Interview

The Negotiator

A new documentary examines former Christian rocker David Bazan at a turning point

David Bazan is crying while driving. Many scenes in the new documentary Strange Negotiations find the once and future Pedro The Lion frontman alone, steering his sedan down endless highways between emotionally taxing house shows. In this one, he reaches his breaking point, despairing over the loneliness of his chosen path and the conflict between supporting his family and being with them. He laments that all this touring, which has become an economic necessity, has cost him the chance to drive his daughter, Eleanor, to swim practice and help his son, Nils, with his baseball swing.

“I’m out here on I-95 again instead of doing that,” Bazan says, tears beginning to stream into his beard. “I like it out here, but not that much. My wife and I are growing old, and we’re only growing old together halfway. That doesn’t feel very good to me.” He pauses. “I wasn’t all wrong,” Bazan continues, “but there was a miscalculation.”

Up to this point, director Brandon Vedder’s movie — available digitally today through iTunes — has tracked Bazan through many such miles. It has accompanied the folk-rocker through countless DIY living-room shows and a few stints back home in Seattle with his wife, Ann, and their two kids. It has retraced Bazan’s backstory as a critically acclaimed Christian rocker who lost his faith and broke up his band just when they seemed on the brink of finding a massive audience. It has closely examined both the minutia and the major themes of his life, against the backdrop of a presidential campaign in which Evangelical Christians widely embraced a candidate who seemed to represent a grave moral compromise. And in this moment of brokenhearted epiphany, it marks the beginning of the climb out of what Bazan has called his life’s lowest point, toward years of healing and renewal.

Despite the mundane repetition and dreary emotional turmoil of the life it documents, Strange Negotiations is a vivid, engaging film. On a purely visual level, it’s gorgeous; Vedder intersperses his front-seat closeups of Bazan with truly breathtaking panoramic landscape footage. The portrait of Bazan within what he and Vedder call the “fever dream” of solo touring is equally evocative. We regularly glimpse the strain and creeping awkwardness in the singer’s phone calls with his family, the way physical distance has fractured their intimacy. At the house shows, Vedder’s camera captures moments of rapture, people brought to breathless silence while Bazan’s rich, piercing howls broadcast his pain across a living room. What stands out even more in these scenes, though, is the patient thoughtfulness of Bazan’s interactions with fans, be it during Q&As between songs or while selling merch out of his trunk afterwards.

Many of these interactions focus on Bazan’s relationship with Christianity. Even during Pedro The Lion’s initial run in the late ’90s and early 2000s, when Bazan considered himself a Christian, his cathartic emo-slowcore sing-alongs wrestled with faith and doubt in a bracingly honest manner that has continued into his agnostic phase and his relatively stripped-down solo discography. This has made him a magnetic figure for a small but fervent audience, many of whom still count themselves Christians. When one fan wonders whether Bazan has grown tired of discussing the belief system he was raised in, he replies, “Oh no, it’s so fascinating. Christianity is still creating so many problems all around us. I’m dying to talk about it.”

In Strange Negotiations, he does so as a performer, a podcast guest, and a lonesome traveler reflecting on NPR news broadcasts. He details his own drift away from pillars of his childhood faith — doctrines like hell, scriptural inerrancy, and original sin — and his choice to drown his uncertainty in alcohol rather than process his own trauma. And with surprising empathy for believers, he expresses his remorse over the disparity between what he reads in the Bible and what he sees in the political maneuvers of the religious right, contrasting God’s anger about social injustice in the minor prophets with Evangelicals’ support of Donald Trump. “The values that I think are what makes Christianity worthwhile are missing from the politics,” Bazan remarks at one point. On a more personal note, he concludes, “The people that taught me how to be a decent person are losing their mind.”

One of the fans mesmerized by the way Bazan processes the world is Vedder, who got his start filming bands on tour and went on to direct documentaries including the Don Cheadle-narrated La Source and PBS’ A Certain Kind Of Light. Vedder heard Bazan interviewed on Pete Holmes’ You Made It Weird podcast in 2014 and was immediately struck by his thought process. “More so than the specifics of the journey or the plot of the journey, the way that he expressed his internal life just kind of put me on my heels,” Vedder tells me in a recent phone call. “There was this candor and this reverent — but also irreverent, in a helpful way — tone that I just had never heard anyone talk before when talking about a worldview.”

Vedder shares Bazan’s roots in Christianity, and many of his objections to the culture surrounding it. The filmmaker still calls himself a Christian but is working out what that means in real time; he says he’s been heavily influenced by Bazan’s resistance to definition and his willingness to live in tension, adjusting his worldview as new information emerges. “He’s gone before me so to speak in a lot of ways in terms of his thought life and his personal life,” Vedder says.

