“The pretense of it just makes it false. That it is ostensibly promoting Jesus’ teaching makes it even more laughable. The commodification of that message in a really unimaginative way, in which it gets sloganized over and over again, is just pathetic. I just don’t even rate it. It’s the lowest form of expression, I think.”
When one of the most raw, uncompromising songwriters in America disowns their faith, changes their worldview, and keeps producing records, it can have some very dramatic effects.
Hailing from Seattle, Washington, David Bazan has been a mainstay in the indie music scene since 1995, when he formed and fronted the band Pedro the Lion. Throughout his 11 years playing in the band there were many highlights: four successful full length albums, various EPs, many records sold, and extensive touring. However, Pedro the Lion eventually disbanded and Bazan went solo in 2006. He released his first solo album, Curse Your Branches, in September of 2006. Just recently, in May of 2011, he followed up that record with his latest effort, Strange Negotiations. As with the band days, his solo carear has been met with much critical, and fan acclaim. In 2006 Paste Magazine named him one of the top 100 living songwriters.
Embedded within Bazan’s musical timeline is a vast amount of transformation. When I was first introduced to David Bazan, and he was fronting Pedro the Lion, they were best known as the Christian band that was cool to like. David Bazan wrote and played songs that approached Christianity and God from an extremely raw, open, and honest place. He was unafraid to say whatever he was feeling; whether it was kosher or not. I think it resonated with many people, including myself. For once, it was not a story of pure joy, and rejoicing, but of doubt, fear, and confusion; more like the real life struggles of most. In particular, his album Control was highly influential and inspirational to me. Sonically it was heavy, emotional, and melodic. Lyrically it was deep, provocative, and real. Most importantly, the drums sound amazing on it. It still holds up to this day as one of my favourite records ever.
Although Bazan was embraced by Christian listeners, he remained an outsider in many ways; he was signed to the secular Jade Tree records, toured clubs, and bars across the world, and dropped the F bomb in several of his songs. It was the worldview with which he wrote his lyrics, and evaluated his surroundings that made him a Christian artist, not the places he played, or the stereotypical Christian lifestyle that was absent in his life.
Things took a radical turn in 2006. Bazan parted ways with his former band, and went solo. Although the split is said to have been amicable, David Bazan was in the midst of a life altering moment. Prior to the split he had just gone through a very tough and public breakup. However, it wasn’t with his wife, but instead with the God he had loved, and served since he was a little kid. Now, he was going to continue his journey in music and life, but ask different questions, and try to find a new way of relating his thoughts with his realignment of truth. His first solo record, Curse Your Branches, was famously reviewed by the Chicago Reader as his “break-up album from God.” The first track on that record, “Hard to Be” revealed a lot about where David was at:
Wait just a minute/You expect me to believe/That all this misbehaving/Grew from one enchanted tree?/And helpless to fight it/We should all be satisfied/With this magical explanation/For why the living die/And, why it’s hard to be/Hard to be/Hard to be a decent human being
Watch David play this song live, below:
It has been fascinating to watch Bazan confront his doubts, and tell the story of his departure from Christianity. Unlike most of us, it has been revealed through the media, who have found his story to be quite compelling.
His latest offering, Strange Negotiations, is perhaps the first record where the majority of the songs are less about God, and aim to be simply about human relationships. The record has been very well received, and Bazan is currently on tour across North America promoting it.
Considering Bazan has produced some of my favourite music, and holds many insights that greatly intrigue me, there is clearly much I WANNA KNOW from him. Thanks to Stephanie Hardman from Outside Music, I was able to speak with David Bazan while he was on the road in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
From songwriting, to Shania Twain and Katy Perry, to kicking his alcohol addiction, to his religious frustrations, we cover it all.
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Ryan Kohls: Congrats on the new album. How have the new songs been going over live?
David Bazan: They’re really fun. They translated really easily to the live setting. It’s just such a treat to have eight new songs to fill out the set. All of them are a real pleasure to play.
RK: Is touring something you still enjoy?
DB: Yeah, very much. The only thing about touring I don’t like is being away from my family. I’m just set up to do this kind of thing.
