Destroyer on “Labyrinthitis” | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Friday, December 8th, 2023  

Destroyer on “Labyrinthitis”

On the Verge of Inventing the Song

Mar 31, 2022 Photography by Nicholas Bragg Web Exclusive
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There are bands that, once you find your way into the music, feel like rabbit holes to tumble down. Artistry, technical proficiency, lyrical and/or sonic innovation, happenstance, and talent that meshes to form the alchemical elements of myth, or a well-trod cliche. When talking about Destroyer, a few words and phrases tend to pop up. “Confusing,” “nonsensical,” “cryptic,” or my favorite, “a bit of gibberish.” That’s because the band, and its lead vocalist/songwriter Dan Bejar, flout meaning in the traditional sense, the arithmetic of “subject + verb + object” broken up or restructured. The most surprising, often bewildering words tend to be sung atop melodies and rhythms that seem at odds with each other.

With the release of Labyrinthitis, Destroyer’s newest record, the band is 13 albums deep into a career that drapes easily and languorously across many disparate genres, influences, and attitudes. Bejar’s project has gone from lo-fi anti-folk made in a bedroom to sprawling orchestral soundscapes and lush, digital patchworks set to a disco beat, and still sometimes made in a bedroom. At the heart of the band’s musical evolution is Bejar’s continued experiment in language, wrestling with sound and shape as much as texture and symbolism. The “west coast maximalist exploring the blues/ignoring the news from the front” snickers, mumbles, jeers, and jokes in equal measure, often within the same line. A persona and character meld into one, until the whole facade is disposed of, that particular exercise fulfilled. Which is to say, when asking about Destroyer’s particular thing, what it seeks to talk about or speak to, it is everything and nothing, at once a rollicking satire on seriousness and a grave meditation on what it means to be a person alive at all. The fun is deciding which, or both, things are true in any given song.

In many ways, this is the pervading mystique of Destroyer, one that is externally applied by critics and fans alike. The band’s music, along with Bejar’s lyrics, seem to come from different planes of reality. Uninitiated listeners lulled into a sense of familiarity when listening to the ’80s-inflected tracks on 2011’s Kaputt or 2017’s ken will, when honing in on the words Bejar is singing, find themselves adrift. The “towers coming up for air” on “Tinseltown Swimming in Blood,” already a grand litmus in terms of Destroyer song titles, come and go, a fleeting, but vital image that is never meant to connect to an explanation or easy metaphor. “Suicide Demo for Kara Walker,” written in collaboration with the titular African American artist herself and seemingly tied to a straightforward narrative about racism in 20th-century America, pushes its way through the mesh of Bejar’s linguistic kaleidoscope, “words words words” and “longings longings longings” giving way to stark historical images, before Bejar says, “fuck it.”

This is all so much obfuscation, though. To focus solely on Destroyer’s verbal dances, and to chalk the group’s long-standing significance to its frontman alone, is to miss the forest for the blackened trees. The band is a collaborative project, unabashedly so in Bejar’s view, one that keeps singer/songwriter jibes at bay through clashing modes of taste like opposing currents in the same ocean. Longtime Destroyer producer and band member John Collins is spoken about among the group as a kind of mad scientist with unyielding visions for Destroyer’s uncharted horizons. On Labyrinthitis, that vision spans the head-banging cacophony of ’90s industrial rock on “Tintoretto, It’s For You,” the squeaky-clean indietronica chirping sweetly on “The States,” the disco club velocity on “Eat the Wine, Drink the Bread.” Never considered a “drummer’s band,” Labyrinthitis showcases Joshua Wells’ deep, seemingly untapped skill, the vibrance and life of the album bursting through his percussive acumen and ability to meet the ambition of each disparately-related song. Which is the prominent vibe of Destroyer’s newest, pandemic-era effort: a throughline of feeling and excitement despite the genre changes. For all of its fireworks, Labyrinthitis is a record connected at the seams by breakneck ideas played with unrelenting speed, not completely a mixtape, not quite an album in the traditional sense of a thematic arc. It is the product of over 25 years of trying shit out and somehow still arriving at something instantly recognizable, as only Destroyer could.

