Writer, Thinker, Creator, Destroyer

Photo: Mark Coatsworth

BY James KeastPublished Mar 1, 2006

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 realize 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.

"Really? I said that? Fucking liar!" It's Bejar's reaction to a quote about his songwriting process from an interview with an American urban weekly. "That's the thing with doing interviews. Within a 24-hour span, I can completely disagree with every single thing I've said in some interview that I gave a day and a half ago."

When Thief was released in 2000, he freely admitted that it was a concept record about the music industry. "Every song in some form or another has allusions to the music industry, usually in a negative light," he said then. He also fully expected that few listeners would notice. "Realistically, not a lot of people listen to lyrics in pop music — I have a feeling that element might just fall by the wayside." At the time, Bejar eschewed the typical writer response that a listener brings his own interpretation to the work; being candid appealed to him precisely for being unexpected. About being obscure, he said in 2000: "It's the classic response." He also admitted, "I'm kind of into that, but in another way, it would be so cool if I could actually explain some kind of operating system within the lyrics, pull it together and say 'This is what this is about.'"

Six years later, Thief and its follow-up, Streethawk, are routinely accepted as music-industry treatises, but Bejar's openness about that has disappeared. "That's just not it," he says of the interpretation now.

He doesn't deny that the "sinister romance" between art and commerce remains a touchstone in his lyrics, but he thinks that critics are mistaking scenery for symbolism. "It's good to create a social backdrop for any song. [Art and commerce] come up, I don't know why. Like in a great Smiths song, the burnt out factory is the backdrop [but] it's not about the factory. You just need some scenery."

The more critics and fans want to drape him in the mantel of naysayer to the music biz, the more he dismisses it. "'Hey, baby baby' is actually a much more universal, primary theme than 'Hey, what am I doing here, presenting you this thing?' A song will never last that's about that — not that I've ever written a song that's about those things. I think love and death and working the soil are all themes that should probably get addressed before art and commerce."

Bejar refused to talk to Exclaim! about Streethawk when it was released in 2001, and has given only occasional, contradictory interviews to a handful of media outlets in the last half-decade, but his seemingly haphazard artistic moves have added fuel to the fire of those who want to see his lyrical attack on the industry played out against the backdrop of his career. There was 2002's rocked-up band project This Night, where "lots of things got an extreme, violent makeover, which is cool." It was followed by 2004's Your Blues. To create it, Dan entered a Vancouver studio by himself and — aided by long-time engineer/producer friends John Collins and Dave Carswell — recorded a musical backdrop entirely with MIDI-triggered instruments. Destroyer reinvented itself again on a rare tour backed by Frog Eyes, a Victoria-based band that share both his pop instincts and his ability to steamroll through them; together, they recorded an EP, Notorious Lightning and Other Works, of Your Blues material.

Every time someone tries to pin Dan Bejar down, he squirms away. By the time the New Pornographers' third album, Twin Cinema, was released last autumn, it was commonly discussed that Bejar wrote and recorded but didn't perform with the band — so he joined their entire fall tour. "It was like summer camp," he says of the experience.

That's not how Destroyer views touring in general though; the idea of late nights of drinking far from home holds no appeal. "I don't go to rock bars at home, so I don't know why I should have to spend a month constantly in one. Most of the places I go to [on tour], I'm not interested in travelling to. I don't like playing music live that much — I think it's weird to play again and again, one night after another. I usually have to recover from a good show, much less a bad one."

Looking back at the arc of Destroyer's career since Thief, radical makeovers and "difficult" listening abound; in contrast, Destroyer's Rubies is (relatively speaking) melodic, catchy and straightforward. Mere weeks before its release, he tries to puncture good buzz about it, dismissing it as "yawn rock" and "afternoon rock," and admits "you start wondering if you're making something that's not worthy of rousing any kind of emotion at all."

His wariness stems in part from the fact that Rubies' creation came easy to him. For it, he put together a band of "friends of mine that I've played with in one form or another in the past," including Streethawk contributor Scott Morgan on drums and one-time NP member Fisher Rose.

