September 17, 2015 / Perspective
Marilynne Robinson’s novels have become almost synonymous with loneliness, but solitude here remains entangled with a less acknowledged trope—an enveloping and dazzling darkness.
January 12, 2004
David Bazan is the front man in a band called Pedro the Lion. If you haven’t heard of him, or Pedro the Lion, then you have missed out on perhaps the most intriguing, introspective and provocative artist/band commenting on the Evangelical/American Christian world in the last five years. Not that he sees himself that way, but his music’s fierce following in the faith community is witness to both his insightful, candid lyrics and musical vision unique in today’s creative economy.
TOJ caught up with David for an interview in February to talk about his music, faith, family and Adam Sandler. Special thanks to Josh Golden for conducting the interview. Pedro the Lion will be releasing their forthcoming CD, Achilles Heel, on May 25th, 2004.
The Other Journal (TOJ): David, you play in the band Pedro the Lion.
David Bazan (DB): That’s true, that’s true.
TOJ: Your music evokes strong reactions from your listeners. On one hand you seem to have found a strong following in the Christian counter-cultural movement and the Indy music world, and on the other hand you have in the more mainline Christian community people who are really offended by your music. How do you handle the critique that your music is, in a sense, too graphic or too crass to be Christian?
DB: I would agree that I never set out to make Christian music. I am sort of what I am and making music, uh yeah. You know, I think there’s just a lack of thoroughness in the Christian culture anyways. If something has a stamp of approval on it from whomever, the distributors or whatever, then people just buy it. And they think, you know storeowners just stock it. I had a guy in Nashville come up to me and he was just really disturbed because he had been stocking Pedro the Lion records in his store and now he was going to send them back, and how could I do that to him, that kind of thing. I think that sort of says a lot.
TOJ: What was your response to him?
DB: Well I told him, man, I’m sorry you’re in a bind but that’s kind of your fault, if you just took someone’s word for it that this was appropriate for your store, and if you have those kinds of concerns as far as lyrical content for your store then you need to be more thorough about that. I didn’t do anything to you. I just think if people like it and want to listen to it then they should but if they don’t, it’s no big. They’re not going to miss out.
TOJ: How do you feel about your music really being embraced by the Christian Rock kids?
DB: I don’t know. It’s an interesting place to be, I only listened to Christian rock until I was fifteen anyway, just cause that’s what I was allowed to listen to. So I feel for them, those kids who are only allowed to listen to Christian rock…. Who have to listen or by their own choice do. I think it’s a really bad place to be and it’s a confusing place to be. It’s bad for a lot of reasons. But in that way, you know, I’m hopeful for them that they can sort of see their way clear from that that given the right circumstances and retain a belief in God. And maybe Pedro the Lion can help in that, I don’t know. I think most kids who can only listen to Christian music or would allow themselves to listen to Christian music aren’t allowed or would allow themselves to listen to Pedro the Lion anymore. Particularly with this next record, the lyrical content isn’t particularly harsh but there is a couple of swear words.
TOJ: Do you see PTL as sort of a gateway drug?
DB: (Laughing) I suppose I do, yeah.
TOJ: Is it true your dad, an Assemblies of God music pastor, has differing views of what it means to be a man of faith than you do?
DB: I don’t think so; I don’t think that is true. I was just home, at my parents house last week and we had a lot of discussions as usual about those sorts of things and I don’t think we differ that much. We, coming from two totally generations and taste-sets, appear a lot different. But I think theoretically, on the theoretical level we don’t have very much difference of opinion as to what it means to believe in God or to have faith or whatever.
TOJ: I’ve seen you and your dad go at it and it’s actually a really nice dialogue, but intense dialogue. Who would you say ends up leading the other to a new place? Is there consistency there?
