Published Jan 17, 2019David Bazan has press anxiety. While that could be expected for just about any artist before a new album, there are myriad factors at play. For one thing, Phoenix is the first LP branded with the Pedro the Lion moniker since 2004's Achilles Heel. Then there's the fact that throughout the band's history, David Bazan's work as Pedro the Lion was openly misunderstood and dismissed by critics who thought he was writing surface-level Sunday school songs rather than complex parables that deconstructed corrupt Christianity.
Take 2000's Winners Never Quit, Pedro the Lion's Jade Tree debut, as an example. The album's opener, "Slow and Steady Wins the Race," documents one man's journey to heaven. Though it's really a complex analysis of religious hypocrisy and human greed that sets the stage for the concept album's bleak, murderous plot, many dismissed it as a cornball Christian folk song.
"I wrote Winners and the first song is a satire of Christianity, and most people that heard it thought it was about going to heaven and how great it is," Bazan tells Exclaim! "That's a microcosm of the whole record. The Pitchfork review [since removed from the site] assumed that I was on the side of the protagonist in the story, and not mocking the protagonist the entire story.
"Here's where Winners came from and the misunderstanding kind of ensues with works like that," Bazan carefully continues. "I read a book about poetry called The Triggering Town by Richard Hugo. It's a small book, because I can't really read big books." He laughs. "One of the things he says in there is that when you read poetry, you must assume that every syllable is totally intentional and that if there's a contradiction that you see in the poem, you should assume the contradiction is there for a reason, which you can read into it.
"I loved that idea so much," he continues. "I thought, 'Yes that's how I read things, and that's how I write things,' and so I kind of doubled down on that, using negative space and implication…. Dumbly, I thought if I read things and listen to things like that, then everybody else will too. So I wrote things that were that way, where if you really dug deep into it you could tease out what was going on, but on the surface it was maybe a little bit trickier. And I just thought that anybody who likes my music is going to dig into it like that. It was very sweet and very naive and also, I think that being a white guy played into it a little bit. I just am used to being heard a little bit more than if I was not a white guy."
Though Bazan has spent his entire career discussing the flaws of Christianity, he's still proud of the countercultural Christian music scene that birthed him. Like any other youth group kid, his discovery of underground music happened at a Christian bookstore. "I listened to thrash metal first because I was only allowed to get music from the Christian bookstore and all the stuff that wasn't thrash metal started sounding cheesy and weird. And then I was like well let's see what this Vengeance Rising record is all about, or Tourniquet. There was some really ripping thrash music that was happening. And then when I heard the Melvins or even early Metallica it was like, 'Oh shit, yeah this is rad.' It was a gateway for me into cooler, heavier music."
Bazan wasn't alone. While outsiders might associate Christian music with groups like DC Talk, Deleriou5? or Hillsong United, Bazan belonged to a group of outsider artists who met through church, but made forward-thinking (and, in many cases, genre-defining) works.
"That is a really interesting part of Christian subculture is that there were some of us — and I think I can count myself as part of that group — who grew up in that world that tasted something different," he says. "Tooth & Nail in 1997 — there were great bands on the label. Frodus, Roadside Monument, Joe Christmas, Velour 100, Starflyer 59, Danielson Famile, I could go on. There was legitimate expression happening within that subculture. And the cool thing about it was that there was no stamp of approval on it. I guess being on Tooth & Nail gave us something like that, but for those of us making the music, it wasn't 'cool' or whatever…
"With [Christian rock festivals] Tomfest and Cornerstone, there was the establishment aspect to those fests, but there was a lot of subversive things happening in a way that you could feel. People trying things just out of their own body, not because… I don't know how to describe it. There was just weird shit going on in the underground of Christian music at that time. I remember being at Tomfest and thinking, 'Wow I just saw three bands in a row that really turned me on.'"
