Destroyer's Dan Bejar on Weaving Nightmares at His Kitchen Table

Dan Bejar recorded the vocals for his new album at his kitchen table at night — quietly, so as not to disturb his family. The result is like sitting in the dark with the Destroyer mastermind, straining to hear while he whispers cryptic things into your ear. It’s meditative, it’s woozy and it’s unspeakably grim — in short, it’s a Destroyer record.

Have We Met, out January 31, is the band’s thirteenth studio album and it’s pretty unclear what it’s about — as befitting Bejar’s decades-old vibe. He’s often held himself forth as an enigma, whether on purpose or not, and he’s not that interested in talking about his day-to-day life in Vancouver. He makes music, tours and grocery shops to feed his kid. He’s borderline-ashamed he can’t account for the rest of his time. 

Press materials suggest Y2K and movies Eighties/Nineties movies like Pretty in Pink as touchstones for Destroyer’s new record, but Bejar is perplexed when asked about both. Instead of Y2K, he’s more interested in the idea of a future that’s outdated — 1991’s perception of what music will sound like in 1999. And rather rom-coms, he cites French-German science fiction drama Until the End of the World as inspiration. Songs are often inspired by literary genres and techniques: the powerful man on his deathbed ruminating on his regrets, stage directions.  You’re not going to get a clear narrative out of Bejar or this record, but you’re definitely going somewhere.

With Have We Met, listeners enter the bleak yet oddly cozy world of Destroyer, where a music supervisor lords over culture with an iron fist (“Television Music Supervisor”), the Boston Strangler sits by your side (“Kinda Dark”) and a poet tries to write his own version of a Edgar Allan Poe classic (“The Raven”). Rolling Stone spoke with Bejar about the album, getting older and how the world is always in flames in a Destroyer song.

A press release about the album says it was initially Y2K-themed. Can you tell us some more about that idea?
I don’t know. Someone hacked into a private email and decided to write a one-sheet out of it. I don’t know where all this stuff comes from. That being said, I was working a lot with this guy John Collins — he was the producer of the record and mixed it and played a bunch of music on it — and I find that when I work with him, I like to kind of have some kind of conceptual launch pad.

I don’t know where that Y2K business came from, though. I think it was because when I first described to John what I had in mind, I knew it was going to be a synthetic-sounding record and I was like, “What about dirty, loud drum samples and super low-end bass? And then sound effects. Just focus on sound design rather than melodic arrangement.” Maybe he was like, “Like a late Nineties trip-hop record or something like that?” So maybe that’s there this late Nineties thing came from.

But it became apparent really fast, like within five minutes, that neither of us had any idea what that meant. What Y2K meant. It all went flying out the window. The record, to me, sounds a lot like his aesthetic, which I definitely wouldn’t define as any of those things that I just listed. The second song, “Kinda Dark,” is maybe indicative of the original idea. It’s more minimal and menacing. But other songs have nothing to do with that.

Was it a pretty intimate album-making process?
Yeah, it was really intimate. I don’t know if the music, itself, sounds that intimate, but I know that the very starting point for the music were my vocals, which I recorded by myself hunched over my computer at my kitchen table at night. They were just supposed to be guide tracks for John, but I just never redid them.

I don’t think I’ve ever sounded that intimate and personal before. It sounded very immediate to me and the closest to my actual voice. Closer than I think I’ve ever gotten. That’s why I felt confident to keep those vocals. Technically, they’re super poor. I think I even botched some of the words. It’s the sound of me not wanting to wake up my family.

The kitchen table was the quietest place in the house?
In our house, our kitchen table doubles as a bunch of other things. The record was worked on in isolation, that much is true. I came up with these demo arrangements and sang on them and then I sent them to John and he worked on his computer in his living room for ages.

Then we sent the mixes to Nick Bragg and he plugged his guitar into his computer. It was not the normal way we do things. Maybe that’s part of the insular vibe of the record. At some point, I even thought it was a claustrophobic-sounding record, which I was really into and slightly worried about at the same time.

So, this might be another email that was leaked into a press release, but I read that Nineties movies were an influence as well?
That part is actually an inspiration. I don’t know exactly how, but I remember thinking about movies that take place in 1999. I was really into this movie called Until the End of the World, specifically the five-hour version of it that was released recently. It was one of these Heaven’s Gate things. John was kind of thinking about it was well, without us talking about it. Even the soundtrack — which sounded a lot like 1991 when it came out — the orders from the director were to make the songs sound like they were from 1999.

I like things that take place in the near-future, which are now a long time ago, as a genre. Maybe that’s why I thought of Y2K. I think there’s a very naïve, exposed, unapologetic digital vibe to the record. That might have something to do with that aesthetic.

You bring up several touchstones of modern dread: the Boston Strangler, Nagasaki. What do these grim moments in history mean to you and your songwriting?
That’s a tough one for me. The lyrics come from a much more unconscious place compared to when I think about the music and the sounds. That’s always, for me, where the labor kicks in. These songs — even though they sound very hermetic, someone singing inside a cave — what’s going on outside the cave seems potentially pretty brutal. I don’t know if that’s just a product of getting older and if we all sound like that.

