David Bazan

Interview by Aline Giordano

David BazanEvery so often, you get the chance to interview a genuine artist; passionate about their craft, humble, kind and introspective without being self-centred; someone who takes the opportunity of an interview to have an honest chat about music and what goes hand in hand with it: reflection on life, death and our (not so) little obsessions, for example. On Thursday 31st January 2013 I met such a great man - I met David Bazan.

That was well over one year ago and, ever since, on a regular basis, I’ve fought with myself over how best to write this interview. I’d regularly write notes about it but end up with unanswered questions: How can my humble words do justice to this great man? Should I transcribe the interview and post it verbatim? Should I envelop it with my own words and all the care and love I have for Bazan and his music? Are spoken words meant to be written down? Will I betray Bazan’s privacy if I write about his telephone conversation with his family before sound-check? I‘ve never felt so much responsibility to produce something good. Bazan generously offers to talk about his private life during the interview so what would be the point of mentioning his tender telephone conversation with his children? To portray Bazan as a responsible and caring father? And so now would probably be a good time to launch into Bazan’s long battle with alcoholism to add to the dramatic effect. But what would be the point of that? I’d rather listen to ‘Won’t let go’ instead and weep:

when you get this message
i’ll be high above the earth
thinking ‘bout the promises that I keep
when I touch down in texas
land in dallas/fort worth
i will call you up
and wake you up from your sleep
i will not let go of you
(Bazan, 2011)

So, ready for my first question, I tell Bazan that if Kurt Cobain were still alive, he might be under a lot of pressure from his record company to tour the 20th anniversary of ‘Nevermind’. I add that I don't get a sense that it's about ‘cashing in’ for him, or at least, that it’s the main reason for him to tour ‘Control’ which was originally released in 2002. Then I ask him: “You sing those songs, does it move you in the same way as it did move you at the time? Are they the same feelings, different ones? Grown up feelings? How do you deal with the nostalgia of playing old songs?”

David Bazan: “Let me talk about how we came to play that record all the way through because it's part of the answer to that question. We re-released all the Pedro The Lion vinyls because they'd been out of print and some copies of ‘Control’ were going for hundreds of dollars on eBay. So, we wanted to do that but there were going to be big enough financial risks. There was a period where it looked like the label was going to fund the re-release, and they wanted reassurances that we were going to promote the re-releases appropriately and it changed to: we, my manager and I, were going to fund the re-releases. So we obviously had an interest in making sure that we would not lose all of that money. So we came up with the idea of playing ‘Control’ all the way through. For a lot of reasons we chose that record. One, it so happens that it is the only record that I can play every song on, because I have changed my mind about certain things, or because I just don't like some of the songs on the other records. That was really important to me, that if I was to commit to something like that there was at least the possibility that I could engage with it in a more… kind of… more ‘in the moment’ rather than referencing nostalgic feelings that I have for it; or even drawing so much on the nostalgic feelings that the audience had. It was important to me that it was at least possible for me to have a new, current relationship with each song. Also it was 10 years old, a nice round number. It was also the most popular Pedro The Lion record so it would be a good way to highlight that. So I agreed to it. And then came the realisation that I would have to play these 10/12 year old songs every night. I was kind of worried because for me I didn't really want it to be about nostalgia. I had agreed to do it for all these reasons and I suppose nostalgia itself informed some of those other things that re-release themselves. But you know going out for six weeks and playing music every night, I have a lot of self-loathing that I feel and if I am able to really engage with the music and feel the feelings that fully embody the tunes than I can forget about self-loathing, then it's enjoyable and cathartic. But it's a sort of safety valve for me to not be pretending on stage because I just hate myself so much when I'm not… If I can forget about all the things that I don't like about myself by just really sinking my whole self into each song then I like it a lot and I tour so much that I have to do that. I was worried that I would be embarrassed or I would not be able to connect with the songs. To finally answer your question: I’m a grown-up now 10 years later and I wasn’t exactly a grown-up then, I was 24, 25, 26… I hadn’t had kids yet, which does not make one a grown-up necessarily, but for me it was part of becoming a grown-up… [silence] How do you even describe it? Things are heavier in general the way that I feel about the world, I have much more hope than I did. I didn’t not have hope when I was 25, I was just blissfully unaware that so much hope was needed to engage with the world. Through that lens, interacting with the record, every night, I really was able to see new things in it. And I’m really grateful for the writing of it in the first place, because I could, with my now grown-up mind, engage with all the themes and they felt deeper than they had when I was 25. You know, death, I may be less afraid of it than when I was younger but also now my own death, I feel like I am less afraid of it.”

