Fewer Broken Pieces: David Bazan Discusses the Return of Pedro The Lion and Plots for the Future

Interviews, Local Music
06/14/2018
Dusty Henry
photo by Eric Tra

We live in the golden age of the reboot. Festivals clamor to ink deals with bands to reunite and get their name on the, TV shows of yesteryear are continually given the metaphorical defibrillator, and if your favorite show or comic or what-have-you gets canceled you can always start a petition or Kickstarter to force it back into reality. Nothing is ever truly left in the past. So, what makes the Pedro The Lion reunion any different?

For starters, calling it a “reunion” is a little disingenuous. Pedro The Lion was never really a band – always functioning as a moniker for songwriter David Bazan and a rotating cast of backing musicians (Bazan still writing all the parts). Bazan retired the name in 2006, citing dysfunction and unhealthiness he’d associated with the name. There’s also the whole Christianity thing. Pedro The Lion was often labeled as a “Christian band” due to Bazan’s openness in discussing topics of faith in his music – primarily in his struggling devotion. His first solo releases, the Fewer Moving Parts EP and Curse Your Branches, quickly made it clear that Bazan was losing his religion. Thematically, his Pedro and solo material were starkly different. But, if you want to be literal, he was still the same person. Bazan even routinely would play Pedro songs in his live set. Still, when he announced that he’d once again be taking up the Pedro The Lion name, he was met with more enthusiasm and press than he’d seen since the last Pedro record with coverage in major outlets like Pitchfork and Stereogum and sold out shows to boot.

“I guess in a glass half empty kind of way, it was a little frustrating,” David Bazan says, sitting on a worn out orange couch in the corner of the Sasquatch! Festival media room. “Like, I've been spinning my wheels for the last 12 years, working my tail off trying to make this thing happen. And all it took was changing the name.”

But in the end, Bazan sounds hopeful and energized about the decision to reclaim the name. After years churning out soul-seeking solo releases, playing house shows, and experimenting with monthly subscription models to make it feasible to be a working musician supporting a family, he’s now returned with the resources and platforms to best execute his artistic vision. The “reunion” tour was really just the prologue to everything Bazan has planned next. Before he’d go on stage to close out the Yeti Stage at Sasquatch!, Bazan reveals his ambitious plans for the next five (yes, five) Pedro The Lion albums, the first of which is titled Phoenix and comes out in early 2019 via Polyvinyl. Beyond that, though, Bazan has been reckoning with what his platform means and the messages he can convey. As with everything Bazan does, there’s a remarkable intentionality in every facet of the new band.

Sitting on that beatdown couch, he talks about what it means to revive Pedro The Lion, the privileges he’s been afforded, and how he’s crafting his set lists (as well as spaces between the songs) to bring light to the plight of women enduring abuse of all kinds every day – a timely topic that’s become a long overdue national conversation since the vile revelations of Harvey Weinstein and the #metoo movement.


KEXP: Why revive Pedro The Lion now? I know you've talked a little about wanting to be back in a band again. I've heard you mention at shows wanting access to those sounds or those feelings of those records.

David Bazan: The entire time I was in Pedro and the entire time I've been playing solo I've been trying to sort of find equilibrium with my creative process. Maybe I've been trying to understand what the basic, the most basic elements or the basic form that most songwriters have, like another mode or a process that they utilize. I've always struggled to figure out what that is largely because my process really revolves around me playing drums and bass and guitar on the tunes. And for a number of reasons, that was always really an uncomfortable way to work because the people didn't want to be in a band like that and I really didn't want to be in a band like that. I wanted to be a "real" band like Fugazi or something like that.

So in that quest to figure that out, I circled back around to this idea of like, 'Okay, well, you want to play rock and roll in a band, and the only sustainable way that I've ever done that is to be the person who writes all the parts and gets a band to do it live and sometimes on record too.' And so in the summer of 2017 I just realized, okay, this is what I'm gonna do. I still hadn't known that it was going to be called Pedro the Lion yet, but I was cozying up to, without knowing, that I was cozying up to that sort of basic form of what Pedro the Lion had always had been. Even if I was never comfortable with that, and so I never thought of it as like this great tradition that I work in. It was always like, 'Oh well, since no permanent members are in the band at the moment, I'll just go ahead and do it all again.' But that was really... while I wasn't looking and while I was making other plans, my process developed into what it is and what it was. As I came back to that, I was planning this year [as] being a Bazan band's year that was sort of celebrating the 20th anniversary of me putting out my first full length and making a reference to a lot of that stuff in a show that wouldn't be that dissimilar from the show we're doing. And as I started putting that all together and realizing what my days were looking like creatively and stuff I just thought, "Whoa. This is Pedro."

