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Face the Musician: Destroyer’s Kaputt

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Face the Musician is based on the idea that discussion of an album shouldn’t end with its review, because there’s always more to say. So we invite the musician back — not to critique the review, but to talk about their work with the review as a conversation piece.

Face the Musician: Destroyer’s Kaputt

Face the Musician is based on the idea that discussion of an album shouldn’t end with its review, because there’s always more to say. So we invite the musician back — not to critique the review, but to talk about their work with the review as a conversation piece.

DUSTED: First, let me ask about repetition, the crux of Andrew’s review. Why are artists/critics/listeners so sensitive to the possibility of doing things twice? Is there an obsession with change in indie rock (or some broader category), and if so, why? Do you buy into it?

DAN BEJAR: My own personal experience aside, I think the problem people have with repetition is mostly economic. Like every 2.7 years (a rock ‘n’ roll generation?) you have to switch up your colors to match the cultural scenery … or hopefully be slightly ahead of the game. It’s got nothing to do with the work, and is really more of a producer’s game than a writer’s game (not that indie rock in any capacity is really a writer’s game). This reinvention business is generally just market demand. The results are varied, just like in anything else. Good things can come of it, I guess, like disco [Rolling] Stones or “Fool In The Rain,” but I do love acts that have a specific sound, specific vision, and demand that you listen closely to sense the differences. (I think this “listening closely” might be a big deal, too big a deal for me to get into here, and I’m probably not even qualified to discuss the subject, but I sense it’s particularly important in this day and age to look at what’s going on with this “listening closely” business … or it’s almost complete absence.)

My own personal experience not aside, I think that Streethawk, This Night, Your Blues and Destroyer’s Rubies were really varied in the people I was collaborating with, the spaces they were recorded in, and in the case of Your Blues, the technology/instrument (MIDI) used. So this became something to mention lots when talking about Destroyer (an act that did not take place all that much before Rubies came out, talking about Destroyer, that is!), especially cause [David] Bowie did that a lot, and Thief and Streethawk supposedly had a lot of Bowie (but really more Ian Hunter) in them… or something.

I guess the whole thing is, that when people talk about records they seem to focus on overall atmospheres achieved, attitudes put forward, gestures made — and not so much on notes played, phrases phrased, the ebb and flow between words and vocal melodies, the ebb and flow between vocal melodies and rhythms, the poetic value of what the person is singing when the person opens his/her mouth, guitars interpreting lyrics (something I’ve always thought (Destroyer guitarist) Nic Bragg did, maybe I’m imagining this). I don’t know, too much to mention here … the stuff of songs, I guess. Maybe that’s not how pop music is supposed to be digested and talked about anymore, or maybe never was. Problem is, what’s “pop music” isn’t quite clear to me. I know I’ve never made a pop album before this one, though lots of people would disagree.

I’ve always said that if I was more proficient on an instrument, I’d have developed a trademark style, that I would spend my life honing, and my records would probably not dart around so much. But as a singer, I’ve been more cast adrift — and besides, it wasn’t until Kaputt that I thought of myself as a singer, which is generally all I see myself as now, at least in the context of showbiz. I love “Suicide Demo For Kara Walker” for a few reasons, but one of them is that it made me realize I might be able to interpret other people’s work, which is the province of real singers. You know, like Rod Stewart…

I think Kaputt contains the first music that might involve me singing in a style that is not too distant from my “actual” speaking voice. At least since [We’ll Build Them a] Golden Bridge, but who knows what the real me sounded like when I was 22.

Oh yeah, I wanted to say Kaputt wasn’t a reaction to Trouble In Dreams. Trouble In Dreams wasn’t a reaction to Rubies. Rubies wasn’t a reaction to Your Blues. Your Blues wasn’t a reaction to This Night. Never, never, never — not consciously, anyway, and conscious stuff is all I want to talk about ‘til we talk about the ethics of hallucination further down the line. Kaputt was borne of two very specific things — wanting to sing quietly (and therefore not make rock music) and wanting to make a studio record. These were conditions demanded by the songs themselves, even at their most germinal super-formless stage.