So now is a good time to mention the kids…

just calm down you’ll be alright
several friends came to his grave
his children were so well behaved
as the priest got up to speak
the assembly craved relief
but he himself had given up
so instead he offered them this bitter cup
you’re gonna die
we’re all gonna die
could be twenty years could be tonight
(Bazan, 2002)

David Bazan: “Because I have kids my own death would mean hardship for them, so I’d prefer not to die while they are young for their sake. But my own concerns about after life, I don’t have my own fear about the end of my consciousness, or whatever. If I knew I was going to die, my last thoughts would be regret that they were not going to be taken care of the way they might be if their dad was around. I have less fear existentially about death but when I sing ‘Priests and Paramedics’ I’m thinking about my kids, you know because the narrative of the guy in the song deals with his kids. My situation is obviously different because my wife is not wanting to murder me! You know… Which is good! [we laugh] I’m very grateful for that… but everything was heavier to me. So, that was a nice surprise. I really went about the process as earnestly as I knew how because I didn’t want to just show up and just put on a show. I really wanted to engage and I was concerned that it might not be possible to with every song but as it turns out it was possible and it was actually maybe a little bit more meaningful. There was something about the writing of it in the first place that was… I was… projecting things that I didn’t totally know about all the way and maybe I don’t know them all the way now either…. but…”

Let me rewind a little bit. I did feel uncomfortable when Bazan declared he has so much self-loathing… I didn’t expect him to be so open and matter-of-fact about to it so early in the interview. But this interview is about honesty - mine as much as Bazan’s - and self-loathing – yes, mine as much as Bazan’s. When I asked him if he could spare me ten minutes for an interview, I casually dropped in the conversation that I had interviewed Vic Chesnutt and Guy Piccotio from Fugazi. On the one hand I figured that I needed to mention this so that Bazan would feel more inclined to talk to me, but then again I felt a complete apostate. How many times will I use Vic Chesnutt as my trump card and ticket in? I feel a cheat.

any minute you’ll go on to your reward
and someone else is gonna make the call
in these strange negotiations
(Bazan, 2011)

Am I good enough? Is my writing going to be faithful? Faithful to how I imagined him to be and how I found him to actually be. A truly inspiring artist. So as the days succeed one another, my interview with Bazan is not progressing much. And I’m pompously thinking, let’s make it my last one and write ‘sublimely’ about music. But I realise I could be well out of my depth here. The battle carries on and I understand now what I’m battling against. I cannot capture the complexity and the subtlety of an artist’s craft in thirty minutes. Could one year of my own wrestling help in any way? I don’t know. Let’s go back to ‘Control’ for the time being.

David Bazan: “It was a much more political record and my political views haven't really changed. So it's much easier to sing songs from that record because there aren't any faith statements that I now disagree with. You know, the only record that has those on is ‘It’s Hard to Find a Friend’, the first full length, because even though ‘Winners Never Quit’ is kind of religious in its subtext it is critical of American Evangelical Christianity. With ‘Control’ specifically, we just got done playing it all the way through every night with the band in the United States in November and December, and I had no trouble singing those lyrics. I know the grit of married life, and you see how things are going, how it’s not necessarily way better than you expected. It’s not necessarily way worse, it’s just way more complicated. When I’m singing ‘Rejoice’ when I’m 25, it was a little bit bratty or something and at 37 now, it’s ambivalent and there’s grief in it but there’s also hope. All of these things that I am able to feel more deeply.”

wouldn’t it be so wonderful if everything were meaningless 
but everything is so meaningful and most everything turns to shit
rejoice
(Bazan, 2002)

I tell Bazan that this is testimony to the power of the album and his old songs. They have a meaning of their own and anybody can tap in and feel in their own experiences, let alone himself a decade later… Even though this was not a happy place at the time and it might still not be a happy place, I sense that it enables him to be more creative.

