Kaputt — Destroyer

Grant Wyeth
9 min readJun 25, 2021

I wrote a song for America, they told me it was clever

There is a unique Canadian symbiosis with America. While other countries may feel the United States as a constant presence — in various positive and negative ways — arguably no-one feels it in such a daily, all-pervasive manner as Canada.

Over three-quarters of Canada’s exports go to America, US$2 billion in goods and services cross the border each day, as did — prior to the pandemic — 400,000 people. Ninety percent of Canada’s population lives within 160 kilometres of the U.S border, and the border is what Canada orientates itself by, physically, economically, and it has to be said, culturally.

These realities have bred a particular Canadian captivation with America. An unavoidable cocktail of fascination, repulsion, love, fear, bemusement and frustration. There’s an acknowledgement that Canadian life will always be bound to an American world, but that Canadians don’t have to be overtly happy about this.

There is a clear imbalance of power between the two countries, but what the United States exudes in sheer economic and cultural weight, Canada returns with a subtle defiance. This is often in the form of a desire to correct American excesses. With higher life expectancy, lower infant mortality, and greater income equality, educational attainment and social mobility, Canada can portray itself as a kinder, gentler, society.

Sorry if you should find me

Thinking of only the things that I need

I’ve been living in America in churches of greed — it’s sick!

And there is, of course, a certain Canadian smugness about this. While the U.S may be such an overweening presence, Canada sees itself existing on a higher moral plane, one where Canadians can look down upon the U.S, while the U.S is failing to even notice Canada. Although it would be unfair to suggest that Canadian identity is simply a knee-jerk anti-Americanism, as there is something more nuanced in Canadian society than just a defensive and self-conscious desire to not be American.

The Trump-era may have fed into Canada’s sense of moral superiority, but most Canadians would very readily realise that gloating about American politics has its limits when this politics has the potential to destabilise the U.S in such a dramatic fashion. Canadians would prefer to quietly smirk and shake their heads at the U.S, not have to hold a genuine fear for the country’s future. Or have to contemplate what a fanatical, agitated and volatile America would mean for Canada. There is both genuine sympathy and blunt self-interest in Canada’s concerns for the current state of the U.S.

Yet Canadian identity cannot help but be defined by its geographic reality. This is compounded by Canadian nationalism having its own local weaknesses. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau himself told the New York Times in 2015 that Canada was a “post-national state” with “no core identity”. Rather Canada is a state of competing strong regional identities, begrudgingly thrown together in an attempt to create some form of counter-weight to its behemoth southern neighbour.

Into this milieu strides Vancouver’s Dan Bejar, known by his nom de guerre, Destroyer. It would be misleading to suggest that Bejar is a man entirely obsessed with the United States — he has other obsessions — but references to the country appear so frequently within his work that he clearly — and consciously — inhabits this unavoidable Canadian preoccupation. For any English-speaking artist the American market is obviously crucial to financial success, although for Canadians it is also crucial for self-respect.

As a lyricist, Beja is wry, biting, all-too-knowing, self-deprecating and habitually self-referential. He is incredibly funny, but he also exists within a certain niche, a self-contained world built on a familiarity and bitterness towards various music styles, the types of people who inhabit these cultural scenes, and the inconsequential squabbles between them.

Quiet, Ruby, someone’s coming

Approach with stealth

Oh, it’s just your precious American Underground

And it is born of wealth

With not a writer in the lot

Bejar lacks the voice of a conventional singer, and is often purposely off-key; a tool he uses for emphasis and effect. While his songs are full of fascinating detail, it is also incredibly difficult to discern exactly what he is singing about. Yet across his 13 albums there is a recurring theme built on his fascination with the music industry at large, as well as his own place outside it. He has an air of satirical superiority, which often leads him to steal lines from other artists and morph them to suit his own purposes.

Oh life

is bigger

Than a life on the run from the United States.

His third and fourth albums Thief and Streethawk: A Seduction were effectively concept albums about his own grand vision for his art that somehow was unfulfilled by an industry that was hostile to him and an audience that was unaware of him. On Streethawk Bejar identified the problem as his particular style of music, indebted more to English bands than the type of music that could capture him an audience below the 49th Parallel.

And write your English music though you know it will come to no good.

When brilliance has a taste for suffering, and you’re softer than the Western world.

Yet it is here where his 9th album, Kaputt, took a stylistic turn towards the U.S. While Bejar has a penchant for genre-hopping, from indie-folk, to ramshackle and glam rock, new wave to baroque pop, verbally there had always been too much going on in his songs for them to find a space in society outside of the bedrooms of the most dedicated music obsessives. He made music for people who care about music. However, Kaputt was a conscious attempt to change this. To make an album that could be played in cafés, a vehicle to work his way into the broader culture via osmosis, rather than directly through his acerbic wit.

