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Destroyer's Dan Bejar shares stories behind his greatest songs

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Fabiola Carranza

Dan Bejar’s career might not warrant comparisons to Bob Dylan, but during a recent interview in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, with the breeze blowing through his messy hair and the sun bouncing off his dark sunglasses, he looked the part. Sitting on the patio of a coffeehouse, sipping a beer and eating a bagel, he rattles off the influences for Poison Season, the latest album from his primary outfit Destroyer. There’s Bobby Darin’s “Mack the Knife,” jazz saxophonist Pharaoh Sanders, the Last Tango In Paris soundtrack. Then he pauses. “If I’m being honest, I still probably listen to Van Morrison and Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan more than anyone else in the world.”

The Dylan vibe extends beyond his appearance and to the breadth of his catalog. Just shy of two decades into his career, Bejar has released more than 20 albums, primarily with Destroyer and indie supergroup The New Pornographers, producing a deep and varied catalog that ranges from ’80s synth jams to straight-ahead folk to plugged-in power-pop. He has a restless quality, like the music he’s putting to tape can’t quite keep pace with the music he’s conceiving. “I had come up with some ludicrous ideas for a record, like the record was going to be a salsa record or a disco record,” he says of Poison Season, which follows Destroyer’s 2011 breakthrough Kaputt. “It became apparent that I hadn’t written 12 disco songs or 12 salsa songs. The songs rejected that idea. In my younger years I might have just forced the concept through, but I don’t really do that anymore.”

Destroyer flexed dance chops on Kaputt—which, Bejar notes, he largely composed “in a grocery store” on his iPhone—but Poison Season is maximalist rock, packed with horns, strings, and plenty of theatricality. “What I’m best at is probably dance music singer,” he says when discussing the aesthetic shift. “But I’ve only really ever tried to dabble in that once, with Kaputt. It’s just that there are no great poets working in dance music, and I’m not a revolutionary—so I can’t be the person to try and make it work. I can’t find the lyricism in dance music, even though I love it.”

By now Bejar has an impressive resume of songwriting credits from Destroyer’s 2009 epic “Bay of Pigs” to last year’s New Pornographers cut “War on the East Coast,” a song which he claims not to have given “a second thought.” EW caught up with Bejar about some of the highlights from his oeuvre.

“Dream Lover” (from Destroyer’s 2015 album Poison Season)

“To me, it’s a nothing of a song. I told [the band], ‘Let’s practice it once. It probably won’t even be on the record.’ It was the last song we recorded—[we] just opened up the doors, just played it really loud, which is never how I pictured the song, but I fell in love with that instantly. I was thinking of a geriatric, early ’90s Van Morrison take on Motown. But when we did it, it became much more menacing. When Joseph [Shabason] flew out to do the woodwinds, his horn blaring was so abrasive, it was a real attack. It completed the picture. One of Destroyer’s guitar players calls his playing ‘shockingly erotic.'”

“Bangkok” (from Destroyer’s 2015 album Poison Season)

“I don’t know if it’s the most dialed-in song on the record, but as a composition it holds the key to the spirit of the album. I like it for some obvious reasons—one is that it’s probably the only Destroyer song written in an intact voice of a character. The singer is not recognizable as myself. I wrote it on the piano, which is kind of a foreign instrument to me; songs like ‘Bangkok’ or ‘Hell’ [from Poison Season] come from this piano ballad tradition. A friend of mine described ‘Bangkok’ as ‘Chet Baker on the toilet.’ It’s a sinister song about evil. It’s about desire for a mystic revelation, like the desire to let good into your life—but cloaked in music where you wonder [if] maybe salvation’s completely out of the grasp of this person.”

“Times Square” (from Destroyer’s 2015 album Poison Season)

[Bejar recorded two versions of “Times Square”: A subdued, string-based arrangement that bookends Poison Season, and a “Lou Reed-style street-rock ballad” that’s its centerpiece—and the way he initially wrote it.] “I had this ‘You can fall in love in…’ and ‘Times Square’ just came out. As an object of love [it] seemed to be the most impossible image I could imagine—a symbol of something that has changed so drastically over the last century. That rollicking, mid-’70s-style ‘Young Americans’ version is a style that comes naturally to Destroyer—but it wasn’t my intent, to have the record sound like that. The person doing the string arrangements came up with this swirling, austere arrangement. It was just so different in vibe. I was going to choose between the two, then I decided that was pure folly. I could see no reason why they shouldn’t both exist on the record. The spirit of the record is so keenly divided and the challenge was to have those things sit side by side on the record, or even the same song. It’s a cinematic record and having a sense of opening credits and closing credits felt natural. The framework it gave felt good, with the rock version sitting squarely in the middle. It focuses your eye on the album.”

