After grinding it out for over a quarter-century in Vancouver’s small but mighty indie scene, Destroyer frontman Dan Bejar has emerged as something of a Dylanesque figure: prolific but world-weary, erudite but cynical, a maddeningly esoteric songwriter.
Bejar’s lyrics typically range between the aphoristic and the nonsensical. He’ll often latch onto a particular phrase, repeating it until its meaning evaporates.
“I’ve been working on the new Oliver Twist,” he sings seven times on “Sky’s Grey” (2017), exploring the shape of the words like a jazz musician exploring a diatonic scale. “I’ve thumbed through the books on your shelf,” he softly declares four times on “Blue Eyes” (2011), leaving the listener to puzzle over whether the line is romantic or creepy.
“For most people, the words are the most composed and intellectual part of songwriting, and the music is a thing that they feel,” Bejar told the Star in a phone interview last week. “For me, the words and the vocal melody are the things I feel, and then the music part is just a big old puzzle. It’s the opposite of how most people make music.”
This unconventional approach to songwriting perhaps reaches its apotheosis on “June,” a wild highlight from Destroyer’s latest album, “Labyrinthitis,” and perhaps the most deranged song Bejar has ever written.
Clocking in at six and a half minutes, “June” is a disco-funk roller-coaster that twists and turns before suddenly disintegrating into a chaotic spoken-word outro, as Bejar sneers like a drunken slam poet over a swirling orchestra of cowbells, trumpet and screeching guitar.
Bejar describes the track as a “digital cartoon” made up of lyrical fragments: “just brittle little phrases and jittery, anxious s—.”
Released in March, “Labyrinthitis” is Destroyer’s 13th studio album. Named after an ear inflammation disorder that causes vertigo and hearing loss, the record is an immersive but disorienting experience, largely built upon fleeting ideas and impressions.
Produced by Bejar’s longtime collaborator John Collins, it swings wildly between styles — from the sprawling and cinematic opener “It’s in Your Heart Now,” to the belligerent and sharp-edged “Tintoretto, It’s for You,” to the softly strummed folk of “The Last Song.”
“I think it’s definitely the most unhinged sounding Destroyer album out there. The music is maximal and there’s always too much stuff happening,” Bejar said, describing the music’s vibe as “industrial mall-pop.”
“And then there are other parts that seem really avant-garde. It’s a strange mash-up, though I think strange mash-ups are normal these days. But this one is actually strange because it’s sung by someone who is decrepit and not someone who’s, like, shiny and 21 years old.”
Bejar, who turns 50 in October, started Destroyer as a scrappy home-recording project in 1995. Since then, he has presided over a rotating cast of bandmates and collaborators, creating an extraordinarily stellar discography that now includes over a dozen studio albums and several EPs.
The project has evolved significantly over time, dipping its toes in various genres — guitar-based indie rock, ’80s new wave, Spanish folk music, glammy yacht rock — while remaining anchored by Bejar’s unmistakable voice and louche charisma.
In addition to Destroyer, Bejar is also an on-and-off again member of the power pop supergroup the New Pornographers and has released two albums with the experimental indie rock band Swan Lake.
I spoke to him on the phone from North Carolina last week, about 10 days into Destroyer’s North American tour, which includes a stop at the Phoenix Concert Hall in Toronto on Tuesday. It’s the band’s first time performing together since March 2020, when the pandemic forced them to cancel their tour midway through.
Bejar said the songs from “Labyrinthitis” have translated “shockingly well” in a live setting. Some of them, like “Tintoretto, It’s for You” and “It Takes a Thief,” actually make more sense live, he added.
“It’s really rare for a song to clarify itself by just blasting it super loud onstage in front of people. That hardly ever happens. A song might get better by doing that, but it doesn’t generally reveal itself, like it has with those two songs,” he said. “In the case of ‘Tintoretto,’ there’s a blast that goes off like an explosion and you can really feel the sound being pushed through the air as opposed to just a digital recording.”
I asked him what it was like performing “June.”
“I was really nervous about doing spoken word,” he said. “I’m not an actor and I’m not a slam poet and I’m not a rapper and I’ve never done that. But now I’m doing it every night and I think I’m getting used to taking on a sort of acting role with my delivery of those words. I don’t really know what my character is and don’t really know what my motivation is, but it seems to be some kind of a dramatic moment in the set. Not dramatic as in ‘that’s a big moment.’ Dramatic as in that it all of a sudden turns into a bit of theatre.”
As a performer, Bejar can be somewhat hostile toward his audience, rarely addressing his fans and sometimes singing with his back to the crowd. In a profile from 2020, he was quoted as saying that he used to get drunk before shows, but now “prefers being hungover onstage.”
