The Seattle songwriter talks about moving away from his evangelical upbringing to develop his own form of personal integrity – and how that shaped his angry and excellent new album Strange Negotiations.
David Bazan is trying to be good.
The Seattle singer songwriter and Pedro the Lion founder was raised in a Pentacostal church. He has long been concerned with issues of faith and social justice. Still now with Strange Negotiations his second solo, the focus has turned to personal integrity. It’s a concept that makes some of his more traditionally religious friends and family members uneasy.
“Oddly enough, coming out of evangelical Christianity, it was almost scandalous for me to say, ‘I want to be a good man,’” Bazan explained in a recent phone interview. “The concept of salvation within evangelical Christianity really short-circuits people being good. There’s no real incentive for people to be good. If people confess the right things, then they’re saved and they will get to heaven, whether they are good or not.”
“There’s a culture of people who avoid dealing in being good and reaping the benefits of being good, because it’s false piety,” he said. “It’s like trying to take credit for work that Jesus did. They have all kinds of ways of talking about it, but the end result was that for many years ‘being good’ was a foreign concept for me.”
Even so, it’s not as if Bazan has ever been really bad. Bazan grew up in a tightly-knit Christian community in Seattle, and for the first 12 years of his life, really didn’t know anyone or anything from outside the church. He played his first shows – in a band called The Guilty (later Coolidge) that included high school friend Damien Jurado on guitar – at the Calvary Fellowship, home to a Christian all-ages scene that nurtured a good proportion of Seattle’s post-grunge luminaries. When he discovered non-Christian rock in 10th grade, he naturally gravitated to albums with a social message – U2’s Joshua Tree and Fugazi’s 13 Songs were early favorites. And even after making his own leap to the more secular environs of indie rock with Pedro the Lion, Bazan remained a very moral, spiritually-engaged songwriter.
Now, with his second solo album, Strange Negotiations, Bazan is wrestling with the most basic issues of personal honesty and responsibility – and doing it without the aid of established doctrine. “When you tell the truth/you start to tell it all the time,” he sings, “and when it gets you in trouble/you find that you don’t mind.” The lyric, from the song “People,” sounds like he’s having a talk with himself, setting out exactly how he intends to behave from now on.
“That’s exactly right,” he said, when asked if some of these songs served as rules for living. Just recently, he mentioned, he had read a tweet about someone’s two favorite records for 2011. “And, you know, my record not being one of them – and I started to get bummed and feel left out. Which is really stupid,” Bazan said. “It’s not even a part of my value system.”
Bazan turned to his own record for moral support. “By the end of ‘Level with Yourself’, which is the second track in, I was like, ‘Oh yeah, sell it to yourself. Don’t worry about what other people think. That’s my value system. Fuck all that other stuff. I’m not worried about that.’ So there are a lot of little moments on the record where I’m preaching to myself.”
So, not surprisingly Strange Negotiations sounds like someone making a break with what he’s always believed, trying for the first time to define his own values and his own goals. And that, said Bazan, has definitely been the case with this album, which comes out of a period of questioning the conservative, religious background that he emerged from.
“I’ve changed to beliefs that are very different from what I grew up believing, and very different from what some people in my circle were invested in believing,” he said. “I’m talking about Christianity specifically, but also about politics and in general. So being honest and telling the truth as I saw it about some of those things certainly got me in trouble.”
“I think the kind of trouble you get into telling the truth is ultimately okay,” he added. “But if you’re not honest with yourself, you get into chronic trouble with your life that I think is far worse. It’s difficult to have peace, I think, if you can’t be honest with yourself.”
Bazan has toyed with concept albums in the past, but these days he just keeps his head down and sees where the songs take him. Now, however, listening to the songs on Strange Negotiations, he hears echoes of his preoccupation with political polarization, of what he calls “information bubbles” where people mostly listen to the people they agree with. “I find that I often have the desire to dismiss people who think what I think are completely crazy things,” he said. “It just so happens that some of those people are my family and people that I’ve been in community with for a really long time, so it’s just sort of grappling with that.”