RK: On the new album, my favorite song is probably “People.” I was wondering if you could tell me a bit about the origins and meaning of that song?
DB: Well, you know, as far as what I’m trying to express, I don’t have a pretense with any of the tunes, it just sort of comes out, and then I see what’s there. Sometimes I spend a fair amount of time unpacking what’s there. As far as that one goes, the chorus came first, and it came out fully formed. I sat in my basement, and that little melody, those chords, and those lyrics, just kind of tumbled out in about 20 minutes. That’s all it was for awhile. Later on, I came up with the verses.
RK: When you write is it always lyrics first? Or, do you create the music first sometimes?
DB: It’s every which way. Sometimes all three things, the chords, the melody, and the lyrics I’ll get at once. Then I just try and flush it out from there.
In general, lyrics are the hardest part for me. They cross the finish line last pretty often. Although, for example, songs like “In Stitches” from Curse Your Branches, the lyrics were done first; I wrote the first verse on a napkin. I put those to music, and had that music for a very long time, then I realized I didn’t like the music. The tone of these lyrics needs something different. So, I scrapped the chords and the melody and the tempo. I just sat down on the piano and wrote the melody and chords that went on the record.
So, every which way.
RK: Are your lyrics something you obsess over, and try to get perfect?
DB: Well, I edit things. Sometimes I’ll write pages and pages to get things flowing. When I make something that I like, I usually know it.
I also do this thing where I’ll think, “I’ll try to replace this one later”, and then I’ll stick with it for while and realize that I really do like it. So yeah, I edit a lot. Some songs I don’t have to put such a fine point on it, and it’s totally good. A lot of the songs from Strange Negotiations are that way. It didn’t have to be so specific. But, on a song like “Hard to Be” I waited probably six or seven months to write the third verse. The first two verses accomplished something so specific, even though I couldn’t really convey what it is other than just playing the tune. The third verse just had to serve a particular function, and I had no idea how to do it. So, I just waited for a really long time, and it worked out because it turned out better than I could have hoped. The third verse is, I think, the best moment in the tune for me, and it accomplished what I wanted. It really paid off to be patient. That’s like a Leonard Cohen thing. He would wait five years to do one thing.
RK: I used to play drums in a band, and I always thought that the drums on Control were some of the best produced drums I’d ever heard. Strange Negotiations has great drum sound as well. How important are drums sounds to you? Is it something you particularly pay attention to in the studio?
DB: Oh yeah. That’s a real big deal to me. Sometimes I try not to make it so in your face, or obvious. On Achilles Heal the drums were a very specific thing we were going for, and it’s not really very satisfying because it’s not a focal point the way the drums on Control are. That was just a production decision. Even still, songs where the drums production turned out the best on Achilles Heal just make me so happy. I really like the drums on “The Fleecing”; the sound and the vibe is just so right. It’s a completely different thing than Control, which was honestly me just trying to remake Weezer’s Pinkerton. Ya know, that raunchy, dirty sound.
RK: A number of your songs touch on corporate greed in America. For example, “Wolves at the Door” on your latest record, and several songs off Control. Do you remain optimistic about the future of the American economy?
DB: Yeah, I guess I am hopeful. It sounds weird to say but when all the baby boomers basically die, then we’ll start to hopefully see a shift in ideals. I really do think the baby boomers generation got off course as a group of people. I’m hopeful of what sort of shift might take place when they are at the very least out of power. They led us down a bad road, culturally and economically.
Noam Chomsky would say that things are changing constantly, as far as society and justice are concerned. I see that as being true. I believe, and I see evidence for that. So, while there are a lot of two steps forward, one step back, as far as societies go it will be able to get better as generations move forward.
RK: The title of your latest album Strange Negotiations is premised on the idea that societies are often engaged in meaningless dialogues based solely on a cultural awareness of something. For example, you mentioned the Obama birth certificate fiasco in a recent interview. Are there any other “strange negotiations” you think we’re currently engaged in?
