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May 15, 2004

Dan Bejar: hero of his own tragic pop production

"I approach touring with a certain amount of dread," says Dan Bejar. We are in the basement of the Empty Bottle, that great music club in Wicker Park, and sitting on couches that might belong in any fraternity on campus. Except for the graffiti scrawled across the walls—saying things like "TV on the Radio was here"—this cellar room exudes the comforting vibe of your dingy den back home. But it's not an adequate facsimile for Dan Bejar; perhaps nothing really is.

"It's an unnatural lifestyle," says Bejar, the only permanent member of Vancouver band Destroyer, of life on the road. "So," I ask, "I guess you feel more comfortable in the studio, right?" Again, no dice: this experience is also approached with "a certain amount of dread." Sitting next to me on the sofa, his feet resting on the coffee table, his mass of curly black hair cushioning his head against the sofa's back, Bejar seems to be one of the more melancholy musicians I have had the chance to meet. "I like writing songs," he says, dutifully finding the silver lining in the dark cloud that is modern musicianship.

You may not know Dan Bejar, and that's OK. I only knew him previously through his association with the New Pornographers, the Vancouver-based supergroup that has released two albums of pristine power pop over the last four years. Bejar was one of the main songwriters on the band's first album, Mass Romantic, and was featured as a "secret member" on 2003's Electric Version. For years, however, he has worked as Destroyer, releasing five studio albums in eight years, including his most recent two on Durham, North Carolina based-Merge Records. If the New Pornographers create the epitome of dense, clever pop songs, then Destroyer produces pop of a more, well…difficult breed.

I mention a preview of his show that was featured in that week's Reader, in which the writer describes Bejar as ceaselessly irritating, and as a musical genius. "That doesn't surprise me at all," says Bejar in rebuttal. Bejar is fully aware of what he describes as the over-the-top "drama-school element" of his music, especially his recently-released Your Blues. The record, at least for this reviewer, is not instantly likeable; it contains 12 carefully arranged, orchestral pop songs featuring guitar, piano, flute, and lots of synth that run the gamut between parodic macabre and Sondheim-size musical number. Although each song already teeters on the brink between good taste and ostentatiousness, they are sometimes pushed over the edge by Bejar's voice, which is equal parts nasal and whiny. It is the kind of album that is difficult to love, but perhaps easy to appreciate.

This inaccessibility seems to have been the idea all along. The conceit was to make a "career-ending record" says Bejar, one that would seriously challenge any fandom that he had previously developed. That dream was tempered slightly by the production team of JC/DC (John Collins of the New Pornographers and David Carswell), who couldn't help but give these quirky, murky songs some sheen. Collins, in particular, "couldn't sabotage his own knack for melody," says Bejar, giving the Dylan, Reed, and Mitchell-devotee a glossy backdrop that often presents a jarring contrast to his abstract lyrics.

Although Bejar tried to "wash [his] hands of the American underground rock tradition" for Your Blues, he is forced to resort to these methods in concert. Rather than attempt a karaoke show on stage, Bejar enlisted fellow British Columbians Frog Eyes to be his backing band, allowing them to give life to the studio-incubated insularity of the album. Seeing the scruffy Bejar, clothed in tweed jacket and beatnik aura, jam with the punkish Frog Eyes quartet is like witnessing the opening of a vacuum seal: all that freshness previously locked inside finally dissipates into the room.

After Chicagoans Candyland Riots opened the show, Frog Eyes played their own songs before being joined on stage by Bejar for Destroyer's headlining set. Although the group is similar to many punk-influenced, short-and-sweet, angular guitar-playing bands with long and obscure song names, a few things do set Frog Eyes apart and made their show all the more enjoyable for them. Their keyboardist seems like a rather cerebral fellow, and he wears glasses; their drummer is a bit of a riot grrrrl, which I always find endearing in a punk band; and their bassist, also bespectacled, is John Entwistle-like in decorum, as he remained stoically in place throughout the entire two sets.

What brings Frog Eyes over the top, however, is their spastic, charismatic frontman, who is a blond man-child resembling the product of a sexual dalliance between Philip Seymour Hoffman and the late Chris Farley. He does not so much sing as yelp his words, and throttles rather than strums his guitar. He embodies the basic aesthetic of the band, which on paper would not seem to mesh well with Destroyer's, but does surprisingly well on stage.

Destroyer cum Frog Eyes ran through almost the entirety of Your Blues in an 11-song set, with almost every song improved dramatically from the album version. Although Bejar's knack for melody is apparent in the delicate arrangements of the studio, it translates more powerfully with a full band backing him. The outbursts of vocal accompaniment by Chris Seymour Farley livened up the occasional drone of Bejar's voice, while his fellow band members tapped into the rock trembling beneath Your Blues' tepid surface. It was—if I may—exhilarating.

However, the evening was not without the drama inherent in any misanthrope's act. Despite his wooziness and vocal strain, Bejar persevered through his set, minimizing the banter to just a few words of occasional obscurity. It was clear that he was sick, and Frog Eyes' frontman called for a whiskey sour to cure Bejar of the onset of "Chicago flu"—maybe he actually was allergic to performing. Yet, the man who penned "An Actor's Revenge" would not let his understudy take over. Hence, the bow that Bejar and band took just before the encore was a fitting end to the evening: another melodrama completed on the long road back to Vancouver.