Destroyer on “Poison Season,” Times Square in the 1970s, His Voice, and Almost Making a Salsa Record
Impossibility and Triumph
Sep 02, 2015 Web Exclusive
When Destroyer released Kaputt in 2011, Dan Bejar had no reason to expect that he had made a breakthrough album. Kaputt was a different kind of record for him—looser, more playful, more immediate than anything in his overflowing catalog. But after 15 years and nine full-length albums, he was a known quantity, and those kinds of artists should be resigned to the fact that they have very few remaining avenues for surprising listeners. And yet Kaputt did surprise listeners and became the first Destroyer album to be universally regarded as an instant classic, expanding Bejar's cult exponentially. As he worked on Poison Season, his latest studio album, Bejar was placed in an unusual situation, at least for him. Now that everyone was watching, what would he do?
If Bejar has spent much time thinking about any of this, he certainly doesn't show it. He's a hard man to get a clear read on, seeming so utterly unconcerned with how his music is received that it's tempting to suspect that it's all a defense mechanism and that he cares far more than he lets on. But if he was laboring under the weight of increased expectations, it doesn't show on Poison Season, an album that serves as an extension and refinement of everything he was experimenting with on Kaputt. There are unexpectedly theatrical overtures, such as the three-part "Times Square" suite. There are brassy anthems jostling for position against dour string-draped ballads. There's even something resembling a character sketch in the treacly "Bangkok," a first for Bejar. From start to finish, it's a masterclass from a songwriter finding himself in the spotlight and deciding to use the extra light to illuminate all of the elements of his work that have defined him thus far. Here Bejar talks about the team he assembled for his backing band, how he approached the album as a vocalist, and why he pulled back from making a salsa record.
Matt Fink (Under the Radar): So when did the songwriting process begin for this album?
Dan Bejar: It felt like there was a while when I wasn't writing much of anything, but I think songs kind of snuck up on me and I realized I had written something. Probably 2013, early 2013, a couple years ago. Some of the songs are from the same era as the Kaputt songs were written. I just didn't think they were really right for what we were doing for that record.
Do you think the live sound on this album was inspired by your experience touring Kaputt?
Yeah. I didn't really know what I was going to do, to be honest. I had a few different ideas, and none of them seemed that compatible with each other. But I just finally decided, "Well, I'll try playing these songs for a couple days with a band and see how it goes. I'll go into the studio for a couple days, and if it turns out good, we'll keep it." I didn't really have that many expectations, but it turned out really good in a very easy and natural way, without having to do much to the music. I think deep down I have a lot of confidence in the people I'm playing with now and have been for the last few years. I knew I could throw the songs out and be free and easy about it, 'cause 2012 was probably the most confident I've been on stage, as a person who goes on stage and sings songs over the last 20 years.
How much of that confidence is due to the trust you have in the players?
It was sounding really good. It was the kind of good that I like, which is loose but aggressive in the right spots and people having a natural feel for the songs. In a sense, it was quite a bit different from how I toured when Kaputt first came out in 2011, which was mostly just a showcase for that album. And I knew that was something I couldn't be doing [this time].
So when you back in the studio for this record, was that rapport with those players there immediately?
Yeah, it was. I knew we would be quick to know what was working and what wouldn't. We had enough shows under our belt, as far as people playing off each other. We knew how that was going to go. We made sure not to know the songs very well and only get a couple practices in and do two or three takes of each one. I wasn't expecting for us to have as much of a live, off-the-floor vibe as it did. I've never really done it before. But the studio we went into could really accommodate something like that. My voice, it wasn't like a broadcaster's voice, which is sometimes the feel on Destroyer records. Even sonically, it's a broadcaster or like someone sermonizing over something. I like that, too. I don't have any moral hang-ups over what's a good aesthetic or what's a bad aesthetic—I just like the sound of what I was doing on those songs. But the record is all over the place, as well. It's obvious which songs were recorded like that and which ones were done in a different way. I can get weirded out that it aesthetically really jumps around.
Was it difficult to get a sense of how these songs were going to fit together?
Yeah, it was pretty hard. Also, the way that it was made was pretty spread out, with lots of gaps of nothing. The band went in [to the studio] over a year ago, and months and months later there were a couple string sessions, and those kind of went on. And then finally a couple months after that, we were trying to mix stuff and put them together.
