Q&A: Dan Bejar of Destroyer

Destroyer: KaputtDestroyer: Kaputt (Merge, 1/25/11)

Destroyer: “Kaputt”

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With nine full-length albums under his belt as Destroyer, Dan Bejar is still managing to find ways to reinvent his lush, self-coined “European Blues” style. Bejar also has made a name for himself writing songs in a different vein for bands such as The New Pornographers and Swan Lake. ALARM contributor Tom Harrison talks to Bejar about his new album, Kaputt, and what lies ahead.

Kaputt reminded me of Station to Station — not lyrically, but they’re both funk/jazz/electronic-style albums from artists who weren’t generally known for that at release. Which artists influenced you to pursue this style?

[David] Bowie sounds so uptight on Station to Station. Not sure cocaine abuse has to go that way. He sounds way younger than I do on Kaputt. I didn’t listen to that or any of his Berlin records, though I like ’em all to varying degrees. I did think about Bowie for the first time in probably a decade specifically, two songs he did for two very different movies.  In order of importance, they are “This Is Not America” (ft. Pat Metheny) and “Absolute Beginners” (12-inch version).

Avalon and Bryan Ferry‘s ’80s stuff was more of an influence on this record, as well as people who started off as major Roxy [Music] acolytes but shucked off that mantle and became way cooler (David Sylvian and Talk Talk).  And maybe some minor Roxy acolytes, now that I think about it (Blue Nile) the electronic songs “Getting Away With It” and maybe “Disappointed.”  I always liked those in my youth.  Some stuff I’m probably forgetting about…some jazz records, like this one Andrew Hill record whose name I’m forgetting…so good…and a lot of soundtracks.

The songs on Kaputt sound like a definite shift away from the instrumental aesthetics of your earlier work. Was it a conscious decision to write songs that would sound this way?

No, writing for me is unconscious.  You know those movies where the private eye has a little tape recorder that he talks to every once in a while in his car as he spies on people? That’s me. Then an album happens. It was a conscious decision to use the instruments, and the specific players of those instruments, that we used and no others. It was also a conscious decision to blend programmed drums and percussion with “played drums.”  The choice in synth sounds were pretty conscious and in line with the initial idea of the record.

The idea of getting [soul singer] Sibel [Thrasher] to sing was extremely conscious. But, you know, everything changes no matter what. It was a conscious decision to not question the questionable treatment that I thought these songs demanded, especially since much of it seemed barely recognizable as what I’d learned to call songs.

You sing at the beginning of “Blue Eyes,” “I write poetry for myself.” Do you consider lyrics and poetry one and the same? That is to say, do you write knowing that you’ll use the writing as lyrics, or do you decide its destination later?

I used to write and write, and some of that would end up in songs. Now I sing words out of mid-air, and if I can remember how they go for a long enough time, they will end up as a sound document of some kind. I swear.

There are a lot of references to America on this album — “Song for America,” most obviously, but also on “Kaputt” and “Suicide Demo for Kara Walker.” Was there a reason, or did the theme just happen to keep coming up?

It’s come up before in Destroyer songs often, actually. I think America must be feeling extra sensitive these days, ’cause it keeps coming up as a question.  I think I was unconsciously cluing into how sensitive America is to the word “America.” “Kaputt” and “Song For America” have parts that overlap, which is why it occurs twice in that instance. As for “Suicide Demo For Kara Walker,” Kara Walker wrote the bulk of the words for that one, and the lines she had involving America demanded inclusion. Super-singable word, I guess.

Do you write songs intending to use them for Destroyer? Like, would your process differ if you were writing for the New Pornographers? Or do you fit the song to the project it seems suited to?

I’ve never sat down with the intention of writing a Destroyer song.  I have no idea how such a thing would happen, or what misshapen form would be born of that.  I have done this for the band The New Pornographers.

You’re in a lot of “super-groups,” as they say — is there anyone you’d like to work with you haven’t yet?

My sister.

Kaputt was leaked late last year — does that kind of thing bother you? Often artists will say that kind of exposure is worth it, but I’d have to imagine it’d be at least a little frustrating.

I don’t know what to be frustrated by at this point. If some god could offer me a glimpse of an alternate universe where this kind of thing didn’t happen, and in that universe I was a considerably richer man, then I think I would be a little pissed.  But I’m just not sure it would be the case.

What is your relationship/collaboration with Kara Walker? I know she curated part of Merge’s anniversary box set — did she have any hand in the album?

She wrote a lot of the words that ended up being sung on the song “Suicide Demo For Walker.” I cut ’em up, wrote some segues, riffed on an intro, maybe an outro. I don’t know Kara. We met once a couple years ago backstage at the Bowery.  I had already written the song at that point.

What’s the next step? Can we expect more Destroyer, New Pornographers, Swan Lake, Hello, Blue Roses — or have you not planned that far ahead?

Trying to focus on the play…

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