‘My Number One Rule is to Never Try to Write’: An Interview with Dan Bejar

Talking to the Destroyer singer-songwriter about his new album, Have We Met, writing as an act of inspiration, and being a musician in middle age.

Adnan Khan has written for Hazlitt, The Globe and Mail, Maisonneuve, The...

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For two decades, Dan Bejar’s Destroyer has been known for its sonic mutability. What started off as a low-fi folk project has moved through periods of glam, baroque, and sophisti-pop, but has always remained beholden to the charge of “Destroyerness” that runs through it. This singularity of vision is defined by relentless sonic experimentation, and unified by a lyrical approach that favours image over narrative, evoking emotion before analysis.

His lyrics, often mistakenly labeled as abstract, are deliriously specific: it’s just that the world he’s building is not ours. Where most lyrical sheets opt for a first-person realism, Bejar has been slowly sculpting the alternate visions of a mad preacher.

From “Blue Eyes,” off 2011’s Kaputt: “You’re a permanent figure of jacked up sorrow/I want you to love me/You send me a coffin of roses/I guess that’s the way that things go these days” Or from “La Regla De Ju” off 2017’s Ken, “Thursday: possibilities, slim and endless/Possibilities, slim and endless/The excellent beautiful woman/Left behind at the party by her friends/With a pig of a man who is wasted/She is wasted and slightly blinded/But not so blind as to not see,” and from “Crimson Tide,” the much quoted opener of their new album, Have We Met, “I was like the laziest river/A vulture predisposed to eating off floors/No wait, I take that back/I was more like an ocean/Stuck inside hospital corridors.”

The images are vivid because of their particular bizarreness of language. This “Destroyerness” is what unites the catalog, despite sonic twists and turns. While the language creates hyper specific moments, what’s left out is context—to whom, about what, or when the narrator is speaking. Bejar has described his writing in terms of brush strokes or a painter’s colours, hinting at desire to evoke rather than describe. It’s a kind of modernist writing that relies on sound and images to create meaning. By generally downplaying narrative world-building he asks listeners to use their own memories to provide context and emotion, luring them into a deeper bond with the writer. The lyrics become simultaneously vague and direct, ambiguous and evocative, pockmarked with turns of phrase that stud into the brain and link us to our image making Unconscious.

After nine releases, Kaputt was the first time this broke through to the mainstream: the sound that he and his bandmates created—sophisti-pop tweaked, with gentle, lush synths, stoned disco beats, and the electronic lilt of a wide-eyed librarian—happened to coincide with a larger reembrace of synth music. This apocalyptic texture persisted through his post Kaputt career. Where Kaputt was full of yearning, and Ken a slinking anger, his latest release, Have We Met, completes this synth trilogy of modern dread with a droning melancholy on the big existential themes: memory, regret, alienation, and the end of times.

In interviews, Bejar displays an analytic mind capable of engaging with his own work as if he was talking about someone else. Whether or not he’s playing mischief is difficult to assess; the interviews themselves, with many mentions of “typical Destroyer shit,” seem self-aware about being self-aware. This ability to maintain this self-awareness allows him to be free as he wants with romantic imagery in his lyric writing—poets, flowers, wine, and drunken failure are common motifs—without coming off as tediously deranged. The key to his artistic voice is its ability to pair romantic indulgence with straight-eyed despair, allowing him to move between genres while maintaining a cool elegance.

I was curious to hear more about his writing process, and called Dan in Vancouver. He spoke to me graciously, a soggy cough interrupting us sporadically, as he promised he was fine.

Adnan Khan: How’s the weather there?

Dan Bejar: Dismal.

I heard it’s really shitty.

It’s like sometimes Vancouver gets a certain version of grey where it all blends together into one thing.

I used to live there.

You know what I’m talking about.

Pitchfork’s Instagram posted five inspirations for the album; one of them was Bi Gan’s Lost Day’s Journey Into Night. What in particular did you take from that to Have We Met?

Not to rip apart the facade of my five inspirations on [the] Pitchfork Instagram post but I feel like that was something I just threw together.

Sure.

Those are things that I like, but I wasn’t, I can’t really parse them in a way that’s just like me watching Long Day’s Journey Into Night, pressing pause every once in a while, taking off my 3D glasses, and writing down some notes to be discussed later, or upon working on Have We Met. I think I just like that guy’s movies. I’ve seen two of them. One is that one and one is his first one called Kaili Blues, which I probably like even more.

I’ve seen them both, I’ve heard the album, and they’re sharing a frequency, I would say.

The reason those movies strike a chord with me is that they do a kind of thing that I dig, which is, it works a lot with memory. With memory being erased, which is a topic I really like. Being lost in a fog, which is a topic I really like. There are movies that aren’t scared to express themselves explicitly through poetry, as in like, poems that are written and then spoken in a movie, which is pretty rare. Like in Kaili Blues, I thought that was some of the best poetry I’d read or heard in a movie or outside of a movie in a book. That’s pretty rare, especially a director, some director in his twenties, is gonna anchor his movies with that kind of writing.

