David Bazan: Winners Never Quit

With his new singles series, David Bazan isn’t through singing about God

Music Features David Bazan
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David Bazan: Winners Never Quit

David Bazan is pumping gas at the Northern California curiosity Liquor Barn when our conversation takes an important turn. While van doors slam in the background—presumably the sound of his current bandmates the Passenger String Quartet ambling into some sort of Lynchian haunt for tour sustenance—we discuss a threshold some feel the songwriter crossed when he no longer identified as a Christian. This binary notion assumes Bazan approached songwriting differently after disbanding Pedro the Lion, the acclaimed indie rock band he’d fronted from 1997-2005—roughly around the time his divorce from the faith began.

“That line is so arbitrary and so momentary,” he conveys from outside Liquor Barn. “That cultural line I ‘crossed’ hasn’t stayed in the same place for all of Christian history even, much less the last century.”

The truth is the 38-year-old has been sizing up Christianity—poking holes in its maxims, railing against those who abuse and manipulate in its name, and doubting its very foundations—since issuing Pedro the Lion’s debut It’s Hard to Find a Friend in 1998. “The devoted were wearing bracelets, to remind them why they came,” Bazan sings mournfully on “Secret of the Easy Yoke.” “Some concrete motivation, when the abstract could not do the same.” Bazan’s words represented less a sneer in the tradition of Nietzsche’s blind pupils than empathy with the plight of his fellow believers and their fealty to an “unseen, distant Lord.”

He was at it again the next year in Winners Never Quit’s “Bad Things to Such Good People,” using literary tact to depict the shame of adults who treat Christianity as an accessory for social gain. And 2002’s Control, perhaps Bazan’s most divisive work, saw a fictional mistress sing, “Oh my sweet rapture, I hear Jesus calling me home,” while arching her back and “screaming for more.” It’s unlikely the mention of Christ nor the Gideon Bible in the bedside table was accidental—even as a believer, Bazan was comfortable manipulating sacred language and imagery to make a point.

In 2004, he used Achilles’ Heel’s “Foregone Conclusions” to slice the hypocritical jugular in more caustic fashion: “You were too busy steering the conversation toward the Lord, to hear the voice of the Spirit begging you to shut the fuck up.” This was five years before Bazan issued his solo debut Curse Your Branches, which posterity has dubbed his “Break-Up Letter to God” thanks to a memorable Chicago Reader profile written by the critic Jessica Hopper.

“The culture wars have certainly caused people to blacken that line in a lot more than it naturally is or should be, and so, yeah I see it as a continuum,” Bazan says. He pauses and sort of laughs. “I mean, it’s the same project. For me it’s the same impulse. It’s the same set of concerns that move me to write.” Bazan put it more succinctly in a recent two-hour conversation with podcast host Pete Holmes: “I’ve always been probing the complexities of Christianity. I’m just coming at it from a different orientation now.”

How many Christians-turned-non-believers do you know who wrestle with the origins of Man and the Bible on a deeper level once they decide Nietzsche was probably right? If your experience resembles mine, the answer is not many, which is somewhat understandable given that in many cases the newly unbound are a bit tapped out on First Fruits, thank you very much. In Bazan’s case, however, making peace with long-suffering doubts freed him to look at biblical scholarship, Christianity’s role in culture throughout history, and pretty much everything else from a more analytical point-of-view, one diffused of the ephemeral longing that can muddy sober thinking on these issues.

“Sunlight is just always good,” Bazan responds when asked about this process. The songwriter’s ongoing deconstruction project isn’t to play devil’s advocate merely to ruffle feathers, he says, but to investigate the “distortions or problems or abuses of power, and get to the bottom of them.”

“Certainly in church people don’t want you to do that and feel threatened by that attitude or that posture or that process,” Bazan continued. “But it always compelled me to do it more…It’s going to disrupt a lot of people’s lives in the process, but that disruption is good I think.”

Earlier on the drive and in the Holmes interview, Bazan conveyed the peace he’s found as a result of living in the present instead of placing his hope in the distant Lord of Friend. “Reality’s a great thing to cozy up to and to understand one’s place within, which results in not taking yourself or your own existence seriously in a lot of ways.” The sentiment scans lightly over the phone—Bazan is perennially easygoing—but anyone familiar with the image of the songwriter weeping for his kids due to the “gap between what is” and what he hoped “would be” in Branches’ “Bearing Witness” knows these issues rest heavy.

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Knowing Bazan still thoughtfully wrestles with theology and its effect on the world is crucial to engaging his new singles series, Bazan Monthly. Otherwise you risk, as I did for a moment, construing the consistent deployment of biblical imagery as spurned mockery. In fact, one could argue God shows up in Bazan’s lyrics more these days—the references are inarguably more direct—than when the songwriter more regularly spun literary yarn in Pedro the Lion.

“It’s still the most fascinating thing going, I think,” Bazan says when asked why he’s compelled to invoke scripture after deciding its claim on truth to be false. “Even though I don’t interpret the biblical tradition how I used to, for me it’s still just as good a starting point as any to look at human behavior and culture…particularly because we’re in this American culture where all the neurosis that is happening comes from a really distorted relationship with that tradition.”

See “Nobody’s Perfect,” which could easily be read as suggesting God knew he overreacted by banishing Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eve. “Still waiting for Adam to call,” Bazan sings over acoustic guitar, analogue synths and an understated beat. “Not a word since after the Fall.” And the chorus: “Nobody’s perfect, nobody’s free. Nobody ever gets away with everything.” Not even Yahweh perhaps.

