Known most for his role as lead singer and songwriter for his former band, Pedro the Lion, David Bazan is currently touring under his own name promoting his latest release, Curse Your Branches. He recently took a break from doing some laundry to talk about his new album, The Big Lebowski, and God. The interview is paired with some live footage from his recent performance at Lincoln Hall in Chicago.
Wunderkammer: Curse Your Branches was two years in the making. What was the writing and recording process like?
David Bazan: Well, the writing was mostly me on acoustic guitar. I was on tour a bunch, so I would just try to write songs—sit down with a pad of paper, a computer, an acoustic guitar and a piano and just go for it. I would start some songs, and then it would take me six to eight months to finish the lyrics. I would sit down and try at it for a while and if nothing cool happened, I'd wait until the next time. The recording process took place at my house over an extended period of time.
WK: It seems like this album is more autobiographical. How has the transition been from writing fictional songs to more autobiographical ones?
DB: Well, it wasn't intentional, so when it dawned on me what was happening with the more autobiographical content, I panicked a little bit because I thought, “Well that's not what I want to be doing, necessarily.” But then I went back to the tunes to find out—regardless what it’s called, “Do you like these songs, do you like the way they make you feel?” And the answer was yes. In that sense, it was like [writing] any other record where I just try to write lyrics that I like, and I have to figure out as time goes on, “Do I actually like them? Do I still like them?” That's the real test. You can like the songs one day, and then six months later you realize that the songs aren't making you feel the way you want to feel.
WK: Do you have favorite lines or moments from the record or parts that you especially like to play live?
DB: At this point, thankfully, I'm really into all of it. Some of the standouts would be the line from “In Stitches,” “The Crew has killed the captain but they can still hear his voice.” I [also] really like “Curse your Branches.” I like playing that tune.
WK: Most of Curse Your Branches is fairly straightforward in its lyrical content, but there are still a few cryptic moments that bewildered me as a listener. Particularly, the second verse of “Curse Your Branches” where you sing, “when I sleep I’m usually dreaming/though more and more there’s only one/where every hired gun I’ve ever hired/is making love to you while I look on,” is that autobiographical or just good imagery?”
DB: The second half is autobiographical, actually. For a while I was having sort of paranoid delusions about my wife's fidelity, which were completely baseless. In my, whatever you call it, pathology, I justified all this with circumstantial evidence, but, in the end, it was just me being crazy, and it really hurt her. So, yeah, that's a reference to an actual event in my life.
WK: And the first verse of heavy breath?
DB: I guess that is a little cryptic. The main bit, the chorus “if no heavy breath blew up these lungs,” is a reference to Genesis where it talks about God making Adam and Eve and how from the dust of the earth he formed them and then breathed his breath into them. The other bits are an attempt to boil down my existence in my house with my wife and my family to its sort of primitive elements. There are all the trappings of modern living, but, really, it's two people living in a very temporal setting. So, I think of things in primitive terms a lot of times and try to boil them down to their most essential elements. So that was just me doing that a little bit.
WK: Speaking of family, how does your wife feel about the new record? Did she give you input during the creative process?
DB: She really likes the record a lot. I do get input from her regarding the songs occasionally, and she likes some songs better than others. But yeah, she likes the record, and on some level she appreciates the way that I characterize the events that happened, so that's a good thing.
It's the most polished record I've ever made, and Anne is a fan of a more polished sound. She's not really a fan of low-fi, where squeaking chairs and little bits of tomfoolery from the studio end up on the record. She likes professional sounding recordings. And I think she appreciates that aspect of it more so than the EP, which was a little rough around the edges.
WK: You mentioned the “death of the CD” the other day during your performance at Waterloo Records; do you have any strong take on the relationship between technology and music recording industry?