If Vedder and Bazan are learning to live with a lack of resolution, Strange Negotiations does have a Hollywood ending of sorts. In the wake of his tearful breakdown, Bazan realizes he misses the camaraderie of a rock band, and that he could fetch much larger guarantees performing as Pedro The Lion, which would allow him to spend far less time on the road away from his family. In what will be not be a spoiler for anyone familiar with Bazan’s career, he brings back his old project and begins using it as a vehicle to examine his own past. There’s a sense of low-key triumph, accompanied by the realization that fixing what’s broken within you is much more complicated than just recruiting some bandmates.

Though Vedder had final say over Strange Negotiations, he and Bazan worked together on it. “I was never trying to make a film with journalistic integrity,” the director says. “It’s kind of an art film about one human’s perspectives.” He says the push-and-pull between himself and Bazan helped them identify the guiding theme of a lost person trying to find his way home. Once they settled on that throughline, everything else clicked. The result, Vedder hopes, is “a helpful film, something that people could see themselves in and be helped by.”

***


Bazan is driving again, and this time I am riding shotgun. We are cruising highways around Austin during South By Southwest 2019, where Strange Negotiations is about to premiere. The night before, I watched Pedro The Lion play Polyvinyl Records’ showcase at Mohawk’s outdoor amphitheater, at the heart of SXSW madness, in support of their comeback album Phoenix. Although the Pedro operation is in now full swing, Bazan is still doing solo shows from time to time, including a pair of matinees today. These took place in the back of a motorcycle shop a few miles outside downtown. Before hopping in Pedro’s tour van, I attended the second of those solo gigs.

The experience was a bit like stepping directly into Vedder’s movie. Surrounded by a semicircle of couches and folding chairs not so different from your average youth group meeting, Bazan held court, performing songs from across his catalog and answering questions from the audience. His hearty voice beamed out with that unmistakable quaver, that sense of beauty weighed down by sorrow. He turned down a request to perform “Foregone Conclusions,” the Pedro song that mentions the Holy Spirit telling a Christian to “shut the fuck up,” opting instead to cover Bob Dylan’s “The Man In Me.” Bazan spoke at length, with careful nuance, about his relationship to his older music now that he’s in a difference headspace — both the Pedro material from before he lost his faith and the angry solo records from afterwards. He expressed a heartfelt desire to find common ground with his staunch Republican parents, to understand their perspective and not to write them off as lost causes, which feels necessary to him for both personal and societal reasons. At one point I spied the guy next to me posting footage of Bazan to his Instagram story, labelled “MY HERO.”

CREDIT: Daniel Topete / Stereogum

My own relationship to Bazan and his work is a little more complicated. As a fellow music-obsessed child of Evangelical culture, he has always fascinated me. But because I moved on from Christian rock just as Pedro The Lion was ascending — and because I was developing a snobbish aversion to anything labelled “emo” — I never got as deep into his music as many hipster church kids I know. And then right around the time he was abandoning Christianity, I was returning to it, making it my own. I share many of his critiques of the broader Evangelical culture, the way the institutional church has drifted away from biblical priorities of love and grace and in some cases seems more like a political machine. I feel much of the same anger, sorrow, and confusion he does.

Thus, I’m eager to discuss the absurdity of Donald Trump autographing Bibles in Alabama the week before our interview, or the tragedy of so many Christians debasing themselves to justify anything and everything Trump does. I agree with much of Bazan’s perspective on religion and politics. But I also believe that Jesus is actually God, and that he actually rose from the dead, and that he actually paid for all human sin by dying on the cross — these and lots of other biblical premises Bazan has rejected. I care a lot about this stuff and have built my entire life around it. So despite all evidence that Bazan is a kind and levelheaded discussion partner, I’m a little nervous our interview is going to devolve into heated theological debate. Instead, his response to my CliffsNotes life story is, “That’s awesome.” In fact, as I’ll later see, it’s the political discourse that makes him squeamish.

Before we really get talking, Bazan gets a FaceTime call from Sarah Beth Tomberlin, responding to his text inquiring about her experience playing Jimmy Kimmel Live! the night before. Like Bazan, Tomberlin is a critically acclaimed indie musician who grew up in a strict Evangelical household but has left behind her childhood faith and is now reckoning with its affect in her life. They spoke about their common experiences in a Talkhouse podcast last year and then embarked on tour together, where they sometimes talked for hours unpacking the trauma they both have spent years carrying around.

“I remember one specific night we were all sitting in the van talking for a while and smoking,” Tomberlin tells me in a phone call months later. “And by the end of it, it was just Dave and I sitting, talking until 3 or 4 in the morning about trying to reconcile these things.” She says she recognized a kindred spirit upon encountering Pedro The Lion’s music at Bible college a few years back: “I could definitely tell, ‘Oh, there’s some major dissonance and confusion here, but also a huge amount of empathy.'” Since they’ve met, Bazan has become a father figure of sorts, a friend who’s several years ahead of her on this path out of the church and into the spiritual unknown. But in other ways, Tomberlin says she and Bazan are at a similar place, just beginning to seriously examine the ways of their youth impacted them: “Phoenix, that record, is like him finally working through a bunch of personal things that I think you could kind of push down to carry on.”

