David Bazan “It was shortly after that I think that I stopped self-identifying as a Christian.”

When I was in high school, I got a job at a Christian bookstore. I was partly just looking for discounts on wildly underrated records by faithful indie rockers like Starflyer 59, Danielson Famile, and David Bazan's former band, Pedro The Lion. Still, as much as it pains me to admit it, back then I was fairly conservative and even (dare I say it?) evangelical. Of course, after high school I went to college and experienced all the existential dilemmas and religious disenchantment that a quality liberal arts degree offers.

I'm a much different person than I was 10 years ago, and apparently so is David Bazan. 
Bazan's new album, Curse Your Branches, is rife with spiritual content, but it comes at the issue of God from a completely different angle than his earlier work with Pedro The Lion. In fact, Curse Your Branches is decidedly agnostic. The songs recount Bazan's shift in worldview, his subsequent lust for alcohol, and his related interpersonal and familial struggles. 

In our recent phone interview, Bazan talked about the process of changing his mind and the reactions he's experienced since doing so.
 
 


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Your latest release, Curse Your Branches, just came out earlier this month. This is your first full-length in about 5 years?
 


Yep. The Headphones record came out in '05, and that was a full-length, but it strangely has the status of an EP in the whole scheme of things.



Well, how does it feel to put a full-length out after so long?



Well it's a big relief. I was working on it in some way or another, at least working toward it for a long time. It's nice to have that off my plate.



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"I've even noticed certain statistical shifts that I saw between the time I finished the record and the time the record came out, that the Evangelical church is losing more people statistically than it ever has, primarily youths [aged] 18 to 35. So I guess there is hope of some people asking similar questions."
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Were you doing anything else in the meantime?
 


Yeah, I was touring a lot. Not insane, but 120 days a year. I was trying to figure out my family. I was also wasting a lot of time being drunk every now and again, too.



How does being on Barsuk compare to your previous label experience?
 


I've been friends with Josh and some of the dudes down at Barsuk for a long time. They're in our town, and there's a lot of other bands on the label that I've been close buddies with for a number of years. There's a little bit more of a feeling of family to it. That's really great.



Since ditching the Pedro The Lion moniker, do you still feel like you're straddling two worlds at all, or have you totally transitioned into a secular market?



I think market-wise I always had the notion, even from It's Hard To Find A Friend on, that I wanted if there were Christian people buying the records and coming to shows, I wanted them to have to go to Tower to buy the record and to have to come to a bar to see the show. I think strictly speaking market-wise, I've been in a secular market for a long time. That did happen, a lot of Christian people bought the record from Tower, rest in peace, and also would come out to the shows. At that point it was kind of cool because it was hard to tell who was who. Occasionally, you got a clue. If they yelled at you for saying shit, you got an inkling where they were coming from. Other than that, it was kind of a great equalizer. So, I'm not sure. Part of getting out of Pedro The Lion was me thinking I was going to spread my wings. There were a lot of reasons why, but in the end I am who I am. I'm stuck pondering this particular question; I don't know for how much longer, but at least for this long. In a sense I haven't really broken out of anything [laughs], I'm still right here, still working with these same issues. And I'm happy to be.
 


The lyrics on your solo album seem to espouse a fundamentally different philosophy than most Pedro The Lion lyrics. Was there any specific moment or event that happened over the past few years that really stands out to you as a turning point or a reason for that?
 


No, I think it was a gradual shift. I think you can kind of see it in the Pedro The Lion records. I expressed some doubts about the dynamics of my faith on It's Hard To Find A Friend, and there was also some affirmation there too. Winners Never Quit and Control, I feel like in hindsight kind of saw me criticizing the church, as I experienced it, and some of the hypocrisies there -- although, in a sort of vague and potentially misguided [laughs] lyrical study. It also saw me criticizing America and the hypocrisy I saw there. It was shortly after that I think that I stopped self-identifying as a Christian. Although in 2003 or 2004, I think if somebody would have given me a questionnaire to fill out that was like a personality test for whether I was a believer or not, they would have asked me are you a Christian and I would have said, "No." And then I would fill out the questionnaire, and they would have said, "Well, actually yes, you are. You believe in X, Y, and Z."
Then over '04, '05, and '06, my answers on that imaginary questionnaire just started to change one at a time. The one about do you believe the Bible is God's word and inerrant in the spirit and the letter, that was one of the first ones that I said, "You know, no, I actually don't think so." And then, "What about Hell, what do you think about Hell?" And I changed my answer to "no."

