Writer, Thinker, Creator, Destroyer
I feel like Dan Bejar's perfect foil, setting the rules that he can refuse to play by. I've offered his Destroyer project the cover of Exclaim! (several times) and he's said no. He doesn't like to do interviews (he talked to the magazine twice six years ago, for the 2000 release of his third album, Thief, and the New Pornographers' debut, Mass Romantic), and likes to set conditions for photo shoots that no magazine will agree to: he wanted the New Pornographers with their backs to the camera; he wanted a photo of himself with his face obscured; he wanted his Victoria-based backing band Frog Eyes pictured without him.
His six full-length albums to date have each been brilliant, densely literate works of glam rock bombast weighty enough to require months of absorption, and the arrival of his seventh (his third on Merge Records), Destroyer's Rubies, came with those expectations. I approached his ever-patient publicist again, this time only half-heartedly asking if Bejar was interested in an interview. He said yes. When I expressed displeasure at Bejar's penchant for blurry and obscured press photos, we were invited to bring a photographer. When I expected Bejar to be cagey, he was open. I anticipated he'd be difficult; he was affable. I expected Destroyer's Rubies to be challengingly arty; instead, it's his most accessible in years. "A mature, breezy, easy listening version of Destroyer," is how he jokingly describes it.
Dan Bejar is a writer and a thinker in music's most visceral, anti-intellectual realm, rock'n'roll. He's an artist in a medium that doesn't respect creativity and a lyricist in a world only seeking the next booty-shaking riff. He is the Other to the rock world's It, and in the moments that he's been accepted as part of It — the rising success of the New Pornographers, for example — he's redefined what being Other is. As rock gets angular, he's become melodic; as the scene embraces post-punk, he invokes mid-'70s "Love Will Keep Us Together" hit-makers the Captain and Tennille.
One thing Dan Bejar is not, for all his contradictory tendencies, is a jerk. His is not a reactionary "take my toys and go" response. In fact, it's his natural gifts that prompt his contradictory poses — if Bejar's pop hooks didn't come to him so easily, he might dismiss them less. If his writing were less instinctive, he might not fight it as much. But Dan Bejar remains an artist and good art is not easy art.
Destroyer — the name has followed Bejar through solo and various band incarnations — found its footing in the late '90s after two tentative albums: the home-recorded debut We'll Build Them A Golden Bridge and the more ambitious half-band, half-solo City of Daughters. It was with 2000's Thief that he made his first statement; its epic grandeur and scabrous attack on the machinations of the music industry wowed listeners seeking a little more meat with their rock happy meal.
Simultaneously, Bejar was a peripheral participant in the construction of Vancouver's greatest supergroup, the New Pornographers. Intrigued by front-man Carl Newman's concept for the bombastic popsmiths, Bejar let Newman have his way with a handful of Destroyer tunes, including Golden Bridge's "Breakin' the Law." Joined by Neko Case and other Vancouver indie rock friends, Bejar sang on some tracks, played a handful of instruments and didn't think much of the months and more months that passed before the New Pornographers' debut, Mass Romantic, was released. At the time, the project could have shared the fate of Newman's other bands Zumpano and Superconductor: ambitious, admired, and under-heard. Yet Bejar had a sense of the New Pornographers' potential success — and his own role in it. He tagged the band as having immediate mainstream potential and declared: "I'd probably have to ditch the band if that happened."
Within months of its release, the New Pornographers' hit "Letter From An Occupant" could be heard in the aisles of Wal-Mart. After playing a handful of early NP gigs, Bejar retreated to Destroyer and work began in earnest on his fourth album, the masterpiece Streethawk: A Seduction. Bejar wrote and performed on a handful of songs on the New Pornographers' two subsequent records, contributing "Chump Change," "Testament to Youth In Verse" and "Ballad of a Comeback Kid" to The Electric Version, and "Jackie, Dressed In Cobras," "Broken Breads" and "Streets of Fire" to last year's Twin Cinema.
"To quote Carl," Bejar says, "it doesn't take a genius to listen to the last three New Pornographers records and the last three Destroyer records and hear a gulf between them." In the context of the New Pornographers, Newman crafts arrangements to highlight and beef up Bejar's embedded melodic hooks, upping the bombast and crescendos until they realise their most immediate, satisfying potential. As Destroyer, Bejar regularly steamrolls past his catchiest moments like they were a highway car wreck he's ashamed to gawk at. He'll take the most pop-tastic hooky chorus and make it the bridge of a song or smother his lyrical cleverness in a speedy, Dylan-esque delivery that occasionally renders them incomprehensible.
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