David Bazan Remembers Everything

On 'Phoenix,' Pedro the Lion's first album in 15 years, the songwriter looks back on his Pentecostal childhood, reflecting on freedom, escape, and connection.
February 22, 2019, 3:56pm
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Photo by Ryan Russell

The first Pedro The Lion album in 15 years opens with a resurfaced memory from David Bazan’s childhood, an image half-obscured by the glare of the past. It was “a desert Christmas morning, 1981 / One month shy of six years old, in the valley of the sun.” In Phoenix, Arizona, where he spent the first dozen years of his life, Bazan learned to ride his yellow two-wheel bicycle. From that point on he was, he figured, liberated: “First freedom / Second life / All the places I could ride.”

That freedom quickly mutates though. Bazan realizes that his life since that day—the constant change of location, the endless touring both under his own name and as Pedro The Lion, the shows he's played in one-bed apartments and crumbling clubs—has been a perpetual escape. "I rode off and down the road / Somehow I never went back home," he sings. In the chorus, through a warm crackle in his throat, he realizes what he's been searching for: "I'd trade my kingdom for someone to ride with."

Phoenix, out now on Polyvinyl, marks the beginning of a five-album series in which Bazan will revisit each of his childhood homes, one by one. It was born, he says over the phone from yet another venue before yet another show, during a visit to his grandparents' house in Phoenix, as he drove past childhood landmarks and spoke to his grandfather, whose memory was rapidly eroding. It was conceived as an "elaborate journaling project," but Bazan's urge to write songs, to face an audience rather than write to himself, took over.

The record is inevitably a reckoning with the Pentecostal upbringing he's grappled with on record for the past two decades—an attempt to resolve a sense of disconnection. He felt split off from himself. "I came from a culture where being in touch with your body and your feelings wasn't really encouraged," he says. "There was danger there in the form of temptation and all of these things. You end up being a human that just wasn't that great at getting in touch with feelings and the body."

He also realized that he was lacking a connection with others, both a cause and effect of a life on tour, riding off down the road, never going back home. He realized that he'd been writing about that unconsciously for 22 years, both as Pedro the Lion and as David Bazan. He wanted to make that explicit. "There's a sense in which some of us are needing something from the world in connection with other people that somehow we're not getting," he says. "I think that Pedro The Lion and then subsequently the Bazan [solo] stuff was a way for me to express that and release some of that, even if I couldn't cop to just how autobiographical all that music was."

So, here is David Bazan at the age of 43. He's all but stopped drinking alcohol—he says that he was most likely an alcoholic before radically cutting back in 2014. He smokes weed instead, and while he'd ideally like to cut that back too, he finds the idea of complete sobriety scary. (He recently rewatched Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master, and he was devastated by the line that Amy Adams delivers to Joaquin Phoenix: "You can't take this life straight, can you?") He attends therapy. He's trying to understand the past in order to understand the present.

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Noisey: There are a lot of very detailed memories on this record. You're even naming specific intersections in Phoenix by the end. Were these things vivid to you, or did you have to drill down in order to access them?
David Bazan: Most of them were pretty vivid. I guess to go back and revisit those memories in a more deliberated and meaningful and purposeful way than I had before, it kind of gave them some more detail. "Yellow Bike," that's just a formative little home movie that is part of the main reel in my head. I guess you can know that about yourself in a vague sense, but this process just allowed me to understand just how formative some of these moments were.

ou mentioned that you've started going to therapy, right?

Yeah, in May.

How did that line up with the creation of the record?
The record was already started and pretty well fleshed out by the time I started therapy. But I think that therapy helped me finish the lyrics in a way that there's a bit more kindness. There's something positive about the record, I feel. People have suggested that it is a dark record and gritty at times, but that overall there's something positive there. I think that therapy helped with that. This whole project is an expression of self-kindness or self-compassion, [and] therapy is a major piece of the puzzle. That's a process that started for me when I stopped drinking and started smoking weed.

There was just a lot more kindness available for me. For instance, if I made a keystroke mistake on a computer, my impulse was to say, under my breath, "You fucking idiot." You know, the type of contemptuous stuff that we can come up with for ourselves. Once I quit drinking—and especially if I was smoking weed—there would be another voice that waited a beat or two and said, "Hey man, you ain't gotta talk to us that way." That simple little thing started the whole project of just trying to get well, I guess, and trying to figure out what it was I needed. The record is a part of that, and therapy was a part of that.

You seemingly stopped drinking more by accident than design—you started smoking weed and then lost the desire to drink. When was that exactly?
The summer of 2015 is when I started smoking. I mean, I'm not really a teetotaller now—but I don't have any use for it, really. There's no magnetism there. In 2015 I all but stopped drinking, and then in social situations I continued to drink for a while, but I pretty soon realized that I just didn't like it.