Bejar spoke to Under the Radar from his home in Vancouver the day before the album came out, musing on the legacy of the band, how his relationship to film influences his songwriting, the reflections on a life lived that come with middle-age, and when he feels the song is finished, if ever.

Nicholas Russell (Under the Radar): Hey Dan.

Dan Bejar: Hey man.

How’s it going? You might hear some sounds in the background. They’re fixing the AC in this room.

I can live with it. I’m good. I’m at home. The weather is getting good. Springlike.

I’m here in Vegas. It’s going to be 95 on Saturday.

When is it not 95 there?

Fair enough. So, Labyrinthitis.

Yeah, yeah.

Compared to Have We Met, it’s a much less austere album. I know that record was put together in an almost anticipatory way in terms of the pandemic and working in separate places.

Writing is always pretty solitary. Have We Met definitely sounded like me and John [Collins, producer] sitting in our cubicles and then Nic Bragg just shredding all over it at the end of things. There’s definitely a quiet, intimate quality to the songs and the singing on Have We Met in a way that I didn’t really think, at the time, was the case. In comparison to Labyrinthitis, which was done in a really similar way, but more outside input from the band as far as people just throwing tracks at John and him going to town with them. It was an even more of an isolated process, of course, but there’s something different at the heart of the songs. They’re more outward reaching. They’re faster and louder and there’s more stuff going on. Have We Met had a lot of peaks and valleys and Labyrinthitis is like, not a lot of valleys. It kind of flatlined at a pretty fevered pitch. The first song is long and dreamy, the last song is just me with an acoustic guitar, but in between that, it’s really dense, purposefully so.

It seems that as your albums have gone on, they’ve accrued a certain kind of grandeur, or a cinematic quality. Both in the sound, and the lyrics, which I’ll admit can be hard to parse. But I’ve come to really enjoy the way your words fit together and how they look on a page. Certainly, Labyrinthitis is just a nice shape to look at.

Yeah! That’s why I chose that title, that and the fact that it just looks so invented. It seems both magical and an affliction and then it turned out to be a real thing. Kaputt was the same thing. I didn’t really think about what it meant. In fact, when I chose it, I think I thought it was the last name of a character in a book. I didn’t realize that was how you spelt the expression “kaputt,” but I like the letters.

There’s something almost preverbal about the lyrics. Case in point, “Tintoretto, It’s For You,” which is just so fun to say. And then to hear the song itself. I thought “Oh, Dan got Dave Grohl to play drums on a Destroyer song.”

I almost didn’t recognize myself in that music and that song. With Destroyer, especially with John, you have a concept and pretty immediately the concept falls apart and you’re just left with your sound. “Tintoretto, It’s For You” was born of a concept and somehow the concept remained intact, but it just got stronger and stronger and dug its heels in. When actually faced with it, it was kind of shocking. Almost to the point where I was like, “Ahhhh, I changed my mind about this.” You know, Destroyer songs are generally melancholic and bittersweet and involve major 7s. There’s certain chord and melodic progressions I lean into. “Tintoretto, It’s For You” is kind of an attack on all of those things, relentlessly so. Really, Ted’s piano and the bit of trumpet at the end are the only concessions to my version of what I would listen to. Otherwise, that song doesn’t bear much resemblance to music I would ever put on. It’s a kind of mean-spirited song in that it’s like the Grim Reaper constantly reminding a character that it’s their time to die regardless of their works or what they’ve done. It’s an off-putting song. But the thing is, I like the idea of off-putting. I’ve paid a lot of lip service to that being something that needs to be part of art and embraced. But then, I have to face up to that song. Not to make it sound like a bigger deal than it was. John had such a complete vision for it. This kind of late ’90s mall, synth metal, which is not in my wheelhouse. But the more he pursued it, the more I was caught in the momentum of his vision.

So you don’t listen to Tool?

