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Interview

Singer-songwriter David Bazan was frontman of the indie-rock band Pedro the Lion for ten years, recording four albums and five EPs. He has also recorded with side projects including Headphones, Undertow Orchestra, and Overseas. In 2005, Bazan began touring and recording under his own name, starting with the EP Fewer Moving Parts. With Pedro the Lion and as a solo performer, Bazan established himself as a fierce and prophetic critic of North American hypocrisy and excess, recording and performing songs that attacked consumerism, corporate capitalism, celebrity culture, and sentimental Christianity. In 2009 he released Curse Your Branches, followed by Strange Negotiations in 2011. He tours throughout the year, mostly performing at house concerts across the continent. In September he released an album with Passenger String Quartet, and is currently at work on a series of 7-inch singles. He was interviewed in Winnipeg, Manitoba, by Kurt Armstrong.

 

Image: How did you get started in music? Were your parents musical?

David Bazan: My dad was a music pastor in a denomination called the Assemblies of God. I grew up with him playing piano in church every Sunday and leading songs, my mom singing special solos a few times a year, and my sister and me singing in kids’ choir. When I was about five years old my dad started giving us piano lessons. It was never pop music, but church music that was like the air that we breathed.

Image: You were born in Arizona, but you were a teenager in Seattle. How did the music scene there in the eighties and nineties shape what you wanted to do?

DB: The year before I moved to Seattle we lived in a small California town called Paradise, just outside of Chico. I had decided then, in ninth grade, in 1990, that I wanted to play drums for a living. I hadn’t learned to play guitar yet, I’d been playing drums for three years, and I loved music.

When I moved to Seattle in ’91, I started playing in bands, right around the time Nirvana’s Nevermind came out. But while at my high school we were all aware that they were from Seattle, and we felt something in the air that was cool and unique because of it, we interacted with Nirvana through the national media the way that everybody else did—the Rolling Stone cover and MTV—with rare exceptions. The local weekly magazines would write about sightings and little tiffs and gossip.

Other than that, the scene that influenced me most was—and still is—a church in Seattle called Calvary Fellowship that used to meet in an old high school down in the center of the town. It attracted a lot of musicians who were Christians, and there was a thriving underground Christian scene there. I played in a band with Damien Jurado and we did shows at Calvary. That’s where I started to understand what it meant to be in a band. My bands played primarily in that little circuit. I’m sure I was influenced by just how big a deal music was in Seattle and how relatively cutting edge Seattle was at the time. It was an inspiring thing for that little group of people. There was a lot of punk rock hardcore, youth culture music with a strong Christian component at the time.

Image: You are very open and transparent, especially in your solo music. How does that play out for you at more intimate shows, like in living rooms? You’re playing to a room full of strangers who know some very personal things about you. What’s that like for you as a performer?

DB: It feels natural to me. That’s something of a value of mine—transparency and genuineness in interpersonal relationships. At some level, that’s exciting to me in musical expression, too. Not just exposing your own demons or autobiography, but any kind of risk-taking is interesting. It’s not draining for me. I’m comfortable with that level of vulnerability at this point. I’m certainly not docked for it. It’s not a hardship. In a way, I’ve been rewarded for it over the years, in the way that people respond.

Image: I was wondering if people presume a bit too much with you, if that’s the fallout from being so open.

DB: People do presume from time to time, but growing up in church the way I did, with my dad in leadership, with all of the presumptuous, judgmental, petty people, all the squeaky wheels who constantly create problems for others, I developed a built-in sense that you can’t worry about those voices, the peripheral voices of strangers or people who I’m not in community with or committed to in some deliberate way. There’s a threshold beyond which I can’t care if people misunderstand or think I’m bad. That makes it easy, too. I can be transparent, and allow the good messages from strangers to build me up a little bit—though I take that with a grain of salt—and not even file away the negative messages from strangers. The negative messages from people who really know me, I take those seriously.

