Destroyer - Photo by Fabio la Carranza

Photo by Fabio la Carranza

Time is a relative element and Dan Bejar doesn’t really care that much about it anymore. With his alter ego DESTROYER it took him 15 years and nine albums before 2011’s Kaputt finally brought him at least a bit indie stardom. He’s turning 43 this fall and couldn’t be less interested in major success or pleasing the masses. No, Bejar remains a stubborn character on its own; one that doesn’t rush into things anymore. He’s rather facing you with an honest frown than with a fake smile. He might sound grumpy when you meet him in person but behind that facade is one of contemporary music’s most talented and interesting songwriters, one that sees far more opportunities in pop music than many other artists today.

Nineteen years after his self-recorded lo-fi debut We’ll Build Them A Golden Bridge his alter ego DESTROYER will release a new album called Poison Season on August 28. Much more than on the records before Bejar found a voice of his own. Yes, Kaputt might have been the catchier record but this one comes way closer to the idea of what DESTROYER should be about. ‘You can hear that I sound like a singer this time, not just somebody who are having a musical literature project,’ explains Bejar to us when we met him for a brief talk on a sunny summer day Berlin to talk about the release and a few more aspects of it.

In retrospect: Would you consider ‘Kaputt’ more a blessing or a burden?
It’s definitely a blessing ’cause it gave me a bunch of money I could spend on this new album. It’s a record that I wanted to make for a long time now, to be honest…

In terms of its sound or what elements?
Yes, the sound and also having the chance to go to a really large studio with great equipment. I was able to record the sound of the band playing together which felt truly easy and natural. And for the second recording session I brought in the strings and was actually just very happy to hire them and someone to do proper arrangements. That wasn’t really possible before Kaputt.

‘This album is a product of extremes’

Are all the songs live recordings?
Most of them are, yes. At least, a few takes. Dream Lover especially since it was conceived as a totally inconsequent song. The live energy really comes though in this one

Was that also a bit a counterpoint to Kaputt which felt like a precisely planned pop album?
Yeah, because that’s also what I felt on stage with this group of people. And although it’s pretty much the same group of people that played on Kaputt it feels like we played together as an actual group of human beings this time instead of just recording separate tracks and trying to make sense of it afterwards at the computer.

Have there been more things you were trying to avoid during the recording of Poison Season?
Yeah, lot of things. It wasn’t really that much about actually avoiding things because I never work in a conscious way like this. I recorded more pop-sounding tracks in the course of this album but for a long time I was struggling with them. I didn’t really know why because people keep telling me they were the catchiest songs of the album. They just didn’t fit the mood of the record. This album is a product of extremes and those songs seemed too pleasant to be put on it.

‘Films have always been my first love’

Is the concept of the album more based on a lyrical or a musical theme?
I think it’s more the musical setting. I like the idea of having certain motifs on a record that repeat itself in the course of its duration. Just take the Times Square songs of the album. It’s compelling but also abstract and dissonant at the same time.

I prefer the string version that opens the album over the full-band version…
Me too and that was always the main idea. The other one is just a good document of a specific DESTROYER sound we’ve been doing for 15 years now. (laughs)

Especially the string arrangements feel like they’ve been heavily inspired by classical Hollywood scores. Is that intentional?
Yeah. The last few years I’ve been listening to more instrumental music and film music is definitely something that is a part of that tradition. Films have always been my first love and in the past I probably referenced that more via the lyrics than with the actual music. Now, I am more into the idea of creating proper dramatic backgrounds for my songs.

What came first in these cases… that dramatic background or the songs itself?
I always write the words first as this is the part that always comes easiest to me. I can’t really explain it, it just happens.

Destroyer - Live

Photo by Guillaume (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Poison Season is definitely the most ambitious DESTROYER release so far. Dan Bejar unfolds an epic pop music draft, drenched in strings, attached with glam rock elements, big band flavour and the songwriter in the middle of this furious storm. Bejar is a storyteller and Poison Season is packed with bittersweet ballads about failed love, bizarre human behaviour and finding romance in the most absurd scenarios. It’s a record that needs a bit time to grow and it doesn’t sound that much like the irresistibly catchy Kaputt although it benefits from the same DNA. ‘Three of the songs were from the Kaputt sessions,’ tells us the musician, ‘I just didn’t want them to become pop songs.’

