Learning to Try
Dec 09, 2015 Issue #54 - August/September 2015 - CHVRCHES Photography by Fabiola Carranza
Though he's not a man who is prone to overstatement, Dan Bejar says his whole career as a musician has been leading up to the release of his ninth Destroyer album, Poison Season. He approached his previous album, 2012's Kaputt, with the intention of creating a pop album "that could just play in the background and be natural in any public space," and, much to his surprise, it worked. Kaputt was, in fact, popular in a way no previous Destroyer release had been, far and away his most commercially and critically successful album.
But Kaputt's success was strange for another reason. As a vocalist, Bejar aimed to be "completely absent" while recording the album, stopping the tape once it sounded like he was emoting too much. He wanted to perform like a broadcaster disinterestedly reading the day's news, and he fought the urge to feel anything as he sang, believing that the moment he tried to capture a certain mood would be the one that he had gotten too far inside his own head. In essence, he had to try not to try. But something changed as Bejar toured that album with his team of backing players: he actually felt comfortable on stage. When it came time to make Poison Season, for the first time Bejar felt comfortable enough to allow himself to feel the music.
"Usually when I'd go into a studio and sing with a band, I'd end up scrapping it for some reason," he says. "I'd invent reasons: 'I sound strained.' 'I sound like I'm trying too hard.' 'I sound not as melodious as I think I could.' Or 'I'm trying too hard not to be melodious.' And I didn't feel that [this time]." Instead, Bejar says he felt natural, like a man "singing his guts out" in a room full of musicians who were discovering the music as they created it. "I was shocked at how my voice sounded," Bejar laughs. "It sounded better, almost like I was saying something."
After toying with the idea of making a salsa album, Bejar said he got spooked when he realized how many bands have failed to pull off such a stylistic makeover. Instead, he headed into the studio with no other intention but to make an album that sounded depressing. This would not be another pop album, and tracks that sounded too eager to please were quickly trimmed out, replaced by dour string quartet arrangements that added a sense of severity. With no blueprint, the developing album began to sprawl, encompassing everything from the rollicking E. Street Band pileup of "Dream Lover" to the slightly sleazy piano balladry of "Bangkok" and three iterations of the uncharacteristically theatrical "Times Square." Like the best moments in Destroyer's catalog, this isn't music that fits neatly into any genre, even on a song-by-song basis. And that's exactly what Bejar wanted.
"It's not like some unified approach that I'm now married to," he says. "The record has a lot of conflicting things on it, which I've chosen not to care about because that's a pop music concern. That doesn't really interest me right now."
[Note: This article first appeared in Under the Radar's August/September/October 2015 Issue. This is its debut online.]
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