That Grand Sense Of Melancholy: David Bazan On Resurrecting Pedro The Lion
From the outside, nothing in David Bazan’s world seems out of the ordinary. On a chilly December evening in a nicely generic and antiseptic-smelling hotel room in Portland, Oregon, he’s doing what he’s done for the past 20-plus years: resting up the night before he’s set to play a set of his sardonic yet deeply felt songs at a nearby venue in his typical uniform of fleece, flannel, and denim.
But for the 41-year-old singer-songwriter, everything about the performance he’s set to give — and all of the shows or plans he has mapped out for the next 12 months — feels completely different. For one thing, there’s going to be a light show.
“I finally understand about how to make a ‘show,’” Bazan says, shifting with excitement on the loveseat he’s planted in. “We’re basically taking 18 songs and making an arc out of it, a three-act structure, and using lights to communicate something about that arc. There will be scene changes where we’ll stay in a certain mood or mode for a few songs and then take a turn and go someplace else, and we’ll have subtle and not-so- subtle atmospheric help from the lights. It’s trying to use the whole canvas in a way but not with a giant Stonehenge.”
Most importantly though, the show Bazan will play the following evening will be the first time he has performed under the name Pedro The Lion in over a decade.
Unlike so many of the other comeback stories in the music world this year, this return seems perhaps the least momentous of the bunch. Even though the October announcement Bazan made about the six shows Pedro would play to close out 2017 (three in Portland, three in Seattle) made the rounds of music sites like this one and all the dates sold out well in advance, the news hasn’t caught the kind of fire that, say, the first Jawbreaker show since 1996 did.
It might have to do with the fact that, for all intents and purposes, David Bazan was Pedro The Lion. There was never a secure lineup of the band, at least not one that could be brought back together for an “all original members” type tour. On all the work released under that moniker (four full-lengths and a smattering of EPs), Bazan was the only mainstay, steering the ship and playing most of the instruments. When he did drop the news on Twitter with the words “Here we go,” the accompanying picture was just him, tour dates superimposed across his torso. To the more jaded music fan, this might look like nothing more than a lateral move for a singer-songwriter who, outside of minor tangents in group projects like Lo Tom and Overseas, has spent the better part of the last decade comfortably recording and touring as a solo act.
For Bazan, starting Pedro The Lion over again is far more significant than all that. Telling the tale of resurrecting this project, he’s baldly honest about the fact that there was a financial incentive at play. On a conference call with his manager and booking agent, the three men were plotting out tour plans for 2018 and the possibility of a big festival gig was put on the table.
“[My agent] asked me if I was planning on billing myself as something different, something Pedro-related,” Bazan remembers. “I was, like, ‘No, man.’ That would mean me playing the same show all year under my own name and then do this one show as Pedro and have everyone else go, ‘Man, I wish I would have seen that Pedro show.’ That’s fucking ridiculous. But he was, like, ‘Look, I’m just saying you’ll get paid three times the amount of money if it’s Pedro-related. That’s just what the reality is.’”
For Bazan, this conversation also proved to be the final hint from the universe that this urge he had been wrestling with for the past few months — the desire to play in a band again — was valid and worth pursuing.
Since 2006, Bazan has been primarily a solo act. There have been plenty of other performers on his albums and playing with him on and off during tours, but the concept of a band called Pedro The Lion shattered after the recording sessions that yielded the 2004 album Achilles Heel and the shows that followed.
“That’s when I thought, ‘I don’t know why this isn’t working,’” he says. “And if I don’t understand the dynamic of what this is, I’m going to put this aside until I figure it out. I lost track of that. I thought I understood it by the time I got to [Bazan’s 2009 album] Curse Your Branches. But I really hadn’t. I plunged back into being solo again. Then a bunch of things happened in 2017 that made me realize, ‘Quit fucking around. You want to be in a rock ‘n’ roll band.’”
Besides the decisive phone call with his booking agent, Bazan points to the dual experiences of seeing U2 at Seattle’s CenturyLink Field as they opened up a run of shows celebrating the 30th anniversary of The Joshua Tree and then catching Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers on what wound up being their final tour together.