That's not a way that people often talk about it. At any point in that situation did you consider yourself an alcoholic?
I was, yeah. I had effectively slowed down my drinking in 2014 by putting a bunch of really strict rules on myself. It was sort of in lieu of quitting drinking entirely. I just drank 75 percent less. It was a lot. I really curbed it. But I still allowed myself a half a dozen opportunities over the course of the year to get really fucked up. And then in 2015 I thought, well, that went well. In 2014 I felt really good about the things that I was able to achieve just personally by slowing down drinking. The extra energy that you have and the extra bandwidth.

So I thought, well, I'll relax those rules a little bit. By mid-year in 2015, I could already feel, like, man, this has you. There's no way out of this that you can see. I just thought that this was just always going to be with me. So there was a sense in which I was always looking for a way out. And I think that weed just helped me. It was sort of a gateway drug out of alcohol addiction, which is the opposite of what we're usually told about it. And it's been a lot easier to moderate my smoking than it was to moderate my drinking. So I did have to replace it with another addiction that itself is a very fine form of getting fucked up.

"Clean Up" is a complex song, but you do seem to be touchin on sobriety on that song.
Yeah, I think it is about that. It's certainly leaving the door open to go in that direction further. I guess it still remains to be seen in some ways. If I am this extroverted person, there is an introvert in me that I can lose track of or touch with, the same way that you could lose track of or touch with a friend or a sibling who tends to tag along. I don't ever lose track of that connection with myself. Alcohol, way more than weed, causes me to lose that connection. So that's a behavior that I probably won't go back to. So now the question is: To what degree does weed do that for me too? In crisis—which I feel like there has been an ongoing personal crisis, and in the stress of that and then just not being able to handle the world as it is, in some ways—I rely on the distance that weed gives me.

But I guess I would like to come to a point where I don't rely on it for that. I've got a bunch of ways of being present with the world and being present with myself and and my feelings, and that weed could just be one of many tools for recreation and exploration. You know, the way that mushrooms might be, where it's not like waking up and taking mushrooms every single day, but maybe a couple of times a year you have a time with yourself or somebody else. I hope that it's a little bit more like that, where it isn't like a daily kind of crutch.

It's a lot easier for me to find equilibrium with marijuana, and it's easier for me to use it, daily, without judging myself too harshly, or still having some amount of kindness for myself around my need to do that and my current inability to just stop doing that. I'm not a prude, but I want to find balance. And I need to get fucked up. It's trying to balance those things and maybe move towards a place where I don't need to get fucked up. I'm trying not to be too hard on myself. As long as I'm being responsible and careful with people…

The way you talk about it is quite similar to the way you talk about therapy. And it seems to be part of the songwriting project as well—getting in touch with yourself. Did you achieve something through songwriting that maybe you were searching for with alcohol and not finding?
I think that being involved in music and songwriting has really helped. I came from a culture where being in touch with your body and your feelings wasn't really encouraged. There was danger there in the form of temptation and all of these things. You end up being a human that just isn't that great at getting in touch with feelings and the body. Music forces you to do that. It's your body that is leading the way. Consciously, I couldn't find my way, and so music allowed me a subconscious process to be involved in. It was the map for what I'm doing now.

The whole time I was writing these songs that were expressions of grief, it would seem, looking back. So, there was a way in which, if I couldn't express grief or be my full self in any of the relationships that I was a part of, either as a friend or a family member or whatever, then at least I could express it through these records. When I made It's Hard to Find a Friend, I felt like it expressed something about my sadness, but in balance with everything else, especially for people who knew me, I feel like when that record came out, people understood something about me that I couldn't really express in face to face relationships.

It was a way to let my sadness out and my depressed… my butthurt self. The first time I heard that lyric—"Did you love this world and did this world not love you" on [Grandaddy's] Sophtware Slump, it really cut me. And it's sad, as a white guy, I have it so much better. But there's the sense in which some of us are needing something from the world in connection with other people that somehow we're not getting. I think that Pedro and then subsequently the Bazan stuff was a way for me to express that and release some of that stuff.

There's a sense in which I couldn't cop to just how autobiographical all that music was. "Control" is not technically autobiographical, but representatively, there's disappointment that it communicates—a disappointment with the world and how it works, and the disconnection. And now I can look back and see—oh yeah, you were grieving disconnection. Even if I was drinking the whole time and really killing the pain on a conscious level, subconsciously it was still able to come out, and it was really a bridge to finding balance that I didn't realize I was building the whole time. I was listening to this Tom Petty autobiography by Warren Zanes, and I understood something about that. Where I assumed, because Tom was so emotionally literate, that it was an analog in his face-to-face life with people, that he could talk about his feelings in real life. But it would seem from that book and from what I understand that he wasn't talking about his feelings in real life—that these songs were the only ways that these feelings were being released. And that made sense to me.

