David Bazan (due this Saturday, November 23, at the Denver Music Summit) is perhaps best known for his songwriting for Pedro the Lion. His skill in crafting delicate, gently evocative music with subtle but powerful emotional resonance earned him fans and critical accolades from early on. Although Pedro was ostensibly a Christian act, Bazan's sentiments came from a deeper place that he has continued to develop as his career has moved on.
Ever since Pedro split, Bazan has been a more or less solo performer playing shows under his own name. Recently, Bazan has collaborated with Will Johnson of Centro-Matic fame and Bubba and Matt Kadane of Bedhead for the band Overseas.
For this appearance at this weekend's Denver Music Summit, Bazan will tell stories from his long career as a musician, navigating the various aspects of the music industry, as well as perform songs. We recently spoke with the soft-spoken and genuinely humble songwriter about his roots within and out of the Christian music world, why he loves playing house shows and how he has been teaching himself to be a better musician.
Westword: Were you in bands before forming Pedro the Lion?
David Bazan: I was. Maybe the one band of my own which was basically two of the same five guys who were the original members of Pedro the Lion. It was in high school and short-lived. Then I was in a band with a drummer for a long time. Actually with Damien Jurado, and we met in high school.
It was kind of a post-punk band, from '91 to I think '97 or so. We rehearsed weekly and played several shows a year with that band. It had three different names over the course of its life. It's most recent name was Coolidge, and before that it was Linus. But there were two or three other bands with that name. The original name was The Guilty.
Did you have any misconceptions about being a musician then that you find interesting or amusing now?
Not really. It took me a while to realize that the rehearsals with that band were so much fun. Shows were rarely as cathartic or as fun as the rehearsals, and once we played more shows, we got to the point, not that the shows were bad, but that the rehearsals were so great, and we were always writing new stuff, and we felt really connected. I think that really informed my expectations for playing music. I was in marching band and stuff like that, so I had an ethic for rehearsal.
Once I started getting out on the road with Pedro the Lion, it was just fantastic. The nuts and bolts of every day seemed to function as I thought it would. You drive the van, you load in your stuff. Over the years, I feel I tried to be smarter and smarter about that. It's kind of dumb to talk about this stuff, but learning as a guitarist that you don't want to roll in there with a Fender Bassman on seven every night, because you have a sound guy, and it sounds great at the rehearsal space, but it's just too fucking loud to work at most clubs.
Little things like that were what I was aware of and thinking of. So I would learn lessons like that, and that gives you an idea about where my head was. When I started touring, I didn't drink at all. I wasn't out to see the sights and get to know towns; I was just out to play the shows. That worked really well, and I was happy to get to do that. My task seemed to be to make my life easier on the road, and once I was able to do that, I made some headway. So there weren't really any big misconceptions. Just little lessons that needed to be absorbed.
What kinds of shows did you play early on in the Seattle area?
The band that I was in, we were all Christians and all loosely attended this one church that had this thriving music scene that revolved around it, so they were mostly either house shows that were sort of part of that scene of musicians and bands, or it would be shows at the venue that the church kind of had or ran. The church was called Calvary Fellowship, and the place that we played was called Rockhaus.
Having been to a lot of other church venues throughout the years, it struck me as being really kind of an organic music scene and not really heavy-handed in a cheesy way. I'm sure looking back with my eyes now, I would see things differently. But compared to other things within that culture, I was really happy to be part of that thing, and that was where I had my first solo shows as well.
Your first Pedro album came out on Tooth & Nail. Did you feel that you had to alter your material, presumably not, when you went to a more commercial label?
You know, I haven't been that smart about that, or even really capable of making changes like that. If you listen to the EP that I put out on Tooth & Nail compared to all the other music that was going on, it's really different. It's very inward and kind of strange-sounding. Even the kind of way I tried to do Christian songwriting was from the back door, in a funny way.
So, no, I just did what seemed right to me to do. But then, right around that time, I realized I didn't want to put out my records in the Christian market. I just wanted to play rock clubs and put out my records at Tower Records, rest in peace, or the like. So that was all happening at the same time -- all those realizations. I always had the inclination, but I realized just how important that was to me, and it was a deal breaker.
Why was it important to you to have your records available at Tower or some other chain store?
One can sort of innately feel that Christian culture is a bit of a ghetto. You already sort of bumped into the small-mindedness of certain people. I was already getting letters sent to me after the Tooth & Nail release that some people were saying nice things, but other people were saying negative things, like saying I was demonically possessed and that the music was a little ambiguous and all this stuff.
I sensed, intuitively, that it would not be a place where you could thrive if you wanted to be thoughtful and creative. Also, I saw, growing up, Christianity as sort of a cloister, and I didn't think, at the time, that that was good or healthy, and I thought that if this thing is real, you can break out of that cloister, and it will still be real, and you can join the world and participate in the world at large, as I wanted to.
You were doing music that wasn't necessarily quiet but not as raucous as a lot of the music popular at the time. How did people respond to you at those rock clubs?
It was interesting. I perceived that what I was doing was songs that were slow and plodding and melancholy. It wasn't like an aesthetic choice to do that, that's just how things came out when I played something that I liked and wrote it down. I was constantly surprised. There was a memorable moment at the house I lived in. There was a band that was great, and they were a metal band, but it was slow and sludgy, and this would have been in '96 or '97.
It was really unique and they were really fucking good. I was a little intimidated by them because to the degree they knew about my music, they would think it was bullshit. I assumed that was a safe assumption. So, one day, I came home, and was making a sandwich, and they were rehearsing in the main room. They got done playing, and the bass player, who I knew, introduced us, and they all said, "Oh, we're big fans." I honestly though they were making fun and being facetious because I just couldn't imagine that they would actually like it.
