Failing at art: Destroyer interview

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When I met Dan Bejar, the mastermind behind Destroyer, at this year’s Green Man festival it would suffice to say I was distinctly underprepared. Armed with a set of questions written mostly by my co-editor, a self-professed Destroyer obsessive, my knowledge of Bejar’s music extended no further than a cursory acquaintance with his most recent album, Kaputt. Such is the level of almost religious devotion that Bejar commands from his cult following, I felt like something of a charlatan entering into the interview with little more than a passing interest in the man’s work and I can’t deny I felt a sizable degree of pressure as I made my way to meet him.
Released back in January this year, the slick 80s production of Kaputt had presented a considerable barrier to me on listening to the record. Arriving just as the blog driven fad of cheap new wave pastiche reached its most widespread, and its most grating, Kaputt’s wash of synths and canned beats, topped off with rich, jazzy horn arrangements, came with all the wrong connotations. “The record took a long time to make,” Bejar explained in his reserved near whisper as I strained to hear him above Wild Nothing’s set blearing from the nearby tent, “and even during the course of a year and a half I did notice that more and more bands were glomming on really thin, questionable sounds that came out from the commercialisation of 80s new wave.” 
Quick to distance himself from that trend, which had arisen from the bastardisation of the hypnagogic movement’s lofty – but admirably sincere – aspirations to recontextualise the most throwaway aspects of 80s pop culture, Bejar assured me that it was never his intention to latch onto the snowballing success of the sound. “I always wanted to make a record that was just as lush and detailed as possible – which is something that the 80s did have going for it,” he told me, describing his personal vision for Kaputt, articulating his artistic motivations with an understated eloquence. “They sacrificed really strong signal paths for the sake of creating these vaguely exotic aural spaces, and I liked that,” he continued, describing his fascination with the era, “I knew I wanted to make a studio heavy record, and for me that will always mean an 80s record.”
Well aware he was running the risk of drawing accusations of “style over substance” and “kitsch for the sake of cool”, with Kaputt Bejar made the album he had always hoped to make in spite of, not because of, the current trends. Indeed, delving further into Destroyer’s back catalogue it becomes clear that Bejar is an artist who is constantly forging his own, defiantly unique, path. Running through his work is a staunch refusal to temper his eccentricities, both as a songwriter and as a singer, instead celebrating the distinctness of his voice with darting, off-kilter melodies bursting at the seams with torrents of – in Bejar’s own words, typical of his endearing self-awareness – “the most adamantly poetic lyrics possible”.
Over the sixteen years since the project’s inception, Destroyer has explored countless different styles and genres but the great unifying constant has been Bejar’s unmistakable personality, tying his sprawling body of work together as a whole. “I’d say Kaputt is the first pop record I’ve ever made,” Bejar described how he views the current incarnation of Destroyer, “to me, that means it’s an album that focuses on production more than anything else.” Kaputt certainly has a tighter focus than any previous Destroyer album; the arrangements are lean, the production smooth and Bejar has calmed his often dense lyrical style, affording the music new space to breathe. “It’s different from other Destroyer records where it seems like something of a battle between the band and the singer – I like that as well but it just wasn’t what I was interested in on this particular record,” Bejar told me, expressing his desire to step back from the more elaborate style of composition that has characterised his previous albums.
One of the most impressive aspects of Kaputt as an album is that whilst it is clearly a carefully controlled, streamlined production – “we went in with a strict palette of sounds to use and we stuck to it,” Bejar told me – the overall feel of the record is remarkably loose. Bejar described the process of recording with the large group of musicians that he had assembled for the record, accounting for its improvisational feel, “it was totally free. It was just go in and play whatever you feel like, wherever you feel like.” Throughout the album, decorative horn parts scatter the songs, highlighting the most melodic and emotionally involved passages, and the longer tracks slide gracefully from ambient clusters of synths and woodwind to more propulsive, vocal-lead sections.
 “I’ve tried to make all sorts of records and they’ve all ended up slightly left or right of the mark,” Bejar laughed as I asked him whether he was satisfied with Kaputt as Destroyer’s first “pop” album, “and I’m sure this one did as well. Some of the parts that make it up are some of the least pop things I’ve ever heard put to tape in a Destroyer studio; it’s mostly just free jazz and ambient synths.” Not that failure is something that worries Dan Bejar. During the brief period of time I spent researching for our meeting, a statement that he had made in a recent interview had piqued my interest: “I think more people should fail at art.”
Having paused for a moment when I asked if he could elaborate on that comment, he told me: “I guess I meant that I like flawed records and flawed works of art that aren’t afraid to completely fall on their face, there’s something in bold gestures that make it worthwhile. I find that people make a lot of safe choices, especially in pop music.” By this point in our conversation I had realised how wrong I had been to dismiss Destroyer on hearing Kaputt only a handful of times; far from a sterile exercise in style, the album is borne of Bejar’s steadfast ambition to realise his artistic visions. Behind Kaputt’s polished facade, the bright sheen of synths and horns, there lies a vulnerability, a humanity, betrayed in Bejar’s wavering voice and deeply immersive, evocative lyrics. He laughed, “I tend to like things that have ridiculous goals, really extreme visions that are maybe really personal and exclude the world somehow. Things like that show a certain strength.”
Bejar added, perhaps describing the guiding principle behind his work as Destroyer, “that’s all you can really do, to aim to please yourself. I don’t make a lot of conscious moves.” So wrapped up in his own creative world, it seems only incidental to Dan Bejar that there might be other people out there who feel some sort of connection with his music, “it’s all really super instinctual. I don’t write the way I write because I want it to sound awkward or strange. It’s just how it comes out.” This sentiment was carried over to his performance later that evening; an utterly mesmerising front man, Bejar seemed almost completely unaware of his audience, only adding to his irresistible air of mystique on stage.
Dan Bejar is an all or nothing artist. Not only in the way that he approaches making music but also in the way one needs to listen to his music. A body of work as wildly ambitious, complex and fully realised as Destroyer’s is a rare and wonderful thing in today’s musical climate of instant gratification and disposability. Throw yourself into Bejar’s work and you’ll quickly become lost in his idiosyncratic world, carried away on winding melodies and the vivid imagery of his poetry. After our brief meeting that’s exactly what I did: I have been well and truly converted.