Image: You rebranded yourself after the breakup of your former band, Pedro the Lion. What made you want to do a tour playing the entire Pedro album Control?

DB: When I stopped using the name Pedro the Lion, that decision wasn’t motivated financially or anything like that. Something about my life and the process of making records and going on tour was going wrong somehow, and I didn’t understand what it was, how I had set things up that was out of balance. The name of that routine and process was Pedro the Lion. It wasn’t a band as much as it was a process, a way that I would make records and hire guys and go out on tour. When a guy or two would leave the band, I would just find others.

When my friend Tim “TW” Walsh left, that was the last straw. Something was not right. I didn’t intend for that to happen. I thought, I’ve got to stop doing this thing named Pedro the Lion. It meant that I could go out and play shows under my own name. I was looking forward to having fewer expectations put on me, having to explain myself less often, than if I had gone solo and called myself Pedro the Lion. It seemed false to do that.

Image: I had assumed it was a philosophical break. Pedro was like a previous life, and Dave Bazan was like a new creature.

DB: Coincidentally it was like that, but not consciously. I needed some clarity and I needed to keep touring, because that was how I made a living. I needed to go it alone for a while, call it this other thing, and figure how I’d been going at this wrong. In one sense, you’re right. It just so happens I stopped being a Christian around that time, too.

Throughout that whole time I was only playing Pedro the Lion songs. I didn’t have other songs to play. For me, the movement from Pedro the Lion to Headphones and the David Bazan records is more of a continuum. I see the whole catalogue of songs I’ve written. Not all of them am I interested in playing, but there are plenty from 1998, 2000, 2002 that I still play at my shows.

In 2012 we finally were going to rerelease all the Pedro the Lion albums on vinyl. Most of them had gone out of print and were expensive on eBay, and in most cases they sounded awful. The original pressings hadn’t gone well, so we wanted to redo all the audio and make sure the pressings were as perfect as they could be. It was a big financial risk, so we decided we needed to tour in support of them. Somebody floated the idea that we tour as Pedro the Lion, and I rejected that for a lot of reasons, but we thought it wouldn’t be a bad idea to advertise that we were playing Pedro the Lion songs, and we thought the best way to do that would be to play an album all the way through. Control was ten years old, the most popular record, and coincidentally, the only one that I will play every song off of. That got penciled in as the plan, and as it got closer and closer we realized it was a good idea. I was nervous that I would hate it, that it would feel gimmicky. But in the end, because that record is so dark and has such a linear narrative, playing it every night was cathartic and fun. What started every night as nostalgia in the audience turned to despair, because it’s such a bleak record. That was fun to do, to take people to a very specific place, from nostalgia to something far more real.

Image: You touch on some of the same themes on your most recent solo album, Strange Negotiations. I think specifically of “Wolves” and the title track, which both revisit the cultural vision of what the “good life” is. Is it important to you to be political in your music?

DB: Not necessarily. I had the impulse when I first started working on Control that I wanted it to be overtly political, and then I thought, I don’t believe in writing in an overt way about religion; why is it okay to write overtly about politics? So I decided I’d keep reading about this stuff and getting mad about it and hope that my subconscious would let it leak into the record in a way that is more genuine and less on-the-nose. And in the end I think that’s what happened. “Indian Summer” gets specific in making reference to Kennedy and the gross domestic product, but by and large the politics stayed nebulous. My approach is to trust my subconscious and try to make music with no agenda at all.

Image: How do you know if you’ve crossed a line from being a critic to being a propagandist?

DB: I’ve had a lot of practice with that line, growing up the way I did. My sense of it is probably informed by how I wrote as a Christian all those years, because I was keen not to be a propagandist or write slogans. You have to be willing to let the chips fall where they will, and that sometimes means you’ll write in support of a certain thing. I think you can develop a sense of that line by looking far down the road, trying to be an independent thinker, trying not to fall prey to dogmatic or institutional thinking.

