Dan Bejar (Destroyer) Cherishes the Mystery of ‘Ken’
Dan Bejar named his new Destroyer record ken after the original title of Suede’s 1994 fan-favorite, “The Wild Ones.” According to Bejar, the humble title “opened up new, secret portholes in the song, like some kind of hidden narrative that had never been suggested before.”
Well, I asked Bernard Butler for the story behind the song title and he obliged, under the condition that I only tell Bejar. I’m following his wishes here, of course, and I think Bejar would be happy for that fact. The Destroyer mastermind was admittedly a bit sad to discover the origins of his chosen title, but its mysterious journey through the years jives pretty well with Bejar’s music.
Bejar’s lyrics tend to be more than a bit abstract — ken is no different — leaving it up to the listener to glean the significance of “a death star in bloom” (in “In the Morning”) and the line “I think I know what you did last summer” (in “Cover from the Sun”). Bejar could be weaving something dark and unknowable, or he could be referencing a couple of popular flicks. I’m not sure. I didn’t ask him, having learned my lesson after spoiling the mystery of “Ken.”
I did, however, ask Bejar about a host of other things, from how he feels about his characterization as a man of mystery to whether bands have any place in a poet’s world.
You said you were a relatively new Suede fan. When did you discover them, and why did you decided to name your record after ‘Ken’?
It really has very little to do with Suede, just like that title, ‘Ken’ — as I just found out — had little to do with the song ‘The Wild Ones.’ It was more just a discrepancy in tone between the word ‘Ken’ and the words ‘The Wild Ones.’ There’s a certain kind of grandeur that exists in the gutter in English music — at least in a specific era —and ‘The Wild Ones’ belongs to that era. It involves a certain melodrama, a certain tragedy. ‘The Wild Ones’ has that in spades.
I was interested in how names and language transform our ideas of what art is. ‘Ken,’ the original title of the song — which I do really love — to me opened up new, secret portholes in the song, like some kind of hidden narrative that had never been suggested before. In a lot of ways, even though it’s a lot more modest-sounding, it made the song more mysterious, which is why I probably should have asked you to never tell me the story of how that title originally came about. I should have stopped you in your tracks.
Oh no! I’m sorry.
It’s OK. It’s bound to be the case. The world never lives up to your imagination.
That kind of leads into another question I was going to ask you. I know the press paints you as kind of this mysterious musician who writes obfuscated lyrics. What do you say to that characterization?
I don’t think anyone who knows me thinks of me as mysterious in the least. I don’t know, it feels like songs have to divulge everything these days. You have to put yourself out and be in constant contact with the world. It doesn’t take much to drum up a little mystery these days.
I don’t think I really fit into any American songwriting mold. But, at the same time, I probably would come off as some kind of fraud in Europe, even though sometimes that’s a tradition that feels closer to me. I don’t think about that stuff. Once I’m done promoting this record, I intend to get way more mysterious.
Why don’t you think you fit into an American mold? What do you think Americans need to know to fully appreciate your music?
Oh, I don’t know; I don’t have the map. And, also, I think it’s fine not to appreciate something. It’s totally cool. I don’t think that this record speaks to an English sensibility at all right now, really. If anything…it’s a version of English culture that maybe I mythologized in my head or maybe existed 30 years ago, but certainly doesn’t exist anymore.
As far as American songwriting, I actually think it’s kind of a physical thing — an approach to melody, an approach to lyricism. Stringing words together. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’m striking it as kind of American and I’ve never heard it in Destroyer music.
I heard that you were thinking of the Thatcher era when writing this record? How so?
When I started revisiting bands from when I was a teenager it happened to be these kinds of indie groups. That’s how I got into music; that’s when I first became passionate about new music. And that happened to be in the mid- to late-‘80s, which is the tail end of the Thatcher era.
Personally, I find it interesting how a certain economic climate or a certain political climate makes a certain kind of art or a certain kind of song. It’s hard to define; it’s hard to draw the line, maybe they exist. That being said, I was living in suburban Vancouver in that era and there couldn’t be two things more different than suburban Vancouver in the late ‘80s and Manchester in the late ‘80s. So any idea I had in my head was pure fiction. But that’s what records are supposed to do.
You mentioned song structure before. This record seems to be full of incantations, repetition in the lyrics — in ‘Sky’s Grey’ there’s ‘bombs in the city/plays in the sticks,’ and in ‘A Light Travels Down the Catwalk,’ you repeat that phrase several times. How does this repetition function in music for you? What are you calling forth?
I seem to have particular hang-ups, and those hang-ups come out in an album and they’re usually just words or phrases that get repeated. Or come from a similar place.
In kind of a simplified, direct way, there needs to be constant mention of degradation. Madness. Violent images. Death images. Depravity. People soiling themselves. …A decadent world. An insane world. Or a violent world. And then, in contrast to that, there’s usually some kind of narrator who is creating complete isolation or distance from that scene.
Is that the character doing ‘poet’s work’ in the corner? Like in ‘Tinseltown Swimming in Blood’?
There’s a bunch of different voices that sing out in these things, but that is definitely one. ‘Poet’s work’…implies someone with a dunce cap on. Someone being punished and put in the corner… because we don’t really live in a world that has time for poet’s work. That role’s lost to us.
You think it’s entirely lost? You don’t think you and other songwriters occupy that space? Or is that just a negative space to occupy?
I don’t think anything’s ever entirely lost. I think poetry used to be probably an incredibly vital part of culture. I mean, I don’t really follow that stuff, but I’ll read it and I’ll catch my breath because it’s so good. I can feel it in my chest. That being said, it doesn’t occupy the same space that it used to; it’s a rarified thing. It’s closer to going to the opera still. It used to be more of a living thing.
I think there was a time when songs would draw upon a poetic tradition, and I don’t know if that still happens. It’s seems to me like a tradition that’s kind of winding down in music. Maybe it’s alive in hip-hop, but that’s about it.
But, yeah, of course we do it. I write in the only way that I know how. In the only way that I get off on. And I always will, whether it’s culturally relevant or not.
In the song ‘In the Morning,’ you sing, ‘Bands sing their songs and then disappear.’ Correct me if I’m wrong, but this seems to be sort of how you look at the music industry.
That wasn’t supposed to be as damning as it sounds. But I know as someone who has been doing this for a long time, when I’m surrounded by bands and they’re all like 15 or 20 years younger, to me it’s just like, ‘Make way, dead man walking.’ It’s like looking at a bunch of ghosts. They’re just not going to be there. I know that sounds morbid.
It’s just so ephemeral. … I know I’m supposed to revel in the ephemeral quality of it, the disposability of it, you know, as part of the glory of pop culture. But I just got too late of a start, and that wasn’t really a thing when I first started getting into music. It was super serious and that kind of conceptual take on things where it’s cool that things happen fast, it’s cool that a song can come in and change your life and then turn to shit and disappear… that was something you’d read about in continental philosophy or something like that and then somehow it became part of the mainstream.
I decided to kind of make it light in the end by saying they disappear ‘into the rhythm of the night.’
Into the vast, cultural consciousness or something?
Sure. Or a DeBarge song.
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