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Destroyer is back with bittersweet release ‘Poison Season’

By Maya-Roisin Slater
Another time, another season awaits for Destroyer.

Another season awaits for Destroyer.

VANCOUVER — I see Dan Bejar roughly once every two weeks. Sometimes he’ll be walking by while I’m sweeping the sidewalk at work. Sometimes I’ll be behind him at the grocery store and take note of the brand of organic milk he’s buying. Sometimes I’ll be at the local community centre when he drops his daughter off at the adjoining elementary school. I hear a lot of men in their mid-30s sing praises of Destroyer with a startling amount of earnestness and conviction. It seems like almost every mid-30-year-old male I’ve talked to in Vancouver has some sort of deep emotional connection with Bejar’s Destroyer. The same emotional connection you might find between college aged girls and feminist poets. If poetry was lost on you in your first year of university when your girlfriend was asking to read Sylvia Plath prose to you in bed after intercourse, chances are you will find that connection to the beauty and fluidity of language at 35 while listening to Bejar’s romantic pop songs. It won’t seem like poetry at first, masked cleverly by saxophones-a-plenty and distracting lush guitar riffs, but Sarah from the dorm above yours was right, it was something you would get eventually, when you were a little older.

It was strange talking to a man who was on one hand basically my neighbour, and on the other, a bit of a legend around town that people love to wax on about in record stores or at dinner parties. He didn’t even know my name, yet I had his cellphone number and some pretty important intel about where he goes to buy kale on Commercial Drive. He answered the phone on the second ring, he’s in Toronto at his sister’s house in a multi-purpose office room upstairs. He describes it as “Not very professional-looking.”

“I don’t leave the house that often, so I’m not exposed to anything,” Bejar says on the topic of drooling Destroyer fans. “My life hasn’t changed very much over the years. It’s changed for personal reasons, but not for reasons like I go outside and someone wants to give me a high five or something. I’m not in society too much, and lets be honest the level of popularity that Destroyer has is still an easy one. I’m pretty anonymous, I hardly have to walk the streets with a bag over my head.”

More than 20 years ago when Destroyer began, an easy level of popularity wasn’t even a thought in Bejar’s mind. “When I first started music I didn’t think of it at all, I had always been writing but had never really sung or played instruments, so it was kind of a strange expandment. Everyone I was around was in bands so it felt normal.” Bejar borrowed a four-track from a friend and laid down ideas with a four-string guitar and noisemakers. That became the very first Destroyer record. The material on that first album is a far cry from the maximal soft-rock found on Destroyer’s forthcoming release, Poison Season. In the beginning it was minimalistic anti-folk. Bejar went from grunge to a full horn section. He says a lot can change over the course of 20 years. “Your taste changes, your ideas of yourself, at some point it becomes less social and some invert place that you get used to being in. That place, the looks of it, changes. I think I thought of myself as some weirdo writer that happened to sing a little bit, at this point I just think of myself as a singer. Maybe the music has changed to reflect that.”

The change this alternate job description brings is certainly a positive one, as this mindset has brought us Destroyer’s darkest most complex album yet. It’s not as sweet and wishy washy as Kaputt, and calls back to the relentless lyricism featured in earlier albums like City of Daughters. The ’70s pop guitar, mid-life crisis remnant horn section, and existential content combines to create an album that is wholly and completely bittersweet. The bulk of the record was recorded in Bryan Adams’ swanky Gastown studio, a week before AC/DC took up residence in the space for a matter of months. Everything was in tip-top condition for Bejar and his players to knock things out. Many of the tunes were rehearsed by the band less than a handful of times before being put on tape, so the explosive improvisational feel to the music is not the result of sly production, it’s more so a group of seasoned musicians getting it right the first time.

It’s been four years since Bejar’s last release, an amount of time he describes as “way too long, it’s no good, no good for the likes of me. These songs were festering inside of me for way too long like some weird extra limb I was carrying around.” The four-year long fermentation process of Poison Season didn’t begin in a songwriting room or a studio with plentiful exposed brick, but rather in the very place I so often see Bejar, the produce aisle. “It all starts with me mumbling into my phone in the grocery store, like some weirdo talking to himself. Then at some point I’ll sit down and try to demo a song, that’s when I’ll set vocal melodies, although usually that just comes with the words. These days the words and the melody are the same thing.” From there, layers and layers of icing are added to the cake that will eventually be devoured by Destroyer fans everywhere while alone in bed, possibly crying.

The next layer involves the other members of Destroyer, the horn section, and the string players. “I’ll take the songs over to the band and they’ll come up with something different. In the case of the string arrangements on Poison Season, when I heard what they came up with, the songs became something totally foreign to me, something I never would have thought in a million years. But that’s kind of the stuff I live for in music, that’s what gets me most excited, is watching something transform.”

