Progress Report: David Bazan
NAME: DAVID BAZAN
PROGRESS REPORT: Former Pedro The Lion front man readies his second solo effort, Strange Negotiations
Few contemporary songwriters have written about matters of faith more fascinatingly than David Bazan. As the frontman for Pedro the Lion, his intimate songs drew fascinating and often heartbreaking parallels between spiritual relationships and human ones. He wrote about his relationship to god with the same unflinching honesty one might use to confront a wandering lover or an absent father, a talent that garnered him a devoted and reverent fanbase. Over the course of 11 years and four full-length albums, Pedro The Lion slowly evolved from a twee bedroom project to surprisingly muscular rock band (due in no small part to Bazan’s creative partnership with T.W. Walsh). Though Bazan would devote large amounts of energy to concept albums tackling politics and American Consumerism (Winners Never Quit and Control, respectively), it was the always-simmering spirituality in his music that often made for his most beautiful and haunting songs. After retiring Pedro The Lion in 2006, Bazan eventually decided to go it alone. His first solo album, 2009’s Curse Your Branches, was met with almost universal acclaim and an equal amount of emotional fallout. Dubbed by various critics and fans as Bazan’s breakup record with God, the album seemed to provide a very raw and profoundly personal answer to the deeply rooted questions of faith that had followed Bazan throughout his career. The waves that Curse Your Branches created in Bazan’s personal and professional life were further heightened by the publication of an article in the Chicago Reader in July of 2009 (Jessica Hopper’s “The Passion of David Bazan”) that chronicled Bazan’s painful parting of the ways with both his faith and some of his fanbase. Ultimately, the album might have been the most lauded of his career, but for Bazan it ultimately capped what proved to be one of the darkest and most unsettling periods in his life.
This week David Bazan releases his equally intense sophomore effort, Strange Negotiations. It would be too easy to simply call this his “life after god” record but, in many ways, that’s exactly what it is. Songs like “People,” “Level With Yourself,” and “Don’t Change” are some of Bazan’s most powerful forays into self-examination, which has always been his strong suit. Coming to terms with his beliefs may not have lightened his mood, but it certainly hasn’t diminished his ability to write great songs.
STEREOGUM: First of all, tell me about the financing of your new album. You paid for the recording of this album by playing house shows?
DAVID BAZAN: Not exactly. The label definitely gave me a budget to make this record, but I still have to take care of the business of staying afloat financially and providing for my family. I usually play house shows in order to just make up my income. As it turned out, I had about six weeks cleared to go out and play house shows, but it was also at the same time that I really needed to be at home and record my new record. So we decided to basically make a kind of special “pre-order” — kind of a Kickstarter thing — where people would pay for the record ahead of time and I’d use that money to actually finance making the record. The people also got a t-shirt that said I HELPED DAVID BAZAN MAKE A RECORD and their name listed in the liner notes. It was great. I didn’t have to go out and tour and I stayed home and made the record, so it really worked out.
STEREOGUM: You’ve been doing the house show tours in between your full-band tours for years now. It must be gratifying to have that kind of really intense, super intimate connection with your fans. They can see you play a big rock venue and then a few weeks later you are literally playing in their living room.
DAVID BAZAN: Definitely. The Strange Negotiations pre-order kind of fans are the same fans who are often asking me to come and play the house shows, so it’s a very direct connection that I have with them. The house shows really boil things down to their essence. My tunes are really about melodic and lyrical content and it’s easy to put that across in a solo acoustic setting. It’s actually a little more potent in a house show situation, since there is no PA or anything. It might actually be the best way for people to experience what I do, to be honest.
STEREOGUM: You also always do a Q&A with the audience, which must be fascinating … and often pretty intense. Especially at a house show when you are in someone’s living room.
DAVID BAZAN: Oh yeah. The Q&A makes it really easy to quickly take the temperature of the crowd in a room. It goes over better at the house shows because they are so intimate and it feels just like a conversation you are having with people. At a bigger band show those things are tougher. You gotta keep it short before someone yells out “less talk, more rock” … which is usually justified.
STEREOGUM: The relationship that your fans often seem to have with you as a person and with your work is really unique. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen someone in indie-rock whose music is so meticulously dissected on message boards. The message of your songs — particularly the more religious ones — is often hotly debated. It must be satisfying to know that you have created work that people seem to be so deeply invested in.
DAVID BAZAN: Yes. It can be very peculiar though. There are times when it all feels like therapy of some sort — for everyone involved. It can feel very cult-like sometimes in a way that makes me feel — for lack of a better word — kind of embarrassed. But I think I bring up things that don’t often get a lot of airtime in the world of indie rock. Sometimes it can be weird and you have the feeling that there are things being projected onto you, but 99% of the time I like to feel like I’m meaningfully engaged with this group of people that I genuinely like a lot. I’m proud of the function that my music seems to serve, but sometimes I wish I could be more anonymous in the work itself. I wish that it didn’t feel so confessional all the time. Especially Curse Your Branches, which felt really out there and exposed in a way that just wasn’t very cool.
STEREOGUM: So much was written about that record, particularly your apparent take down of religion. You’ve always written about those things though, so I didn’t understand why people found it so shocking. Your faith might have been in question, but you’ve been a longtime critic of organized religion.