DB: I tend to think that the right wing neo-conservatives, and tea party people, especially the leadership, are just kind of playing games that are unserious about anything other than getting, and holding on to power. It just seems disingenuous. So, to have to negotiate with these kinds of people in a genuine way where they’re not on the same level is frustrating, and I think falls into that category.
There are also elements – FOX news is a good example – of just deliberate misinformation. I just think people think crazy things, and then you have to engage with them, and participate with them in a very grown up process, and they’re just not rising to the occasion.
RK: On “Virginia” you mention the song “Pictures of You” by the Cure. To me, that’s probably one of the best songs ever written. What’s your take on that song, and what would you say are some of the best songs ever?
DB: “Pictures of You” is an amazing song. Also, Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” The arc, and the lyrics of that song are just so unbelievable. It’s so crazy.
As far as production values, vibe, spirit, melody, harmony, and lyrics, I think that any one of Paul Simon’s tunes that everybody knows are just so beautiful.
RK: The Pedro the Lion record ‘Control’ has to be one of the favourites of all time. What is your favourite track off that album?
DB: I don’t know if I just have one. I really like “Options,” and “Magazine.”They’re probably my two favourites.
With “Magazine” it’s the instrumentation and vibe that I like so much. As a song, it’s not anything special I don’t think, it’s the lyrical arc of it.
“Options” still holds a lot of tension for me. That’s what I usually like about tunes. I like the composition of it. “Options” is a weird thing for me because it’s really cartoony, and over the top. Still, there’s a subtlety to that song that’s under the surface that I’m really drawn to, even though the conceit is a real blunt instrument. There’s another layer under there that I like a lot.
RK: Your song “Rejoice” off Control is easily one of the slowest songs I’ve ever heard. As a drummer, I always used to wonder how hard it was to record those drums. What is difficult to record because of its tempo?
DB: No, because the elements that we used to sabotage the groove came later. All those tunes are played to a click, and that one’s no exception, but when I was playing the drum part it was just a simple slow 6/8. When we recorded the bass we altered them from their original state to have that polyrhythmic, kind of confusing, change up feel.
RK: Tom Petty has been a big influence on your songwriting. Can you tell me a bit about his influence on your work?
DB: I came to him pretty late. It was the Wildflowers record that got me on to him. Since then I’ve gone back and listened to the older records. The songwriting on Wildflowers is just astounding. The lyrics are so good. There’s just a classic quality to the stuff that he does, and yet it’s not generic. It’s so good.
RK: When I played some of your stuff for my girlfriend she immediately thought you sounded like Chris Martin from Coldplay. Have you ever had that comparison before?
DB: Oh wow. You know, I haven’t. That’s pretty cool. I think that guy writes really good melodies.
RK: It’s often interesting to hear other people’s musical guilty pleasures. Are there artists that I’d probably be surprised to hear you liked?
DB: I feel like if I like it, I don’t feel guilty about it. But, Shania Twain is fantastic.
This is probably not that unexpected but the Counting Crows record August and Everything After was a really big record for me. I really, really liked it. I got embarrassed about if for awhile then realized that’s stupid. Why be embarrassed? Also, two or three Toad the Wet Sprocket records were pretty formative.
RK: These days I think a lot of people are filing Katy Perry under the guilty pleasures section. I was wondering if you knew of Katy Perry before she hit it big because she was originally groomed in the Christian music scene?
DB: I didn’t know of her. I only heard of her when she became who she is now. I heard that story though, and it fascinated me.
I think the Katy Perry stuff is so condescending in a way. I think that the Shania Twain thing is a really great example of super polished pop music that’s overworked within an inch of it’s life, and is really slick. That one (sings) “I’m gonna get you while I’ve got you insight/I’m gonna get you if it takes all night.” That’s a fucking amazing song. But, that Katy Perry stuff is just puerile. It’s lowest common denominator, and it doesn’t appeal to me.
Even “Complicated” by Avril Lavigne is a success compared to that Katy Perry shit. That’s a great pop song, I think. It’s irritating, but it’s a very well written pop song.
RK: You really like your Canadian pop stars.
RK: One last thing about Katy Perry. It seems to me, that now knowing her backstory, she completely sold out her morals for success. Do you think there’s any validity to my thoughts on this?
