Made to Be Broken
I'm not interested in chamber pop. I don't even know what that really means," says songwriter Dan Bejar. "If it means, like, 'Eleanor Rigby' or something, I don't really listen to that. Chamber pop kind of bugs me."
As captain of the Vancouver-based vessel Destroyer, Bejar knows a thing or two about navigating the eddies of underground pop music. Since 1995, when he put out his first solo, home-recorded cassette, and continuing through to his new and most accomplished masterpiece, Your Blues, Bejar has dodged convention as well as definition. His official full-length releases have run the gamut from four-track confessional to sprawling, guitar-tangled epic, made flesh by a shifting cast of players and instrumental arrangements that all deftly encapsulate the essence of Destroyer.
"My first CD came out in early '96, and it was just four-track stuff I had done over the preceding year. It was at a time when there was tons of four-track music out there, for better or for worse," Bejar recalls with a laugh before apologizing for the unreliability of Canadian cell phones. He's calling from a Connecticut interstate, where his tour van is currently en route to New York City, and his clear, high voice fights to cut through an ambient fog of static. "I had dropped out of school then, so I had a lot of time on my hands. I played in one band, but I was kind of like the secondary songwriter-slash-really bad rhythm guitarist. We only ever played one show.
"That experience," he continues, "was kind of the impetus for getting started with the four-track. It seemed easier to record stuff by myself than with other people. I would just use whatever was lying around to make noise with. The first Destroyer shows were me playing my songs on guitar with my roommates behind me, making a bunch of noise. They had never even heard the songs before. It was just a bunch of messing around."
Bejar's "messing around" with lo-fi home recording during its mid-'90s heyday has evolved into one of the most acclaimed, if indefinable, acts in indie rock today. After Destroyer's 1996 debut, We'll Build Them a Golden Bridge, which was predominantly a solo affair, the singer/guitarist unveiled 1998's City of Daughters, showcasing the first of several lineups of the group. Sprinkled with folksy rambling, literary airs and head-scratching song titles such as "Loves of a Gnostic," "Rereading the Marble Faun" and "I Want This Cyclops," the disc brought its creator's distinct voice to the fore. As if remembered from a bemused, lucid dream in which Leonard Cohen transforms into Robyn Hitchcock on a seaside cliff by the light of the full moon, Bejar's singing was a wispy, meandering chirp topped off with a vaguely English brogue.
As raw and immediate as City of Daughters was, though, it was already dropping hints of symphonic ambition. Intermittent bursts of horns, keyboards and 5/4 time signatures set Destroyer apart from droves of faceless Guided by Voices apostles, and the tracks' ornate chord progressions and melodies were steeped in neo-classicist songcraft. These qualities became more corporeal and clearly articulated on 2000's Thief and 2001's Streethawk: A Seduction, an ostensible homage to the grandeur of early-'70s David Bowie.
But it was This Night, Destroyer's 2002 opus, that finally started making jaws hit the floor. Aided by Bejar's peripheral membership in the New Pornographers, Vancouver's hugely popular power-pop ensemble -- not to mention a higher profile after Destroyer signed with notable indie imprint Merge Records --This Night broke through to tons of new audiences. It's easy to see why: If Phil Spector had produced Big Star's Sister Lovers, it might have sounded something like this dense, slightly disjointed, wholly glorious mess of a record. Drawing praise from nearly every critic and true fan of music who heard it, the album seemed the ultimate realization of the sound Bejar had been questing for across his previous four albums.
So where to go from there? For Bejar, the answer was a paradox: Strip things down while making them even bigger. Your Blues is an odd yet compelling detour from the arc of Destroyer's oeuvre, an experimental departure from the orthodox, live-band setup to a three-man project sculpted from glacial synthesizers, banks of digitized strings and Bejar's increasingly abstruse mode of address. Assembled using computers and MIDI technology, the record retracts the Destroyer sound into an icy carapace of abstraction even as it expands upward on a warm current of vivid imagery and sheer wonder.
"I really didn't know what I was doing," says Bejar of Your Blues. "I knew that I wanted to do a lot of stuff on the computer and that I didn't want it too sound too scaled down. But I also knew that John Collins and David Carswell -- who are two guys I've worked with over the last few years -- would be game for lots of MIDI stuff and computer editing and arranging on screen. That was kind of a conscious plan; it was really very carefully controlled."