I don’t listen to Tool. I’m more interested by stuff that was around me when I first started doing music, but I completely tuned out. So, sometimes, things 20 years later will catch my eye. I’ll wonder, “What was that about? Is that something that can be reclaimed?” I remember, at the time, thinking, “This thing was completely a mark of evil. Wouldn’t it be cool if you could somehow turn it around and use it for the forces of good?” Or, maybe I’m just becoming more interested in evil. I don’t know, I can’t really tell what people think of that song. I think people are like, “That’s a cool song,” but I don’t really know if anyone likes it.

Well, I can tell you I’m coming from a drummer’s perspective, so that song is like heaven to me. Destroyer’s songs in general, for a drummer, are pretty interesting and fun to play. They can sometimes do that four-to-the-floor, sixteenth notes sort of thing. “Tintoretto, It’s For You” is so interesting because the drums are so heavy, and then two tracks later, at the beginning of “Eat the Wine, Drink the Bread”–

Where Josh is just flailing.

Exactly! The drums sound so live, which just makes me curious how these songs are going to sound in concert.

I’m curious too! We haven’t seen each other since our last show before the pandemic in Nashville. I’m glad you said that because I think the drums on the record really stand out and Josh Wells, aside from being such a talented drummer, is a really talented engineer. So when he heard about our sick plan for that song, he really steered into it. What came back at us legitimately sounded like a sickening, late ’90s, Dave Grohl-style performance, almost Korn-style. I know Josh had fun doing it. Even though it’s not his style, he has it in him to do shit like that.

That seems to be a microcosm of Destroyer and this album. Sanctioned surprises. I kept thinking that if I were to recommend a record from you guys to someone who had never heard you before, I would say Poison Season or this one.

I do like it in that I think it encapsulates a lot of stuff that I’ve done with John in the past. The spirit of it, whether it’s Your Blues or Kaputt. It has some similarities to Have We Met, though I find those songs quite different. Labyrinthitis didn’t feel like a band record though, just because we made it in such a strange way and because what ended up actually on the album, compared to what people would hand in, got so distorted and contorted. But it is, track by track, the most represented the band has been since Poison Season, so in that sense, I like it a lot. I have no idea how we’ll play these songs. I’m always baffled as to how we’re going to do it, but this time around my bafflement is sincere and immense.

Something I’ve noticed in your live performances is how you have a tendency to really alter the delivery of your lyrics, sometimes drastically, compared to how they sound on the album. Most singers will change things a bit on stage, but you seem to really put some English on them depending on the setting.

I mean, the last couple records, what you’re hearing is the first or second time I’ve ever sung these songs. They’re the first that happens. One thing that hasn’t changed about my process is when I can sing a song a capella from beginning to end, then I’ll know I can try turning it into a song. The vocals are really in the germinal stage and that’s what everyone hears on the album. For Have We Met, I really dug that. I thought it captured me alone at a table in my house singing quietly, almost on the verge of inventing the song. I’m not sure that approach works as well, or in the same way, with the Labyrinthitis songs just because there’s so much more volume and less space involved. They’re not intimate songs. They’re mostly made up of gags. [Laughs] There’s a lot of old man jokes that are taking over. That’s new to Destroyer. If there’s a breakthrough, that might be the horrible truth. Just me no longer being able to censor myself and just sticking whatever I want in there. There’s nothing more indicative of the record than the first line off “Eat the Wine, Drink the Bread,” which is a goofy joke of a title to start with. “Unfounded accusations/Ruff ruff goes the beagle to the terrier.” It’s just language breaking down, humanity breaking down. For all I know, all Destroyer songs are going to be filled with animal songs by the end of the decade.

I also love that line from “June” where you sing “says the cubist judge from cubist jail.”

The second half of “June,” I just have pages of that shit. That’s the kind of stuff that would never make it into Destroyer songs over the last 20 years because it’s unsingable, it’s not melodic, it’s not musical. It’s just these piles of images, piles of sayings. That’s why “June” was so liberating. I could just have at that. But yeah, I don’t know. I feel like the albums and the live shows don’t talk anymore. That’s why I could care less whether we figure out how to play the songs or not. We’ll play them in whatever way we see fit. And I’ll start singing them in ways that will change from the album. For the last 10 years, I’ve felt that the best versions of the songs have been on stage anyway.

