Published Dec 20, 2013If there's one thing that Destroyer fans can count on, it's that Dan Bejar always has new tricks up his sleeve, and Five Spanish Songs is yet another about-face from the unpredictable singer. Breaking away from the jazzy soft rock of 2011's Kaputt, the EP finds the New Pornographers member signing in Spanish for the first time, and covering tracks by Antonio Luque of the band Sr. Chinarro. Apart from the fact that he's singing in a foreign tongue, however, the EP isn't as stylistically coherent as most of Bejar's works. Each track here highlights a new sonic palette, as the frontman and his collaborators move unpredictably from graceful folk rock to cheeky glam riffage to cosmically synth-laced guitar jams. In between legs of his solo acoustic tour, Bejar answered Exclaim!'s phone call to discuss the EP's diverse sound, his decision to sing in Spanish, and what it's like to tour as a solo performer.
What led you to focus on Antonio Luque's work?
I had this idea of doing a really long version of [jazz standard] "Mack the Knife," maybe with my friend Carey [Mercer of Frog Eyes] helping out on vocals. I just couldn't get my head around singing it. It seemed really hard to me. I think I also maybe wanted to do some other covers — I was thinking of putting out a covers EP, a covers record. It had been in my head for a while. It proved to be really hard. I thought I would be really good at it, and I wasn't. And then I thought maybe I'd be better at signing in Spanish, and I think I was. Chinarro happened to be someone who I was a huge fan of for like 20 years. I knew the songs really well. I wanted to just go in and record it fast. I wanted it to be fun, I didn't want it to be laborious. So that's kind of how it happened — I had the idea and then I ditched it and then I decided to try and pull it off last-minute. I just went into the studio for a couple weeks in the spring — that's when it was, June or something — and did it.
How is your Spanish comprehension? Do you fully understand what you're singing about?
Now I do. Normally, [with] your average Spanish pop song, if I can sit down and scan the lyric sheet, it's pretty easy. But Luque's not an easy writer. It's like a mix of high-brow language and a lot of colloquial shit — things that I'm not going to pick up on. Some of it came kind of easier than others. The earlier stuff, which is maybe why I steered clear of it, is particularly dense and obscure, but always sung a very natural way, which is probably something that influenced me, 'cause that's something I've tried to do in the past. My Spanish is okay, but it's definitely not as level where I could even begin to, say, try and translate the words so they had any poetic content.
So you're not at the point of being able to write an original song in Spanish?
Not even close, and I never would, I don't think.
When recording these songs, how did your approach differ from what you might do when recording your own material in English?
Things happened really quick. With my own stuff, I'd probably be more fretful about it all, which is annoying, but it's just the way it goes. There were less people involved. Less elements to juggle. I guess that's why, even as just five songs, it kind of jumps around so much genre-wise or sound-wise. Depending on the day, I was just like 'Let's try this,' or 'Let's try this.' There's a couple songs that kind of sound like ideas I might have had for Destroyer stuff, like the song "Babieca," which kind of turned into a real guitar workout, in a way I really like. Or the song "Del Monton," which is supposed to have this Paolo Conte-style Euro cafe jazz kind of cabaret swing to it. That's an aging singing style that I'm a bit of a sucker for. Stuff like that has been floating around in my head, and the other stuff was pretty off-the-cuff. "El Rito" is a good example of that. I had no idea that was going to turn into this grooving, Suede-style bubblegum stomper, but it did. It happened really fast, almost in real time — as "real time" as things can get when you're just a couple dudes sitting around a computer with their guitars plugged into whatever happened to be there.
There doesn't seem like there is a concept or an overarching aesthetic, beyond the fact that you are covering these songs and singing in Spanish. The sonic consistency of Kaputt seems to have been left behind.
Yeah, I definitely wanted to leave that behind on this record. I wanted to do whatever we felt like in that given moment, and not worry about some unified architecture. Because [a consistent sonic concept] can be cool if you're willing to dig in and entrench yourself in a world for however long it takes, but I also think it's kind of not fun and it can be lame. It can be an obvious way for people to like your record, or for people to take it more seriously. That was stuff I didn't want to think about — I just wanted to have fun and sing in Spanish, and I knew that these were songs I could sing because I loved them, and I would sing along to them in the car, doing dishes, or whatever. I knew I could do it, and I knew it would be a good project for me to remind myself what it is to make music. It's not always about imposing your vision on the world.
Did you avoid traditionally Latin-sounding arrangements?
I avoided anything that I thought we would be terrible at. [Laughs] I don't know if that's an answer. Luque is from Andalucía [in Spain], and if he really wanted to explore that vein, he could do so in a way that would be much more compelling than I could. At JC/DC [studios], what we have at our disposal — that maybe he didn't have — is supreme knowledge of the record Some Girls by the Rolling Stones.
You recently completed a solo acoustic tour. How was that experience compared to touring with such a large Kaputt band?
It's a 100 percent different. Well, maybe — let's see, how many times does eight go into one? It's like maybe 12.3 percent. So it's like 88 percent different, maybe not a 100 percent different. It's super strange, but kind of cool in its own way. It kind of reminds me of what exactly that I do, because there's no veil. I'm the guy who strings together chords and sings words overtop of them, and I when I play shows this way, what I do is, I softly strum those chords and try to sing those words in a way that is somehow in touch with the spirit of the song when I first wrote it, however many decades ago that might have been. Which is something that, in the last couple years, people didn't maybe get exposed to. Or, they got exposed to it a little bit, but it wasn't at the forefront, because I definitely didn't want it to be at the forefront of those shows.
Do you see it as an indication of what you might do in the future, or is it just a one-off?
You mean would I ever just sit down and press record and start strumming a guitar and singing?
No, I don't think so. I have a bunch of songs; I don't think any of their futures lie in that direction. I'm not terribly interested in recording myself as a guitar player. I've still got big dreams.