I also have to play these songs. If I write a new song, I have a desire to play it every night, and I play so many shows every year that I’m confronted with whether or not these things play right. I can’t get away with as much as a guy who only plays a handful of shows every year. And the context that I’m playing them in—someone’s house, most often—is so intimate, there’s no pomp and circumstance to help convince me that this is a good song. It’s just me and my self-loathing sitting in judgment on these songs. That’s a pretty good motivator to get the balance right.

Image: Who are some of the artists or writers you look to for a sense of what’s going on socially, culturally, politically?

DB: For years I read Harper’s, and I still pick it up from time to time, but I switched to The Atlantic for a while because I wanted voices that were less one-sided. I felt like Harper’s was the preacher and I was in the choir. I still feel like there’s a need for that sort of thing. The choir needs to hear the preaching, too. But because I travel so much and I’m driving all the time I tend to listen to podcasts a lot.

I favor a few from NPR. One of my favorite bits of media ever was This American Life. What started as just stories about people has become one of the more interesting journalistic outlets in the States because they have the budget, expertise, and manpower to do longer stories that newspapers are no longer capable of. After the 2008 worldwide economic collapse, they had the best, most lucid reporting on what it was and what caused it. I had never heard of collateralized debt obligations or a credit default swap, and they explained what those two things were and how they came about and why they were at the center of the collapse.

Another show I like is Fresh Air. Terry Gross has a wide variety of guests—singers, actors, filmmakers, and a lot of writers and journalists, so it can get pretty serious and political. And I have smart friends who are on Twitter, and through them I’ll pick up on this and that, and keep abreast of what’s going on.

There’s Wendell Berry—I haven’t read a lot of his stuff, but what I have read resonated so purely with me, especially his outlook on resources and responsibility. The wisdom that America is turning its back on at the moment—it’s chilling. His is such a prophetic voice. Ed Morrow is another. These kinds of voices are peppered throughout history—sane, clear-thinking voices about the nature of power and, in Morrow’s case, the media, society, conflict of interest.

Image: David Dark, who wrote The Sacredness of Questioning Everything and The Gospel According to America: A Meditation on a God-blessed, Christ-haunted Idea is one of the young voices doing exactly that sort of work.

DB: He’s fantastic. His is as true a prophetic voice as I know of, especially in his sphere. He, in one sense or another, claims Christianity, and has the ear of Christian people. He’s a helpful, patient, consistent voice in a culture which is so often blind and deaf and dumb to reality, to justice and to ethical thinking.

Image: Bruce Cockburn once said in an interview that he didn’t start getting political in his music until he became a father. Do you think fatherhood has ramped up a sense of urgency for you, or are there other ways it has changed your music?

DB: Nothing deliberate. I would need to spend some time with a therapist to unpack what appear to be coincidental shifts. After my daughter was born, I wrote the Headphones album, the Fewer Moving Parts EP, I wrote Curse Your Branches, and then Strange Negotiations. Those are all pretty different records. I suppose there was a greater sense of urgency, but again, I’m a firm believer that all of that must be surrendered to my subconscious, that the tyranny of the urgent shouldn’t trump the process that I have faith in. My subconscious is the smartest guy in my head, the aspect of me that can bring out all the sophistication in whatever is going on in my gut. It’s weird for me to be saying this, because a lot of people rightly consider my music to be on-the-nose, and that’s not my favorite part of myself. Yet to the extent that there’s any balance or nuance or sophistication to what I do, it’s because of me relying on my subconscious.

Having kids does change your outlook on the world, but for me it just makes me want to be more careful and get my shit together. You become aware of how fragile your own happiness and personal peace are. If something happens to one of my kids, the world is not lost, but my own peace and happiness would be lost for quite some time. That makes it feel urgent.