DB: Well, I think what happens is that as far as the new place goes, it would be me leading the conversation and potentially him to a new place but then he always tempers me in sort of whatever thing that I’m coming to him with. A couple things happen, usually just his life and wisdom and what not. Just his sort of his even-keeled nature and what not. But then there are other things where he has just sort of accepted the status quo of Christianity in ways that, and not lazy but just of what you do when you’re tired. And just because I’m younger and more zealous of certain things would sort of spur him onto those things. Sometimes that’s helpful, but then sometimes he responds in a way that causes me to really think that, “oh I’m a young, arrogant punk that doesn’t really understand certain things yet.” Yeah, but it just, well, I think consistently I’m pretty focused on a couple of key issues that I think are wrong with the church, and usually he agrees by the end of the conversation.
TOJ: If I remember correctly, he’s kind of the one who taught you how to think critically?
DB: Yeah, he definitely inspired that. He was always really big with academics, which is not necessarily the same thing. But, uh, just really good at problem solving and really good at inspiring problem solving in us. He’s really thoughtful and when I would bring up certain issues in questions in high school he, I mean he’s a conservative but when I was growing up to my surprise he was of the opinion, to my surprise, that drugs should be legalized. He and his brothers have always been the kind that really think, forgive me, “outside of the box,” as it were. And very rarely do they ever really think inside the box. They’re just really practical about the way they go about problem solving so that just opened the door to me not to be bound by the status quo. Or think that that was valid just because it was, or existed, or whatever. So he did sort of lead the way.
TOJ: Do you ever feel that it’s hard for you to stand up against him if he taught you to critically assess what’s happening in the church? If he’s very hard willed in something and you are also… and you’re trying to show him something and he’s not seeing it, anyway, is it a weird dynamic that he’s the one who taught you that?
DB: No, it isn’t. You know after high school, there hasn’t really been any sort of power struggles. He’s confident enough of a person that his son having an idea that he didn’t have isn’t threatening really. It really is just about the ideas themselves. I feel like nothing really stands in the way of us reaching an appropriate conclusion in our discussions. And part of that is me being open to that fact to the possibility that I’m wrong in the situation. But I don’t ever find myself frustrated or that he’s just not seeing something. In the midst of conversations his style of dialogue is really frustrating. In a playful way he just sort of jabs at you or asks questions that are maddening. He just has a really idiosyncratic way of going about doing things that is really maddening and creates a rise in me specifically. But it doesn’t have to do with him being sort of thickheaded or being able to see or anything. He can just be a real punk (laughing). It’s really fun.
TOJ: He knows what he’s doing.
DB: (Laughing) Yeah, he knows what he’s doing.
TOJ: What was it like growing up as a PK (Pastor’s Kid) and when did you start finding yourself differing with your parents on theological and pragmatic elements of the faith?
DB: When I really started taking it seriously after high school I think. In 1994 or ‘95. I went through a cycle where every time I was coming home I was having a new rant, some new sort of thinking where I went through a rant, or thinking that I knew what the matter was or whatever with church. And then specifically in 1996 or ‘97 I remember there was a time where I was at the end, not the end of my rope, but I just didn’t have a clue. So I came home and I think they could sense what it was. Someone tried to instigate a discussion about something and I wasn’t even playing, I was like, I don’t know, whatever. I think they could sense that I was really just at a loss and I didn’t know which end was up. It was shortly after that that I started to really come into what was for me a really satisfying understanding of my own faith and once that started to cement, once that happened, when things starting getting, well it changed from a sort of adolescent “f— the system” kind of things I was coming up with to more carefully thought out ideas that made for good discussions, and we got to know each other well through them. And then it wasn’t a punk kid arguing with his parents. It wasn’t necessarily as peers but as much a father and son could be peers.
TOJ: Why did you decide to move artistically in the direction of the concept album?
DB: That was kind of in a weird way at the root of what I’ve always done song-writing wise. I just didn’t have my stuff together enough for the first Pedro album to really do that, but it’s always something that I was drawn to and now I’m moving away from that. It probably originally stemmed from, in Christianity, music isn’t seen as valid in and of itself. It’s seen as valid only when its used as a tool for evangelism, which could be flipped around and said only when it’s a tool for telling a story which makes sense. So I think that was why I was drawn to the concept album originally. Because in a less obvious way than in a song that has three acts in it, which feels really put on a lot of the time, or all the time. I could do it over the course of a record and be more what I thought relatively subtle (laughing). Which I don’t think anybody would accuse Pedro the Lion of being subtle. But yeah it started with that, and just going through the long, most likely life-long process of trying to undo the bad habits and the wrong ways of art and music that I developed just growing up Christian. Which is just so sad, because if people believe in God, He created art and music, and to misunderstand it because you’re a part of Christianity then it’s just sad. But that’s definitely the case for me.
