Cue Fake Drums: Dan Bejar On Destroyer’s Have We Met
Vancouver's indie bard discusses ditching his band in pursuit of "computer music"
It’s been said before, quite possibly about every album Destroyer’s released in the past 15 years, but the latest, Have We Met, is a very different Destroyer album.
On one hand, it’s dark, eerie, and volatile. Ghostly wisps of synths glide past lyrics dripping with dread. Craggy guitar lines emerge out of nothingness and then all of the sudden, tower over everything. It’s populated by a sorry-ass cast of characters: razor’s edges, dead rich runaways, vicious stampedes, ravens, pit ponies, Terror Trains, the Boston Strangler, the Blind Bitch, Shithead Number One and Shithead Number Two. In Bejar’s imagined City of the Dying Embers, sunlight omits nothing but a poisonous look from its residents.
But amid all of that desolation, Have We Met is catchy as hell. It’s synthetic and sticky. It’s got beats that absolutely slap. Destroyer’s had sporadic flirtations with pop before, but never as bald-faced as the punchy, propulsive chug of “It Just Doesn’t Happen.” Throughout the album, Bejar’s accompanied by digitalism, in one instance conducting it like a suave, winking maestro: “Cue synthesizer/ Cue guitar/ Bring in the drums/ Cue fake drums.”
It’s an almost total abandonment of a full band that’s been intact since 2007’s Rubies, in favor of a near one-on-one partnership with producer/New Pornographers member John Collins, who’s been a part of every Destroyer album since 1997, usually as the producer or bassist. This time, he plays everything except guitar, handled by Nicolas Bragg, and a handful of synth parts played by Bejar. Bejar, the sole consistent member of Destroyer, demoed Have We Met with MIDI instrumentation on GarageBand, then handed it over for Collins to play with. The bonds that hold this experiment together are Bejar’s barely-above-a-whisper voice and Collins’ profoundly creative touch.
Have We Met’s clearest link back to the past 24 years of Destroyer music is Bejar’s imposition of album-specific limits upon it. This time, all he wanted to do was to make “computer music” with John Collins. Beyond that, the album was allowed to stray wherever the two took it. I recently spoke with Bejar about his longtime partnership with Collins, Have We Met’s unique brand of noisy pop songs, and the crazed approach to word choice and perspective that defines his writing. Read our conversation below.
STEREOGUM: I read that you initially started out Have We Met envisioning it as a “Y2K era” thing, and then eventually abandoned that. Are there any remnants of that initial idea?
DAN BEJAR: When I first had the idea of “Y2K sounds,” I liked it because it sounded ridiculous. It wasn’t a sound that really conjured up anything to anyone. Once you actually start making music, those abstract terms dissolve pretty fast. When I come up with shit like that it’s always trying to anchor the songs to some kind of overall sonic vision. But then once other people enter the picture, that stuff generally gets thrown out the window, and good riddance.
STEREOGUM: With this sonic vision — whether it ends up on the album or not — are you thinking about music that you enjoy and haven’t had a chance to touch upon in your career?
BEJAR: I knew that I wanted to start making the skeleton arrangements for the songs on my computer, and I knew it was all going to be computer music. I knew there wasn’t going to be real drums on the record. It wasn’t going to be a lot of real instruments, and I had the idea of trying to steer more to sound design than actual melodic or harmonic arrangements, which is more my background. And with sound design, that tradition to me — for whatever reason — first conjures up soundtracks from like, shitty David Fincher movies. [Laughs]
So maybe that was how my mind just leapt to this whole Y2K thing. In the late ’90s, I just listened to Mott The Hoople and the Kinks. But I remember everywhere I went, you couldn’t go into a cafe or to get your hair cut without hearing this creepy sound design music all over the place. Or a lot of mainstream movies would have that token glitchy, experimental commercial soundtrack, like Pitch Black or Riddick. I always think of The Crow being ground zero for that. I always wholeheartedly rejected that world, but I thought, “Is there something in there for me?” — especially when I wanted the music to sound really film noir-ish and spooky.
