It’s been said by Webcuts in the past that Destroyer’s Dan Bejar is the Woody Allen of pop music. His idiosyncratic, poetic touch is less that of a lyricist but a storyteller with a revolving cast of characters (mostly women), and picking up on the ripples and waves they create to make them a part of his own interior monologue. An essential eighth of the mighty New Pornographers, Bejar has been recording as Destroyer since the 90’s. Kaputt, his ninth album is a sumptuous, rhapsodic slice of 80’s melodrama, immersing itself entirely in the era from the vintage instrumentation to Bejar’s own penchance for seeking the sublime out of what some might find the ridiculous.
A wordsmith second to none, taking a ride on record with Bejar is one entirely absent of dull moments. Given the list of many themes and inspirations Bejar revealed that may or may not have contributed to the making of the album, including “fretless bass… the hopelessness of the future of music… the pointlessness of writing songs for today… the Linn Drum… Avalon and, more specifically, Boys and Girls…”, Kaputt is Bejar recast as Bryan Ferry searching for his own Avalon. Static’s Chris Berkley (a man who’s love for the 80’s also knows no bounds) caught up with Dan Bejar on the road to talk Kaputt.
How have audiences been taking to the Destroyer live show this year? You’ve been out for quite a while.
I usually have my eyes closed but it seems that people for the most part are into it and more importantly the band seems pretty into it, so I take those as good signs.
Do you have your eyes closed because you’re nervous or something, or that‘s the way you have to be to do the performance?
Sometimes I open them. It really depends. It depends on what I’m hearing. Sometimes it helps me sing. It’s not ‘cos I’m nervous.
It’s just because you don’t want to look at all the ugly people in the audience, right?
The ugly people? Yeah, I have a hard time staring at those ones.
I was kind of curious to know what audiences had been thinking of the Kaputt live show. Was it a record that was designed to pull the rug out from under a few people?
I didn’t really design it with any specific intention, excepting at some point I designed it to be a record that it would be so impossible to tour I wouldn’t have to go on tour.
Well that didn’t work, did it?
No, it didn’t, and in fact it’s actually been pretty fun music to play. As far as people’s reactions to it, I don’t know.
It just seems with each Destroyer record you tend to really try something different and perhaps maybe want to confound expectations. Did you feel like you wanted to do that with Kaputt?
No, I’ve never really done that. I kinda just try and do things I like and the records change depending on who I’m collaborating with. I don’t think there’s that many expectations to confound. At this point I’ve made enough records where if one album sounds really different from the last there’s still not that much confounding going on.
So you said you designed this album as something you didn’t want to tour. Is that because, like you say, you have made a hell of a lot of records not only as Destroyer, but whether it be The New Pornographers or Swan Lake, do you feel much more at home in the studio, or is being live still exciting for you?
I think it can be really exciting. I do like tooling around in the studio a lot, but that also comes with its own set of dread, imagery, and also excitement. It’s all just about trying to make something that’s good, that’s not garbage. I would never make something specifically so that it was un-performable, because then I would just probably lay a sine wave to tape for 45 minutes and hand that into the label.
So you kinda do feel, I guess, the necessity to go tour an album?
I don’t really think about those things when I’m making music or in the studio. It’s the furthest thing from my mind. It’s only when things are done that I start to think about how it’s gonna work out on stage, or if it‘s gonna work out on stage.
To that end, how was it like making Kaputt in the studio?
Really casual. It took a long, long time. Way longer than anything else I’ve ever done. I kinda wandered in a couple nights a week for a while. A lot of meandering. I had a few demos that we used as templates. A lot of building things up from scratch. Then towards the deadline things got more intense. People started coming in to play as hard on their leads, and that‘s when the sax and the trumpet and the lead guitar and background vocals. All that stuff happened pretty quickly, and then just the madness of mixing and trying to make sense of it.
So how much of a vision do you have for an album like this? You say if you were calling up saxophone players and folks like that, you must have an idea of the way you want each Destroyer album to sound and in particular, Kaputt.
I had specific people in mind that I wanted to play, but at the same time I gave no guidance to anyone. No one had ever heard the songs before. No one heard what anyone else was doing. They just kinda came in and just really laid into it for an afternoon. That was kind of the working model that we had. We did have a template, we did have a palette for specific instruments and sounds that we had in mind from the get go. We tried hard to stick to that, you know.
