Charles Brownstein had the opportunity to ask Dan Bejar (Destroyer) about his songwriting process, being compared to the great Harry Nilsson, and quite a few other interesting topics. He and his band are set to hit the road for North American tour this summer.
CB: Some of your songs are often quite challenging to the listener to decipher, are we meant to
interpret them in many ways or are do you have a narrative in mind when you sit down to write
DB: I’ve never sat down to write a song. They strike me generally when I’m out and about and are difficult to capture. And often it’s bits and pieces that rain down over the course of a few days. I haven’t written a song in so long, though, i could be remembering incorrectly. I never think of a narrative. More into cinematography and acting.
CB: You are often compared to Harry Nilsson, Leonard Cohen, and other songwriters. Do you feel that these comparisons are apt or useful in anyway to understanding your music or where you are coming from as a songwriter?
DB: I like Nilsson. His voice still strikes me as a perfect instrument in a lot of ways, which makes the abuse and the ill-use of it all the cooler. As a songwriter we have very little in common.Leonard Cohen I also like. I’d like to think I could grow into that comparison though at this point in my life it still makes no sense to me. In 1995 I listened to Syd Barrett alot. In 2005 I listened to Bob Dylan alot. I like placing myself inside the history of anything. I dig tradition, I’m a bit conservative that way. Which works out, cause songwriting is such an extremely conservative art form. If it is an art form.
CB: You have been known to shake up the band line-up in the past, inviting new members in with new albums, but for your last album, Kaputt, you actually had another artist, Kara Walker, contribute lyrics. Was it hard to let go and let that happen? How did this collaboration come about?
DB: Kara asked me to make a song out of some text she had. I cut it up, moved it around, honed
in on the melodious bits and also the fiery bits. And then filled it out with some stuff of my own which I wrote off the cuff, like this – Dan: Brown paper bag, don’t stop me now, I’m on a roll…
Kara: …Plain brown wrapper…
Dan: … In your pocket…
It wasn’t hard at all to let go and let that happen. And it was good for me to discover that.
CB: Have your feelings towards the music industry changed over the years as technology has changed, or is it still frustrating navigating the business of music?
DB: Maybe my feelings toward it have become more complicated. Which is maybe what old people say to describe a cop out, i’m not sure. There was a time, 13, 14, 15 years ago where i wrote about the culture industry, which the music industry is definitely a part of, the way someone might write about a dragon.
Now i mostly think of it as straight up showbiz, which is probably a healthier way for a singer or actor or dancer to think about those things. Not that healthy equals correct.
CB: Writing a good song is such a stretch for most people, what’s the process like for you
DB: Sweet victories. Crushing defeats. Strange grey expanses between… Writing is a constant
with me, however infrequent. But the music part is always a bit more of a battle, and way more of a collaboration. Especially when things are relatively formless until you get into the studio, which seems to always be the case these days. Up until that point it’s just some words and a couple melodies and me chasing the tail of a couple ideas in my head for a year or two.
CB: In the beginning of your career, Destroyer’s music was a bit more stripped down. Since the
release of ‘Your Blues’, you have embraced technology in the studio a bit more. Are you tempted to experiment more in this direction or are you more tempted to revisit the past?
DB: Well, to equate embracing “MIDI” with embracing “technology” doesn’t sit quite right with me. There is a vacuum sound to Your Blues which doesn’t feel technological to me, but does feel totally avant-garde. It is also the most stripped down thing i’ve ever done, if you hone in on the fact that in quite a few spots there is actually just the absence of sound. You know, cause it’s so much zeros and ones. I think it’s an avant-garde record, and that’s not something I imagine myself revisiting. That record is fucked. I really like it, though… Also can’t imagine recording rock music with a rock band, if that’s the other side of things. Excepting within the paradigm of your question, i think i just said i can’t imagine doing anything.
CB: How have people responded to your music outside of North America? Do you find people are more more passionate about it in Japan or Europe?
DB: Kaputt is the first Destroyer album that anyone outside of North America has “responded” to (ie. bought). So it would seem that we can now tour europe and play to people. Don’t think that’s the case in Japan or Australia or anywhere else. I still haven’t quite gauged the euro passion. There is a level of discussion when it comes to music that is always alarmingly serious.Which is cool… There is also just the desire to frolic in the sun.
CB: The album ‘Kaputt’ has been your most successful and critically acclaimed to date, which
has led to larger festival and television appearances. Is it true that this was going to be a non-tour release? What are your thoughts regarding those original plans?
DB: Well, I couldn’t really picture playing those songs with less than 8 or 9 people on stage. And in the past that would’ve been a complete impossibility, for various reason. At least a couple of them being obvious economic ones. I decided to go for it, and the record happened to do well, and we didn’t lose our shirts, and I didn’t have to come home and live with my family on the street.But at the time not touring seemed like the prudent, and most enjoyable, thing to do. So in that sense, I failed myself.
CB: Can you tell me five albums which inspire you?
Tilt – Scott Walker
Infidels – Bob Dylan
No Guru, No Method, No Teacher – Van Morrison
Songs From A Room – Leonard Cohen
Hejira – Joni Mitchell