By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Dan Bejar needed a change or, at the very least, a break. Needed to get away from what he was doing, needed to get away from where he was doing it. He was born and raised (mostly) in Vancouver, spent his entire adult life there. And for most of that adult life, he'd been making records with Destroyer, the band he led and pretty much was. You may also know him from his work with Vancouver supergroup (?) The New Pornographers. Or possibly not.
So, after last year's Streethawk: A Seduction, Bejar put Destroyer on hiatus and spent the summer in Spain. He had been there before, over the years, visiting family. (His father was born there.) He came back to Canada soon enough, but he didn't go home; he made a new one. He lived in Montreal for eight months or so, though some of that time was spent on a short tour up and down the East Coast and an extended vacation in New York. Everywhere Bejar went, he wrote songs, music that, he hoped, would stand apart from Destroyer's three previous albums, Streethawk, 1998's City of Daughters and 2000's Thief. Moving to another city, after all, was only part of the solution.
Now, however, Bejar is back in Vancouver. He tried to stay away, stay in Madrid or Montreal or somewhere else, but he couldn't. Or didn't, at any rate. "Circumstances brought me back," is all he'll say, and that's probably enough. And with This Night, released October 8 by Merge Records, Destroyer is back as well. While he can't really stay away from that--Bejar is Destroyer, the same way Bob Pollard is Guided by Voices--it's not the same as before. Bejar's got a "new gang of thugs" filling in the gaps behind him: Nicolas Bragg, Chris Frey and Fisher Rose on guitar, bass and drums, respectively, though all three play plenty of other keys and chords on This Night. (Rose alone handles background vocals, vibes, violin, synthesizer, piano, baritone, handclaps and finger snaps, as well as bowed cymbal and probably a few other instruments they forgot about.)
"The last few records before that, I had recorded, more or less, with the same people at the same studio," Bejar says from his Vancouver home, where he's wrapping up a few things before leaving for a month of shows, a quick circle through North America that begins in Colorado and ends back in British Columbia. "When I came back, I felt like I just wanted to try something new. I picked the people who I thought could best go to town on these songs that I'd written, which I thought were kind of simpler and looser, and could give people more room to run a bit."
Which Bragg, Frey and Rose do plenty of on This Night. Bejar's voice is usually on the verge of cracking in half or drifting away or both, but the songs are tough and tangible, strengthened by the trio's layers of violin and trumpet and organ and horns, among many other studio tricks and treats. "The band was, like, really mutinous, you know what I mean? They took over the songs," Bejar says. "It was pretty funny, the transformation that some of them took. Like, really kind of sedate, folky numbers that just got turned into riff-heavy barn burners."
For example: "Makin' Angels." Bejar kicks it off singing about "a craft sale of the heart," his voice barely a whisper. Then Bragg decides to plug in his guitar, and before the first chorus hits, Bejar gives up and joins what he can't beat: "Hey, rock and roll's not through yet/I'm sewing wings on this thing." And then the process begins again.
"At first we would try it," Bejar explains, "and we were kind of going for a pleasant, kind of pastoral, kind of John Cale feel almost. In the end, we just couldn't play it. So we kind of just went spazzy on it. And now, it's just a song, at least live, for the drummer to freak out on, and for Nick to play this monster riff on.
"You know, all the songs seemed to double in length this time around," he continues, laughing. They got so long, in fact, that Bejar had to drop a few when he started to mix the disc. "I don't know what happened. I never used to play seven- or eight-minute songs. Something weird happened. Like that 'Trembling Peacock' song: I thought it was, at one point, kind of a precious lullaby kind of song. The way we ended up doing it, I don't know, there's something really eerie about it now, not particularly comforting. Hopefully, there's a bit of both going on."
There is, and the result is not unlike one of Edward Gorey's stories, as sweet and dark as baking chocolate. While violins creak like the trick knees of the little drummer boy keeping time, Bejar tells his tale: "No, I wasn't born to rock," he says. "Oh, I was just plain born/And then I kind of grew and then, well/Vancouver made me, I guess it's true." As Bejar continues, it's clear that his lyrics weren't exactly candy-coated before Rose, Frey and Bragg got their hands on the song; "children at play get hurt," "gods give and give our gifts away," people are "shot through with arrows." And so on.