Monday, November 20, 2006

Swan Lake: Dan Bejar

Today, the final installment of our three Swan Lake interviews. You can find chats with Spencer Krug and Carey Mercer way back when.

Dan Bejar is known to most as the man who calls himself Destroyer. It's a name that initially seemed like a send-up of glam rock cliches, or at least a KISS cover band, but over time the one thing that Bejar has been bent on destroying is people's expectations. Through his association with the New Pornographers and on his own varied discography, Bejar gives off the air of someone who really doesn't care what anyone might think of what he does, a confidence that confounds critics and audiences as much as it attracts them to his devil-may-care artistry.

Swan Lake is no exception, and it's a license to confuse even some of the most loyal Destroyer fans. Part of the reason I was initially a bit skeptical was because for me, the low point in the Destroyer discography (and there are a couple, balanced by some of my favourite albums of all time, by anyone) is the Notorious Lightning EP of 2005. This is where he hired Carey Mercer's Frog Eyes to be his backing band while touring the synth-heavy misunderstood masterpiece Your Blues, an album I loved. While that material could easily be re-interpreted in a variety of ways, I didn't find any--well, okay, most--of the Frog Eyes arrangements to illuminate anything in particular about the Your Blues material. Au contraire, there seemed to be a certain delight in thrashing it to pieces.

Spencer Krug was recruited to join a later version of this band, which made me all the more curious what would happen when the three of them started something from scratch. While Frog Eyes is the dominant influence among these three strong personalities, Bejar's songs here are unmistakable, even at their most abstract ("Shooting Rockets"). In some ways, the opaque nature of the recording reminded me a bit of his much-maligned (by himself as well) debut album We'll Build Them a Golden Bridge, which would be completely unlistenable were it not for fleeting glimpses of later brilliance; indeed, some of those songs were later adapted for the New Pornographers. A similar microscopic eye is required here, but the payoff is much bigger, considering the experience and talent involved.

Time for qualifiers: I sent these questions off to Dan before I spoke to either Carey or Spencer, and at that time I obviously hadn't discerned what the division of labour was on the album. And I also don't feel great about this interview because despite having been a fan for five years now, this is actually the first time he and I have spoke on the record. Early on he refused all Canadian press (except, I believe, one Discorder article and a chat with Mr. Zoilus--can't find any links either way), and I had to decline interviews for both Your Blues and Rubies due to my own time constraints at each time. For that reason alone, I wish I'd put more thought and research into this before I sent it off to him; at the same time, I knew that I had to squeeze three eloquent men into one 800w piece.

Note: Radio Free Canuckistan is taking a brief break for Yanksgiving. I'll be in North Carolina meeting the Fockers.

Dan Bejar

November 7, 2006

Via email

Is it true you tried to enlist Spencer into Destroyer when he played piano in a building you lived in? Did you hear his original material at that time, or was he just mucking about?

Absurd! We lived together at the E.18th house for a year, and at the end of that year as far as I was concerned his main musical interests were Charles Ives, Texas Swing and ska, in that order. I deemed his tastes insane (and rightfully so). [Jason] Zumpano had already been playing keyboards in Destroyer for a year, before I'd ever met Spencer. I had no idea that Spencer had any interest in writing songy songs till way later when I heard rumour of these bizzarro four-track genre pieces floating around Victoria/MileEnd (in Montreal)/EastVan (there should be a word for the city that those three things comprise), which I guess were the earliest Sunset Rubdown recordings.

What drew you to Carey as a kindred spirit? What is it you share in common?

I like the volume at which he plays his guitar. And, of course, we're both painters. His lyrics are pretty funny, vivid. So are mine. He has a kind of total disregard for melody, and total insistence on it at the same time, which is something most of my favourite singers and guitar players have/do.

What would you pinpoint as the main strengths and attributes of Carey and Spencer's writing?

Kinda tough, don't really wanna do that. It is enough to know that they are there, often in spades.

To my mind, Carey sounds the most different here from his "day job"-whereas I could see both your songs and Spencer's being Destroyer or Sunset Rubdown songs, respectively. Would you agree?

Can't say I agree. I find Spencer's stuff on Beast Moans more croony and soulful, less rigorous than the Shut Up record. As for my stuff, “Freedom” would sound totally out of place on any Destroyer record released in the last five years. “Rubella” has a bit of a This Night vibe I guess, which obviously makes me really into it. But “Widow's Walk” totally sounds like Swan Lake me, and “Shooting Rockets” is a hilariously brutal example of extreme Swan Lakeness, though I doubt anyone's ever heard more than the first minute of that song, and therefore might be hesitant to agree or disagree.

