Both Christians and non-Christians have embraced Pedro the Lion’s thought-provoking brand of indie rock since David Bazan’s critically acclaimed 1998 release “It’s Hard to Find A Friend.” His new record “Control” is bound to shock some listeners with its graphic depictions of extramarital sex and the dropping of the s-bomb, as it tells the story of a man who has an affair and is later killed by his wife. Amidst the R-rated content, “Control” has made its way into the top five on the CMJ chart and has even received praise from some Christian listeners.
When I heard “Control,” I wondered why Bazan was using such strong words on the album. On April 28, I got a chance to ask him about it during the Pedro the Lion performance in Minneapolis. In-between songs, Bazan was fielding questions from the audience. I got up the courage to ask, “Why did you drop the s-bomb on the new record?” First, Bazan explained what the “s-bomb” was. Then, he said that he essentially wanted to be true to himself because he uses that word a lot. He also mentioned to the audience that if profanity offends anyone, then they probably shouldn’t pick up the new album or get the new Jade Tree Records sampler (He drops the f-bomb on the sampler).
The next question that he was asked from the audience was where he stands spiritually and if he serves Jesus Christ. It must have been an amazingly awkward moment for him, but he handled it gracefully nonetheless. He basically said that at times Christianity is messed up, but that he’s got no problem with Jesus.
I felt a little dumb asking about the s-bomb and because in some sense I felt that my question had triggered the question about his spirituality, so I apologized to him after the show. He said that he didn’t mind the question and that there wasn’t any reason to apologize. He said he actually enjoys taking questions from the audience.
On April 29, thanks to Bazan’s PR lady Jessica Hopper at Hyper PR, I was able to do a phone interview with him for about 20 minutes, during which he thoroughly addressed questions concerning his faith and some of the controversial lyrics from “Control.” For those listeners who may have questions for Bazan, hopefully this interview will provide some answers that will explain where he is at spiritually and artistically.
Matt M: Yeah I saw you at the show last night.
David Bazan: Oh right.
MM: Yeah I was the one who asked the s bomb question.
Bazan: That’s fine. You apologized afterward and I realized that I hoped that you knew that there was nothing to apologize about.
MM: I read in something that Matt Johnson had written that you went to school at Northwest College. Is that right?
MM: Is that an A/G (Assemblies of God) school?
Bazan: It is.
MM: Cuz’ it’s kind of funny, I go to North Central, used to be Bible College it’s University now, in Minneapolis. And a couple of guys from my floor actually interviewed, I think a few months ago, when you played the Women’s Club in Minneapolis.
Bazan: Oh right.
MM: So I was kind of curious about your affiliation growing up with the A/G?
Bazan: With what now?
MM: Did you grow up in an A/G church?
Bazan: I did yeah.
MM: And then you went to Northwest just for like a year or two or?
Bazan: I went there for two years, yeah and I was a religion and philosophy major. I learned quite a bit actually and I really enjoyed it, but the reason why I was going was because I figured that would make me maybe a better songwriter if I had a pretty broad-based liberal arts education. And though I think that was true, I was wasting an awful lot of money doing poorly, so my dad actually suggested that maybe I should quit school and just focus on the band. Which is pretty unbelievable, but that was his advice.
MM: So you grew up in the church. It seems like you have kind of a cynical attitude towards the church or maybe it seems like you’ve been hurt. Where did that come in?
Bazan: Well, I don’t feel like I’ve been so much hurt. I went through a period where I think I really misunderstood Christianity and the way that it worked. The reason why it was a problem was because the goal of Christianity-if a person believes in the biblical God and feels alienated from him, for that alienation to be resolved and there to be some reconciliation and that was never really the case. That wasn’t really happening. So there were aspects of Christianity that I started to question. But more than that I just tried to look deeper in it and find out if maybe there was something that I had been missing and I found out that there was. Now that I’m satisfied with that reconciliation and that connection with who I believe God is, the way that the church does it is really destructive and wrong. It’s really difficult for me to harmonize what I perceive Jesus being about and saying, and what the history of the Christian church has been. Even after the Reformation, there were definitely some real positive things that took place. But it didn’t take very long for it to deteriorate again into basically a more insidious version of what was wrong with Catholicism at that point prior to the Reformation. It’s not so much that I got burned by the church personally or anything like that. But I just really feel like as far as the aims of Christianity and what Christ says about love, I think that Christianity is such a tremendous failure as a religion, or Christianity at large anyways. I think that by and large people’s ridicule of it as a faith is very well-founded. I feel all those things at the same time that I have a really intense love for Jesus and the Bible, a deep satisfaction in the connection that I feel with God and with what I perceive as possible, because those things are true and because God loves us the way that he does. That’s kind of more where I’m coming from with that. So that’s where the cynicism comes from.