Were you bandying words and phrases around? It feels like parts of Kaputt are soft-rock or sophisti-pop or whatever you want to call it, which are dirty words to a lot of people. Did you have certain records in mind, or like you say, a template that you wanted to base yourself on?
Some stuff, but I’m pretty fearless when it comes to things like that. There’s no genre that I find abhorrent. I don’t really see things in terms of genre. If there’s actual instruments that people despise, that has a knee-jerk reaction to, that’s fine, but I’m not like that. People hear like, a saxophone, or a treated trumpet, or a certain drum sample, like a linn drum sample or softer synth sounds, and when you pull it all together, it adds up to soft-rock, that’s cool if they think that. I personally don’t think that anything that Joseph played on the sax sounds like “Careless Whisper”. I don’t think that JP played anything that sounds like Simply Red. You just have to listen to the music for 30 seconds to figure that out, but there’s all sorts of shorthand that people use to get a point across.
You also seem to approach all this material in a very sincere way. It probably suffers at the hands of people trying to being ironic. Whereas apart from a few lyrical jibes, the playing is top notch and consummate on Kaputt.
Yeah, I think that’s a good point actually. The playing is really good, it’s not hack, and we’re all older so it’s not mining uncharted territory looking for something that was considered horrible and then holding it up to the light in a new way. I’ve done that when I was a kid, and that’s cool and it’s good that it happens, but that’s not what was happening here. John Collins who did a lot of the mixing work and a lot of the synth stuff, he was buying Kraftwerk records and Avalon and things like that, when they were coming out as proper albums.
So you were using guys that lived through it the first time?
Exactly, yeah. You know, I’m getting up there. I remember that stuff.
You said you referenced a few of those albums already. Did you grow up on some of those records you mentioned, be it even George Michael or Simply Red. A track like “Suicide Demo For Kara Walker” wouldn’t sound out of place on Prefab Sprout’s Steve McQueen. Were they all records that you already owned yourself?
Yeah, I did own those records. What happened was when I first started getting into music in the early 90’s, I kind of put all that stuff in a box and stopped listening to it for a long time. For some reason I started thinking about it again. Even if I wasn’t actively listening to it, like Prefab Sprout records or New Order records, and also things like people that I always listened to lots, but kind of abandoned once they hit the 80’s, like Roxy Music and Bowie, and then I started thinking about what they did when they got older and started listening to Avalon and Boys And Girls and stuff like that.
Well a lot of those English bands for someone like you growing up in Canada were probably a bit more exotic or underground. I guess if you grew up in England they would’ve been chart bands, but they were probably bands that not everyone from where you grew up would’ve come across.
Yeah, I think you’re right. I started thinking about pop music for the first time making this record and examples of pop music or radio music that I actually liked, because it’s pretty few and far between and I couldn’t really think of American examples. All I could think about was for the most part maybe English examples from my youth, whether it was, like you said, a Prefab Sprout song or a Style Council song or a New Order song. Stuff that would’ve made it to the radio over there, but over here it was still considered new wave or college rock. That’s mostly what started this going.
There’s this great line in the song “Kaputt” which says “Sounds, Smash Hits, Melody Maker, NME, all sound like a dream to me”. Did it feel like that when you were growing up? Did it seem like another world?
I wasn’t really thinking in those terms. I was thinking of like someone on a sick bed who was thinking about things that had died.
So it’s almost like a bygone era or something?
Sure. Words that barely mean anything to them, but just trying to remember what it was that they even were.
Well, I’m glad you’re not on the sick bed just yet. I’m glad that Destroyer is an on-going project. If this thing has been a real chore to tour, does that mean an Australian tour is looking pretty unlikely for this album?
No, there’s been talk about it already. It’s just a matter of going to Europe for a few weeks in June, and then go back and play some festivals in August, but after that we don’t really have anything planned for the States or anything. There’s been some initial talk of trying to get over there. Just trying to figure out how to do it, when to do it.
Well if you can’t manage to bring the full band down, we have some consummate professionals I’m sure could be dialled up down here. There’s a lot of sax players who’d be chomping at the bit to get out on stage with you.
I think you guys would like these people. I think you would get a kick out of them. It would be good if all of us could make it over.
Interview broadcast on Static on 21/04/11. Static can be heard on Sydney’s 2SER (107.3 FM) and via the Internet (www.2ser.com) every Thursday evening (AEST).