One thing I did know for sure was that I wanted to collaborate with John Collins. I was going to send him demos and he was going to build them up from their very foundation. A lot of that would just be happening on his computer or his iPad even, so the sounds would have to steer into those worlds. I don’t know if it comes across when you listen to the records that John’s worked on in the past, but it’s a real forte for him, just trippy little sounds in the background, even though he makes pop records. The first time I went into a studio was with him, that was in 1996. So if you listen to the second Destroyer record, City Of Daughters, and listen to Have We Met, I’m sure there’s similarities that one could find.
STEREOGUM: Why did you decide, even before starting to construct this, that you wanted to do this more one-on-one with John, rather than having him just playing bass or producing?
BEJAR: I knew that I wanted John to have the maximum amount of freedom possible because that’s how he works best. So I knew it was going to go down in a lot of MIDI; I was going to hand him a bunch of GarageBand tracks. I knew I was going to sing the record hunched over my computer or late at night in my kitchen. Most of the vocals you hear is me singing the songs for the first or second time. They were never supposed to be heard by the world but I became attached to them. I’m a shitty engineer, and as recordings they’re the most piss-poor things that I’ve done since the four-track record in 1995 [We’ll Build Them A Golden Bridge]. But capturing whatever vibe it did capture was enough to anchor the whole record. That way John could just make the songs as wild as he wanted, because there’s this thing going down the middle, which is my voice.
STEREOGUM: That sounds similar to your last album, ken, where you gave [producer and Destroyer drummer] Josh Wells more freedom to do what he wanted.
BEJAR: Yeah. Josh definitely has his stamp as a producer, but that’s a very analog record. Almost everything you hear, there’s no real digital presence on it at all, even the synths. The [rest of the] band came in at different times and did overdubs on the record.
For this record there was zero sense of that. John does play bass, and we did decide to get Nick [Bragg] to play guitar about halfway through, but for the most part, there aren’t sounds that you associate with the human world. It sounds like someone’s fucking around on software and making weird sound effects. It sounds futuristic when I talk about it, but I have a sense that it’s the way 99% of music gets made now, so in a lot of ways it’s maybe the most generic-sounding Destroyer record ever. For all its talk of sounding like some kind of late ’90s thing, I don’t think it sounds like that at all. It could have a real late 2010s vibe for all I know, but just mixed by someone who mixes really cool records.
STEREOGUM: I know this has a bit wider of a range of sounds on it, but talking about the recording process reminds me of [2004 Destroyer album] Your Blues. Did that come about in a similar fashion, where you went in deciding that you wanted to limit yourself to a MIDI palette?
BEJAR: Yeah, that’s gotta be the one that it’s closest to. I think Your Blues was all about obstructions, like there was definitely a “no rhythm section” rule in a desperate attempt to make it sound classical. It was a very serious attempt at fusing my Scott Walker obsession, and because my ears are so bad, when I first heard that “101 Violins” sample on the MIDI box that we were using, I was like, “Holy shit that’s it, we nailed it!” Then a few months later when a review would come out, it would just talk about how it sounds like Sega Genesis. So Your Blues is a really good example of me thinking I’m doing one thing when I’m actually doing something quite different.
STEREOGUM: What attracts you making albums in these very distinctive, specified ways, rather than experimenting with a bunch of different approaches for one album?
BEJAR: Even working with a band is a set of limitations. Have We Met started off that way but very quickly just became the sound of the kind of shit that John Collins likes. If I was forced to put a sticker on the front of the record, like sometimes you’re forced to, that would be the most honest sticker. I mean, there’s parts of mine — he just fleshed out my synth parts into these much grander or just more interesting parts with way more movement. My fake drums were, for the most part, completely abandoned in favor of his fake drums.