DB: Well, I do have a lot of thoughts and perspectives that are ongoing. It's a pretty complicated set of issues, and I don't necessarily feel like I understand all the dynamics there. I do think that CDs are selling less and people are starting to see them for what they are, which is a delivery medium—while Vinyl was more of an experience in itself, not just a storage or delivery medium. You start seeing see a lot of people going mp3 and vinyl because CDS are a pretty terrible archival format—they deteriorate at a faster rate, even in ideal circumstances…of course you can melt vinyl and whatnot….I guess more of what I was meaning is that record stores are closing in droves all around the country, and physical product is selling less and less. People are having to deal with what is actually happening there. Luckily, it looks like Waterloo is still doing really well. I played at Grimy's in Nashville a couple of days after that, which is apparently doing really well, too.
WK: Has it affected you as a musician at all, in terms of the way you want to make the record and market it?
DB: Not when making the record. My manager Bob has a really great way of putting it: I’m just supposed to make whatever record I need to make; then, once that's done, we figure out what to do with it. Thankfully, it doesn't really affect the recording and writing process. Not directly, anyway. Subconsciously, all that stuff has an affect, I'm sure, just not on any cognitive level.
WK: Something that's always struck me about your music is that it seems to function on a slightly more complicated compositional plane—for example a lot of the songs feature odd progressions or are written in unusual scalar modes, things that aren't typically found in popular song writing.
DB: That's flattering, and I think it might be true to some degree.
WK: Were you trained formally in regards to music theory and instruments? What does your musical history look like in terms of a formal history?
DB: Well, I haven't really been trained formally, but I'm really interested in music theory, in a way. I did take an intro to music theory in college, though at that time I had already picked up some just from playing songs in church. My dad was a dissertation away from having a Masters in music theory, so we always talked about inversions and this, that, and the other things. A lot of times what really turned me on about music, was, like, if you play a D chord, but you put an F# in the bass, it has a very different kind of sound. So being able to manipulate those kind of factors in simple pop format can really go a long way; it's really satisfying to monkey around with those elements of the music. That being my taste, I sought out buddies of mine that went to music school and tried to pick their brain and pick stuff up. I really liked the pop song format—the ‘folk song’, or whatever you would call it. Just looking for ways to take the traditional elements and turn them on their head a little bit.
WK: It also seems in this latest record there's been some specific changes with the mixing—for example, your voice seems to be mixed a little higher. Do you want to comment on what went on with the mixing?
DB: It was more than trying some new things. With Pedro the Lion for instance, there was almost never more than one guitar happening at the same time—some notable exceptions would be “Indian Summer” and “Magazine”—more than not it was drums, bass, and the guitar and maybe some [other] percussion. So with the EP, I started to allow myself to branch out a little bit and have more essential elements going on at once, but it definitely wasn't some clear directive, so it only happened a little bit; I still kind of had the old habit of trying to limit myself. With the record [CYB], I had done that enough on the EP that it wasn't a consideration—whatever needed to go on, would go on, even if it was going to take five guys to reproduce it live. I think that's the biggest difference. Also, there's no heavy electric guitar presence on the record, which is a pretty major difference. And I don't know why that is. I just kept thinking, ‘we'll I'll work on guitar parts later. I'll just worry about bass lines, and drum parts, and keyboards.’ Then pretty soon the record was almost done, and there was no electric guitar. There's [also] very little in the way of rhythm guitar. “Curse Your Branches” is like noodly [sic] rhythm guitar. “When We Fell” has a rhythm guitar, but that's even pretty nonstandard for me.
WK: It seems that in the past many of your listeners looked to you as a spiritual guide; I'm curious if you feel comfortable in that role or do you feel it’s something you’ve been forced into?
DB: Well, people should do whatever they want to do and think about me however they want to think, but I'd like to draw people's attention to how all over the map I've been over the years in certain ways. I do think there's a core ethic that guides my thinking. [But] I mean, I wouldn't look to me in that way. I am certainly interested in that topic [spirituality] and have spent many, many hours and brain cells thinking about [it]. So I certainly have a perspective that I think is valid, but beyond that, “What’s a hero?”… sorry, that's a Big Lebowski quote…
WK: Oh, unfortunately, I haven't seen it.
