Rank Your Records: David Bazan Orders Pedro the Lion's Four Records
The frontman reflects on doubt, riffs, and returning to the moniker after 11 years off.
In Rank Your Records, we talk to artists who have amassed substantial discographies over the years and ask them to rate their releases in order of personal preference.
Few people sing with as much purpose and gravitas as David Bazan. As the leader of Pedro the Lion, which was active from 1995 to 2006, the now 41-year-old songwriter tackled faith, doubt, and sex over four albums of adventurous and often conceptual indie rock. Then a devout Christian, Bazan's rich baritone told stories of hypocritical politicians, adulterous husbands, and self-righteous people of faith, challenging the band's largely evangelical fanbase. His music constantly towed the line between the religious and secular, able to appeal to both indie rock record heads and the zealous audiences at the Jesus-centric Cornerstone Music Festival.
Whether it's with heavy, politically-minded concept albums like 2002's Control or dynamic but less narrative-focused efforts like 2004's Achilles Heel, Bazan's relentless search for truth with Pedro the Lion still resonates. Since he disbanded the project in 2006, Bazan no longer considers himself a Christian but has been still grappling with the same crises of faith throughout five excellent solo albums. (A good primer into how personal and cathartic his deep dives into doubt can be would be 2009's Curse Your Branches, a de facto breakup album with God).
But now, Bazan's returning to the Pedro the Lion moniker, forming a band and recording new material after an 11-year break. He tells me over the phone, "At the time, Pedro the Lion was the brand name of my dysfunction more than anything else. I needed to get some distance so I could understand what was going wrong and why I couldn't keep a consistent band going." He mentions that the departure of TW Walsh, who helped flesh out Pedro the Lion's final album Achilles Heel, was the catalyst for leaving the name behind.
"Eleven years later, what happened was I just finally figured out what my fucking problem was. I started working in a new and better kind of way that only meant playing with a full band. It hit me that there is a band name that I'm allowed to use," he says excitedly. "I know what I'm doing now and I'm not going to chew people up and spit them out the same way."
In honor of Pedro the Lion's return, Bazan placed the project's four full-lengths in order from his least-to-most favorite. And because it's David Bazan, he had a lot to say.
4. Winners Never Quit (2000)
David Bazan: There are a few reasons why it's on the bottom. The process of making that record was really the most vicious thing that I had done because it was a concept record where I was trying to tell a narrative story through each song and it got really tedious at the end. At the beginning of a process, there's all this open-ended creativity and you get to just kind of go with your gut a lot, but in the end, it was really rough getting the puzzle pieces together. It was a process that, after I did it, I kind of vowed not to do again.
Also, the pacing of the record is really odd because I was so focused on the narrative element, I didn't really think at all about the pacing of the energy and the tempos. I didn't really have a lot of choices there because the songs kind of came on how they did. There also weren't a lot of songs to begin with so I feel like that was one thing that, later on when I looked at it, I had an issue with. Once I zoomed out and really understood what was there, I realized I just was too close to it and see the issues.
Making records comes with a lot of multitasking and maybe sometimes you are doing each little process consecutively but you have to do a lot of processes at once. There were just a couple of processes that I was so young at making records that I just didn't know what to do, which was to have everything done and get the big picture of it. I was too down to the wire with the details.
Live too, at that point in the band's history, we had only 18 songs to choose from to populate our setlist, and if you're touring a lot like we were, you're just jonesing for more tunes to fill it out. Because I multitracked that whole album and no band had played those jams together, I hadn't figured out if they translated to a live set. Only two really did.
Noisey: What compelled you to write a concept album?
I love lyrics, first of all. I'm not necessarily into, like, "The Ballad of Blah Blah Blah"-kind of storytelling, but where you can include details that work to establish a setting and moves along a narrative is what I like. Not to be a little kid about it, but J.D. Salinger's Nine Stories has an economy of language and what was communicated about the emotional history of these characters with such few bits of dialogue that just really floored me when I read it when I was in my late teens. It influenced what I wanted to do with the tunes, which is to have a minimalistic kind of song form that tells a story without people really knowing it.
If you can tell a story over ten songs rather than just one, you've got a lot more opportunity to kind of sneak up on people in a cool way and maybe give them a holy shit moment. When that eureka happens, then suddenly it's a new record and you have all this fun with it. As a songwriter, if you can do that without the song sucking, which is usually what happens with concept albums, what's not to love?
It seems like the narrative arc of the album, to put it in the bluntest terms, was: damnation for the arrogant, hypocritical, and judgmental.
Well, there you go. That was that theme that emerged. But I just wanted to do something and I didn't know what I wanted to do yet. But the way that the record came about, and now we're turning to what I like about the album, is that I wrote three songs without meaning to connect them. It went "Slow and Steady," then "Never Leave a Job Half Done," and "Winners Never Quit." I took stock of them and tried to see what they told me about the rest of the album. I knew that "Slow and Steady" would be first, "Never Leave a Job" second, and that the title track had to close out the record and I had the idea that narratively it all made sense. I'm still proud of the fact that I did the thing and filled in the gaps and I did get to voice my feelings strongly about the hypocrisy of the environment I grew up in.
