From the MIDI-based symphonies of 2004's Your Blues to the 9-minute opening title track from 2006's Rubies, Destroyer's Dan Bejar often makes music described as sprawling. And this year's Trouble in Dreams certainly has its epic tales and takes, like the tragic heroine behind "Libby's First Sunrise" or the wildly round, rich phrases shaping "Shooting Rockets (From the Desk of the Night's Ape)."
But "Foam Hands" is one of six tracks on the record that doesn't break the four-minute mark and one of two lyrically parsimonious tracks found here. It's two paragraphs, which is rare of late for Bejar. And those lyrics, elliptical though they are, offer visages of loneliness and uncertainty, smartly skirting the issue whenever things start to make too much sense. The song also works from a very limited Bejar lexicon (one track later he used hovel, while the next track references "delightful muezzin tending his flock" and "alabaster hands). You've probably used every word he uses hear in the past week.
And Bejar, a man whose voice can fly into fancy or come sliding down at a moment's notice, plays it remarkably even in these three-plus minutes, understating the refrain simply over thin guitar cuts and drums that push the pulse very casually. Someone even whistles the melody for the coda, emphasizing the ruminative nature of the lyrics and suggesting a Destroyer capable of simultaneous accessibility, empathy and erudition.
That is, this isn't Bejar's best, but it offers exciting possibilities. We spoke to Bejar on tour in New York City.
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: Your songs generally put very specific images inside of a very open-ended idea or mood. It's not straight-forward storytelling, and it's very associative. How does "Foam Hands" play to that perspective?
DAN BEJAR: Yeah, I think "Foam Hands" definitely has some of that. Sometimes a song just comes to you, but that's happened to me less and less in the last few years, where I just sit down and write a song. But that's what I did with "Foam Hands." I just sat down, and I just wrote it. I don't know if I'd ever written a song like that before. To me, it feels different than most Destroyer songs.
What feels different about it?
I think, just lyrically, it seems very direct. Even though it's so clear how each verse relates to the verse that comes after it, it seems weirdly emotional. It also flatlines melodically in a weird way, compared to a lot of Destroyer songs, which are jittery and jump around a lot. I really like that about it.
That melodic flatline that you mention seems to fit the song lyrically, which uses lines about loneliness and uncertainty. Is that what you were working for?
I definitely thought that the more reined in that song could be the more intense it could be. I had a difficult time, maybe not difficult, but I'd never really sung a song like that. I just had to go to a slightly different place than I did for a lot of the songs on Rubies, which has these rambles of words where you just take a deep breath and go for it and hope you end up in the right place. "Foam Hands," I wanted it to sound as deliberate and as even as possible because maybe that's what the subject matter demanded, the subject matter being ... I'm not sure, either. Religion or psychosis or something. [Laughs] I'm still figuring that out.
What were the circumstances when you just sat down and wrote this one?
I can't really say, but I think I was sitting on a couch in a semi-furnished apartment in the south of Spain, and I was thinking about a place called Las Caras de Bélmez, which means the Faces of the Bélmez. Bélmez is a small town in the south of Spain where people kind of go on pilgrimages to see water stains in this old stone house. And the water stains shift around and move but they constantly take on the image of Christ. And I kind of just went from there.
Did you go see the faces in Bélmez?
I actually have never been to Bélmez, but I have family that lives close to there, so I would always hear about it. I don't mean that song is about that place or that phenomenon. It just happened to be that I was thinking about that, so I made slight reference to it in the first line of the song. It's just kind of weird that it was the starting point.
What do you think this song means or represents, at least right now?
I don't know. It's a hard one. I feel like a lot of the songs on this new album are a complete shift in writing style for me. It's strange that a lot of people have made mention of how similar it is to the last record. I can barely find any overlap whatsoever in the songs themselves. "Foam Hands," I don't know, is a spiritual stab at something. It's not a stab I've taken before.
So these songs feel different for you as a writer?
I think a lot of them—at least the quieter ones—just seem more meditative and took a different pace than a lot of Destroyer songs. Like maybe the last song on the record, "Libby's First Sunrise," they shift back a bit and describe situations in the simplest and most surreal language possible. Those things sound like they're at odds, but I don't think they are. They kind of boil things down to their essentials, even to the point of describing people's movements, which is something I've never done before or had any interest in before. Or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, there's songs like "The State," which is one of the most rambunctious-sounding songs I've ever sung. It's still way different from a Rubies kind of rambunctious in that the form is a little more traditional. But, within that form, it's a little more blown-out. I'm pretty sure that song is about political torture in some ways, and in other ways, it's just about a girl.
Are there times when you discover what may be a new meaning for a song years after you've written it?
I guess it's possible, but usually I do that with the overall, as in, "What was I trying to get it, making that record sound the way it did?" As far as writing goes, I don't really have the same view of meaning as maybe some people do in the sense that every single line in every single song means exactly what it says when it says it. That's how I generate meaning, just by trying to find the perfect word to follow the perfect word that came before it so that the next perfect word I'm not saying that Destroyer songs are perfect, but I have this idea in my head of what ideal musical writing sounds like. I just try to get close to it. As far as what the song is about, [it's not] I say one thing but really it's about my dog that went missing. Or I say "Blue flower, blue flame," but what I'm really talking about is the river behind my house. That shit doesn't exist. Meaning to me is whatever abundance of emotion I can create by saying something.
So you don't mean a phrase like "blue flower, blue flame" to be any bigger than its exact meaning?
No, I don't. There's no code. There's no hidden veil. There's nothing behind the curtain of these words. It's just like notes, you know? I feel like the languages have to be cut some slack, just like the melody or a really awesome drum fill or a swell of strings, it kind of means the same things as those words mean. It's hard to get your head around that, I guess, because we generally try to communicate ideas and concepts with words. When we say "Pass the salt," we want someone to give us salt. When you're making art, there's no salt to be passed. It's just a mystery, right? It's just like pass me create a mystery for me. I think that's what art is. It's this thing that gets made, and you don't know exactly why, but it just blows you away. When I read something and I really like it, I just have to put the book down for a second or a minute. It's the same sensation as someone knocking you over. You have to kind of brush yourself off and make sure that what happened happened. Maybe that's just me. Maybe that's not normal.
When's the last time you had that feeling while reading?
It happens to me pretty often. I was reading this book called The Loser by Thomas Bernhard, and there are a couple of moments in that book—even though it's a funny book—that made me feel that way. That guy's got good style. It's all about style for me.
Destroyer plays Cat's Cradle Sunday, April 27, at 9:30 p.m., with Andre Ethier and Work Clothes. Tickets are $12.