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Interview: Destroyer – “The heart lies in the orchestrated parts”

7 Jul, 2015


Written by Tommy Juto


First of all, I have a message from Carl Newman for you.

– Yeah? I’m sure it’s abusive…

He said that you’re going to be in Porto at the same time as them?

– No…I don’t know where he got that idea from. He’s from Canada and he thinks that Porto and Madrid are the same country or something.

Well, he wanted me to tell you that he was going to be very insulted and angry if you didn’t come and do some songs with them, but perhaps that’s what he will be then…

– I will send him an e-mail with a link to Google Maps to show him how far away Madrid is from Porto.

Alright. Anyway, I have listened to your upcoming album a number of times, and for some reason I came to think about the XTC album Apple Venus Vol 1. Maybe not so much the themes, but that it’s a bit more orchestrated and yet has some pop on it.

– I haven’t heard that album, actually. I have to check it out. I always pictured an orchestrated album to be something like Sgt Pepper, you know, that kind of orchestration.

What was your vision for the orchestra on Poison Season?

– I’d say the two main things were…they were kind of conflicting, actually. One was capturing the band’s sound live, it’s a big band, an eight-piece. It did seem daunting but it went over really well, I’d never really done that but wanted to try. The second thing was that the heart lies in these orchestrated parts.

Apart from Times Square being in a song title, did you have New York in mind as part of the theme?

– I know there’s a song called Times Square, but I wasn’t really thinking about New York too much when I wrote it. At least the rock’n’roll version has this low-themed, seventies Lou Reed vibe and that’s kind of New York-y, I guess. I feel like there are certain spots in the song that have a bit of street drama happening, which is kind of invented by him for his songs. Times Square is like a symbol itself of decadence and decay, an object of love.

Somehow it’s hinting at a movie-like, filmish theme as well.

– Yeah, I feel like I would think more and more of that in music. Starting to think of scores and soundtracks and how songs can be used in films. It was probably in my head in that I was listening to Superfly or Shaft (laughs). That was totally what I meant! But I listen to other things, like the Last Tango In Paris soundtrack. What I was actually listening to was a lot of proto-disco, really seventies stuff.


– Well, I was listening to a lot of Curtis Mayfield and Isaac Hayes and stuff like that, which for whatever reason goes hand in hand with that kind of seventies soundtrack music. There’s not that much music, at least in pop culture for the last forty or fifty years, that seamlessly melds large string arrangements with really cool horn arrangements as well and you still sing to it. That has a groove. Those things interested me for Poison Season. I’ve always liked that stuff, you know, I listened to that more in the early days of Destroyer. In the late nineties I started listening to Harry Nilsson, Randy Newman, Van Dyke Parks and I like those records, I like those guys. Songwise, my writing is not very inspired by that theme, I think, I’m probably more into John Phillips or someone like that. But I don’t think that my songwriting is very influenced by American music.

At first listen to the album, a lot of references are flying around: disco in “Midnight Meet The Rain”, soul in “Archer On The Beach”, samba in “Forces From Above”.

– In the very early days of starting to close the album I was actually thinking a lot of salsa music melded with early proto-disco. This became less of a thing as work on the record progressed, and stuff that I was listening to just found itself present. But in the end I wanted things that fit each individual song, and the songs themselves would be all over the place. That’s probably why the record is kind of sonically eclectic, anyway.

How do you decide when a song is a Destroyer song or a New Pornographers song?

– It’s not really a decision I have to make that much. I contribute three songs to a New Pornographers record every four years. It’s not an oeuvre that I’m working in very often. In the early days it was a little more confusing, around Mass Romantic, but for the last three records I’ve had songs that I’d for the most part written specifically for that band. Like on the last record with “War On The East Coast” and “Born With A Sound”, they were anomalies and I couldn’t really see them fit as Destroyer songs. Usually The New Pornographers songs are songs that have a relentless, more melodic kind of momentum to them, that fit within their style.

They only do one of your songs in their live set when you’re not touring with them. Carl said it’s difficult singing them because “they’re so ‘Dan’”. What do you think he meant by that?

