QUITTERS NEVER WIN David Bazan

Much-loved, yet still
sometimes crucified for his teachings, the former Pedro the Lion mainman offers
an intimate glimpse of his personal life. Spring tour in progress.

 

BY RANDY HARWARD

 

The day David Bazan’s paid persuader called, my top floor
apartment was awash in brilliant, oppressive light, like in all the Jesus
pictures. Had I received the new Pedro the Lion album from Jade Tree? (Again? That’s three.) The tour-only live EP? Burned bootleg? Solo
EP? Yeah. I did.

 

Bazan’s publicist was friend enough to know my chronic
aversion to religion (disastrous Mormon upbringing, born-again detour) and that
I thought his client was another Christian-not-Christian nitwit that, when he
could resist slavishly praising Lord, cloaked his evangelism is so-so poetry-thus
having the best of both worlds.

 

Preach not, lest he be judged. 

 

Six years prior, I’d dismissed Pedro the Lion’s 2000 album Winners Never Quit because, in the first
song, Bazan’s weary voice invoked Jesus, and not in vain. Winners’ religious references are scanty and shaky-I know now. I didn’t care then. Hearing “the good
lord” in another song was all I needed to ratify my reaction. I ignored Pedro
until that day.

 

The lobbyist talked me into playing Pedro’s then-current-and
final-album, Achilles Heel. And Bazan’s
solo EP, Fewer Moving Parts. I also
signed up to read the Bazan-centric first chapter of Andrew Beaujon’s Body Piercing Saved My Life: Inside the
Phenomenon of Christian Rock
and watch a documentary (Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?). Hype Man succeeded
because he was sincere.

 

I still thought he’d guzzled the Kool-Aid. Or he was
desperate to overcome the stigma that dogged Christian-not-Christian
singer-songwriters since the Bush backlash and had hit Bazan via Pitchfork. Really, he was looking out
for a friend whose talent and true character were overlooked by shortsighted,
lazy media pricks like me.

 

Cynical, hipster music journos are accustomed to watching talent
fall through the cracks. There’s only so much space in the magazine. You wanna
get our attention? Supplement your music with a shocking but meaningful act.
Biting the head off a bat, smearing oneself in peanut butter? Simply cool.
Going to the Cornerstone Festival-the world’s premier Christian rock
gathering-and dropping the f-bomb in a song that makes a salient point about
the folly of organized religion? Balls to
that, mate.
“Foregone Conclusions” goes like this:

 

You were too busy
steering

The conversation
toward the Lord

To hear the voice of
the spirit

Telling you to shut
the fuck up.
   

 

Beaujon wrote that Bazan’s lyric garnered “delighted
squeals… and four pairs of panties.” I’d have tossed mine at Bazan, too. The
line encapsulated my frustration with pious ostensible know-betters, put them
firmly in place. Clearly it rang true for at least four female fans-huge, at Cornerstone. David Bazan is a
rock star and a pariah, very real in thought and deed. I’d missed out.

 

***

 

One month later, Bazan’s gray Kia slices through queued cabs
and shuttles, up to the curb at the Seattle-Tacoma airport. Soon we’re on Highway
99, following the Puget Sound toward
Seattle’s Queen Anne district and a Mexican dinner at Mama’s. Over margaritas-the
first of several, plus a few beers, he says of his personal peanut gallery.

 

“Fuck ‘em.”

 

Pitchfork editor Ryan
Schreiber and writer Brent DiCrescenzo criticized Bazan for his faith. Former
Pedro fans condemned Bazan’s open skepticism. Evangelical Christians believe leading
someone away from Jesus is involuntary
manslaughter-“Their blood is on your hands,” my deadbeat dad used to say. So one
ex-fan, online, called Bazan a “tool of Satan.” Most fans stayed loyal, so Bazan
feels it’s safe to jettison some who would buy or help sell his music; it
wasn’t just dialogue.