Do you think that approach made it harder to get a perspective on it?
Maybe. Possibly. But maybe having perspective on it isn't that valuable. I think it took a long time to make the record—possibly too long for my tastes. The songs, by the time 2014 rolled around, I was beginning to work on them in earnest, and they have been festering for quite a while. I think that's good, probably. You're not blown away by the novelty of what you've done. It's not like they were road-tested or that we'd been practicing them over and over. They just existed in my head or as these strange little demos on my computer—but mostly in my head. For a while, I had been thinking that there needed to be sounds that the songs would be filtered through. And I kind of put that aside as something I just didn't want to do, or something that was a dilettantish idea, like, "Here are these songs, and now it's time to turn them into a disco record or a salsa record." It seemed like that approach—which is fine and that I've fallen into the past, because I get a kick out of working with a music concept at times—but it just felt played out. In the end, the concept of us sounding like a bunch of musicians sympathetic to each other and playing together in a room and me singing my guts out seemed like a better concept than trying to apply some other idea to the songs.
Was there a specific point in the process where you started to realize what kind of record you were making?
No. I try not to think about it. I think about individual songs. I thought about songs that didn't work and why they didn't work. I wanted the record to sound depressing. [Laughs] That's something I kept saying in the studio. I don't know if it came off that way. There are some pretty jaunty numbers, but I didn't want them to be jaunty in a specific way that Destroyer has been in the past. There are a couple pretty poppy songs that got left off the record, mostly for that reason. I think, also, because of these strings ballads, there were a lot of question marks about what the feel of the record was going to be. In my heart's heart and in my mind, those songs were going to be for me the cornerstone of the record. They definitely seemed like they would draw the biggest blank for me. I just had never recorded those things, where they worked like that before. It was the most unknown. They were the songs I thought there was new terrain in, you know. Even when I was playing them by myself on the piano they felt different than some of the other ones.
Were most of these songs written on piano?
Maybe half of them. I'm not sure. I have to remember what's on there. The stuff from the Kaputt days, I was very conscious at that time to not touch an instrument, to have songs fully formed and just sit down at a synthesizer at the very end so that MIDI could read some kind of chord or progression. So to say that I sat down at a piano and wrote a song would be false, I think. For some of these new ones, I might have actually picked up a guitar. But usually if I do, it's by accident. And maybe a couple were played on piano. Some I had to leave chords out altogether, but that gets harder and harder.
Would you say that the spirit of your demos was maintained in these songs?
No...not in the least. I think the songs are recognizable, but it was never my intention to have the spirit, as far as sonically, acknowledged. That's why I asked Stefan [Udell] to do the strings. I'm not exactly sure why, but I was pretty sure he would come up with a lot of stuff that I had never imagined. So that was the deal with most of the string arrangements when they showed up. And the band, I don't direct them when we try playing a song. It just goes off in a direction of its own making. There are a few different styles that seem to come really natural to the group, so at least some of them sound very Destroyer-y to me. When I say that, I mean it kind of reminds me of an aesthetic from 15 years ago that was kicking around, just played out in a more loose, boisterous, richer fashion. Just because of all of the wisdom and flair that we've amassed over the years and apply to our music. It's not really stuff I think about when I'm doing it, because I don't really care. [Laughs] I mean, I don't care about those things, like conscious decisions and sticking to some kind of idea.
From what you're describing it sounds like a very intuitive process, where you put a lot of trust into these players and jump into the process and see where you end up.
Yeah, a lot of them—half of them—have played on a shit-ton of Destroyer records over the last 10 or 15 years. And the other half, in the last handful of years, have spent a lot of time up on stage with me. So, yeah, they're not there by accident, that's for sure. So once it actually comes time to roll tape, the decision is made. The main decision is just "Who is there?" The results, after that, you just have to go with. I assume that's how everyone makes music. What's it like when you talk to other bands?
I'd say it's varied. A lot of songwriters are pretty perfectionistic and have a very clear idea of what they want, and they try to get people who can execute that vision. Others seem more open to finding the record during the recording process.
I think my original vision is always based on a certain style of record, when it comes to making music like this, which is based on the... feel, I guess, and the phrasing and the interplay, and not so much on actual notes and very specific sequences played in the proper order. I don't think I'm anti-arrangement or anything like that, because there's some of that going on. But if you're going to record a band, it seems like the most natural thing to want to do is to just document how good they are.