One is the song “Kinda Dark,” which I wrote in a very natural and fast way; it has three nightmare scenarios. The first verse being full of dark creeping imagery where you end up sitting next to a serial killer. And the second verse is more of a Twilight Zone one and the third is an animal cage match in a torture chamber. Strange stuff, not what I’d associate with myself.

The line about “Nagasaki at night at war with the devil,” that’s from the last song [“Foolsong”], which I actually wrote 10 years ago around the same time I was making Kaputt. It didn’t fit on that record, because that record had a strict rule of having to have a mid-tempo, sad disco beat. So that song was kind of a six-eight lullaby.

Maybe at the end I just got really nervous about the kind of the sweet nature of the refrain, which is, “It ain’t easy being a baby like you.” That’s kind of more childlike and simpler than I’m used to, so I’ll always throw in something like “Nagasaki at night at war with the devil,” which is a pretty explicit line about obliteration at the hands of America.

That song ended up being the last song on the record. One thing I didn’t anticipate was John tagging on two minutes of what sounds like a plague of locusts or some kind of swarm of insects in an abattoir or something like that. But when I finally heard it, I thought it sounded so cool. That had to be how the album ended, just to remind people that the record is a dark record.

Is what’s happening in America with Trump affecting you in Canada at all? Is it working its way into your music?
I feel like Destroyer songs have always had a backdrop of the world in flames that’s somehow pursuing us. There’s other things that go on in to foreground, but that seems to be the universe that they’ve existed in for at least the last 22 years.

That being said, I’m not a vacuum-sealed person; I exist in the world. I live 20 miles from the American border, so we’re very affected whether we want to be or not. Just with the constant barrage of what’s going on.

Not to harp on getting older, but you become more disoriented by things; the world seems slightly more menacing to you. Things that maybe I was once very flippant about now seem dire. So, I’m sure that comes across in songs.

Especially if you have children.
Yeah, not to get into that, because I feel like the world is filled with children and there’s lots of parents who don’t give a shit. I don’t think being a parent automatically gives you some kind of conscience, but it can make you feel more like your back is against the wall.

It seems like there might be a bit of weariness about being a musician on this record — “The Television Music Supervisor” and “Cue Synthesizer.” Can you talk about that?
That’s a topic that seemed to come up in early, early Destroyer albums — 20 years ago. I’d write these mini-essays that seemed to speak to some kind of culture industry or music industry, which I didn’t actually know anything about. It was really my own invention and a cool way of writing rhetoric.

“The Television Music Supervisor” is one of the weirdest songs I’ve ever written. It kind of came out of nowhere, intact with that melody. More than a critique of music industry stuff, one of my favorite genres in writing is people on their death beds looking back on a life with regrets or remorse or disgust. I especially like the genre of someone doing that when they’re a person who wields great power. A Citizen Kane kind of thing. “Rosebud. Rosebud.”

Normally, it would be a king or an emperor or something on their death bed, but instead I substituted the television music supervisor as the person who wields the ultimate power in our society. Which is absurd, but kind of a tiny bit true as far as culture and taste-making goes. I liked the fact that it was kind of arcane, Victorian-sounding language, but also slightly futuristic and turn of the century.

“Cue Synthesizer” is about the actual act of creation. Just trying to make it sound menacing. The last verse of that song is super explicit. It sounds like someone going off in the face of a world that seems terrible to them, but the first part is all this stuff about synthesizers and fake drums.

I was like, “How can I put myself into a terrible world? I can’t just say that the world sucks and be apart from that. So, let’s try and include myself in what makes the world shit. Let’s see if I can use words that sound somewhat menacing or somewhat corrupt.”

Not to harp on all my favorite literary genres, but I feel like, as I get older, I really love the language of stage directions, “Enter so and so,” “Cue this.” I tried to use those terms in basic and flat ways to make a song and mix a song and see if I can make it sound creepy.

When I first wrote that song, I thought it would be more of flat line, early 2000s, Leonard Cohen-type song, but John dove in headlong down a rabbit hole that was very unforeseen to me. I was really nervous and then fell in love with this clattering, industrial funk-pop version. I didn’t see it coming, but it plays off the lyrics in ways I never would have foreseen.

“The Raven” talks a lot about death and destruction. Was it influenced at all by Poe?
I have to honest, I’m trying to remember if I’ve ever read that poem. I’m sure I have. What actually happens in that poem? I actually asked someone that a couple of days ago.

It’s such a huge emblem in popular culture that I feel like I absorbed it and I know in my bones what is it. I think it’s someone musing on a lost love, maybe? Who’s dead? But they’re coming to join them soon? But it’s also just about the idea of muse itself, maybe? And being visited by it?

That song is a typical Destroyer-style ramble. Almost like a list. Like a casual list of images and scenarios that I would keep. In the very end, I address the list and it’s a list of things I’m going to write about when I write about “The Raven,” as if “The Raven” is shorthand for my serious poem — my masterwork. The thing that I’ll write when I get serious about writing, which, in the end, you might drop dead before you get around to it. Or it fades away. So instead of having your master poem, all you’re left with is your list. Your to-do list. And maybe the to-do list ends up being your poem. That’s part of what’s that song about.

When I finished that song, I was like, “This is almost a study on what I’ve been doing for years and years now.” A very casual study.

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