David Bazan asks himself this question midway through a conversation with Phoenix New Times. We’re talking about Phoenix, the new LP from his long-dormant project, Pedro the Lion. While Bazan has been making records consistently ever since he dropped the moniker in 2006, Phoenix marks the triumphant return of Pedro a decade and a half after their last album, Achilles Heel. As can be expected, with the return comes a lot of reflection that the musician himself wasn’t quite ready for, especially when it comes to the city where he was raised.
“[Phoenix] is just an interesting place to grow up,” Bazan says. “The people that I grew up with can’t tell a fascist when they see one. That’s disturbing. I want to understand why that is. I think it has something to do with the Christian idea of idolatry ... Hopefully, [I can] unpack it and comment on it in a way that’s helpful.”
This sentiment echoes through much of Bazan’s catalogue. Timeless Pedro the Lion tracks like “Penetration” and “Indian Summer” decry the hypocrisy behind an unchecked capitalist gospel and how it bleeds into our understanding of love. More recently, on Care Bazan explored the opposite, wondering if his own choice of vocation has become an obstacle to closeness or intimacy that might not be there otherwise.
Throughout his journey, Bazan has constantly questioned his present reality and whether or not he’s making the best of it. What makes Phoenix an interesting project is that it is by design a more reflective piece of work. In as much, it becomes an even more interesting place to rekindle the Pedro flame.
“I didn’t really have any idea that I was going to come back to the name until summer of 2017,” Bazan says. “The Phoenix record and the five albums total that I’m writing on the places that I lived came first. Next was the process of making the records that I came back to, and that process was called Pedro the Lion.”
Pedro the Lion formally returned in late 2017, with Bazan playing a handful of full-band shows in the Pacific Northwest. Setlists were dominated by early songs, but the hunger for more was palpable, and soon, Bazan announced a full U.S. tour for summer 2018, with new material following thereafter. For this, he took the Pedro approach: Intentionally spartan instrumentation, an intelligent and punchy rock style, and a fearless frontman staring into the unknown for yet another journey around the sun. And thus, this month, we have Phoenix, the first in a series of five — yes, five — new Pedro the Lion records.
Bazan and his family lived in Phoenix from 1976, the year of his birth, to 1989. When filming the video for “Yellow Bike”, the album’s first single, director Jason Lester and producer Laura Burhenn went right back to the singer's old streets. Nils Bazan, David's son, rides past the Chinese Evangelical Free Church of Phoenix in Glendale off of 35th Avenue and Union Hills. Nils and David both frequent the Summer Market convenience store just north of Seventh Street and Thunderbird Road. “The swings and the basketball moment,” Bazan says, “we’re in the back parking lot of the school I grew up going to, which was right next to the church I went to, which was a quarter mile from the house I grew up in.”
The “Yellow Bike” video welcomed Pedro back with a landmark moment: the first music video of the band’s career. “We had never made a video before because usually the kind of budgets that we were dealing with,” Bazan says, “the costs were too great in expense. So when it came time to release [the clip], it freaked me out. I had spent all this time making this record that I was in control of the process for. But then once it happened, I came around to feeling like this is great. This is a good way for people to be reintroduced to this band after 15 years.”
From the few singles we’ve received, it looks like Phoenix is on track to be a quintessentially thoughtful LP. While “Yellow Bike” contrasts newfound freedom with lonely solidarity, “Model Homes” highlights the feeling of dissatisfaction and unfulfilled expectation that come with tract home dreams.
“I’m realizing through this process what a lonely kid I was,” Bazan says. “My mom and dad and sister are all very wonderful, generous, loving people. But our combination of personalities just meant I didn’t get what I needed. My mom was struggling with depression. My dad worked a lot — needed to. My sister was very introverted. And that set the stage for always being looking for connection, which colors everything with a bit of desperation. And now I’m realizing it’s something I’ve been dealing with the entire time.”
Pedro the Lion played the live debut of “Yellow Bike” on NPR this past November. During the performance, Bazan talks on the name change. “I’ve made music under many brand names. It was a dumb idea. Don’t do that”, he jokes. But where the joke stops, a real, tangible reckoning begins. In a time of endless anniversary tours and commodified nostalgia, it could be tempting to see the return of Pedro the Lion as something very different than it is. Luckily (and expectedly), Bazan has put a lot of thought into this.
“I feel like the return to the Pedro moniker is really more about reconnecting with myself and parts of me that I had cut off,” he says. If it wasn’t for that alone, then it would be really unstable and not what I want to be doing in my early 40s, barking on something that’s market driven ... I’ve brought back into my process all of the old tools to sit right alongside all the new ways of thinking. And that’s my project. Whatever people do with it is just what they’re going to do.”
Phoenix, the new album from Pedro the Lion, is out January 18 on Polyvinyl Records.
Pedro the Lion. With Tomberlin. 8 p.m. Wednesday, February 13, at Crescent Ballroom, 308 North Second Avenue; crescentphx.com. Tickets are $15 to 33 via crescentphx.com.