MM: How much does your faith play into your songs? How much of that is reflective of your personal faith and how much of that is part of the story?
Bazan: Usually the characters and the scenarios are all fiction. They’re sort of modified by my thoughts and ideas. They’re obviously come up with out of my mind. A lot of times it will be a character that is representing some part of something that is interesting to me or some irony or something that has particularly grabbed my attention. Then they’re usually modified by my thoughts and feeling about it. It changes whether or not I modify it to reflect my beliefs or to be a reaction, sort of playing the devil’s advocate and being the opposite of what I believe and trying to make some point that way. But then there are other songs, like “Secret of the Easy Yoke” and “The Longer I Lay Here,” which the characters and the scenarios actually are autobiographical. Then they are modified later and turned into fiction so that the story or the song is stronger, rather than having to rely on the facts of my life; that’s influenced by different books on poetry that I’ve read. One in particular called “The Triggering Town” by Richard Hugo. In poetry-which I don’t feel like I write poetry, it’s a pretty big deal to not have to stick to the facts because a lot of times that will ruin it. It is a fiction at a certain level and so it’s not wrong to not stick with the facts of a feeling or something like that. Sometimes the truck just needs to be brown when it was white always. Brown is just a way better word to use in the context of the poem. So that’s how that works. As far as my faith influencing it, it does in the way that I believe that God exists and that He created the world and because of that He created art. I believe that He created art for a purpose and also He gave us the ability to reason for a purpose. I think critical analysis and sort of figuring out art and also just doing art is pretty important. And that if He created art, then it would ultimately be even like He created everything for His glory. So I really believe that art for art’s sake is God’s glory. When we just do art for the sake of it, it’s something that is right and good. Actually when we do it for the sake of proselytizing or sloganizing or evangelizing or something like that, then it actually kind of bastardizes this thing that was never really meant for that. But actually does a way better job of getting at truth in its nature state, when it’s done for its own sake, which again I believe is God’s glory. So that would be how my faith influences it.
MM: Do you feel that your music is misinterpreted or do you feel like the listeners are getting what you’re trying to say?
Bazan: I don’t know. I think that because the audience that Pedro the Lion has does really kind of run the gamut, it’s difficult to know. For instance there’s some people with “Winners Never Quit.” Like the first song on “Winners Never Quit” is basically a critique of the lack of love and the self-centered, self-righteous manner in which I think the church goes about doing certain things. Some people understood it as that, but then a lot of other people understood it as this very pro-Christian statement about how I’m a good person and I’m gonna to go to heaven because I’m a good person. Also just playing out some flaws in the theology of why we go to heaven and what earns us that. Different people responded really differently to it. I don’t know, that’s just one example, so I don’t really know. I think that it is maybe misinterpreted as much as it is interpreted correctly. But I also know that people are just coming from all kinds of different places and are going to interact with it in many ways that I don’t even begin to know. At a certain level, I just try to write what I feel like is what I’m supposed to be writing or what is coming out. No matter what it is, I think people are gonna interpret it or misinterpret or deepen it in all sorts of different ways. There is I guess a certain amount of misinterpretation, but I don’t think it’s peculiar to my music. I think that’s just the way that art goes. I say misinterpretation, but that’s to say they’re just different interpretations and sometimes interpreted opposite to what I’d perceive it to be. But nonetheless that’s just I think how it goes for anybody.
MM: I have some questions about the “Control” album. There were four songs that I had questions about specific lyrics or the song. With the rapture one how does the affair and then the idea of the rapture-how do those two things go together? Where are you going with that one?
Bazan: That one was a completely different song and I started re-writing the lyrics when that other song wasn’t working and so it turned into this image of an affair. For the chorus I really felt like because the music had already existed, it kind of did lift up into that kind of anthemic chorus, I really saw that as I was writing the song as being sort of maybe the orgasmic reference in the song just because of how the lyrics were going up until that point. It seemed like it would work dramatically. So I set out to find a way to represent that from the perspective of one of the people involved, most likely the male. What I was looking for was something that felt kind of dirty and sort of represented to me an adulterous affair. The thing that I kind of came up with that was the most tasteful and yet the most dirty was him in a very sacreligious fashion using that language as an expletive to communicate the pleasure or ecstatic feeling that he was experiencing. After I kind of got done with it I realized that it was possibly the dirtiest thing that could have gone there. So that’s basically what I was getting at. His character is using that as an expletive basically the way that is pretty common I think. So that was the purpose of that moment in the song.
