Destroyer Alternates Between Rousing and Mournful on Its Latest Album

For twenty years, Destroyer, led by Vancouver native Dan Bejar, quietly released seductive, critically acclaimed music with his band. Bejar is also known for collaborating with A.C. Newman’s Canadian indie supergroup The New Pornographers as well as other musicians. Albums like Destroyer’s Rubies have songs that are an inside joke for music nerds. They’re filled with whimsical choruses, melancholic melodies, and lyrics referencing other pop songs complete with the punchline waiting at the end. His singles were meant to be pored over and studied in a college textbook as opposed to being played to the masses on an alternative music station.

That all changed with the release of 2011’s Kaputt. Bejar retained the idiosyncrasies that made his songwriting beloved by critics but kept the sound in a realm similar to early 80’s Roxy Music and New Order. The album took off, and suddenly Destroyer was headlining festivals, making videos, and appearing on late night talk shows. Inspired by the sound of his touring band on Kaputt, Bejar went to work constructing Destroyer’s latest release, Poison Season. Unlike Kaputt, which operates within a strict musical domain, this new album alternates between mournful orchestral ballads and rousing rock music.

Bejar talked with the New Times about dealing with the attention that came with the popularity of Kaputt, Canadian music, confidence, and his bewilderment at being labeled a chameleon.

New Times: When you start working on an album, where do you start? Is there a sound, an idea, or a mood you are trying to set?

Dan Bejar: I think it depends. [Poison Season] had two main ideas that ran separate courses. I wanted to lay down a bunch of tracks with the band I had been touring with. It yielded quick and effective results, especially in the rock and roll numbers. Alongside that, there were orchestrated old-world string-led ballads. That was more a sound in my head I wanted to chase after. It was more meticulously built. The hope is that those two things can sit side by side.

Have you ever started a project reacting to what you’ve done before?

I don’t think so. I think the records before [Poison Season] we’re quite a slow process. There was a lot of throwing down things randomly and seeing what sticks. It took about 20 months so maybe I was reacting against the process. I was really happy with the way the band was sounding onstage in 2012. It was really easy to sit with those guys.

With your last album Kaputt, you had some firsts: music videos and television appearances. How was that experience for you?

It was fine. I’ve never done a video for Destroyer. The medium is kind of a confusing one. Those happen independent of me. The television stuff was pretty surreal. I thought I’d give it a shot. It was pretty nerve-wracking. It’s not an experience I crave but it’s all part of the process of making pop music. It seemed to be what we were doing at the time. It felt like something to try at least once.

Were you aware of the piercing stare you give at the end of your video for “Girl in a Sling?”

I think if you point a camera at me in a way that I am conscious of, I get rattled enough I probably look more intense than I actually am, especially if you ask me to perform or act in a way that makes me feel uncomfortable. (laughs) There’s probably some sort of darkness inside me that is starting to well at the end of the video. I’m probably attempting to will the camera to go away.

What drew you into music?

I don’t know. There are probably different stages. When I was 13, I became a super bonafide music fan. It became an important thing in my life. I think it’s a standard age. At some point I made the transition. I dropped out of school in my early 20’s. It just happened to be the time when I started hanging out with people who made music. It seemed like a world you could exist in, and it wasn’t something you had to be a fan of. There was a lot of American indie music that seemed accessible to make. There were these lo-fi bands that made you feel like you could pick up a guitar and start banging something out. I think it’s a pretty common trajectory.

With you being Canadian and being inspired by American indie bands, what’s your view on American and Canadian music?

In really exaggerated circumstances, I can find an identity in music. There are Canadian structures and American structures. The major Canadian labels don’t hold themselves to a certain aesthetic. I don’t know if you can really tell the difference. I’ve can say that Neil Young sounds Canadian to me, as does Joni Mitchell. I don’t think America could make those kind of people. They don’t know how. Can I identify what those properties are that put them in that category? I don’t think I could put it into words.

Your albums vary in sound. Do you see yourself as a chameleon?

I don’t know what people mean they say that stuff. For instance, the sound of the lead guitar playing on Destroyer records has been very consistent for the last 13 years, partially because it’s been the same guy. If you’ve been listening to the piano playing in the last 10 years, it’s probably been a consistent style.

Look, there’s a lot of overlap. A lot of the same old faces pop up on new records. People say Poison Season sounds different from Kaputt, but actually almost all of the same people have played on it. There’s different production aesthetics at work, but if anything, the way I write a song is so recognizable as me. I’m not tooting my own horn. If anything, I’m eye-rolling at myself. It’s not like I’m writing a song that sounds like the Rolling Stones or the Beatles. Then I’m writing a song that sounds like Led Zeppelin and one that sounds like The Who. They all sound like Destroyer songs to kind of a pathetic degree. There’s no fixed band and there’s different sonic approaches, but I think there’s a fixed aesthetic to the songs. I also have a lot of different interests.

There’s that consistency, but I noticed Kaputt wasn’t imitating but capturing a Roxy Music/New Order-type sound.

It can’t be stressed enough that one difference between Kaputt and the other Destroyer records is that we had such strict and definitive sonic palette that we were drawing from. We were really trying to adhere to it. When we got to the end of making it, it was kind of shocking that we pulled it off. It dawned on me that maybe that’s how you make pop records. During the making of Kaputt, I was obsessed with the record Avalon by Roxy Music to the point where it guarded a secret. It had mystical properties! I’ll be honest, as a songwriter Bryan Ferry means next to nothing to me, but as a singer and an aesthetic guide, I’m really into him.

I knew that my songs were different enough from Avalon that I could have that kind of aesthetic with reckless abandon and not worrying about me coping it because I knew the songs had other things going for them. I felt really confident about them. You’re right. Kaputt has a kind of time and place, even though that time and place is a fiction. In my mind, it was a specific thing, a rule to adhere to when making the record.

Did you feel confident making Poison Season?

No, it was the exact opposite. This record was just the sound of humans in a room, but with the sound of nobody in a room. The flipside of that is that it’s mournful, inward looking sound. Half of the songs have this almost character singing them I guess. It’s a voice that’s supposed to exist outside of pop music.

With Poison Season’s focus on mournfulness, is there a way to find light and meaning in the world?

No, but I think to document the struggle to find that way is one of my favorite things in the world. I find it very powerful and attractive. Do I believe there is a definitive path outside of the muck? No, but the the impulse to find it is a source of beauty to me.

Destroyer is scheduled to perform on Monday, September 21, at Crescent Ballroom.
KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jason Keil was the Phoenix New Times culture editor from August 2019 to May 2020.
Contact: Jason Keil