Understanding Vancouver musician Dan Bejar is sort of like trying to understand his hair. It’s a magnificent mane of long, seemingly unkempt curls, swept back or sideways or everywhere, depending on the type of day Bejar was having before the photo was snapped or he takes the stage. Comparably, the music he creates is just as wild and unpredictable, not tied down to any specific genre or style in his extensive volume of work during a prolific fifteen-year (and counting) career. He’s best known for his work with Canadian supergroup The New Pornographers, whose five critically lauded and internationally renowned albums over the first decade of this century would fill out a fine career for most musicians. Yet in between each of those albums, Bejar would pump out two to five more EPs or full albums with other bands like Swan Lake or Hello, Blue Roses or his original group, Destroyer. This strand spiraling from Bejar’s head seems to be his focus these days, as Destroyer’s latest (their ninth, to be more specific) full album, a jazzy, dream-like collection of romantic pop called Kaputt, was one of ten nominees for the 2011 Polaris Music Prize.
In lieu of chatting with Bejar, I catch a late spring performance from Destroyerat the El Rey Theater in Los Angeles, a classy, red velvet-lined venue with ornate chandeliers and an aura of live music spirituality. It is especially fitting for the Destroyershow, as the crowd is a surreal blend of their cult following: aggressively nerdy types, pretty twentysomethings and old, graying music aficionados who have probably been following each step of Bejar’s career for more then a decade. From the moment they take the stage, Destroyer is a spectacle, both in amusement and amazement. Bejar carries two handfuls of beer bottles and a red solo cup out with him, placed in a safe spot beside his waist-high mic stand. As with The New Pornographers, the stage is littered with all types of talented musicians, from horns to guitarists to keyboardists. Bejar and his mad scientist frock barely acknowledge the audience, instead firing up the set and collectively lifting us up, out, over to his level through his melodic, pitch-perfect voice—longing like a crooning lounge singer who’s got “it,” but knows now he will never be discovered. He holds the microphone like a peace pipe in between lyrics; he kneels to swig booze during musical interludes. Bejar is, quite obviously, in his own world for the whole of the performance and we’re just getting a brief, fascinating glimpse of it.
However, as reflected in the interview below, Bejar is lucid and well-spoken, as much an artist as a musician. Like his hair, he goes every which way with his work because it’s natural, not kempt, cut, predictable and controlled, like so much of what we are used to listening to. Perhaps, doing a little bit of everything is becoming a style unto itself.
You’ve just started your North American tour. Does being on the road wear on you?
The last year and a half feels like I have done a lot more touring then I have done in the previous 10-15 years. I think I am getting better at it.
All of Destroyer’s albums have been quite different.How conscious are you of your audience with each new album you do?
I don’t really think about my audience until I am on stage reckoning with them and even then I usually have my eyes closed. I know that in the past some Destroyer records have left behind the people who loved record that came before it, but with each new record I think we try to focus on people who have never heard of the band or actively despise the band, which to me yields the most interesting response.
People try to pigeonhole artists a lot, yet you’ve been called a bit of a “shape-shifter” in the past. Do you strive to do that?
I wouldn’t say I strive to, no. I don’t really play an instrument, beyond some guitar and piano when I am songwriting. So I’m not really tethered to one specific musical voicing, I guess. Maybe that comes from coming at it more like a writer would come at it, though the medium is more musical, if that makes sense. I like all sorts of stuff so I listen to a lot of music and am inspired to include it in what I am doing, the grand Destroyer vision, whatever that is.
So what are you listening to now?
A lot of jazz and ‘80s Van Morrison. Those are the two things that spring to mind.
What were your musical influences growing up? Did your parents play music or take you to shows on a regular basis?
I was forced into piano lessons at a pretty young. I don’t think that counts as a musical world. My grandfather was an amazing piano player, so music was constantly around. I didn’t really learn about classic rock till my 20s. Honestly, I don’t think I fully wanted to become a musician until last year, when I piled our eight-piece band onto a bus to mount a tour.
Really? You just made that decision?
It took a while to come to grips with, I guess. There was a time in the late ‘90s when writing songs consumed me, like a sickness, I guess. It’s all I thought about, it’s all I did. I was constantly writing songs and listening to music. I’m not sure how long that phase lasted. It’s that feeling you get when you find something you have a knack for and you might actually be good at. You just throw yourself into it—I’m not sure when I came out of that fog, but I did and now I’m not quite as manic or productive. Maybe it’s because I’m not 39 and not 22.
You were incredibly prolific in that time.
I guess. I mean, maybe the world is really fucking lazy, but I don’t feel like I have been that productive. People think I am constantly writing and doing stuff, but I’m really not. For the most recent album Kaputt, it took close to two years to put the album together. It was a pop record too, but put together really carefully.
Are you happy with it?
Very. But I don’t think Destroyer wears that style very well. I don’t think we’ll make another pop record.
What’s up with this visual artist who is impersonating you?
I don’t know. The New Yorker wrote a little blurb about this when I was doing a taping of Jimmy Fallon in February. I didn’t meet him because I was just trying to keep from throwing up back stage, as it was a nerve-wracking show. He’s got the same name as me and is the same age as me and looks somewhat like me and has carefully manipulated Destroyerpromotional photos.
Does it bother you?
I don’t give it to much thought, really. People think it’s a little weird, maybe, but it doesn’t really bother me. I was more weirded out when one of Moammar Gadhafi’s sons tried to set up a false identity when he was fleeing Libya with the name of Daniel Bejar. What’s worse is if you Google image his picture, he looks a lot like me. As soon as I saw that, I thought I’d never be able to cross the border into America again. Who would have thought there were so many impersonators?
Since the music industry has totally changed in the past decade and there are so many different types of music fusing together out there, I feel like you might have an interesting take on where music is going these days.
Oh shit, one of those questions. I think there is probably a really specific educated answer to that question, but you’d probably have to ask a 19-year-old to get it. I think everything is just so fast and so diffuse these days and it makes me feel older and more removed then ever. You want to think that music is universal and constant, but it seems a bit crazy to me right now. But I think that’s just what happens—you get older and things change. Like you look at people’s shoes and you’re like ‘I can’t believe those are running shoes.’ Everything starts to look alien to you. So there’s no reason why some 22-year-old kid doing post-apocalypse, neo-rave, Korean jazzercise music shouldn’t look really sane to me. It does, it’s cool. But I don’t know where the hell it’s going.