“Forces From Above” (from Destroyer’s 2015 album Poison Season)

“‘Forces From Above’ is the only holdover from the days where I thought of making a disco salsa record. The percussion tracks are quite furious. When the baroque, pizzicato-style string arrangement happened, things got disorienting. It makes me nauseous, but it’s supposed to be really tense. It’s supposed to be propulsive, but really claustrophobic. At some point I thought it could be a dance song, then I decided it had to be gypsy spy music. Lyrically [it] seems quite dark and full of dread. I generally see the world as a pretty negative place, even though I’m not a negative person. Forces from above aren’t vague, they’re specific political forces. At the same time there’s this aura of espionage and crumbling romance to the song; a world in flames, but romantic drama happening in the foreground. Intellectually I’m all over a political version of the world, but I’m more into writing about adventure and [a] romantic sense of fatalism, things like that.”

“War On The East Coast” (from The New Pornographers’ 2014 album Brill Bruisers)

“I haven’t given that song a second thought in my entire life. The BPM on that song is furious; the way I sing in Destroyer is 100 percent opposed to the way that song is sung. But once in a while I need to sing a balls-out rock song. There’s specific parameters [for New Pornographers albums] and I try to stick to them; [frontman A.C. Newman] abandoned them, even though they’re his parameters. One time it was Sigue Sigue Sputnik, which is a video game style New Wave band from the ’80s. So it kind of sounds like a video game. It’s kind of a Morrissey-style song. I love Morrissey, but that’s not an aesthetic that’s really allowed to come into Destroyer these days, even though he’s one of my favorite writers. There’s a certain version of rock and roll catharsis that I think the Pornographers can really tap into, which is something I’m not interested in doing in Destroyer. Whether I love it or hate it, it’s a part of me.”

“Kaputt” (from Destroyer’s 2011 album Kaputt)

Kaputt is really just a series of voice memos, I could probably play them to you on my iPhone. Somewhere there’s me, in a grocery store, [singing ‘Kaputt’]. It’s all just fragments. That’s why there’s no verse-chorus structures. It’s just little lullabies pieced together. I always thought of ‘Kaputt’ as a song sung by someone on their deathbed, but kind of at peace with death, just looking back on a decadent, but not altogether evil life.

“Chinatown” (from Destroyer’s 2011 album Kaputt)

“‘Chinatown’ was the one song on Kaputt I wrote on guitar. You can tell. It’s a sad song that’s specific to the city I live in, Vancouver. I remember strolling through Chinatown, close to where I live, and writing that song. I had a sense that the neighborhood was going to disappear. And then a couple of years later it did start to disappear—like neighborhoods everywhere.”

“Bay of Pigs” (from Destroyer’s 2009 EP Bay of Pigs)

“I wanted to pack everything into it. I was like, ‘We’re going to put out a 12 and it’s going to be an ambient disco song, even though I know we don’t know what ambient disco means. And it’s going to be 13 minutes long.’ In the end we couldn’t figure out what ambient disco was—the song is kind of cut in half between the ambient part and the disco part, which I guess is a form of compromise in this world. I think it’s a style of writing that I’ll never do again: these kind of dense passages that I spew out nonstop, as the song crescendos. ‘Bay of Pigs’ was the kiss-off to that, the swan song of a certain era of making art. I changed as a singer and I couldn’t froth at the mouth. I couldn’t just drink two whiskeys real fast and start to launch myself at a page full of words. I started singing quieter. It could be an age thing.”

“Jackie” (from The New Pornographers’ Mass Romantic) and “Jackie (Dressed In Cobras)” (from The New Pornographers’ Twin Cinema)

“I had played it live, as a solo song by myself. I know a couple people were heartbroken when they heard the final [New Pornographers] version, because it was really sad and devastating. It’s a sad song in the body of a Partridge family song. I like those kinds of contrasts. In the mid-’90s I became obsessed with Scott Walker, and I’ve stayed obsessed with him for the last 20 years. The first song on Scott 2 is called ‘Jackie,’ I thought I wanted to be a part of the tradition of Jackie songs. I’ve been meaning to write a third Jackie song for about 10 years now, because I wrote ‘Jackie’ and then five years later ‘Jackie (Dressed in Cobras)’ on Twin Cinema. Probably just the word [ties them together]. I always thought of it as a trilogy—but I don’t know how to force songs.

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