Being Christian at the time and being lumped in with the Christian rock community, there was always a sense that you were challenging your audience more than other acts.
In the end, I'm just too bad of a strategist to have any audience but myself; I just forget that someone else is going to hear this. It did always rub me the wrong way when people would label us a Christian band, because we were making music critical of Christianity, which is pretty much all I ever did in terms of Christian content. If you're really writing quote-unquote Christian music that the community will accept, you've got like a hundred maybe 150 phrases that have to be in the tune and we never did that. It had to be real. I guess we were a Christian band in the same sense that Martin Luther was Catholic. OK, like, "These are my 95 Theses, motherfuckers."
3. Control (2002)
Control is third but I've been going back and forth on top three spots for a long time now. Winners Never Quit has always been my least favorite but the other three are kind of constantly neck and neck. Control was the first time I stumbled on a sound that was sort of consistent throughout the album. While the other albums have that to some degree, it's the most and the clearest on Control. It's both its biggest strength and also kind of a weakness. Once I realized what was going on in the songwriting process, I got too locked in with going with the set sound of these songs rather than looking for weird shit to expand on.
I was just so... probably the way to say it is enamored of myself that I could even do something that came close to what I was shooting for which was somewhere in the neighborhood of heavy music. I loved Pinkerton and I loved bombast and big drum sounds, heavy guitars, and the riffs on Starflyer 59 records and I just realized there was almost a tradition that I was working in and I finished it that way. There could have been more risks that I could've taken while I was making it that it might have held up over time for me a little bit better as a recording or a conceptual thing.
It is also the reason why people respond to it: It's simpler in some ways and less sophisticated than It's Hard to Find a Friend. As I've grown up, there's aspects of it that leave me feeling a little flat, but also, the reason why it's in the running still all the time is because when we revisited that stuff in 2012 on my solo tour, I realized I was writing this dark adult shit that was way over my head, experientially. Having experienced grown-up life and the real bitter pain of it here and there for ten years, I realized I had actually gotten some of that right.
This album is much more overtly political than the previous records. How did the World Trade Organization Protests and your burgeoning education with leftist ideas shape this album?
In 1999, whenever the riots in Seattle happened, I asked a friend, "Well, that's interesting. What is the WTO?" And he gave me a bunch of books like Chomsky and Michael Parenti, who was left of Chomsky, and the dam broke for me. I didn't know that there was left of Bill Clinton and that there was a place for me in the political spectrum. I was young and I was still a Christian and everybody around me were Republicans. I became aware that there is just a lot more going on than what I understood and there are things to discover and understand.
Looking back, the political climate of the time was very charged but in a different way than it is now.
That's the main thing that I feel like I got right about Control in my criteria for this ranking. After 9/11, I remember I was driving and listening to NPR and it felt like the air was thicker and so tense. There was nowhere you could go where it wasn't the fundamental conflict between the two main sides of the culture war which were just so peaked and it seemed unresolvable—and as we've seen, that's true now. I just remember thinking the record has to reflect that. I really meant to make a record that made you feel tense the way that I felt. And when I turn up "Second Best" really loud and listen to the outro, I feel bad and tense. It's cathartic, and in that sense, I achieved what I was going for.
Being still firmly rooted in the Christian rock community still, there was a lot of pushback from your most evangelical fans about the content of the album. How was that reaction?
It was unexpected. Like I said before, I'm bad at looking ahead and I get distracted by what's in front of me. When I'm making records and stuff, everything I do is put toward making something that I like. With this record as an example, I put it in the mailbox for my mom and dad once it was finally done and as soon as I closed the top of the lid, I realized, "Oh fuck. It's so dirty. There's sex and cursing on the record." It kind of took me by surprise somewhat and not because the people who were offended were so terrible and I'm so innocent, but just because I expected people to be a little cooler than that. I guess that is the same thing, isn't it? Sorry.
I read somewhere about that Minneapolis show, where 20 kids cornered you and challenged you about swearing, how it references sex pretty explicitly and what the songs meant to them as evangelical Christians. How did you handle those constant challenges?
I think I'm pretty easy going about certain stuff like that, so I just to try to understand where they're coming from and ask questions. When it became clear that they wanted movement from me that they weren't going to get in terms of my opinion or for me to sort of have a change of thinking or to give them a reason like go to church service or theological reason why I thought it was OK for me to curse and talk about sex, I just tried to say that we should agree to disagree and figure out something else to talk about. On that tour there was a handful of people that definitely left mad.
2. Achilles Heel (2004)
I think this songwriting on Achilles Heel is maybe my best songwriting or the songwriting that has yielded the most songs that I continue to want to play over the years. That's a record that I feel like the songs came into focus more after the record came out and we got on the road. I also think both TW Walsh and I were disappointed that we weren't able to get closer to something that had sort of a little bit of transcendent value. In another way, we might think that the album was just a little half-baked.
