David Bazan Spreads the Word
The Seattle-based songwriter wanted to be a pastor, but he now bears witness from the outside.
David Bazan is no longer a Christian, but a New York church flew him across the country to play the Bell House in Brooklyn two weeks ago. Alone with his guitar and unashamed to exercise his facial muscles, Bazan filled the converted warehouse with his rich baritone. The room's arched roof and pendant lights suggested a colonial railway station, but Bazan's comedy act undercut any sense of stateliness. Between songs he fielded questions on everything from evolutionary biology (good) to Spotify (evil). He has an earnest side, but it wasn't on display—he'd vaped marijuana before the set, and he amused the crowd with irreverent political commentary. To acknowledge the church sponsorship, he mixed in quips like "Jesus said 'shake off the dust'." When the audience laughed, he added, "I feel like I should pepper my dialogue with little things that Jesus said."
Bazan has been making seriously funny music for two decades, first as Pedro the Lion and now under his own name. His songs evoke a melancholia—a pleasant melancholia—where adultery, apostasy, and alcoholism are redeemed by dark humor. His storytelling is at times political. In "Indian Summer," he works in voices. First, he sings as a pro-business politician promoting a deal he's made with Nature in order to stimulate economic growth: "Thanks in part to mother nature / it will never rain again / It should do wonders for the GNP." Later in the song, Bazan assumes the perspective of a voter who's ecstatic about the guaranteed sun: "He's worked a miracle / I just now bought a brand new car." Some Bazan detractors find these lyrics too cute; they believe real art shouldn't have an overt social cause, and real depth and sophistication require ambiguity.
A risk-taker and a straight-talker, Bazan doesn't worry about cultivating bohemian airs. In his songs, he creates vivid characters that embody precise social critiques. As Pedro the Lion, he wrote about religious doctrine: "math, with no wrong answers."
On "Penetration," he speaks of corporate labor practices:
We're so sorry sir
But you did not quite make the cut this time
And we'd appreciate it if you cleared your stuff on out by five
Don't take it personal
Everyone knows you did your best
If it makes it easier
You should look at it from our perspective.
On "Indian Summer," suburban consumer culture:
Ultraviolet rays wash over all the boys and girls
As their moms lay tanning by the pool
Oh look their dad's arriving home
All the children hug his neck
Unaware of their inheritance
Everyone says you ought to start them young
That way they'll naturally love the taste of corporate cum.
Bazan's lyrics deliver a message, but they also wink and smile so you know he's not taking himself too seriously. In "Oblivion," a track on his new album Blanco, he concedes: "It's no good to complain / Of fatigue and existential pain / On a six-week solo drive / While your friends work nine-to-five." Like much of the album, this is autobiographical. In between proper club tours, Bazan drives around the country playing living room shows to audiences of 50 or 100 people. Blanco explores the loneliness he feels in tour vans and sterile hotel rooms, away from his wife and two kids in Seattle. It was in those hotel rooms that Bazan started experimenting with software synthesizers and developed the psychedelic sound of Blanco.
But when Bazan plays live, he still relies on the guitar. At the Bell House, he played several Pedro songs even though he'd dropped the moniker in 2004 after breaking away from the church. He's still attached to Christianity through family and friends—and, sometimes, out of financial necessity. At the end of the show, the pastor who sponsored the event hopped on stage, gave Bazan an awkward hug and took the mic. "Dave Bazan said 'fuck' 19 times tonight," he said. "Shit, I just said 'fuck.'" Bazan had moved backstage by this point, but he must have cringed at the pastor's lame attempt to establish street cred. The pastor encouraged audience members—many of whom were busy pleading for an encore—to come work through their doubts and questions at his church; he assured us that they welcomed open discussions—that's why they'd brought in Bazan for this show. "What we all love about Dave is his honesty," he said.
I sat down with Dave to see what he honestly thinks.
Noisey: You've said that some of your Pedro songwriting may have been too labored, too carefully planned and crafted. How has your writing process changed since then?
David Bazan: I was more anxious then. I was a harsh editor of my own work. Maybe it had something to do with the vanity of youth, or the need to protect myself. Now, I am freer to pursue any idea that I have. When it hits, it's really genuine, it's not contrived. It comes more directly from the subconscious, where the lyrical connections are just uncanny.