I think he was a poet beforehand.

I don’t know anything about him, but he must have been. The only poetry like that in a movie I know is Tarkovsky’s stuff, and that was using his dad’s writing. I’m sure maybe Tarkovsky was an influence… or at least was like a liberator, like, “He does all these things I can do too.”

I think a lot of the textures in Long Day’s Journey I felt in your writing for Have We Met.

Yeah, that’s cool. When I say I like something, I never know how much I take from it. I feel like Destroyer writing has been kind of an etched in stone thing for a while now. I don’t really know; I feel like I still really take influence from singers. Or I still take influence from ambience, you know? As far as me sitting down and what I write, I feel like an etched in stone thing, for 15 years now maybe?

In terms of what themes and stuff you take on?

Just—A) I don’t even know what I take on. I’ve never felt like I’ve sat down and attacked a theme in my life.

Right—you say that for you writing is very inspirational. At the same time, you also say that there’s “typical Destroyer shit.”

Right, yeah. I say that there is, only because I assume there is: any writer has that. What some people call themes, I just call my nervous tics. Or my hang-ups. I know they’re there. I know I write in patterns. I’ve been told that I repeat myself.

What do you do with that comment?

I have no problem with it.

Does it affect your work?

I wish I could hone things even harder. And say less. And repeat myself more. That’s something that like behooves singing, you know? I’d rather eliminate all chords as well, if I could.

What’s that been like? You made the shift, ten years ago, to saying that you wanted to focus more on singing, you felt like you wanted to pare down lyrically. You felt like earlier there was a battle between your lyrics and your music. Are you still viewing yourself primarily as someone who wants to bring a certain standard of writing to pop music?

I think I got it wrong when I thought about it ten years ago. I knew there was some kind of shift that happened when I started listening to more instrumental music and I felt just kind of spent with the notion of [being a] singer-songwriter. I needed to say that to will it—but it wasn’t actually what happened. It hasn’t really been ‘til this record, Have We Met, where I’ve learned to sing in a way that I had in my head. The way that I was talking about when Kaputt came out was kinda dead. On that record it’s pretty dead eyed. I don’t feel like I’ve arrived to it ‘til this record. The strange thing is—which I never thought of—how you sing maybe affects how you write. And not vice versa.

Yeah, on “Man in Black Blues” was the first time where I was like, “Oh shit, that’s that singing.”

That song to me is a very simple song that from beginning to end tries to address loss, or grief, it tries to give solace of some kind. And in the end it drops that and kind of moves from solace into being like just trying to sing on a dark topic or a sad topic in kind of a blue eyed funk kind of way.

In terms of writing—do you view writing as something that’s unified? Something that you have to bring together with singing?

The way I do it now, I just sing into my phone. Usually the words and the melodies come as one thing. There’s songs on Have We Met that bring that mold. That first song, “Crimson Tide,” is kind of old school 2000s Destroyer. But that’s because I had a melodic motif and a beat and two chords. I was just pilfering old writing of mine and sticking it to that. Otherwise I was gonna throw away that writing. I was pleasantly surprised it was more melodious that I remembered.

Would you feel anything if you threw it away?

I don’t know. It’s the same as forgetting about it or never looking at it again. I didn’t need to burn it and spread its ashes everywhere.

You seem very casual about your writing process, which is weird, considering how much people talk about your writing.

I don’t know enough about writers to know how many share my process. Which is super casual, I guess. I don’t have a routine, I don’t have a headspace, that I know of—I mean, I probably do. I don’t enjoy examining myself closely enough to know what that headspace is.

Where does the self-analysis come from? You’re a pretty good interview.

The self-analysis?

Yeah, of the work.

Being bullied into it by having to talk to people about it. Otherwise, it would never happen in a million years. I mean, I’m just making this up as I speak: I’m sure I’ll deny all of it.

It does sound like you’re talking about someone else’s work.

I mean, it’s my work, but it’s—to me it’s still important that the records are called Destroyer records and not Dan Bejar records. Maybe that’s a luxury writers don’t have. I have that luxury in a big way.

The press release for Have We Met talks about Y2K as a conceptual starting point. I know you sort of threw out that talking point, but it did feel—like a lot of the stuff on the album, the dread, the confusion, that’s very Y2K to me. Was that actually a thread?

Again, I felt like I was thinking more sonically, to be honest. There seemed to be these kind of moments, and maybe they’re stacked up more than your average Destroyer record, of world dread, just like, panic as a topic. Even though when I’m singing about it, I sound, at least to myself, more relaxed and casual then I’ve ever sounded. Which is funny, because, I think for a good chunk of the 2000s I sang in a way that literally physically embodied the word panic. Which is kind of the opposite the way I deliver words now.

