David Bazan has caused quite a stir with Pedro the Lion’s latest release “Control,” but making people think is what his music is all about. Whether you agree or disagree with his methods, no one can deny that he has a way with words and has been gifted with the art of putting gut-wrenching stories to song.
Although it had only been a little over two months since I last interviewed him, I couldn’t resist a second opportunity to talk with him. So at Cornerstone I tracked him down during his sound check on the last day of the festival.
Almost as interesting as the interview was the setting of it. It occurred as Bazan drove one of his buddies and I up from the main stage to the merch tent. The second part of the interview occurred on the trip back. Finally, we finished the interview in Pedro the Lion’s air-conditioned dressing room.
Somehow the funniest things seemed to happen in the van when Bazan was driving during the interview. He missed hitting a car by six inches, he yelled at a stupid Cornerstone pedestrian and nudged/hit another one with the van. From that experience it’s clear where the inspiration for “Big Trucks” came from, but it’s also quite cool to see that someone whose music is so sincere and blatantly honest can have such a good sense of humor.
If you’ve ever wondered why Bazan likes hymns, why he doesn’t play Rock for Life shows, why he swears, why Pedro the Lion is a solo act or what he hopes to accomplish through his music, then you need to read this interview. If you find his music interesting, when you read his thoughts on these and other subjects, you’ll realize his views are just as fascinating as his lyrics.
Matt M: You’ve talked a lot about how you don’t like how “Christian rock” because it’s basically second-class propaganda. However, you probably didn’t think that way when you were a kid in youth group. When you were growing up, what were some of the “Christian” groups that you were into?
David Bazan: Carmen and Petra and Whitecross. I had that One Pig Bad album with “Bowl of Wrath” on it. Before I listened to Tourniquet, Vengeance Rising and The Crucified. Earlier it was more…like my mom listened to a lot of Sandi Patti, so we ended up hearing that stuff a lot. There were some other things like Bash ‘ the Code. I think the mainstays were definitely Carmen and Petra. But I was kind of a new Petra fan, so the only Petra records I had were the John Schlitt Petra records. I think that about covers it, but there’s got to be some more stuff that I’m forgetting about. Oh, I liked some White Heart. I’m trying to think what record it was. It was the one with “Invitation;” it has some good songs. I can’t remember which record it was that I liked.
MM: Supposedly, a couple years back, you a played an acoustic set of hymns out at Vanguard University in California. What is it that you like about hymns and what are some of your favorites?
Bazan: I don’t remember that, but maybe I did. Well, usually the texts are really meaningful to me in a way that was pretty great to me in light of a lot of the choruses and a lot of the modern choruses that we sing. I guess for the time periods, there might just be a small percentage…more of hymns that are good. I mean there are a lot of really lame hymns, like bad text really horrible music. But I think there might be a few more good hymns per time period than there are choruses nowadays. ]
MM: Somewhere, it was written that you didn’t want to play a Rock for Life show or something. Can you explain that and what you disagree with them about?
Bazan: Well, basically I do believe that abortion should not happen. I think abortion is something that’s a tragedy for a mother and child, in spite of the fact that it could be the most convenient thing at the time. I think ultimately it devalues human life. But I also really disagree about the way that propaganda-driven battles are fought. I also think that it should be legal. Because I think, that in spite of the fact that I think it’s wrong and shouldn’t happen, the only way people are really going to understand and be convinced that that’s the case is outside of a battle, outside the context of a fight. The only way that I think one can disarm the sort of hatred between the two groups and the bitter rivalry is to disengage. So just on a political platform stance I have a difference of opinion with Rock for Life. I also don’t really care for the propaganda that is used. I also think that it’s kind of destructive. A lot of the ways that the slogans are used are more antagonistic than ultimately would be the smartest strategy for communicating what my thoughts are about abortion. Then also too, it seems like that they’re really informed by Christian culture and the tactics of Christian culture, but they’re very similar to the kinds of things that happen on Christian T-shirts. It’s just originated from a pretty lame standpoint.
MM: What’s been the reaction to the lyrical content on “Control” from Christians and non-Christians?
Bazan: I think that Christian reaction is somewhat divided. My perception of it has been informed by this festival, as well as just running into Christians at shows. Some people are really into it and they feel like it’s a valid expression of reality. It’s been mixed. There have been a few Christians…and you were at that Minneapolis show.
Bazan: And were you around there was like a big crowd of kids around at the end?
MM: I was.