But despite rumours that the band had been stranded following a bus crash — rumours he said are “actually not true” — Bejar seems genuinely happy to be back on the road.
“I have a rep of not really liking it up there,” he admitted. “But if I can kind of tune the world out, I feel like I’m in a really good place onstage these days. I mean, the band is deadly. I’m not trying to brag because it has very little to do with me. It’s more to do with these six dudes and they’re undeniably good. And I get off on that. Even on nights when I’m just exhausted or have been onstage 12 nights in a row or something, there’s always going to be a moment where I find myself in all that noise and it’s a good moment. And I’m having more and more of them.”
About midway through his career, Bejar changed his approach to songwriting. He stopped composing songs using his guitar, and began experimenting with melodies and lyrics, which he would then send to his bandmates to “wrap in music.”
But Destroyer’s trajectory took the most drastic turn with the release of “Kaputt” — the brilliantly lush and gloriously blasé record from 2011 that transformed Bejar from an underground curio into a critical darling and musical auteur. According to legend, he recorded the vocals for the album while lying prone on a couch.
“I mean for ‘Kaputt’ I was in a studio,” he said. “I just happened to not use proper takes. I did a bunch of what are called ‘scratch vocals,’ which is when you just lay down a vocal when you first start to work on a song. It’s not supposed to be what people hear in the end, it’s supposed to be something like a guideline for the music. But in the end, that’s the sound I wanted for my singing. I wanted that sense of absence and thoughtlessness.”
Following “Kaputt,” Bejar continued to experiment with his vocals. Bejar told Pitchfork that for the 2020 record “Have We Met” “Bejar recorded the album’s vocals at night, at his kitchen table, into a microphone connected to his laptop, singing of serial killers and drowning pit ponies as his young daughter slept.”
“I wanted a sense of intimacy: the sound of someone actually saying the words for the very first time ever. That became important to me. I was singing kind of quietly but very directly,” he said.
Bejar used this same technique for “Labyrinthitis,” recording vocal parts first, then sending them to his bandmates — guitarists Nicolas Bragg and David Carswell, drummer Joshua Wells, keyboardist Ted Bois, trumpeter JP Carter, and producer and bassist John Collins — to come up with the music.
“(Compared to my vocals), the music is very wild,” he said.
“And so the contrast, if you listen closely, is actually kind of jarring. I feel like it adds to the kind of schizophrenic feel of the album.”
But the main outlier on “Labyrinthitis” is the hypnotic and shoegazy opening track “It’s in Your Heart,” a song distinguished by its uncharacteristic simplicity.
“It certainly stands out from the others, which are kind of more evil and more villainous, and kind of mean-spirited. That song was written a couple of years back when I wrote all the ‘Have We Met’ songs, which are more intimate and revealing songs. The vocal performance is from 2019 or maybe even earlier. I sound different.”
What has changed since then?
“I don’t know. I’m not conscious of what happened to me or how my craft was affected by the pandemic. I’d be curious for someone to tell me how it seems different,” he said.
“To me ‘Labyrinthitis’ sounds unhinged and people might think that I sound the least present that I’ve sounded in a long time. Others will say it sounds like the same old s—: a bunch of weird words with a bunch of weird singing.”
“Labyrinthitis” is Bejar’s fourth full-length album since 2015 — a remarkable pace for an artist who has maintained such a high level of quality.
“Generally when you’re middle-aged you’re supposed to be way slower.” Bejar said. “I think I’m doing something wrong, but I can’t tell what it is.”
When asked if he plans to continue turning albums around every couple of years, he offered a surprising response.
“I don’t see myself continuing whatsoever. I mean, I can’t go on like this. The sound of ‘Labyrinthitis’ is the sound of someone drifting away from songs, right? I don’t know if anyone has said that, but to me it’s glaring.
“There’s got to be something else I can do. I’m not that good of a singer. Not that good of a musician. I don’t write novels or poems. All I have is, like, kind of esthetic sense of pulling things together. And surely I can apply that to something else than just writing songs and then playing them in front of people. There’s got to be other mediums. I don’t know what they are, but I’ve got to try and discover them.”
The conversation ended with a long and abstract discussion on the role of music in an unstable but raging capitalist society. Bejar worries that in a culture that doesn’t pay for music, music will become valueless.
“Music for me is a sickness,” he said. “It’s all I think about, really. But I can’t be delusional and thinking that it plays the same role or has the same societal value that it did 40 years ago.”
And yet his cynicism has not undermined his belief in the spiritual power of performance.
“Now I just long for any kind of art that feels like pure expression,” he said. “You just want to get bulldozed by art. You just want to feel touched by it. And that longing is the same as ever. And I assume other people have that longing as well. And that’s what keeps you going.”
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