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"‘When We Fell,' as soon as I finished writing that tune, I e-mailed it to my parents, not exactly asking permission, but definitely wanting to run it by them. If it was going to be a problem, or going to be a wedge between us, then I wouldn't have put it on there."
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Slowly but surely, I think I just stopped believing in some of the main tenants of that faith. All the while, the main thing that was driving me was that I did have some notion that if there was a truth, then was an established process by which to discover that truth, and that was honest inquiry -- attempting not to employ logical fallacies or start with a conclusion and then try to back that conclusion up. Start with premises that you thought were true, that you could demonstrate, and then try to go from there. In some sense, the same thing that drove me the whole time that I was doing Pedro The Lion was the driving force behind me falling away. But it does put me on a very different side of the fence, I suppose.



How have fans of your previous work responded to the agnostic content of Curse Your Branches?
 

It really depends. From the very first thing that Pedro [The Lion] released in 1997, there were always people there who were comforted or felt somehow the expression was comforting, compared to what they were used to. Then there were people who felt I was demon-possessed, from the Whole EP on through. It's a similar thing. There are people who express gratitude, and then there are people who express frustration and defensiveness. It's about the same.


I saw that you played Cornerstone this year -- what was it like going back to a primarily Christian festival after so much has changed?
 


It was great.  I've had a fair amount of experience in the last 18 months or so playing Christian colleges. For a while, I wouldn't take those shows.  Sometimes, I'd go on campus and it was no big deal. Other times I'd roll on campus and I was the subject of some pretty serious controversy. The feeling usually was pretty palpable. It was exhausting, and entertaining, and totally unnecessary, and a bunch of things. When I was going back to Cornerstone, I was anticipating at least the possibility that there was going to be that kind of thing. I wasn't really looking forward to that. As it turns out, at least from my perspective, it wasn't like that. Were you there?



I wasn't there, but some of my friends were.



Ah. Well, did they seem to agree that maybe I could have been a controversial figure but it didn't work out that way? That was my feeling, I felt like people accepted me, and the conversations weren't combative.



I think they were just happy to see someone that wasn't playing metal.



Well, there's that.



Did you find a lot of people interested in dialogue at those types of events?



It really depends. Sometimes, people were kind of sheepish, and sometimes people were really warm. Even though we didn't necessarily agree on certain things, there's always something to agree on. There's always something that you can find to talk about that is profound, that's not a superficial element -- something that's a big deal that you can feel like you're on the same team about. That was my experience there. Just a lot of really nice people who didn't come off to me as particularly defensive about anything.



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"Sometimes, I'd go on campus and it was no big deal. Other times I'd roll on campus and I was the subject of some pretty serious controversy."
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Have you met many fans that have had philosophical journeys similar to your own?
 


Oh yeah. You know, when I wrote the record, I was kind of bummed because, even though I loved it and it was really meaningful to me, I thought, "This is such a marginal position to take on this issue. This is isn't really going to resonate with very many other people." Come to find out, I think I was wrong about that. I think I've run into a lot of people that are going through a similar thing or at least know what I'm talking about. I've even noticed certain statistical shifts that I saw between the time I finished the record and the time the record came out, that the Evangelical church is losing more people statistically than it ever has, primarily youths [aged] 18 to 35. So I guess there is hope of some people asking similar questions.



Well, honestly, I haven't heard people talking about having such a strong emotional response to your work since you released "The Secret of The Easy Yoke" with Pedro The Lion.



Yeah, I have a similar feeling. I think that people liken it to that, but [it's] coming from a slightly different place of course.
 


Do you still offer Q&A sessions at your shows?

Oh, yeah. Now that we're going to play with the band, I want it to be about me and the dudes. So I'm going to try it and to whatever degree they can be engaged in it as well, I'll probably continue to do it. The Q&A is ostensibly about me interacting with the audience, and the audience participation, but sometimes it ends up just being about me hitting softballs. I don't really want to do that with the band, because I want the focus to be on the group as much as possible, not the group and the ham in the middle. I have been doing it a lot, especially at the solo shows, but we'll see how it goes with the band.
 


Are people generally respectful?



Yeah.
 


What kind of discussions have come up at the house shows you've played this year?


I feel like there has been -- discussion being a loose word, because I tend to dominate whatever discussion is happening. There have been some pretty interesting questions and concerns. Sometimes people are really forward and assertive and are willing to give their opinion about this or that, and that's really fun. It really depends, some people are really scared to ask about anything that has to do with the content of the record, and at other shows people are really bold and want to know details like, "What do you think about this? What do you think about that?" And I just say, well, you know, I'm just a dude remember, it shouldn't be that big of a deal.  But having written this work, I can understand that having a context for the album, as far as what I actually think about certain things, could be helpful. So, I try to be open and transparent.
 