I used to believe that justice was coming in the future, at the hand of a creator who was an advocate for the poor and the downtrodden. I no longer believe that. I think that justice is the responsibility of us all, now. That other view is, on the one hand, understandable as a comfort to the people who will never get justice in this life, but for those of us who have the opportunity to create justice, it’s a cop-out. Seeing my kids, I can now imagine what the mechanism of that ongoing push toward justice looks like. It’s not just my own efforts, though it relies heavily on them; it’s how evolution continues to push forward through the offspring of people who give a shit and are taking justice seriously.

There are changes that have come from the kids. I can’t judge my own output well, but there does seem to be a seriousness now. I hope it’s not shrillness or stridency.

Image: I’d say you’ve been consistently serious and wide-eyed all the way through.

DB: There’s now something huge at stake in avoiding tragedy. I’m not fond of quoting my own songs, but the Headphones song “Major Cities” says, “I agree, this doesn’t favor me / but bullies ought to get what’s coming.” The song imagines that America is under attack and I’m collecting my wife and daughter and we’re trying to escape. When justice falls, there are going to be some casualties. That’s the way history works. Something weird happens to an individual and their knee-jerk reaction is, “Why me?” I feel like the long view is that we’re all working toward this thing, towards justice, and weird shit happens, but we’ve got to do our best. If I’m one of the bullies, in the big sense, then it will be okay.

To me, it’s important that someone’s writing it down, keeping track, so that future people can see when and where justice happened, and be motivated by that. That gives me hope. I have faith in that process as helpful and ongoing.

Image: Curse Your Branches marks a decisive break with your former Christian faith, and you touch on some of the same themes in Strange Negotiations. Are these sorts of questions still fruitful for you?

DB:  Christianity still interests me. I don’t believe any of the doctrines, and yet I’m still curious about it. I don’t feel that I couldn’t ever believe again. It does seem a little impossible, but this seemed impossible to me before. I am fascinated with Christianity still. If it isn’t what I thought it was, then what is it? What are the dynamics that seem to be at work in certain cases? How does it work to imagine a God your whole life, and what’s left over when you stop believing that?

Once I got over some of the defensiveness after my break with Christianity I realized I still care about the evangelical church. I’m frustrated by it, which is an indication that I care. When I hear news that a pastor is all of a sudden deeply convicted that homosexuality is not a sin and that interpretation of the Bible is wrong, I’m moved to tears, usually. When I heard about a Pentecostal minister in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Carlton Pearson, who really believes that God told him that he had hell wrong, that hell was just something that man made up, that was extremely moving for me. He moved forward with that conviction and changed his whole life; he sunk his whole ministry and livelihood because this ideal had been impressed on him.

Also, all of my cultural expertise, whatever cultural expertise I have, is in the subculture of evangelical Christianity. That’s how I understand the world, that’s how I understand politics, that’s how I understand everything. It’s a lens that I am continuing to write through now, but not as a believer. The song “Virginia,” comes from my own curiosity. A dying woman’s visitors are worried about her personal salvation, and she just smiles at them, “floating high above the question, like you knew something we didn’t know.” The singer is describing a possibility that sometimes I think is not incompatible with Christianity; it’s sort of separate from it. There’s something beautiful about it. I like thinking about it and singing about it. I like the possibility that there might not just be the one way. It’s a little bit of a turn-on to sing that.

In general, I’m not all that interested in trying to de-convert anybody, but I am interested in expanding the possibilities of reality. Not willy-nilly, just to sink people’s ideas, but when I came up with that song, I thought, That’s a beautiful, hopeful thing, full of grace, if you will. I wanted to sing that, so I did.

A lot of the stuff I’m writing for this new record is haunted by that language and those stories, those fucking idiots wandering around in the desert, believing that God’s telling them to kill every man, woman, and child in a city. I love knowing all those stories. It’s endlessly compelling.

Image: I sometimes think I’m more Christian than I am male. I have an earlier sense of having been raised Christian than of learning about what is masculine. Masculinity I got inadvertently and accidentally, but Christianity was taught very deliberately.

