David Bazan on Pedro The Lion;
on reviving the past & making peace with it
words and interview by tom johnson
photography by ryan russell
Things deteriorate over time. It’s true of most life-cycles and something we’ve come to take as a given. Such a thing is often replicated in the music world, especially in the current climate where the rush for something new often overpowers the desire for seeing an artist expand their craft overtime. Perhaps it’s because he began in the pre-internet old school, or maybe he’s always been something of an exception to the rule, but one artist that continues to fly in the face of such a trajectory is David Bazan. For, while there will always be a deep reverence for his work as Pedro The Lion – such is its deeply raw and unbridled pull of that faded canon – it’s his later work, under his own name, that has seen his voice and vision truly flourish.
While not a huge departure from his early collection of work that paved his path, Bazan’s more-recent, eponymous, works – specifically the ‘Blanco’ and ‘Care’ LPs – shifted things just enough, not necessarily colouring in the darkness but illuminating the edges. Via new experimental flourishes, he added the kind of rich timber that can be felt better than described; like great weather forming in the far-off distance. This evolution made the leaving behind of the Pedro name feel both cleaner and clearer. That previous moniker, through which Bazan (and a shifting ensemble) made four records, and a slew of EPs, between the late nineties and the mid-noughties, offered something deeply arresting – guitar-rock records left to wither in the outskirts of indie rock – but this felt different again. It felt like growth.
Blanco’s stand-out moment, Trouble With Boys, was accompanied by a video, made by documentarian Brandon Vedder, in which his young daughter runs through the streets in slow motion, the clips interspersed by a close-up of Bazan, tears streaming down his face as he sings: “Either way, you are worthy of love.” It’s remarkably poignant, a sucker-punch of confused emotion that carries as much weight as any other music video I’ve ever seen. It was released in the immediate shadow of Trump’s election victory, and deliberately so.
Fast-forward to 2018 and that life cycle has once more turned to bring a focus upon Pedro The Lion, Bazan reigniting the project for reasons explained below. And if Trouble With Boys was the starting-point for a more socially conscious outlook, then the recent Pedro shows have taken such a thing to the next level, Bazan delivering long mid-set speeches about the myriad problems of misogyny and the importance of acknowledging the deep-seated and unfair advantages half of us have for simply being a male.
Pedro might be an old name, but this is a new man.
We’ve been trying to speak to David Bazan for a long time. Eighteen months or so ago it looked like it was finally going to happen, with an interview scheduled to tie-in with the release of his Christmas album ‘Dark Sacred Night’. The whole thing transformed into a photo diary, and we were subsequently sent a random assortment of photographs that Bazan himself had taken, candid and unkempt, of his home and daughter and other things too. The feature never happened in the end, the photos sitting in our inbox like strange and strikingly personal reminders of something that never came to be, a weird parallel to the feeling left in the departure of his songs.
Then, just as the winter of 2017 was coming to an end, it happened. We were given a number to a call, and he answered, somewhere on the road in the middle of America, distracted and living his life, as you often forget is the way. A few weeks after the talk I myself flew to America for some time on the road. Things got sidetracked. I got a little lost for a while. Then the heat came; those long summer days which have left us all quietly clawing for something we’re unsure of, not knowing what to do or where to go.
All of which is to say,
that some things take time;
that things can drag on longer than intended;
hat things can disappear and return again,
in shapes both new and old.
“This year has been so interesting. I’ve grown a lot already,” Bazan says, easing in to the conversation, riding the transition from the real world to this delayed phone line taking him somewhere else entirely. “I listened to this Tom Petty biography on a road trip I took to start writing the new Pedro record, and it was an epic journey that I went on with it. It was like a perfect trip with myself. I’m always trying to get to the bottom of something and it was a really special way to spend eight days or so. Just me and Tom.”
Despite his familial ties, Bazan is something of a traveling man. The road trip he talks of here was simply a break; a way of preparing for another mammoth trip; a run of shows under the his revived band name. Whether it’s returning from that isolation, or just a spirit the new year has instilled in him, Bazan is talkative and candid, bridging our bad connection with fervour and no hint of annoyance.
“I’m listening to that same book again on this drive, and I’m reliving a lot of that first experience I had with it and what a profound time it was,” he says. “Tom Petty’s life was really something. He was really vulnerable in the interviews for that book, and it shed a lot of light on what it was like to be a band, and to be at that creative level for that long. You always want to think that everyone’s having a good time but, man, hardly anyone is having a good time at that level. They certainly weren’t for most of their life as the band. I’m learning a lot about myself with things like that as a catalyst; listening to hard, real life tales of my heroes.”
With a couple of decades worth of experience of his own to lean on, one wonders what kind of things Bazan is figuring out via an audiobook, drifting in and out of half-rolled windows as the road is eaten up ahead, mile after mile.
“I’m still processing a lot of it,” he says; a point he returns to often in the conversation, proof of a constant search for answers that he seems to have. “I think I was surprised at how little those guys shared with each other. There’s a deep intelligence and deep sensitivity to his music, I think, so I assumed they were open people and supportive of each other – and it wasn’t that at all. Those dudes were from the old-school, needing to be tough and not show feelings, and having no tools for any of that shit. It helped me to take stock of what I do, and don’t, have. What I do well already and have built-in; the luck of the draw.