“A band playing the parts that they wrote for the record but really playing them on stage is cool as fuck,” he says of the Petty show. “The amount of time and effort you put into arrangements that you worked out that are so good. You get to keep that because you get to go on the road with a band and play those arrangements over and over and modify and let them evolve. And then the first five songs of the U2 show that were real minimal. Just the songs and the energy from those jams. It was really different than anything that came after. A lot of what they embodied was the best parts of themselves. Then I picture myself and what? ‘You’re gonna play an acoustic guitar alone?’ This is what you want to do.”
Listening to Bazan that night in his hotel room and hearing him talk from the stage at Portland’s Mississippi Studios during the quick Q&A sessions he held during the shows was like watching him draw a line in the sand of his career. “It’s just a name change,” he told the crowd on the first night, “but it feels like more than that. Everything we do from here on out will be as Pedro The Lion.”
That comment seemed to strike a reassuring chord among the crowd. Although Bazan has been steadily releasing albums and touring in the years since he lost the plot of Pedro The Lion, this is what they’ve apparently been waiting for.
“This is the fulfillment of a wish for me,” says Joe, a 29-year-old car salesman, after the second Portland show. I zeroed in on him earlier in the evening as he spent much of the night emphatically singing every song to a friend. “I was in high school when Pedro was at their peak and they are one of my most formative bands. It spoke to me in a deeper place that was difficult for me to express. I never thought I’d see them live.”
Most of the people I spoke to echoed Joe’s feelings about how important Pedro The Lion’s albums were to them as they were growing up. It’s not a surprising sentiment considering that most people who attend comeback concerts like this tend to do so because it draws out memories of their more carefree days of yore.
“For me, it takes me back being 17 years old and driving from Seattle to Anacortes,” says Miles, a 31-year-old fan. “It spoke to a lot of angst in me that in a way I’ve just blocked off. That grand sense of melancholy.” Those same feelings are what drew him to see Bazan play a show celebrating the 10th anniversary of the 2002 album Control that happened in the same venue five years ago. “Those were my favorite Pedro songs. It was like a playlist that just takes me back.”
That’s definitely the mood in the room at Mississippi Studios as the new Pedro The
Lion — Bazan, singing and playing bass, backed up by guitarist Erik Walters and drummer Sean Lane — spends the better part of 90 minutes ripping through a set of material from its original incarnation and a couple of songs from Bazan’s 2016 album Blanco. Within a few notes or chords, the crowd reacts with glee. Or, in the case of one gent at the first Portland date when the band started in to “Criticism As Inspiration” (found on the 2001 EP The Only Reason I Feel Secure), an incredulous “shut up!”
Apart from those Q&A sessions with the crowd — which thankfully only yielded a couple of folks looking to needle Bazan a bit for his former life as a Christian — nothing else about the show felt retro. The songs still packed an emotional wallop, and the tales of ego-driven men trying to maintain a handle on situations and relationships beyond their grasp could have been written at any point over the last decade (or more).
The most notable freshness that rings through these songs is Bazan. After he shakes off any nerves and a bit of vocal rust, a noticeable glint starts to grow in his eyes, something that had grown progressively dimmer during his long and still-impressive solo run. For as much the songs are giving the audience life, they are clearly enlivening him more. To the point that, at the end of a forceful take on the Achilles Heel number “Keep Swinging,” he punctuates the last two
notes by jumping high in the air, something I’ve never seen him do before in all my years of seeing him in concert. If what Bazan said from the stage is true, and he’s truly “figured out my thing” and he records the five albums he is already outlining in his head, we could be in for one of the most fruitful and exciting career revivals of the recent memory.
“Now that it’s happened,” Bazan told me about the solution he found for his Pedro problem, with a tone of marvel in his voice, “I bought a book. I can read books again! I have space for other things and not just trying to solve this problem that’s at the very core of my creative identity, which is totally tied to my sense of self for better or worse. My calculator has been used for almost nothing else for the past 20 years than to figure this out. I’m slowly learning. I’m slowly figuring out that stuff. It took a lot.”