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Dan Bejar Guides Us Through Destroyer’s Latest Maze

The illusive songwriter opens up about looming insanity and the apparent idiocy of snow angels.

by Luis Minvielle

Photo by Nicolas Bragg

Dan Bejar is hanging around in his wife’s art studio in their home in Vancouver. On first impressions, he appears astray, like a castaway lost within the walls of his own dwelling. As he jumps into his video interview with RANGE, the songwriter’s hair is characteristically messy and corkscrew-shaped. His beard is scruffy and dotted with white flecks thanks to the passage of time. And, according to his opening remarks, he doesn’t have a clue about the various paintings, paintbrushes, and fabrics surrounding him. “Everything in this room,” he quips in pithy Bejar fashion, “is a mystery to me.”

For the 49-year-old Bejar, this state of discombobulation — which he finds himself in often — simply means an opportunity to coin a new Bejarism. Bejarisms are concise, sharp-witted statements one would devise while opening a bottle of wine or watching the world fall to pieces, and his songs are full of them. Bejarisms are unconventionally imaginative, and Bejar, better known as the engine and songwriter behind the long-standing pop rock project Destroyer, seems to fuel up through all things unconventional and encrypted.

Destroyer, a project built off some of the most dense and cryptic lyrics in indie rock, is packed with enigmas. The name of the band, which Bejar brought together in 1995, has a nineties death-metal-group sort of ring to it — but that’s their initial con. At odds with their solemn band name, Destroyer’s songs include schmaltzy saxophone, elements of full-blown heartland rock (“In the ’00s we were just trying to sound like a classic rock band,” Bejar says), and quirky indie pop. These songs, in turn, feature gobs of Bejarisms, with lyrics that jump from comparisons with willows to nods to punk prophetesses with the ease of lighting a cigarette. 

The band’s latest project is Labyrinthitis, their tongue-twisting thirteenth studio album and the band’s third in the last five years. Bejar considers it a new entry in Destroyer’s 2010s iteration, which kicked off with the successful Kaputt (2011), an unforeseen sophisti-pop LP that became widely recognized as one of the decade’s best albums. It departed from the band’s previous sound, characterized by a “loud, aggro” rendition of 70s rock and exemplified by their album Destroyer’s Rubies (2006). “There was a big break between the 2000s and the 2010s,” Bejar says. At the start of the new phase, he “started writing fewer words and creating more space in the music.” Since then, he believes the band’s output feels more consistent. When asked if he believes the progression between albums behave like his lyrics, where two lines often seem like two non-connected short stories, he dissents. “That’s a little bit exaggerated: I see a real continuum with the records,” he says.

Destroyer’s lineup may help explain this continuity. David Bowie, rock and roll’s foremost shapeshifter, counted on Tony Visconti to play bass and produce his records, and Visconti provided a cohesive thread between Bowie’s many genres and personas — which varied from a rockstar from outer space to a lad insane. Destroyer’s Visconti equivalent is longtime collaborator John Collins, who produced and played bass on Labyrinthitis. “The first time I went into a recording studio in 1996, that was John Collins’ studio,” Bejar recalls. “I didn’t know him — he was a stranger — and he ended up producing that record and playing bass on it. We’ve been collaborating on and off for the last 25 years. He has a very distinct way of mixing, editing, and producing music.”

Labyrinthitis is the follow-up to Have We Met, released early in 2020, just before the world locked down. It means this is the band’s first “lockdown record,” with all its predictable themes involved. But Bejar’s newest songs touch less upon being confined with his spouse’s mystifying paintings and more about feeling dizzy — as if his mind had turned into a maze. “I stumbled upon the word labyrinthitis because I was experiencing what I thought were symptoms of a disease that could have that name,” he explains. “I felt like I had an inner ear problem that was messing with my head and my sense of balance and my vision, and maybe I was just going insane,” he says with an eerie calmness.

But after Bejar recovered quickly from his dizziness (“I was a sick person for two weeks,” he says), the album’s name developed new meanings. It reminded him of Jorge Luis Borges, the famed writer obsessed with mazes, dreams, and mirrors. “Like a story from Borges, Labyrinthitis is magical but also slightly frightening — the feeling of dread at the heart of something that you don’t know what it is,” he says. He’s not as grave about it as it seems, though: “I just like the way the letters look on the page,” he admits. For Bejar, the title also evokes the possible name of a “heavy” band, one that he imagines would play music with a “90s progressive metal influence” and a “crappy electronic” sound.

However, the sound that actually ended up on the album is meant to mirror Bejar’s dizzying ailment more than anything else. “The record’s fast compared to most Destroyer albums. It’s relentlessly upbeat,” he says. “There are not a lot of quiet moments; shifts are happening all the time. There are always stray sounds — which is the vertigo feeling that I get from the album.”

One of the album’s lead singles, “June,” belongs to the house-imbued batch of songs Bejar made with Collins. It’s a constantly-in-motion new wave infused disco track that surprisingly transitions from Bejarisms galore (“Then you look up by chance from the disco dance / You’re doing into the light of the moon / It’s June and you’ve been proved / Yes, you are renewed”) to an equally amusing spoken-word passage. The guitars are sharp and high in treble, and the bass seems lifted from a slap-house demo track. The band are known for their irreverent pastiches of established styles, but this one in particular is more elusive than ever.

“I like getting lost down dark alleys. I like lies and deceit. I like international espionage and the idea of romance in the foreground of a world in flames.”

Even so, the lyrics are distinctively Destroyer’s. One of the lines from “June” claims that “A snow angel’s a fucking idiot” and then repeats it like a broken record. Lyrics such as this one — lacking context or continuity — are a mainstay throughout Destroyer’s discography. Still, on the verge of turning 50, the allegedly cranky Bejar admits that, for the first time, he can laugh out loud at his non-sequiturs. “Labyrinthitis’ lyrics are brash and full of jokes,” he says. “There’s a lot of it sung from the perspective of a villain, a mean and petty person. When I’m talking about a snow angel being a fucking idiot and then repeating it, it’s stuff you would say to make a child cry. It’s not funny, but I laugh at my intention”

It might be demanding for anyone — besides Bejar — to catch all the underlying jokes in Labyrinthitis. But this hovering mystery is part of Destroyer’s magnetism. Their inconceivably dense short stories and shocking U-turns in sound have cemented the band as an indie mainstay. Bejar, for his part, doesn’t rebuff his status, but he doesn’t bask in it too much either. He might prefer Destroyer to remain a band full of “mysteries with no solution,” like a cult neo-noir flick. “I like getting lost down dark alleys. I like lies and deceit. I like international espionage and the idea of romance in the foreground of a world in flames — I’m trying to make records with a cinematic quality,” he says.

Reflecting on his songwriting process, Bejar emphasizes how each Bejarism — and each song — is a short story: “I like taking things that belong to a cheap detective story and turning them into something mystical, where the crime becomes irrelevant,” he says. “It’s not about who did it or what the crime was. It becomes about the fog on the strange path ahead.” It seems that, as Bejar comes out of his self-made maze, Destroyer’s strange path ahead remains foggy even to him. For this particular band and its audience, that’s a good sign.