Bazan: So you were at that, so that was one of the probably four or five times on tour that kids walked up and were pretty aggressive in explaining to me how what I was doing was wrong. Using terminology like “the spirit of confusion,” by spirit I mean demon spirit. There definitely has been some reaction against it, but I think most of the people who are bummed on it haven’t really made a point to come up and tell me. They just have been quietly disappointed and didn’t buy the record, although there has been a lot of e-mail I guess. So that’s basically it and the non-Christians-there was one review in BasementLife.com that the guy was really offended because he thought my worldview was pretty pathetic. Because it was so negative is why. But generally people say that they like it. But I think mostly what I’m going to hear is that anyways, because people would maybe go out of their way more to tell me they like the record than go out of their way to tell me that they really don’t like it. I try to ask people who aren’t me, obviously, about what their friends are saying. Because it’s interesting because most people don’t really have the courage to walk to me and just be like, “What’s the deal?”
MM: Since you’re such a nice guy in person, it’s hard to believe that you swear.
MM: Why do you swear and how does your theology or personal beliefs justify that?
Bazan: Well, I do swear. I think I swear mainly because I like the way that the words sound in sentences. In a lot of occasions it punctuates humor in a way that’s really attractive to me. Then, in general I just like the way that the words kind of sound. They kind of punctuate speech in general in a way that is attractive to me. So that’s the reason why it’s really natural for me to do, because there are aspects of my personality that are just really naturally drawn to it. As far as theology, there’s still… Let’s see, what’s the best way to get out of this as easy as I can. Basically after a lot of discussion with people I respect including my parents, my sister and different professors in college, I think that the swearing…also just trying to look outside the cultural context of the United States, it’s just sort of nothing at all, kind of either way. Just like in my opinion drinking alcohol or in a more drastic sense like going to movies or playing cards or dancing; I think in general is a social convention that is a remnant of Holiness codes and whatnot, early this century and late last century. I think in regards to the culture that I live in and am a part of, both the Christian aspects of it and then just the general non-Christian or the secular aspects of it, I guess it just isn’t anything either way. Like it’s just words, like the difference between saying poop and s***, it’s just really arbitrary. But for me where it runs into being a problem is sometimes I’m kind of impatient when I drive, that impatience is usually punctuated by me swearing. And so in that context I don’t think it’s appropriate, but I don’t think it’s the swearing that’s inappropriate as much as the impatience and sort of the anger. It’s not rage so much, it’s just extreme impatience and that’s not of the Spirit. It gives voice to it in a way that is pretty fantastic. So that’s an example of a point where it gets used for bad or for me to sin. Or like sometimes like if I was being mean to someone, which I don’t feel very comfortable doing very much. But like when it’s just us in the van and we’re just joking around. Usually I try to be respectful because I realize there is some tenet of the stumbling rule. Modern Christianity is extremely difficult. My cousins and me have argued about whether or not I violate the stumbling rule, just that my band exists at all. The stumbling rule as it’s applied, as it’s talked about with Paul has a tendency…and I think that this is a distortion of what he was aiming for. In this age where information is able to go really fast and we’re part of this sort of national Christian community. It’s used to make sure that people always appeal to the lowest common denominator in a way that I think is really inappropriate and actually really destructive. But there is still a sense in which, if I know it’s going to be a really big issue or I feel…I’ll deliberately not use foul language just because there’s no reason to make waves where it’s unnecessary. People are just going to bummed and it’s going to be issue, and it’s more comfortable to not, to not do it. But like for instance in the tour van or whatever that’s just how or who we are. I still pray because I want to find out… So that’s that. How satisfying that is to you or to the readers I’m not totally sure. That’s all that there really is. I guess the questions that might come up are where swearing and coarse joking is brought up in a couple of different places. As far as swearing goes I think it’s pretty safe to say from an exegetical point of view that it’s not really talking about saying s***, it has something to do with something else entirely. As far as the coarse joking thing, I’m not really sure how I relate to that or how I let that be. Because I definitely I could think of one joke in particular that I told recently that’s pretty harsh. So in those ways basically… Oh shoot, I could have said this a long time ago. Basically there’s this thing that’s been going on in my own life and in my own understanding of faith where I perceive that just about everything that I got from my churches growing up is theologically and in reference to my relationship to Jesus has been wrong and backwards. So I kind of realized that I didn’t really care to assume that a lot of the conventions that came along with the theology, the behavioral conventions were necessarily right also. So there’s been a process of…and you always do things in community. Now it’s just a community of people that believe similarly about the gospel as I do. But also we have community with the Holy Spirit and his interaction with us as we read the Bible. So I’ve been going through the process of trying to see what of these things are real and what of these things are just conventions to control people’s behavior. So this is definitely one of them and it’s one of them that I’ve been inspired to do to check it out on my own, just because it does come so naturally to me, and on an intellectual level it does likes just really arbitrary that one word for fecal matter would be a sin and that the other one wouldn’t be. So those are some of things that have compelled me to look into this, dig deeper and try to figure some things out for myself, which puts me at odds with a lot of Christians at certain times. Well, I won’t have the answer immediately and I don’t feel like I necessarily have to. I don’t feel, I guess, convicted when I use words like that in certain context. And then it’s interesting for me because there are other contexts when even when I’m not using those words, language representing anger or bitterness or insecurity or impatience, I really do feel convicted about a lot. So that’s sort of my process on that.