When I met Dan Bejar, the mastermind behind Destroyer, at this year’s Green Man festival it would suffice to say I was distinctly underprepared. Armed with a set of questions written mostly by my co-editor, a self-professed Destroyer obsessive, my knowledge of Bejar’s music extended no further than a cursory acquaintance with his most recent album, Kaputt. Such is the level of almost religious devotion that Bejar commands from his cult following, I felt like something of a charlatan entering into the interview with little more than a passing interest in the man’s work and I can’t deny I felt a sizable degree of pressure as I made my way to meet him.

Released back in January this year, the slick 80s production of Kaputt had presented a considerable barrier to me on listening to the record. Arriving just as the blog driven fad of cheap new wave pastiche reached its most widespread, and its most grating, Kaputt’s wash of synths and canned beats, topped off with rich, jazzy horn arrangements, came with all the wrong connotations. “The record took a long time to make,” Bejar explained in his reserved near whisper as I strained to hear him above Wild Nothing’s set blearing from the nearby tent, “and even during the course of a year and a half I did notice that more and more bands were glomming on really thin, questionable sounds that came out from the commercialisation of 80s new wave.” 

Quick to distance himself from that trend, which had arisen from the bastardisation of the hypnagogic movement’s lofty – but admirably sincere – aspirations to recontextualise the most throwaway aspects of 80s pop culture, Bejar assured me that it was never his intention to latch onto the snowballing success of the sound. “I always wanted to make a record that was just as lush and detailed as possible – which is something that the 80s did have going for it,” he told me, describing his personal vision for Kaputt, articulating his artistic motivations with an understated eloquence. “They sacrificed really strong signal paths for the sake of creating these vaguely exotic aural spaces, and I liked that,” he continued, describing his fascination with the era, “I knew I wanted to make a studio heavy record, and for me that will always mean an 80s record.”

