Inspirations is a Billboard interview franchise that examines the process behind new standout releases.
Getting inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame isn’t easy. There’s the concept of influence, the question of longevity, and for the artist, weighing whether it’s worth paying for your own flight to Cleveland. But in order to even qualify for consideration, at least 25 years must have passed since the release of your first commercial recording. And while it doesn’t feel possible, Destroyer — indie rock iconoclast Dan Bejar and his ever-rotating cast of players — will be celebrating such a milestone in the coming year.
The day after the Rock Hall class of 2020 was announced, Bejar is lost in another timeline in which Destroyer could, in theory, be rubbing elbows with the likes of Trent Reznor and Dave Gahan, though his morose wit might be over some voters’ heads. “Obviously I despise all that s–t,” the 47-year-old singer-songwriter says in his trademark deadpan. “But if I thought that being part of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame meant that instead of 600 people at our Seattle show there would be 750? I’d be like, ‘Okay, you can put me in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.’ As long as I don’t have to go to the ceremony, I’m all about it.”
It’s a typical Bejarian response: Cantankerous but not necessarily rude, unsurprising coming from a guy who doesn’t celebrate his own birthday but relishes the idea of approaching middle age. “I’m not into landmarks,” he says over the phone from Vancouver (the city where he was born and still resides), sporting a dry January cough. “I’m just kind of into the feeling of being disoriented in the world. It’s kind of mysterious to me, watching the world erase itself.”
Listening to Have We Met, the band’s 12th proper full-length, is also kind of like watching the world erase itself. It’s a Destroyer record after all, still full of idiosyncratic, misanthropic observations (“There’s always a bee in my bonnet,” Bejar admits), but gone is the romantic sweep that defined 2011’s commercial breakthrough Kaputt, as well as subsequent full-lengths Poison Season (2015) and ken (2017). This is a project that’s always reinventing itself, so it makes a weird kind of sense that Have We Met is both Destroyer at its most macabre and, arguably, its most danceable. “I just wanted to paint terrible pictures,” he says, “as lyrically nightmarish as possible. But have the music be exciting and joyous in a lot of ways.”
With the help of producer John Collins and guitarist Nicolas Bragg (both longtime Destroyer co-conspirators), Bejar and company were off in yet another new direction. “The original idea was super massive drums, low-end bass, and just like, musique concrète sound design s–t,” he says. And while a seemingly unshakable love of ’80s soft-rock schmaltz is still firmly intact, Bejar’s initial conceptualization still tracks, even if the final product looks “more poppy than I envisioned.” “Have We Met really sounds like a record born of isolation and just like, a couple individuals huddled around the glow of the computer light,” Bejar explains.
But in his musical life outside of Destroyer, collaborators new and old have come knocking at his door recently, despite his expected objections. First was an unexpected email from one of Bejar’s heroes, David Berman, the mercurial frontman for the seminal ’90s indie rock band Silver Jews. “I didn’t know him,” Bejar recalls. “He asked me if I wanted to work on a record. I said, ‘I’ve never produced a record before, and I don’t think it’s a good idea, but I absolutely want to help you.’”
Having avoided the spotlight for years, Berman was staging a comeback, and enlisted the assistance of Bejar and an old friend, Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus, to get things off the ground. But the sessions stalled, and Berman would go on to release his celebrated self-titled debut as Purple Mountains in 2019, one month before dying by suicide. “I don’t want to go into too much, to be honest,” Bejar says, understandably. But as far as Purple Mountains is concerned, he’s a fan. “I think it’s a really classy record.”
Also seeking to capture a bit of Bejar’s maudlin magic are the New Pornographers, the beloved Canadian power pop ensemble who have enjoyed Bejar’s presence as an on-again, off-again performer and writer. Earlier this month, chief Pornographer Carl Newman called out Bejar on Twitter (which, surprise, he isn’t on), wondering if he and former bandmate Neko Case would be interested in doing some shows to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the band’s debut, Mass Romantic.
“Yeah, he tricked me,” Bejar recalls. “It just so happens we have a text exchange and then he goes to Twitter… I think he was probably tweeting as he texted me.” Still, there’s a chance fans might get to see Bejar onstage with his old bandmates again. “I said I’d play a show, for the 20th anniversary of that album,” he says despite noting that “there are some pretty peppy songs on Mass Romantic, a lot of us might be huffin’ and puffin’.” “I don’t think I’d play two shows,” he concludes with a laugh. “I like to keep things special.”
So yes, you could say that Bejar plays things pretty close to the chest, but Have We Met is a special piece of work, and Billboard had to know what inspired it. Luckily, Bejar obliged.
“I first had the idea of [Have We Met] being like this in-computer kind of thing,” he says, recounting how the foundations for the album were recordings Bejar made in his kitchen, singing alone into a laptop. “I was thinking of the really super-static, digital, close mic quality of a 2001 Leonard Cohen record called Ten New Songs.” Cohen has always been a reliable through-line on Destroyer albums, but Have We Met shares a certain viewpoint about aging that feels apt.
