Last week, we published a piece by Matt Fink about former Pedro the Lion leader David Bazan’s career and latest album. After a four-year hiatus following struggles with alcoholism and his faith — including being kicked off the main stage of a major Christian music festival — Bazan returned in 2009 with a new autobiographical and starkly agnostic album.
In the following interview, Fink talks with Bazan about his return to the Cornerstone Festival last summer, the latest album, the reactions to recent work, and his current take on faith and his role as an artist.
Busted Halo: I saw that you went back and played Cornerstone this year. What was that like?
David Bazan: It was actually great. I had said “yes,” and I was happy to be going back on a lot of levels, but I was a little… concerned. I was maybe anticipating being the center of controversy in a way that I was ultimately pretty glad that I wasn’t, in my estimation. When I was there, it felt really nice. I felt like I was on the same team as a lot of people. It wasn’t a super big deal. So that was cool. That other thing is kind of exhausting, I feel. It’s just unnecessary. People make such a big deal out of some stuff. And certainly there were discussions about controversial issues and whatever, but I wasn’t any different as a participant in those discussions. I wasn’t put on some kind of pedestal in any way that was uncomfortable, so it was good. It was really nice.
BH: Were you surprised that that offer came to play Cornerstone again?
DB: Well… it had, at least, come one year before that, if not two years before that. I can’t remember exactly. I had at least turned down one. But I was a little surprised, even then. And having read the Chicago Reader piece that Jessica Hopper wrote, I did not know that that was [Cornerstone Festival director] John Herrin’s take on the whole thing. I gotta say, I was pretty impressed that he felt like, “Yeah, we’re aware of his divergent views on things, but we’re fine with it, ultimately.” I thought that was pretty remarkable.
BH: What kind of response did you receive from the crowd there?
DB: It’s tough to say, but it felt really warm, and no one got up and left or anything. In the moment, it was like, “I don’t know what this is. I’ll find out later. Either people are too stunned to move or they are enjoying it.” It’s still hard to know. There were several hundred people sitting there, so I couldn’t gauge what everyone was thinking, but it seemed comfortable to me. It wasn’t super tense.
BH: Was there any particular reason that so much time passed between the last Pedro the Lion record and this record, with Fewer Moving Parts in between?
DB: Yeah… well, it wasn’t planned that way. Since Fewer Moving Parts came out three-plus years ago, I’ve been attempting to finish a full-length, and it just took an awful long time. In the meantime, there was a Headphones record in 2005, but that didn’t really seem to matter the way that maybe Pedro the Lion records gave us a chance to go out and play shows and make a living. The Headphones record didn’t really offer anything like that for whatever reason. It was a long time. That has been a topic of plenty of conversations in the camp — that it has been five years since I put out a meaningful full-length record as far as the market is concerned. That’s a pretty long time.
BH: Yeah. Was it mostly taking that long because you hadn’t got a recording that you were satisfied with, or were the songs not there?
DB: Yeah, a little bit of both, plus I was touring a lot during that period, so it was difficult to get a decent workflow going. So, just kind of randomly, I was probably in four different workspaces, and I tend to be kind of an optimist and underestimate the time it actually takes to do things. So I would think, well, I’m going to move on Tuesday, and by Friday I’ll have two or three more songs written and recorded, and it would be three Fridays from then, and I’m still wiring up patch bays and stuff like that. That figured into it, as well.
David Bazan performs “Hard to Be” from
Curse Your Branches in December 2009.
BH: Do you see this newest record as being a departure as far as what you’ve written about in regards to Christian faith?
DB: Yeah, I would say it is. There have been references hinting in this direction, but it’s the first sort of out-and-out expression of some of these ideas. Yeah, I would say so.
BH: Do you see it as a protest album of sorts? I get that vibe listening to it.
DB: It feels that way, at least partially. It definitely represents a struggle on my part to feel like I have a valid voice as a person who grew up in a particular faith and attempting to get some distance from that, or at least move in a category of “I don’t know.” It was really devastating, for sure. It takes a lot of effort and a lot of justification, so I think some of this record is me going through that process and trying to validate my own posture about this stuff. On that level, I suppose it does feel a little bit like a protest record.
BH: While you were writing these songs and coming to different conclusions about faith, were there different things that you were learning about your faith that you hadn’t previously known, or were you just coming to think differently about what you already knew?
DB: Well, no, I’m even still getting new information all the time. One of the interesting parts about Christianity, at least the way that I experienced it, was that you are in a sense responsible for this whole system of thought and belief that you literally don’t have a chance to investigate thoroughly. When you do come in contact with certain bits of information for the first time, it’s not like, “Hey, check this out. See what you think. Reject it or accept it.” It’s always that you’re discovering this system that you’ve already signed on the dotted line affirming.
So I found that there were these assumptions that I had made my whole life, and as I really began to examine them, I was finding new information all the time. On some level, it’s a pretty exciting process to learn a little factoid that you didn’t previously know that has a profound interaction with your entire belief system. It’s a pretty heady thing. It can be kind of intoxicating, I feel like, even if you’re just being swung around by each little bit of information. There’s definitely a lot of learning going on, learning about the origin of the Bible and certain beliefs and historical corroboration of the biblical historical record and various things, as well as where certain notions came from.
That was such a funny thing; I went to a Pentecostal liberal arts college, and even there, the philosophy teacher would say, “So where do you think this characteristic of God comes from?” and you’d say, “Well, the Bible!” and he’d say, “Well, actually it comes from Plato. I defy you to find it in the Bible. And Augustine got a lot of his ideas from Plato, so basically you believe x, y, and z about the character of God because of Plato.” And people would just freak out! I remember knowing what he was doing but still feeling very uncomfortable because I hadn’t seen behind the curtain in any way at that point. I think at the college that I went to, people would identify with Augustine’s notions a little more than Aquinas, because Protestants are still very anti-Catholic, but nonetheless, there were all kinds of little things that one was finding out about one’s faith if you were paying attention, and you were around people who were challenging you. But even at 19, I was finding out little tidbits that were literally exploding my view of things. So that trend has remained to this day.