Destroyer on 'ken' Album: 'It's the Most Goth Record You're Going to Hear From Me'
Even if the days of music blogs tripping over themselves to lavish praise on indie rockers have come to a close, a new Destroyer album is still cause to stop what you're doing and pay attention. As subgenres go in and out of style and indie music itself crests and troughs in popularity, Dan Bejar's long-running project can always be relied on to produce fascinating, fulfilling releases. Following his career best-seller Kaputt (2011) and the cinematic Poison Season (2015) is this year's ken, which finds Bejar eschewing the lengthy, meditative compositions of the previous two albums for punchier tracks laden with nostalgic synths and driving percussion.
Billboard spoke with Bejar about ceding (some) control of his music to a producer, why ken is his "most goth" album ever and what makes him sort-of enraged by the Blade Runner sequel.
ken seems pretty different from Poison Season to me. Are you in a much different place now, has a lot changed in your life?
I don't know if a lot's changed in my life. I feel I write a specific kind of song and I do it all over the place. When people hear wide differences between Destroyer albums I don't know if they're listening to the songs or sonics and production and arrangement. In my mind, the songs still sound like Destroyer music but the tools have changed. I started writing songs on the guitar for the first time in a long time, since Trouble In Dreams, which we recorded in 2007. I've played a lot more music on the record itself and the record has an actual producer [Josh Wells], which is something that doesn't usually happen on a Destroyer record. Over half of the songs were taken in directions I never foresaw and that had a lot to do with Joshua; there's a brevity to the songs and a directness. I don't know if that's a product of me writing on a guitar instead of dreaming up poetic movements like with Poison Season and Kaputt. It's easier to do that [on those albums] than when you sit down and play a song from beginning to end [with ken]. I think there's a conscious leaning toward minimalism, or at least as minimal as Destroyer will get. That's no accident.
"Cover From the Sun" and "Sometimes In the World" are much shorter and more direct than the songs on your last several albums.
Songs like that take me by surprise. I haven't written too many like that in years; they remind me more City of Daughters  Destroyer era, going back to late '90s, but I decided to embrace that. I kind of just crank them out without really thinking too much about what I wanted to get across. For me, Poison Season is a lot more intimate and rambling. Even though it's grander, the singing comes from a more personal and therefore more abstract place. These songs seem more concrete and that's why they seemed more like these hard, little driving numbers.
You gave a producer more control over this album than you normally do -- was there any nervousness with that?
I played music with Josh, he played songs on Poison Season, and we've done lots of touring together. I know what I wanted for this record was deep inside his aesthetic zone. He definitely has a darker aesthetic than I do. It's definitely the most goth record you're going to hear from Destroyer. That's exciting. I like putting songs in other people's hands and see where they take off to.
Several of the songs musically reminded me of the Cure's Disintegration.
There's definitely a couple that lean heavily on that sound. I guess all of this was borne of me listening to records I hadn't listened to in a long time. Maybe when I decided I wanted to play more guitar, I went back to my safe place, my comfort zone, which happens to be these U.K. new wave bands from the '80s, with simple melodic parts but always very basic but trippy effects happening. Like the Cure, I thought of as a band I liked but was teenager-y or melodramatic, not something I could find lyrical inspiration in. I started listening to them again for the first time in decades. Not even listening to the songs themselves but the guitar sounds or drum sounds or bass melodies. It's more synth heavy and percussive than I would have predicted, which I like. To me, the rhythm section is so important for the music to work, and it's where I draw the most blanks.
I started listening to the Church. They were never a cool new wave band, but there was a quality to Steve Kilbey's writing and singing that's casual but still druggy and mystic that I like. The House of Love I was really into when I was a teenager, they were a Creation band who were popular in England for a few months and disappeared. They were a dreamy guitar rock band. The singer had a Syd Barrett or Dylan edge, a bite to the lyrics. Which general is absent in shoegaze or new wave music. Maybe that's why I didn't go back. It's music from my teenager years when I first became a music obsessive but didn't care about lyrics whatsoever. That came later.
Speaking of lyrics, you have a number of memorable turns of phrase on ken as usual, from lines like "working on the new Oliver Twist" to song titles like "Tinseltown Swimming In Blood." Do those just come to you or do you spend time mulling them over?
I spend zero time. I spent all of my time thinking about how the music should sound and how the hell you make a record. To me, every record is more mysterious than the last one, how it's supposed to happen. But the words just kind of come, and if I like singing something, I'll sing it over and over. I get off on it. I just get pleasure from that. There's a lot of recurring themes that aren't couched by abstraction like they sometimes get in Destroyer world. It always seems to be visions or illness or madness or decadence or depravity.
How long did the album take to make?
We recorded it in two months, maybe took a week to mix on top of that. Some of the songs are old. "Cover From the Sun" I wrote during the tail-end Poison Season era, but it was so jaunty and peppy and straightforward, I thought, "There's no way the band will want to play this." When I first tried to do it with Josh it was still a pub rock song or maybe a hangover from my Pete Doherty fixation, and I just can't sing like that, so he made it more pummeling and straight-lined, like 10 droning guitars playing over the progression. And this made it sound more like the late '80s bands we were talking about.
Last time I interviewed you for Poison Season, we talked about the then-recently announced Blade Runner sequel. You said it was a terrible idea. Now that it's here, do you still think that?
I keep hearing that it's good, which makes me kind of fascinated but also enraged. It's probably a standard feeling for me. I think also I didn't understand what it was. Initially I thought it was a remake and not a sequel, so I don't know, maybe it stands a fighting chance. But the fact that Blade Runner was good in the first place is such an accident. It's heads and tails ahead of the sum of its parts. And no one involved ever came back to approaching the quality of that. Why were we talking about that?
I don't really remember. Something about cinematic visions?
We must have been talking movie music because I was thinking in cinematic terms for Poison Season, which is absent from ken in a lot of ways.
You've been doing this more than 20 years. Does it get easier or is it a different, fresh challenge each time?
[Pause] I feel like you can't do something that much without a sense of craft entering the picture. That's something that's happened to me compared to the early days: you become more conscious of the building blocks of an album. That being said I wouldn't mind finding a way to completely dismantle that. I just don't know how because in a lot of ways I'm a traditional songwriter and the songs show up quite structured. They're kind of old-fashioned. What I'm saying doesn't sound old fashioned, but the way they're put together adheres to some pretty old school rules. And yeah, it would be nice to forget about some of those things. But I still just make records because it's a challenge and I like making them. I write songs because I get off on them and making records is a mystery, which is cool. And I like mysteries.