Catching Up With… David Bazan

Music Features David Bazan

When you set the table
and when you chose the scale
did you write a riddle
that you knew they would fail?
Did you make them tremble
so they would tell the tale?
Did you push us when we fell?

—David Bazan – “When We Fell”

Pedro the Lion was once an indie/Christian crossover act, but as David Bazan’s lyrics darkened and he started asking challenging theological questions, many of his evangelical fans abandoned him. Bazan eventually went solo and quietly refused to return to Christian music festival Cornerstone for a few years.

Now he’s back, with his most autobiographical songs to date. Curse Your Branches documents Bazan’s objections to the concept of original sin and a god who would let his people fall, as well as his struggle with alcohol. A recent Chicago Reader story written by Bazan’s former publicist claims that he “broke up with God.”

I spoke with Bazan about the new record and whether or not he’s actually ended his relationship with God. He explained his reasons for returning to Cornerstone this year, his reaction to that popular Chicago Reader story and how his four-year-old daughter Ellanor and newborn son Nils have dramatically affected his perception of God.

Paste: You seem to be focused on the concept of original sin. Are you making a point, or raising questions about it?

Bazan: It’s a bit of both, I suppose. While making the record I definitely felt like I’m not just writing lyrics, but I’m kind of crafting, if not arguments, then at least premises that I want to hold up over time—which seems a little too ambitious at points. But in hindsight I feel OK about it, having played those songs a bunch, and they still really resonate with me. I guess my answer is that I do feel like I’m asking questions more than trying to make points that are going to stand up for all time or any amount of time, but I feel like they’re important…Man, it’s tough to put this into words. I had made certain assumptions for my whole life that I stopped making in the last five or six years. It’s such a profound thing to just stop assuming certain things, like original sin. That may be what I was hoping to express—these grave doubts or objections to the notion that those things are true, or that they’re so true that they ought to be foregone conclusions, or that everybody should just assume they’re true.

Paste: Specifically, what are some of those questions or objections?

Bazan: There are stories that I was told when I was a little kid that I believed my whole life actually happened, like, were literally true, from the fall to the Garden of Eden and all that stuff. I suppose if I were asked now, I would say I don’t know. But to go from assuming that, and having your identity based on that, to saying “I don’t know” is such a radical shift that it requires a lot of inertia to get to that “I don’t know.” On the song “Hard To Be,” it’s just me saying, “Really? That seems at least a little far-fetched, can we all agree that it’s a little far-fetched? I’m not saying it’s not true, but could we just all take a step back for a second?”

And then other things, like there’s this whole system of theology and Christian thought based on the fall and redemption and God’s sovereignty and all these things, and the song “When We Fell”—it’s a juvenile conversation on some level—but I haven’t really had the conversation with anybody who had a strong rebuttal that if this sovereign god who apparently intended all this to happen in this exact way always knew that was going to happen, then why are we the ones left holding the bag and will supposedly burn in hell for all of eternity if we don’t get on the right side of an idea—or at the very least, be separated from this cosmic being that we were ostensibly made to be in relationship with? And I don’t know how it comes off on the record, but it’s not me closing the book on anything, just raising some objections or concerns. And in reality, it’s concerns to ways that I had looked at it. People take it pretty personally if they hold some of these things to be true themselves, and I can’t help that. But it’s me kind of in competition with myself, trying to figure these things out.

Paste: Some of your evangelical Christian fans feel betrayed by you. How do you think this record will affect them?

Bazan: It’s funny because I’ve already witnessed a whole range of reactions. Some people do feel really offended and take it personally, and some people are in denial about it on some level, and other people are really refreshed, even though they themselves believe in some of the expressions nonetheless. While I was a favorite of certain evangelical Christians in my earlier work, even then I got letters saying I was demon-possessed. And some evangelical Christians’ very favorite song of mine was “Secret Of The Easy Yoke” from It’s Hard To Find A Friend, and others were deeply offended by it at the time. I already have the stored experience of making some people angry and being accepted by others. Even though some people who are speaking out the loudest in objection are saying, “You were our guy, and now you’ve turned your back,” or whatever, there were always people that felt betrayed by my expressions and always people that felt comforted by it. I imagine the same thing is going to happen now, from the early feedback. It feels like it really runs the gamut. So in the end, I have to make music that speaks to me, knowing that there are people similar to me out there—or in hopes that that’s the case—but regardless, even if it’s not, I’ve got to do what turns me on. I don’t mean to bum anybody out, but these issues are kind of a big deal for some of us. I just happen to be exactly in the right place to appreciate the songs, having written them [laughs]. If I were my 15- or 16- or 17-year-old self, I don’t know what I would make of this record.