I’m always surprised and impressed by how your hardest veer left will still feel very firmly within the Destroyer sound. Sonically, I think Labyrinthitis is one of the band’s most diverse albums, but it never feels off.

Yeah, well, when you look at the people on the record, especially if you focus on the producer, who also played a ton of music on the record, those are names that pop up on a lot of the Destroyer records. It’s a pretty human version of a throughline, you know. Like, the very first record I ever made was wandering into John and Dave’s basement studio. There’s stuff on City of Daughters that you can hear on this one. There are approaches that are similar. A lot of it is just someone saying, “Hey, do you wanna try this?” and me going, “Oh, you can do that?” and just running with it. I get swept in new things that excite me instead of me really trying to hone in and focus on my craft. That’s really a Destroyer theme: the abandonment of craft for the sake of some kind of larger version. That sounds lame but that’s how I see it. A lot of it has to do with my own shortcomings as a musician, as a producer. I really need collaborators. Otherwise, I would probably be sitting squarely in the singer/songwriter box, which has been the main fight of my entire adult life to get out of. I’ll always be fighting it because that’s a big part of me no matter how hard I try to bury it. I get to the end of these wild records and I’m just like, “What the fuck is this?” And then I have a nervous breakdown moment and I write a song like “The Last Song,” just a reminder of what I truly do.

Which of these songs do you feel is the closest to the original concept of the album?

Well, none of them. When we first started talking, we were talking about making a full-on four-to-the-floor techno record. Like, just club music and none of this reminds me of club music. “Suffer,” “Eat the Wine, Drink the Bread,” those were supposed to be techno songs. Part of it is the concept, and part of it is what I actually write. They don’t often line up.

Have you ever done a soundtrack?

Uh…no, I haven’t.

Would you want to? I know you’re a bit of a movie buff.

I mean, I’d love to do any type of music that doesn’t involve me having to figure out how to sing over top of it, at this point. That would take a lot more rigor on my part. But I would like to be more hands-on with music. I’d like to play piano more. I’d like to not worry about what’s a song and what’s not a song, what’s singable and what’s not singable.

Do you ever feel like pointing to a reference, say, a movie, in your songs is too obvious a thing? The proximity of authorial passion and its influence on an artists’ work feels like a big question for a lot of people who listen to Destroyer. Mostly because it seems like they’re trying to divine clarity from the lyrics. Maybe that’s a weird question.

It’s not. I think if you got into the records through Poison Season, that’s probably the most obsessive I’ve been about the idea of what a soundtrack is and what are the qualities of film and what it is to be filmic. Definitely in a 20th-century sense, I was focused on that in the sense of orchestral arrangements and starting to sing more and moments of specific characters, songs that seem like scenes. Especially the ballads like “Bangkok” or “Girl in a Sling.” As far as what I’m saying, I write from a pretty unconscious place. I don’t sit down to tackle an idea, ever. If something comes out, then so be it. But I don’t really attack them like an idea that I need to reckon with.

Is there a period in your life, whether it was your 20s or 30s, whatever, where you feel like your main artistic touchstones were frozen in amber? Do you feel like you’re looking back or still getting into new stuff?

I get excited by new things, but Labyrinthitis is a good example of having a conversation and wanting to try all these new things but where we end up is in a kind of comfort zone that is very reminiscent of music from the mid ’80s, late ’80s, maybe early ’90s when me and John were just music obsessives. I’m not stuck in my teenagehood but there’s something about discovering art in the early days. If you’re gonna be someone who cares about that stuff at all, which is kinda rare. Most people have lives to live. But if you do find that you have a sickness that makes you obsessed with music or obsessed with films or obsessed with books or something, then I think once you get to a certain age, once you become a middle-aged person, you do unconsciously keep falling back on these early touchstones. I still seek out new things and when I don’t find them, I start to get depressed. As far as what you churn out yourself, your comfort zones start to become visible. You can hear it on the last three Destroyer albums, for sure. Even if, say, Poison Season, was probably the record that sounds most like what I listen to at home, the last couple records illuminate more of what’s lurking deep inside of me as far as where I’ve started with music, as a fan.

Read our interview with Destroyer on Have We Met.

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