MM: Your dad is or was a music pastor with the Assemblies of God and you went to an A/G college. Does your family or church friends or college friends have a problem with any of your views or theology on swearing?
Bazan: I don’t know about my college friends. Actually I do, there’s this one dude that I went to college with there his name is Cameron. He has the same views that I have about it. As far as friends from college, I kind of gravitated obviously toward people that I enjoyed their company and had similar personalities to me. Especially the people that I’ve continued to be in contact with, at least as far as college friends. As far as my immediate family, my sister is definitely a pretty conservative person who does not swear. Who doesn’t say swear words herself, but we have, I think, similar views on it. And then my folks, who I swear around and in conversation to, who also don’t swear and they don’t really have a problem with it. I don’t think my dad necessarily prefers it as part of his personality; he doesn’t like that sort of thing. But we have discussions about it and a lot of those other things. I think my dad has a similar view as I do about it now or after our conversations. That’s where he’s fine with it and my mom is too. My mom is concerned about the fact that I drink alcohol, but mainly that’s just because my grandpa was an alcoholic. So she’s just kind of a little bit paranoid and a little bit reactionary. But so she doesn’t really have a problem with the swearing. My extended family, some of them have similar views as I do, but not all of them. I guess I’m thinking more of on my dad’s side and they’re all A/G churchgoers. Some pastors and then some of the ones that disagree are also pastors.
MM: You dropped the “f” bomb on the Jadetree sampler.
MM: What was the context in which you used that word and what was the intent behind using that word?
Bazan: I was poking fun at a particular mindset by amplifying it and kind of blowing it out of proportion. Sort of equating it to another mindset, just the whole bigotry and reaction to September 11th, I likened it to being a redneck who might use the word “camelf***er” as a racial slur. So have you heard that song before?
MM: I have.
Bazan: So that’s the immediate context and I’m not sure what my intent was necessarily except that I wrote that verse and it’s such a shame when… So there’s that first verse and there’s the bridge; basically the song is three verses and a bridge. And I wrote that first verse and the bridge in a matter of about three minutes on September 14, 2001 and so it all just kind of came out. Then after it sat around for a few months. I found it again in a notebook and decided to finish it out, and that’s when I wrote verses two and three. Then I continued to use it because I liked that as a tool, as a literary device, the mocking way that it sort of dealt with the issue seemed attractive and appropriate to me as far as in relations to my feelings on the subject.
MM: Do you anticipate that being released on any of your albums?
Bazan: It probably won’t be on the album. I hope that it will come out on an EP on Jadetree, but I don’t think it will necessarily be on a full album.
MM: You said that there was a third album, a follow-up to the last two that you did? When are you going to start working on that?
Bazan: Well, I’ve begun work on it and my process at this point is that we’re going to be working on a lot of the lyrics first. Then, once we get some of those mapped out, we’re going to start putting music to them and trying to develop the record as a whole. The story is done and it’s just a process now of telling a story through lyrics, which is going to be this time the most difficult that it’s ever been. So before then, I’m actually going to make another record of songs that I’ve written or that I’m going to write that don’t have anything to do with that story. And it won’t come out as a Pedro the Lion record, it will come out probably as a David Bazan record, but I’m not totally sure. So it’s going to be awhile, six or eight months before I actively start working on it and it alone, because I just have a desire to make a record that just doesn’t have anything to do with that, because it’s pretty painstaking to make those kind of records and I like it to a certain degree, but I like it as a means to an end. The end is getting the whole thing out in a way that is meaningful to me. But I have a desire to just make records that are just a lot more expressive and with that song, that we were talking about, “Backwoods Nation,” where I just came up with a bunch of lyrics, the distance to the finished product from the inspiration was pretty sort. And with all these other records it’s just a really long process. Once the music’s done, I’ve got to tweak the lyrics more. And then sometimes it takes forever for the lyrics to get done. It ends up being pretty contrived in the end and ultimately I want to make records in a different way for the rest of my life. But I’ve already started on this project and I feel like I really need to finish, and I really like the story that the third record is going to tell.
MM: You seem to be quite shy, is that an accurate understanding of your personality, are you just uncomfortable in front of people playing shows or is it something else?