“So I don’t know what I took, specifically,” he continues once more, “but getting a glimpse in to someone else’s processes helps me to understand the choices I have, as I try and balance this stuff. It’s wisdom about such a specific thing that you don’t run in to everywhere – about not really getting it right, in a lot of ways, for a lot of years. It’s so useful, even if that wisdom comes from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers”
Bazan himself has spent much of his musical life trying to find ways of “getting it right”. Pedro The Lion lent him a different name, but it was never the solidified set of people that is often assumed with bands, in the traditional sense. Bazan wrote, played, and recorded the majority of the Pedro material himself, and then called upon friends and contemporaries to fill in the gaps on-stage. Then he left it behind, for good, initially, before picking it up once more. That’s the very short version of a long protracted story, of course, nullifying a couple of decades worth of undulations, big and small.
“Some things just wouldn’t click in to place.
I knew I wanted to be in a band
and wondered a lot about how to do it”
“Before the idea of using the Pedro name again was even on the table I returned to this process of demoing everything myself,” he says of his process. “I played everything on the first three Pedro record, and that was a formula that I was just dying to get away from, just out of loneliness, and wanting to be in a collaborative thing with a bunch of people. Then I spent a while avoiding that, really hoping to cultivate a band; a real band. Last year I came to the end of all that because, goddammit, I had not been successful. It had not worked. Some things just wouldn’t click in to place. So I was scrambling around a bit. I knew I wanted to be in a band and wondered a lot about how to do it – then I thought about trying out that old process again.
“I thought that was wrong, for a long time, and for a lot of reasons, but maybe I’d been wrong,” he continues, loose of tongue, only to happy to share the downs as well as the ups. “So in the Summer of 2017 I set up a rehearsal space and spent a week making versions of various tunes, new and old – multi-track recordings, everything myself – and I loved it. It felt like it was exactly what I should be doing all the time. I think I’d had some real bad hang-ups that had prevented me from doing that.”
At this point, Bazan found himself using the old Pedro methods but still playing under his own name, before a festival asked him to consider reviving “the old band” for a high-profile Pedro The Lion slot, a comeback that he initially scoffed at. “I was like, man, fuck that! You want me to call it Pedro for one show, play the exact same set as we play all year, and then have people saying “Damn, I wish I was at that Pedro show!” even though it would be the exact same thing?!” He’s laughing as he says this, perhaps a glimpse that he still holds some resentment at having to revive a name to reach the same set of people; like things could have been different. “That stuck with me a while, but then I figured that if we went back to calling it Pedro all the time then it might be a way to get to do this band thing that I didn’t know if I could afford to do anymore.”
It might be a surprise, to some, to hear that navigating the financial side of the musical world is still an almighty struggle, even for someone who’s been critically-adored and stringently followed for a good couple of decades – but this is the current landscape, and here we are. “Recent history has shown that the David Bazan brand name just didn’t draw enough people. At the point when it got suggested it be called Pedro again, I soon realised that this is exactly what Pedro was and is. It’s me coming up with songs and then getting people to play live with me. I was uncomfortable with that process for a long time,” he admits,“but that’s what Pedro always was and it will allow me to do it again, and be able to afford to do it again. So the whole thing got tied up in a little bow last summer – a series of discoveries and realisations, – and then we got the ball rolling.”
That old, oft-repeated adage asks ‘what’s in a name?’ and, as Bazan returned to his Pedro roots, I wonder if he’s noticed the effect of it on his life – the playing, writing, performing – and whether the gravitas of returning to a name that never really left him had been a noticeable transition. “I’m navigating how exactly I should relate to that, in real time,” he admits. “It particularly comes into play when thinking about writing new material. Live, we just make it a twenty-song show, play 17/18 Pedro songs, and make it as kick-ass as possible. But I guess I was surprised by what the band name change felt like. For most of the time I thought it was the exact same thing, but when I started using the name again it felt different. It felt like Pedro. The name itself is what made it feel that way, and I had forgotten that.”
Live shows aside, Bazan will also return to the Pedro name for his upcoming recorded work, something he’s trying to work through with as much ease as possible. “I just need to make the next record that I’m going to make,” he states plainly, a palpable determination in his voice. “Initially I thought I was going to have to make it sound like Pedro – but how would I do that? I never did that when I was making Pedro records before. I just wanted to make the raddest possible record I could make, in that moment, with everything that was informing my taste. So I’m just trying to get all the tools in front of me that feel appropriate, and then just make what comes out, not try and skew it in some direction but just make a rad record.”
One might expect that those “tools” also include the things he learned along the way. While there is so much cross-over between his self-titled work and the earlier Pedro collection, the advancement of his sound and songwriting has been supremely noticeable – the earthy rawness of the early years evolving into bold works of flourishing instrumentation, adventurous and fully-formed.