I thought about calling it Pedro then, and then a lot of the reasons why I should do that started to kind of flood in because it wasn't something I had really considered before. People always brought it up, and the lure was always like, "Oh, you can make more money if you do this." But that never was a good enough reason to do it. I kind of came back around to a certain process and started doing it and I realized, well, this process… that's what always used to be called Pedro the Lion, so maybe I should do that again. When my manager and I started talking it through and we realized like, oh yeah, this really feels right, and it feels healthy. And, now that we've done it for the better part of a year, it feels really sustainable and balanced. Like I did the right thing, which I needed to feel or else I wouldn't be able to keep doing it because I can't just do it for that little bit of extra ease that it offers and name recognition and those things. It needs to be real. I guess it will remain to be the seen when the first record or two comes out. If it still feels that way to me, then we're doing good.

From what I understand about when you stopped using the Pedro name, there were a lot of emotional and personal reasons. It was like a fresh start in a way or leaving that part of your life behind. You mentioned that it feels healthy. So I'm kind of curious what that process has been like to embrace this name again.

Well, really the name represented a couple of things. One is that it represented sort of a de facto guarantee that there was always going to be a band. It's going to be like two or three or four people with live drums playing rock and roll. That was always what Pedro was, and so to return to the band name was to return to basically committing to that. For me it's a three piece band, is what it signifies. That this is at least gonna be a three piece band. So that's it. That's no big deal. That's great. I'm glad to commit to that. That's exciting.

And, then, the other part is to basically revisit the old catalog in a way that I've done partially over the years. I've always played Pedro songs. But this allowed me to kind of... well, I could have not done it, and it still would have been okay, I think. But I had the desire to kind of go back and just see with new eyes what these songs feel like and what they sound like to me – the old Pedro songs. So I did that, and that was fun, and then the thing that I never did when I played old Pedro songs as solo David Bazan or band David Bazan shows, was that I never tried to really capture the sonic signature of the original recordings or the way that we would have played it back then. I just was using whatever mode I was in at the time to revisit. So that was something that I did for the first time. I went back and tried to dial in the guitar tone so that they sounded about like they did on the various records. On the early records, there is this feeling that the songs have where the movement is so minimal. We joke that all the new material is in various gears: like first, second, third, fourth gear and that some of the songs from It's Hard to Find a Friend are, like, in park. They just sort of hang there. They don't hardly have any forward motion at all. So we tried to find that – find that fragile little way of doing it and decide how closely we wanted to do it live to that. But I'd never done that before. I'd never gone back and really tried on, like, this is how it sounded with the guitar tone and the drum tone and all that. That was neat. It basically brought a lot of things that I had done previously back into being available to use in expressing ourselves. But it was cool, too, because I don't feel beholden to doing them that way. I just wanted to be open to it.

photo by Eric Tra
 

I've seen you a bunch of times as a solo artist and sometimes with a band, so when you announced you were doing a Pedro the Lion tour, with a full band, I was curious if it would be just the same thing because you would play Pedro songs during your solo Bazan sets sometimes. But actually seeing it, it does feels different.

Yeah! So that was something for me, too, that I underestimated. Okay, we put the name back on. It's a funny distinction because it isn't a reuniting because there was 20 other people, two at a time, in the band. There wasn't an original lineup or a quintessential lineup that using the band name was dependent upon in any way. And, so, there is the possibility that it's just a name change and, you know, maybe not much more than that. But once we started calling it Pedro it just felt different. It really did. I don't fully know why. I'm still getting used to it, really. You know, several months in, when I see Pedro the Lion on a check or something like that, I'm just like, woah! And when I just see our name places it just feels like, okay... I remember what this feels like to be in this band even though, like I just said, it might stretch the definition of a band in some people's mind because it was basically a solo moniker for most of its life. Yes. It's a little surprising to me how much it would feel different, and that's been good. I'm not bummed about it.

And different, also, in the way how people have responded to it just seeing how much enthusiasm around "Oh, Pedro's back!" But, Bazan's been here the whole time.