David Bazan: “Yeah, even with just a creative interpretation of the music and even if I’m not changing much audibly for the audience. You know, I tried to write a record that I liked at the time and I was grateful ten years later that I had - even naively - as I see myself ten years later. I see how naïve I was but I’m grateful that I was as earnest as I was because I was able to revisit it and it felt good.”

I have two questions for David Bazan written down on my sheet of paper - something of a habit of late. I figured that if I had a long list of questions these would govern the direction of the interview, being too concerned about getting to the bottom of the list. Instead I have a rough idea (or two) of where I’d like it to go but I let the interviewee take me where they wish. It works well most of the time. But this requires a lot of spontaneity and I know I have to be prepared for the odd awkward moment which makes you exposed. Such as when I tell him that I had a two-hour car journey to come to see him. I took the opportunity to listen to ‘Control’ in the car at maximum volume! Something he acknowledges with a large smile. And then I tell him the truth about how I feel about ‘Control’: “The songs that really talk to me emotionally are actually the weakest in terms of sound in a strange kind of way, the rest is absolutely amazing… but ‘Priest and Paramedics’ is a bit of a let down…”

David Bazan thanks me… (for my honesty?) and says: “‘Priest’ is funny. I started to play it finger style on the acoustic guitar and it’s taken on a different life but I felt it stripped away the emotions that are there in the song. I wanted to have a more intimate version but we ended up doing it like on the record. But yeah, I feel that way too about it.”

Now that we’re comfortable - Bazan is sitting on a stool, kindly holding my recorder close to his mouth and checking the recording level every so often - he is so kind and considerate. He even asked for my name. He said it and then asked if he pronounced it well. How refreshing! It’s time to ask the second question on my list: “What’s the relationship between David Bazan and his fans?"

David Bazan: “When I think of fans, I think of groups. It’s difficult for me to know what characteristics that group has because when I interact with people one-on-one, there’s such a huge variety of people. When I first began it was only Christian people who knew about my band. And then by 1998/1999, other people outside of that world began to hear about the record and the band, and would come to see the shows and buy the records and so from that point on I didn’t know who it was. Was it the Christian people? Was it new fans who were secular? We had merch sellers who would do a rough guestimate of our shows - a very Christian show as a lot of people came to the table were clearly Christians because of the questions that they asked - or the other way. In our camp there was a desire for it just to be more regular people, even if they happened to be Christians too. So, that’s a part of the dynamic of my interaction with fans. When I put out ‘Curse your branches’ I assumed that anybody who considered themselves Christian would reject it and as it turns out there’s a lot of Christian people and Christian publications who, in spite of the fact that the record is so negative about Christianity, found it comforting, whilst they were still believers. So my experience with my fans is one of surprise at how untypical people can be.”

I can’t help it but I need to tease him, so I add: “When you say that Christian people actually respect your album. Is it because they are nice people, intelligent people who are respectful of one person’s opinion or because they naively believe that it’s ‘God’s will’?”

David Bazan [with a twinkle in his eyes]: “You know, there is a little bit of that! In 1997 when I put out my EP, I got a letter from a girl who told me that I was a demon possessed because of the lyrical content on the record. There’s always been a minority, but a very loud minority of people who are extremely critical of your point of view. By the time ‘Control’ came out people were starting to come out of the woodwork and be very critical. At shows on that first tour in 2002, I’d have five to thirty people every night put their collective finger in my chest and say “what you’re doing is wrong, you shouldn’t swear on records” - all these kind of superficial things. They were just agitated by the record and were unhappy with me so that’s always been a feature of my interaction with fans.”