– There’s probably a lot of tricks and stuff that I do and I do those over and over again, in a Bejar-style, and that style isn’t maybe a natural fit for rock or pop songs so it kind of stands out a little.

And the way you sing is a bit different to Carl’s as well the way you both play with words.

– Yeah, I think the words and his phrasing is a bit different. These days I don’t think there’s any overlap at all, but maybe in the early days of the band there was a little. I don’t really see it now, though, which I think is good for the band.

Considering how much attention is given to your lyrics, do you sometimes feel a pressure to come up with certain formulations because people expect it?

– No, my writing is really thoughtless, it’s just very instinctive, I don’t give it a second thought. It just happens and it happens pretty quickly and naturally. Most of my efforts go to the music, which is like a collaborative process I have less control over and which I’m less naturally good at. I’m becoming more self-assured when it comes to how a song should sound and how to guide the band. But I should actually try to arrange myself rather than arrange people. Definitely in the last few years it’s got me thinking more about how to actually sing the songs which I didn’t think about at all in the old days, but it’s something I’m more hung up on now.

Is the way you sing affected by how you want to emphasize on the words?

– I think I wanted the words to be the emphasis up until a few years ago and then I started listening to a bit more varied influence. I wanted the words to be a seamless part of the whole, you know, instead of a narration over pop music. But for many, many years that’s what it was. There is always melody in the vocals, you can chart it, but I felt it was important to have a total freedom to ignore the melody whenever I felt like it, ram the words home and make it impossible for people not to notice them. Like I said, I never put any effort into them, it’s just always been the thing that kind of flowed so it’s also what I’m most into. I mean, I really like doing music as well, but I felt that the lyrics was the main thing I had to offer. On the record Destroyer’s Rubies it was like I was catching my breath to sing it all.

The other week you shared some thoughts on Taylor Swift’s music in an interview and I noticed that your remarks were immediately picked up by some as a kind of “middle-aged-male-indie-musician disses mega-successful-young-female-artist” angle. Does it feel like people sometimes want to misinterpret on purpose just to make a thing out of it?

– I haven’t read the interview, but I remember hanging up the phone on that one having this lingering feeling of “oh my God, what have I done?”. I don’t really know what exactly I said or why I had that lingering feeling, but I felt there was going to be some misunderstanding.

Well, it looked as if you tried to explain how much, or rather how little, her music was part of your life.

– Well, it was just something that came up in conversation at the end of the interview. We were talking about really popular music and she’s an obvious example of that. I know that it’s a sensitive subject because there is one thing that can’t be denied, at least in America, and that’s that 2014 was reaching some kind of boiling point when it came to the adoration and legitimization of massive pop superstars. All I tried to do was try to discuss it in aesthetic terms, ‘cause the last thing I want to do is get a discussion rolling in the music world about the big machine of capitalism and how it works. That’s a valuable discussion but I’m not going to be the person who goes into it. All I was talking about was what that music sounded like to me in aesthetic and very specific structural terms. Basically a certain style of new country songwriting that used to be a source of much abuse and mockery (laughs) a few years ago which is now totally permeated in mainstream to very savvy production, that has now become something that is supposed to be actually good!

In the end it’s down to the listener to decide what’s good and what’s not, I guess?

– Yeah. Coming from me, it seems like basic, unsurprising, superboring, predictable stands to have. I didn’t really think that anyone would blink an eye. If anything, they’d be shocked if I said something otherwise.

Is it a bit sad that these days, with anything you say publicly, there’s always a risk that it gets picked up the wrong way by someone?

– Yeah, what can I say? I’m old, so I don’t really think about it. Also, I’m not used to anyone really giving a shit about anything I say. The bad thing is for people to think that somehow I think Vampire Weekend or Arcade Fire is more valid than Taylor Swift, which I don’t. My criticisms extend to all sorts of facets, it’s not like rock’n’roll verses disco or anything.

Maybe the problem here was that it was specifically Taylor Swift’s name that came up?

– Probably. But she is the most popular artist in the world, so it was inevitable.

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