Though Dan Bejar has recorded with many different bands and projects over the last three decades, he is Destroyer. Last year’s gauzy pop masterpiece, Kaputt, is maybe the most widely loved thing that personal passion project has ever done, though it came from rejecting creative methods that had defined his previous work. Now, touring its songs into a second year, he’s in a good place to really reflect on it, and is still learning new things about the rest of his records, which just happen to make up the finest glam rock songbook anyone’s produced in two decades.
We caught Dan holed up in Phoenix, en gradual route to his Brooklyn shows. We talked about Kaputt and what comes after, a tour which has him performing his huge back catalog for the first time ever, what his continued development as a pop singer requires him to be, and how Bryan Ferry’s career trajectory is the one that continues to guide and spook him, both.
The L Magazine: Are you still touring with the same group of people who were playing the Kaputt shows last year?
Dan Bejar: It’s a different lineup. About half the same, half different. The rhythm section is different, which always changes everything, a different piano player. The horns are the same, and the guitars players are the same.
What about the performances feels most different to you?
It’s a looser congregation, people go off a bit more. Also, it’s not like a new song showcase, which was the case last year. Most of our energy went to wrapping our heads around how to play those Kaputt songs, which were completely pieced together in the studio and couldn’t be further from being band performances. It’s also maybe the first time that a band I’ve toured with has just learned a shitload of Destroyer songs.
How did you go about building the set lists?
It was kind of a mix of songs that were either in keeping with the spirit of how we were playing, or songs that were open-ended enough that we could totally throw out the recorded version and just make it what we wanted it to be. Nothing super-duper old. I’m thinking the oldest stuff we are doing is maybe 1999. Which does feel incredibly old when I say it out loud.
I was listening to Streethawk: A Seduction the other day and I realized it was released 11 years ago. If that seemed weird to me, it must seem weird to you.
Yeah, it definitely does. Singing some of those songs is a strange experience. Destroyer did not really tour back then, so some of those songs have never been played on a stage, you know?
In the moment when you're playing an older song with a much bigger band, or wildly different instrumentation, does it ever take on a different meaning for you? Or if you hear something in the song that’s way different than the intent when you were writing it?
There are a couple songs where I feel like we nail it way better than the recorded versions. I don’t know if that’s because I have a better understanding of what the song is, or if it’s the circumstance. I mean, the band that is Destroyer right now is kind of a bad-ass band in some ways. They’re like animals, you throw out a piece of meat and they devour it. The meat being a song.
Do you prefer playing with this big a set-up to playing smaller, or solo?
Oh, I despise playing solo. I’ll probably never do that again in my life. Maybe I’ll never go on tour again in my life, period. It’s too nerve-wracking, and also it’s just too distant from how I hear things in my head. There’s nothing I hate more than the sound of me playing guitar for a long time. I am really just enjoying not playing that instrument. My interest in recording rock music songs in a traditional band setting might be at an all-time low.
Do you think there’s another record to be made within Kaputt’s sound? Or is that just the self-contained record where Destroyer sounds like that?
I don’t know if I’m interested in doing another pop record. And that’s what Kaputt is—a Destroyer pop record. That being said, it’s kind of a careful construction as far as the melodies are concerned, even though it’s mostly built from improvised parts. There’s a focus on arrangement to it that I’m probably going to continue. I’m not sure I have that much vested in the world of disco balladry. I don’t really like it as a form, but I find it easy to sing to. I don’t know if that’s a natural marriage made in heaven… or hell.
The way that a lot of people ended up talking about that record, or experiencing it, was that they were… surprised, I guess, to be enjoying those sounds. It was an elevated take, or maybe a tasteful take on that kind of music. In general, do you think that certain styles of music are inherently tasteful or distasteful? Or is it just 100% execution?
Well, I can’t really express myself in real time on an instrument, as a composing tool. I think that if I could, I would have a more loyal or admirable stand when it comes to styles of music and what is tasteful or what isn’t tasteful. But I don’t.
I spent maybe ten years trying to be a rock n’ roll poet singer, and I’m not sure that’s necessarily my forte. I don’t know if being a lounge crooner is my forte either, but I’m kind of into it. In my mind, what I think people most reacted to was the absence of my voice. (Laughs) I don’t know if people like that, not hearing me.
You’ve said you wanted to focus on being a singer more. In the past year of doing that, do you think you’ve become a better singer?
