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Why would the frontman/guitarist of a successful indie-rock group switch to bass for his solo work? Ask David Bazan, the songwriter who formerly fronted the indie-rock band Pedro the Lion and released his solo debut, Curse Your Branches, last fall.
"So much of the time I spend really loathing myself and my guitar-playing, [and I] was just trying to get back on the horse. I wanted to avoid the dynamics of what I disliked about my own performance," says Bazan. "I just had the really strong impulse to play bass; I was just obsessed with it."
As he says this, it occurs to me that Bazan doesn't make decisions lightly when it comes to his art. Each action is deliberate. And that's surprising considering that his mellow drawl makes him sound like the epitome of a "Pacific Northwest indie dude."
Not that Bazan's records haven't displayed his attention to craft; Pedro the Lion's discography found him spinning morality tales over muffled urban folk and gritty indie rock, pissing off secular hipsters by singing about God and pissing off Christian hipsters with themes of sexual perversion, murder, and scathing indictments of the right-wing political structure. For many listeners, including myself, the records challenged aspects of faith while offering something genuine, compared to the propaganda other Christian artists parade as art.
Bazan, a Phoenix native who moved to Seattle as a teen, disbanded Pedro the Lion in 2005, and Curse Your Branches, in contrast to Pedro's character studies, finds Bazan pointing his aim inward, detailing his struggles with alcohol, his family, and, most candidly, his rejection of Christianity and embrace of cautious agnosticism. I asked Bazan whether he was concerned that longtime fans might view the record as a betrayal. "I've been, pretty consistently over the years . . . somehow been able to remain pretty naive about what people are going to say and think about the record," Bazan says. "I've actively avoided thinking about that, so there's a sense that even when my brain does go there, it goes there in a very un-thorough manner."
Bazan says that as the album came together, he began to view his statements as far less heretical. "It's funny, because [with] certain lyrics, I'm ostensibly speaking to God, but in actual terms, I feel like I was speaking to a characterization [of God]. And by saying those things to that characterization of God, it was my way of saying, 'This characterization is not valid, or I don't believe this is true.' Ultimately, it didn't feel like rebellion or the kind of thing my younger self would have been afraid of being struck by lightning for."
In the live setting, Bazan says, he's working on maintaining his dedication to his songs, bringing up his time in the Undertow Orchestra, a collaborative tour featuring Bazan, the late Vic Chesnutt, Will Johnson of Centro-matic, and Mark Eitzel of American Music Club. "One of the things that was most remarkable was the transformation Eitzel made every night, [into someone] who savored every word, and [despite] whatever he felt about it when he wrote it . . . He just sank himself completely into those tunes." Bazan pauses.
"I've been working on cultivating that, because what are you doing if you're not doing that? What are you up to if you don't believe in your tunes? Some nights it's harder to do that because the self-loathing is stronger than any other thing, but most nights recently, it's been like, 'Okay, man, your job is to be a fool for these songs.'"