DAVID BAZAN: Songs For the Road We're On
David Bazan’s album Blanco, released in May of 2016 on the Barsuk Records label, is one of my more coveted indy collections of the year. He creates cinematic interiors that capture a monologue in the third person. The 40 year old Bazan has been around and it shows in every aspect of his songwriting and performing. He is musically a jack of all trades and can play several instruments, work the boards and also play stripped down acoustics with intimate yet unaffected vocals.
When I talked to Bazan last week he was alone on the road, driving to his next show. I didn't bother to ask where he was but he agreed to pull over to talk to me.
The road is where I’d like to picture David Bazan. The Blanco release has a churning techno feel highlighting the rich vocals and tweaked acoustic vibe that makes the listener hear himself in the emotional void. The hooky lines seem to be lingering around, and passing through, rather than locking into, a sparse musical backdrop.
Check out the track Oblivion.
He has a talent for bringing small song and enormous songs alike to a defined framework. For me, there is no better songwriter who remains slightly off the radar. On that 2016 release, songs like “Kept Secrets” and “The Trouble With Boys” have the effect of swimming through regret with a view of the glow that the beauty of our tragic stories give us.
Your worried mistress thinks you need
Physical exertion and vitamin D
Misunderstanding the real enemy
Sunlight and gravity.
-from “Kept Secrets”
What sets Bazan apart from artists like Sufjan Stevens and Death Cab for Cutie is his willingness to get a little darker and more intimate while evoking the pathetic ironies that come from the most poetic Elvis Costello lines and the most hard hitting from the late Vic Chesnutt lyrics.
“Hard to Be” from his album Curse Your Branches (2013) in which he asserts with melodic choral refrain, “It’s Hard To Be” only to land on the words “a decent human being.”
Also memorable are the vocals and lyrics in Strange Negotiations, a cautionary song from the album of the same name issued in“Feel like the stranger in my home town.” (2011). Another amazing song from the same album is “Eating Paper” which has a hard rock groove and a familial theme that is “just in time for dinner”. David Bazan goes as deep as one can do with a simple hook and a few base examples that are specific enough to evoke a partial universe if not a full plot. Because of this there is good mystery in his music and you always feel like he is writing specifically about him and vaguely about you.
Bazan has worked with several artists, including members of Sufjan Stevens’ band, former Fleet Foxes members, hung out and collaborated with James Mercer and others in the Shins, filled in on base for Death Cab for Cutie, maintained a musical friendship with his Shoreline (Washington) Highschool pal Damien Jurado, briefly joined Headphones and later formed the Undertow Orchestra with Will Johnson, Mark Eitzel and Vic Chesnutt. Before this he was front man of Pedro the Lion who spun some wonderful Christian-alternative songs.
You headed a band called, Pedro the Lion nearly 10 years ago. How was that experience different than being solo? What made you decide to go solo?
The main difference was that being solo ensured I spent a lot more time alone. Now I do have a band occasionally – on this tour, it is me and a band. And for that matter with “Pedro” I was rarely playing alone but there was a lot of turn over. After 2005, 2006 it was solo. In a sense it was always me with one other or a rotation of people. The writing and recording process was solo. I play drums, bass, guitar --all instruments. I am able to make records the same way I did before.
When you write a song, are you trying to tell a specific story or get to the heart of a hook that sounds true to you? I thought of this while listening to “Please Baby Please” a heartbreaking song about the chain or legacy of alcoholism and bad decisions.
No matter how a song starts, there’s some sense of character or narrative motion, even if it isn’t like –yeah there’s usually a slightly complex thought I am trying to develop. A set of ideas, a narrative, character—a succession that imply an equation. To be clear that is not an intention. That is just what my body does in real time. I have a sense of what it’s trying to do.
Specific to that song, I was in a band with Vic Chesnutt, Will Johnson, Mark Eitzel. We were learning each other’s song. My songs were a little complicated, and it took a lot more energy [to work out]. Their songs had more freedom, the skeleton was less fussy. Mine were like, “oh” I gotta remember this chord, it happens just once.
I remember I was at my grandparents’ house staying on a holiday with my wife and daughter; I started playing C and G and tried writing a song. And then the lyrics flowed out with the melody. I got all the way to that first chorus and I figured what it was about, then my brain took over.
Was it a cerebral exercise?
More guttural or instinctual –that’s when I know if feels right. There’s like a bell that rings, in the best cases. Sure I have to employ my intellect, but I have to trust my subconscious. I am learning to lean on my subconscious more.
You are tapping into something.
Yeah, that is it. Our subconscious minds are genius. I try to let go, to see connections. Even years later I find stuff that I was not aware of that could not be a coincidence.
You play clubs and living room concerts. Has the living room concert experience been good to you?
I love being able to do house shows. For me, it’s basically a win to play in any space. Record stores, garages, coffee shops, living rooms. It’s a very elemental way to do the thing I do. I work hard for the privilege to be a part of something, to be in touch. Playing house shows has put me in deeper touch. It’s easy to be totally present and just interact with people in the room.
In a rock club, you have constant reminders that you are on a certain rung on the latter and that you are part of this passive aggressive order of things. You work to lose your awareness of that.
At a house show, I am just staying there playing my jams for these people.