 

Besides, he said more shocking things on Fewer Moving Parts. In “Selling
Advertising,” he cold-cocks Schreiber: “Am I a Christian?/Are you a Jew?/Did
you kill my Lord?/Must I forgive you?” The title track, about Pedro’s demise,
proclaims, “I still run the show.” Tit-for-tat songwriting? At face value.

 

Sadly, that’s often how people take Bazan-but he’s the
singer-songwriter Transformer; there’s more than meets the eye. “Selling
Advertising” indicts lazy journalism in what purports to be a music authority. Breaking
up Pedro wasn’t easy: “Fewer moving parts/Means fewer broken pieces.” He’s on a
road paved with rusty nails. Why drag someone along? “Faith is personal,” says
Bazan, who sings about it because “I’m trying to be honest” with the people who’ve
really listened to his music since the beginning.

 

In the beginning (1997), there was the Whole EP. Pedro’s debut, considered their most “Christian” work.
The booklet shows Bazan as a skinny kid, beardless, twinkle in his eye –Jesus? Yet “Lullaby” shows conflict (“When
will I learn to obey”) and “Hole” flickers doubt (“If you’ve got proof I will
believe”). With Whole‘s successor,
the LP It’s Hard to Find A Friend, the band became a virtual solo act-apt,
since Friend began Bazan’s spiritual
tug-of-war in earnest. Even when T.W. Walsh, Pedro’s only official non-Bazan
member, joined, it remained a deeply individual endeavor.

 

***

 

Morning, at a coffee shop. Bazan subsists on Americano with
half-and-half. Overnight, he stressed over seeing his words in print. “They say
I contradict myself.” Sometimes he notices it, too, but he’s fine being a
paradox. “What I tell you is true for today. I may change my mind later, but
it’s how I feel now.”

 

Seven years since Whole,
six since Winners. Two years after
the Cornerstone episode, longer since he wrote “Foregone Conclusions,” one year
since the EP. Bazan’s steadily serious about seeking spiritual truth, and
giving the vaffanculo to certain
folks. Ain’t that consistent?

 

Driving around the previous day, he’d said that “agnosticism
is the only honest position.” To wit: he doesn’t know, nobody knows. Not
knowing, however, is part of the problem.

 

***

 

Contrary to her blue-jeaned, bearded, indie-rocker husband, Bazan’s
wife Ann-Krestene is modestly dressed, with sensible hair and a stern but
gentle mien. As she works in the kitchen of their split-level home in a Seattle
suburb and I play with their cherubic daughter, Ella, Bazan texts with Minus
the Bear (about remixing their song) and his friend, comedian Horatio Sanz. Soon
we adjourn to the basement studio. It’s clean, every instrument, amplifier,
pedal, tool, cable, cord and merch tub in its place. Bazan built the shelves
himself, evidently to meet the high standards of his missus.

 

I was told he’d play demos from his upcoming LP. “They’re
not ready,” he now informs me. That’s one criticism of Bazan that holds water:
he works slowly. Instead, he demonstrates his one-man operating procedure, shuffling
about the room, programming drum and keyboard loops, tuning guitars in order to
play the heart-rending “I Do” (from Achilles)
finds a man fretfully watching his son’s birth and contemplating the missteps
of his life. I presume Mrs. Bazan must not dig her husband’s itinerant
lifestyle, especially when work follows him home.

 

Later, as we browse the wine section of a chilly supermarket,
I ask Bazan if his song choice was significant. “Not really.” Although his songs
come from personal inspiration, they frequently veer into fiction. Closer to him,
he says, is his retread of “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen,” from one of his annual
Christmas singles. He added two new verses. Here’s how it ends.

 

And now my wife and
children dream

of gifts beneath the
tree

While I place in the
manger

baby Jesus figurine

Sipping Christmas
whiskey

wondering if I still
believe.