Bazan: I think I’ve got different elements. It makes sense when I think of my sister who comes off as being really shy, but then when she gets in a group of people that she feels comfortable with and knows, she gets really zany and kind of crazy. And I don’t feel like I get zany and crazy, but I definitely once I get comfortable with people I’m a lot less awkward. But in context, sometimes in interviews and but a lot of times in front of a lot of people that I don’t know, I think I react to it like getting kind of anxious and getting a little more awkward, or maybe I guess I could be called shy or soft spoken, second-guessing myself and my words.
MM: Why do you think Pedro the Lion has become a solo act and do you think that has anything to do with you?
Bazan: Oh yeah for sure. Basically it started as a five-piece band and the four other dudes didn’t want to really do it for a living. So they took off and let me do it because they did know that I did want to make into something pretty steady and a regular thing where we’re constantly touring and recording. Then over the course of the years, I just ended up using “hired guns” as it were, guys to help fill in and those few years I ended up playing and writing a lot of the stuff myself. And then I hired a couple of “permanent members” to play the parts that I had written, but in the end that was kind of a naïve thing because I think it’s just hard to keep that thing together. Some people have done it I suppose. But what it either should be is: I write everything and then just hire guys to be play-it’s got to be a little more free, people can come and go as they chose and have no permanent members, but just members for as long as they want to do it or I want them to do it, or it should be a band where people are sort of contributing, writing their own parts and collaborating on arrangements. So for me, it’s just that because I am capable within my background playing drums and doing everything myself it’s worked out really well. My creative process actually depends on my ability or the opportunity to do that, because a lot of times the songs that I might write just as they stand are kind of boring. But the thing that might be interesting is the way that the drum part interacts really simply with the melody or the guitar or something like that. So for me, it’s just a much better process because of my strengths and weaknesses as a writer.
MM: Songs like “The Longer I Lay Here” and “The Secret of the Easy Yoke” are autobiographical and they seem to have such profound meaning for so many people. Do you think you’ll ever get back to writing songs about your personal experiences?
Bazan: I don’t really know. I mean in a way those things are autobiographical for sure, but there is an element of fiction even in it. The opening scene in “The Secret of the Easy Yoke” is definitely hypothetical, but it’s something that’s so familiar. You know I could picture it in my head, but I pictured it at church that I didn’t go to, I pictured it at something else. I’m not really sure if I will or not, it kind of just depends on… I’ve spent a lot of time not writing songs recently, where I just am not spending that much time writing. But I’m trying to write everyday now; I’m trying to write more and more. I’m not sure. I’ve been trying to write a lot more lately and whatever ends coming out naturally is what it’s going to be. And I’m sure inevitably something like that will be coming out.
MM: At the end of the day, when all is said and done, what do you want people to walk away with after they’ve seen Pedro the Lion perform or heard your records?
Bazan: Well, I’d like for people to be challenged to think critically. And I hope that… If people are going to really interact with Pedro the Lion’s songs I think they almost kind of have to. A lot of times…like even with a song that came out really early, a song called “Nothing,” like you can listen to it and if you listen carefully, and perceive what the lyrics are saying, you have to make some decision and think critically about what is maybe going on. Okay well, this guy is saying that absolute truth doesn’t exist and the reason he’s giving for why he thinks it doesn’t is because he wants to do it his own way. It’s just the process of critical thinking and you just have to start asking questions about it and try to quantify all the different things. So like, “Is this what the singer saying he believes?” Then, you have to sort of look at other elements on the record. You have to basically look at the context of the song. That’s the foremost thing that I want people to have to do, because I think there are emotional elements that might strike a chord with people that would maybe hearken to something deeper or some deeper sense of spirituality or something that has to do with God or just whatever because everybody’s in a real different place who ends up listening to Pedro the Lion’s music. And I think that those sorts of things cause us to search for this greater truth, which I perceive as being Jesus. And so I imagine that if people are stirred in that way-emotionally and spiritually and then are helped to think critically about the things that are stirring them, that it will just create a sense of people where they’re naturally, hopefully able to search for truth and not be so easily satisfied when they find something that’s comfortable. Because I think that critical thinking often turns itself inward and [it makes you] be able to sort of like not buy your own bologna. So that’s basically it. I really think things in pop culture are geared to relieve you of the responsibility of thinking critically about your life and how it relates to the world around you-the physical world and the spiritual world. So I hope I can challenge a few people to cause them to think critically about things and people will be better off because I really think that critical analysis is a pretty key to living a full on life.
MM: It’s the end of the interview and you have a minute or two to say anything you like on any subject. Do you have anything to say?
Bazan: Well, I think people should yield the left lane. That’s pretty much it.
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