We asked Jade Tree at that time if we could bump the release date back so that we could have another month to do it, but at that time their schedule was so tight that it wasn't just going to be a matter of a couple of months, but it was going to push the next window, which would have been six to eight months. The record really got compromised by our lack of ability to take a little bit more time with it, especially given how we both feel about the majority of those songs. There's two or three that I don't care for now but because of how much we like those songs, I just just really wish that we would have gotten to have that thing be fully realized. I think it would have been clearly the best Pedro record if we had been allowed to do that.
I always found Achilles Heel had more in common with your debut, It's Hard to Find a Friend. They're sonically more dynamic and cohesive without being connected by an overarching narrative.
It's true. Also, Achilles Heel was a reaction to touring Control. I realized at that time that I had turned Pedro the Lion into an emo band and I really didn't mean to do that. Achilles Heel was a response to that in the sense that where it would have been really natural to go further in that reaction, I just wanted to turn around and see something more organic and less pretentious. I wanted to start with a blank slate and let things emerge.
TW Walsh, who joined Pedro the Lion in 2003, was a big part of that record. How did collaborating with him shape the final product?
It was awesome. I had written almost all the songs by the time that he joined up full-time. He had moved out from Boston in August of 2003 and then we started to work on it in September, and on and off throughout the fall. I had written almost all the tunes by then, although we did co-write a couple of songs together, and "Start Without Me" was totally his song. But just having another person in there who's a really brilliant engineer, really capable of being sort of that computer operator editor person, great drummer, bass player, and guitar player was great.
Later, I realized that it was dysfunctional in a way and he really felt—and I agree with him—that we didn't have our first truly satisfying collaboration until Curse Your Branches. We really enjoyed the division of labor on Branches and the way that it worked out. And I just am not a real clear-cut division of labor kind of person. If I'm the boss, I just feel like, "There are various jobs that need to happen and we're all good at everything so let's just see what falls into place," in my ignorance of how humans work or whatever. That's kind of how I did it and I think that it was really uncomfortable for everybody. But I really enjoyed having Walsh and I couldn't have made that record without him.
He basically came in when I had lost the plot and the confidence to sort of say, "Hey, motherfuckers, I need a month to make this record. Everybody get out of here so I can figure out what this thing is and then we'll reconvene." I wanted the smarter guys that were around me who had made music that was sexier than the music that I made to make my music cooler. He came in at a time when the days were numbered, I think. I was becoming more and more of a drunk. It wasn't that I was an asshole but I just was less and less able to figure it out, and less and less able to effectively solve the variety of problems that face a person who's trying to do that job.
1. It's Hard to Find a Friend (1999)
It was the most unself-conscious I've ever been while making a record. After years and years of doing this, when I went back and remastered all the records for a vinyl reissue in 2012, I realized that it's the most sophisticated record by far because I didn't try to consciously make a choice about every little thing. I also didn't even know how to do that at that point. I made something that was beyond my capacity to understand every little aspect of the record. I just I did it with such an open heart, it was just really pure and that's hard to do. I was only able to do it because I was ignorant. I hadn't been hurt and I hadn't been out in the world and I hadn't known what was possible. I can hear the freedom and experimentation and naivety in the album that amounted to, 'Well, why can't you do that? Why wouldn't you do that?"
What's fascinating to me about you picking this record is that you've changed so much in the 18 years since this has been out.
There is the question of like, "Oh, his most Christian record maybe is the favorite?" It's kind of irrespective of that because I don't see any of them as being more or less Christian or not Christian. That category is just some need of bullshit. There's a set of ideas that I was wrestling with and trying to get to the bottom of. Every single record is doing that to the same degree, relative to where I was at in my brain. I wasn't any less relentless on It's Hard to Find a Friend than I was on fuckin' Curse Your Branches. It's me doing the exact same project.
There are some of the songs that I can't play now because those lyrics coming out of my mouth would just be like a false confession. But that doesn't mean I don't still love those songs. I mean, "Secret of the Easy Yoke" is a great example. I'm pretty sure I can't sing that tune without it feeling really, really wrong. But I'm still really proud of that song.
When you play those living room shows, do you find that people request songs that you're not comfortable playing now? How do you handle when people ask you to sing songs that were written when you were a devout Christian?
I just try to talk them through my actual thoughts about it and just say, "Hey man, I love that song too. And I'm so grateful that you like it but it just isn't true for me to sing it. I don't believe the lyrics. Particularly with "Secret of the Easy Yoke," which was such a profound song and spoke to my inner soul. I don't mean "profound" like, "wow this is fucking deep," but it so acutely communicated a very difficult-to-understand or -to-pinpoint feeling that I had in 1998. Playing that song now would dishonor this thing that was really precious to me by kind of making it cheap. I don't know, it's really super personal.
Josh Terry is on Twitter.