Bazan says Phoenix, his first Pedro The Lion album since 2004’s Achilles Heel, is the first in a series of albums he plans to release, one per year, working through his formative experiences locale by locale. “What I was dealing with was enormous debt to myself in terms of unprocessed feelings and just feelings and needs and responses that I just wasn’t hearing or taking seriously,” he says. “Then the Phoenix record was like the first balloon payment on that debt, and it began a process of debt freedom that I haven’t — I’m not in the black yet, to continue with the metaphor, but it’s like I’m taking that extra shift, and I have the time and the head space to do it, and I’m able to pay it down at a pace that feels meaningful.”

It’s all part of a larger process of excavating his past in search of becoming whole in the present, a process he was fumbling toward during the filming of Strange Negotiations. “My intention during the making of the movie was finding home, and that’s what this series of records that I’m making is about,” Bazan says. The process began in earnest during the making of the film: “Coincidentally, [Vedder] was shooting the movie during the two or three years that I was at a personal lowest point. I was really looking for a starting place to find balance and to not feel so bad, because everything that had been slowly going the wrong way for me relationship-wise and internally more than anything, it was bottoming out. And so I was really just trying to find home. My home didn’t feel like home. The work didn’t feel like home. My own skin.”

Bazan says he’s come a long way since then, partially because he is learning to communicate his wants and needs more directly. “On the Control record, I played all the drums and all the guitar but one song, and all the bass, half the bass,” he says. “But what I did was on the credits I credited all the other parts, and just left it for people to assume that I did the rest, because the credits didn’t include the vocals, they didn’t include blah, blah, blah. So I made it like this puzzle because I felt like it was braggadocious or something to include all of that stuff. And so it was a way of being modest, but it’s also a fucked up way of being like, ‘Come closer,’ or like — it mirrors the way that I learned to get love from the emotionally unavailable people in my life.”

He was still communicating that way throughout the making of Strange Negotiations, which sometimes led to creative conflicts with Vedder when the director drew incorrect conclusions from these “little puzzles.” For instance, Bazan booked appearances on a number of Christian podcasts to discuss religion and spirituality because he thought it would give Vedder more material to work with. “[Vedder’s] experience was like, ‘Oh, this guy talks about this all the time. This is what he’s out there doing, is talking about this.’ I was like, ‘Oh dude, no. Like this is a new thing that I was trying.’ And it was framed as though that was like my mission or something like that.” On the other hand, Bazan realized that some of the scenes that made him uncomfortable would have to stay: “It’s shit I really said, shit that’s accurate to what is happening, but the tone of it makes me feel icky, and that’s not a reason to change something.”

Much of that uncomfortable material related to the realm of Christianity and politics. “There’s a sense in which I’m aware that I still don’t fully understand how to relate to that stuff and how to talk about it, and so the fact that I’m on record with things, and some kind of harsh things — those were things that I thought to go back and change and button up and just smooth out.” In the name of authenticity, he decided to let Vedder treat such quotes however he wanted, but he’s anxious about the tone of some of his angry reactions to the news because he doesn’t want to contribute to the toxic discourse.

It’s one of many questions Bazan is still struggling with. The years since the movie was filmed have been a long-overdue reckoning that has touched on more or less every area of his life. He says beginning to smoke weed in 2015 helped him give up drinking, which helped him understand how much wreckage he was dealing with: “My understanding now is that all addictive behavior has negative effects, but for me, alcohol, it was such an effective painkiller, and it was so acceptable in a certain way, that it just allowed a lot more pain and disconnection to developing while I was not feeling the pain.” These revelations led him to therapy, marital counseling, and to the doorstep of his childhood home, an event that inspired wealths of new Pedro The Lion material.

If Bazan still has a ways to go in the healing process, one key evidence of substantial healing he’s noticed is this: When he goes out on solo tours now, he doesn’t feel so cripplingly alone. “That alone time isn’t me stewing in this unsolvable problem. It’s me on a road trip with myself in a way that is extremely fun and flowing,” he says. “I’m still in the process where there’s enough years of pain and unresolved feelings that most of what I do when I’m hanging out with myself is revisit those things and process — oh, I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing. Revisit this and process grief surrounding it? But yeah, the trajectory is extremely positive.”

CREDIT: Daniel Topete / Stererogum

Strange Negotiations is out now via iTunes. Through this Wednesday, 11/20, the movie is screening at the Northwest Film Forum in Seattle.