Two years ago, Seattle singer-songwriter David Bazan retired the Pedro the Lion moniker and embarked on a solo career under his own name. Practically speaking, the switch wasn't that significant. For a decade, he was Pedro the Lion, writing all the indie-rock outfit's material, recording and touring with an ever-mutating lineup that only included, toward the end, one other "official" member: multi-instrumentalist T.W. Walsh. But symbolically and emotionally speaking, the change was monumental.
"In a way," says Bazan, "quitting the band name was just me saying to myself, 'Hey, something's wrong with the way that you do things. It's time to gather perspective.' It was time to take ownership of what I do and take responsibility for it. I'm just trying to learn from past failures and successes and figuring out what I do, what I want to do and who I am."
The end of Pedro, says Bazan, was an entirely necessary, hardly happy event. On "Bands With Managers," from 2004's excellent Achilles Heel — which turned out to be the band's swan song — he sang: "Vans with fifteen passengers are rolling over/But I trust T. William Walsh, and I'm not afraid to die." And yet his working relationship with Walsh, who'd joined up in 2003, steadily deteriorated until Walsh finally quit.
"When he came on board, it was already starting to crash and burn," Bazan explains, adding that he and Walsh remain friends in the wake of the disintegration. "Not even the band, but the whole project, which basically consisted of a tight schedule, and it all depended on what kind of money was coming in and what kind of routine we were trying to keep up. And in that routine, all of my accumulated habits made for a pretty dysfunctional thing. Two years into the discovery process, I'm just starting to see what that is. I'm evaluating how I've tried to do music as a career, while at the same time, I'm still attempting to do it, and being disciplined enough to make changes."
Following a one-off electro-pop album under the moniker Headphones in late 2005, Bazan returned to his guitar-centric roots, self-releasing an EP in 2006 titled Fewer Moving Parts that was re-released by Barsuk Records earlier this year after Bazan signed to the venerable Pacific Northwest indie label (formerly home to Death Cab for Cutie, and currently home to John Vanderslice, Menomena and Rocky Votolato, among others). Consisting of ten tracks — five songs delivered with full band instrumentation (with Bazan playing most everything himself), then repeated in solo acoustic format — the disc comprises revamped Pedro b-sides and material originally intended for the next Pedro album. Simultaneously noisy and melodic in a Flaming Lips kind of way, lead tune "Selling Advertising" is particularly caustic, taking lyrical swipes at online music site Pitchfork: "You're so creative with your reviews/Of what other people do/How satisfying that must be for you.... So if it starts to get you down/Just pretend that you don't make your living/From selling advertising."
Although still touring behind that and the rest of Fewer Moving Parts, Bazan's been performing a new batch of songs in his current live set, armed with only an electric guitar, a husky, compelling voice that's simultaneously sweet and gravelly, and a fervent power reminiscent of Bob Mould's solo performances. The new tracks are slated to appear on Bazan's forthcoming full-length, which he's currently tracking at Seattle's Two Sticks Audio, owned by longtime pal and Death Cab drummer Jason McGerr.
"After Winners Never Quit," he explains, referring to Pedro's 2000 album, "I started to abandon the whole 'I'm gonna conceptualize this thing and then write songs to fit' thing for the approach of letting my subconscious connect the dots, and when I zoom out later, I'll be able to see what I have. With this record, what I have so far, which is nine songs or so, there's three main thematic things that all point to this overarching theme. What I see now — I don't know what might emerge later, but as it stands now — it's about my wife and daughter, it's about drinking, and it's about does God exist? And the umbrella I think those are all under is a funny concept nowadays, but [it's] manhood, and, basically, am I a good man? — and what that means, and how do you measure that?"
Those three themes come clearly into focus as he plays. "By my baby's yellow bed I kissed her forehead and rubbed her little tummy/Wondered if she'd soon despise the smell of the booze on my breath like her mom/Through a darkened mirror I have seen my own reflection, and it makes me want to be a better man...after another drink," he sings in the particularly moving "Weeds in the Wheat." In "Please Baby Please" he intones, "Those two pairs of big blue eyes stare me down, watching me fall/What makes a man realize he's about to lose it all?" During "Curse Your Branches" he sings, "Even as the threat of Hell is disappearing/The threat of losing you is blowing up." Bazan pushes that sentiment in another direction in an as-yet-untitled piece in which he sings, "You used to feel like a prophet, and everyone wanted to know/How you could tell the truth without losing that soft glow/But now you feel like a preacher evoking the flames of hell/Some drunk fisherman chasing after the white whale."
Answers used to come easier for Bazan when he was a devout Christian, but that's no longer the case. Pedro the Lion had been seen by many as a "Christian band" — which created much polarization within the indie ranks — because a good number of its songs were parables or morality tales of sorts, and faith was always a strong element of the lyrics. It was an unfair tag, though, since Bazan was questioning or subverting essential beliefs and skewering the self-righteous, arrogant and judgmental far more often than suggesting what path people should choose. Now he's all but abandoned that faith, still conflicted about what he believes deep down and trying to determine if, at his core, he is truly good.
"Before, I would just say 'no,' because everyone is depraved," he confides. "But I reject that now. It's just something I've started to think about more in the wake of my old system of belief coming apart. You were never allowed to think of yourself that way, because you could never escape the status of being a depraved sinner. The only way that you could be seen as acceptable in God's eyes was through Jesus's perfect life and atonement for sins. But now it's just a pragmatic concern. Am I fucking up? Obviously, yes, a little bit. But I want to be a good man. I want to be because I have a daughter and a wife, and I want to do right by them."
He also wants to do right by his audience. "That whole 'Am I a good man?' — it's also 'Am I a good performer?'" he muses. "Part of these last two years of being solo has been trying to take responsibility for those times on stage and just say to myself, like, 'Are you happy with this? If not, why not? And what can you do to make it better?' So I've been working really hard from a lot of different angles, just trying to get better, to where I just feel good about it, to where I feel this is as good as I can possibly do it. I have a long way to go, but it's starting to feel like I'm better than I was. Before, I was less good at it. I mean, I could sing and play. I remember shows that were good; it didn't always suck. I just didn't know what it was to dig deep on some level, and I'm still learning that. It's a weird thing to say out loud and talk about, but I've been really lunging for it now."
As he edges forward on his own, Bazan's not ignoring the past; his sets are still peppered with plenty of Pedro favorites. Perhaps not some of that band's earliest tunes, though, ones where he feels — as he suggests in that new untitled piece — he was perhaps proselytizing a bit too much.
"I feel they're all honest expressions from certain periods, so I'm able to cringe a little less than maybe I used to that they exist," he says with a laugh. "But it's a whole 'nother thing to perform certain songs that I just don't like. You really have to believe in the material you're presenting for it to work. I'm not gonna pull out some old tune and get halfway through it and realize, 'God, this song sucks — I should not be playing this right now.'"
Ultimately, Bazan says he's finding comfort in breaking life — and, in the process, his music — down to its simplest, most important components, and giving himself a break along the way.
"It's just one foot in front of the other," he concludes. "I'm just trying to make a cool record, and I'm trying to understand myself better, and I'm trying to be a good man. That's pretty much what it all boils down to."
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