Destroyer’s way with words: “If I could leave everything without a title, I would”
Over a quarter of a century into Destroyer’s career, the band’s main man Dan Bejar talks being misquoted, collaboration, experimentation and more on their thirteenth studio album, LABYRINTHITIS
At album number thirteen, you’d be forgiven for potentially reusing or recycling ideas and sounds from past records, using go-to aural tricks and generally improving, not innovating… this is definitely not the case for the Canadian group Destroyer, led by the charismatic, enigmatic Dan Bejar, and their thirteenth record LABYRINTHITIS.
Recently our album of the week, you can read our take on the album here, we’ve gone one better and caught up with Bejar himself to find out about the new album as well as asking some broader career spanning questions, with his answers proving to be considered, philosophical and thought provoking… just like his music.
Before we get stuck into the new album I was hoping we could start with a bit of a broader, high level question - at this point in your career, from the first Destroyer record to now, has your attitude towards releasing music changed at all?
The first Destroyer album came out 26 years ago, so I’m assuming being like a sentient human being, I’m sure I’ve gone through changes - I can’t really remember what they are. They’ve been slow, you know, over the course of two and a half decades. I still get wound up, I guess, at this point in my life.
I sit on records for a lot longer. You know, this record is one I had finished last July. So that’s something that’s I guess more standard in the music industry now. Compared to 25 years ago. Those are like the boring answers, I don’t know how deep you want me to go.
Not boring at all! I guess this stemmed somewhat from a quote, well a quote attributed to you on Wikipedia so it must be true… “That's kind of my goal: to start from scratch every time”.
Yeah, I don’t know if that’s true. I mean, I think I have to hack into my Wikipedia page. If you look at the names of the people involved in Destroyer albums, whether it’s the one before this one, if if you want to go back to 2000 earlier, you’re going to see a lot of repeat names. So it’s hardly starting from scratch.
You know, I don’t even know what that means. I think my writing style, my singing style’s kind of distinctive. And for better, for worse, it really seems like a specific kind of thing that happens again and again and again. But maybe the landscapes are a little different, you know?
One of those repeat names that pops up is John Collins, who you again worked on LABYRINTHITIS with, however this time I believe you worked together in separate physical spaces out of necessity during the pandemic?
I mean, it’s actually really similar to how we made Have We Met, the album that came before this one. The big difference is the Destroyer band is way more present on this record, compared to the previous one, but everyone was doing their stuff in their own little corners of the world.
You know, we haven’t been in the same room together since our last show in Nashville, that’s like, over two years ago now. It was kind of, you know, I found it kind of novel and liberating on the last album, this way of working. But I think because I had no choice on this record, you know, when you have no choice, it always spoils it.
So you were forced to work apart this time, as everyone was apart… I’m curious as to how there came to be a decidedly dance floor oriented sound on this album in a time where there were no dancefloors?
Yeah, I wonder if that’s something to do with it. It’s subconscious, who knows, maybe? I don’t know. I mean, to me, it doesn’t really sound like my idea of dance music. But it was definitely the idea when we first started talking, was to make a club record. It so happened that neither one of us knew how to do that. *laughs*
So that idea fell by the wayside pretty fast. But I mean, it’s definitely the fastest Destroyer record ever made, relentlessly. So there’s not really too much in the way of like peaks and valleys, it all happens at a pretty like, fever pitch, for the most part… at least, you know, fever as far as Destroyer goes.
So it’s fast. And it’s very bass heavy. You know, a lot of thought went into the rhythm section, which is kind of how dance music is kind of made… or broken. But that was just like an initial conversation, and once you actually start getting your hands dirty, doing the music, all that stuff falls apart.
Speaking of the intensity of the record, I wanted to ask about the least intense moment - the almost ambient title track that is positioned right in the middle of the album. Was this a conscious decision, almost like “woah, we need a little breather here”?
I mean, it works. It definitely works like that and it was placed in a sequence like that. That being said, I didn’t hear that because I wasn’t involved in the making of that track. That’s something that happened about maybe eight to ten hours before we handed in the album.
It was very last minute, I always knew that John was going to make an instrumental track, just like that I asked Nick to make an instrumental track for Have We Met, and that instrumental track would be the title track. It’s kind of a tradition I’m trying to get off the ground. But yeah, I do like the song.
It’s like a respite from the relentless BPMs, it’s more like just kind of ambient, and almost musique concrète, but still kind of airy and new wave sound, like a lot of the other stuff in the record. Yeah, I think it’s a perfect divider. And it’s the perfect spot to take a breath on the album until you get to the very last song.
That’s wild and quite a bit of trust to put in someone to come up with the title track in like, 10 hours! Were you just pacing around wondering what was going to happen in that time?!
I knew that John is a master of last minute. Just like four o’clock in the morning stuff. And also, we’ve been working together, on and off for 25 years now. So yeah, there’s lots of trust involved, and he came up with something that I really like.
So jumping from the ambient centerpiece, I wanted to ask about your compositions in general on the new album - many of the tracks are almost in two parts, forgoing classic western pop arrangements, it’s almost like you get up to the chorus and then just go in a completely different direction?
