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Wednesday, June 6, 2012

How Destroyer Quit Rock 'n' Roll

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Destroyer has released nine albums since the band began in the mid-'90s as a lo-fi solo project for songwriter Dan Bejar, and each of them has been distinct from the last one. For a period, Destroyer reinvented itself with each record—2004's Your Blues was a MIDI-orchestrated curiosity, planets removed from 2001's glam-pop spectacle Streethawk: A Seduction and 2006's sterling classic-rock homage Destroyer's Rubies—but each of them ultimately was, in its own esoteric way, a celebration of rock 'n' roll and a tribute to the genre's escapist powers. That's why Destroyer's latest album, 2011's Kaputt, arrived as such a surprise, even coming from a band that routinely surprises. It's the first Destroyer album that rejects rock 'n' roll in both sound and spirit.

Bejar calls Kaputt a pop album, though it's not pop in any traditional sense. "The songs were the least structural songs I've ever written," he notes. "They barely even qualified as songs in a lot of ways." Recorded slowly and pieced together around slow, supple grooves from free-form performances, the album is gilded with smooth saxophones and trumpets and pillowed by occasional woodwinds. Some critics have deemed it "soft rock," which is about half-right. Mostly it's just soft.

The docile sound stemmed, at least in part, from Bejar's decision to stop playing guitar. "I'd been wanting to ditch the guitar for a while," he explains. "I'd never really been too good on it, aside from using it as a composing instrument. So on Kaputt, I wanted to get away from writing on the guitar, because I thought I was making a lot of muscle memory moves as far as chords and voicings go, and I just haven't had the desire to pick it up since. I think I see myself lately as outside of the rock 'n' roll singer spectrum, and not holding a guitar helps me do that. I think my singing has really improved because I stopped playing it."

Where Bejar once sang in excitable fits of elaborate poetry, he now delivers much looser prose in a soothing murmur. Each verse seems to lower his blood pressure a few more degrees. "I'm trying to hit notes a bit more and find a different version of intensity, as opposed to the scattered yelping that I used to sing with," he says. "It's good for me to just hold a mic, and close my eyes and focus on what I'm doing."

Critics responded to that new approach. Kaputt garnered the best reviews of any Destroyer album yet, ranking near the top of many 2011 year-end lists and introducing Bejar to a larger, more varied audience than he says he ever expected to find in his late-30s. On paper, Kaputt may read like a tough sell—Bejar notes that even many positive reviews of it made it sound unappealing—but the album is striking in its confidence, complexity and melodic abundance. Behind all of its rounded edges and gentle horn solos, there's a ghostly air that lends the record a sense of mystery, if not just the faintest hint of menace.

Unlike Your Blues, Bejar didn't conceive Kaputt as a one-off experiment. Though Bejar admits that he's prone to speaking about his music in absolute terms only to contradict himself soon after—"My actions, if not my own words a couple minutes later, will usually completely negate what I just said," he concedes. "I guess that doesn't seem like the most admirable trait"—he describes Destroyer's new aesthetic as "pretty permanent and official." At least until another whim strikes, this is what Destroyer sounds like now.

"I really love rock music," Bejar insists. "I'm just not sure that it's the form for me. I'm not sure I'm a great rock 'n' roll singer. Maybe I gave it a shot for 10 years, but I think it's cool to give something your all and then maybe give up and try something different. I don't think of it as giving up, though. And even though I don't listen to much rock music right now, this band that I'm touring with is pretty rocking, and I'm having the best time I've ever had playing music. This is kind of my dream band in a lot of ways."

Destroyer headlines the Turner Hall Ballroom on Wednesday, June 13, with opener Sandro Perri. Doors open at 7 p.m.
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