Don't Look Back
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.)
Destroyer with Calexico and Pleasant Grove
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"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."
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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.
Most of Bejar's songs travel on the same path; for instance, "Crystal Country" might be a love song, but it probably isn't. And Bejar doesn't tip his hand: "It's just Crystal Country showing us that everything must break to be beautiful/And, honey, that's what I meant when I called and said, 'This is fucked.'" More often than not, Bejar offers his hand, then makes it into a fist: "Given the right occasion, I'd put myself up for sale to post the necessary bail that would free you from this kingdom," he sings on "Self Portrait With Thing (Tonight is Not Your Night)." "But tonight is not your night."
"Trembling Peacock" and "Crystal Country" and the others aren't necessarily about Bejar, but they're close enough, self-portraits based on old photographs, maybe. Most are the kinds of songs he could have only written outside of Vancouver, glancing back as he strained to look ahead. Which was kind of the point of leaving in the first place.
"It's really the first time I'd written a body of work--I guess you'd call it--outside of Vancouver," Bejar says. "I think, in some way, the place where I am informs what I'm writing, in a lot of ways. I don't know if it comes out. I feel like the three records that came before this were really attached to my life here, so I assume that might have something to do with why the new one sounds a fair bit different. Ideally, I'd like to tie in the geography of where I'm waking up into what it is that I do, I guess."
He may be back in Vancouver for a while, but don't expect Bejar to keep waking up in the same place on the map forever, or even for now. Getting away from there only fueled his desire to do it again. And again.
"I'm really making it out to be this poisonous place," Bejar says, laughing. "I think it's pretty natural. But I think being away for a year maybe didn't really cut it. I didn't have a chance to make roots anywhere else...You know, there's other parts of the world I'd like to see, and might be more conducive to, um, uh, you know, general well-being." He laughs again. "Everyone I love is here, and there's parts of the city that I like, but I think it would probably be good for me to get out."
If This Night is any indication, he never has a reason to go back.
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