Paste: You just played at Cornerstone. How was that experience?

Bazan: It was great. I am occasionally, usually at a religious college or something, playing where I’m clearly on the campus a very controversial figure—when I walk onto campus there’s a certain sense that this is a big issue. I was prepared for it to be that way at Cornerstone, and thankfully it just wasn’t that way. It was very…normal. The response from the audience was very warm, in my perception. Inevitably there’s some smart aleck who’s wanting to get certain things out of me during the Q&A, but that’s always the way it is. It felt very frictionless while I was there.

Paste: When they invited you to play, did you hesitate?

Bazan: Yeah, I did, because I had gotten invited at least the year before, if not two years previous, and I said no.

Paste: Why did you say no then and yes this time?

Bazan: I’m not exactly sure, but my best guess is that I was much more comfortable in my own skin by the time this year rolled around. I don’t necessarily feel like I know any more than I did the year before or the year before that, but I’m a lot more comfortable with the idea of not really knowing. Part of being a tweener as I am, there’s not a real solid sense of identity in it, because you’re not really squarely in either camp. That took a little bit of time to be comfortable with or feel confident that that was valid. So I just don’t think I had the confidence to go and do my thing under what I perceived was going to be that kind of scrutiny the year previous. This year I thought, “This is OK, I know who I am, they know who I am.” I had the sense that they wouldn’t be shocked at what they were getting, they knew what they were paying for, which is a big deal to me too; I don’t want to go there and create unnecessary controversy.

Paste: Where do you fall on the religious spectrum right now?

Bazan: I’ve used the word agnostic to describe myself recently, although in conversations with people I’m afraid that that’s not totally accurate because of the cultural definition of what agnostic tends to mean, which is like borderline atheist. When I’ve said agnostic in the past, it’s literally not knowing. I perceive that God exists, and I’m maybe 50 percent accepting of that perception, or 53 percent [laughs].

There’s two things happening simultaneously: One of them is there are these bigger, overarching sort of metaphysical questions, and that’s one task to figure out. And then there’s the other task which feels parallel, and that’s how to act and how to live and how to be. And a lot of people think that if you don’t know what you think about the metaphysical reality, then you’re not going to know how to act and how to be. And I reject that notion. I think that there’s plenty of evidence around us naturally occurring, no matter who you think made it, either a bang or chance or an author, that there’s plenty of information to discern how to live. And Christians, and certainly Christians that I know and grew up with, reject that notion; they think God is the author of morality. I don’t know about that, but I know how to live. And it’s empathy and it’s the Golden Rule, as it’s found in a dozen different religions.

And with the metaphysical stuff, I’m really fascinated to just keep on figuring it out. I have no idea. It doesn’t seem likely to me like the Bible is God’s word, and what follows from that. But I still read it all the time, because, of course, that’s the document that I know the best and I grew up on, and it’s still endlessly fascinating to me. I’m trying to figure out how to interact with people who do believe it’s God’s word, and I care what happens with them and their movement. It can be a force of profound good in the world.

The answer is pretty much that the verdict is totally out. But like I said before, that’s a pretty radical departure from what I used to be, and it actually feels more radical than the pendulum swinging exactly in the opposite direction. To land squarely on “I don’t know” and to reserve judgment for an extended period of time is a very difficult thing to do. But it’s a real value of mine, and I would challenge people to do it more—that if you don’t know the answer you’ve just got to leave it blank. And as much as that burns, and as much as that puts you at odds with people, in my opinion it’s the right way to be, so I’m trying to do that.

Paste: What do you think is dangerous about Christianity?

Bazan: Wow. Well, recently, the sort of union between the evangelical church and the Republican Party has been a really profoundly negative development. And that it contradicts nearly every teaching in the Bible, both Old and New Testament, just makes it that much more, “What the fuck? How did that happen?” But there’s a lot of upheaval happening right now because the Reagan era ended last year, and with it that coalition really got shot through, I think. To me, that’s a good thing; it gives these folks a chance to really rethink it. It’s a lot more difficult to be self-assured in these completely wrongheaded beliefs when you’re not winning. But thankfully we’re in a period where people are starting to be a little more reflective about those inconsistencies between the document that they ostensibly believe in and the sort of cultural, social identity that they’ve cobbled together for themselves.

