David in the Lion's Den
Christianity and rock 'n' roll have never been comfortable bedfellows. Though attempts to reconcile the two have been made repeatedly over the years, no act has successfully bridged the gap between Christian and secular music. There's a long list of those that have tried, but, whether it's Stryper or Jars of Clay or MxPx, their audiences have remained distinctly separate from the general listening public.
In the ever-elitist world of indie rock, this chasm between rockfodder and godstuff is even wider. There are examples of Christian artists who have gained the respect of the independent masses -- Sunny Day Real Estate front man Jeremy Enigk comes to mind -- but the two elements nonetheless seem permanently at odds. Stereotypically, the indie-rock audience is disenfranchised suburbanite youth who are rejecting the values of the generations that have come before, going on the theory that by evaluating and reinventing their own values they loosen the reins of their suspiciously preprogrammed belief systems. In almost all cases, this reinvention leaves behind orthodox concepts of Christianity and spirituality.
Meet 24-year-old David Bazan. Bazan is a born again Christian, as well as the only permanent member of the band Pedro the Lion. Pedro's latest album, the gently infectious Winners Never Quit, is just out on the ultra-hip Jade Tree record label, home to underground luminaries like the Promise Ring, Jets to Brazil and Joan of Arc. Bazan's religion happens to be an intrinsic part of his music, and by God, the heathen kids are into it.
Since the mid-'90s Pedro the Lion has been creating soft, intense, mostly acoustic music that is at times troubling, inspiring, and provocative, often because of the religious tint of Bazan's subject matter. Pedro's first full-length, 1998's It's Hard to Find a Friend, was rife with songs centered around faith, guilt and devotion, either in relationships with people or with God. Favorites among Christian-rock fans as well as with indie snots, Bazan's songs broach the subject of Jesus in a distinctly unorthodox manner, not through preaching or gospelizing, but by analyzing and questioning.
"My goal in treating whatever subject matter I'm writing about is to not make a definitive statement about it, but rather to poke and prod it and raise questions about it, so that people can interact with the stuff no matter where they're coming from," Bazan explains. He's well aware of the potential ire that mixing God with rock 'n' roll can inspire, but feels no compulsion to separate the two strictly for the sake of convention. "Art and rock 'n' roll are at their best when people are just allowed to express themselves in whatever way they feel necessary to do. I think that threatens some people maybe, but when people have informed opinions about my music that are negative, I really invite those."
Bazan doesn't intend to evangelize with his music; the religious aspects are not part of an agenda. "I don't choose this subject matter in the way that it's arbitrary; it's a pretty integral part of my life and the journey or whatever that I feel like I'm on," he says. Nor are the sentiments that Bazan expresses with regards to his religion what you would expect; there are far more questions than answers in his songs. "I've been sort of learning new and different things about the religion I've grown up in. On [Winners Never Quit], there's definitely some things that kind of undermine the original ideas I grew up with. That's just an important part of me expressing what I'm discovering currently."
Winners Never Quit will certainly never be filed in the gospel section of the record store. Less a record than an Aesop's fable with myriad paradoxes to contemplate, the album is a chronological story of a family's dysfunction. The lyric sheet is prefaced by the line "a good person is someone who hasn't been caught" -- not exactly the sort of thing you'd read in an Amy Grant v-card. The story noir examines the lives of two brothers, one a righteous-since-birth right-wing politician and the other a shamed criminal living in his brother's shadow.
It begins with a summation of the brothers' childhood narrated by the "good" brother on "Slow and Steady Wins the Race." The protagonist contrasts his faith and seemingly guaranteed salvation with his brother's lack of such, and as the album progresses, the contrasts grow. The songs follow one brother as he enters politics and wins elections through the twin virtues of lying and palm greasing; the other as he encounters the long arm of the law and struggles to protect his family name. The plot line spirals into adultery, murder and suicide as it progresses, leaving the listener with many perspectives but no concrete answers. "I'm leaving it open for discussion," says Bazan.
Though it's unquestionably a morality tale, where the morality lies is a gray area to say the least. The politico who sings about getting to heaven and being greeted by the angels eventually murders his wife, and in the subsequent song kills himself with the belief that he's off to heaven. On "Bad Things to Such Good People," his "bad" sibling stands in prison shoes at his brother's funeral, musing over the shame his parents feel -- "their big success is now their biggest failure/their golden child has been dethroned."
On every song, Bazan sings with an affectation appropriate to the narrative, broaching his subjects with a lyrical delicacy that allows the listener to identify with each character's sense of morality; even on "A Mind of Her Own," where the "good" brother murders his wife in first person, you can feel the husband's indignance at her unfaithfulness. It's this approach to easily inflammable subject matter that makes Bazan's most Jesus-heavy songs palatable for the masses.
Bazan gets the kids thinking, but they're listening in the first place because of his instrumental and vocal talents. Before Winners Never Quit, Pedro the Lion songs were unfailingly acoustic efforts, hampered somewhat by inexperience and a lack of production value, yet startlingly intense and endearingly personal nonetheless. With the Jade Tree debut, Pedro has augmented its assets with fidelity and a new found rock 'n' roll sensibility. The quiet numbers are still quiet, but on tracks like "A Mind of Her Own" (where the murder takes place), Pedro rocks like an indie hurricane, propelling the sentiments of the lyrics with a sinister, unrelenting guitar attack.
"I've just been slowly growing into being able to play heavier music myself without feeling contrived or weird about it," Bazan says thoughtfully. "Those things, these natural progressions that have been happening for quite a while, just kind of came together on this record to create something that's quite a bit different-sounding in certain places than people perceive me to be."
The sounds on Winners Never Quit oscillate among the naive acoustic simplicity of the opener "Slow and Steady Wins the Race," the conspiratorial pop of "Simple Economics" and "Never Leave a Job Half Done," the defeated agony of "To Protect the Family Name" and "Eye on the Finish Line," and the country balladeering of "Bad Things to Such Good People," cutting a wide swath held together by Bazan's blithe vocals, which combine the sensitive-boy cadence of Sebadoh's Lou Barlow with the range of Radiohead's Thom Yorke.
Though Pedro the Lion has built an impressive following with its last few releases, the new album will be the true litmus test of whether this Christian band can swim in adamantly secular waters. But Bazan's tenacity is undeniable -- this is what he wants to make a living doing, and to that end he's determined to navigate the unfamiliar currents carefully and thoughtfully. The task of pursuing a career in rock music is made no easier by Bazan's recent marriage -- touring just isn't good on relationships -- but Bazan has this all planned out.
"My wife -- well, then my girlfriend -- came to me and was like, 'You gotta make a decision about this,' because I was real squeamish about saying I want to do music for a living. She said to make a decision and go for it; that was probably about three and a half years ago, and I've just been going full throttle ever since. If it fizzles, I guess it's probably going to hit like a brick wall and I'll have to do something else. But I'm going for it, and if it blows up in my face, I guess there's other stuff that I feel like I'd enjoy doing."
Pedro the Lion is scheduled to perform on Saturday, April 22, at Modified in Tempe, with Ida, and Death Cab for Cutie. Showtime is 8 p.m.
Contact Brendan Kelley at his online address: Brendan@I_type4miles.zzn.com
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Phoenix, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.