In 2015 Bejar is closer to Sinatra than to Dylan. When you meet the Canadian artist in person he seems surprisingly calm, a bit reserved but most of the time quite thoughtful. He feels a bit like the last dandy standing, an oddball in the accelerating pop culture. That’s only one reason why DESTROYER seeks his inspiration more in the past than in contemporary pop culture. Timelessness dominates the aspect of his music; he’s not rushing into things. Poison Season is a testament of that philosophy, one that isn’t afraid of constant reinvention when it comes to his band. Maybe that’s also what makes the idea behind it so hard to manifest.

What’s the actual idea behind DESTROYER? It is about having the creative freedom to let every album sound unique?
I once suffered from the illusion that DESTROYER was a static approach you could apply to anything. Now, I think it’s just a name for a certain kind of recorded music and its live performance which is a fairly simple definition.

What are the main elements of the indie scene that changed over the past 20 years in your opinion?
I’m not really involved in the same scene I was involved back when I started in the 90s. My friends from back then still do music. They do it on their own terms, they put out records, release them locally and play a few small shows. I mean, not so much as anybody of us used to. It’s not such a huge social thing anymore which is a huge reason for joining a band when you’re younger. Touring becomes stranger anyway once you get older. Living in a bus with nine other men for two or three months feels like a strange thing for a man in his forties to do. (laughs)

‘Today’s musical generation seems very short-living’

Since the music industry suffers from a constant crisis today’s generation can’t allow itself something light a flop record or the slow build-up of a career in the same style DESTROYER did…
There’s plenty of people I know who I can’t imagine not recording music, regardless of who writes about their records of attend their shows. And those people will always be there. I assume that today’s underground works in a similar way it did twenty years ago although I think everything moves a bit faster in terms of how you become popular. It reminds me a bit of how the British music press scene used to work in the 80s. NME, Melody Maker and all these magazines I used to read when I first got into music. Everyone knew about the next big thing immediately after they recorded their first single and eight months later most of these bands were already gone again. Today’s musical generation seems very short-living but that could also just be the impression of someone from the older generation.

Speaking of the different generations. You are inspired by a lot of classical artists. Any new acts that inspired you lately?
Only a few, indeed. JENNIFER CASTLE, a songwriter from Toronto released her album Pink City last year and that’s one of my favourite ‘new’ albums. And FROG EYES are another Canadian band I can highly recommend.

You put so much effort in your stories and the lyrical content of your songs. Far too many musicians are less brave when it comes to songwriting these days. Any explanation for this?
I’m afraid I don’t have an answer for this. Songwriting is the part that comes to me most instinctively so I can’t really explain it. There was a time in popular music in the 60s that was a bit similar to what we are facing today. But there was also a movement that embraced poetic and provocative lyrics back then. But I think in American pop culture it’s been dead in the water for at least 40 years.

That sounds sceptical. Would you also consider yourself a pessimist?
I might be sceptical but I’m not sure if that comes across my music. I’m more of a romantic but I think that even fatalism can be romantic so that might answer your question.

‘It would be nice to escape that pressure of writing lyrics’

Indeed, on the record there’s a lot of love in the middle of a pessimistic setting.
I think there’s something dystopic about Poison Season; a mean darkness to some parts of it that is not typical to other DESTROYER songs. Maybe it was a phase I was passing through.

Where do you intend to go with DESTROYER in the future? Since you mentioned your love for instrumental movie scores earlier I can totally see you heading in such a direction.
I would like to play and record more music for myself. It’s been a long time since I’ve done that. I think maybe a pure solo record, something I haven’t done in ages. It’s been twenty years since I’ve done one and it feels right to do another one. You’re right, it would be healthy for me to record a proper instrumental album. I don’t want to say that it’s a burden to sing words on my music but it became such a crucial part of the last years that it would be nice to escape that pressure of writing lyrics for a bit. I think this is a potential path for DESTROYER in the next years.