It seemed to come up in some kind of unnamed darkness encroaching. Which, for me, is kind of a fun theme, as well as one [that], oddly enough, seems palpable in the very air we breathe these days. So it’s kind of like, win-win. It feels like that’s a romantic theme for me, plus the world seems kinda extra fucked. So I might as well.

Going back to—we’ve sort of thrown away the Pitchfork list.

No, that’s okay, I don’t mean to throw it away—I feel like, when I watched that movie it was really strange, and when I watched Kaili Blues it was really strange and like, “Oh this feels like a kindred spirit,” I mean but somehow, really kinda more masterful in that. Usually you’re good at one or two things, but that guy is visually so striking, but also kind of just a stunning director in the old sense of the world, but also seems to be a poet. How many poets turn into film directors? I don’t know besides Pasolini who there is. It’s just surprising, you know. And the whole kind of dreamlike trajectory of things, even though they wander, it’s still like an arrow shot.

You mention noir a couple of times, and like, that to me, that chase, that arrow, is central to the Bi Gan movies, but you also mentioned Patrick Modiano as an inspiration, and he’s working with a lot of that memory, repetition, that dreamscape. I found that stuff is on your frequency, lyrically at least.

I like his books because they do have that combo. A) They seem to take place in a kind of like pretty menacing world. It’s always an unknown dread—even though you actually do know what that dread is, which is Occupied Paris, but it’s always just someone kind of wandering semi-aimlessly through their life and they know that all the key bits of their life thread back to these dark times, you know? And there’s always weird characters who show up for one scene or half a scene and they say a couple of things and you never see them again. There’s a lot of wandering through the streets without any real direction, but there’s some kind of mystery at the heart of it, always. At some point the point of the mystery will fall by the wayside, in favor of like, a very salient brutal moment right at the end of the book. Those are all things I like…

I don’t always associate this stuff with Destroyer, but for the last few years for some reason, I feel more comfortably, I just sink into it. I think maybe it’s stuff that I would have thought is goofy when I was younger, especially music that I thought sounded kind of noirish in the ’90s, which was a real thing. I always thought it was kind of hack and they would always use the silliest samples and be really moody in a goofy way. Now I wonder if I’d be all over it.

You seem lately very attracted to artifice.

I don’t know. I don’t know if that’s true. I like—I feel in some ways I’m writing in a way that’s… I don’t know why I think this, but in some ways I’m writing in a way that’s more personal than I ever have. Not by leaps and bounds, but just my general trajectory. If you can feel that, or at least sing that, you can cloak it in whatever glass box or flowing silks… you can wrap it in whatever you want and it’ll still have this thing at the heart of it.

It did seem, around Ken, you started talking about an interest in koan-type lyrics, and I found that on this album there was a lot more repetition, and that really brought me back to that idea of prayer and that sense of speaking to someone. It’s got that very similar tie into noir and that big dreamscape. Is that purposefully a direction you’re moving towards? You have talked about as you’re getting older, your writing getting pared down—is that something you’re finding happens naturally, or are you striving towards it?

It really happens naturally, you know? I just kind of like… it’s just how it comes out. It’s coming out more conversational, more like my speaking voice. I mean, when the band plays songs off of, say, Destroyer’s Rubies, it’s really fun to sing, but I find myself taking pause and wondering about—I’m just curious as to where all those words came from. They just came tumbling out. I don’t know if at that time I was still in love with the challenge of starting at the 1 and ending at the 4 and getting the line somehow, that was almost impossible, in making the line melodious, even though there’s barely room for notes. Just tangling with music in a different way than I do now.

That cramming of syllables into meter, that is the closest to what rap kind of is, right? That lyrical focus is not really there in a lot of pop music.

It’s funny, when we started working on the record and really just had the idea of loud simple beats, and just kind of in your face, punishing bass and just sound effects, what John took away was, I think at first he was thinking of an old school rap aesthetic. In some ways I’m maybe thinking of hip hop more than I ever have, but still from a music standpoint, even though, I mean that’s where all the kind of cool writing in music is happening right now, when I was doing something like Rubies, I was really just listening to Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, and Joni Mitchell all day long.

I think you’re right in that most lyrical innovation is coming from hip hop and not rock anymore.

It just doesn’t seem like a concern in rock music. It seems like an afterthought. Maybe even in hip hop now that’s becoming more the case as well, I don’t know. At least for the previous 20 years that seemed to be where all the action was.

I think you said you were reading Fleur Jaeggy?

Yeah, a couple years back I was burning through her books.

What did you like about it?