“I feel like the singing on the record, it’s the first time that I sound truly middle-aged,” Bejar confesses. “Probably because I was middle-aged finally when I sang those songs. ‘A Thousand Kisses Deep,’ which is a famous song on [Ten New Songs], is one that I held as a touchstone, both in the singing and the sound of it. Even though it’s quite kind of generic, the song is very beautiful and mysterious, and more melodic than normal because Sharon Robinson did all the music. But it also sounds like a demo song on some Casio, right? Really canned, and really kind of flatline-y. I sent that to John and he was like, ‘Cool, cool!’ And it’s so not his aesthetic. The minute that we started actually doing work it was like, ‘Oh yeah, this vibe is long gone. [Laughs.]
Letting his bandmates take the wheel
“When I decided I wanted to make a record, [it was] myself on my computer, and then I’d just give the whole thing to John and have him just blow it up, flesh it out — swap out my s–tty fake drums for cool drums, and play bass on it, and make the synths cool and not generic, and make the songs move,” Bejar explains, while acknowledging that the majority of his instructions were roundly ignored. “[I] was totally sidelined,” he admits, “which is really typical of Destroyer making a record. Where there’s like this idea, and momentum takes you elsewhere. And you just do not sweat it.”
This hands-off approach is largely why Have We Met sounds the way it does, with Collins’ rich detailing taking front and center when the songs demand it. “There did seem to be a digital freedom about it with John just going for it with the beats, and it’s great having him have 100% free rein with the rhythm section. It somehow leaned into this funky version of Destroyer,” he says. “I never saw ‘Cue Synthesizer’ in its final version looming on the horizon. When I first heard it, I was really compelled by it, but also aghast. What the f–k is this? This industrial funk-pop with dueling cyber blues guitars all over it? I think John really went down a rabbit hole with that song, and when we came up for air, it was like, ‘Holy s–t, what is this beast?’”
Bob Dylan’s “High Water”
On the propulsive single “It Just Doesn’t Happen” (which enjoyed a brief period as a lurching industrial piece before being sculpted into something more radio-friendly), Bejar references genre-bending Scottish band Primal Scream, doo-wop vocal group The Platters and legendary Delta bluesman Charley Patton in almost the same breath. But in typical Destroyer fashion, some things were a little lost in translation.
“It’s funny, I totally blanked on ‘High Water Everywhere’ being Charley Patton? Because I associate it with this Bob Dylan song off of [2001’s] Love & Theft called ‘High Water,’ which is a song that I’ve always really loved. I remember when I first heard it — well maybe not when i first heard it, because it took me a while to get on board with that album at all — I thought that when I finally first got into the record, that song stood out to me in a way that was actually… it felt to me like, modified apocalyptic. I mean, there’s so much lip service paid to him for being this prophetic seer, and I never bought into that. But on ‘High Water’ I thought maybe he was finally delivering on his rep. I think I just like that the line ‘high water everywhere’ rhymes with ‘it’s just too dark to care,’” he laughs. “I’m giving it all away now.”
Even if you weren’t aware that Bejar is a bonafide cinephile (“I’m drawn to Buñel,” he says, referencing the surrealist Spanish filmmaker, “[his films] are kind of comedies”), there’s something so theatrical about his writing, it’s hard to see the guy as anything other than a movie freak. “I’m always thinking a lot about film,” he says. “But this record I think I’m thinking more about film — but not in ‘film music’ terms, not film scores or film soundtracks, which I was more into when we were doing Kaputt. I would say all these things to John and he’d be like, ‘Oh, I totally know what you mean. Like, Korean horror pop.’ Korean horror pop? What the hell are you talking about? [Laughs.] So you know, you say something and then someone else translates it in their own way.”
Korean horror pop aside, Have We Met is rife with “creepy sounds.” “I think kind of even just like glitchy stuff, which I associated with being very much a part of a late ‘90s aesthetic in music, I remember that being around a lot,” he says. “Whether it was used in a token way, or in the background, used in film scores. That kind of classic, creepy… you know, the kind of thing that would be in a David Fincher movie from around then. Even though I don’t give a s–t about his movies, and I don’t give a s–t about the music in his movies.”
Trip-Hop (sort of)
“I guess that’s something that we thought about, even though I didn’t even know what that meant,” he says, referencing the beat-driven, alternative electronic ‘90s micro-genre the produced such luminaries as Portishead and Massive Attack. “And I don’t think John really knew either. When I first described it to him I was like, ‘These massive drum samples, and dub bass, and really minimal, stark music.’ And he was like, ‘Oh, you mean kind of like a trip-hop record?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, sure… that.’ [Laughs.] My late ‘90s was like, Mott the Hoople and s–t like that. So all that [trip-hop] stuff was a blank to me. I knew it was the sound of me ordering a coffee in a café, but I paid seriously no mind to it whatsoever. But once you get going, things go off in a direction you don’t expect. And it’s ten times more exciting that way.”