In my never-ending attempts at trying to recruit blog help with the promise of unsolicited promo emails and zero pay – hasn’t worked for almost seven years – the newest contributor boldly offered to tackle one of the more seemingly complex characters in indie rock for his first post. It can only get easier from here.
Hi, I’m Eric. Frequent Phoenix concert-goer, beard-haver, depressing sports team attention-payer. For some reason, Kevin has graciously allowed me to occasionally pollute his musical blog space, perhaps out of empathy for a fellow suffering Cubs fan or just because he’s an extremely busy man. In any case, I’m not about to say no.
For my first try at this, I figured I’d start off with something I know – a show in Phoenix. I’ve been through the lean years of Modified, Trunk Space, the now-closed Clubhouse (ewww, full-body shiver), as well as our current prosperity with the fantastic and game-changing Crescent Ballroom. Thursday night, chameleonic Vancouver indie band Destroyer came to town.
Destroyer, it seems, is a hard band to put one’s genre-finger on. Right off the bat, their name is Destroyer. For me, at least, this conjures up images of, well … not these guys. I think there’s a little wink at the fact that you’re probably expecting a Slayer sound-alike.This is not out of the question for a band with esoteric lyrics like “I wrote a song for America … Who knew” and “I sent a message in a bottle to the press … It said ‘don’t be ashamed or disgusted with yourself”” and song titles like “Suicide Demo For Kara Walker.” Keeping everyone guessing seems to be pretty much their thang.
Kaputt is Destroyer’s ninth full-length album. Having been around in one form or another for 15 years, with lead singer Dan Bejar serving as the brains of the operation and the band’s only constant member, it’s taken a lot of twists and turns style – and lineup-wise before settling down in their current residence of Mellowtown, USA. I think every time I’ve talked with someone about the band, I’ve heard a different comparison, from Bowie to Chuck Mangione to Joy Division. The thing is, I’m almost sure they’re all correct in some way. I’ll be perfectly honest and admit that I’m nowhere near the Bob Slydell zone in celebrating Destroyer’s entire catalog, but with 2011’s brilliant Kaputt, they’ve solidified themselves among the upper tier of bands on the current indie circuit.
I’ve loved the album ever since a friend played it for me last September with a simple introduction: “Have you heard of Destroyer?” This was probably the smartest way to go about it, I think – no band comparisons, no hyping – just pressing play and letting me draw my own conclusions. It would have been pretty pointless and fleeting to try otherwise. My initial thoughts were “When is this from?” “Is this a soundtrack to something?” “Is this guy serious?” “That is a LOT of horns.” Almost a year later of listening to the album, I’m probably not a whole lot closer to understanding what Destroyer is “going for” than back then, except for the fact that they’re trying to be, well, Destroyer.
It’s true enough that the album’s sound easily draws comparisons of the 70s or the 80s. Trumpets and saxophones provide the backbone of many a track. An easy, smooth, groovy “Yacht Rock”-type vibe is present in a large percentage of songs as well. Post-punk and new-wave stop in from time to time. In the “I don’t see why not” category, my friend at the show imagined some could be the closing credits to an old Guiding Light episode.
I don’t get the sense that these choices are to garner kitsch/retro value or to pay tribute to or mimic this artist or that one; it just made kind of “works” for them, and I don’t even question it anymore. This is a band that’s going to do it their way (whatever way that may be), no matter what. This all made a bit more sense when you put the band’s sound in the context of their lead singer, who maybe sums it up best on “Blue Eyes,” when he proclaims “I make poetry for myself.”
Take the voice of Al Stewart, the face/hair/beard combo of Rafi from The League and the wardrobe choices of Sting on vacation, and you’ve got a rough start of the interesting collage of a man that is Dan Bejar. One thing that struck me about his stage presence right away is that although he stands somewhat awkwardly hunched over the microphone, he seems totally relaxed and nonchalant at the same time. A good catch-all term might be “disheveled,” but he definitely wears it well.
In “A Savage Night at the Opera,” Bejar sings, “You’ll never guess where I’ve been … A life abandoned midstream…” This been-there-done-that vibe was fun to watch, as if I was watching the Most Interesting Man in The World’s scruffy nephew tell me about his travels through life, one Destroyer tune at a time. No matter the subject matter of his lyrics, dark or upbeat, he plays the whole thing very straight – deadpan and with the cadence of an aloof beat poet. He comes off as cool, in a very uniquely Dan Bejar kind of way. I can’t tell if he’s actually too nervous to show his emotions onstage or too cool to care, but I tend to think the latter. As he sang, casually unfazed, on “Bay of Pigs:, “I’ve seen it all…”
The band mixed it up thoroughly enough between the recent territory of Kaputt and the breadth of their other eight albums to please both the undoubted majority of relative newbies like m’self and hardcore veteran Destroyettes alike. They’ve had something of a cult following for more than a decade, but due to the band’s positive spin by outlets like Pitchfork, a Polaris Music Prize nomination in 2011 for Kaputt, and crossover attention for Bejar’s intermittent involvement with fellow Great White Northers the New Pornographers, a good many at the Crescent seemed to know “Chinatown,” “Blue Eyes” and the title track by heart, and almost no one except the (verrrrry drunk) superfan dudes next to me, and a few scattered others, seemed to know much else. Still, there was nary an un-bobbed head or un-tapped toe to be seen across the landscape.
Despite Bejar being unquestionably the band’s face and mascot, I’m sure I’m not going to be able to give the rest of the band adequate attention or praise for their outstanding work that night. Despite all of Bejar’s eccentricities and playfulness, it bears mentioning that Destroyer is full of pretty serious musicians (including New Porns bassist John Collins), with all of the chops you could ask for. This is an extremely tight and professional band that plays beautifully together, with each piece complementing the other. Someone may correct me on this, but I counted seven members playing at least nine instruments (if you count a trumpet filtered through knobs and doohickies that transformed into some sort of combo drum machine/synthesizer/didgeridoo as one instrument).
Despite the fact that Crescent Ballroom has one of the best sound systems of any venue, big or small, that I’ve ever heard, I’m not sure I’ve heard a band before Destroyer hit that difficult sweet spot of “That sounded just like the album, except they added a little something extra.” There were solos to end songs, sure, but not in a showy, ego-trip type of way. Rather, this seemed like an extension of the song itself, like an unfortunately deleted scene that you really wish had been part of the original film.
This was one of the better shows of the dozens I’ve seen in Crescent’s brief history. Destroyer solidified their spot in my personal book as one of the better live acts around right now. They did their name proud.