TOJ: Is there a narrative connection between your last two full-length albums (Winners Never Quit and Control) and your forthcoming album, Achilles Heel?
DB: No, there’s not. After Winners I decided not to do concept albums but Control when I got about 70% of the way through it I saw a narrative link in it, and so I just finished the last 30% with that in mind. After that I sort of toyed around with the idea of doing a follow-up that continued some sort of story but I just really backed away from it completely. I think when the band was at its best, which I think was in the first album and EP, the Secure EP. I was just writing songs, and not under the pretense of anything bigger. And I just started doing that again, and that’s what Achilles Heel is, I think that Achilles Heel is a logical follow-up to The Only Reason I Feel Secure and it is in the same tone as that record and friend. And that is what I wanted to do, and not as Winners and Control had never been made, but, just sort of get back to what I originally set out to do.
TOJ: I remember you talking about this third Jade Tree release being the story of redemption for the first two. So what will you do with that?
DB: Well hopefully, that will come out naturally as it should and not all at once in a big, broad stroke. I think that there is a bit of redemption on this record but it is as in life mixed in with everything else. I hope that as I just continue to write and if those themes are real in my life that they’ll come through believably and appropriately throughout the next few albums. And also the darkness will too. You know whereas with Control, it was pretty heavy handed, I kind of decided that this is what this record is going to be. In general, I don’t think this mimics life, in that way, we do have periods of really intense darkness that is not really peppered with any sort of joy or anything, so in that way it’s a little realistic. But I don’t know, I just really want to create on a moment to moment basis and let it speak what its going to trusting that everything will ultimately be represented in the most profound way, going about it that way.
TOJ: Control was a pretty scathing critique of the American Dream and Corporate America. The current Jade Tree website’s write up on you describes Achilles Heel in very similar terms (a scathing critique of the American dream). What has impacted and influenced your thoughts about the moral climate of corporate America?
DB: First I don’t particularly care for that description, I mean with Control maybe that’s a little more apt but this record (Achilles Heel) isn’t a scathing anything, it’s just a bunch of songs. I wrote most of the lyrics I wrote because I thought they were funny, or whatever. As far as the view of corporate America, it started for me with the WTO riots in Seattle. When that stuff happened. What year was that, 1999? Yeah 1999. I didn’t know what that was, what the WTO was or anything about that… And my friend Jim Dansler gave me a couple books and that was sort of the beginning of my education as a leftist or whatever (laughs). And sort of, since then, when someone sort of pulls the curtain back and you see the little wizard pulling the cranks and stuff like that, it just puts everything into perspective. And so then everything that comes down the pipe like Bush’s election and so-called election into office and 9/11 and stuff like that. You see it in different terms and some people say you are bringing your bias to those events, but yeah, you are, but that’s all any of us have and you try to educate your own bias and see around it as much as possible. It was basically the WTO riots and then just a lot of reading I’ve done since then. You know everybody’s fav, Noam Chomsky, and whoever else. But it all did begin with the WTO stuff.
TOJ: Stanley Hauerwas recently said, “At the very least Christians have a divided allegiance. For surely one of the great betrayals of Christians in America to America is confusing America with the Kingdom of God. Christians have done so because we assume that America is a democracy and democracies are less coercive than other forms of political organization.” While you and Hauerwas have different vocations, it seems that you both play a sort of prophetic role within the Church. How do you find Hauerwas’s critique of the American Church, particularly juxtaposed with your critiques of Corporate America?