Yeah, that was surprising and, I guess in a glass half empty kind of way, it was a little frustrating. Like, I've been spinning my wheels for the last 12 years, working my tail off trying to make this thing happen. And all it took was changing the name. But I also understand it, and I realize "Okay, well, let's not sail into the wind anymore. Let's turn it around and try to harness some of this natural energy. But do right by it.” Don't just, you know, take the gravy and go home and eat gravy. Put it back into it so that it stays special for me and stays special for fans, I guess.

I'm curious with the fans, too, because I imagine there are some fans who, after Achilles Heel, may have lost track, right? And in your solo records, there's a lot that has happened in and around your life. Has it been weird? What's the experience been like kind of catching people up?

Some people don't know, and they'll talk after the show like, oh, it wasn't until this show that I realized there was any break from Christianity or something like this. I can't really help that. You know, I just, I'm not worried about it either. Sometimes it can be harsh toke for certain people depending on what kind of frame of mind they're in. But that's, you know, I've talked about it a lot in a lot of different forums and different mediums on record and off. So I'm not... it isn't really our responsibility. So, yeah, it's been okay. That is a thing that I forget that people associate with it, like, oh Pedro's back, maybe the guy is a Christian again or something like this. But that's just not something I really realize is going on until somebody brings it up and I'm like, oh yeah. Nope. That's not a part of this. It's a process called Pedro the Lion that we're adopting, and it's exciting.

When you were playing solo, you would play Pedro songs like “The Fleecing” and sometimes you might change the lyrics. I notice you've been doing that during this current Pedro tour as well. In “Slow and Steady Wins The Race” you mention Steve Bannon ("I'll receive a mansion on the River Jordan" becomes "I'll receive a mansion right next to Steve Bannon") and in “Indian Summer” you make a reference to the GOP ("Thanks in part to Mother Nature/It will never rain again/It should do wonders for the GNP" flips to "GOP" at the end). Do you see your songs as living, breathing things that are malleable?

Yeah, yeah. Just making it, I don't know, fun for me. Sometimes the Bannon line helps to tease out the theme a little bit more. It clues people in earlier in the song that there's something else going on than what they might think. I hope it makes connections in people's heads a little bit more maybe… some of the songs are a little bit… I don't know. I figured people would just dig and dig until they understood the meaning of them when I wrote them and some of them are a little dense, I think, or a little obtuse. I hope it helps to put them in the order that we're putting them in [the live show] and adding little bits and pieces to help connect and highlight the themes that are carrying through the set.

You've never really shied away from talking about your beliefs, whether it be religious or political. I always hate bringing questions back to “the times we live in now,” but it also does feel like some of it is almost prophetic in a way. Do you feel a responsibility to come out and talk about these things at shows?

Somewhat. I'm trying to understand what my feelings are all about in terms of what my responsibility is. Yeah, I do have the feeling that I have some responsibility to maybe highlight what's happening in the songs because I guess that's part of what I don't fully know is what people are hearing and seeing. Are they seeing connections? Does it feel like thematically they're being pulled in a direction? I kind of have the feeling that just a little bit of context given in the form of talking between songs you could really go a long way in helping people to see those layers that are there. I'm dying for the world to get better, you know? We're all just really stressed out about that. I think it's sort of part of the way that I process that is trying to spread the word, in a way. So, yeah, I don't know how naive or idealistic... well, it's both those things for better or worse, I guess, thinking that talking could change something. But that's what I feel. But I try to find a balance. I did it the other night. I said some shit toward the end of the show, and I was like: “Wait, why can't it just be a rock show, man? Like, why do you gotta...” And a voice kind of answered back like: “Because it can't.” It's got to be just a little bit more than that. I hope it transcends that a little bit. So I guess that's part of it. Whether or not I'm way off I guess I'll know later, hopefully.

Pedro The Lion at The Tractor Tavern // photo by Dusty Henry

 

At one of the Pedro shows during your three night stint at The Tractor Tavern, during your Q&A segment you opened the questions up to only women. I thought that was super fascinating, actually. I went to all three of the shows, and the types of questions on that night, particularly, were so different and very insightful. Like less about “when's the new record coming out?” and more about what's going on with you and the world. I was curious if you tried it again and what that experience has been like.