Yeah, it’s happening more and more - they seem to have a lot of pre-chorus and pre-chorus bridge outro, just like structures that make no sense. There’s examples like with the song June where it was supposed to be a three and a half minute song, and then John whipped up this entire kind of bridge outro that goes for almost as long as the song itself which I just fell in love with and thought something needed to over it, but I didn’t know what as it become this kind of ramshackle, kind of spoken word… factory collapsing on itself. But still vaguely groovy.
But yes, song structure-wise, it’s a constant battle. I’m always trying to demolish it, because deep down I’m pretty reactionary. Like, I’m still pretty traditional. One thing that helps is that I just write a song as “done” when I can sing it from beginning to end, acapella, with all the words and melodies intact. It’s only then that I start to think about chords, chord structure, arrangement. So when you’re just following a lyric, the structure gets weird, you know, and that’s why these songs are kind of getting weirder in some ways.
And I love it, the weirder the better. When it comes to lyrics, you seem to somehow straddle the line between stream of consciousness and deliberateness - are you always writing ideas on a pad, where does your lyrical inspiration come from?
I’m usually just mumbling to myself. And usually, the mumbling has some kind of melodic lilt to it. In the old days, I used to walk around with a notebook and I was always writing. Then I would always also be playing guitar, and at some point I had to kind of smush those things together. Since I stopped playing guitar, I mean more or less stopped since like 2008, it’s become more just like little bits, little lines, lines of melody and words.
You know that spoken word stretch in June is maybe like the exception where I had a bunch of writing. And I have lots of writing like that, which is just like, I deem not musical or not melodious. And the world just doesn’t see it, but there’s lots of it kicking around. And for that part, once I decided that I wasn’t going to be singing, it was going to be like a spoken word or almost rapping kind of thing.
I just kind of assumed a voice of a narrator that I liked and went for it, and John messed around with the sound of my voice a bit. So that’s kind of different, but everything else is just yeah, just me kind of humming to myself with words attached.
I can definitely picture you walking around muttering under your breath something like “Tintoretto It’s For You” over and over again. I did want to ask about that track, cos I’m not gonna lie, I wasn’t familiar with Tintoretto, so I looked up this artist whose name has a musical quality to it - why Tintoretto?
I don’t know, I don’t know exactly why. It’s one of the only examples I can think of me writing a song from the title down. I think people do that pretty often, but I never do that. In fact, if I could leave everything without a title, I would. I kind of had this “Tintoretto, it’s for you” phrase that I couldn’t shake. I just kind of started writing towards it and tagging it on to the end of every verse and seeing how it stuck.
All the verses ended up being more or less kind of ominous about like, some kind of person, maybe an artist figure being haunted or stalked by like basically the Grim Reaper, someone who’s just relentlessly telling them that their time is up.
I know I asked about the title track, but I’m interested in the title of the record itself - LABYRINTHITIS - again something I wasn’t familiar with, I was more picturing an inescapable labyrinth. Where did the title come from? Have you experienced labyrinthitis?
Ah, I kind of came across the word because I was having a weird flare up, I guess probably spring of last year. What I thought was like a tinnitus kind of thing, just inner ear stuff, which if you play in a rock band for long enough is not abnormal at all. But it felt more serious. I felt like I was having bouts of vertigo as well. So I came across this word, labyrinthitis, that kind of encompasses some of those symptoms.
That part doesn’t really interest me, because the symptoms kind of went away really quick, but the word stuck with me because I found the word so strange, it seems so make believe it was hard to believe it was an actual condition. When I first saw it, it seemed like a bit of magic realism or something that Jorge Luis Borges would invent, like someone who's addicted to mazes, or someone who is constantly plagued by taking the wrong turn, you know?
It feels like you could invent 100 different meanings to the word and it would all work fine. Usually with titles, I just like the look of the letters on the page, like I did a record called Kaputt, and that was the same thing, I hadn’t really thought of what that expression meant. The letters looked really strange to me, I liked the idea of them on a record. So that’s kind of how I picked those things.
There was an awesome documentary that came out following the release of your Have We Met album… any chance of something similar this time around?
I mean, I don’t think there’s gonna be a small tiny film crew chasing around our tour bus anytime soon… that was a very strange event and one that coincided with a very insane time in history. It’s interesting how little thought I gave it at the time, you know? I feel like if there’s a movie that accompanies LABYRINTHITIS, it’d be really different, but I don’t know what form that would take.
I’d be so curious about an accompanying movie… so you’re about to set off on a North American tour, and we’ve got the rest of the year ahead of us - what are you most excited about?
I don’t know, like I’m completely out of the habit of thinking more than like one week at a time, I’m like everyone else in the world, I’ve lost that muscle memory. I’m excited to be in the same room with the band - like I said, it’s been over two years. And how to make this music on stage, it seems like a mystery. I say it every time that it feels like a mystery to me, but with this record, it truly does feel like a mystery.
So I’m kind of equal parts excited and filled with dread. It all feels really new after taking a long break from doing music and being on stage, or even just jamming with people. It’s been so long, it feels like a foreign thing, so I’m pretty excited to just do that.