DB: Oh dude, what are you doing today? If you don’t have a lot of stuff going on, you should rent it. It’s really, really great.
WK: Yeah, I’ve meant to but never gotten around to it. Wonder if it’s on Netflix.
DB: It’s absolutely on Netflix. Also, I should warn you, though, give yourself three or four viewings before you really make your decision. Kinda let it wash over you because it doesn’t work the way other movies do, which is why I think it has such staying power—so, if you’re looking for plot or any real meaning the first time around, you’re probably not going to find it, but it is there and it’s one of the very, very best movies. A lot of people I know end up coming around to it, even if it’s not immediately pleasing. But, yeah, its really important [laughs]. Sounds weird me saying this, but it’s just, yeah.
WK: You’ve said you consider yourself an agnostic as of late; how does it affect your perception of the particulars of Christianity, the more odd ideas, let’s say, the divinity of Jesus and the sacredness of the Bible. How has your perception shifted in your move to agnosticism?
DB: The short answer is I used to think Jesus was the Son of God, died on the cross and was resurrected three days later and atoned for our sins. But now I just don’t know. That doesn’t seem that likely to me, but I’m open. I’m just at the beginning of the research. What I mean to say is that there’s debate over the veracity of the biblical record in relation to Jesus. What people have historically believed about Jesus has changed over time. Not knowing is the logical equivalent in my case of not believing, but I’m not opposed to it. My goal is to learn everything I can learn and let the chips fall where they’re going to. I’m not starting with a conclusion anymore in trying to evaluate these truth claims. Yeah, I don’t know who Jesus could have been or what he was or wasn’t.
WK: How has your crisis of faith affected the household dynamic?
DB: Well, it isn't as cut and dried as, "I was a Christian, and we all went to church together and then suddenly stopped." The arc of the whole thing was a lot longer. Back between 1998 and 2002, I was going to a church, and Anne was not really that into it. She was just kind of over it for a while. And I said, hey, you're a grown up, you don't have to go to church if you don't want to. And then we both didn't go to church for a long time. And then when we had our daughter, she wanted to go back and her interest in it was rekindled. I'm not sure what the perception is, but in my mind that's a pretty different picture than, “happy family at church every Sunday, and then suddenly Dad goes on a bender”.
WK: There seems to be a shift in religious discussions from apologetic to experiential frameworks in discussing or arguing about faith; do you think that’s a valid way of arguing?
DB: First of all, I think it’s a logical fallacy. All that you can argue from an experience is that you’ve had an experience. If someone says, ‘I’ve experienced God, therefore my entire system of belief is true,’ logically, it doesn’t necessarily follow. I mean that’s all we have, our experiences; massive appeals to authority don’t work anymore because none of us appeal to the same authority. I believe people when they tell me they’ve experienced this or that; I believe people when they tell me that, but it doesn’t follow that the Bible is God’s Word. I hope people have spiritual experiences, but I think people try to argue way too much from them. “I saw a ghost, therefore x, y and z is true.” It doesn’t necessarily follow. Also, I think we all need to evaluate our experiences critically because usually when God supposedly talks to people he’s not giving them bad news; it usually helps or favors them, and that’s pretty dangerous. But I want to live in a world where you can have a conversation, and one can say, “I experienced this the other day.” And I can say, “that’s great, I believe you, man.” And I try to live that way. But when people are trying to make a connection between some mystical experience and 2000 years of beautiful tradition from Moses to Sandy Koufax… sorry, that’s another Big Lebowski reference…
WK: Oy, epic fail on my part…
DB: [laughs] You really should see that movie. I’m sorry, just joking. But anyway, people try to connect some fleeting thing they had with something bigger than that, but it doesn’t follow, and doesn’t hold water; it’s just not compelling to me.
WK: Did you ever argue in that kind of way with people?