At this point I let Bazan know that I’m very much aware he probably has plenty of things to do - such as phone his kids. So I suggest that we could stop here or could carry on. “Ok. We can go ahead”, he enthusiastically replies. All of a sudden I realise I’ve run out of questions but I know there is something else I wanted to ask him but can’t quite remember! So, after an awkward pause and a nervous laugh I admit that he’s already answered all my questions. Kindly helping me out, he offers a few more words of wisdom:

David Bazan: “Let me say one more thing about the fan thing then. Growing up in church the way that I did, with my parents being a part of the leadership of the church we were at, I always knew there were some negative voices but you just kind of not worried about it.”

I hesitate to ask, and then I do: “From your parents?”

David Bazan: “No, directed toward my parents because they were arm staff at the church, so there would be petty people who would throw stones to cause trouble. So I learned from a young age not to take those critical voices all that seriously. But mostly what I remember is back to ‘Curse your branches’ how much more nuanced the world really was when that record came out. Way more people resonated with the concerns on the record than I had ever thought. I was so surprised at how it wasn’t a polarising record. It brought some of those people who were still believers kind of together with the people that were in the grey kind of area. So it is easy to talk about the negativity but I’ve really been surprised and encouraged by just how thoughtful more people are than I thought.”

And then it comes back to me… I remember what it is I wanted to ask him: “I’d like to explore the notion of ‘necessity’ in the arts… What does that word ‘necessity’ represent for you?

David Bazan: “…interesting.”

I can see that he is really taken by the question and still thinking about an answer so I offer a prompt: “Is it a necessity to play music, to write music… is it cathartic, cleansing, reaching to those unhappy places so that you can carry on… This and may be anything else that you feel this might be?”

David Bazan [very long pause]: “You know, it’s a delicate thing to balance. I make music. And it’s been my living for 15 years or so. It’s a delicate balance to attempt to make art and for it to be your living because of the obvious profit motive that can come in and change the way that you think about presenting yourself or your work. So there’s been an attempt over the last few years to boil things down to the bare necessities in terms of touring. I play a lot of house shows in the United States without my band. I’m touring by myself because I want to stay as far away from that pressure of money affecting the work. So I think balancing the needs of my family and also my desire to not…. ever feel … I don’t know how to describe it… for instance when I realised ‘Curse your branches’ was going to be about what the record is about - religion, loss of faith and alcoholism - it just seemed horrible to me that I would ever want to make a record about that. It was a big push. It was my first solo full-length record and it was really the litmus test: Am I going to be able to do this for my living? I genuinely thought when I realised what the record was about; I thought the answer is probably no because I’m obsessed with these things and I think that it’s my own obsession that is unique and not in a great way. I just thought ‘well that’s the way it has to be’. This clearly is the record that my subconscious wanted to make. So there’s no question of whether I’m going to make this record more stylish or a little more aloof or something. I look at that moment a lot and want to make sure that I’m consistently making those choices. That I’m able to hear my subconscious, to hear my body telling me what the work that I need to do is and not ever have the voices of money and paying bills and those things to be louder than the voice of my subconscious. Obviously myself and my family have need for money but I could not keep doing it in good conscience and self-loathing would just overtake me completely if I lost sight of my need for the work to be true to my process. It is a necessity for me to keep those things in focus even though it is my job. If it dips below a certain threshold I’d have to just find another way to make a living.”

I was so lucky to share a moment with a man who, in my eyes, puts arts and ethics at the forefront of the business of pop music. He needs to make a living, he knows that, but he does it with so much respect for us, his fans. It is admirable. How do you narrate the ordinary, daily life of an extraordinary artist? How do you remain truthful to what Bazan said, sometimes with fragments of sentences, sometimes so eloquently? Bazan spoke for 30 minutes. It was the kind of invigorating conversation that you have with close friends, that type of chat where you can say what you really feel and think; that one where you know you would not have arrived at an acceptable truth had it not been for the help of your friends. After the concert, I got in my car and I could not listen to any music. Silence was all I wanted to hear after an evening with David Bazan, and in many ways it was a perfect evening. Bazan had been majestic and engaging, funny and inspiring. I had to take it all in. Only silence could help me with this difficult but exciting and invigorating task.

For more details, visit… David Bazan website

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Photograph © Aline Giordano 2013