocal melodies, folk-pop guitars, and swelling organs that form a solid base for the woozy, rambling lyrics that serve as a window into the inner workings of Bejar’s madly churning mind. Heavily saturated in recurring archetypes, Bejar’s words more resemble miniature villanelles rather than rock lyrics, an observation noted by the Merge Records designer, who created a song booklet bearing a strong resemblance to a novella or monograph, rather than a CD insert.

Bejar insists that the thematic content of his work is purely unintentional, explaining “I’m not always conscious of these things, so it takes a while for me to go back and recognize certain patterns. I think with this record, I was trying to ease up on words a bit and focus on images.”

However, in the same breath, he concedes, “I think I probably do [go along a theme], and there’s different times where I’m drawn to words or things… sometimes there’s overlaps in albums, with me referencing old songs – it’s basically me not being done using certain expressions.”

Regardless of Bejar’s opinions on the origins of his words, the musical component of the album remains fully collaborative, almost to the point of chaos. “There’s a couple songs that pretty much sound the way we bashed them out in the studio,” says Bejar, recalling various stages in Trouble In Dreams recording sessions, “but we’d go in with a scarily lack of preconceived notion [about what the songs were supposed to sound like].”

“My Favorite Year,” one of the record’s strongest selections, is an epic collage of memories, building an atonal, droning portrait of guitar feedback before developing into a chugging, soaring melody punctuated by Bejar’s distinctive yelp during the chorus.

Despite the apparent genius behind the song’s construction, Bejar admits “it seemed like a tough one for us to figure out how to play, so we didn’t really figure it out. I think the rhythm section knew how things were supposed to go, but the rest of us didn’t know what to do.” “Blue Flower/Blue Flame,” the record’s opening track, posits Bejar as a Shakespearean philosopher, contemplating “Blue flower/ blue flame/a woman by another name is not a woman,” over a quietly strummed melody.

Truly, this is Bejar (and Destroyer) at its salient best: Bejar’s earnest voice backed by nothing more than a guitar, evoking the band’s early years as a solo endeavor and bringing Bejar’s lyrical prowess to the forefront. Which is not to dismiss the rest of Destroyer as superfluous entities: in songs like “Plaza Trinidad,” frantic keyboards and wailing guitars build off Bejar’s dizzy proclamations of “I was high as a kite! I was never coming home!” Collectively roiling themselves up to a fever pitch, it’s almost as if the entire band is simultaneously experiencing Bejar’s mad ecstasy, and at the same time augmenting it with their own creative contributions.

Even before the Trouble in Dreams tour gets underway, Bejar is already getting restless to work on new material. While his band has been notoriously ephemeral, its lineup has remained consistent since the recording of Rubies. But Bejar expressed doubt about maintaining such a large roster of musicians going into the next record.

“I kind of feel like maybe winding down a certain rock and roll chapter,” he admits. “I can’t imagine the next record that I do being a full band record. I’m kinda getting into self-recording, and recording a full band is something I can’t really fathom right now. [But] I can’t really project more than a couple months ahead – there’s other stuff I wanna try.”

While Bejar may be filled with uncertainty, one thing is for sure: Dan Bejar is the soul of Destroyer. Regardless of what incarnation the band will take in the future — if there even is a band to speak of — Bejar’s perspective and distinctive voice will shine through.