DB: (Laughs) Well the quote you just said is I think really right on. You know even before I had leftist views, in churches I grew up with they would have Fourth of July celebration services where there would be patriotic songs sang. The sermon from those services were very confusing and frustrating as a kid, because I just thought that America and Jesus don’t even begin to be the same thing, even then I would begin to have arguments with my parents with that, this is wrong, it’s just flat wrong that people are associating these two things. But I couldn’t agree more with the quote. In Harper’s right after 9/11, they really talked about that a lot. There’s a sort of, I don’t know maybe a complex that Christians have, that there are things based on assumptions about the rights of Americans and divine calling of Christ and “manifest destiny” and although people would never admit to buying into those things, they do. I couldn’t begin to say it as well, but I agree.
TOJ: Would you describe yourself in a prophetic role?
DB: Um, No I wouldn’t. I don’t know what the true definition of that is. That’s not to say that there is not a true definition but just that I am unfamiliar with it.
TOJ: I think a prophet is someone who uses God to speak his truths to other people…
DB: Well, yeah I guess in that way there is a lot of, there’s just, talking about that idea or using that label for someone. It’s to single a person out, and by that definition I think it’s probably extremely common. There’s a lot of people that are pointing to truth or what’s right, that’s a confusing issue anyways. That absolute truth exists, I don’t disagree with, that I have the potential of knowing it on a substantial level as it relates to the “do’s and don’ts” of relating to other people, I’m a little skeptical of that. Just cause every few years when I looking back at journal entries, my stuff changes a lot, I don’t believe what I used to believe about certain things and I used to believe what I believed was the absolute truth. But I digress. I think there are a lot of people that are being used to help people to make sense of things. Even just by being bold and sticking your neck out there, and saying something that might be total bull—-… that’s really clear. And so they can learn about humanity, this is mealy-mouth, double talk that I’m doing here. I still feel uncomfortable, I’ve heard that before from people, but, I don’t know.
TOJ: You’re not confident that you have prophetic gifting?
DB: No, but it is pretty weird, I read a review two years ago, of, was it of an EP or a show? Yeah it was a preview of a show. And the woman was saying that, her analysis was that Winners was sort of psychic, because it in a very general way predicted some sort of election being fixed and some sort of foul play, and that was the year or two years before it happened… it was the year before. And then when the supposed “Scathing Critique” of corporate America that Control is seen as by some happened, it was not very long before everything sort of blew up with Enron and the collapse that we saw ethically. And that was really interesting to me, because I didn’t really put any of that together. I wish I would’ve known how the Bush thing went down because I could have been more specific. I didn’t claim how a person could fix an election in that record because it seemed unbelievable to me. That was sort of an Achilles heel of that album in my mind, but it arguably happened.
TOJ: You say you don’t feel comfortable with that things are coming prophetically. So how are you discerning truth, do you feel how you’re doing it through flesh, is the spirit doing it for you?
DB: I don’t know, I think a lot of that stuff, there’s just, when talking about prophecy and prophets, it doesn’t really require any special revelation in most cases, there are things that people get away from that should be obvious truths about human interaction, and if people just stumble upon them again and reasons them out and by God’s grace puts them together and by just saying it doesn’t really require any new special revelation just sort of a re-application of what has always sort of been true or healthy. And I honestly, I have said this recently to people that I know, but, I think as someone who enjoys gambling from time to time, if you bet with the cynics, you will win the bet. If you, as far as human interaction goes, if you bet with someone who says “if it looks like corruption then there is corruption,” and then there’s someone who will argue and say you don’t want to assume the worst in people. And I know what it says in Corinthians about love not and not assuming the worst or whatever, but as far as someone trying to make accurate predictions about what is going to happen, I think it’s a relatively safe bet to assume the worst in a particular situation. Or at least historically it seems to work out that way. I don’t like that it’s that way, but for some reason, if it looks like there is corruption, there is corruption.
TOJ: As you are adept at capturing diverse psychologies and characters in your stories, have you been influenced by such individuals as Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky? Anything in particular in their work?
DB: Not yet, because I haven’t really digested any of that. I was just telling you that I started reading Dostoevsky for the first time last week, uh, The Idiot. Uh, it’s amazing. I can’t put it down, it’s so great. He just created this character that you just want to be around…
TOJ: Prince Michigan?