Dan Bejar is suspicious of what comes easily to him, but he's more wary of falling into step with current trends. "Indie rock, or college rock — whatever you feel like calling it — has a certain angularity and a veneer of abrasiveness. Even when it's a Dodge Caravan ad, it has a herky-jerky sound that seems pretty popular. Destroyer's Rubies has a lot of rounded edges." If abrasiveness is the current It, Bejar is willing to embrace a soft rock Other.

He doesn't articulate why but does point to reasons why not. "It wasn't like 'I have to reinvent myself to stay fresh for the market.' I couldn't care less about that. I'm not changing for sake of change — that has a whiff of desperation about it. There are just a handful of styles of records that I wanted to try my hand at, and did. I don't know if I hit the mark, but I tried anyway."

For Bejar, the key is in the attempt. Not some half-baked, "good for you" trying, but risking, challenging and striving. In order to attain making great records, an artist has to risk making bad ones.

It's commonly accepted in urban culture that real estate value follows artists. If you want to know what neighbourhood will be gentrified in the next decade, find out where artists are living now. He would scoff at the idea of being a trendsetter in musical real estate — the very idea is laughable given the world in which Bejar works — but Destroyer's need to be defined as separate from current trends in music culture has made for some interesting moves. He needs a stark contrast to play against, increasingly so now that the New Pornographers' critical and commercial success has splashed back onto Destroyer. (Rubies was recently reviewed, very positively, by Entertainment Weekly, mainstream attention that would once have been unthinkable to him.)

His newest Other is an old one: the long-standing truism that rock'n'roll is a young person's game. "There's a time release poison that goes off and kills you at the age of 40 and you're not able to make a good piece of music after that," he says. "You can try and use two hands to count the people who've escaped that, but you probably only need one."

It's a useful canvas to put himself against, not as a rocker but as a writer. "As a novelist or a poet, [age 40] is when you come into your own. That's when you're finally ready to make your major work. [In music], your best work is behind you, no matter what. It's what scares me most about rock music, it just seems to turn to shit the minute it's not wrapped up in some kind of youthful energy, which is something I couldn't be less interested in."

It's one of the few disingenuous moments in the interview, in part because Bejar, at 33, is hardly knocking down the door of his fourth decade, but also because it's clear that he is curious about "youthful energy" and he is a keen observer and consumer of new music. When he says "I don't really know what some kid into Lightning Bolt is going to think of the record," it's a lie. He knows exactly where he fits in current noise-rock trends: not at all. He knows because he put himself there.

Dan Bejar's style of writing — lately a cavalcade of evocative, disconnected images, à la Bob Dylan — doesn't just lack clarity; it twists and contorts attempts at interpretation. His ongoing habit of self-reference (from the album title on down) is at its peak on Destroyer's Rubies, giving the impression of either monstrous self-absorption or the creation of an entire fictional universe in which his "Destroyer" lives. It's a challenge that music critics — hampered on two sides by word counts and deadlines — have either dismissed (calling him incomprehensible) or taken to extremes, like in one online essay comparing him to 19th century Madame Bovary author Gustav Flaubert. "Sometimes it feels like someone needs to make a point: this is literary writing," Dan responds. "Although I haven't read Flaubert — maybe it's exactly the same as a Destroyer song."

Part of the challenge is that Destroyer is the opposite of contemporary music culture that consumes and spits out It bands at an alarming rate. Where pop is disposable, Destroyer is sturdy; while music is immediate, Destroyer requires thought, attention and time to absorb. He's participated in radio-friendly hits, but now that he's proven his facility as a songwriter, he turns his eye to something bigger: a legacy. "You start thinking about the tradition of song or the history that you're part of — trying to place yourself within it or consciously place yourself outside of it, whatever. It's something I think about a lot — what is it that makes a song worthwhile? Finding a tradition of writing in music that you like and figuring out how to extend that tradition without just feeding off it."

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