With Carswell and Collins (a member of the New Pornographers) contributing their keyboard, sequencing and production skills, Bejar had the perfect canvas on which to daub his impressionistic portraits of crystal jets, gilded jeans, vengeful actors and jewel-encrusted roans. Largely bereft of bass or drums, the songs bob along on cymbal crashes, bubbles of brass and swells of organic grace that belie their silicon-sired origins.
"I didn't have any interest in making a computer record, like a Postal Service-style record," explains Bejar, referencing the successful synth-pop project of Death Cab for Cutie's Ben Gibbard. "I just needed the computer and MIDI stuff because that's what has those kinds of orchestral sounds on it. That's kind of what the whole point of the record was, just to drape it in that stuff. I wasn't really going for any glitchy, laptop pop record.
"The music was shaped by the people who were playing it and recording it," he continues. "I think that has a lot to do with it, at least in the case of Destroyer. This record was a bit different, because there was a different working concept and set of tools we were using. The idea was to use a lot of string functions and delayed shit and patches and stuff. And the fact that there's no rhythm section for the most part automatically kind of makes it not a rock record. But the songs themselves are pretty consistent. They still sound like Destroyer songs."
But don't take Bejar's new role as an avant-electronic auteur to mean that he's gone anti-rock. For Destroyer's current tour, he's enlisted the assistance of guitarist Carey Mercer, bassist Michael Rak, pianist Grayson Walker and drummer Melanie Campbell, collectively known as the quirky Vancouver outfit Frog Eyes. Infamous for its edgy, idiosyncratic take on whatever the genre is that you'd cram Nick Cave and Tom Waits into, Frog Eyes has been entrusted to translate the elegantly enunciated music of Your Blues into a more visceral on-stage parlance.
"We just kind of did away with the CD," Bejar explains. "We don't sound anything like that live. We're playing a lot of the songs off the record, but we just get up on stage and tear through them. I'll probably go back to a more rock type of sound at some point, maybe with the next record. I know for a fact that I won't be doing another MIDI album any time in the near or distant future. I have no intention of ever doing anything like it again. I mean, it was fun, but it's not a mode of working that I could get really used to."
One constant throughout the many changing faces of Destroyer is Bejar's lyrical approach. Do a Google search on "Dan Bejar" with the word "cryptic" and you'll come up with 65 results; it's a popular adjective among journalists trying to describe the indescribable element that threads through his panoply of assumed identities, mythical allusions and smart-ass one-liners. "I don't work towards being cryptic," Bejar confesses. "Actually, it's a pain in the ass when that gets written. Most rock lyrics seem pretty cryptic to me; I don't really know what all these songs are that people think are so crystal clear in the first place. Maybe when there's a lot of narrative happening or the vocals are really up front and clear, the lyrics are supposed to be something you can sing along to. I don't know. Some people will actually dive in and go to town on my lyrics, trying to interpret them. People have done that quite a few times. But lyrics aren't really very important. So it's best to just acknowledge that they're cryptic and then move on."
Obscurity, whether willful or not, is undeniably endemic to Destroyer's conceptual landscape. Besides the marked literary bent of Bejar's lyrics, the music on Your Blues exhibits a broad streak of left-of-center influences, from the antiseptic strains of Brian Eno and the Blue Nile to fellow loner savants such as Momus and Stephen Merritt. "I was thinking more along the lines of more vocalist-based music, like Richard Harris or Jimmy Webb," says Bejar, citing two of the unlikeliest stars in pop history: Harris, the burly, hard-drinking actor of A Man Called Horse fame, and Webb, the composer of standards such as "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" and "MacArthur Park" -- a song Harris made famous in the late '60s. "Or those old Scott Walker records, or John Cale, or even that first Nico album.
"We were also throwing goofier shit around the studio, like Thomas Dolby," he goes on. "We used that as an example of what not to do with MIDI. I didn't want to make a new-wave record; I thought that was a potential danger."
For a band as singular as Destroyer, being stuck with some generic label hardly seems like a threat. Still, the whole orchestral slant of Your Blues is bound to be associated with chamber-pop luminaries such as Belle and Sebastian and the High Llamas. But Bejar, chasing a muse obviously visible to nobody but himself, couldn't care less about comfortable niches or hip trends.
"I'm not sure what all the differences are," he admits. "When I say 'orchestral,' I mean that in the traditional sense, as in the types of instruments and arrangements you'd see in a classical orchestra. But chamber pop is just not terribly interesting. I couldn't imagine getting too engrossed with that idea."
Maybe not. But the cardigan-clad, French-horn-toting devotees of chamber pop would do well to take a lesson in genre-shattering from Destroyer.
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