True heads know the influence that early Tooth & Nail has had on indie music at large (hell, Father John Misty used to intern at the label and even drummed on Demon Hunter's debut album). Still, while contemporaries like former Danielson member Sufjan Stevens, and Bazan's former Coolidge bandmate Damien Jurado, spent the noughts being heaped with indie rock praise, Pedro the Lion were often misconstrued as too Christian and written off by the music press.
"I think those two people are better at style," Bazan says of Jurado and Stevens. "My style of songwriting is like, there's a direct awkwardness that is a part of the style. But those guys are able to obscure certain parts of what was going on in a way that I instinctively made plain. I think that's in large part why my music is a bit of an acquired taste for people, because of the way I approach that stuff. There's sort of an awkwardness to it that makes it much more of a target. You can't go to a Bazan show and not be confronted with any number of feelings and ideas in a very direct way, whereas at a Jurado show or a Sufjan show, they're working on all of that stuff in the subtext in a way that's probably more masterful or something.
"Basically, I'm not a good actor," he concedes. "I'm trying to connect with people in a way, because I have had a deficit of connection and that's my response to it. My music is an expression of that. I'm trying to communicate in a way where people understand what I'm saying. I want to be understood. And that's not great, necessarily, but it is true. You write as a coping mechanism a lot, I think, and that's the form that mine has taken."
That Bazan is writing as a coping mechanism could not be more clear than within this current album cycle. Though its title serves as a metaphor for the resurrection of his former band, Phoenix is mostly named for the Arizona city of his birth. As such, it's an album steeped in personal anecdotes and tactile memories of a boy growing up.
"What it feels like for me is that this looking back is a way of trying to solve the problems in my life and in my brain that I'm trying to solve right now," he says of Phoenix. "It's kind of like a trail of breadcrumbs that I'm trying to find why is my brain so fucked up? Why are simple things so difficult for me? And other questions. How do I find equilibrium as a person?
"For me, that was going back to these places that I lived and that my experiences were interrupted and I didn't have the ability to process them because I just didn't…. There's a way in which I personally have a lot of childhood experiences that I need a nurturing voice to go back to that kid and be like 'Hey, in this moment you were fucked, and you didn't have any wisdom around. No one could help you contextualize this experience.' And it just landed in a way that created pain. You were 8 and you had no idea how to handle that and so now I'm giving that 8-year-old kid a path and some comfort and some direction and a new way of thinking about it, so that I can move past that. So this record is a lot of that, and all of these records will be a lot of that."
It's also, in some strange sense, a Pedro the Lion album about Pedro the Lion, as the record is littered with lyrical allusions to past Bazan songs from Winners Never Quit, Curse Your Branches and others. "I am going back to those Pedro lyrics and the Bazan lyrics because this record and the following records are a bit about how I got to where I am," he says. " I can put in a lyric from Winners and suddenly it's not just that song 'Bad Things to Such Good People.' I sort of pour in a lot of the emotion and work I did on that record into the song 'Circle K.' Suddenly the song is happening in the same universe, in a way, as Winners Never Quit, even if that's clearly fiction compared to the realism of this record. It was just a way to sort of borrow from the other work that I've done, and bring resonances in from completed pieces and port them into little moments on the record and song."
Looking back at Pedro is also helping Bazan understand his long need for connection. "These are kind of like prequels in a way," he says of Phoenix and its planned followups. "I look back now, and the first Pedro record is called It's Hard to Find a Friend and the second thing is called The Only Reason I Feel Secure Is That I'm Validated By My Peers. And these are two core aches or core issues that I've been grappling with. [At the time] I just heard that Tom Petty song over and over again, and I thought, 'That is a cool thing, maybe I'll call the record that.' It just resonated me and I didn't understand it, and now that I'm done with Phoenix, these five records are a look at why I would call my first record It's Hard to Find a Friend."
In fact, Bazan's been looking for a friend since the beginning, so much so that the minutiae of collaboration resonates with him. He shares a vivid memory of how Roadside Monument and Unwed Sailor bassist Jonathan Ford changed three notes on a bass line in Friend opener "Of Up and Coming Monarchs," as though it was a definitive moment for the record. Regardless, for much of Pedro the Lion's first go, Bazan was working alone.
