How Destroyer Became a Timeless Rock Icon

"Me trying to put out a record that keeps up with the trends is essentially like slipping on a banana peel"

Photo: Nicolas Bragg

BY Matt BobkinPublished Mar 24, 2022

Dan Bejar was never supposed to be an icon. Throughout the 2000s, the Vancouver musician had funded his free-wheeling musical pursuits as Destroyer with royalty money from his occasional songwriting contributions to the New Pornographers, which gave him the ability to dabble in different facets of rock music that varied from album to album: some laser-focused indie rock here, sprawling folk there, and a little bit of MIDI-fuelled orchestral experimentation sprinkled in for good measure.

But he struggled to maintain a steady audience of his own. Maybe he had too much freedom. 

"It really seemed like the people who really liked Streethawk hated This Night, and the people who really liked This Night hated Your Blues. It was pretty hard to get everybody on the same page there for a while until Rubies came out, but I didn't give a shit," says Bejar to Exclaim! over the phone from his Vancouver studio. "At that point, being popular wasn't the goal. I didn't know anyone else who wanted that. It wasn't the language that we used. You just made your art and you wanted it to be good and you wanted to be cool, and you just did it and you hoped that maybe someone would show up."

People did show up and, eventually, they stayed. Destroyer went from having a cult following who obsessively pored over his reference-laden lyrics and created Destroyer drinking games to having sizeable, sustained success — a shift cemented with his 2011 soft rock revival LP Kaputt, which went on to define the decade of rock music that unfolded in the ensuing years, and proved time and time again with the albums since.

"It's a little shocking," says Bejar of all the attention he's received since Kaputt. "I mean, it was helpful to be a late bloomer. It's like everyone that's supposed to show up to your shows in your 20s and early 30s kind of waited for my mid-30s and 40s to show up. I remember playing to 20 people in St. Louis when we toured Your Blues. What is that, record [number] six? So, part of it is just like a really a kind of an unnaturally slow crawl to where I am now, at least until I was 40."

You know what they say about slow and steady. A look back at Destroyer's catalogue speaks to a strong, iconoclastic sense of self: stream-of-consciousness lyrics packed with references to visual art, music, film and Bejar's own lyrical canon, anchored by his reedy tenor voice. When Bejar strips his songs of their album-specific arrangements for his acoustic solo shows, they sound as if they were written in the same afternoon, whether they were actually penned in 1995, 2005 or 2015. It's a surprising facet of an artist who sounds unable to sit still, who seems unwilling to follow patterns or trends. If ever Bejar sounds like he's capturing the sound of a moment or fitting alongside his contemporaries, it's by complete fluke, sheer coincidence.

Says Bejar, "If I pay attention to trends, it's only just for comical effect. I think it's really funny, the idea of me trying to stay on top of it. It's practically like me trying to put out a record that keeps up with the trends is essentially like slipping on a banana peel."

Which is why Destroyer's 13th album, LABYRINTHITIS, due March 25 via Merge, sounds like nothing else out there. Most of the album's 10 tracks sound as if thousands of hours of New Order and Art of Noise were fed through a neural net, deliberately chopped up and manipulated — the most overtly digital Destroyer record to date. Instruments loop, Bejar's vocals occasionally skip or distort — it's as if the entire facade of the band were falling apart to reveal a malfunctioning robot, barely keeping it together.

Punk, rock, new wave, funk and even some chillwave are blended in a brisk mix, in his best, and perhaps least focused, record since Kaputt, further establishing Bejar as one of rock music's most consistent creators. No matter what he does or what the music sounds like, it always sounds like it could only come from Destroyer.

Much of the literature on Destroyer focuses around the image of Bejar as a singular auteur. He's the only one who appears in press photos and music videos; he's, of course, the one who heads out alone on Destroyer solo tours; in the music video for LABYRINTHITIS standout "June," his line in the cast credits reads "and Dan Bejar as Destroyer." But though he's the project's nucleus and bandleader, he's hardly the only contributor. 

