Interview with Destroyer
20 July, 2018
A colleague and fellow admirer of your work said to me that he thinks you are both an existentialist and an Adlerian. How would you respond to such charges? Have you any particular interest in psychology and philosophy?
The blank I draw upon being called an Adlerian is probably an answer in itself. I took an existentialism and phenomenology course before dropping out of school, 25 years ago.
I think I'm more attracted to the landscape and era that existentialism is attached to (crumbling 20th Century Europe) than the writing. 20th century, continental poses. The music playing in the background of those discussions, etc.
I don't know much about psychology. I think about Stella Adler instead, and psychology in terms of method acting. That's probably about it. Is Cioran philosophy? I love the titles of his books.
One of your recent songs, ‘Saw you at the Hospital’, appears to address a person with some form of mental illness. you mentioned in a recent interview that while you are interested in aspects of ‘madness’, you are reluctant to address mental illness directly in your writing.
This is somewhat surprising given the range of subjects you have addressed in your lyrics. Why is this?
With that I was really thinking about Asylum literature, which I've always loved. Like that really good section in Heart Berries. Or rock song tropes probably based around ODing poetry. I got really sick on tour with pneumonia once and ended up in a Swiss hospital and in the bottom of my codeine haze started thinking about Rolling Stones couplets.
Leonard Cohen is also really into hospital tunes. The language around madness is instantly vivid, you want to use it. The language around decay is newer to me, but I also want to use it If I use those kinds of words in songs it's cause something in me wants to at one moment portray the world in an unknowable flurry, or disappearing pallor. I think...
You also mentioned in this interview that you were hospitalised with pneumonia while on and that you were ‘not living well’ at the time. I have spoken to other interviewees about the challenges that a life in music present to musicians’ health, particularly while on tour. How do you cope with these, both on the road and off?
I think I was not living well in very basic senses of the word. Not sleeping. Drinking too much. Smoking out of boredom. And singing my guts out every night, which I suspect is the most useless antidote for pneumonia there is!
When I'm home I have at least 3 out of 4 of those nipped in the bud! I think also in your 40s things catch up to you which in your 20s you just seem to outrun with great ease.
Many of our readers will be interested in the concept of personae. It seems to be that you are part of a lineage of personae in popular music, stretching back to Dylan and Bowie, and more recently, Drag City artists. Can you comment on this? What attracts you to ‘the mask’, or do you think too much is made of this in your writing?
This is interesting to me, but I'm not sure I see it like you. I'm leery of getting into discussions about personae and masks cause as someone in showbiz (singer, actor, dancer, comedian, someone who entertains with their body), well, it seems pointless to intellectualize it too much. Or not pointless, but you know, low-hanging fruit.
Bowie's version of personae seemed very drama school. Dylan's seemed the other hand, freakishly like I can't picture anything left of his actual self. He is more or less a creature that just breathes the air of how words bang off melodies. I love his work, especially Tempest, but he couldn't seem less wise to me. And listening to his music and watching him perform, I can only assume he has literally no life outside of what he sings. There is nothing to be learned from him, except how to write and sing magnificently.
The Drag City aesthetic was important for me in the 1990s, when I first started to write songs. Strong personae. Kind of old-fashioned that way.
Further to this, although you have many admirers for both your music and lyrics, you have been accused of being excessively cryptic in your writing style.
This seems to align with a school of thought that holds Smokey Robinson and Brian Wilson as the archetypal great songwriter, with a focus on melody and delivery over the actual words, and with towards serious, or at least more literary, writing within song. Would you agree?
I'm pretty sure the time for what I do has come to a or was closed before I even really got going. This strange secret handshake that happened between John Lennon and Dylan in 1965 and they said we will make pop music lyrics high modernist. I mean, as far as Americans and top 40 music , the experiment's been over for decades.
How I write is just me documenting how I get off throwing words around or chasing certain concerns down a hole in the most melodious way I know how. Cause melody quadruples the meaning of every single thing that you say. I don't utter a single thing that I don't get some kind of emotional charge out of (I think this is what people refer to as "meaning"). But my project is antiquated, and I don't expect it to come off that well, or different from like a rockabilly act or something.
Related to this, one of the themes of many of your songs appears to be the apparent conflict between so-called low and high art. For example, you make references to painting, opera and classic French cinema in some of your songs, while in others, you clearly make plays on lyrics from pop music.
Is this conflict something you have interest in?
Cause I spend my life singing in bars, I can't help it. I'm on the wrong side of the tracks. And I love any worldview that boils things down to and nots. And because I know nothing of high art (fine art) and don't know how to have a legitimate reaction to it, like I do when my jaw drops or my heart stops at a moment in a film, or a song, or a line in a poem where I just have to put down the book and stare or shake my head. And I love gangs. Like in The Outsiders, with Greasers and Socs.
So I write about stuff like that. And what little exposure I've had to art just seems like court intrigue or a high school mixer, so it's interesting that way. I mean not really interesting at all, actually. I'd rather be able to write about a leaf. As far as me riffing on existing pop songs, I think that's blown way outta proportion.
Another theme in your writing is nostalgia. This appears to be a recurring feature of Canadian writing in many formats- I am thinking of Alice Munro as well as Neil Young. Is this a conscious impulse?
I don't think of myself as nostalgic. I haven't read Alice Munro since high school, so I can't speak to that. But there is a nostalgic quality to Joni Mitchell, who is deeply Canadian, and probably the single most important singer-songwriter I can think of. So maybe that has rubbed off.
Most of my nostalgia seems like moves, completely invented. Death bed reveries, but I'm not dying.
Your music is informed by quite a spectrum of artistic influences. Can you share some of what you view as your most important influences, musical and otherwise?
My influences have changed. Chronologically it was - American indie stuff like Pavement/Guided By Voices, then deep into Drag City, then Syd Barrett then 70s glam/late 60s/early 70s Canterbury scene (Kevin Ayers, Robert Wyatt), Tom Verlaine, Richard Hell, Patti Smith.
At one point 15 years ago I said I wanted to reconcile the first 10 Lou Reed solo records with the first 10 John Cale solo records, like a more true but forced VU reunion, also deep Scott Walker fixation around the time of Your Blues, and since around 2004 constant Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan (a kind of triumvirate for me that I always return to). The Fall, Felt, all things Smiths and Morrissey, always American soul music of the early 70s - Marvin Gaye, Al Green, Curtis Mayfield, Aretha.
An obsession with the sound of There's A Riot Goin On which I'm sure I share with millions. Certain Style Council records and certain David Sylvian records are very, very important to me. Have probably listened to Loveless more than any record in my lifetime, but I don't consider this an influence, more just a way forward. Leonard Cohen guides me. New Order guides me. Some of the songs by The Doors truly guide me. No brainers like Billie Holliday and Frank Sinatra. That's all a list of singing stuff.
Genre hacks like Michael Mann are really important to me, but I also love Mirror and The Assassin. I love the later poems of Ingeborg Bachman. I love Rebel Without A Cause. I loved Knight of Cups, I didn't want to, cause it's embarrassing and not good. I love the Selfish Giant. I love Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid. I love Tyrant Banderas and the Fleur Jaeggy book I read.
I've watched Apocalypse Now times. I've watched La Dolce Vita and 8 1/2 too many times (is that existentialism?). Godard was a giant influence on me when I was younger. Visconti then became what I aspired to but could obviously never attain, these immaculate critiques that can only be obtained by being on the inside, and are too immaculate and then not critiques. I love the Frank Stanford book I just read.
Listen to my Destroyer playlist.