Well aware he was running the risk of drawing accusations of “style over substance” and “kitsch for the sake of cool”, with Kaputt Bejar made the album he had always hoped to make in spite of, not because of, the current trends. Indeed, delving further into Destroyer’s back catalogue it becomes clear that Bejar is an artist who is constantly forging his own, defiantly unique, path. Running through his work is a staunch refusal to temper his eccentricities, both as a songwriter and as a singer, instead celebrating the distinctness of his voice with darting, off-kilter melodies bursting at the seams with torrents of – in Bejar’s own words, typical of his endearing self-awareness – “the most adamantly poetic lyrics possible”.

Over the sixteen years since the project’s inception, Destroyer has explored countless different styles and genres but the great unifying constant has been Bejar’s unmistakable personality, tying his sprawling body of work together as a whole. “I’d say Kaputt is the first pop record I’ve ever made,” Bejar described how he views the current incarnation of Destroyer, “to me, that means it’s an album that focuses on production more than anything else.” Kaputt certainly has a tighter focus than any previous Destroyer album; the arrangements are lean, the production smooth and Bejar has calmed his often dense lyrical style, affording the music new space to breathe. “It’s different from other Destroyer records where it seems like something of a battle between the band and the singer – I like that as well but it just wasn’t what I was interested in on this particular record,” Bejar told me, expressing his desire to step back from the more elaborate style of composition that has characterised his previous albums.

One of the most impressive aspects of Kaputt as an album is that whilst it is clearly a carefully controlled, streamlined production – “we went in with a strict palette of sounds to use and we stuck to it,” Bejar told me – the overall feel of the record is remarkably loose. Bejar described the process of recording with the large group of musicians that he had assembled for the record, accounting for its improvisational feel, “it was totally free. It was just go in and play whatever you feel like, wherever you feel like.” Throughout the album, decorative horn parts scatter the songs, highlighting the most melodic and emotionally involved passages, and the longer tracks slide gracefully from ambient clusters of synths and woodwind to more propulsive, vocal-lead sections. 

“I’ve tried to make all sorts of records and they’ve all ended up slightly left or right of the mark,” Bejar laughed as I asked him whether he was satisfied with Kaputt as Destroyer’s first “pop” album, “and I’m sure this one did as well. Some of the parts that make it up are some of the least pop things I’ve ever heard put to tape in a Destroyer studio; it’s mostly just free jazz and ambient synths.” Not that failure is something that worries Dan Bejar. During the brief period of time I spent researching for our meeting, a statement that he had made in a recent interview had piqued my interest: “I think more people should fail at art.”

Having paused for a moment when I asked if he could elaborate on that comment, he told me: “I guess I meant that I like flawed records and flawed works of art that aren’t afraid to completely fall on their face, there’s something in bold gestures that make it worthwhile. I find that people make a lot of safe choices, especially in pop music.” By this point in our conversation I had realised how wrong I had been to dismiss Destroyer on hearing Kaputt only a handful of times; far from a sterile exercise in style, the album is borne of Bejar’s steadfast ambition to realise his artistic visions. Behind Kaputt’s polished facade, the bright sheen of synths and horns, there lies a vulnerability, a humanity, betrayed in Bejar’s wavering voice and deeply immersive, evocative lyrics. He laughed, “I tend to like things that have ridiculous goals, really extreme visions that are maybe really personal and exclude the world somehow. Things like that show a certain strength.”

Bejar added, perhaps describing the guiding principle behind his work as Destroyer, “that’s all you can really do, to aim to please yourself. I don’t make a lot of conscious moves.” So wrapped up in his own creative world, it seems only incidental to Dan Bejar that there might be other people out there who feel some sort of connection with his music, “it’s all really super instinctual. I don’t write the way I write because I want it to sound awkward or strange. It’s just how it comes out.” This sentiment was carried over to his performance later that evening; an utterly mesmerising front man, Bejar seemed almost completely unaware of his audience, only adding to his irresistible air of mystique on stage.

Dan Bejar is an all or nothing artist. Not only in the way that he approaches making music but also in the way one needs to listen to his music. A body of work as wildly ambitious, complex and fully realised as Destroyer’s is a rare and wonderful thing in today’s musical climate of instant gratification and disposability. Throw yourself into Bejar’s work and you’ll quickly become lost in his idiosyncratic world, carried away on winding melodies and the vivid imagery of his poetry. After our brief meeting that’s exactly what I did: I have been well and truly converted.

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