Part of the reason why LABYRINTHITIS is so bass-heavy is because of producer John Collins, also the band's longtime bassist, who assembled the album at his studio on Galiano Island from tracks the band sent remotely via Dropbox. Bejar mentions that a growing occurrence on Collins-produced Destroyer records are songs that sound nothing like Bejar intended — and that's a good thing.

"Maybe on Have We Met, there's a couple of songs where it's like, 'Whoa, where did that come from?'" says Bejar. "'Cue Synthesizer' springs to mind, and maybe 'University Hill.' But I would say LABYRINTHITIS takes the cake, man, more than any other album I've done, way more than any other record I've done with him. This one is kind of just, like, a pure expression of what he's into, the stuff that, compared to what the initial template was, and then what the song ended up as, I was just like, 'What is this?'"

Collins's influence in particular led to one of LABYRINTHITIS's most defining moments, a three-minute spoken-word performance by Bejar on recent single "June," created after Collins had put together an extended bridge and outro following the more traditional introductory half of the song. It gave Bejar the freedom to deliver a stream of quips like "And speaking of lifelike / This is what life's like" and "'You have to look at it from all angles' / Says the cubist judge from cubist jail." (And this is after he delivered what might be his greatest lyric ever: "A snow angel's a fucking idiot somebody made / A fucking idiot someone made in the snow.")

Rocket-like guitars courtesy of Nicolas Bragg and meteor shower drums by Josh Wells are just as integral to any new Destroyer song as Bejar's voice. Whether the blissful synth soundscapes of "It's in Your Heart Now" and "All My Pretty Dresses" or the tightly wound, late-night joyride grooves of "Suffer," "Eat the Wine, Drink the Bread" and "It Takes a Thief," LABYRINTHITIS wrings jubilation out of variance, commuting its isolated origins into something so free, Bejar has no clue how the band could possibly pull it off live. ("We're just gonna hit it hard and see what happens," he offers.)

While his verbose, reference-laden lyrics and time-trotting sonic palettes may conjure the image of Destroyer as some sort of musical academic, he's long encouraged devotees to not pore over every word and phrase. Bejar is way more concerned with the question of "How does this word sit next to this other word?" than uncovering any sort of deeper truth. Even something like the fabled Destroyer drinking game — forever the emblem of Destroyer's cult fandom from the mid-2000s — causes Bejar to bristle.

"It's not how I wanted to be digested, that's for sure," he says. "That's not how I experience music. I've never liked the idea that Destroyer lyrics are — I mean, this is a funny complaint for someone who calls his album LABYRINTHITIS —  but definitely never wanted them to be experienced as riddles or a series of clues or some kind of puzzle or maze that you're supposed to solve. I want it to be visceral, emotional. Just, like, something that hits you, and hits you hard, because that's my relationship to language and to the sound of someone singing."

It's that visceral feeling, which Bejar refers to as "getting off" multiple times in our conversation, that drives his musical impulses. And, yes, "getting off" means exactly what you think it does. 

He explains, "Just feeling good. The traditional sense of it. The street-level understanding of the words 'getting off.' Just literally getting rocked by a feeling. Like when you see an amazing scene in a movie, or you hear some piece of music that just clobbers you and just, like, throws you. I knew I had that kind of relationship with art, and I wanted to give myself… I think I kinda shocked myself one day. I don't know when it first happened that I gave myself that feeling, and then I just got addicted to it."

Twenty-seven years, over a dozen albums and thousands of concerts later, he still hasn't internalized his success.

"That's still mind-blowing to me," he acknowledges. "I guess the idea is that, well, I'm a human being, and I do this to myself, and maybe there's another human being and it will have a similar effect on them. I think that's how that works. But it sure took a while for that idea to seep in."

But when asked if his sustained success brings him any pride, Bejar is quick to answer: "No.

"Proud of what? 'Cause it's good? 'Cause it's bad? Because I've written so many songs, like the quantity? That's kind of a funny thing to be proud of. I don't think pride really enters the picture. I don't really know if I did something to truly help my fellow humans. I didn't save a baby down a well or anything."

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