Interview: David Bazan on Going Solo, Breaking Up With God, and His New Fan-Bought Van
David Bazan is losing his religion. Sort of. On his heavily autobiographical new album, Curse Your Branches (Barsuk), Bazan, who formerly led Pedro The Lion, integrates deep questions about faith with tales of boozy emotional philandering. He's been spinning similar stories for years now. But recording under his Christian name seems to have brought some Christian issues to the surface. For the first time since 2005, he's touring with a full band, in a van which he purchased with money donated by fans on his website. They play the Bowery Ballroom this Sunday.
What did leaving Pedro the Lion behind and putting a record out under your own name mean to you?
I did feel more freedom. With Pedro the Lion, I had this hang-up that I didn't want to try to do too much on the record that couldn't be pulled off live. Coincidentally, when I stopped doing PTL, that hang-up went out the window. So that's been a really nice thing. To the people that I'm playing with, ownership issues are more implicit in the brand name in a way that I think is appropriate and healthy. With PTL, there was this illusion that it could be something more than basically a solo project. That was confusing to me, and a lot of the people I was playing with. Having a brand name that's my own name simplifies that--for me, too, because it wasn't just other people's perceptions that were incorrect. Mine were too. I would lead people on to think that this was a band. There's a simplification of implication that "David Bazan" offers.
That's interesting because you're getting into the social and emotional aspects of making music, beyond the technical aspects.
That's a major concern. That's why I stopped doing PTL. I couldn't get a handle on those other concerns. I was a 100 percent failure at sorting those other things out, those other dynamics. So that was the main reason why I quit using that. I killed that brand and started playing solo with other dudes. I didn't know what I was doing wrong. I didn't know how to interact.
Curse Your Branches is kind of like a classic break-up record, but it sounds like you're breaking up with God instead of a girl.
Sure. As I've taken stock more and more and heard the record through other people's ears over the last two or three months, it seems to me like it's breaking up with a set of ideas that themselves are often mistaken for the person of God, or a sort of God character-- just classic Christian notions and characterizations of God. That's in hindsight. It wasn't that deconstructed. It was like, "God is this way, and I think that is horrible."
Are you tired of being asked about religion and Christianity and God?
No, it is what it is. It's a topic that I'm clearly fascinated by. I read about it all the time. I don't mind being asked about it.
What do you consider yourself now? Are you agnostic, atheist, a practicing Christian?
The real answer is I don't know. I certainly am not an atheist. I suppose that would put me in the agnostic category, but not in the sense of a hard agnostic or somebody who--I just don't know. I'm not a practicing Christian. I don't believe in any of the major doctrines of Christianity.
At shows, you often pause to take questions from the audience. You're not professing to have all the answers or preaching to the crowd, but you're opening up a personal interaction between you and your fans.
The Q& A thing, I generally enjoy. It serves a couple of different functions. It breaks down that fourth wall. Clearly, when you're singing to people, it's kind of a one-way communication on a lot of levels. So I enjoy the conversation that it opens up. It turns the show into a conversation for a minute where people can influence what is happening. Also, it is me trying to be entertaining. It can be helpful. Some people will throw me a soft ball. I'll get to say something that is witty or self-deprecating or entertaining.
Has your recent questioning of your faith elicited any bad reactions from devout fans?
I do feel some pushback in certain cases. But it never is as overt as that. I realize that when someone raises their hand and asks a question, they're taking a pretty major social risk. They might perceive that they're taking a risk, looking like a dummy at a show, which is traditionally where people go to be seen or want to look cool or whatever. Definitely sometimes people ask questions and other people in the audience are like, "Fuck you!" But I don't get a lot of overt criticism in that period. That happens more on message boards and comment sections.
Have you had any contact with or offers from the Christian rock industry about using your music for something you either supported or didn't feel comfortable with?
Not really. I've always functioned on the fringe of that. I do get asked to play religious institutions, colleges and whatnot. Depending on how conservative the place is, I either do or don't, based on how they respond to my booking agents. And I send some sample lyrics to them. There was in incident back in 1999 or 2000 where it was perceived that we were affiliated with an organization that I think is dead now called Rock For Life, which is a pro-life organization, because we played at this particular venue that regularly had a Rock For Life table set up there. We weren't affiliated with Rock For Life in any way. I think, at the time, all of us in the band voted pro-choice.
How autobiographical is your songwriting?
On this record, it's probably 90-95 percent autobiographical. On Pedro records, it's probably 95 percent fiction. Then the EP, Fewer Moving Parts, is maybe 50 percent autobiographical. Maybe less. But [the new album] is kind of a sea change in regards to the autobiographical content in the songs.
Are you comfortable with opening your personal life up like that?
It's fine because I think all the songs do a good job of communicating my thoughts and feelings about stuff. It's a pretty balanced expression. My wife, she likes the songs. My parents like the record. My sister does. It's really a matter of, do I like the songs, do I think they express something true? If the answer is yes, then autobiographical or not, I'm down for playing whatever. With these [songs], I like them very much. I sing them day after day. They still really resonate with me. There's something about them that rings true.
Are you currently driving the van that your fans contributed money to help you buy?
How much did you raise?
We just raised what we could. I think we grossed ten grand. The net, what I was able to buy a van with, was seven grand. The whole rig ended up costing 12 grand. We had to put a little bit on a credit card. But it got us the bulk of the way there.
That's pretty impressive, that people were willing to contribute money to get you on the road so they could see you play live.
Yeah. I couldn't agree more. I'm so bowled over by that. We're currently figuring out a way, besides going out and playing the best show we can, to show our appreciation to everybody.