I love her style. So brittle but also had this amazing flow for something that seemed hardened. It could be like a Swiss thing. I think Swiss writers maybe have access to dark places we don’t know about it. It seemed also to like brutally lay everything on the line. But her narrator voice—I found it really readable and poetic, although it’s not really—the style is the opposite of poetic. Also, again, kind of a world that seems—even though everything she’s describing is familiar, it’s probably dark and fantastic in a way that’s like Switzerland in the 20th century.

I felt a lot of The Black Paintings by Goya, in Have We Met. Was that at all on your mind?

I mean those are like the only paintings I know. I don’t know anything about art, I just know about Goya a little bit. I don’t know how much that creeps into Have We Met specifically. I feel like with Have We Met the main thing that’s happened with me is probably just going back into a regression into kind of being slightly obsessive about film. Which is a way that I was, maybe in my early twenties? Before music kind of took over my life. For some reason, now, in my middle age-dom, I mean I’ve always loved films but it feels like I get these ideas about movies turning around in my head in a way that I can’t let go of. Those are the kind of things I mean when I talk about nervous tics and hang-ups. It feels like the most filmic album I’ve done, even though maybe Poison Season and Kaputt are a little bit more directly into the idea of film scores. This is more into the idea of what does film actually do, you know?

You sound lately, and I don’t mean this to be rude, but very age conscious.

Age conscious?

Yeah, like you bring up a lot of, that you feel like you’re middle age—

I don’t feel like it! I am middle age. I’m 47.

Does it feel like a turning point or something? You’ve always been talking a lot about Leonard Cohen’s late work, Van Morrison’s late work.

Oh yeah. That’s kind of always—I think to not be conscious of it in show business is just like, what do you call that kind of ignorance where it’s not borne of nothing but it serves a greater, possibly nefarious purpose? To not be conscious of how things age out for singers—to not think that’s a thing, is to me, dangerous and hurtful. It means it’ll never change.

What do you mean?

To not bring it up all the time. To let people know about it. To have it be known that there’s an old person in the world. Usually, you’re put on a raft by the time you’re 45 in music. I don’t know who else you’re thinking about, but it’s kinda lonely out there. [laughs]

If someone in show business, a singer or actor or dancer, someone who does something with their body, people look at you and they either clap or want you to go away—it’s time for you to go when you’re my age. That’s not an accident. That’s just an apparatus that’s been set up. Pop culture, rock music, it’s very much a product of youth culture. It always has been. That’s why it’s tough to reckon yourself as a writer or artist, because you know your time in theory is played out and your best work is behind you. As opposed to a novelist when you’re 45 or a film director when you’re 47, they’re just getting to the good stuff. It’s just not like that in my world.

Do you really not think you have a book in you?

I’m just not interested. I don’t think, deep down, if I’m being honest. I don’t know what kind of book—I have writing that didn’t end up in songs, but I don’t know what it is. It’s like a poem. It doesn’t have an ending. They’re all short blasts of writing that I could try to piece together into something else. It wouldn’t be a poem. I definitely don’t have a story to tell… when there’s like a story happening, especially a concrete one, I generally want people to move it along. You know, I’m kinda strung along by people’s styles and if they describe scenarios—if that style takes place in scenarios I kinda like, then I’ll stick with it.

Why don’t you just do that?

I don’t have the muscle. I haven’t exercised it. I don’t know what it would like.

Have you ever tried?

No, because I’m not used to trying. I’ve never tried to write anything. My number one rule is to never try to write.

I really don’t believe that. It seems so strange for me for you to just say, like, I just walk around and into my iPhone notes I put in lyrics. And then they have this cohesive thing. Is it just a matter of accumulation?

It’s kind of accumulation. It’s kind of going through them a little bit, but it happens pretty fast. Usually like if I’m having one week where I’m kind of writing a lot if you collect the sticky notes from that week or the voice memos from that week, you’re going to see that it generally turns into a certain song.

So you’re not sitting down at a desk.

No, no fucking desk, no way. Sitting down at a desk is what you do when you have to like, figure out which Garage Band Apple drum loop to use. That’s for the music stuff. Not for writing.

Your writing stuff is pure intuition.

Yeah, it’s just walking around…

Always?

Always.

That seems like a crazy way to do that.

Yeah, it doesn’t feel sustainable, that’s for sure—

You have sustained it.

I live in this certain valley of terror, where it’s like, “This can’t possibly be the way I do this for the rest of my life.” A) I know I’m slowing down and I do it less and less and less. So that’s a feeling. Not to go back to the age thing, that’s pretty common. You kind of think about things more but the actual doing happens less.

That’s fair.

I dunno. It would be good to have a room and a desk and I just stare at the wall and see what happens and I put in my time and I punch out.

I really think you’d be surprised with yourself if you did that.

I’m not saying I’m never gonna try it. I’d like to try it sometime. I just haven’t done it yet. And I’m obviously 100 percent suspect of it for myself. It doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try it and fail at it.

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