So there were people that liked the music that I was making, but I was always a little surprised. Then once the response was pretty positive, I started being able to accept that I was making music that I liked and that other people liked it, too, and I started getting more confident.
What made playing those house shows you did a couple years ago across the country, as you did at Heather Browne's place, Fuel/Friends House, appealing?
That's right, I have a couple of times. At the beginning, it was a stopgap to a solution the label was having. They wanted me to lay low for a while until Curse Your Branches came out, and I needed to tour. So we were trying to figure out a way to tour and simultaneously lay low. So we hatched that idea, and once that problem disappeared, I still loved doing it. It quickly became my bread and butter, and to this day, I've maybe done four hundred of them since 2009, and it's really what I like to do.
I takes a familiar thing -- people going to see music -- and makes it unfamiliar, so none of us can take the experience for granted, which I think is really neat. There's so many tiny little details that are an upshot. I load in at 7:55 for an 8 o'clock show, and sit around in someone's kitchen drinking a beer until around ten, and then I leave and go either get in my van or go to a hotel. I could be in bed by midnight every night, and that's pretty remarkable.
Was Live at Electrical Audio actually recorded at Electrical Audio?
It was. We had a day off, and went up there and recorded for one day. Albini wasn't the engineer, but he was around. He might have been available, but we couldn't justify the expense at that point. It was a bit of an experiment. The guy that was doing the front end of house, Matthew Barnhart, was really capable, and we used him, and Steve popped in his head a couple of times and made fun of ProTools a couple of times.
Why did you want to record there?
Well, it's legendary. We were trying to do a live thing, and we knew that space could accommodate us doing that. As soon as the drummer set his drums up and hit his snare in the big room, all our heads turned because it was just the sound. Even though Surfer Rosa and In Utero weren't recorded in that room, all of the rooms are made to his taste, his aesthetic, and they have this oomph, this presence that is just remarkable.
At this Denver event, you're telling stories. Do you feel as a songwriter that you've been a storyteller?
I almost feel that I didn't want to do a super linear ballad thing, and yet I end up telling stories another way. There is a linear quality to the lyrics that I write, in the sense that that they're decipherable, and they develop an idea over the course of a song. And some of them are actual snippets of stories, and some of them are a little less story-like and more developing an idea. I have internal guidelines that I don't know where they came from, but in spite of that, it is a bit of a storyteller thing, which I'm not that into or that ashamed of either way.
You've chosen to collaborate with various people over the years. What is it about that approach or arrangement of making music that you appreciate and enjoy?
It was just trying to keep a live band together. I needed to go on tour, so I was just trying to use the best guys around. With Christian Wargo and Pedro, there wasn't a whole lot of collaboration going on, which I feel like a fool for, but it just wasn't in the scope of what we were trying to do. We were just trying to do that tour. I have collaborated with him on his music. There was a band that predated the Crystal Skulls called Scientific that was pretty great. There was a Scientific record we worked on that.
It wasn't about collaboration all the time, but I brought TW Walsh on board, and we wrote songs together, and I played drums, and those guys came up with music, and it had a very different feel to it. The times that I wasn't up my own ass so much that I was actually allowing time and space for collaboration, it worked really beautiful. A lot of times, it was just really pragmatic with two weeks rehearsing for a tour, or three days, so there wasn't much time for collaboration, which I regret.
Why did you want to tour Control again ten years after it came out?
We wanted to re-release all the Pedro records on vinyl, and initially, we were trying to convince the label to fund the whole thing. When we were trying to convince them, they suggested that we should tour as Pedro the Lion, but I said I didn't want to do that. So in rebuttal I said, "Why don't we play a record all the way through?"
When we decided we were going to fund it, they said that was a pretty good idea. Coincidentally, it's the only record that I can play every song off of. It was the ten year anniversary of the record. It was easily the most popular of the Pedro records, and we thought it would be a good way to highlight the re-release.
We did it and I was a little nervous, honestly, and I felt a little, I don't know how to say it, like I was pandering doing that every night. As it turns out, every night I genuinely enjoyed it, and the fact that record, for my taste, has aged so well, and has a really negative arc to it, and it was really fun to take people through that every night. Taking this really nostalgic feeling people had at these shows and end it with something else, something maybe more self-reflective, or reflective of reality -- that was really fun to do for me.
Did you say you felt the the album has a really negative or dark arc to it?
Yeah, I think so. The last four or five songs are pretty negative. And the very last song, "Rejoice," I've often thought of it as facetious and sort of ironically earnest. It could go either way for me. But at the end of the set for that album, it really felt like sarcasm. Either way, rejoice in our frailty, or things are so fucked up that we can rejoice. It worked either way on tour.
Obviously you're a multi-instrumentalist. What do you feel is your strongest instrument?
I don't know. I'm in kind of an in-between spot now, and soon, I will be able to say guitar. Maybe it's true now because my drum chops have atrophied so much. I think at this very moment, the thing I feel most comfortable playing is guitar. I've started turning a corner in developing what I do. So I guess guitar. I've logged my ten thousand hours on the guitar.
How do you overcome the difficulty of playing the most challenging instruments?
I can play songs that I've written, and that's cool. But because the way guitar works, I understand maybe seven chord shapes that I call cowboy chords, other people do, too, and it's such a low threshold to meet to play songs, and it made it so I could write and play songs for years and years, but I'll never have the digital dexterity of any of my peers, or the people whom I admire in music.
So, for me, developing that dexterity and figuring out what that is and meandering toward that goal, it's been very tough, but I've been devoted to do it, and I'm working on it all the time. I try to understand the fretboard a little more and get my fingers more discipline to do what the fuck I want them to do.