Producing songs every month for the Bazan Monthly series helped me learn this. I had to learn to let things flow. I didn't have time to be judgmental about it. I just had to let my first set of impulses take over.
Do you read reviews of your work?
If I'm making stuff that I love, like Blanco, I can read everything. I made this EP, Fewer Moving Parts, that, once I was done with it, I was just like, "I love this thing. I'm so proud of it." I read a negative review and I thought, "Either this person is lying, or I don't have any frame of reference for what kind of music they like." On the other hand, if I'm a little iffy on a record and I'm just hoping for positive feedback to shore up my feelings… that is a dangerous place to be.
What's inspiring you these days?
Everything, it's just this cavalcade. I just started smoking weed a year ago for the first time in my life, and as any stoner would tell you, it's revolutionized the way I perceive the world. Everywhere I turn there's just endless things to write about. It doesn't stop—from the news, from inside me, from memories. When I'm high, I play music without judging myself. If I'm not high, at least twice a song I'll think about being fat or just negative thoughts that distract me and keep me from enjoying what I'm doing.
You are thinking of making an album about your hometown: Phoenix, Arizona.
Yes I'm thinking of 1988, when I was a sixth grader in Phoenix. I want to immerse myself in that time and place. At that age, I was not listening to hip-hop, not much, not deeply. I knew Run DMC and the Beastie Boys. Now I want to understand hip-hop from that era. I want to find issues of Harper's and The New Yorker from that year. It seems that if you commit to a subject like this, you can tease out real meaning.
People say your Pedro material was inspired by the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle in 1999. Did you participate as an activist?
I was in Seattle, but I didn't go downtown. I was like, "What is this? I assume I'm with the ragtags but I don't know what's up." But then I got down with it. I asked a buddy about the WTO and he gave me a book. It was like, "Oh, there's the left!" I had thought Bill Clinton was the left. I knew the right was fucked, but I hadn't realized where I might fit on the left. This influenced Winners Never Quit and, even more so, Control, since Winners was already well down the tracks at that point. I was like, "I'm going to make some political songs like Neil Young—[Bazan plays air guitar and sings in high voice] "Monsanto," whatever—but I decided to shove it all down in a stew and pull it up one ladle at the time, so it wouldn't be so heavy-handed.
Was it your leftist views that led you to start playing living room shows?
If you're in a market full of vultures and they are not going to pay you what you're worth, it's nice to be able to say, "fine, thank you," and play a show in the town anyways, to roughly the same amount of people. That's an enormous amount of power to have — everybody should seize it.
In my career, numerous gatekeepers have said "no, we reject Bazan"—TV, NPR to a certain degree, certainly Pitchfork—and at every juncture, I just say, "Okay, I can do this job without all that."
Where are you with your religious beliefs right now?
I don't know that it's possible that I would believe again. It's pretty complete, my break from Christianity. I'm still invested in Christianity—I love it and I feel a tenderness toward it. The tradition is more rich and meaningful than ever, but in terms of a set of truth claims that I can believe about the world, I'm super far… I can't even imagine going back.
Are a lot of your fans still Christians?
Probably half are Christians or former Christians, or people who have that kind of baggage.
How do you avoid condescension when talking with Christians?
I am just really open and honest. I know most believers can easily write me off. I know that I'm just one voice. If I play a church event, I'm one cog in the show; I do my bit, and do it uncompromisingly, and don't give an inch on content, but I don't have to win the day. I know how change works: it's slow — you need to apply a little bit of pressure over a long time. But you can't be a tourist. You have to be there because you love being there. I love these people. I love Christianity, and I see it going awry. I'm delusional enough to think it could change in my lifetime.
This sounds like the talk of an inverted Christian witness. I understand if you don't like my saying that, though.
It is! No, I don't mind. It's my ministry. I always thought that I would be a pastor. When I was 28 and I stopped believing, I realized, "Oh well, that can't happen now." But if I have opinions, I can still spout them off. People can take them or leave them. Where I grew up, a lot of people feel trapped by religion. It sucks to feel trapped, so any public expression that normalizes taboo behavior is helpful. Whether people are gay or whatever, I just want them to know they can be Christian and still be themselves.
But I try not to preach. How shrill can you be for 20 years? What's the posture that's really best over the long haul, if you really care, and it's not just about your ego?
Lead image by Dominick Rabrun.
Edward Carver is a writer based in New York. Follow him on Twitter.