I don’t know if it’s better. When I put down the guitar for this record, I felt like it was a good, kind of necessary move. Maybe it was emblematic of something. All I’m doing when I’m on stage now is closing my eyes and trying to imagine my voice. I’ve had to overdo it a bit, emptying myself out and being this kind of black entity. There’s an absence on the record which is kind of interesting. But I don’t know if that’s like, my lifetime calling. I can probably start at that point, but inject a little bit more of myself into it, and still think it’s pretty cool. Stay calm, but also inject emotion, somehow.
You had also said the process of writing lyrics was a lot different for the last record was than for previous records…
The entire record was written as a series of voice memos. Not just the lyrics, but the melodies, everything was just mental notes to myself. Before that, you know, I would write things down like a writer does.
How is writing songs by recording your thoughts different from scribbling things down on a notepad?[page-3]
I think it’s totally different. How I sang that record is essentially how I uttered it into my fucking recorder to myself. It’s a voice memo record. That was pretty much the whole idea. I write things in my mind as if I were a writer. I like the lyrics on Trouble in Dreams. It’s maybe my high-water mark. It’s not going to get better than that as far as poetic content and value. Which is interesting, because that’s a really flawed record. But I’m not sure Kaputt has any literary value, whatsoever, aside from maybe the song where half the lyrics were co-written by Kara Walker.
Did you ever use to find yourself with an idea and no notepad? Did you ever lose ideas you couldn’t get back?
I think I just had more ideas. There are lots and lots of words, a tumble of images, constantly. I was trying to get it all in there, because I thought that was kind of cool sounding—me, frothing at the mouth. At some point, I just stopped wanting to do that. I started listening to ambient music, and I wanted Destroyer to sound like music you could hear in a public space, in a waiting room. I know that sounds bad. My voice kind of punctures that façade a bit. I wanted it to puncture it as little as possible.
I wanted to talk to you about Roxy Music, not specifically in regard to Kaputt, though I know that they came up a lot as a comparison. But I’m a big fan also, and I wanted to know which era of that band meant more to you: the Avalon stuff, or the early, Eno-era glam stuff.
Hard to say. That era of the early-70s English scene was my introduction into classic rock. It was the first idea I had for what Destroyer could do. So, I was really, really into those records. The early Eno records, the Roxy records, the T-Rex stuff from that era, Bowie, Mott the Hoople. Even just John Cale, Lou Reed. That was just my thing. All the people I played music with were all really into that shit in the mid-to-late 90s. To be honest I don’t listen to it that much these days.
Maybe Kaputt was me just starting to think about those guys again, but more what they were doing when they were my age. I never really followed them past the disco era. I knew the songs on Avalon a little bit. I knew a little bit of their late-70s stuff. I still really like that.
Aside from the songs and the singing, which are kind of a big deal because Bryan Ferry is a big deal in that band, there’s just something about Avalon. There’s like a lacework to the rhythm section that I found really compelling, and softness to the production that I found dreamlike, and not soft-rock, you know? It’s kind of a classic adult contemporary record, but it’s not really. There’s a level of detail to it, and a level of abstraction. I don’t know how the sounds move. I got kind of lost in it. At the early stages of Kaputt I was a little bit obsessed.
As intricate and alert in the second as it sounds, there’s still a weird distance to it.
Yeah, there really is, it’s hard to figure out what haze that record exists in. I kind of have a couple different theories about what the motivation was. You know like when you are a director, you give an actor’s motivation? I was like, “what is going on with this album?” Thinking it had a kind of post-colonial feeling to it. There is a certain kind of exotic vibe to it. It feels like Bryan Ferry is like a British officer who’s just like, gone dark. (Laughs) He stepped into an opium den and never walked out.
Or like that cut scene in Apocalypse Now, when they are in the ghostly French colonial house in Vietnam?
Yeah, totally, that’s a really good example, actually.
It shouldn’t even be there, and it’s already gone, really…
Yeah, it has this aura of decadence and decay. Completely out of place, but also completely at home. I’m really into Bryan Ferry. I don’t think he is a good person, but there’s something about him as a singer that I’m pretty into these days. I mean, he’s kind of a hilarious guiding light for me.
It’s weird, his last 20 years of music making was pretty dubious, but Bryan Ferry knows where to place his voice, he’s just a natural singer. Who, of course, has made an incredible amount of bad choices.
Since he’s your model, have you become haunted by those?
I’m sure he’s not as haunted by his bad choices as I am.