DB: That’s interesting. I feel similarly. In a sense, I won’t escape Christianity, and I don’t feel like I would even try to now. I was trying for a while, but then I realized that’s a waste of energy. I get to think whatever I want, but this is my culture. This is where I’m from.

Image: It sounds like you’ve made peace with things.

DB: To a certain degree. It’s fun to imagine and to tinker. People’s insistence that you have to draw conclusions now about existential things is not compelling to me. I so firmly disagree that that’s required. I don’t have any sense inside myself of urgency about that. Once I stepped away I realized that these are profound and potentially eternally open questions. They’re enjoyable. I like to hear people talk about them. When people start to get too dogmatic and try to clamp the conversation down, that gets tedious. But even then it can be fun to hear what people think. Faith does seem to be a central part of everyone’s personality, but it’s not necessarily so. You can find a lot of common ground with people who think that what you believe about eternity is dead wrong. There are a lot of other topics.

The other aspect of religion that frustrates and intrigues me is that so often, when you look at a particular religious group, on the trunk of the tree there’s a little label that says, “This is an Apple Tree.” And then you look up, and those are cherries, not apples. In scripture, in Jesus’s teaching, there is this ideal that a tree should bear the fruit that it claims to bear. I want that for myself. Whatever claims I’m making, I want the fruit to match, and I want that for evangelical Christianity, too. Sometimes I’ll poke at people because that ideal is not always the case. I think people need to be a lot more careful than they are, a lot more observant—however you want to interpret that word. That’s another thing that, as an observer of Christianity, creeps into the songs.

Image: Do you think your religious experience would have been different if you’d grown up Catholic or Episcopalian, or if you’d grown up in Canada, where politics and religion aren’t so mashed together?

DB: It’s something I’ve thought a lot about, but Christians getting it wrong and behaving badly never caused me to doubt Christianity. My doubts came later and in the form of doubting the narrative, the logic. I still can’t imagine, given all the data, what a God could be like, what a God’s orientation to all this could be. In the song “In Stitches” I imply that if I have to choose between omnipotence and benevolence, I choose benevolence. Most Christians believe God is omnipotent and benevolent. I don’t see that being possible. I’m interested in all the combinations of characteristics the Bible says God has—power to create this whole thing, the desire to interact and to govern—and I’m interested in the way the Bible contradicts itself occasionally about God’s character. But that’s the point at which it began to unravel, not with the bad behavior of Christians.

I have always had—and I think it comes from Jesus’s teachings, honestly—a real disdain for institutional thinking and institutions that outlive their usefulness. I probably would characterize institutions as having outlived their usefulness earlier than might actually be the case. I’m sure Catholicism would have been tough, especially in the nineties and the aughts.

A bunch of friends, instead of becoming agnostic or atheist, became Eastern Orthodox, and sometimes things they say sound interesting. They are new pieces to try to fit in the puzzle. Their view of original sin, or the lack of it, was interesting to me.

But really: I will be so overjoyed if there is a God. It will be, most likely, such good news. Now he—or she—could be a real bastard, but I will be overjoyed if there is one. But if there is one, I just can’t imagine her caring whether people give her credit, especially people who are genuinely trying to live as observantly and as mindfully as some people do. I think by doing that, you are honoring the possibility of there being a transcendent being, a being that transcends even the best of humanity. So while I can’t imagine a being like that existing at the moment, I do try to live my life in a way that honors the possibility.

Image: For all the attention that guys like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris get for their critique of Christianity, I don’t think they nail it like you because, for one, they’re so strident, but also because you’ve inhabited the very core of the thing.

DB: A great many of us have wrestled with the fine points. It’s funny, my wife will never be kept up at night by ideas. She is easily a better person than me, but that’s not how her brain works. But me, since I was five years old, I’ve been right inside these word problems, the way the math of the philosophy and theology go together. I remember being five or six and hearing the story of Enoch—it’s not a story at all, just a line: “There was Enoch, and he walked with God so closely that God took him to heaven without dying”—and thinking, that’s what I want. And as soon as I had that thought, I realized, Oh no. You’re bad. You can’t be that. I already knew my own distracted nature. I didn’t have the words for it, but later, when I heard the hymn—“Prone to wander, Lord I feel it; prone to leave the God I love”—I was already aware of that feeling. The internal life of a serious believer can be such a rich thing.