DB: You know, I didn’t, as far as I can tell. I grew up Pentecostal, and that was all around me, and I was never real big on that. Although, I can imagine someone pointing to an interview and saying, “Well, you did it right here.” And maybe I did. But looking back, it doesn’t strike me that it was of particular interest to me. In fact, apologetics as a general rule was never particularly interesting to me. I didn’t spend a lot of time trying to convince people of Christianity, most of the arguing that was done was with Christians around me, telling them by doing those things they were doing a disservice to the faith. That was more my focus. That’s my current perception, but who knows. If you find evidence to the contrary, you should definitely write about it.
WK: So, did you ever think you had experienced God as a younger Bazan?
DB: That is a weird aspect of all this, ‘cause I actually have on many, many occasions, and so it complicates this whole thought process and conversation because I have to deal with my perception that I have had some kind of mystical experiences. And I don’t always know what to do about that because, in my mind, there’s a mind-fuck that’s implanted in those things, especially when you’re trying to be intellectually honest, that I don’t know what to do with all the time. But I write it down and just keep putting one foot in front of the other. Certainly I wouldn’t use them as the basis for arguing with anyone about it.
WK: Do you want people to take anything away from Curse Your Branches?
DB: Well, I want people to see what’s there, and let that hit them however it does. For instance, maybe they’ll listen to the record and see somebody who had some good ideas but is clearly a poser. I just want people to see it for it is. I guess implicit in that is that sometimes, blind spots being what they are, people listening to the record will see it for what is, maybe more than I can. Everything that you do isn’t so deliberate; you’re just trying to make something that scratches an itch, and you don’t even know exactly what it is. Over the last six or eight months the record’s been done, my perspective about it has changed so drastically because I’m seeing it in a different light all the time. So people with a fresh set of ears will be able to see it for what it is. Then maybe somewhere down the road I can see it for what it is and learn about myself in that way. I don’t have an agenda, if that’s what you mean.
WK: No, you don’t seem one for agendas. One last question: it seems like you and Pitchfork have had a troubled relationship in the past, culminating in them not reviewing your latest record, care to comment on that troubled relationship?
DB: I hope they don’t review it, but I don’t know if that’s true; they’ve been running a bit behind lately, so I don’t know. Yeah, it certainly is. I can sum it up by saying I told Josh Rosenfeld, the label owner at Barsuk, that I didn’t want to service them with the record because I don’t necessarily think that they’re going to get to the record and think, “I’m gonna listen to this and see if I like or not,” and write a review based on that. It’s kind of a loaded proposition, so knowing what the outcome would probably be, which might be a little cynical of me—and I would certainly repent of it if it were shown to be false—I just told Barsuk I didn’t want them to be serviced with it.
As you probably know, but some of the readers might not know, people don’t just review records because they dig them—although Pitchfork has done that a bit, where they find really obscure things, but there’s sort of a cred and profit motive in that, it’s not such a pure thing. The label sends out 400 copies of the record to 400 different writers and bugs them to review the record until they do, and I didn’t want them to do that with Pitchfork this time. We had another conversation about it, and Josh persuaded me that we should go ahead and let them send it out to them, and I agreed. Then, a few weeks later, I called him up and said I changed my mind, I don’t want to solicit them to write a review, and Josh said, “Ah man, I’m really sorry, it just went out.” And so it went out to them anyways, but all that said, I’d just as soon they just fucking shut the hell up—I don’t care about their opinion about my records and it doesn’t do me any good for them to review my records, clearly. I do still go there sometimes, and I learn about some bands that are pretty awesome. I don’t want to paint it like its all one way. Part of what they provide is an interesting service, one that can be really helpful. But I haven’t got the impression that they’re in it for the honest and right reasons that they all claim to be, and that all of us should be in it for. Again, all that said, I could be wrong about those guys. Maybe the dude just needed to have his meds upped a little bit, and then he’d stop being such a prick, but I could be wrong.