It seems like you must lock into a shared aesthetic pretty easily.
Yeah, super fast. Everyone has been playing for so long that they're really good in that way. It's not the same when you're younger.
Do you think that's because you're less sure of what you want when you're younger?
I think what you have when you're younger is that you can be a street gang, which is what rock groups are supposed to be. So they're this intense collection of individuals who all wear the same leather jacket and communicate telepathically about their music, because it's super intense. That's life when you're younger. And then you make a record or two, and you burn out and do something different. It would be ridiculous for me and most of the people in this group to take on that model at this point in our lives. It would be cartoonish and pathetic. But I don't think I'm wrong in saying that that is the heart and soul of rock, as far as a rock band. I'm not really much of a rock singer. I just keep trying, but I don't think it's considered my forte. From what I can tell of rock music that's supposed to be super classic and for the ages, that's how it goes down. It's just a gang communicating telepathically. Just one gang, one mind.
Even after 20 years, it's hard for me to say what Destroyer music is. There's no genre I would attach to you.
Yeah, I don't know. It's a collaboration when it comes to the music. The stuff I've been into for the longest time is just singer/songwriter stuff. Once in a while, I'll seize up and react against that mold of getting called that. But that's generally what I'm inspired by at this point, just people who speak very lyrically and sing very lyrically and write a bunch of songs and keep writing and singing them lyrically. When I listen to some of the songs on the record, like a song like "Times Square," that seems very much like a genre that Destroyer is pigeonholed in, aside from the blaring horns part of it. That kind of '70s, glammy folk rock is something that we've done lots and lots of in different variations over the last 15 years. I wouldn't want to deny it. If I was to bald-faced deny that it would just be a lie. There are other things we do, as well, but that's definitely one of them. Because that era of music and that style is when I first went mental for music.
Do you think that stuff still sounds as good now as it did when you first discovered it?
Yeah. I took a long break from it, but I've started listening to it again, the records that I've always loved. Yeah, it does sound good to me. There's something about it that speaks to me. I'm not sure exactly what. I find it quite tuneful, and the way the bands were recorded in England in the early '70s and their sneering approach to the words gets me. There's something about Joni Mitchell records in the '70s that seem like an amalgamation of everything that I love in music, so chances are I'm going to continue listening to them. And when I do listen to them, I'm going to continue thinking that they're really good.
That's interesting, because I thought that Joni Mitchell was one reference point that I could hear in this record. In those '70s records you really don't know song-by-song where they are going to go, but there's a free-flowing aesthetic that unites them all.
Yeah. I like that feeling. She seems like someone who, for at least a good chunk of time, refused to work unless there was an underlying feeling of freedom to the music. I think her melodic sense is so advanced and so strong that pop music couldn't really contain her. Even though her sense of melody is so strong, the songs and the sense of the melodic line is so memorable that she could blast it open in any way that she felt, and it would still come across. And her voice, as a lyric-poet, she captures herself so immediately and with precision. It's an instantly identifiable worldview, and it can ride any melodic wave that you want. That's kind of the goal: to somehow match this idea of whatever you think your essence is to sound. It's really fucking hard, so the best thing to do is to not think about it at all. Chances are, if you're really thinking about it, then you're fucked. But if it's something that you get off on doing—you get off in the physical sense—then you're probably okay.
Did you feel differently while performing your vocals for this record?
It has all been leading up to this record, I would say. Usually when I'd go into a studio, I'd think I don't sound as melodious as I think I could. Or I'm trying too hard not to be melodious. It's two sides of the same thing. And I didn't feel that [this time]. I think when I did Kaputt a bit of a line was drawn, in that I was going to stop singing in a certain way and start singing in this other way. It wasn't a conscious decision, like, "Now it's time for me to do this." But it really seemed to suit the songs that I came in with, if you could even call them songs. They didn't really seem like songs at the time. But because I wasn't used to doing that—and by "that" I mean that I wasn't used to singing in an aggressive way—like a frothing at the mouth kind of way, in a pedagological kind of way. [Laughs] I wasn't used to singing in those ways.
