David Bazan has always written about the hard stuff. With Pedro the Lion, the Seattle-based artist wrote candidly about faith, delving into subjects most people weren’t used to hearing in their Christian rock: doubt, darkness, ethical ambiguity. His moral and spiritual angst hasn’t disappeared, though his more recent releases — this year’s Care and last year’s Blanco — feel like leg-stretching, both musically and thematically. On both, Bazan fleshes out the warm electronic sound he’s been playing with on and off over the past few years. And, since publically grieving his ultimate loss of faith in 2009’s Curse Your Branches, it’s easy to speculate that he’s lately enjoyed a clearer headspace: In other words, he’s made a subtle pivot into something that feels, if not totally contented, at least a little more settled. Bazan — who appears Saturday at Club Café — took some time to talk to City Paper about all of this, plus Tom Petty, the state of evangelical Christianity, and exercising his songwriting muscles.
Last time I saw you in Pittsburgh, you covered Tom Petty’s “Climb that Hill.” Can you talk about his influence on you?
He’s the only person whose work I’ve known that intimately who’s died. I’m a big Bowie fan and a big Prince fan, but Tom Petty’s catalog I just know more intimately. It was more of a native language for me. And maybe it was because folk music — strumming an acoustic guitar, I know how to do that.
… Basically Wildflowers is how I got into it, because I didn’t listen to any secular music when I was a kid. So I didn’t know any of the earlier stuff, even the way that most people do because it’s just in the air. I was in a different air. But when Wildflowers hit me I kind of fell in love with it. … It appealed to me that he took standard — and almost stock — forms and imbued them with his real vibrant personality in a way that transcended the form. And he was able to take simple phrases and simple ways of doing things, and by being real within those forms was able to convey something totally unique and worthy of study, almost. Wildflowers is just a record of tremendous depth even though it’s really just strumming acoustic guitars to drums.
Bowie and Prince are markers of cool, but Tom Petty is accessible in a different way.
He wrote songs that everybody could connect to in the way that everybody has the feeling of being down and out … He was able to sing about that, and there’s an empathy and a sympathy that he expresses for that person in that situation, but also a dignity. … He just expresses the heartache in such a perfect way.
Tom Petty’s death feels extra painful considering how awful the world seems these days. How are you holding up in general?
I’m doing pretty good. …just personally it’s been a good two or three months, my personal relationships and how I relate to my work and stuff have all taken really positive turns, and I’ve figured out some stuff.
I know what we’re living through: We’re living though a coup. … It’s just a matter of, are these people going to be allowed to get away with it? Or if they succeed, how quickly are they going to be able to dismantle the country, what’s that going to look like for rank-and-file people? So for me, I’m just waiting to see if it’s possible that these assholes will be brought to justice. I think it’s possible, I don’t know how probable I feel it is.
… Our lives will, most likely, look very different in five years. …I mean, most likely? Shit. That’s the question, isn’t it? Is it 60-40 in favor of justice? Is it in favor of justice at all? Are we on that arc or are we in one of those spasms that ruins civilization? So yeah. I’m doing OK, but I think we’re fucked. Most likely. So what do you do? We had kids and I think that they have a chance to be helpful agents in a fucked-up future but, man, I thought they were going to have a better go then that. So now I’m just trying to prepare them for some different eventualities. Or how to fucking farm.
You’ll always have ties to evangelicalism in some way or another …
I will, yeah.
You’ve talked in the past about holding some hope and affection for the church, but did the fact that around 70 percent of evangelicals (who voted) voted for Trump crystallize any feelings about the church for you?
In the past I was a little more hopeful, not in terms of any personal participation in Christianity as a believer, but as a sideliner kind of cheering on Christianity at large to continue to get better. And then the election of Donald Trump, that was sort of when I started getting the sinking feeling of “You misjudged this. You were too hopeful.” So yeah, and also on the heels of it [through reading and conversations with people] I got a deeper understanding of the links between Christianity and authoritarianism and fascism, just in terms of how the different ideologies bleed into one another … The theoretical foundations of all Christianity, in the way that it’s practiced in Protestantism and Evangelicalism specifically, it’s authoritarianism. And it’s scary to me. So, yeah … I’m no longer a cheerleader of the church making progress. I’m interested in seeing the gates opened up and people free to go. … I’m in a different place than I ever was before. I didn’t believe in Christianity, I didn’t think that it was a helpful ideology personally, but now I see little good in it, culturally.
