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Destroyer Connect Past and Present on 'LABYRINTHITIS'

Emerging from the stasis of these past few years, Dan Bejar's Destroyer have created an album that puts the band on a whole new level.

When Dan Bejar’s Destroyer last released an album, things were looking good for the band. They were celebrating 25 years as an outfit, and Have We Met marked the 12th full-length release from the Canadian group. Unfortunately, the release date of January 2020 meant that any celebrations were bound to be short-lived in the wake of a global pandemic.

But Bejar wasn’t particularly bothered. Sure, a pandemic and the resulting restrictions made it a little difficult to tour the record, but once he was able to take stock and look ahead to what the future held, it became time to work on more music.

With producer John Collins in his corner once again, the pair began to look towards the dance-floor for inspiration. Soon, the likes of New Order and Art of Noise began to inform their creative choices, and while initial plans to make a house record fell by the wayside, these musical influences remained, and the result was the sound of Destroyer making an album defined by the sound of ’80s-era dance.

Dubbed LABYRINTHITIS, the record is a powerful one, and strangely, feels more open and freer than the likes of 2020’s Have We Met. By Bejar’s own admission, LABYRINTHITIS feels less like a lockdown record than its predecessor. But with tracks such as “Tintoretto, It’s for You” and “Eat the Wine, Drink the Bread”, it quickly becomes clear how liberating Destroyer truly are on this new album.

With LABYRINTHITIS out in the world today, Dan Bejar spoke to Rolling Stone Australia about the process that goes into creating a record such as this, and his gradual transition into an Al Stewart/Neil Tannant hybrid.

Firstly, congratulations on the new album. I’ve been listening to a lot over the last week and it’s really quite an amazing record, so it’s something I’m sure you’re feeling quite proud of and excited to get out in the world. 

I’m excited to get it out there. I find the record, like, really strange still, and kind of confusing to me, but I think that’s kind of cool. I haven’t been in the same room with the band that recorded it since our last show in Nashville two years ago. So I’m kind of excited for us to get together in April and try and make sense of these songs in real time. 

We’ll get to that in just a sec, but I think before I do that as well, I should ask the standard question, which is: how have you been over these last two years? Have you been saying staying safe and well and getting through it all OK? 

I think I’ve done really well compared to lots of people. I live in a part of the world and part of Canada, that is – I think – compared to other places [been] OK through all this. But you know, I’m still probably addled by the last two years in ways that I’ll be discovering for the next few decades of my life [laughs]. 

The most recent Destroyer album arrived just a month or two before the pandemic. How quickly were your plans disrupted? I assume that you would have been in the midst of touring at that time and looking at promotion rather than putting things on hold. 

Let’s see, we cancelled the last week of a month-long – the last eight days of a month-long – North American tour. We cancelled a tour of Europe and we cancelled another tour of Europe. So, my year changed drastically, really fast. And I think I did really OK with that, all things considered. I probably didn’t reach a deep agitation or anxiety stage till later on the next year. The only real bummer I felt like the band was really starting to find their legs with those Have We Met songs. They were just kind of starting to hit her stride and then it all disappeared. But honestly, in the list of global concerns, I’m not sure that it really makes the top 100. 

The idea of Destroyer losing momentum is probably not what everyone’s thinking about, is it? 

Yeah, it’s not really a talking point. 

So all the shows got cancelled and everything; what was your plan initially? Was it a case of, “Let’s see how this all plays out”? Or was it just embracing the unknown and hoping for a return to normality?

It was so unknown. There had been nothing like it in my lifetime, so no one really knew. I feel like all of our plans got postponed at least three or four times over the course of the next two years, so it really wasn’t until this record was in the cam that it was like, “OK, I guess we’re not going to postpone those old shows. I guess we’ll just see if we can go out at a much later date and tour this new album that I’m working on.” 

Speaking of that album, at what point did you sort of start saying, “Well, this is the new normal that we’re living in, I guess I’ll start writing more music”? Because I assume it wouldn’t have been particularly conducive to being creative, the idea of sort of being locked down or unable to tour. 

I don’t know, I’ve always really loved playing with the idea of dystopias and post-apocalypse worlds as backdrops for destroyer songs. But when faced with the reality of it, it was really pretty fucking boring and there’s a tedium to it that was impossible to romanticise aside from just like giant squalls of death and disease. Also, I am really only good at doing one thing at a time, so I’m kind of a creature of this cycle that is like ‘write songs, record them, learn them with the band, release the record, go on tour, ad infinitum’. And I didn’t have that cycle, so I was kind of out of whack. 