I've always enjoyed the storytelling aspect of your songwriting, but until this album, the majority of the stories have been fictional. Was it more difficult to take such personal situations and craft them into stories?



Not really. I didn't even really know when I was doing it. Songwriting for me is always a really desperate... well, that's a little dramatic, but I'm just kind of struggling to come up with anything that works for my taste, and I'm not really thinking a lot about what it is or what it's saying or whether it's autobiographical or not. After the fact, I usually unpack all that stuff. I got a little panicky that it was all autobiography or most of it was autobiography, because that's not exactly my taste in music all the time. I've only recently become comfortable with the singer-songwriter tag anyway, to add autobiographical, confessional to that wasn't that exciting of a development to me. In the end, I felt like they rang true and they didn't give away too much. I liked them, for my taste, I think they're good expressions of the ideas they attempt to represent.

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"I always had the notion, even from It's Hard To Find A Friend on, that I wanted if there were Christian people buying the records and coming to shows, I wanted them to have to go to Tower to buy the record and to have to come to a bar to see the show."
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The album makes several different overt references to your family and former bandmates. Is it ever awkward to write so directly about other people in your life?
 


Well, it can be. I've very rarely done that -- written about anybody in any recognizable way. There might be really diluted references to some person, but I make sure to dilute them pretty completely so that it's for all intensive purposes not about anybody. So when these songs came out, "Bless This Mess" was maybe the first one I wrote, and "Please, Baby, Please" was the number two. So I ran them by my wife, and she really liked them. "Please, Baby, Please" in particular was a little upsetting to her, just because I think somewhere else I mentioned that it strikes a bit of a raw nerve with her, but she feels like it's a positive characterization, and it's truthful, and she's happy that I'm not in the same place that I was when the events of that song were happening. I had to run it by her on that level, and she was very supportive.

"When We Fell," as soon as I finished writing that tune, I e-mailed it to my parents, not exactly asking permission, but definitely wanting to run it by them. If it was going to be a problem, or going to be a wedge between us, then I wouldn't have put it on there. They, in their way, gave it the okay. I definitely feel obligated; if I'm going to exploit a relationship of mine for the purpose of songwriting, I want them to be cool with it. So yeah, it can be really awkward -- especially with family, because I owe them a lot.

With the band members, probably the most awkward thing is the "Fewer Broken Pieces" tune from that [Fewer Moving Parts] EP. I don't know how all of those dudes feel about it. I hope they get that I'm making fun of myself, I think they do, but still when I play it and [former bandmate T.W.] Walsh is in the room, my skin crawls a little bit and I feel embarrassed. That gets real real.



Sounds like it. Do you still talk to T.W. Walsh?



Yeah, all the time. It took us a couple of years of banging it out, but we've mended. There's still sadness there, I still feel a lot of regret. It pisses me off that I can't play music with him full-time. On one hand I feel like I really blew it, and on another hand I just don't know that it was really going to be possible. It takes a lot of dough to keep grown men's families afloat. But yeah, he mixed and mastered the record and played on it a little bit. We hang out whenever I'm around, and we talk on the phone all the time.



Musically, the new album covers slightly different territory than Pedro The Lion did. Were you trying to accomplish anything in particular with that, or was that just a natural progression for you?



I would say it's a natural progression. It's not the most deliberate process, it's more just let's see how I can make this work with these songs, with these melodies.
 


Were you drawing from a different set of influences at all?



No, but I do think that I finally allowed certain primary influences come to bear pretty directly on some tunes. The Beatles have long been my favorite band. They would try on different styles from song to song, but sell it in a way that didn't feel fakey. Even though Paul was a total cheeseball, there was the anchor of the soul of John, and I feel like that lent legitimacy to whatever they were doing. On "When We Fell," the drums, the white guy blues, the vocal harmonies -- those are all very specific Beatles references for me. They come together in a way that doesn't sound like "Helter Skelter," even though the harmony bit is me figuring out how to do the "Helter Skelter" vocal "Ahs" in that tune, and the white guy blues thing is not exactly "Revolution," but it's a reference to that. So, I finally allowed myself to make very clear references to music that I like besides Bedhead, which I always seem to do anyways.



This must be a big month for you if The Beatles is your favorite band.
 


You know, I don't have the scratch at the moment to get those records, but I'm just so psyched that everyone's talking about The Beatles. I feel like I finally don't have to stifle my desire to have that conversation constantly.

Photo: [inhisgrace]

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