I thought, "Oh, you can be really intelligent about emotions and about communicating that stuff in song, but somehow because it's a song you have some sort of plausible deniability." Like this isn't my secret hopes and dreams spilled out in song form, it's just a good jam or whatever. But it really is that. It really is our most vulnerable kind of desires laid bare. There's just a distance there that we all agree to maintain. Once I quite drinking and really just had enough kindness to sit with myself and all the difficult feelings, it became clear what the project has been the whole time, and the connection with myself that music maintained while the regime of my conscious mind was just in disarray.

You said in another interview that this five-album concept and this arc over your childhood could have been an "elaborate journaling project." I wonder what you said about being emotionally honest and being kind to yourself, why you—other than the fact that you're a songwriter by trade—tripped from a personal project and into something public-facing. Is there something about the presence of an audience that allows you to be] more honest?
I think one reason why music has been such a helpful part of my life is that it is outward-facing, and I'm motivated by trying to connect with people outside of myself—to my own detriment. My really obsessive need to connect outwardly has diminished my ability to connect inwardly. So there's a sense in which, if it was a personal project that was private, I don't know that I would have the discipline to do it.

The reason why a life in music has worked for me is because the motivations and the rewards are social. I can do some work alone because I know just on the other side of that work, some connections are going to be made. It's a motivator, because the lack of connection I have with myself means I can't really motivate myself to do anything that... I mean, the scarcity of connection that I was struggling with got to a point where it was just a crisis. So I didn't really have the option of doing a lot of deep work alone, because I just needed connection so badly. I couldn't think about anything else.

So there's a sense in which I wouldn't even be able to do this work and follow through for myself with this project that my inner person was pretty clear: You've got to do this. This is very, very important. And there was a question: Will I do it? I've never followed through before with something like that, that was just strictly for myself. That's the source of motivation to actually do it. I'm really glad I have that. It was sort of a loan or a cosign, that I needed to actually do the thing. They're just songs, but for me singing "Quietest Friend" over and over just helps me understand things about myself, and reminds me what my values are, and a path to get there that has been hidden from me.

One part of this whole project—Pedro and Bazan—is that things are preserved for eternity. On "Clean Up," you sing about being a "chronic forgetter"; on "Chasing the Grid" you say you've memorized your favorite story. You also spoke a lot with your grandfather, whose memory was fading. I wonder how much you think about preserving your past on these records as much as processing them.
I think that it has been more of a focus on processing the past. There's groundwork being laid because I want to understand the present, both personally and with this moment that's happening in America and the world, and I think all of these things have something to do with each other. That's a focus too. Even on that level, it's less about preserving the past and just trying to bring some understanding of the past to bear on what's happening now, because there's just so much misunderstanding.

There is more of a focus on unpacking the past, and really for the urgent purpose of making sense of what's happening right now. Honestly, it's hard to imagine the world existing for long enough for laying this down to matter for the future. But I grew up Pentecostal, and we thought Jesus was coming back at any given point in time, so there's this very temporary feeling that the Earth can have to somebody who grew up Evangelical Christian. I've shed that, but the way that things are going, it's hard to see the future at the moment, because the present is so toxic.

As I'm hanging out with my grandparents—my grandpa just died in November, and so we were down there over the holidays, just reminiscing—and we were realizing that there were stories of my grandparents and my grandma's siblings that I want to get recordings of. I want them talking through all these stories. There's a sense in which I'm doing some of that in my life, but this didn't feel like that to me. It really felt urgent. It felt like processing the past in an urgent way, because I need to understand why the present is working how it is.

How much do you feel like you've got the five-album arc worked out? Obviously you know where you're going geographically. Do you know where you're going emotionally?
Yeah, emotionally the arc is in place. I'm now at the point where I'm going through and trying to make… I would say a song-by-song outline, but it's more scene-by-scene, going into each place, mentally, and then cataloging the top-20 things that come to me about that place, be they specific memories or just dynamics of the place or themes that the place conjures or embodies. And then just really wanting to nail down what the emotional arc is even more precisely, so that as I'm writing Havasu, I'm not painting myself into a corner. I have to think in a big narrative structure at some point so that I can forget about it and zoom in and do the small work, but I want to point myself in the right direction with everything.

Does the thought of doing that excite you, or is it a little intimidating?
It's exciting. I mean, it is intimidating, but the process that I've settled on has such interesting features for me. The only thing that's intimidating for me is, can I pull it off? That I don't know. But I'm not worried about that as much as... I don't want to create a situation where the work feels tedious to me. When I was making Winners Never Quit [Pedro The Lion's second LP, released in 2000], there came a point in the process where it just was too tedious.

About halfway through the record it got really un-fun. And I'd love it to stay fun. It's hard work in a way. It takes preparation and intention and things for it to stay fun, because there's a lot of pressures that could push the fun out of doing it, namely just doing it commercially. But I feel like the process is one that is really going to be engaging for me. I want to have a peak work experience over the next little bit, and it has been already. I'm just trying to create that for myself, and then hopefully I'm able to achieve the big arc. If not, it'll still be a lot of great jams, I hope. Relative to what my capacity for writing great jams is.