MM: With the songs “Indian Summer” and “Penetration,” the idea of corporate cum and penetration-“if it’s not penetration, then it’s not worth a kiss.” Is that talking about corporate America?
Bazan: Definitely yeah. I don’t think that people with money are better than people who are poor. They just have the opportunity to take advantage of other people in a way that I think that poor people would do if they had the chance to. But it’s just the way that I think money takes advantage of people without. I think that it’s hidden a lot in this country because we actually are the beneficiaries of it as American citizens more times than not with paying extremely low gas prices and just having general wealth that we live in relative to other countries around the world. So I think that it’s masked a lot and I wanted it to be put in terms that I think it exists in. Which I think it’s very brutal and disgusting the way that it works. In terms of the way when a man rapes a woman. There is a very deliberate thing to it and something that is very brutal and very violating. Those were the terms in which I wanted, because I believe that’s how it is and that’s how it works. I don’t feel like then maybe necessarily that’s very obvious, so that was what I was hoping to communicate.
MM: From the song “Magazine,” the line “I feel the darkness growing as you cram light down my throat,” what was that really in reference to?
Bazan: Well, just dealing with a lot of people that I know who grew up and didn’t have anything to do with Christianity or God. Their experiences with the church have been so off-putting. Not because necessarily the content was offensive. In most cases the real content of the Bible or Christianity wasn’t really ever gotten to because they were so offended or so judged or whatever initially. That’s the idea-the force and the arrogance or whatever with which Christians sort of wield their Christianity or can do that, I think actually furthers the cause they’re supposedly trying to be fighting against and doing harm to the concept of who Christ is. So that’s the “I feel the darkness growing stronger as you cram light down my throat.” And then the irony is that to me is there is a sense in which Christian people I think naively or ignorantly are trying to live above reproach as though it were possible and I think sort of misunderstanding what Paul was trying to say at that point. By that standard, by trying to live above reproach there is this notion that a person could get through a day without sinning or that those sins are able to be like tallied and maybe sort of getting less accrued to you. But that by furthering the cause of quote unquote darkness, that they’re actually working the other way from being above reproach to actually there’s quite a bit to be reproached for in that way in my opinion. So that’s kind of the line fit together. Then the chorus of that just expands upon that a little bit, and is kind of a reference to when Jesus is talking about the Pharisees being white-washed tombs. Being so concerned with the superficial when what is going on inside is the thing that is so screwed up and is such a problem.
MM: With the last song “Rejoice,” I’ve noticed that as the albums goes along it seems to be getting progressively more negative and it’s kind of unclear; at one time you say it’s great if it’s meaningless, then it’s meaningful, then it turns to ****, then it’s rejoice. So which is it?
Bazan: Well some of the point of that song was there to be an ambiguity to it. I don’t necessarily feel like “Winners Never Quit” the song is. I think that people perceive that to be ambiguous as well. I really liked the role that song played at the end of that record. “Winners Never Quit” was actually meant to be some sort of resolution to that record. I think that it is. I think it’s possible to get to what that song means. But this one I meant to be sort of the predecessor to the next record, which is going to have some level of resolution in it and include themes of redemption in it. Because of that, this record, I didn’t really want there to be any resolution. But at some level, that “Rejoice” is resolution to me, because a lot of it is very similar to “Winner Never Quit.” It’s when we come to the end of our rope and realize how futile trying to go it alone is that it’s a possibility for redemption to really make sense, so I was wanting to set it up for that. For me at different times the “rejoice” part is either cynical or sort of joyous depending on which aspect of it I’m currently focusing on. It was meant to be vague at a certain point and I’m hoping to get the next record out in a pretty timely fashion so that the resolution comes before everybody is just totally pissed. Which is too late now I realize, but that was the idea.
MM: Well, it’ll be interesting to see how JPUSA…if you guys will still be playing main stage.
Bazan: Oh yeah, that’s gonna be weird. I don’t really know. I mean I know those guys that put on the festival and I was actually a little surprised that they were having us play the main stage this year. But nonetheless, they did. I’m not really sure why, but that’s their thing.
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