Letting the rest of the band play around and transform the songs is what birthed the impossible to ignore fact that Posion Season features three versions of the same song in the beginning, middle, and end of the album. “It’s really like two pieces, there’s a rock and roll version done in a way that’s very typical of Destroyer. Just this kind of ’70s rock vibe. That was never really the intention, but when we tried the song it just kind of happened like that. It was very fast, and graceful, and felt right. But in my head it was always going to be a more austere moment in the record. At some point I figured ‘fuck it I’ll just put both of them on,’ they’re different enough that the songs mean different things.” Bejar says chopping the classical version in half and using it as an opening and closing for the album provided some coherence and context for the work. “It’s something I was kind of worried about originally, I thought it didn’t really make sense as an album. Then I started to find the thread, which isn’t in the feel or the phonics of the songs which are all over the place, but there’s this mood that runs through all of them. One’s a straight up rock song, the other can be a string quartet, but the vocals kind of lie together, in a way that’s cool.”

The tone of the vocals provide a thread to follow throughout Poison Season, but the frequently appearing horn section that has carried over from Kaputt gives it that distinct Destroyer sound that has clarified itself within the past couple releases. Since the ’80s when pop music featured brass instruments incorporated by cokehead producers, the humble sax and trumpet has never fully recovered its grace and elegance in mainstream music. Instead it’s become a symbol of dad rock and adult pop, the audio equivalent of a mullet and a shirt with too many buttons undone. Bejar says his love for horn music goes way back, and in his own personal projects the farther he’s drifted from rock music, the more he’s resorted to brass tactics. “I don’t think of myself as a rock singer, I’m not that good at it. So these instruments, whether it’s big band arrangements or sweeping ballads that have romantic strings speak to me more and more. I just love it. I don’t know, I have a physical reaction to it, it pleases me and covers many different emotions at once.”

Bejar, his band, his brass, and his violins are about to embark on a fall world tour in support of Poison Season. For a man whose ideal night is on the couch with his family and not drying out the open bar while his ego is stroked at a festival after party, Bejar says time on tour turns life into “a completely schizophrenic existence.” He goes on to say this is because the two main parts of his life are completely at odds. “It definitely feels weirder as time passes you have more moments where you stop and go ‘what the hell am I doing here?’ But that’s only in the dead zone when you’re not on stage. Whenever I’m on stage actually playing it feels good; it feels right. It’s only in the strange drunken no man’s land where you miss those things that are most important to you.” Though Bejar might not take pleasure in holing up in a bus with nine other men for months at a time, he sure doesn’t mind standing with them on stage laying his vulnerabilities on the table in front of thousands of strangers. Despite the long hiatus and the inevitable time away from home, Bejar insists he’s feeling more positive about his live show than ever before. “The band made the record so fast, we didn’t give ourselves time to live with these songs, which is cool, I like doing it that way. I think we can really play the songs live, I mean they’re really new to us, as in they’re completely new to us. So that should make it good, plus I just love playing with those guys, the band is what inspired the sound of the record in the first place and I count myself lucky that they’re all game to go out and do it.”

The excitement of releasing Poison Season is levelled out with a certain amount of apprehensiveness, pressing play after four years of silence only to come back with music more morose than past successes is a daunting task. “I find the records get harder and harder to make, I don’t understand why because this is the 10th one. You’d think it would get easier but in fact I found it really difficult, I don’t know what part but, it just feels stranger. I think it could be a getting old thing, but I don’t know, I feel weird putting myself out into the world. Sometimes I’m excited and sometimes I approach it with dread. Which I think makes sense because dread seems to be one of the album’s central themes. It’s a darker sort of foreboding record, and that seems like a difficult vibe to rock night after night.”

As Destroyer releases a new claim to fame and Kaputt is put to rest, it seems likely the band’s critical acclaim and success will snowball, as it has in the past. Bejar will complete his lengthy tour, playing each night with a group of musicians he could talk forever about. He will return, fade into his humble family life, as he wrestles with the content of the next Destroyer album in his head every day until it’s released. The cycle will repeat. Not in a monotonous way, because inevitably things will change. His daughter will grow older and decide whether she hates or loves his music. He will give the New Pornographers a couple songs and make appearances with them at key locations. Bejar will go to the grocery store, I will stand behind him silently, as he finds poetry in the apples. Like a monk who seeks religion in routine, he will repeat the cycle. So, hopefully in a little less than four years, Bejar will be ringing up his sax player and drafting blueprints to construct a new Destroyer record that will inevitably reverberate off of the Trump Tower and other concrete monuments when 35-year-old men play it a little too loud from their car speakers while driving to work. Neighbourhoods will go to shit. Dan Bejar will release another record. Both will infect our palettes with the perfect balance of bitter and sweet.

Destroyer performs at the Commodore Ballroom on October 17, until then, we have Poison Season, available on August 28 on Merge Records.

BeatRoute Magazine August 2015 B.C. print edition cover. Photo: Cody Fennell

BeatRoute Magazine August 2015 B.C. print edition cover.
Photo: Cody Fennell

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