Normally, I think there is no way that I would have started writing songs till much later. But I was sitting around and I kind of got it. I just got a text from John Collins, who I had collaborated with in the past – Have We Met was a pretty close collaboration with him. I wasn’t expecting to hear from him again, like, pandemic or no pandemic, I kind of thought that he would be… He was kind of ready to go off and start a different chapter of his life and I wasn’t really awaiting a text that said like, “Hey, what do you got? Let’s make a techno record.”

Our initial plan was to make a house record. So the conversation was really pretty distant from what ended up actually happening. But yeah, the balls kind of got rolling and I knew that we would probably… It’s funny, it was kind of old fashioned like how I picture things happening in the ’60s. I knew that we were probably going to try and hit the ground running in 2022, andI thought it’d be really cool to have a new record to do that with. 

You mention not having that typical cycle, and it must be quite strange to be having a new album coming out with those older songs still hanging over your head.

I think Have We Met will always be this strange, unfinished business in my mind. Luckily, I think it’s kind of a special record for me, and I don’t mind that it has this kind of disembodied feel to it, but yeah, I feel like we never truly got to reckon with those songs as a live band. And the live band – over the last ten years – has become more and more an important thing for me, for my sanity. 

You mentioned working with John Collins and starting out with the idea of a house record. So then how did it sort of change from that idea into what we sort of hear today? 

There’s always a problem when you work, when you start off work conceptually, and that’s like, “Oh, I’m going to make this kind of thing, I’m going to make this kind of record.” But the terrible truth is that neither John Collins nor I have really any history with house music or four-on-the-floor, slamming albums. We can talk about and imagine absurd scenarios like us making a record like a Cher record, but it’s not it’s not in our muscle memory to do that. And so when we actually started working on the music itself, we always seemed to go back to these comfort zones. I think that’s natural with everyone, Aad those are not those zones.

I think it’s actually hard to make a techno record or hard to make a house record. Those aren’t the communities that we’re involved in, and that’s not our history. I don’t know if our history necessarily is making a New Order record, or a New Order-sounding record that has tributes to Trevor Horn on Art of Noise, but we seem to land there in an easy way. 

I can see what you mean though, because with that in mind, this record does indeed feel like what you would get if Destroyer tried to make a house record. But ultimately, it does feel like a Destroyer record with a specific sonic focus, much like the last record did. So it might not have been the plan, but it sort of works itself out, doesn’t it?

I think so, yeah. I mean, the one thing that did stay the same is that the plan to make the record relentlessly upbeat in the sense that it’s really a kind of a really fast record for the most part as far as Destroyer music goes, and really busy. There’s not a lot of downtime compared to Have We Met or other records before it.

But the other thing that happened is that the band just ended up playing – from their scattered corners of the continent – way more on this album than they have on any record in the last few years. And that kind of changed things as we went. Like Josh’s [Wells] drumming is actually really insane on this record, and it transforms songs into things that we just did not have planned.

This whole record is that it very much feels like new ground or uncharted territory. Not just from a musical point of view, but also from a lyrical point of view and the fact that it was made against the backdrop of restrictions. As a musician who’s been around for quite a while, did you find that hard to adapt to that? Or was it more about being resigned to it and saying, “Okay, the band are in different places – this is how the record is going to be made”?

I don’t know, I mean, it’s weird because the process was actually in a lot of ways, really similar to how we did Have We Met, which is a record that when I listen to, it seems more like a locked-down record or like some kind of hermetic record. It’s very inward, but when I listen to it now, even though it has a lot of dark lyrics on it, there’s a sense of calm to it. I find it comforting compared to LABYRINTHITIS, which I guess I find generally disorienting. 

I will say though, the way that we made Have We Met was a choice, and it was quite novel at the time, just like emailing stuff back and forth and then getting like Nick [Nicolas Bragg, guitarist] to shred all over the place towards the end. While being forced to work that way really spoiled it for me [laughs]. I didn’t like the circumstances to be dictated by the outside world. It’s not that I was against it because I wanted the world to get better, but the novelty definitely wore off. And part of me, you know, wishes that I could have been pacing behind John’s bar while he was at the computer and bugging him more. 

Speaking of John Collins’ influence, one thing I’ve always found in your music is that there’s a real Neil Tennant/Pet Shop Boys quality to your voice, and I feel that this album sort of brings it out more due to the more ’80s electronic sound. I’m not sure if anyone’s ever made the Pet Shop Boys comparison before, but I’ve always felt that.

I mean, it’s something that started to come up a little bit on Destroyer album number nine, which is a record called Kaputt. I remember the Pet Shop Boys from my youth in the ’80s, and I kind of liked them, but they didn’t really feel like an indie band, which was more where my scene was. Even though I like stuff like New Order, I was still more into guitar music. But I really fell under the spell of an album called Behaviour, which I still love, which is an album of theirs from 1990, this really sad disco record. I was listening to that a lot before making the Kaputt album, and it’s kind of stuck with me, I guess. 