And I have buddies who I respect who I think are slower to go there and quicker to say “Hey, there are aspects of this tradition that are helpful.” None of us are going to escape the Christian tradition …The air that we’re conversing in is Christendom. … We’re never going to get away from those metaphors and how we understand morality. That’s just the way that we’ve been socialized. And those can be really helpful things, but you’ve gotta get the authoritarianism out of it.
… I didn’t choose to start there and I didn’t choose to end here, I’m just following the clues as best I can, and, man, it fucking blows that the clues lead me to have such negative feelings. But there’s also freedom in it, because it’s like, “Oh, no wonder! No wonder my body works the way that it does,” and this, and this, and this. In the end I just hope for peace and for dignity and for freedom for people and for me, nowadays, that means, you gotta get out of church.
Do you still do Q&A’s at your shows?
A little less at the band shows, but yeah, there will be a bit of that.
Is there anything that strikes you about the kinds of questions people ask these days?
[Over the past year or so it’s] been a little more tense. People don’t want to talk about politics, I don’t think. It’s gotten weird, a little. Not just at my shows, but … more than ever I think people want to escape in some way, and I’m happy to give that to them. … My songs aren’t an escape to someplace, they’re still inward and dealing with fucked-up feelings, but just to be able to escape from the specific current events aspect for a minute — and maybe for me too — it’s just like, let me just feel other feelings that are a little bit more manageable, as messed up as they are. But it’s cool too, because there’s a little bit more resolution to my shows … because finally I was like, “Fuck, man, I need some kind of resolution.” I wrote a little of it into the record in Care, and now it’s a part of all the shows.
Can you say a bit about what you mean by “resolution”?
Yeah, well, I got pretty good at detailing the problem, I think. At any given point, just whatever the hard feeling is, that’s what I tend to write about, to try to unpack that…I’ve never really been good about the flip side, the moment of release. There hasn’t been a lot of release in my catalog. And I think on Care, finally, and on Blanco, there’s a song or two that offers that relief. And so now I just build that into the show so that it’s kind of like a play. If it’s a comedy and not a tragedy, you want it to lighten up at some point in time, to create tension around the conflict and then have some sort of relief, however melancholy the relief might be. At least it’s some relief. So that’s started to be a feature of my shows that give it the arc so that I don’t lean on q&a quite as much as I used to. I’m kind of aware of where I’m going in terms of tension and release at any given point during the show and Q&A is only appropriate at certain junctures now… [It can] kind of fuck up the tension-building.
What’s your approach to writing these days? It seems like you’ve been pretty prolific in the last few years.
Yeah, now I have more bandwidth to do it, and I have a different approach to it. I realized I’ve never been a process person or a plan person, I always had this sort of weird assumption or feeling that I wanted it to “be organic” so I didn’t want to force it or have some ritual. But more and more I realize that some of my instability over the years has been [because of] that … and so I’ve been finding little processes that I like … I don’t have to get locked into them, but to have some process that I’m doing, like, having a beginning, a middle, and an end in mind. I’ve been trying to make deadlines for myself and then, like … just getting the muscles working. There are other things I can do without thinking about it because I do it all the time, like performing or whatever, so why not have the same rigor to the writing? And I am loving it. It’s really cool. I don’t know why I didn’t do it before.
There’s a lot of mystery surrounding songwriting, people don’t often talk about it so practically.
Yeah, it’s a skill set. Like anything, you get the nuts and bolts down, and the various forms, and you put them all together.
I think even John Darnielle [of The Mountain Goats] was talking about this, that he had sort of built up the muscles, [and then] the [songwriting] muscles and skills were just kind of waiting for that critical content from his life. I hate to use the word “content,” sorry. But that moment of real spark and inspiration just really, [in the moment that] it’s vital that I write about this episode or set of episodes in my life, coincidentally I am the most kick-ass songwriter that I’ve ever been, and that’s a really great moment, because you have the skills to really do the thing to its fullest, and then you get a really, really great record out of it. So there does need to be some sort of magic. But that’s not magic either, that’s also the process of just knowing yourself and reading books that are helpful, or getting yourself in the way of inspiring things. There’s endless wonder and if you believe in your ability to communicate your perspective effectively, then anyone can make beautiful things. Prince or Bowie, that’s some magic pixie dust. But to be me? Anybody can get to where I’m at. Anybody at all who gets obsessed enough.