"I THINK I'm done playing instruments, actually, for the rest of my life," says Dan Bejar. "I don't really pick up the guitar. I haven't struck one in what feels like years. I don't know if I'm going back anytime soon. Maybe I'll have an about-face."
It's an audacious statement from one of the most gifted and prolific songwriters in the world—Bejar is responsible for the choicest, weirdest plums in the New Pornographers' otherwise draftsman-like catalog, as well as contributions to Swan Lake and Hello, Blue Roses. But it's under the Destroyer aegis that Bejar's songs are best realized.
As far as quitting instruments, he's exaggerating somewhat. Bejar held down the chords to demonstrate them to the musicians on Destroyer's latest album, Kaputt, a smooth, sax-laden effort that marries familiar sounds like yacht rock, Leonard Cohen, and early rave music. But he's no longer interested in honing his guitar chops.
"I think I—deep down inside—always knew that I'd be really shitty at it," he laughs. "So I never became obsessed, because it was always a bit of a struggle. I guess there was a bit of a learning curve where I was figuring out more chords and voicings for the guitar, which led me to writing more complicated songs. And then, at some point in the early 2000s, I completely lost interest in the craft, really, of writing songs, and any kind of taking pleasure in the structure of it. That whole way of thinking seemed kind of corrupt to me, even though it was the very basis of everything I was doing. I was kind of feeding off of the '60s/early-'70s version of songsmith-ery or something."
That tight, focused approach to songwriting evolved on early Destroyer albums from shambling acoustic folk to glittery guitar glam, before Bejar jettisoned everything with the harshly false-sounding MIDI timbres on 2004's Your Blues. Destroyer embraced a conventional rock sound on 2006's Destroyer's Rubies and 2008's Trouble in Dreams, but Bejar's songwriting grew more abstract, marked by fluid exercises in wordplay and an increasingly dry delivery. The new Kaputt is markedly different from what came before, but in some ways it's a culmination of that shift in approach. Synth pads and laidback percussion form the bed for Bejar's bleary-eyed street prophet. It's the sound of succumbing to sensation, be it the languidly smooth soft-rock patina, or the lithe female backing vocals, or the implications of lines like the title track's "Wasting your days/Chasing some girls/All right, chasing cocaine/Through the backrooms of the world all night."
"People who've known the band know that there's been some pretty sudden shifts between albums," Bejar says. "In that sense, [with Kaputt] I wasn't really expecting people to go, 'Oh, what a crazy shift,' because that was always something mentioned about Destroyer records before now, if anyone mentioned Destroyer records at all. The only thing I was kind of shocked by was that there seemed to be people who were completely oblivious to the band or actively disliked them, who actually like this record. And somehow, the record seems to also have struck a note with young people, which I don't understand, but I'm now old enough that I should have no understanding of how youth culture works or moves."
Kaputt works in spite of its description: It incorporates sounds that were the definition of unfashionable for many years. Out of that perversity comes a kind of credible cool, marked by Bejar's disaffected but not disingenuous delivery. "When we first started working on the record, I kind of knew—as 2009 came and went and 2010 especially—that there seemed to be something in the air about, I don't know, people born in the late-'80s getting really into proto-rave music or '80s cheeseball R&B," says Bejar. "Really it was more about me wanting to take my time, not wanting to make a rock record, and me at the time being really into ambient music and jazz music—both of specific eras—and seeing how it hooks up in a pop song, or in songs that weren't pop songs but were given the consistency and production that is important to making pop music."
Kaputt's ultra-refined sound is the result of nearly two years of intermittent recording. "I don't think I'd ever spent more than two months on a record before," Bejar says, "and I don't think I'm going to ever spend more than two months on a record again. It's hell on earth; it's no way to make a record. It was really easy to lose track of what it was that you were doing, which I think is part of the sound of the record."