 

That’s the raw side of Bazan’s spiritual friction.
“Ann-Krestene and Ella still go to church,” he confides. There is no rancor or
judgment in his voice, but he falters, considering the pitfalls of being
unevenly yoked. Although still-faithful Ann-Krestene supports the man she loves,
Bazan is alone in his quest. Since he cherishes her and Ella, but can’t deny his
crisis, this causes him great anxiety. In a world where people attack with so
little provocation, they’re his sanctuary.

 

Everyone else? Well, you know.

 

***

 

The marquee above us spells The Big Lebowski. Bazan remarks that loves the Coen Brothers film, then
asks if I’ve seen Michel Gondry’s Eternal
Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
. Eventually I did, noting with interest that both
of his recommendations are, respectively, surrealist and neo-surrealist. The latter
is a far-out romantic drama; the former, a trippy comedy with a schlubby,
messianic protagonist against a gaggle of antagonists, one of whom happens to
be called Jesus.

 

That’s where I left David Bazan, the first time.

 

***

 

October 2007. Jade Tree has gone catalog-only; Bazan has
signed with Barsuk. His new publicist is keen to proceed with this story. I’m back
in Seattle and,
despite promises of demos-lyrics, at least-to date I’ve heard nothing.

 

Bazan presents with printed lyrics and demos in hand. It’s
as sunny as the day this journey began. We’re on a ferry to Bainbridge Island. Small
talk, easing into it-our wives and daughters are well. While I get my sea legs,
Bazan ponders whether his quotes from before ring true today. He mentions there’s
a great café on the Island, and a bakery where “they have killer cinnamon
rolls.”

 

On foot, along a winding road lined with tall, slender trees.
I ask about the current verisimilitude of “fuck ‘em.” He says it’s still true “in
my most defensive moment, but in a more balanced way… not toward other people
so much as the resistance I perceive from others. It’s not like I get all this
opposition, actually. I just anticipate it in a way that is silly.”

 

He has, since we last talked, focused more on himself.

 

After the bakery, Bazan sits for photos on a rail that
separates us from a deep gully from which tall trees thrust skyward. He eyes his
huge pastry, laughs, and captions, “Local fat-ass David Bazan…” He looks away
from the lens. I call him a dickhead; Bazan flashes feigned offense. Click. We fat-asses waddle back to the
boat.

 

More photography on the deck. In one shot, he puts out his
hands and grimaces, warding off some annoyance. The left background is washed
out; the other half is in soft focus, showing the rail, the ferry’s wake and a
shrinking island. High on coffee and sugar, Bazan karate-kicks off a staircase,
flaunting green sneakers he scored at a celebrity gifting suite. They’re
well-worn and dirty, less a famoso’s freebie than a dude’s shoes. “They’re
pretty cool,” he remarks.

 

Driving to a bar, he mea
culpas
the album delay. “I’m slow.” He fretted over the songs. Was what he
wrote what he meant? This seemed especially important for the first full LP as
“David Bazan.” It has to be perfect, but he’s not.

 

“The record,” he says, watching traffic lights and signs, “is
about God/no God, drinking, and family… politics-just barely.” The topics gave
him pause-how long has he been
talking about this stuff? Ultimately, Bazan “decided just to embrace it, even
though”-he hesitates-“it makes me feel a little vulnerable. It’s sort of
embarrassing to hash this stuff out in front of everybody. But that’s who I
am.”

 

Perhaps David Bazan has learned to believe in himself. But
isn’t pride one of the Seven Deadlies? Aren’t Christians taught to die to
themselves, put God first, neighbor second, self last? Bazan wonders if a
Godlike quality inside him is the most plausible manifestation of spirituality.
Is that evil? Yeah, to some.

 

Near the bar, Bazan poses between two dumpsters. The
graffiti on them is coincidentally prophetic. A blue one to his right says,
“SORtA”-the ‘t’ lowercase, but the bar lowered to resemble a beatific inverted
cross. The green receptacle to his left depicts a wincing Pac-Man ghost, with
“get it” scrawled in sloppy cursive. In all four photos, Bazan looks to his
right.