He just let his imagination run wild, and that’s why I don’t think the record is very era-specific. It doesn’t immediately conjure up the ’80s or the ’90s or the 2000s or the 2010s. It wasn’t really sculpted in that way. John’s way of working is like me writing, I think. It’s super instinctual and he chases sounds down rabbit holes, and has a way of layering and comping really disparate sounds into mixes and songs that are still really catchy. He enjoys noise and he also enjoys pop songs. I, for my part, probably have less of an attachment to both those things than he does.
STEREOGUM: You had the vocal melodies down before John started working on the album, but did you ever envision the Have We Met singles being this catchy?
BEJAR: Not really. With “It Just Doesn’t Happen,” I did a demo where I played that lead part on electric guitar. It was big, but the whole thing had more of a Felt vibe than an OMD vibe. That one became this 1984 junior high prom kind of number. But there’s also this industrial-sounding scrape-iness — if you listen to it carefully it wouldn’t quite fit in on the Pretty In Pink soundtrack. The vocals sound like exposed samples that John pieced together, even though they’re not. They’re just recorded really quietly and compressed and noisy in that purposeful way.
“Crimson Tide” kind of ended up how I pictured it. Maybe it has a bit more “oomph.” “Cue Synthesizer” — I never ever, ever pictured making a song like that. That’s the most left-field for me. I don’t know, maybe other people listen to it and are like, “Shit, this sounds like [2001 Destroyer album] Streethawk,” but I don’t recognize the aesthetic strain of that song in other Destroyer music. When I first wrote it, I thought it was going to be kind of like an early 2000s downbeat, Leonard Cohen-style song? Something simple and dour. I didn’t think it was gonna turn into industrial funk pop, that’s for sure. I didn’t think it’d be wrapped in dueling cyber blues guitars.
STEREOGUM: Now that versions of these songs are laid in stone, how has it been adapting them for your upcoming tour with the full band? Do they change much?
BEJAR: It’s been more of a challenge than usual, than the last couple of records, I’ll say that. We’re a rock band and it’s not a rock record. Anyone really attracted to the icy sheen of the record will be gravely disappointed in what we do with the songs. But I really like having this stage version of the band, and then the studio version. I’m completely fine with the two versions not really talking, or even being enemies of each other.
STEREOGUM: Even though they consist of many of the same members.
BEJAR: [Laughs] Yeah. I will encourage the person who played on the record to, once they get on stage, hate that part of themselves that played on the record.
STEREOGUM: Each of the three singles has had a music video, which is a little bit out of character for Destroyer.
BEJAR: I thought we were going to make two videos. The “It Just Doesn’t Happen” video happened with, I don’t know, 48 hours notice? Even though I think it’s a really cool bit of imagery, it was more thought of as like, this Destroyer screensaver. But you’re right, the other two videos, especially “Cue Synthesizer,” are definitely more rock video-y than Destroyer videos in the past — more of a production. Dave Galloway and Dave Ehrenreich, I put myself in their hands and they tell me where to stand. It’s not a process that I’ve been very hands-on with, which I think is probably for the best.
STEREOGUM: Also somewhat film-related: Like the scenario described in “Television Music Supervisor,” do you often find yourself disappointed by music cues in TV and film?
BEJAR: I don’t really watch television, and as far as music in film goes, I don’t think about it too much. That song just came to me in a dream. It’s the most abstract song on the record. I was walking down the street and it came to me, with words and melody intact. It’s way more of a Citizen Kane song — an old powerful dude on his deathbed looking back.
STEREOGUM: It does conjure a very vivid image, but I have no idea what led to it.
BEJAR: [Laughs] Yeah like, “How did I end up here?” The words are explicit: “I can’t believe what I’ve done, I can’t believe that I said what I said.” The part that throws people is why a television music guy would be doing that. In my mind, it’s a very specific version of a figure in power, I guess. And I just liked the way it sounded, as words. It just really rolled off the tongue in this melodious but still awkward way, like some kind of mix of old and future language.
STEREOGUM: Do you often find yourself writing based on the sound of the words, rather than specific meaning?