So I what I did was try to be completely absent. Basically Kaputt is all scratch vocals. It's the stuff that I sang purely so we'd know how the song went, and we had the idea that months down the road I'd redo proper vocals. But in the end, we just never did that. But the songs on Kaputt were starting to sound like I was actually feeling something. The orders were to stop the tape, which is, I think, kind of a hot ticket, like a good idea if you're making pop music. If it starts to sound like you're feeling too much, you should stop rolling the tape and evacuate yourself some more inside. Just be more absent. Anyway, for this record, I decided not to do that. I thought that I could somehow sing in a manner that felt intense and emotionally good but still not barking. It just took me a few years to figure it out.
You do sound more confident as a vocalist on this album.
I definitely felt like I knew where the pockets were. That's maybe part of it. I think I'm just a slow learner. Singing is what I'm working on. It's kind of what interests me the most. Writing is what comes the easiest. It's always what I have an overabundance of. I have my set of melodic progressions and chords that I like to string together. I try and favor longer melodic lines. I've tried to do away with as many chords as possible over the last 20 years. But singing is where I really have to close my eyes and try hard to not think about it until I'm not thinking about it and then just do it.
Did you have a certain theme that you were trying to capture this time?
No. I never work in themes, I don't think. I never have. I only have one theme, and that's the same one as always, in a sense. It's the same theme as it always has been. It hasn't changed. I know I have one. [Laughs] I'm pretty sure I have a theme and know more or less what it is. But it's not a topic.
Do you think certain images repeat throughout the album?
I'm trying to remember. What are some of the images? Times Square, I guess.
Sure. Was there something about the imagery or iconography of Times Square that attracted you?
I don't know where it came from. I hadn't just visited it. It felt like I was writing this certain style of '70s street ballad when I was writing the verse. It all happened at once, because a song like that is kind of a ditty, and generally those ones happen in real time. I probably wrote it in four minutes. But the minute you start dropping people's names and saying stuff about writing on the wall, then you know you're in a certain decade, probably the '70s. And melodically it had a certain vibe, a certain lope to it. Maybe when I played it on guitar by myself when I first wrote it, it reminded me of Lou Reed or David Bowie or one of these people. And Times Square is a '70s thing—for me, anyway. When you're a kid, it was the epitome of filth and this punk runaway spot. Maybe I saw the movie Times Square when I was a kid. I don't know if you remember that one. Anyway, that image seemed so distant from what it is now, and also so distant from what it originally was, which was a symbol of the glamour and excitement and promise of New York City, from the early part of the 20th century. And maybe how all those things could be good, including the kind of terrible version of itself that it currently is. Or they could all be equally shitty. It felt like those two words meant something. It was weird that "times" and "square" were completely monopolized as words by this one strange place. But I definitely wasn't thinking about writing a song about the place "Times Square," more the idea that you could fall in love with Times Square, whatever that happens to be.
How about the references to Jesus?
Yeah, I don't know what that's about. I think about Jesus sometimes, but mostly in a way that he pops up in the songs of songwriters all the time. I also was thinking of Hispanic sounding names. It just seemed to fit the mood of the song. Especially because Poison Season was supposed to be a salsa record at one point. I just got cold feet. It seems like other bands incorporated nods to that, and it turned out so terrible for them, I just figured maybe it was a terrible idea and I should steer clear. I won't name names. That's a little cowardly on my part, actually.
When did you decide against making a salsa record?
I don't really know. At some point, you come up with ideas before you come up with songs. And then you're faced with songs, and you're like "Wow. This isn't what this song is asking for." In the past, I would have just muffled it through. I've done that to songs, like, "I don't care what you were written as. This is what you're going to be, for better or worse." But I can't really do that anymore, because they just don't seem as expendable as they once were. Really cool things come out of that or can come out of that. But that's just not going to be me that's doing those things. I did my time.
Was the character Sonny from the song "Bangkok" based on someone you know?
It's not based on anyone that I know. I don't know if I invented it—if I did, it's like you step back from a song you've just written and go, "Oh, wow. It looks like I made someone's voice there that doesn't exactly sound like mine." That's one of the reasons I like that song. It seems to sum up everything I was thinking about during the writing of the record in a very clear way. It has qualities that I always like in songs, which is like a joyous resignation. Or maybe despicable people toying with the idea of redemption.
Where do you think that character came from?