“Wolves at the Door,” the album’s lead-off track, is perhaps the more direct expression of this idea. An angry song, it follows a strident, raised welt of a bass line, dodges shrapnel fire volleys of guitar, as it considers the bargains that working people have made with the far right. “Surprise they took your money and they ate your kids / And they had your way with your wife a little bit / And while you wept on the porch with your head in your hands, cursing taxes and the government / Cos you’re a god-damned fool,” sings Bazan, and he adds, just at the end of the verse, “I love you.”
That combination of rage and love give Strange Negotiations a visceral tension. And make no mistake, Bazan retains a great deal of affection for the people and community that formed him. “One of the redeeming facts of my life has been that my parents are extremely open-minded and intelligent and really generous people who really exemplify the servant leader philosophy that is found in Christianity,” he said. “They just were real service-minded in the churches that we grew up with. They just really broke their backs, all the time, to help people. And they’re both extremely intelligent folks.”
Bazan looked back fondly on his days of playing with Coolidge or Pedro the Lion at the Calvary Fellowship, at what he calls “a pretty rad all-ages scene, where it just so happened that 99% of the bands were part of the evangelical community.” Still, he admitted that a lot of Christian rock isn’t very compelling and speculated on the reasons. “Conformity is such a huge impulse in a lot of music that people are making anyways,” he said. “And when you have the mindset that Christians often have – it’s a very intensely conformist mindset. To think freely or to want to express something unique and different is just not part of the culture.”
“But there were a lot of good bands,” he added. “Underground music is so vast, so even with bands aping other bands, there was still a huge variety.”
Bazan considers Strange Negotiations an extremely personal album, even more so than his first solo album Curse Your Branches. “With Branches, I was responding to ideas that were already out there, like the Christian notion of the fall. So, while it was my personal take on those things, the ideas really came from outside of myself,” he explained. “Strange Negotiations is a lot more me, kind of riffing on whatever’s going on in my brain. It’s my thoughts and ideas.”
Both solo albums represent a significant break with Bazan’s Pedro the Lion material, which he estimates was upwards of 90% fictional and only occasionally autobiographical. Strange Negotiations has a lot more of Bazan’s life in it, including, for the first time in his career, a love song. “Won’t Let Go,” which closes the album is dedicated to Bazan’s wife. “When I hear that song or sing it, I’m picturing me in an airplane thinking about my wife,” he said. “Though, in the context of the record, it’s a statement more about loyalty and sticking with people.”
Strange Negotiations is also the first Bazan solo record to employ a full band – Andy Fitts plays bass and sings background vocals, while Alex Westcote plays drums. Both regularly back Bazan when he tours.
Picking up where he left off with Branches, Bazan found himself paring back the complications in his songs and building them more on repetitive riffs. “The last song on Branches is called ‘In Stitches’ and that’s just four chord over and over again until the end,” Bazan recalled. “That was one of my favorite tunes that I ever wrote.”
When it came time to start laying down material for Strange Negotiations, Bazan again found himself attracted by simplicity and repetition. “Before, say I found a chord progression that I liked. Usually, I would get dissatisfied with playing it over and over again, and I’d try to gum it up,” he said. “For this record, I thought I would just try not worrying about that. I’d write lyrics and melodies I liked and see how I felt in the end. So that first song ‘Wolves at the Door’, it’s just one bass line over and over again. And I’ve never done that before.”
The anger, the simplicity, the full backing band – all seem to contribute to a very raw, rocking sound that is, when you think about it too hard, unexpected in the context of such personal material. Asked how he balances the lyrics and the music, Bazan paused to consider the idea. “I think that’s just the idiosyncrasies of my collection of influences,” he said. “Ever since I was a kid I have written really introspective, emotive lyrics. But I think pretty consistently over the years, my favorite band has been Fugazi, and so there’s this psychotic guitar rock that they play that is really visceral and really connects with me.”