An Interview with Dan Bejar of Destroyer

Dan Bejar is something of a musical polymath. He releases albums as the front man for Destroyer while collaborating with the New Pornographers and playing as a member of indie supergroup Swan Lake. Bejar’s music contains myriad allusions to pop songs and contemporary literature, in addition to tongue-in-cheek wordplay (“She had the best legs in a business built for kicks”). He’s also the only musician I know of with a song about a certain publishing house.

—Ryan Chapman

Chapman: I have to get this out of the way: Is there a story behind naming the song “Farrar, Straus and Giroux (Sea of Tears)”?

Dan Bejar: Ten years ago I was thinking of making an album whose song titles were all named after established American publishing houses. I don’t know why, it was maybe based on the idea of rejection, or social failure. Also, they all sounded so archaic to me, like books themselves, and therefore pretty mysterious. I was into enclosed sets of terms back then, though I was coming out of it, which is probably why I ditched the idea. The album ended up being called Streethawk: A Seduction, and the song titles were all over place, though FS&G stuck. I now just generally call it by its parenthetical title “(Sea of Tears).” I guess ten years later I like things in their simplest, saddest terms. Still think Farrar, Straus and Giroux rolls off the tongue real pretty, though.

Audio: “Farrar, Straus and Giroux (Sea of Tears)”

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(Courtesy of Merge Records)

Chapman: There are a handful of musicians who strike fans as “literary,” whatever that word means in this context. You quote Ezra Pound, Albert Camus, and others in your songs, and the settings recall Graham Greene, Roberto Bolaño, even Borges. Are there certain literary antecedents you’d like to discuss? Put another way, do you have writers you read and reread?

Photograph by Ted Bois

Bejar: I didn’t know I quoted Albert Camus, that’s cool, I’ve always meant to read him. Back in the ’90s I used to walk around with a copy of Moby-Dick in my bag—I’d open it up to semi-random spots. In the early 2000s it was the same with Robert Bresson’s Notes on Cinematography. I’ve reread Shakespeare, just ’cause he’s the best (do other people ever mention that?). I’ve reread the Stephen Mitchell translation of [Rilke’s] Duino Elegies. I reread certain Spanish poets, certain Russian poets, but that’s mostly for an essay I’ve been mulling over/working on called “5 Spanish Poets: 5 Russian Poets.” I’ve reread the American poet Franz Wright, like a little prayer you would say to yourself but don’t have memorized. I’ve reread the American poet Frederick Seidel, who strikes me as despicable and super-important. I guess a literary musician is someone who takes lyrical inspiration from outside of pop music, and I definitely do, especially these days. I think it’s smart to read poetry and plays as a songwriter (novels not so much) just as a style guide. But I think people can do just fine riffing on Dylan or Syd Barrett or Bill Fay or Morrissey or Mark E. Smith or Joni Mitchell or Bill Callahan or Leonard Cohen or Felt or David Berman or David Thomas or Lou Reed or any of these giants. There’s still so much that’s been left undone in songwriting, but we forget that ’cause it’s such shit out there, so hopeless.

Chapman: Much has been made of how your lyrics quote other songs, even though this kind of allusion is fairly typical in literature. How do you think the arts inform each other?

Bejar: Constantly, effortlessly . . . I would hope. I never reference a quote that isn’t already a billboard in our lives. I don’t steal. I think I was really into Godard when I was younger, and though that’s not really my bag anymore (but Notre musique is amazing) it’s an aesthetic that still clings to me . . . what a pretentious thing to say but who cares.

Chapman: A friend of mine is composing a list of bands and the best literary pairing to go with them (for example, Radiohead and Thomas Pynchon). Do you have any ideas for who might go “well” with your music as Destroyer? As the New Pornographers?

Bejar: Isn’t Pynchon a comedic writer? That’s a weird pairing. Sure, I like the idea of matching music with novels, but I think with Destroyer you might be getting the worst of both worlds.

Chapman: A lot of the songs could be read as oblique verse referencing longer stories. Do any of them begin as prose pieces?

Bejar: I see them more as short films with large ensemble casts and each character gets a couple of lines and a few seconds of screen time, and once in a while I do a voice-over describing the scenery in some kind of watered-down accent.

Chapman: How much does travel inform your music? On the same note, do you have any recommendations for great travel books?

Bejar: I don’t travel much (I don’t count touring because I honestly think that it’s different, just like a soldier might not say that he’s traveled extensively though he’s been all over), but I would say it’s a big, though really vague, influence. Travel’s always generally sparked something in me to write (I’ve never sat down and tried to write anything, by the way). I would have to recommend those Maqroll books by Mutis, though I’m not sure that’s considered travel fiction. Or Nostromo?

Chapman: Is there a poet or writer (alive or dead) you’d like to collaborate with?

Bejar: Maybe I could’ve held my own on rhythm guitar in Anne Sexton and Her Kind . . . though I never heard them play.

Chapman: Why did you decide to release Bay of Pigs solely in vinyl and digital format? Can we expect the same from Archer on the Beach? (“Grief Point” seems to address this simultaneous embrace of the digital and the organic.)

Bejar: From a label’s point of view, Pigs might seem like a release not aimed at the CD-buying public, ’cause that public is turning into a distinct demographic, separate from people who buy vinyl, or buy music off of iTunes, or download music for free. Bay of Pigs was written and recorded with the twelve-inch 45, and the twelve-inch 45 era, in mind. “Archer” isn’t pop music, “Grief Point” less so, and so I gave the format of its release very little thought. A shorter answer would be that I don’t wanna contribute to the landfill where most CDs seem destined to live.

Chapman: Archer on the Beach brings to mind Max Richter’s The Blue Notebooks. I’m not sure if this is coincidental or not—just wanted to bring it up.

Bejar: It’s cool that you said that! I don’t know The Blue Notebooks as well (it’s supposed to be his best record) but that 24 Postcards record I’ve listened to a lot. It’s also been known to sing my daughter to sleep every other night. The music on Archer on the Beach is all done by Tim Hecker, aside from the basic chord progression and the vocal melody. In my hands “stately” would’ve been all shot to hell.

Archer on the Beach will be released November 2nd by Merge Records.

  • http://www.apostrophesmatter.blogspot.com Alicektg

    I hit on a good pairing of Destroyer with ‘Skippy Dies’. Both humorous, at times glib or tongue-in-cheek but always achingly human.

  • Reed

    I like his description of Seidel — “super-important” is a telling slip; did he mean “self-important,” or his he actually complimenting the poet? Considering it’s also a good description of Bejar’s persona, I wonder.

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