Paste: And what good do you think comes from Christianity?

Bazan: If anybody really gets down with Jesus’ teachings, whether they’re historically accurate or not, there are some pretty profound things there. When you really try to figure out how to love your neighbor as yourself. I mean, my whole ethical system still originates there. In the song “When We Fell,” I make reference to a couple of “beautiful truths,” and some people have interpreted it as I no longer believe in those beautiful truths, that I saw the flaw in them somehow, and that’s not true at all. If you stack up the “love your neighbor as yourself,” which is followed up by the Good Samaritan, with the parable of the man who’s been forgiven much but is incapable of forgiving even a little, there are some ethical mandates in there that are really beautiful. And I’ve seen them at work in Christian people, and it can be such a beautiful thing…There are some really profound lessons to be learned from the gospels, and when you see that happening in people it’s really great, and I would love to see it more. Even though I don’t necessarily believe that all that stuff really happened that way, if someone does, we’re on the same team.

Paste: What’s your reaction to the recent Chicago Reader story, and specifically the claim that you “broke up with God”?

Bazan: My initial reaction is that’s very entertaining to me. I don’t have any objection to that. Jessica [Hopper], as she said in the story, we’ve known each other for a long time and she’s one of my favorite people, and part of the reason is because she’s just so damn entertaining all the time. She’s just a hoot, and so I’m warmed by that. When I read that, I thought, “Oh, that’s funny.” Because on some level I’m only developing a sense now of what the record is. And [Hopper] as my publicist back in the day, that was a lot of what I would glean from her as I would make the record—I’d have no distance whatsoever, and then we would have conversations about it and try to figure out, “OK, what’s the story of this record for the press?” and it was only then when I would see any overarching theme or concept. So that was one of the first times that I realized, “Oh yeah, this could be seen as that. It’s not inaccurate.” In large part because I am singing to God often in the record, or to a version of God, which in the end, maybe the real statement of the songs is that it’s this version of god that I don’t buy, but in the moment I am singing to that version…Other people probably have a better perspective of how accurate that is.

Paste: So to be more specific, have you broken up with God? Have you cut those strings?

Bazan: The answer is yes and no. In the song “When We Fell,” I’m cutting strings with that version of god, only to find out that there could be another version of him that is truer or something. So there’s a sense that yeah, who I understood him to be all these years, I have broken up with that idea. But like I said, I’m kind of plagued with the perception that there is one. So I’m now trying to figure out, who could that being be, given the data that we have available to us. It’s a double-minded, convoluted process, but one that I’m trying to do and take seriously. I have broken up with the literal, Bible version of Jehova, but I’m partially hopeful that there’s another version of him out there. The real trick is that I’ve been cultivating a report with somebody all this time, and I’m really unwilling to give up on that part of it. Sometimes I’m horrified by the notion that it’s just some other aspect of myself that has been happening, but most of the time I can’t accept that, so I just don’t know. I always defer to my view of god when trying to figure out something I don’t understand, and I find myself doing that even when it’s trying to figure out who this thing could be. Believe me, personally, I wish I had a more concise answer, because I don’t have one. But I will say that I feel a lot more at ease and at peace with this non-answer than I did before.

Paste: Where would you like to be?

Bazan: I’m at ease with this posture of collecting data. You make little discoveries all the time. If I do cobble together a cohesive answer I’ll be fine with that too. I don’t want to stay in the wilderness if I don’t have to. I guess I’m just leaving the blanks blank until I feel it’s reasonable to fill them in, I’m comfortable with that. And if some of those blanks get filled in, that’s also totally great. Very slippery answers on this one!

Paste: Do you pray?

Bazan: Yeah, I do. But it’s a really double-minded thing. One aspect of it is that before, I had a pretty regular, multiple times a day, feeling of gratitude just for life and the earth and things and expressing that gratitude to, at that point, Jehova. And there was a period where I just didn’t have any place for that to go. Now I express that to the great It in the Somewhere Out There. I’m really grateful. I feel so much gratitude for being alive, and the world is so beautiful, so that’s one aspect that’s pretty uncomplicated. Except that sometimes buddies would say, “Well if you’re happy for the trees, be grateful to the trees.” And that seems interesting to me, but I have this other habit that I’ve had for 20 years, you know? It still feels right to do.

