Bringing in the String Section with Dan Bejar
You tried for the gold, but all you grasped was a trash bag full of cake farts.
Musicians with big ideas aren’t generally known for their flattering humility. And no artiste in general wants to admit that any shred of his or her unrelentingly brilliant output was ill-conceived, painfully trendy, or borne of some impromptu snort-a-thon with the faggy haircut models from the opening band.
After all, how could the guiding lights of the musical vanguard possibly be led astray by such pedestrian concerns as fashion, human emotions, or free drugs?
But revisiting artistic failures is about more than public shaming, or wallowing in bad choices. It’s about acknowledging fallibility, owning past mistakes, and sifting through the steaming mess of guts and fingernails to see what, under different conditions, might have survived the freakish birthing process.
That brings us to the third installment of Bringing in the String Section, a.k.a. What The Fuck Was Your Band Thinking? We talk to musicians about what they consider to be the worst record of their careers. Simple as that.
The “string section” here could be more than an ambitious but bungled idea, like an orchestral turn in the studio. It could be a new lead singer, a whole new band (nice one, Axl), a detour into radio-friendliness (Liz Phair, Lupe Fiasco, etc.), or even just an over-reliance on various creative crutches.
You tried for the gold, but all you grasped was a trash bag full of cake farts and the adult diapers your grandmother soiled during that amazing three-hour stroke. Accept it.
And yes, getting out of one’s comfort zone into the blinding realm of possibility is often a great and necessary thing. Just know that not everything you do is going to be great. Or even tolerable.
Finding a musician who would reopen old wounds and rub tasty rock salt into their squishy crevices is not easy. And the notoriously affected songwriting of Dan Bejar isn’t exactly the rough-and-tumble stuff that Bob Seger butters his dick with before eating a Night Moves Dick Sandwich.
But Bejar—the brains behind the critically acclaimed Merge Records group Destroyer, and a prominent member of indie supergroups The New Pornographers and Swan Lake—has warmed to the notion of public self-reflection over the years. And if you’ve listened to any of his lyrics, you also know the dude has a wickedly absurd sense of humor.
We caught up with Bejar over the phone from Vancouver on the eve of his current tour of North America, which finds him playing songs from across Destroyer’s catalog with a reconstituted version of the touring band for 2011’s Kaputt.
VICE: What's your least favorite album when you look at your bands’ past work?
Dan Bejar: I can say that with Destroyer, Trouble in Dreams was the most fraught record in the making of it. From beginning to end. And the stuff that I feel like I just didn’t nail on there, I just didn’t nail. I would say that the songs I thought turned out, they turned out really amazing. The ones that didn’t… there’s just too many that feel a little short of the sense of what it was all about. And probably because I don’t know what it was all about.
Was it something about that particular time in your life?
It was like a weird transitional time where I had already started to drift away from rock music and a certain style of deranged oratorical singing. Just chugging a bunch of whiskey and laying into a lyric sheet didn’t make sense to me anymore, and I was maybe doing it out of muscle memory or just kind of how I’d always done it. In the back of my brain I feel like, looking back, I had already moved past that. It’s the one record I had a lot of trouble singing a lot of the songs, and I generally take that to be a bad sign.
What do you wish you would have done differently?
There’s probably stuff that could have happened differently but I don’t really like harping on that. Up until Kaputt, really, Destroyer was just—and still in a lot of ways still is—a good way for me to hang out with my friends. I liked the idea of records just being a document of how the chips kind of fell, and just what was going on at the time to those songs and trying to play them. Not so much just like, “Okay, now is a time for me to exert my vision upon the world,” even though Your Blues kind of has an element of that. It was in its own way wild and accidental and a document of a weird version of hanging out.
It wasn’t until Kaputt’s “Bay of Pigs,” the first song I finished off that record, where I learned to sit and wring my hands and feel like something was at stake. I don’t know. Maybe that’s a bad way of putting it, because that kind of makes the older records sound lesser somehow than what came after them, but the process was a lot different. That being said, I’ll say Trouble in Dreams, for myself, is the best writing I’ve done.
You mean in terms of the lyrics?
Yeah. I didn’t expect to supersede it, which is why I think Kaputt is so, in my mind, kind of conversational and basic. The lyric sheet of Trouble in Dreams is something I’ve always been really proud of, if I can have pride. The arc of all the Destroyer projects is making rock music wrestle with some kind of poetic writing which doesn’t necessarily fit in with pop culture. But I think no one will disagree that lyrics, at the end of the day, aren’t going to make or break a song. Its success lies outside of that, which was a bummer for me because I think that’s where I was putting a lot my energies.
The more wrapped up you get in pop music, I guess you look at the tradition of it and see what it is, and maybe there’s no place for this other thing that you’ve been trying to do inside of it. That could even be at work in Kaputt. There’s a song like “Bay of Pigs,” which is really the least dense lyrical thing I’ve written, and it felt like it was kind of the kiss-off for that.