Walker on the Wild Side: Dan Bejar on His Musical Collaboration With Artist Kara Walker
Dan Bejar is a hard man to pin down. As the musical force Destroyer, Bejar has been putting out eclectic, poetry-driven music since 1995. He is also a member of two beloved Canadian supergroups: The New Pornographers and Swan Lake (alongside Wolf Parade's Spencer Krug and Carey Mercer of Frog Eyes.) Destroyer's 9th LP, "Kaputt," out from Merge Records on January 25, includes a song with the unlikely title of "Suicide Demo for Kara Walker." Modern Painters discussed the track's genesis with Bejar, and why it's difficult for a white Canadian male to sing about the lives of African-American women.
Destroyer's "Suicide Demo for Kara Walker," off the LP "Kaputt," out from Merge Records on January 25:
Can you tell me a bit about the process of writing "Suicide Demo for Kara Walker"?
Some of the Kara Walker song I didn't actually write. She sent me cue cards with little text pieces in the spring of 2009, maybe even earlier. It's all become quite foggy as to what she did and what I did with it. I think, more than anything, it's an insight into the way an old-school Destroyer song comes about. Merge Records was doing a mammoth monster box set for their 20th anniversary. They asked for contributions from Merge artists and people not in the music world, and Kara was one of them. She was sent a giant crate of Merge catalogue to make a mixtape from, or maybe do something else. For some reason, the Destroyer stuff was what really spoke to her, and one of the ideas she had was that she would send me these text pieces and I would make a song out of them. I was pretty hesitant at first because I had never done anything like that before. I thought, "this is pretty cool writing," and I kind of just went from there.
How exactly did you use her words?
I literally had her words written out on these different cue cards. I'd gathered up the cards that seemed most viable to me and then I just pressed record and started riffing. I was riffing over a pretty basic house beat and a chord progression played on a piano. The collaboration was pretty fifty-fifty aside from the fact that I would take things that she'd written and completely take them out of their original context and improvise a direction I thought maybe they was going in. It gave me license to do a lot of things I wouldn't normally write or say. There were some moments when I was getting off on an idea that could land me in hot water. At the end of the day, someone is going to ask me what the song is about, and I'm going to say "maybe it's about black women's experience in America over the last 400 years," and for me to say that is dicey. I'm not American, I'm not black, and I'm not a woman.
What does Kara Walker think about the song?
I think she really likes it. She came backstage to a show I played at the Bowery Ballroom and we talked for a couple of minutes. She heard, at that point, the super stripped-down demo version of the song that was on the Merge box set. She said she really liked it. When I sent her the raved-up disco album version I was a little hesitant because I didn't know what she would make of it. However, I thought it would be a good idea to let her have the green light on it, seeing as most of the words are hers. She said she was really into it, which is good because it would have sucked for her to hate it because I would have scrapped the song.
What about the title, "Suicide Demo for Kara Walker"?
Early on, the song sounded like a demo from the band Suicide, hence the name.