Paste: In what ways does fatherhood affect the questions and perceptions you have about God and the Bible?

Bazan: Maybe it’s a bad analogy and that’s part of what’s wrong with the way I thought about it, but they talk a lot about God’s relationship to his children, being believers, and they draw a lot of parallels about a nurturing father figure. And as I had my own kids and thought, “What’s my responsibility?” I guess one of the questions I came up with is, at what point would I put an ultimate test out for my daughter, that if she passed the test then we would live in harmony, and if she failed the test then we would be cut off for all time, until some point where I was able to give her yet another test, and then if she failed that one, then we would be separated for all eternity? At what point would I do that in her development? And the answer came back, at no point would I do that. Certainly not in her innocence, which Adam and Eve were, according to the story, in their innocence. Because the process of moving from innocence into knowledge is usually trial and error, and if they had not yet sinned, how could they know anything? They just had this one sort of rule. So in my thinking, in their innocence, God ostensibly put a test in front of these beloved children of his, that he knew they were going to fail. And it just falls apart completely looking at my own child. I would never do that.

And people say, “Oh, well, you’re just projecting yourself on God,” or whatever, but in my opinion, that’s what the history of biblical record is—people projecting themselves on God—and who’s to say that that was not done originally? That’s all I have to go on. I perceive that if God exists and he offers all of this incredible stuff, that he’s going to represent the best and the highest virtue in humanity and not the lowest, most fearful, vindictive aspects of humanity.

Sorry, this is getting a little crazy—but also, if we’re meant to love this being naturally, not just out of a sense of duty or fear that we have to, if we’re supposed to be inspired to love him in a profound way, I personally can’t be in love with that. I’m not compelled to love that kind of being who would do that kind of thing. So I just reason, then that’s not who that is. At the very least, those contradictions can’t exist together. So one or the other—either the guy’s a bastard and we’re not gonna love him, or he’s not, or he’s not there at all. I really don’t know, but these are the things, looking at my own children and thinking, when they’re 18 I want them to stay living at home. I’m going to be so bummed when they go.

It’s a weird thing to be having conversations with writers from magazines about this stuff as part of the promotion for a record. I feel uneasy about it, but at the same time, I like talking with you here… I’m torn about it, but I feel like it’s a conversation people should be having. I don’t want to exploit any of this stuff with “go buy this record.” But probably with what we’re doing here, people will read the first sentence of something I say and feel like it’s so tedious they just skip it [laughs].

Paste: Drinking has been a recurring theme in your songs, and it comes up throughout the new record. How is alcohol affecting you and your songwriting now?

Bazan: It’s a funny thing—it’s its own sort of relationship that has its own arc. I guess my perception of that arc is that foolishly, I developed a pretty wicked drinking habit when things were good, and then when things got bad—me and [bandmate T.W.] Walsh breaking up and then me and capital G-O-D (that’s my own joking reference to the Hebrew tradition of not saying the name, by the way), when both those things happened I also happened to have a 10+ a day drink habit, which turned pretty dark. So at a certain point when I was able to relieve some of the cognitive dissonance that I had, there’s the AA test of can you have one beer and then walk away, and the answer now is yes. I remember what that compulsion to get blacked out felt like, and I don’t have that now. And now for me what seems more key is that I can have three beers and then stop, when before there was always that feeling of driving home at 2am hammered, and thinking, “Man, where can I get more booze?” Because after I’d had four or five or eight, you just always wanted more and more and more. Now I’m talking my buddies out of it, “We’re fine. We don’t need anymore. You’re drunk, it’s cool. Let’s just go to bed.” For me, it feels good because I don’t have what feels like a problem. I still drink; I still have four or five in an evening on occasion, but it feels like a healthy relationship with it. That said, it’s something I’m really sensitive about, because it can’t go bad again. It was too hard on my wife. I’m really grateful to her for her patience in all of that. And she feels good about it; there are no warning signs for her. So now I just keep on doing my thing. I’m glad that I didn’t ruin my ability to drink as far as I can tell, because I enjoy having a beer. It’s a very relaxing thing.

Paste: On a lighter note, what have you been listening to lately?

Bazan: In the car we have a rotating thing of this Gonzales Solo Piano record, the Daniel Lanois record called Shine and this Innocence Mission record called [We Walked In Song]. Those are the records that calm our nine-week-old son down, so we listen to that when he gets frustrated.

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