Did you all write together or bring material to the project? Was any part of the recording done piecemeal in isolation, or were all three of you present for the whole thing?

Are there any other players here, or do the three of you cover everything?

Firstly, all I did on this record was write four songs, play them on acoustic guitar, sing 'em, play one electric lead on “Rubella,” and sing back-up vocals on Spencer and Carey's songs, in the spots where they asked me to. I threw in my two cents once or twice during mixing, but fact of the matter is that most of the work went down in Victoria after I'd gone back to Vancouver. The rest of what you hear is all Carey and Spencer. It would be too much work to delineate which of the two did what where, because it's pretty equal and it's all over the place. If you're familiar with their other records, you can probably tell, for the most part, what Carey's guitar sounds like, or what a prototypical Krug keyboard part is, but even that can be tough in spots. Same goes for the mixing, drum building, etc. In that sense, my songs were extremely collaborative, in that I wrote them and those guys made them. Also, I hear Carey all over Spencer's songs, and vice versa.

Did making this record illuminate anything in your own work that you hadn't realized before?

Those guys, especially after having to learn all those Your Blues numbers, seem to think I gotta lot of songs in the key of B, or maybe it was E. Anyway, I never realized that till it was pointed out to me in their usual brutal manner. They also like to point out how numbingly simple my songs are, which is something I've been suspecting for a while now.

Do the three of you share any good/bad work habits?

I'm known to pace in the studio, but I can't remember if those guys did any pacing or not. I'd have a hard time identifying my own habits in the studio (aside from taking the occasional sip of beer), let alone theirs.

At least two of you are known for placing importance on lyrics, but it's very hard to distinguish words the way the vocals are mixed here. Was there an intention to that? Did you consciously not want to make lyrics a focus?

It was pretty intentional. At least for my songs, I think it was intentional. The lyrics being way up front was old news as far as a Destroyer song goes, so I think those guys thought it was time to try something different, and I was totally into it. That being said, if you are referring to the indecipherability of “Shooting Rockets,” the vocals are treated and somewhat buried in an attempt to veil the gurgling sound that I mistook for singing, at the time.

I read recently that you were going to reissue (his 1996 debut) We'll Build Them a Golden Bridge. Is this true? I've read you make disparaging remarks about it in the past, so why did you want to? Part of the reason I ask is that is that in some small way, Swan Lake harkens back to the home recording experimentation of that era. Is there any parallel in the approach for you?

I think the Bridge is out, though I haven't seen it in any of the shops here in Malaga. Maybe I used to be a little embarrassed of it, I felt like I had moved way beyond it even by the time it came out. But I'm way over that now. That's what I sounded like when I was 22, whatever. It's fine. Let it be in print. As for Beast Moans sounding like a screwy toybox one-man-band basement record, I'd concede that neither record is too scared of cleaning up loose threads, but the threads themselves seem to me very very very different. And obviously there is a level of musicianship that is impossibly different. Maybe on both records you get to hear the sound of music taking place in a room, which is pretty rare for anything recorded in a studio these days. But in no way do I think that Beast Moans is the sound of a PZM [microphone] plugged into a 4-track. I'd say if anything there is maybe a little overlap between the way some of the songs on Beast Moans were approached and some of the songs on This Night were approached.

I hear your schedule is filling up with all sorts of new projects: something with [girlfriend] Sydney [Vermont], something with Mr. [Stephen] McBean [of Black Mountain/Pink Mountaintops], something called Bonaparte. What are all these bands, who are they with, what differentiates them all?

Bonaparte has a record that's been sitting on the shelf for ages, and I think will finally come out in the spring on Soft Abuse. That band's kind of on semi-permanent hiatus, though, and has been for quite a while. It was a rock band that Syd wrote songs and sang for. I played guitar. Steve Wood played bass. Krista Marshall played guitar. And Josh Lindstrom [now of Awkward Stage] played drums. Hello Blue Roses is just the two of us, and I think pretty soon Syd will have an enough songs to fill up an album. We're gonna try and record it ourselves. Maybe it'll come out in 2007 as well. If you're referring to McBean's 'old man' band, Pimbod and the Total Boners, that just entails me learning how to play “The Oven Is My Friend” some time between now and 2009. Besides, I thought I got kicked out for spelling Pimbod wrong once in an e-mail!

How do they effect the future of Destroyer? Which has always been in flux anyway, but are these more collaborative or could you see your main focus shifting away from something with the expectations of a Destroyer album?

None of these above projects you mention involve me writing a single song, so that side of things is still pretty focused. They do spur on my interest in becoming a shit-hot guitar player/studio wiz.


1 comment:

Megan Hamilton said...

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