David Bazan, alone and forsaken.
If ever there was a spokesman for those suffering from the God-sick blues, David Bazan is it. As the frontman behind Pedro the Lion for nearly a decade, Bazan has created a virtual trademark on doubt-ridden lyrics, sketching characters constantly slipping to-and-fro on a moral slope, or candidly confessing his own ambivalence toward God and his own faith.
Now that Bazan has dropped that moniker following the band’s split in 2005—a schism that was shared rather openly on the Fewer Moving Parts EP a year later—and released Curse Your Branches, his first full-length under his given name, the ever-dubious songwriter is yet again at the crossroads. Maybe it was the two solid weeks of tending to his newborn son. Maybe it was his newfound sobriety and spearheading a fresh career path. But when American Songwriter caught up with Bazan in his Seattle home over the phone, the man was almost eerily at ease.
“I am a lot healthier and more content than I was,” says Bazan. “For me, stepping away from Pedro the Lion was stepping away from a process, a mode of doing things. I was definitely a drunk and a string of my buddies had been hurt and frustrated, and I didn’t want to continue that way. I needed some distance.”
After a short-lived stint with side project Headphones, teaming with the Undertow Orchestra—a live collaboration with fellow under-the-radar songsmiths Vic Chestnutt, Mark Eitzel and Will Johnson—and rebranding himself as a solo artist, it might be natural to suspect that Bazan was poised for a push toward greater exposure. But even a cursory listen to Curse Your Branches’ modest 10 tracks is proof enough that he’s hardly looking to reinvent himself or reclaim his piece of the indie underground. If anything, Bazan has become more comfortable in his own skin, writing music the only way he knows how—assuredly neg-head, yes, but brutally honest and aware of its own limitations.
“I got to a certain point with this record where I thought, ‘You want to be a big deal and these songs that you’re writing kind of ensure that you’re not going to be,’” says Bazan.
Opener “Hard to Be” recalls the Headphones’ Moog-heavy tones, but then gently reverts to Bazan’s uneven croon and sad insights about how it is “hard to be a decent human being.” From there, however, the album tilts slightly upward with “Bless This Mess,” easily one of the more lighthearted songs he’s ever written, even going so far as to feature a few friends for a semi-gospel choir and wry church organ interlude. Following that is “Please, Baby, Please” that, for all its mopey lyrics, chugs along with a crisp acoustic strum, lithe percussion and soft vocal coos. To top it off, “When We Fell,” a track that was originally conceived as a laborious, slow-moving dirge flips right-side up by way of trad-rock riffs and a few scattered chimes mid-song.
A string of low-key tour stops last year—organized by fans at limited-admittance locales with only minimal publicity—may also be responsible for Bazan recruiting about a dozen other musicians to pull off this slight but noticeable shift in tone.
“I really dislike the singer/songwriter tag, and when I was just out playing with an acoustic, that’s what I was,” says Bazan. “Not to mention [these songs were] basically autobiographical confessionals about religion. I realized what I was doing and I was horrified.”
Still, what’s kept most Bazan fans coming back over the years is his knack for cutting to the quick, the sheer nerve of his perpetual spiritual limbo and how potently he conveys that through song. Whatever personal progress he’s made recently, Bazan said those parts of him won’t likely dissolve any time soon.
“I gave up trying to do anything sunny years ago,” says Bazan. “For better or worse, it really is the state of my psyche at any given time and is the stuff I grapple with. Ultimately, I really love these songs and if the record doesn’t sell well because of it, I’m fine with that.”
Early music influences: Lennon-McCartney, Paul Simon, Leonard Cohen