Yeah, we definitely have a bit. It's something that basically we've been trying to find a way to highlight that element of the show because the show culminates in some ways get in the song "Trouble With Boys." All of it is sort of pulling back the arrow, pulling back the bow. And that's sort of the release of the tension of the bow and the arrow going off, but the whole rest of the show is sort of about that – about pulling back that bow up through "A Mind of Her Own," which is a song of violence against a woman to, you know, potentially to murder. But in the show, it doesn't. Well, not in the show that we're doing tonight. We pulled one of the tunes that is a bit of a resolution. But in the show that we've been doing all year, it resolves into "Priests and Paramedics.” In "A Mind of Her Own" on Winners Never Quit, the woman dies. But in the show it jumps to the narrative from a different record so she gets the upper hand somehow. And so there's this way that we're trying to figure out how to acknowledge what it's about. In some ways just letting women know that this is probably taking you into account in a way that not everything that you're going to pay money to see is going to. This is all with an eye toward that thing, and so that was a way that the Q&A with only women was a way to highlight that for a minute, and I moved on to some other ways of talking about it and illustrating it, I think.

We didn't always stay in that department and in that exact form, but every night I'm trying to figure out a way to connect the dots for women first and then for guys to be like, “Okay, this is a comment on us, on what we are as white dudes.” All the white dudes get that “you are worthy of love” (in “Trouble With Boys”) at the end too, but the way that common grace works, I guess, is that the rain falls on the wicked and the good. I mean, not really, because not all white dudes are wicked. I don't know. I think that because of how the songs existed in the catalog and I could pick and choose ones and put them together in such a way. It's a pretty full and complex handling of some of these things in a way that I feel I'm proud of. And, so, I've been trying to figure out just how much extra needs to happen for that to land.

 

I've gotten feedback from both women and men in different ways about it that have kind of helped me realize, okay, don't worry about it too much. The heavy lifting is being done by the set list while we're playing the show. But just a little, a little nod to it helps even the dumb dumbs tune in. Which we all are dumb dumbs about stuff sometimes, you know, but even the people who are a little slower on the draw, and I just mean, I'm talking about dudes, you know. It took me awhile. It takes us all awhile to see that it's like this for all women. Fuck, okay. Maybe that was five, six, seven years ago. I was in my 30s when it really dawned on me to the degree to which it is. So I'm including myself in that, but I'm just trying to bring people along. And then the people that are already there are mostly women and men who give a shit and know how desperate a situation it is. So there's something. There's a place for them automatically, I hope. They get what's happening. There's a lot of tongue in cheek ways that I'm mocking all that stuff that could be a little confusing to some folks. Like maybe I'm saying some of those fucked up things, but I think people get it. The feedback that I'm getting suggests that people are understanding. So that's what those were for is just trying to illustrate that at the show. But I also don't want to be too grandstanding about it or too gimmicky because it's about conveying what I think is a really vital message right now.

I was just talking to Jeff Rosenstock yesterday. During his [Sasquatch] set he took a moment to reinforce to the men in the audience to not grope women. But the way he did it was very uplifting in a way. Like, “hey, we're all in this together. Just don't do that, and we're going to have a great time.” Talking to him after, he mentioned that he thinks every band should be doing stuff like that.

Well, we have a power. I mean, it's a little bit of... I'm fine with it, but it's definitely like you're going to stand there watching us kick ass for awhile and be really into it, and then I'm going to use the power that I have over you to try to convey an idea that's going to help all of us out in the end. But certain of them are just not getting it, you know? And I'm recognizing that I have power over people that is generated by kicking ass playing rock songs and trying to use that to make the world a better place, and I'm good with that. But it is recognizing that power in a way that I haven't always been that comfortable with. But also recognizing that, yeah, I have this power in a lot of ways not because I'm all that, but because I'm a white guy and I didn't have to work as hard as everybody else to get to this point – a lot of extra chances. And so, yeah, just trying to toe that line and find that balance and understand the reality in that way comes into the shows, and there's been a long history of it too. Like my heroes, Fugazi. The song "Suggestion" on the very first EP opened my eyes to a lot of stuff, and then at shows, they were really decent about trying to have people have a safe place. And then there's that scene where girls come up front, like with Riot Grrrl shows, and that was kind of where it came from with the idea of girls up front. But in our situation, there's a lot of couples, so I don't know if they... you know, they might want to be at the show together. It’s just an effort to… It has to be everywhere all the time if it can be. This is real, and this is killing women, and we have to change our thinking. It just feels really urgent. And it's one of several things that are in that same urgent zone. Several major issues but, with this one, the songs and the song cycle that we're utilizing right now speaks to it. And so it's an opportunity to represent that particular lane of social justice concerns.