DB: Well sure, but I feel that there’s an assumption implicit in that, that she was coming from a certain place. I feel that contemporary Christian artists have to compromise participating in that world that implies a lack of an ethical sensor. It’s not surprising, but it is sad.
Even Lady Gaga is much more respectable. It’s not like a “Girls Gone Wild” type of thing. It’s bad for culture.
RK: What are your thoughts on the Christian music industry? I believe there’s a large amount of hypocrisy going on. Having been somewhat on the inside for a time, how do you feel?
DB: Well, it’s funny, I wasn’t actually inside the industry in any meaningful way. I chose to not be a part of that after I made an EP on Tooth and Nail. That was a one off, we weren’t under any ongoing contract. I decided I didn’t want to do that. I had fleeting interaction with the industry, but it was always the underground element of it. Basically, at this one festival we played every year: Cornerstone. That was always like the Christian indie rock end of things. I really didn’t have much interaction with Christian music proper. When I was growing up that was all I listened to though, until I was about 13 years old. I know a lot of people who have had interactions.
The pretense of it just makes it false. That it is ostensibly promoting Jesus teaching makes it even more laughable. The commodification of that message in a really unimaginative way, in which it gets sloganized over and over again, is just pathetic. I just don’t even rate it. It’s just the lowest form of expression, I think.
RK: Some of your songs have provocative lyrics. When you used to play at festivals like Cornerstone did you ever have to censor yourself? For example, did you play “Penetration” off Control?
DB: We played that one. When I played the main stage two years ago, I chose not to say the word “fuck” as it appeared in one or two of the songs. That was my choice. When we were playing the smaller stages the people were deliberately there to see us, and so they knew what they were there for. On the main stage, there were a lot of families that camped out at the stage and just watched whatever was going on there. I wasn’t trying to create controversy, I just wanted to sing my tunes. It was out of respect for some of those people, who were probably offended anyways. It’s just superficial that the word “fuck” is the most offensive thing. I was saying things that probably should have been way more offensive in the context of the tunes. I was never asked though by anyone to switch it.
RK: You seem to be perceived as an authority on your faith, whether it’s Christianity or agnosticism. Are you comfortable with that position?
DB: I’ve taken the process of my interaction with faith pretty seriously, and I think about it a lot. While I don’t think I’d want anyone to attribute authority to me beyond if what i’m saying is compelling, I’m confident in the seriousness, and thoroughness with which I’ve approached a topic. I have at least as much respect for the ideas, and the culture, and the goings on as anybody possible could. Because of that, I feel like I have a valid voice in the conversation.
RK: Do you think it’s been your ability to explain your position so well in your lyrics that has led many people to constantly question you on faith?
DB: Well, as far as that goes I think of the lyrics to Curse Your Branches. When I was writing that record I realized I wasn’t just doing songwriting, but that I was doing an apologetic or a viewpoint; almost like light philosophy. There were arguments that I was presenting there that I needed to take seriously. It wasn’t just a tune. My seriousness about that came from my commitment to the ideas, and I wanted to do justice to them. So, I don’t know what came first the chicken or the egg, but they interacted in that way. So, because I took that process so seriously maybe it gave me credibility.
RK: Your wife is still a Christian, and I was wondering if it has been hard to manage your varying world views?
DB: It hasn’t been all that hard because we approached the world of those ideas very differently. I’m a naval gazer, and she is not. Hashing out the fine points of theology, where you stand on this issue or that issue, really has never been a thing for her. I feel like that would be a potential source of conflict for us, but it just hasn’t come up. She’s a doer. The way she interacts with her own ideas of faith are simple. That has not been a source of deep conflict
It’s much harder with my parents. They’re very civil, and there’s no animosity, but it really hurts my Mom in particular still. It’s really hard for her that I don’t believe.
RK: I’ve heard several people describe having kids as one of the most spiritual experiences ever. As a father, can you relate to that sentiment?
DB: I don’t describe things as being spiritual or not, but I think it was emotionally profound. It solidifies your connection with the world, the earth, all people, in a way that is pretty astounding.