So Branches is a product of a long story: from the time I was a kid, trying to wrestle with these things; after college, finally understanding the Gospel and becoming comfortable enough not to feel like an outcast when I tried to conjure the presence of God; coming to think that if the Gospel is true, it’s incompatible with certain things. I was a pretty motivated, devout believer. That record is a product of that process, and in that way I’m proud of it. It feels true to me. I still play a lot of those songs. It was hard writing it. Sometimes I’d be stuck for weeks and weeks, and I would think, It’s just a pop song. Just finish it. Don’t be precious. But another part of my brain would say, No. This is you giving an answer for something. You’re going to have to play these songs over and over and you have to feel good about it. And so I would wait until it would come, and eventually it did, with all of them.

Image: You said at a house concert last year, “I don’t hate myself as much as I used to.” But the song “Down Below” on your 2013 album with Overseas sounds like you’ve still got plenty of self-criticism left.

DB: I didn’t write all the lyrics I sing on that record. On some, Matt Kadane wrote the chorus and I wrote the melody and lyrics. It was my job to take what was there in the chorus and develop a song around it. I was trying to balance the verses against the chorus—and I was using the voice of a character.

I do still grapple with self-loathing, but it feels like I’m winning the battle. There’s a lot of compound stupidity in my day-to-day life, bad habits that are taking me a long time to overcome. It feels like when I do overcome, I’ve thoroughly achieved that, but it takes a long time. I can get kind of down on myself about it.

Image: Jeff Tweedy once said he worried that he couldn’t be healthy and creative at the same time. Do you ever worry about that, or are you okay with being okay?

DB: I’m not worried about that. I made a choice just out of high school, when I saw the path of self-sabotage and being a sad, down-on-my-luck kind of guy as a potential source of song ideas, and I thought, No, I don’t want to do that. It’s not fair to the people around me. It’s not fair to myself.

I have faith that there are other ways to come up with ideas. There is other fodder for songs. It’s something I’ve decided not to do with friends, either; I wouldn’t exploit their hardships or stories for songs.

I have a hard time writing lyrics. But I believe there’s enough to write about without being an unhappy person and having the people around me be unhappy. I’ve been an idealist my whole life, maybe kind of naïve, but I think that was the right decision. I have been a fuck-up and an unhappy person at times, though never for that long, but I’ve made people around me pretty unhappy. That makes me sad. That yields what it yields.

But other people’s folly, or the folly of a character who represents culture—that’s easier to get to.
Image: Curse Your Branches is very coherent. It’s not a concept album like Control, it’s not a narrative, but it’s ten songs around the same theme.

DB: I remember trying to decide whether “Heavy Breath” or “In Stitches” should be the last track. Those two songs end the story differently. It’s obvious now that “In Stitches” should be last, but it wasn’t at the time. I wasn’t thinking about mood at that point, but lyrical content. “Heavy Breath” is almost atheistic in its outlook; “In Stitches” is an angry wrestling with what seem like incompatible ideas about God, but it’s still wrestling.

All of that is to say that musical flow matters, but it has got to make sense lyrically. You wouldn’t put a heartbreak song before a happy-in-love song about the same two people. That kind of thinking went into the sequence of Branches, but with more abstract concepts.

Tim Walsh, who mixed and mastered the record, gets so bent at me for choosing song order based on lyrical flow. He says it needs to be musical flow. On Winners Never Quit, the musical flow is terrible, and lyrical flow dictated that. With Branches we struck a balance over and over again, like when you’re mowing a lawn and you cut a path and then turn around and put your wheel right in the middle of that row and come back. There is overlap, but you are cutting a little bit of new grass every time.


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