What about your process of booking these living room shows? You have dates that can be filled by through an internet based calender. It basically the airbnb of songwriters. Is that liberating?
Yeah because if you have enough fans to support it, without industry capital, you can play shows. Promoters usually don’t want you to come back unless you are on a cycle. We book our shows through email and twitter and our website. My manager figures out which ones.
I understand you dropped two songs per month for about 5 months and called it “Bazan Monthly.” You released it digitally and on vinyl I believe. I know indy artists who are looking for new ways to strike a chord with their audience. What was the response and what did you learn about marketing music in the current non-LP era.
For me that monthly thing ended up being an internal songwriting tool rather than a smashing success. It was successful. It helped me to write. It was a cool way to engage with a subset of my fan base too. We didn’t hire a publicist because the record was not part of the label. Blanco was ten of the songs that were a part of this. Altogether I wrote twenty.
You mentioned your work with others above including the late great Vic Chesnutt and Mark Eitzel. The Undertow Orchestra, right? Can you tell us about Undertow Orchestra, and about Vic Chesnutt for those of us who weren’t around? How did that project start and what was the scope and intent of it? Chessnut was in the southern tradition of storytelling, no? There was an American tradition of that kind of bluntness.
Yeah in a Kurt Vonnegut way…yeah, I can’t believe the stuff Vic would turn into these details. He would say heavy and mean and vulnerable and sweet things, in his songs. His purview was everything in a way in that even Dylan and maybe (Leonard) Cohen did.
It was a blast to work in that circle. I couldn’t believe I was there. Pedro the Lion broke up. I was really low, struggling in different ways. I think I was a late edition to the group. My manager represented all of us, and the other three were thinking of doing that tour. We just learned half dozen of each other’s tunes. And then played each other’s stuff. It was a blast. All of us are extreme personalities in our own way but it worked. As intense as we can be, we all felt special. Vic was a very bright light. And he was fucking hilarious.
I wanted to ask you about your unique voice. It’s low but more than that I think the direct and unwhispered delivery gives you an effect that is earnest yet sober. Are we just tired of those barely audible whispers? I am starting to be nostalgic for a time in which those were not jarring.
It’s built in. I think growing up in church, my mom would do solos. You can buy the backing track, where they would mute the vocal. On Sunday mornings, just watching her prepare and seeing her perform. She just sang so plainly. There was an honesty in the way she sung. I recognized it in her. Something between gospel and contemporary. She liked songs with a sort of depth. Something well put together. I could contrast her taste with those of others with a more flowery delivery. That’s always in vogue. And my mom was really great singer, and her chosen method.
You are from Seattle. Did you grow up there? What was it about the Seattle scene growing up gave you momentum to do what you are doing? Do you have any particular story—some encounter that moved you forward?
I moved to Seattle when I was 15, in 1991. It was the first time I was allowed to listen to music that was not Christian music: U2 and the Cure. Along with that came alt rock and I listened to 107.7 Seattle. I was hearing Depeche Mode, Nirvana, Sound Garden--all these bands on the radio. Reading The Stranger, and The Rocket and Seattle Weekly. I couldn’t see shows. I was too young. Also I wasn’t tuned in. I became part of the underground Christian music scene. What I picked up on was the songwriting. Nirvana was so influential; I realized, yeah the smartest songwriting can get huge. It was as revolutionary as the Beatles. There hasn’t been a time when that wasn’t consistently on the radio. I noticed, oh these don’t follow all the rules. I saw that value—the songwriting. The Beatles were such an important part of my musical education too.
There is a Christmas Record you released called Dark Sacred Night. Is that what your show in Chicago on December 20th will feature?
Dark Sacred Night is my new album of Christmas covers songs that are straight ahead in a Bazan mood and style. The Christmas show is pretty heavy. Yeah, I say it’s “half Christmas, half Catalog, all grieving, all protest”. [Editor's note: David's version of God Rest Ye Weary Gentlemen is nothing less than chilling.]
I watched the Trouble With Boys video. I heard this had special meaning for you.
Well we were just making a video. Brandon Vetter is making a documentary about me. The song is about hurt and feelings of abandonment. It uses a trope about a girl who is surrounded by assholes, treated poorly. Asks, how do I break out of this cycle? It screams patriarchy to me. How white dudes are impossible as a group, hard to live with. It’s about God. It depends how you look at it. Anyway, the video didn’t see a normal release. The day after we released it, Trump was elected. I felt like there was a big part of the population that got told their concerns don’t matter. This was a statement that says you do matter.
So it took us a day to turn it around. Kathleen Tarrant wrote something and we posted it.
Readers should click on Kathleen Tarrant’s note about David Bazan’sThe Trouble with Boys. It starts, “I woke up on Wednesday morning empty and numb…” http://www.davidbazan.com/trouble-with-boys/
Bazan’s body of work is and will remain relevant to those of us who want an thoughtful truth that stays with us for the drive no matter what road we are on. Some of it should define the best of who we are musically in this generation and gives this interviewer hope that there is always an artist who will pay close attention to the details with care and empathy and not indifference or sentimentality.
For more information about music and concert dates, go to www.davidbazan.com
Photo Credit of David Bazan: Ryan Russell.