"By the time Control happened, there was this sound of Pedro the Lion that I was more or less totally responsible for out of this process that I had happened upon," he says, describing his famous knack for painstakingly mapping out and performing every instrument himself. "The only problem was I felt uncomfortable with this process, because it seemed selfish or megalomaniacal. I just was uncomfortable with it, because in punk rock or indie rock it was uncommon, and a lot of people I wanted to play with didn't really enjoy the idea of being in a band where the singer wrote all of the parts. I was easily swayed from my own feelings about stuff, because I was a lonely person longing for connection and band/life connection was the best drug available. Getting in a van with people that you're making music with and spending 24 hours a day and seven days a week with just scratched my itch for connection in a way that eclipsed everything, even my own past working method."
Somehow, Bazan's desire to have a band led him to go solo, and while he spent the last 15 years crafting some fantastic records (not least of which was 2017's masterful Care, a collaboration with the late Richard Swift) his desires weren't entirely being met. Then, in late 2017, it dawned on him — he needed a new rock band. "I finally realized, 'Man, what about that old model? You stopped doing that model because you were thought you were going to get connection in return for giving that up. Fifteen years later, you're lonelier than you've ever been and those musical connections have not materialized, no matter what you've tried.'"
As a result, Bazan began crafting rock-band arrangements of the synth-heavy Care songs and was hit with inspiration. "Immediately I was just like, 'What the fuck have you been doing this whole time? This is your home. This is your native creative place,'" he recalls. "And I just immediately felt that thriving feeling. It was maybe two weeks or a month after that that I realized this feels like Pedro the Lion also. And I realized, 'Oh that's because it is Pedro the Lion.'"
He recruited Perfume Genius members Erik Walters and Sean Lane to play guitar and drums respectively, and a new iteration of Pedro the Lion was born. Better yet, rather than return to old habits entirely he came up with a new model — he'd obsess over the songs until they were 80 percent complete, then he'd let Walters and Lane fill in the final 20 percent with him as a band.
"This model allows me to be obsessive about the foundations of the arrangements, and then the expression of the arrangements gets to be a little bit more jazz," he explains. "A big influence conceptually is Weezer's Pinkerton record, because those arrangements were obsessed over by somebody, probably Rivers [Cuomo]. When you look at the way those songs work, and the way that the bridges take melodic motifs and restate them differently in harmonic keys, it's like classical music. But they play it like garage rock, and the performances are so almost tossed-off feeling, and there's this exuberance and excitement in there, and I've always loved the complexity of that. Because somebody was obsessive about the structures of those songs, but then they stopped being obsessive at some point.
"We didn't necessarily do that on Phoenix, because that isn't necessarily the vibe of those songs, but we wanted our own version of that, where I had painstakingly put some pieces together and made demos and then we took them and fucked them up a little or added feeling that wasn't there," he explains. "I get to be obsessive up to a point, and then I get to let go and have fun. That seems to be a really good model for how my brain works and what I want to achieve."
The model is clearly working. If all goes according to plan, Phoenix will be the first of five Pedro the Lion records that Bazan intends to release through Polyvinyl over the next five years. Through the course of this project, he intends to move past his own personal demons and perhaps even find some joy.
"My thinking is that I'm literally incapable of writing happy songs," he admits. "All of these tunes come out and they're grieving something. Even 'Big Trucks.' They're all an expression of grief on some level. My hope is that once i get through these five, I will still have things to say because there will still be things to grieve. But there's also joy around and if I can work through some of this big stuff for myself that I've never been able to get a handle on maybe I'll be more able to include the bits of joy and other things to express besides grief. But I can't do that naturally now. I can't do that at all because I'm grieving. I've learned that and realized you just have to process this grief until it's done and then maybe there's other things to communicate later. That's really what the project is."
Phoenix comes out January 18 on Polyvinyl.