by Kayleigh Hughes
Photos by Adrian Gandara
While performing with six other musicians as Destroyer, Dan Bejar never adjusts his mic stand to reach any higher than mid-thigh. While his right hand holds the microphone, his left hand clings to the stand, which looks a bit like a walking cane, for the majority of the performance. I am reminded of my almost subconscious insistence on remaining in contact with the side of a bar, a wall, or a door frame in any social situation. I also think about my past attempts to ice skate and how I was never able to release my grip on the sidewall of the rink for more than a few moments. Some people just don’t know what to do with their hands. Some people don’t feel comfortable as a freestanding entity without some support.
Bejar folds in and kneels down beside his mic stand at some point during every song, often multiple times per song. He takes sips of beer from a clear plastic cup. He takes sips of something, possibly water, from another plastic cup, which is black and opaque. I imagine his knees are either in very good shape or a lot of pain from all the kneeling. He seems more comfortable closer to the ground. Some people feel safer with a lower center of gravity.
I live in a state of constant anxiety, and watching Bejar’s movements and expressions onstage is like looking in a mirror. I sip drinks often when I’m nervous. Sometimes a sip of beer and a sip of water back-to-back, not because I’m thirsty but because they’re there and it’s something I know how to do and it’s a universally accepted way to get people off your back for a fucking second (even if their expectation and insistence is mostly just in your mind).
Bejar avoids looking at the audience for most of the show. He looks down so hard that actually his eyes close, he sways his hips and belly slightly but noncommittally, he sometimes stuffs a hand in his pocket when he releases the mic stand, and he often turns away from the audience and toward his bandmates. He performs most of the night’s songs this way.
When Bejar does occasionally pull up his gaze to witness his audience, I sense bewilderment. All these strangers staring at him. Wanting things from him. In the absence of stage banter (of course there is no stage banter at a Destroyer concert), the silence of song transitions creates space for crass fans to shout requests or expressions of love. I know that performing musicians must accept some uncommon amendments to traditionally agreed-upon social conventions, but I also know I wouldn’t like a stranger to scream that they love me, and I *really* wouldn’t like them to tell me what to do.
(Admittedly, I also would not like for some dumbass writer-stranger to make so many assumptions about me, and I am willing to accept that I am part of Bejar’s — and probably most musicians’ — problem.)
But there are moments while performing that Bejar can’t help but enjoy himself. They are when he appears to be feeling the full power and abilities of his live band — and maybe even feeling himself locked in with them, all together a beautiful machine of articulate sonic expression. Little smiles of contentment sneak onto his face, his eyes closed perhaps less out of avoidance but a desire to experience what’s being created with fewer distractions. Any time he picks up his red tambourine, he immediately appears a little less ill-at-ease, like he’s melting into a collective and somewhat freeing himself from being the audience’s sole focal point.
Behind and alongside him, his bandmates often grin freely and widely. One thing I imagine is that many of them have adopted the explicit goal of playing so well together, making such lovely music together, that they can pull expressions of happiness out of Bejar. This happens more and more often as the evening goes by. Instrumentally, Destroyer’s music is complex, multifaceted, always changing and building and darting and weaving. The group of musicians thrill with the challenge. They are happy and striving, reliant on one another to make this whole big Destroyer sound happen the way it should — and it does. The result is extravagant, loud like it’s coming from inside your body, layers of funk and jazz and the big majestic melodic post-punk noise pop that feels the most like comfort music to me.
After the conclusion of one particularly climactic song, Bejar looks back at his band and says to them — and absolutely only them — “that was really good!” None of them are exactly surprised — Bejar and his band must know how good they are — but achieving such a tight, perfect live music performance must feel miraculous every time, no matter how often it happens. They all smile. They are a team.
It’s easy, in these moments, to understand how someone could be widely considered a curmudgeon and pessimist but also clearly be a joyful and gentle person containing an incredibly deep well of passion for art and beauty. I am reminded of Rush’s drummer, the late Neil Peart. Notorious for giving fawning fans the cold shoulder, Peart described in the documentary Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage that his distanced reaction was driven in part by sheer social anxiety and in part by firmly held beliefs about the absurdity, falseness and danger of idolatry. Millions of people across the world might approach him with insistent familiarity, but they were not remotely familiar to him. These were strangers. And though his work was familiar, he, too, was truly a stranger to them. As a musician, however, he was vibrant and warm and in love, because he is one of those people for whom music is the best thing in the world.
I see a lot of that in Bejar, watching Destroyer’s set. Giving little to an audience of unfamiliar faces isn’t the same as giving freely to your collaborators, and it’s not hard to see why someone would choose the latter over the former.
Bejar seems at his absolute most comfortable during the encore, when opening performer Eleanor Friedberger takes the lead singer reins during Destroyer track “Hell” while he trots off to the side of the stage and joins the band with his tambourine. With her energy, urgent physicality and ease onstage, Friedberger makes something new out of the song, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a part of Bejar sometimes wants someone else to be Destroyer’s singer. But in the end, it’s him that people love. His voice, his perspective and his bold, imaginative musicianship are the reason people come to see the show.
It’s why I came. It’s why I watched him so intently and tried to read everything I could into what he did and how he seemed, and it’s why I’m writing here now, trying to get this right when I know it will always be wrong because I am on the other side, a fan, a stranger just glad to witness musicians make something beautiful.
Kayleigh Hughes is an editor, freelance writer, and overthinker. In addition to contributing to Ovrld, Kayleigh is a contributor to Consequence of Sound, Paste, Pitchfork, Vox, The Establishment and more. Talk to her about literally anything–she doesn’t have that many friends–on twitter or via email.