In 2011, not long before he turned 40, Dan Bejar saw Kaputt, the ninth album from his love-it-or-hate-it indie outfit Destroyer, become his best-selling, most acclaimed album to date.
Some artists might relish in the success, especially ones toiling in the scene as long as Bejar. But Destroyer isn’t like most artists. While he acknowledges the practical side of a hit album in the indie realm — the budget for his just-released album Poison Season exploded thanks to Kaputt’s success — Bejar insists he’s completely disinterested in people’s reactions to his work when Billboard sits down with him in the backyard of a Brooklyn coffee shop.
Instead, Bejar says touring for the audiences that a “hype” album attracted made him feel old, and he almost sounds relieved to say that eventually Destroyer’s live audience dwindled back to its pre-Kaputt size.
But with Poison Season, he may be forced to deal with the same outpouring of appreciation as before. While not as slick as Kaputt, it’s a surprisingly digestible, even fun, album — despite the dour tone. The barnstorming rocker “Dream Lover,” for instance, would make Bruce Springsteen proud, and Bejar points to Lou Reed‘s New York “street ballads” as a touchstone for this album.
From his mixed feelings on Kaputt‘s success to why a Blade Runner sequel is a terrible idea to why he’s mad at himself for fulfilling “every hack stereotype I’ve ever had of a singer-songwriter growing older,” here’s what Destroyer told Billboard about his tenth album.
Times Square features prominently on Poison Season, with the song “Times Square” popping up three times. It’s a place that has endless, conflicting associations to people. What does it mean to you?
It was one of the few songs I’ve written on guitar in the last few years. To me it has a Lou Reed vibe, which makes me think of New York, obviously. I was writing off a lot of names, people in varying states of despair, and with the line “You can fall in love with …”, I came up with the words “Times Square.” Which seems like maybe the strangest thing to fall in love with in the whole world. But then after I said it, it seemed like I couldn’t think of a place that had so many varied and clashing meanings. It’s a weird spot that barely exists like a place; it’s more like a symbol of something.
And it sounded good to sing it. It felt cool spitting it out. I attach it not to a place but historical moments — whether the New York renaissance of the early 20th century or glamor of Times Square or the Taxi Driver lost New York. And then the current version, which is strange Blade Runner-y vision of the future. I can’t think of it outside the history of capitalism.
Speaking of Blade Runner, do you have thoughts on the sequel that’s in the works?
What? Who’s doing it?
Ridley Scott is involved but he’s not directing.
I think it’s a really terrible idea. I’ll have to watch Prometheus again and decide. I saw Prometheus on the road — I think Destroyer spent about $900 on Prometheus. We all had a day off in the suburbs of Milwaukee, took a fleet of cabs out…I think I wanted it too much. I wanted a reason to live and it didn’t quite deliver for me. But I think I should watch it again.
Kaputt, your last album, was a commercial breakthrough for you. Which is odd to say since it’s not exactly a blockbuster, but it was your biggest album to date.
In comparison, it definitely did better than any other Destroyer record.
What is it like to break though to a wider audience on your ninth album?
It’s not something I expected. I might’ve expected some people who had never heard Destroyer to like Kaputt. I never expected people who had actively hated Destroyer for years to like Kaputt. That’s something I didn’t see. We found an audience in Europe for the first time ever. It’s weird because we toured in 2011 when the record came out. The tour did well and the crowds seemed likely borne of, you know…when a record has hype, there’s a certain kind of crowd. And then when we went out 14 months later, it felt like the same old Destroyer crowd. My life didn’t really change. It’s four and a half years between records — it’s practically like an indie rock generation. So I don’t know. I felt old at times. Looking out at certain crowds and thinking, “Wow, this is multiple generations away from me.”
But isn’t it nice to think you’re touching, or at the very least, attracting the interest of younger generations?
No, I never feel good or bad about reaching people. It doesn’t inspire emotion in me.
Are you pleased when one record does better than the others, like Kaputt or Desroyer’s Rubies?