RK: When you look back at your separation from a direct belief in God, what was it that most disappointed you about the character of God?
DB: It’s inconsistent to think that this creator being who made all of these finely tuned systems that are beyond our ability to understand them was the same being that authored the story of human kind, and his interaction with human kind. To get everything so right, so well thought out and detailed, and then for this story of humanity and his interaction with humanity to be this hard fisted fuck up fiasco, it just doesn’t make sense.
Not to mention that the really unimaginative solution to those who didn’t end up believing in him was to put them in hell for all eternity. They’re just of such a different fabric. One is so mind blowing, and the other seems very human. It seems like it was made up by people, because it’s not from the same fabric as the other thing.
RK: You also talk a lot about the fall of man in your songs. What is it about the idea of “original sin” that bothers you most?
DB: Yeah, it doesn’t make sense. I believed that it did for a long time. I lived under the assumption that that was the way it worked. To come out and look at it and think – a talking snake that had legs, but then had them taken away because he messed up – that’s just bullshit, it didn’t happen. The whole story, I’ve read it many, many times as a grown up. There’s this moment where the God character says to his angels or whatever, “we have to kick them out of the garden because they ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” So they’re not as smart as we are, but if we let them eat from the tree of knowledge they’ll be on the same level. It’s this defensive, fearful character who’s not this omniscient, omnipotent, benevolent kind of character. Not to mention, I feel like it’s obvious why it’s easier to do things that are harmful, than things that are virtuous, harmonious, and sustainable, because it requires way more knowledge, and way more discipline. If you throw a dart at a dart board it’s just way easier to not hit the bullseye. It requires way more energy to do the right thing. There doesn’t need to be a mythical story to explain it.
The real problem with the original sin is that it’s not harder to do good; you’re fundamentally incapable of doing good, and it’s somehow your fault and you will be punished for all eternity unless you come down on the exact right side of this one idea. It’s very medieval.
RK: I totally understand those viewpoints. Is there anything that upset you about the character of Jesus?
DB: Well, mostly just the inconsistency of the narrative of Jesus. With all these things we’re dependent on the narrative. That was one of the first things I started to struggle with, the authority, and the idea that the bible is God’s word. My ethical system as it stands now, which is something that I take a great deal of comfort from, and care a lot about, comes from ideas that were presented to me in the narrative of Jesus. Now, it doesn’t seem like its unique to Christianity, there’s a Buddhist quality to Jesus’ teachings and ethical ideas. I’m not a Buddhist, I didn’t leave Christianity to be a part of something else. I just find it compelling, and profound.
There are things that the character of Jesus does that are head scratchers: he seems to treat his family poorly in certain passages. There are enough inconsistencies in his narrative that I’m not going to split hairs because I assume it’s exactly true. I feel it’s tough to hash out the finer points because I don’t have faith in the accuracy of the account.
RK: In your song “Hard to Be” you say it’s “hard to be a decent human being”. From your experiences, and analysis of human nature, what is preventing us from being decent people?
DB: Like what I said before it requires so much knowledge and discipline, and intention not to follow our destructive impulses. The delayed gratification is the virtuous, sustainable way forward, but instant gratification is so much easier. The process of raising kids is the process of teaching them how to control their impulses, and value delayed gratification instead of instant gratification. It requires more information, and information that you really have to be paying attention to pick up, or someone has to be very specifically showing you the way. Once you get in pretty deep doing the instant gratification it’s hard to get off it.
I think it’s just that it requires more skill to be in harmony with the people around you. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs I think is a really great thing to look at. If you’re a community and most of you don’t know where your next meal is coming from there’s no way to do delayed gratification, you need to provide food. Most of us are not in that position at this time, so we’re able to aspire to these higher levels of self actualization of living in harmony, but if everybody was on that same page there’s going to be conflict.
RK: Rob Bell just released a book, “Love Wins,” that created quite the stir in religious circles. The thesis of the book essentially presents a universalist view of salvation. Is that a viewpoint you would support?
