Destroyer Discusses the Sinister Politics of 'ken' and Why He Sat Out the New Pornographers' Latest LP

Destroyer Discusses the Sinister Politics of 'ken' and Why He Sat Out the New Pornographers' Latest LP
Photo: Ted Bois
Even with the tumultuous state of the world in 2017, Dan Bejar isn't the kind of songwriter who's going to write an overtly political song. Over the course of his 11 Destroyer full-lengths — plus collaborative side-projects the New Pornographers and Swan Lake — he's never written a song with an obvious theme or meaning, preferring instead to string together cryptic images and enigmatic non-sequiturs.
That doesn't change on his latest LP, ken, although Bejar observes that there's a subtle undercurrent of social tension running throughout the 11 songs.
"It seems like a much more negative record than most Destroyer records," he tells Exclaim! while on a stroll in Vancouver. "This one is cold and stark. All the terms tossed around are quite extreme. There are constant references to sickness, madness, decadence, decay, violence — all seen from a far-away eye."
This is certainly the case on the standout track "Tinseltown Swimming in Blood," a song that combines sultry, echoing trumpet (à la his 2011 schmaltz-pop masterpiece Kaputt) with an aqueous new wave groove akin to New Order. It contains lyrics about dead flowers, the Arctic and, of course, the titular image of a bloody Tinseltown — which could either be an allusion to Hollywood or the bleak shopping mall in Vancouver's Chinatown, close to where Bejar lives.
Then there's dance-pop-inflected closer "La Regle du Jeu," which borrows its name from a 1939 French film. Bejar says that the title phrase, which translates as "the rules of the game," reminds him of a "preface to the apocalypse." He says wryly, "I feel like I'm singing to America a bit in that song, and so I definitely wanted to sing to them in a language that they don't understand, referring over and over again to a movie that they've probably never seen."
Despite these dark lyrics, the music on the record is vibrant and sonically diverse. Recorded with Destroyer drummer Joshua Wells (also of Black Mountain) in the band's Balloon Factory practice space, it draws on stomping fuzz-pop, electro-flecked baroque balladry and crunchy electro-rock.
Bejar says his primary inspirations for the record were the British indie bands from the '80s that he loved as a teenager; he rattles off a lengthy list that includes Cocteau Twins, the Jesus and Mary Chain and Psychedelic Furs.
"What did suburban Vancouver have to do with Manchester in 1987? There probably could be very few more disparate points on the planet," he remembers of these formative teenage influences. "But that's the power of music, or the power of art in general. These fictions just explode in your mind, and there's an intensity there that you never really get back. That's part of being young."
Bejar was so immersed in writing ken that he opted to sit out the New Pornographers' recent album Whiteout Conditions, marking the first time that the power-pop collective have made a record without him. "I didn't look at the songs I'd written and see a New Pornographers song," he explains. "I just didn't feel the aesthetic at the moment."
He also knew that his Destroyer commitments meant he wouldn't be able tour with the New Porns. Still, he remains an official member of the collective, and he sang a few songs at their recent hometown Vancouver show.
So will Bejar be contributing to the next New Pornographers album?
"I'm just playing it by ear," he says. "I don't really think that far ahead. Especially right now, I'm staring at zero songs. I'm like a blank slate. I could be anything now — or nothing. The idea of having a song right now seems like the most exotic thing in the world."
ken is out October 20 on Merge Records.