I like it only for very tangible reasons. It’s like, cool, I can pay my mortgage or put food on the table. Poison Season is a great example — without Kaputt, there’s no way I could have made it. I sold enough records to get an advance that was twice, maybe three times as much as any money I’d seen for a record before. So out comes the orchestra, out comes Bryan Adams’ studio, and all this new shit. I went to town and spent all that money on the record. It’s not that exotic of a record for me to have made – they’re all ideas that had been germinating for a while — but I didn’t have the resources before. And that’s cool. I like being able to execute ideas. There are things that can happen with extra success, and for that, I’m grateful.
There are traditions of music I’ve been into quite a while. In the last five-six years, I’ve been listening to music outside of rock, music that predates rock. During the making of Kaputt I was listening to a lot of jazz records and instrumental music, film soundtracks. And through that I started listening to more traditional vocalists who sang these classic American Tin Pan Alley songs. When I thought about the [Poison Season] songs early on, I thought of some of them in that light, writing on that piano.
But Poison Season is still very much a rock record.
When the band gets together, we’re definitely a rock band, and I don’t try to fight it. It’s out natural state. And as a singer on stage, I feel most comfortable with that. But as far as being in the studio and creating a dramatic world for songs, rock music is not at the heart of what I’m doing these days.
Are you no longer inspired by it?
There’s a sadness and an ease to these crooners that I like. Whether it’s Frank Sinatra or Billie Holiday.
Do you think that has to do with getting older? There’s the cliché that people like rock when they’re younger and then branch out into jazz or easier listening as they age.
Yeah. It plays into every hack stereotype I’ve ever had of a singer-songwriter growing older. And it’s despicable to see myself as part of that. It’s awe-inspiring in a negative way. But at the same time, I know how I feel and I’m not going to fight it, since I know where I come from.
I don’t think I was ever the most natural rock singer, either. I love it, but I was never Iggy Pop or Mick Jagger up there. I’m a quiet singer these days, and it seems natural with these orchestrated blankets. It’s a comfortable way for me to sing.
I don’t want to ask you to predict your future, but is this where you see your music going in the future?
I think I’ll always want to be onstage with this group of guys. They’re good at creating a groove around my voice and having many melodies happening at once. I come in with songs — they already know the chords, the words are all written, there’s a framework of a beat and a few melodic motifs — but the songs change a lot the moment we get together.
But definitely songs on the record like “Bangkok” or “Girl in a Sling,” I see myself in the tradition of confused jazz balladeer. But whenever I’ve said, “This is how I’d like to go,” it’s never panned out in the past. But those songs seem like sign posts to follow. And songs like “Hell.”
What was the inspiration for “Hell Is An Open Door”?
This world-weary singer and then a very legitimate clash of visions between the string arrangement and the increased solitary vibe of song. It’s like a Michael Nyman baroque string quartet butting up against my louche Sinatra bizarre ending, just saying “it’s hell” over and over. Almost sounding like Johnny Carson’s walk-on music.
Poison Season is a dour record — does that reflect where you are emotionally right now?
I think that’s the album’s emotional state. It is a dour record. I might’ve gone through a phase. I don’t feel like I’m in it right now. I feel like the singer sounds a bit lost on the record. It’s a darker record than other Destroyer records. There’s moments where I sound nasty and mean. There’s a sense of dread to the record — I don’t know what it’s about. It’s a very 20th century dourness, melancholia for something that’s lost and you’re wandering in what’s left.
Like being in Times Square.
That’s a good example. I’ve never thought of it as being a cornerstone of the album even through it repeats itself two times, but maybe there’s more to it than I think.
When you sing about escaping from New York and escaping from L.A. on the “The River,” are you referencing John Carpenter?
It’s 100 percent a reference to the John Carpenter films. I write in a very… I can’t emphasize enough that I’m an unthinking person when I write. I think I was at the piano, and the moment I said “Escape from New York” I knew I wanted to say “Escape from L.A.” I’m a huge John Carpenter fan so I can’t think of one of those things without the other. I can’t think of “Escape From” anything without thinking of John Carpenter. But it’s also a long tradition, time-honored in Destroyer music, of giving it to major cultural centers from the English-speaking world.