“I really like both ‘Care’ and ‘Blanco’,” he says, of the aforementioned records, “I’m still really turned on by that sound. I want to pull it all together, I think. I think it’s going to be Pedro mixed with Headphones, mixed with all the Bazan stuff,” he continues, as if piecing these thoughts together for the first time. “Strange Negotiations, Fewer Moving Parts; they sound like Pedro records to me, whereas Branches seems to come from a different kind of place. So it might include some of that shit too. That was kind of grown-up sounding to me; this will probably be a little rougher, but still with some of the sophistication that happened later on. I was really happy with some of the depth on Branches; the opening arrangement, especially, is fun. I never had an arrangement that went all Coldplay like that before. My shit is always just me singing, all the time. I’ll include the Care/Blanco vibe too, because I just love it. I’m really proud of that stuff.
“The Pedro record that I keep coming back to – that I want to reference sonically – is It’s Hard To Find A Friend,” he continues on. “It has a warmth to it that I was trying to capture on Care. I arranged the songs on Care in keys that I could sing at a lower register, so it would feel more intimate – not whispery, but a chesty voice, a closeness. I want these songs to have a closeness too, but I also want it to have a bit more range than Care.”
Dark, dense, wrinkles around the eyes, and all, Care is often cited as a definitive crest within the Bazan journey, both by listeners and David himself. The poignant tenderness of the compositions is matched by the excitement of the sonic pathways it cuts for itself, resulting in a spellbinding juxtaposition of sentiment and tone.
“I think Care was a really important link in the chain. It was a Hail Mary on a number of fronts, both personally and emotionally,” Bazan states, making good on those suppositions. “It was a real accomplishment. There’s something about finishing a record that is a real win, you know? It’s not an easy thing to do, to make a record – that I like – from that low of a place. I knew if I could pull it off it would really help me. I really needed to make that record,” he continues. “I needed a reason to go out on tour and make some money but it also reminded me how much I liked putting parts together, to make minimalistic but whole compositions. That’s a real Pedro-ism, for me.”
Never one to rest on his laurels, the Care project, for all of it’s striking personality, came and went, and Bazan has continued to push himself to ever-new interesting places, only ever viewing his records as steps in a journey rather than as a success to bask in, taking things from them to help evolve as an artist, and, he hopes, as a person. “I think it’s a personal habit that as soon as something’s done I find it so easy to move on.
I think it’s an expression of my self-loathing that I struggle with; that I instantly discount what I’ve done. Usually by the end of the tour, or working out a record, I’m just so ready to stop doing that stuff. I remember at the end of the Control tour realising we’d become an emo band, and I couldn’t wait to get away from that,” he says, without a hint of jesting. “That’s why Achilles Heel is so different. It’s an extreme example but that’s usually how I feel. Always the next thing. Part of that is because that’s how you make a living, but I also didn’t want to be someone who dwells too long on that in-between-time,” he says, touching upon a point so often made by musicians. “That time always seems so scary to me. I don’t want to be in that no-man’s-land for too long.”
“An interesting thing to me about Care is that as successful as it was for me personally, and what a good thing it was, it still didn’t deal with any of the bigger problems I was trying to solve,” he rattles on. “I did my dead-level best and made a record I care about, but right away I had to worry about what the fuck I was doing, because it just felt like everything was shrinking; all my possibilities were shrinking. I felt like I was getting caught off-guard with everything, all the time. All I wanted was to get ahead of it a little bit. I feel like I’ve just started to figure that out. Sometimes it takes years – or decades, apparently.”
“I don’t want to be in that
no-man’s-land for too long.”
As any creative personality will know, the notion of wanting to “get ahead a little” is an ever-present worry, the burning desire to not only stay relevant and interesting but to also find new ways of covering old ground, to seek some kind of peace. “Everything has to feel new,” Bazan says, stating it as plainly and simply as can be. “Going back to that Tom Petty book, they talk about him being a student of The Beatles, namely in the way they never made the same record twice, they always kept moving. They were also huge influences on me in that way. Fugazi, too, has a similar relationship, they’re always changing in ways that’s unexpected but still totally Fugazi. So that for me is what it always has to be, no matter what this project is called.”
With that in mind, does the new yet-to-be-revealed Pedro material feel like new ground, rather than a retreat to what came all those years ago? “It feels like the next chapter, for sure,” he says, “but also I get to bring with me a lot of things that I’d let go, or cut myself off from; a lot of things I didn’t need to let sit on the shelf.”
“I had a negative view of Pedro for a long time,” he confesses, “but as I got back in to I realised I was just being too hard on myself. Yes, there’s some bullshit there, but there’s some cool stuff too. And having that experience really helped me to go in to the next chapter as a more whole person. So now I get to bring all of myself, all of those early successes – personal and creatively – with me. I think I had put them aside as not being mine somehow not mine to draw upon, not mine to enjoy.
So it’s definitely the next thing but it’s also forced me to reckon with the material as a whole, and I’ve realised that I really like it, and that I’m really proud of all of that shit I made. Now I get to enjoy who I was then and not just sit in bitter judgement of that person – and that feels so much more pleasant.”
Brand new album, Phoenix, is released January 18th 2019,
via Polyvinyl Records