DUSTED: The review suggests that the synthesis of your work to date, the ultimate result so far, is in a way a return to childhood. Intense!! Would that constitute progress?

BEJAR: Totally intense!! I guess a less intense reading would be that Kaputt is the first Destroyer record that takes into account music I was into in my teens, when I was a more casual fan first getting really into music, and mostly English music at that. Not that I had Pills ‘n’ Thrills and Bellyaches on repeat in 2009, but maybe I thought about Screamadelica, or, to be more brutally honest, those first Electronic singles, or Pale Saints’ Half-Life, Remembered a bit more than I had in the previous 15 years — music I was really, really into before I got hung up on lyrics, via [Pavement’s] “Summer Babe.” I’ll admit that I was shocked at how comfortable I felt re-stuck inside those sounds.

DUSTED: Andrew’s Leonard Cohen comparison left out one important dimension of that musician’s catalog — bleary sexual desperation. “Suicide Demo for Kara Walker” reflects on some pretty heavy themes of sexuality, race and domination. It’s more narrative and less gonzo than what Cohen did, but there is a similar feeling of being obliterated by desire — your own or someone else’s. I’d love to hear your thoughts on any and all aspects of this, but my questions in particular are whence the connection between such lyrical themes and gospel-style backup vocals? And is there an ethics of hallucination/dreaming/storytelling?

BEJAR: The bulk of the lyrics on “Suicide Demo for Kara Walker” were written by Kara Walker . I just went cherrypickin’, reshuffled some things, pruned and mangled to make them a bit more singable, wrote what I call segues, wrote “brown paper bag, don’t stop me now, I’m on a roll,” wrote a line about Vanity, maybe a couple others, tagged the words “passes for love these days” onto the end of a bunch of lines. I think Kara’s stuff does reflect heavily on sexuality, race, domination. But there seems to be a political edge to it that is very, very different from Leonard’s gauzy Millionaire Anarchist politics. They’re both equally intriguing. I feel weird trying to delve too deeply into her words — I mean, I feel weird trying to give a firm reading of any song. I will say that working on Kara’s song is not what inspired me to ask Sibel [Thrasher] to sing on the record. I will say that lyrically it does really stand out from the rest of the album, though singing “Kara Walker” taught me how to sing the “Song For America” song, taught me how to stay cool. Things like that happen in the studio all the time. Death of a Ladies’ Man is such a hard record, I mean a hardened record. Like a lifetime’s worth of zen-work flushed down the toilet, if booze, pills, broads is a toilet (that sounds bad but you know what I mean). He does not sound outside of “the problem,” there is very little sense of spiritual remove, which is an important part of Leonard Cohen work — those two sides are always at war with him. Which one’s life and which one’s death is always a little hazy. I think Kaputt’s a soft record, more like Leonard’s religious work. I love Death of a Ladies’ Man, I thought about it a lot back in the Your Blues days — not so much lately. Production-wise, Death of a Ladies’ Man does have the vibe of a certain vision hoisted on some half-unsuspecting song, and I can see wanting to make that comparison to Kaputt. But I feel, sonically, Kaputt is way more harmonious. Like “First We Take Manhattan” (though I would never assume to know anything about the untethered gravity and death-comedy on “I’m Your Man”). Cohen’s such a bona fide writer, it’s still to this day shocking ([Silver Jews’ David] Berman’s probably the only person to have come close to that in English in the last 50 years) how good he is. His themes are so etched in stone, so perfect and commanding. I remind myself way more of Bob Dylan: a dilettante — formless, themeless — a singer through and through, who just happens to write what he sings. Is it still cool to compare yourself to Bob Dylan? People must really like that.

Obliterated by desire is what makes art go round. I’m glad you hear it in “Suicide Demo For Kara Walker,” that makes me feel good. Cohen makes it his lifework; so much of what he has done is sung from deep inside that well. The “Kara Walker” song is not. But it was/is the only Destroyer song I’ve ever written in real time as I sang it, from beginning to end, so in spite of not having written a lot of it, maybe there was something being channeled in that instant that I’m still not fully aware of.

By Ben Tausig

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