 

Inside, Bazan talks business with a promoter. I take my beer
to a table and snap more pictures. Bazan asks to omit these shots; he’s curbing
his drinking and his image. We each finish one pint, and split.

****

 

Evening, at friend/producer/bandmate Blake Wescott’s studio in
residential Seattle,
where Bazan’s tracking Curse Your Branches.
At the piano, he plays “Bless This Mess.” His resonant voice prays, “God bless
the man who stumbles…” He sings of a drunk with thirsty concerns, his long-suffering
wife, the child that inspires him to be a better man-after one more drink.

 

In the car the next day, he plays “Curse Your Branches,” in
which Bazan exorcises serious paranoia about his marriage and Pedro. There’s a
staggering lyric: “I’m dreaming…/Every hired gun I’ve ever fired/Is making love
to you while I look on.”

 

“She got the references,” says Bazan of his bride’s reaction.
“That was a bummer. She was so hurt; she
felt like a very loyal, supportive wife.” He knows his worry transcended silly. “It was just my neurosis, and realizing
that while I was preoccupied with the band, that I was taking my relationship
with Ann-Krestene for granted.” The hired guns are also “leaves”: “I’m the
branches, and they should curse me.”

 

He says expressing these notions frees him “from the tyranny
of the thought.” There must be an army of tyrants in his head. But it’s no
longer a concern, and he’s satisfied with incremental gains. 

 

***

 

Last day. On a log, facing the ocean and the setting sun. We
agree that “do unto others” is the only honest rule. “Jesus said the same
thing, basically. ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself, and love God with everything
that you have.’ The one is tough to do if you’re not sure God exists. Loving
your neighbor, especially from an American perspective, is such a difficult
thing to practice. It boils down to empathy… We fail at empathy in our culture.
So, so badly.”

 

“I perceive that
God exists,” Bazan says after a few moments watching the tide ebb and flow. “But
I don’t believe it.”

 

He picks up a fallen branch, pokes it at me as he talks and
I click the shutter. “I imagined God for 27 years.” He’s now 33. Does he
perceive a clearer picture or something more opaque? “It’s a different picture.” It seemed clearer
when I could just attribute to him-to it-what
I was told were its characteristics. Now it’s just the All-Seeing Eye. It’s a
much hazier picture.”

 

How about Jesus, salvation? Does he believe that? “No. Not
in the way that he was the Son of God and died on the cross for the sins of the
world. I’m not hostile to that idea, but I can’t take it seriously like I did
before.” He may not be cool with the concept, but he expresses strong opinions
about it on “When We Fell,” from Branches.
He asks God, “Did you write a riddle that you knew they would fail?”

 

It’s just his opinion, though. “I just really don’t know.”

 

****

 

Two months later, Bazan plays Salt Lake City, and entertains
audience questions-a tradition since Pedro. Fans query with genuine interest. He
responds in kind, repeating much of what he told me. They seem to adore him for
this candor, and accept his thoughtful replies. Some have dropped their crosses
to join Bazan on his journey.

 

Another sixteen months. Bazan returns to SLC for a house
concert. His questions and answers haven’t changed. Curse Your Branches has a release date and the final recording differs
only in its full-band arrangements and scant lyrical revisions. Bazan drinks
less, and kills time on tour by bicycling. He remains resolutely undecided. Performing
“Bless This Mess” in someone’s downtown loft, the final verse stands out.

 

God bless the man at
the crossroads

God bless the woman
who still can’t sleep

God bless the history
that doesn’t repeat.

 

I still don’t believe in God. But I believe in David Bazan,
and hope his prayer is answered. Eventually. By whom, I don’t care.

 

***

 

David Bazan is
currently on tour in Europe, with a U.S. tour starting early March.
Tour dates can be found at his official website.

 

[Photo Credit: Randy Harward]

 

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