But for this to be successful Bejar would have to restrain himself. To withdraw his wordiness and unique singing style, to be minimal with his lyrics and minimal with delivery. He achieved the latter by recording his vocals lying down on the studio couch, giving each song a sense of langour that would be less confronting in a public space. While making each line direct and precise. Editing became more important than writing.

Only two songs from the album, Suicide Demo For Kara Walker, and Bejar’s magnum opus, Bay of Pigs — a previous stand alone single tacked onto the end of the album as a somewhat awkward, but not unwelcome fit — would be composed in his previous loquacious style. The former being the reworking of a poem that artist Kara Walker had sent Bejar. All other lyrics would be stripped down to their bare bones, to be as succinct and unobtrusive as possible.

The musical vehicle for this shift was equally as distinct; with Bejar and his collaborators creating an album of soft rock, smooth (and occasionally free) jazz, and New Romantic pop. The album was built around clean guitars, icy synthesisers and a lot of saxophone. Here Kaputt was something of an homage to the 1980s, a move that may have seemed ironic at the time, but has proved to instead be ahead of the curve.

It was within the album’s title track — and first single — that Bejar identifies that maybe this shift in approach would bring him the attention in the U.S that he believed he deserved. As the song enters its coda he muses to himself “I wrote a song for America….who knew?”. Due to his habit of self-referencing, this line would return towards the end of the album in a song simply called Song for America.

While Kaputt, the single, may have stylistically been aimed at the U.S, its chorus was built around a yearning for the golden era of the British music press — “Sounds, Smash Hits, Melody Maker, NME, all sound like a dream to me.” An era that Bejar himself would have been highly aware of during his teens and early-20s, but whose musical career would not align with.

Here Bejar was not only continuing his long-standing theme of positioning himself outside of the main drivers of the music industry and of the listening habits of the general public, but was also romanticising an era before music became so easily accessible. When you had to wait by the radio for a certain song to be played, where details about bands came via album liner notes, and — in the UK at least — the highly influential weekly music press. When music seemingly meant more than just a periodic recreational activity. When being a serious music fan required serious work.

Yet, ironically, Kaputt’s revitalising of musical styles from the 1980s was also signalling the dawn of a new era of music consumption. In the closing years of the new century’s first decade the possibilities of the internet as a distinct vehicle for music distribution were starting to come into full effect. The ability for people to exist within any or all musical eras was developing a solid digital infrastructure (Spotify was launched in 2008). This was especially the case with YouTube, which was quickly becoming the repository for long forgotten, overlooked, and obscure music. Driven by an algorithm that has an uncanny ability for recommending mysterious and unappreciated music, both within genres and across them.

Kaputt’s sound was the result of this era-hoping, the rediscovery of styles that had fallen out of fashion, but had found fresh ears due to the modern technological capabilities. All eras move through phases where they are viewed with suspicion, scorn, or amusement, but at some stage a re-appreciation of the era emerges. Kaputt marked the beginning of this process with the 1980s. The decade’s niche categories like Italo-Disco and Japanese Environmental Music have been revitalised, as has the era’s pop music, something the Black Mirror episode San Junipero from 2016 utilised to great effect.

Of course, Bejar himself would both love and revile himself being seen as this kind of cultural harbinger. His instincts would be to avoid making a similar album to capitalise on the new musical landscape that he would usher in. The prevailing tension within his musical persona is one of both attraction to music as a collective cultural phenomenon, and a deep suspicion of everyone with a similar attraction. As a result, for Kaputt’s follow-up, Poison Season, he would recreate himself as something of a pre-rock ’n’ roll crooner.

Yes, I’m familiar with your scene

Some would say shockingly uptight…

Hey, mystic prince of the purlieu at night

I heard your record, it’s alright

Kaputt would bring Bejar the kind of American attention that every Canadian secretly craves, the ability to both be acknowledged by their overbearing southern neighbour, but also the opportunity to subvert them in their own distinct Canadian way. The album would find itself reaching number 62 on the Billboard charts, Bejar would make an appearance on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, and he would find himself invited to perform at the Coachella, the annual Californian mega-festival, attended by everyone Bejar would despise.

Yet Bejar’s widescreen cynicism couldn’t take further root across the border. His approach, his eye, and his wit could only come from existing in the shadows of something larger and more powerful. A power often oblivious to the effects of its own actions, and culturally unconditioned for a perspective that could only have come from the unique geographic, economic, and historical terrain that Canada inhabits.

Pierre Trudeau once claimed that living next to the United States was “like sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly and even-tempered is the beast, one is affected by every twitch and grunt.” These twitches and grunts are what Bejar feeds off. Unable to alter this reality, and unable to ignore it, the best he can do is find some form of amusement in it.

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Grant Wyeth

I am a Melbourne-based writer. I am a contributing author at The Diplomat and write a weekly newsletter for Australian Foreign Affairs. Twitter: @grantwyeth