A few bars later someone is hiding secrets “under a bushel”—even young ones in Sunday school should catch that reference—“but the light comes shining through.” Then there’s the “cleft in the rock” and the “pillar of smoke” of “Impermanent Record,” the “divine light” and “daily bread” of “Deny Myself,” and the “blood on the door” in “Sparkling Water,” which is one of the most gripping songs Bazan has written in a 17-year-career full of them. A melancholy acoustic tune, “Sparkling Water” puts listeners in the dining room, then the bedroom, of a committed couple whose love is palpable but who seem on different pages in some senses. “I dream together, you dream apart,” Bazan sighs.

If you collect all the Monthly singles into one digital album, “With You” comes on the heels of “Sparkling Water,” and together the songs are pummeling. Propelled by arpeggiating bass and feathery synth distortion, “With You” relates the comfort and inevitable frustrations long-term companionship can bring when one party is consistently on the road, a few of which Bazan lists during an aching bridge that’s sonically reminiscent of his work in Headphones: “Self-loathing, paranoia, jet leg, alcohol, bad dreams, long-distance calls.” “Babe I don’t feel well at all,” he concludes, weak in the knees and pining for home.

When pressed, Bazan is quick to point out these songs aren’t necessarily about him and his wife, but concedes they’re close to the bone. “I don’t know, I just really gave a shit how those songs read and how it felt to sing them over and over again. Usually I don’t have any problem dissecting tunes that I’ve written, but maybe it’s indicative of how personal those songs are that I don’t feel all that comfortable dissecting them. I like the idea of them just kind of standing on their own and people reading into them whatever they get from them.”

Bazan has prolifically employed infidelity as a storytelling device throughout his career, and it’s present here in the dark, minimal thrum of “Deny Myself” and the solemn “Kept Secrets.” As he and the Passenger String Quartet drove south toward Sacramento for what would be the first show of their current tour—in addition to Monthly, Bazan recently released an album of his work re-tracked with strings—I asked what compels him to return again and again not only to infidelity, but spiritual abuse, betrayal and other murky subject matter.

“I’m interested in the real reason why people behave and why people don’t behave,” he says. “You get in those places in your life where you’re just kind of lost and you don’t know how to get back. And then you wonder, you know, why should I act morally at all? And it’s all mixed up together. When you act like a dick, you get lost. You lose yourself, you lose perspective on things that matter and things that are important to you.”

Bazan found himself lost in a different sense when he set out to write the follow-up to 2011’s Strange Negotiations, released just a year-and-a-half after Curse Your Branches. He was stuck, without many new songs or a coherent vision of how to continue, and he was spending so much time on the road—60 percent of the past three years in Bazan’s estimation—that something had to give. Enter the singles series.

“Earlier this year I was drinking a lot less and it kind of hit me that I needed to stay home more,” Bazan says. “I felt like my kids were getting ripped off a little bit with their dad being gone all the time, so I realized I needed to come up with a way to work as hard at home as I was working on the road, and for that work to be monetized the same way as the road work if possible.”

The first two of the 10 new songs came easily. “Impermanent Record” and “Deny Myself” were already floating around, half-demo’d, for a few years. But making the second single incited a crisis of confidence that’s incredible to consider in hindsight given the songs featured: “Nobody’s Perfect” and “Sparkling Water.”

“This was the mindset I’m in,” Bazan starts. ”‘Nobody’s Perfect’ and ‘Sparkling Water’ are demo’d and I fucking hate them. I think they’re terrible. I just feel so disappointed and defeated.” Bazan was due imminently at producer and current Shins member Yuuki Matthews’ studio to record, so he turned to YouTube hoping it would inspire something else for the producer to hear. That’s when he stumbled on live footage of Chad VanGaalen in KEXP’s studios.

“It just broke me,” Bazan recalls. “And I thought, ‘That’s what I want to do…I just want to give myself completely and be unselfconscious.’” He teared up, turned away from the computer and wrote “Little Landslides,” which appeared on the third single. (The fifth and final single of Monthly Volume 1 was issued on Nov. 1.) Bazan then visited Matthews.

“I get down to his place and he’s like, ‘Well, just play me everything you’ve got,’” Bazan says. They listened to “Little Landslides” first. “And then I played ‘Sparkling Water’ and to my astonishment I loved how it sounded coming out of his speakers with him in the room. And he liked it too. And then I played ‘Nobody’s Perfect’ and he flipped out. He was like ‘This is the one! Let’s work on this right now.’ And I was so shocked.”

Talk of Bazan being unselfconscious arose a second time when I briefly mentioned the current Emo Revival and wondered aloud if he’d make something as stripped as It’s Hard to Find a Friend again. To my surprise he classified it as the “most sophisticated Pedro the Lion record”—an opinion he shared verbatim from The Bowery Ballroom’s stage when I saw him perform in New York three weeks after the interview—and noted rightly that “Sparkling Water” hearkens back to that sound to some degree.

“There’s so much interesting nuance to that record that came from…” Bazan pauses, returning in his mind to Friend. “My evaluation came from being so naive and unselfconscious and just super present with the process and not really judging it too hard— kind of just going with my gut on everything.”

All his work, after all, rests on the same continuum. And his characters—the adulterer and his mistress, the spiritual abuser and the anguished priest, the corrupt politician, the betrayed sibling, and the remorseful God—all rest there too. Bazan’s spiritual compass may be pointing him a different direction these days, but he’s been conveying what it means to be human all along.

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