DB: Yeah, Prince Michigan, its just… lev, yeah lev. You know, in his wake, the effect he leaves in his wake is so brilliant. I’m only fifty pages in; there’s so much more.
TOJ: What would you say to the critic who says that you offer a lot of good critiques of the church, contemporary Christianity and the American way but don’t offer a lot of solutions in that?
DB: I really don’t think that art or music is totally the place for that. I think that asking leading questions is what it’s better at, offering concrete solutions through music or art… I don’t know, to me now in 2004 it doesn’t seem like it’s that good of an idea. And that’s something that has brought that to my attention over the years, someone brought it to my attention a while back and then I realized that that’s what it’s doing. Yeah I don’t know, if I do that ever it will be later and if my ideas about music change as to far as what its suited for then perhaps.
TOJ: Who are individuals that you would say have been vital theologically, spiritually, and artistically to your music and art in the last three or four years?
DB: I think my Dad certainly… both my parents. I think Adam Sandler.
TOJ: How so?
DB: I don’t know, I think that Punch Drunk Love movie; there was a depth to its character that really has been inspiring to me since it came out.
TOJ: The writer or Adam Sandler?
DB: Well it was the writer but saying Adam Sandler is way cooler. So, I mean Paul Thomas Anderson… that movie focused my opinion of Paul Thomas Anderson. I think that’s my favorite one, and Hard Eight is my second. I do like Magnolia but, I don’t know, he focused a bit I felt like, with Punch Drunk Love and really hit it. There’s a lot of great s— in Magnolia for sure but it’s really just all over the place. So yeah I don’t know… I’m trying to think reading wise… there was this professor of mine in college that’s dead now that comes back constantly… you know, sort of touchstones that come back constantly. The pool of influences is become so diverse, that there’s not anyone that jumps out. And to even name Paul Thomas Anderson seems unjust because he’s just one of many, he himself isn’t figured that highly into it necessarily because its so diluted with other things.
TOJ: How has marriage changed the direction of your music or made you think differently about art? If you were a single man, would you be writing differently or looking at different directions in your art?
DB: Well in a lot of ways it’s really freed me up, it’s an extremely secure place to be, to be married. For me anyway it was always in the forefront of my mind, finding a life partner, now that that is done, I’m in a much more secure place because of it. I have less problems with insecurity than I did before that. Which is really helpful in being creative. Just trusting your ideas and being self-confident.
TOJ: If you were single would you?
DB: I might, I don’t know. You know, there is the aspect to it though that if I was single I would be doing it more. Like because I’m married there are restrictions on the amount of time I can spend on doing music because I have the responsibility to Anne. I probably would be on the road constantly. My social life would be restricted to the people I interact with, well you know at bars, I would go see a lot more shows, running into friends. There would be a difference there. There’s a lot of things that a person needs to be able to do, like sleep in a bed with clean sheets and eat food that is somewhat healthy for you and not necessarily out so you can conserve finances and what have you. I would be a wreck I think, and to a certain degree I was. I aspired to living responsibly, spending money appropriately but she has helped me immensely. So those are all the other factors that would change how I did stuff. I don’t feel any pressure from her to not say certain things or to say certain things. I mean she doesn’t particularly like it when I swear in songs or whatever, but I know that she wouldn’t stand in the way of me doing it. I don’t not do (it) for her sake, and maybe I’m a bastard for that. I don’t know. So I assume things would look a lot differently but it’s hard to put it all together.
TOJ: Any CDs you would recommend while we’re waiting for Achilles Heel to come out May 25th?
DB: We’ve been listening to that new The Shins album (Chutes Too Narrow) kind of a lot, we really like it. A lot of Beatles, Dylan, the Rolling Stones. We’ve been watching How The West Was Won DVD, that Zeppelin thing, there’s some just awesome stuff on that, and at the same time there’s just some of the most embarrassing, terrible stuff in rock and roll too. I’ve been listening to that band Starflyer 59 a bunch. As far as newer records, that US MAPLE record, Acre Thrills. So yeah that and that Shins record.
Josh Golden is a physical therapist, musician and dance machine. He lives in Seattle and has played with bands such as Pedro the Lion and Damien Jurado.