It's not a way I've written in the past, what comes across in that song, so I don't know. I don't really understand. [Laughs] Is that a character that travels with me? Like an angel on my left shoulder, whispering in my ear? I don't live with characters. I don't necessarily even believe in them. I know that that happens in songs, which are supposed to be these little short stories where you or different people assume a voice and you sing them. But I've never really been able to wrap my head around that. So the song "Bangkok," I would be disappointed if it came across as a character piece.
Were you surprised by that character?
I got a kick out of it at first, just because it seemed potentially gross. [Laughs] But still in a way that's kind of vague. The person singing is a gross, immoral person. But it would make any kind of turnaround all the more triumphant, right? And impossible. There has to be an equal balance between impossibility and triumph.
Do you ever wonder about how listeners will interpret such a song?
All I can really picture is what I take from songs, and then impose my face on the billions of people in the world and see them reacting just like me. I guess that's my ideal. [Laughs] I don't really know. I have a pretty visceral reaction to music—less and less so as I've been exposed to more and more of it over the decades. But I can still have a very jarring kick when everything comes together in a song. That's why I've always felt it was a major drag when people talked about Destroyer as clever or an intellectual thing that you kind of had to connect the dots or something. Or that my voice as a presence is like intentionally aggravating or is supposed to be alienating, because that's just not the stuff that I'm into. [Laughs] So, for me to represent that somehow is a bummer. I like things that I can listen to more than a handful of times and they can still reveal themselves, but I don't think that's the same thing as something that's a mental exercise, but it's music. When you're making anything, you just want to it to be this beautiful thing, in the real sense of the word—not that it has to be a pretty thing. It has to be something that stands alone and exposes something about the world that's so far gone unsaid.
Do you care if this album is referred to as a "pop" album?
I don't have an aversion to pop music. I lot of the music I listen to has been really popular. Even a lot of the people we've already talked about. For some reason, I don't think that's what I'm doing. But I know that I'm taking a lot from that tradition, so "what the hell am I doing?" is the question. I guess I'm just freaked out about the disconnect between what I think I'm doing and what I've actually done. I think that probably plays a pretty heavy role in Destroyer records. I think in the past I was doing something quite different from what the end result actually is. I don't know if there's as wide a gap with other bands. Maybe there is. Part of that is kind of exciting. I kind of get off on being surprising. But part of it, also, is like "This was not my intention." Maybe years after the fact I can listen to something and be like, "Wow. This isn't what I thought it was." I think when I was talking about pop—and I've only really talked about it once—I might have been referring to the fact that one time I tried to make a pop record, and it was called Kaputt. And it seemed to be much more successful than other Destroyer records. And I kind of wondered if that was because it's a pop record, with "pop" meaning popular. There were a lot of conscious decisions made around the making of that record, both in the music and outside of it, to present it as a record that could just play in the background and be natural in any public space. And then it was kind of shocking that it worked. I mean, it didn't super-duper work. My life wasn't changed by that album. But for a lot of people, when it comes to this band, it's kind of a ground zero.
Are you uncomfortable with Kaputt's success?
It doesn't make me uncomfortable. But it came up in a conversation, and I was just commenting on it, just the fact that it's not really that indicative of what I do. It's a little indicative, and I guess the more I listen to Poison Season, it sounds different to me. Everything about it. I don't know if that's going to just be me, but to me it sounds like it's meant for something quite different. I don't know if that spectrum even exists anymore. At this point, records just go down this one chute and end up swimming in the same sea. So my intentions couldn't be less important for how people will hear the record. Who knows? But it doesn't, to me, sound like something that's trying to push the same buttons as the Kaputt album.
I agree, but I also don't think any two Destroyer albums push the same buttons. There's a consistency in your body of work, as far as there being a distinct personality throughout, but I never know from album-to-album what you're going to sound like.
That's possible. I think some people might have the opposite experience, where the minute I open my mouth they're like, "Oh, no. This guy again." It's a still that's slightly too distinct or recognizable in a way that's not always the best. I'm not saying that I feel that, but I know it exists. I think I'm pretty consistent in my own way
[Note: Pick up Under the Radar's current print issue (August/September 2015) to read a separate article on Destroyer. These are extra portions of our interview with Dan Bejar, quotes that didn't make it into our main print article on the band.]
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