I think we both get compared to Al Stewart is one thing that I’ve discovered. That’s someone I would get compared to even before Kaputt, back when I was still making what people would call folk-rock records. They’d be like, “He kind of sounds like a really aggro Al Stewart.” And now I sound like a real middle-aged, laidback Al Stewart, which I guess is Neil Tennant. 

You mentioned the likes of Art of Noise before, which is something I felt was a strong influence on the title track. It feels very surrealistic. There’s vocal samples, it’s quite ambient at times, and it’s strangely visceral. I’d love to know where that came from, because it feels so different to the rest of the album.

That track, I probably heard it for the first time, maybe like six hours before the record was mastered. I started this tradition starting with Have We Met of someone from the band doing an instrumental track that would be the title track of the album. So on Have We Met Nick Bragg, who’s played electric guitar in Destroyer for 20 years, did this kind of beautiful, desolate guitar piece. I asked John to come up with something for this record, and he was really into it. 

It is his nature to put things off as much as possible, and he pretty much just stayed up the night before that we had to set the record off and came up with that track, he sent it to me, and I thought it was amazing. I didn’t really see it coming. It’s not what I expected.There’s like a kind of peaceful, almost mournful quality to it, but also still really surreal. Like, a strange choice of sounds that I really liked. It’s kind of like the downer side of Trevor Horn as opposed to like a song like “It Takes A Thief” that has all these insane cartoon arrangements on it that’s more like Trevor Horn producing ABC or something like that. 

That title track felt very similar to bands like The Books in that it’s very sample-based. But it was very strange, but it still managed to suit with the rest of the record as well, which was sort of odd because it’s very much at odds with the rest of the record. 

I think the record darts around enough that you can probably sneak all sorts of stuff in there. And you know, that title track definitely has John’s production stamp on it, which is a feel that I get from the record from beginning to end. More than any other record that we’ve worked on, this one is definitely like kind of the most pure expression of the kind of shit that John Collins is into. 

And speaking of the end of the record, the aptly-titled “The Last Song”, that felt quite interesting in that the lyric felt almost sort of innocently ominous in a strange way. I’m possibly wrong on that front, but I’d love to know where that one comes from because in a way that feels like a bit of a response to the way many of us find ourselves living these days. But I hope I’m not reducing it too much and missing any nuance there. 

I was definitely not expecting to write that song. That’s the last song I’ve written. I haven’t written one since and it’s…

It’s a very fitting title, then.

[Laughs] I sure as hell wasn’t expecting to pick up an acoustic guitar and write a little ditty like that because I don’t touch instruments anymore, really. Maybe I’ll sit down at the piano, but I’ve probably written like three songs on the guitar in the last 12 years. It’s rare. I feel like subconsciously, I was kind of swirling in the sound of the album. I was trying to find my feet. I feel like most people aren’t hearing this, but I feel like the record is actually kind of deceptively dark compared to other Destroyer albums. There’s a sense of menace to the aggression and I think there’s like… I think the singer, who is me, I kind of feel like there’s a character in the singing that is like a villain.

And I just needed an antidote. I needed a palate cleanser, and something that could connect me to older versions of myself. A lot of people thought that song was something I dusted off from 20 or 25 years ago. And it’s a solemn song, it’s slow and solemn, even though it kind of turns into a singalong of sorts at the end. And it’s kind of ominous, but in a different way from the rest of the album. I wasn’t even sure if I was going to put it on the record until it was quite close to the end of working on things and I needed a sense of closure. And I guess that’s what that’s what closure looks like on this particular record.

There was an interview with yourself some time ago where you mentioned how you enjoyed almost writing images more so than songs. I guess that does sort of make sense in that the imagery in a song such as that, and I guess a record such as this, feels quite visceral as well. There’s a cinematic quality to it and especially what you mentioned there, it’s like the antidote to this sort of ominous narrative throughout the song. 

Yeah, I really needed the credits to roll on that album and I needed something to play over the credits and it was that song. It kind of makes you question what you’ve heard, everything that you’ve heard before it. Also, the first song is a song from around the Have We Met era. It’s one of those songs, but we just didn’t get around to working on it. And I think it’s quite a production, but at its heart, it’s kind of much sweeter and greener than the other songs. And I like the idea of the record being bookended by these two different feelings that are kind of really different from the bulk of the album that you find in the guts.

Destroyer’s LABYRINTHITIS, is out now.

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