David Bazan shares some stories in advance of the Denver Music Summit this weekend
David Bazan (due this Saturday, November 23, at the Denver Music Summit) is perhaps best known for his songwriting for Pedro the Lion. His skill in crafting delicate, gently evocative music with subtle but powerful emotional resonance earned him fans and critical accolades from early on. Although Pedro was ostensibly a Christian act, Bazan's sentiments came from a deeper place that he has continued to develop as his career has moved on.
Ever since Pedro split, Bazan has been a more or less solo performer playing shows under his own name. Recently, Bazan has collaborated with Will Johnson of Centro-Matic fame and Bubba and Matt Kadane of Bedhead for the band Overseas.
For this appearance at this weekend's Denver Music Summit, Bazan will tell stories from his long career as a musician, navigating the various aspects of the music industry, as well as perform songs. We recently spoke with the soft-spoken and genuinely humble songwriter about his roots within and out of the Christian music world, why he loves playing house shows and how he has been teaching himself to be a better musician.
Westword: Were you in bands before forming Pedro the Lion?
David Bazan: I was. Maybe the one band of my own which was basically two of the same five guys who were the original members of Pedro the Lion. It was in high school and short-lived. Then I was in a band with a drummer for a long time. Actually with Damien Jurado, and we met in high school.
It was kind of a post-punk band, from '91 to I think '97 or so. We rehearsed weekly and played several shows a year with that band. It had three different names over the course of its life. It's most recent name was Coolidge, and before that it was Linus. But there were two or three other bands with that name. The original name was The Guilty.
Did you have any misconceptions about being a musician then that you find interesting or amusing now?
Not really. It took me a while to realize that the rehearsals with that band were so much fun. Shows were rarely as cathartic or as fun as the rehearsals, and once we played more shows, we got to the point, not that the shows were bad, but that the rehearsals were so great, and we were always writing new stuff, and we felt really connected. I think that really informed my expectations for playing music. I was in marching band and stuff like that, so I had an ethic for rehearsal.
Once I started getting out on the road with Pedro the Lion, it was just fantastic. The nuts and bolts of every day seemed to function as I thought it would. You drive the van, you load in your stuff. Over the years, I feel I tried to be smarter and smarter about that. It's kind of dumb to talk about this stuff, but learning as a guitarist that you don't want to roll in there with a Fender Bassman on seven every night, because you have a sound guy, and it sounds great at the rehearsal space, but it's just too fucking loud to work at most clubs.
Little things like that were what I was aware of and thinking of. So I would learn lessons like that, and that gives you an idea about where my head was. When I started touring, I didn't drink at all. I wasn't out to see the sights and get to know towns; I was just out to play the shows. That worked really well, and I was happy to get to do that. My task seemed to be to make my life easier on the road, and once I was able to do that, I made some headway. So there weren't really any big misconceptions. Just little lessons that needed to be absorbed.
What kinds of shows did you play early on in the Seattle area?
The band that I was in, we were all Christians and all loosely attended this one church that had this thriving music scene that revolved around it, so they were mostly either house shows that were sort of part of that scene of musicians and bands, or it would be shows at the venue that the church kind of had or ran. The church was called Calvary Fellowship, and the place that we played was called Rockhaus.
Having been to a lot of other church venues throughout the years, it struck me as being really kind of an organic music scene and not really heavy-handed in a cheesy way. I'm sure looking back with my eyes now, I would see things differently. But compared to other things within that culture, I was really happy to be part of that thing, and that was where I had my first solo shows as well.
Your first Pedro album came out on Tooth & Nail. Did you feel that you had to alter your material, presumably not, when you went to a more commercial label?
You know, I haven't been that smart about that, or even really capable of making changes like that. If you listen to the EP that I put out on Tooth & Nail compared to all the other music that was going on, it's really different. It's very inward and kind of strange-sounding. Even the kind of way I tried to do Christian songwriting was from the back door, in a funny way.
So, no, I just did what seemed right to me to do. But then, right around that time, I realized I didn't want to put out my records in the Christian market. I just wanted to play rock clubs and put out my records at Tower Records, rest in peace, or the like. So that was all happening at the same time -- all those realizations. I always had the inclination, but I realized just how important that was to me, and it was a deal breaker.
Why was it important to you to have your records available at Tower or some other chain store?
One can sort of innately feel that Christian culture is a bit of a ghetto. You already sort of bumped into the small-mindedness of certain people. I was already getting letters sent to me after the Tooth & Nail release that some people were saying nice things, but other people were saying negative things, like saying I was demonically possessed and that the music was a little ambiguous and all this stuff.
I sensed, intuitively, that it would not be a place where you could thrive if you wanted to be thoughtful and creative. Also, I saw, growing up, Christianity as sort of a cloister, and I didn't think, at the time, that that was good or healthy, and I thought that if this thing is real, you can break out of that cloister, and it will still be real, and you can join the world and participate in the world at large, as I wanted to.
You were doing music that wasn't necessarily quiet but not as raucous as a lot of the music popular at the time. How did people respond to you at those rock clubs?
It was interesting. I perceived that what I was doing was songs that were slow and plodding and melancholy. It wasn't like an aesthetic choice to do that, that's just how things came out when I played something that I liked and wrote it down. I was constantly surprised. There was a memorable moment at the house I lived in. There was a band that was great, and they were a metal band, but it was slow and sludgy, and this would have been in '96 or '97.
It was really unique and they were really fucking good. I was a little intimidated by them because to the degree they knew about my music, they would think it was bullshit. I assumed that was a safe assumption. So, one day, I came home, and was making a sandwich, and they were rehearsing in the main room. They got done playing, and the bass player, who I knew, introduced us, and they all said, "Oh, we're big fans." I honestly though they were making fun and being facetious because I just couldn't imagine that they would actually like it.
So there were people that liked the music that I was making, but I was always a little surprised. Then once the response was pretty positive, I started being able to accept that I was making music that I liked and that other people liked it, too, and I started getting more confident.