DB: Not necessarily, but I think it was pretty great of him to do that. To write that he thinks that is, to me, is a coup in the best way. I think that it’s progress. I don’t necessarily even mean progress because the end is people not believing in Christianity, I think there’s a way to do it that’s not ethnically, and fundamentally contradictory even if he’s not right in the end. Him expressing that idea openly is such a powerful thing for evangelical Christians because that’s part of the problem. Of course we don’t know the answers to these questions, and people can be so afraid to assert possibilities. I think that’s the profound thing he was doing by opening up a dialogue so that people feel like they’re allowed to talk about that, and imagine it differently from the way of their own tradition. It was a home run for evangelical Christianity even though it’s causing a lot of conflict and controversy. I still think it’s pushing everything forward a little bit.
RK: What would you say steers your moral compass these days?
DB: It’s an ethical system which has its roots in many of Jesus’ teachings. There’s sort of a small little code that is sort of at the core. The one’s I would have on a shortlist are the one’s we talk to our six year old daughter about: treat others how you want to be treated is numero uno, Jesus said that but so did others; everybody makes mistakes but if you want to learn from your mistakes you have to hold them up and not try to hide them. Those are the two things we deal with with our daughter a lot. I don’t think a person has to hook into an ancient human tradition to stay on track ethnically. The information that is required once you’re a self reflecting grown up is available. It’s there, and it’s a lot of hard work. Sometimes I feel very overwhelmed by the amount of work I have to do, to do right by the people around me. It doesn’t feel impossible, but it just feel like man I’m just so far way from that. I’m trying and getting better a little bit at a time.
RK: If you don’t mind talking about it, what were your secrets to kicking your alcohol addiction?
DB: I don’t know. I know guys who are in AA, or kicked alcohol because of AA. They talk about the gene, and the disease. I don’t know if I maybe had the same connection to addiction that they’re describing. It’s not like a cure all. My particular set of circumstances there’s an element to which I wasn’t really able to think my own thoughts about the bigger issues in life because I was a participant in Christianity, and so I toed the party lines. It was the deep self honesty that I was allowed to have when I just unhooked from that belief system. When I just said my thoughts are my own, I’m allowed to think whatever I actually think about things. It wasn’t just a blissful freedom, it was forcing me to be honest with myself. That’s a difficult thing to switch gears into. It allowed me to come to the real conclusions, it was really freeing, and relieved a great tension.
We drank a lot last night after the show in one of my favourite towns. As I was lying in bed I was realizing my relationship with the drink is now so different. I remember trying to frenagle more drinks, there was just this sneakiness to it even though no one around me was judging me. Last night it was just have a few drinks, someone proposes a toast and we have another one, there isn’t this need to feed this fucked up feeling. Before I was just so focused on that feeling and I wanted it to deepen. There was something so morbidly comfortable about it, and that’s just wrong.
When I unhooked from that belief system I took responsibility for my own ideas and actions. That happened in late 2006. That, and my wife’s deep concern, were the two factors that I think helped. It wasn’t on a dime, it’s been a slow process where I think I am now 5 to 10 percent destructive with the consumption of anything. It’s 95 percent healthy interaction with stuff. It’s a process of constant evaluation.
RK: You’ve travelled a lot, and I was wondering what some of your favorite cities in the world are?
DB: New York City is incredible. Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Those who cities are some of my favourites.
I do love Seattle, and I love Portland.
Barcelona is amazing. It’s really something. I love Vancouver. There are half a dozen more cities I really like.
RK: Have you ever been to any African countries?
DB: No, actually.
RK: Do you have any desire to travel to the continent someday?
DB: Oh yeah, that would be amazing. I’d like to go with my kids. We came really close to being able to go to Morocco, just for a day off, because it’s so close to Spain. I’m really interested in going there. Any of those countries. I don’t really have a bucket list per se. I’m pretty game for whatever, and I’m sure I’d have a great experience in any of those places. It seems the culture is so different.
RK: Do you have a favourite movie of all time?
DB: Yes, No Country For Old Men. I used to have a top 5, or top 10, but that’s the one that appeals to me the most.
For more information on David Bazan:
1) Check out his latest record, Strange Negotiations
2) Follow him on twitter: @davidbazan