Interview: Destroyer’s Dan Bejar on Bay of Pigs, Jackie Kennedy (Sorta), and the New Pornographers


“Sorry to use the word ‘peppy.'”

The website for Merge Records says that Bay of Pigs, the new EP from Daniel Bejar’s Destroyer which came out on Tuesday, “is an account of the 1961 American invasion of Cuba.” That’s sort of true–there was a second or two during the songwriting process when an image of a young Jackie Kennedy passed through Bejar’s head–but the song’s not really a piece of historical reportage. One of the more ambitious bits of popular music released this year, Bay of Pigs is less concerned with Oval Office folly than sketches of several mysterious women, one of whom is described this way: “Her heart’s made of wood/As apocalypses go that’s pretty good.” The song also talks about “a crumbling beauty trapped in a river of ice” and “a ransom note written on the night sky above (that) reminds me what, in particular, about this wine I love.” These poetic lyrics are backed with what he calls an “ambient disco” mix of spare, ethereal synths.

Speaking from his home in Vancouver, Bejar talked about songwriting, playing music that has little to do with rock and roll, and his future with the New Pornographers.

What is the relationship between the title of the song Bay of Pigs and the historical event from the Kennedy Administration?

I don’t think the song in every line is trying to document those events, though I was at one point thinking about Jacqueline Kennedy. And for some reason when I think of that era, I think of the Bay of Pigs. I don’t know if that’s normal for Americans when they think of the early ’60s and the Kennedy Administration, to think of the Bay of Pigs.

It was a big event in a short presidency.

Maybe that’s why. The title just really stuck with me. That song went through many name changes, more than maybe any other song I’ve ever recorded.

Can you remember what else it was called?

I shouldn’t really say, because maybe I’ll want to save these names for other songs. But at one point it was called “May Day.” At another point while we were working on it, the song was called “Christine White,” which is a name that comes up in the song.

I was going to ask you about that. Is that the TV actress of that era? Google knew that name, I didn’t.

The name just came to me, and I was worried that it was actually a person that existed–more than a person that existed on television or on film at some point, I thought it was maybe someone who existed in this town somewhere, and I didn’t want that to be the case. But so far so good.

What did you come up with?

A woman named Christine White who was actually a TV actress during the Kennedy Administration.

Who would’ve thought.

Do you remember the inspiration that got you started on this song, which ended up being 13 minutes long?

The sound is something that I’ve been thinking about for a while. There was no accident, it wasn’t just us messing around in the studio and this is what we came up with. It was really specific parameters.

As far as the writing of it goes, I remember just singing to myself the opening of the song. (“Listen, I’ve been drinking…”) Once the opening salvo was out of the way, the ramble which came next seemed to happen quite easily. You just try and order things in chronological intensity.

To build to something?

To build to something. Or in this case I also had the idea of building to nothing. The writing process was no different from writing any other Destroyer song. This one just happens to be really long, and it happens to have some droney stretches – the absence of a rock band, things like that, which I guess has been a big part of what Destroyer’s been doing for the last couple years.

You’ve moved in that direction more and more, away from a rock band sound.

I run in circles, there’s just different spots on the circle that I hit. I’m sure people have said: There are elements of what you did on Your Blues in this song. And that’s true, Your Blues was MIDI-based, synth-based.

We didn’t really foresee that the latter half of the song would be driven by blue-eyed soul, chorusy, guitar–when Dave [Carswell, one of the musicians on the record] laid that down, it kind of made the song move a lot. And if it was gonna get peppy, that was a good way of doing it.

Sorry to use the word “peppy.”

In terms of popular music it is sort of epic in scope. Did you always view it that way, with two distinct halves, that kind of thing?

I thought I just had one Destroyer song in me. [Laughs] I really had to pile it in there. But it came really easily as far as the writing of it goes. That’s how long it had to be for it to be complete. And I didn’t want it to be just like a pop song. I wanted the song to drift in on these droney waves, to meander like something you have to follow. And I didn’t want it to just stop on a chorus or stop on an outro.

I don’t really see it as epic. It’s long, but I see the song’s concerns as pretty modest. There’s not really a rousing chorus for people to clap along to and sing along to.

It was just really focused, maybe more than some Destroyer recordings are. We went in with a real plan of attack.

Do Destroyer records typically come together like that?

They’re typically not like that. I don’t really wield a rock band very well. Generally when we get together the music is really about collaboration, and people throw down their stuff.

I guess one of the reasons people might believe Bay of Pigs is about that specific event is that you’ve written songs inspired by historical periods before. I spoke to you a few years ago and you were talking about Your Blues, and you said you envisioned some of the songs having a post-war Europe sound to them. Am I remembering correctly?

I think with Your Blues maybe the term that got thrown around a bit those days was “between the wars.” But maybe it was post-war. I was saying all sorts of thing back then.

So do you find yourself thinking about eras in terms of inspiration for songs?

I think with Your Blues, I was partially referring to an era of European art making; that record was inspired by things that had nothing to do with rock music or the American music tradition of any kind.

I can’t say that I sat down and looked at a picture and then wrote [Bay of Pigs]. I think that the lines all come from a similar place, and maybe its one of looking back.

When I mentioned Jacqueline Kennedy, I pictured her wasted, thinking, “What the fuck am I doing?” I think of a young Jacqueline Kennedy wasted, saying to herself, “What the fuck am I doing?” Then roll Bay of Pigs.

If you put certain words inside of someone’s head that they don’t normally go into, then things become interesting. I’m not saying that she’s the singer in the song, but for some reason the opening lines–for a millisecond–I thought would be interesting if they were sung by someone like that.

First and foremost what people have to know that I could care less about the Kennedys and Jacqueline Kennedy. And I think there’s enough distance between what’s being said in the song and the title “Bay of Pigs” that whatever you fill in between that gap could be really cool. But I’m not going to do it for people.

I should I ask about the New Pornographers. Are you doing anything with them soon?

I just recorded three songs with them recently and I’m probably gonna to go to America at some point in October to try mixing them. And in theory they’ll come out on an album at some point next year. Barring any disasters.