DAVID BAZAN: It was more direct on Curse Your Branches, but it certainly touched on things that I’ve always written about. I think all of my music has been pretty critical of the institution of religion, specifically Christianity. The press coverage for Branches had a different dynamic than I’ve ever experienced before. That piece that Jessica Hopper wrote about me for the Chicago Reader really set the tone for how the record was received and what people would ask me about it … so much so that journalists would often have photocopies of that article with them when they talked to me. In some ways it really elevated the dialogue I had with people about that record, but it also gave that tagline — the breakup letter with god — that everyone seemed to run with. It was amazing, actually, how much that article really changed things.
STEREOGUM: It must be interesting — but also exhausting — to be constantly asked to engage in a public discussion of your spiritual beliefs. I guess you are kind of asking for it by making that such prominent subject in your work, but still…
DAVID BAZAN: Yes. I actually enjoy talking to intelligent people about those kinds of issues, but it was overwhelming in a negative way when all of these interviews and press pieces came out at pretty much the same time. Again, this was the most direct and categorical statement I’d ever made about these things, but to see all of these quotes from myself sounding so negative, it felt like I was suddenly talking badly about all my Sunday school teachers, or like I was exploiting my spiritual experiences in order to become more famous or gain notoriety. It just felt bad. By and large though, most of the people I talked to about Curse Your Branches had really smart things to say about it and often responded to it in a very personal way. It really seemed to engender a lot of interesting conversation.
STEREOGUM: I would imagine so. It’s probably because these are topics that don’t really get discussed casually very often, especially not in contemporary mainstream music journalism. In my experience, few artists are ever willing — or interested — in going deep with you about their relationship to a higher power or want to talk about their own crisis of faith.
DAVID BAZAN: It’s so strange and interesting. I have that conversation often because it’s something I’ve written about so much, but people will often say that to me … that they never really think about God or talk about it with their friends.
STEREOGUM: Going forward from the experience of Curse Your Branches, how was the experience of making Strange Negotiations?
DAVID BAZAN: Things just got so much easier. Branches took so long to make — I think because my subconscious was really struggling to make a definitive statement with that record. It felt like something that needed to be done. I hadn’t intended to make that kind of record, but it just happened and I knew it had to be handled the right way. Touring and playing those songs was hard, but it was really freeing. I didn’t have the same kind of internal mandate with this record. If Branches was a kind of dissertation on something, this record feels more like me just shooting my mouth off about what’s going on around me.
STEREOGUM: How did the songs on this new record come together?
DAVID BAZAN: Well, I tend to write all the time I guess, so I’m always kind of collecting material. I have that pretty regular impulse in which I tell myself that I have to sit down and work on making something new up. I feel like I’m always making deposits to the songwriting bank. I have a system where the editor is not allowed in, when I’m just brainstorming and not fretting over it too much. This record really sprang from that kind of working. I was always writing, but not in some grueling Leonard Cohen kind of way.
STEREOGUM: All the lyrics for the new record are printed on your website. Looking closely at the words for these songs, it’s clear that this record is slightly less heavy than the last one, but not by much. It’s still pretty dark.
DAVID BAZAN: In some ways it’s heavier than Branches. There is a meanness to this record that the last one didn’t have. The last record kind of represented a release of tension, but Strange Negotiations names this ongoing tension and unresolvable struggle that happens in our culture. This record is really about being super frustrated.
STEREOGUM: The new record seems to really go deep into the idea of personal responsibility. A song like “Wolves At The Door” seems to be about owning up to the choices you’ve made, for better or worse. Not always an easy thing to do, especially if you’ve just realized that your spiritual footing is essentially no longer there.
DAVID BAZAN: It can be hard, but there is this deeper sense of contentment and peace that comes from really taking stock of your life and figuring things out. Sometimes I get this feeling — something akin to a runner’s high — from managing to operate my life pretty successfully for two or three weeks. Then, for whatever reason, that familiar sense of doom and chaos returns. I’ll find myself saying, What the fuck? What’s the problem? I realize that the sense of calamity and doom is, in some ways, more familiar. I don’t know why.
STEREOGUM: Now that the record has been done for a while, do you have a different sense of what it is really about? What you want people to take away from it?
DAVID BAZAN: I’m still kind of figuring it out, actually. I haven’t done too many interviews for this record, but the more I talk about it the more it makes sense in my mind. For me, what I hoped to address is that there is this project that so many of us seem to be engaged in, which is just to take responsibility for our own lives. In trying to do that, you have these people who are fucking grownups who just spout out this magical nonsense that means nothing and distracts from all the important stuff we need to be thinking about. The process of taking responsibility, as I see it, involves putting away lies. Then you have these people who have invested their entire identities in bullshit and lies … that we are forced to live and interact with. Why do I have to participate in life with these crazy people who aren’t taking life seriously? How do we get past this? Actually, our conversation today reminds me that so much of the frustration I’m experiencing now comes from the contrast — the contrast that happens when you are actively trying to take responsibility for your own life and your own actions while living in a world where most people are actively refusing to do that.
David Bazan’s Strange Negotiations is out this week on Barsuk.