BEJAR: Uh… I don’t acknowledge the difference. [Laughs]
STEREOGUM: Both are equally good approaches?
BEJAR: I was trying to phrase how I felt about that question, which is an important question. What I look for is just the feeling. The same feeling that you get from music, or whatever the purpose of art is — I guess it’s goosebumps? A phrase stops you in your tracks so you write it down. Or a phrase stops you in your tracks so you not just write it down but you sing it, which is like twofold goosebumps. That’s why I like singing better than writing, because there’s more things going on, not just more emotion, but more meaning as well. I’ll write a bunch of stuff down and it doesn’t seem melodious, it doesn’t seem singable.
Like “Crimson Tide,” that whole song is jammed full of images, and that’s because for that song I just pillaged a bunch of writing that I thought was unsingable, just notebooks that I had kicking around for close to 10 years. I just had this beat and this basic melodic refrain, and I just strung it together and was like, “I don’t know how these images connect to themselves. The first line’s from 2009 and the last one’s from 2019, how’s this going to work?” I just slammed the phrase “crimson tide” at the end of every verse and hoped for the best.
STEREOGUM: Do you treat perspective in your songs similarly? Where you’re not giving a ton of thought to it until it’s completed? You’ve said that “Bangkok” on Poison Season was the first song you’ve written in the voice of the character, but you’re not exactly first-person narrating the rest of the time.
BEJAR: I wrestle with figuring that out. I don’t really think about it until after the fact. Sometimes there’s songs like “The Raven” that just sound like me rambling in my head, literally just writing down my thoughts as they occur. And then there’s songs like “Cue Synthesizer” or “It Just Doesn’t Happen” that do seem to be some kind of assumed voice from outside of myself. But I think when you’re conscious of making something, you can’t help but assume some kind of voice that’s not your own. I just figured it’s that way with everyone, even if someone’s writing just the most pure, confessional music. You have to believe that that’s not actually them talking.
STEREOGUM: Right. Everyone’s adopting some kind of stance.
BEJAR: It maybe gives you access to feelings that the singer has had or is having, but it’s a very specific feeling, so in that sense you feel like you know the person. I think that’s what a really successful singer probably does. But no part of me really thinks that I know someone through what they’ve sung.
For some reason, with singing as opposed to, say, acting, this thing comes up a lot, the idea of authenticity. I don’t like to argue on the side of inauthenticity, because so much damage has been done in the name of reclaiming the inauthentic. It’s an easy, shorthand way of bolstering pop music and bolstering capitalist art. But at the same time I think it’s really dangerous to laud something just because it seems to be a document of someone singing from the heart. Singing from the heart is courageous but there’s nothing inherently good about it. All it is is bold. And that’s not good.
STEREOGUM: Not necessarily. This may be a completely meaningless observation, but I’ve noticed that in your work, you often refer to or direct your songs at an unnamed, unspecified “you.” Does that factor into perspective at all? Are you directing those at anyone in particular or anyone different between songs?
BEJAR: [Laughs] It’s funny, whenever I use the word “you” in a song or a piece of writing, I always just automatically assume that I’m talking to myself, but the idea of me talking to some version of myself that is not me… but is me. Basically borderline madness. I’m not insane in the least, but I could probably be. I could probably handle being more insane. But writing from a place of a totally fractured mind is super fun. Not to get all Joker on it [Laughs], but I do think that if I use the word “you” in a Destroyer song, it means, “Oh, this is a song where the narrator is somehow split in an unhealthy, weird way, and is possibly demented.” I never really thought about it until right now, until you asked, but I’m going to cling to that version of my story from hereon in.
STEREOGUM: No, that makes sense. Go for it.
BEJAR: Yeah, that’s going to be my version of events. There’s all these different kinds of old selves littered along the way that you can address: things you thought that you had discarded that you haven’t, things that haunt you, things that are coming for you that will be the end of you.
Have We Met is out 1/31 on Merge. Pre-order it here.