As you keep touring and you have a new record coming out, do you see the themes of your shows changing? Do you think you're going to stick with kind of that similar idea or what do you possibly want to do next?

Yeah, it'll be fueled by each record. So the next record is called Phoenix, and it's about the town that I grew up in. The show will be basically that record or the majority of that record, with other bits and pieces filled in from the back catalogue both Bazan, Pedro, Headphones – the whole thing. But it will always skew toward the current record and what's going on with that. And Phoenix is the first of five records. And so it's sort of just the first installment in a thing that will get a little wild as it goes along, but Phoenix is kind of the introduction to it. I'm finishing the record this month and as it comes together more I'll know what the show will be like to some degree too. But there's still a lot of choices to be made once the record is done, you know, but I'm trying to put the record together in a way that the basic flow of it will work for the way that I want to put on shows too.

So have you already plotted out the next five albums thematically?

I mean, loosely. I'm in the process of working that out. The outline of it isn't finished. I know a lot of things about each record, yeah. Thematic things, sonic things. How it's to fit in the whole. I already know a lot about each of them. I don't have songs written, but song ideas come, and I put them in the voice memos, and I file that. There are processes that are already striving to be put in place. The forth record is going to be a different kind of thing than I've done before, and so I'm alreadytrying to work on how to do it. So, yeah it's a big, giant, fucking art project that's going to take the next five years. I'm excited about it. It's connecting me with the first half of my life in a way that's very motivating and then also just is enabling me to be involved in a project with a bigger scope than I've ever really done before and I think I know how to do it enough to try it. So, it's cool. It ain't 50 records, you know. It's five records, five years. It's a lot but it's also a lot more manageable than some big, big projects. One thing that's cool about it, too, is that I'm trying to spend time in each of the places that the records are about, and I hope that the live show in some fashion evokes those places. So it will be driven... I hope there's a photo and video loops and things that are a part of the light show from, in the case of this next record, from Phoenix.

Having not actually done that stuff quite yet, it's hard to know what we'll be able to achieve, but that's the goal. That the shows will...that you'll be in Phoenix and to some degree having several of my childhood experiences and just being in the desert and it feeling like the desert. That's what I hope happens. Then later on we move to the Redwoods in my life and so later on that'll kind of come up. That's a different sonic feeling and a different visual. It's more dense. Less arid and kind of open. So the places will affect the way that the music feels. It already does. So, I don't know. We'll see. The live show is going to continue to grow into something, I think, that I haven't done before, and this first year was great. It was ambitious enough, but I didn't have to invent a bunch of new shit. Just like, bring some lights, make a set list that is more than the sum of its parts, and figure out how to blend all that stuff together and create the feeling that you want for each song. It was a good time to sit and get my feet wet with all those production elements. Next year I'm going to try to do something even cooler.

Do you have plans for when the first album is going to come out?

January, February. Right in there. Soon, yeah.

I was going to ask about the lights because I was surprised at how bad ass of a light show that you had.

Thank you.

Hearing you talk about what's coming next and thinking about it that way and how meticulous and thought out your setlists are, do you want to say anything about the presentation of the show?

My friend Casey Foubert just talked to me after a show that I played in Madison, Wisconsin one time, and he just was like: “Yo, this was a great show, but have you thought about basically arranging your setlist as a three act structure with the characteristics...” I mean, he didn't say this exactly, but I was thinking of the characteristics of the three act where the way that you introduce elements, like all the elements tend to be introduced in the first act. That's a feature of three act structure from narrative novels and plays and shit. And, so, we weren't meaning to do like a linear narrative, but using those kind of rules for a three act as ways of thinking about music. He was saying really use everything at your disposal. Use all the senses to make that happen. So when you make an act change from one to two you can make that very dramatic. Change instruments. Change spatial reverbs and things. Change lights. And just him describing things to me in that way just kind of broke it open. And I realized, okay, yeah, I want to do that.

At the time I was just playing solo house shows. So I started experimenting with things that are now coming into the live show and it basically gave me such a lust for the lights aspect of it because it's such a powerful way to use the space. At house shows, I would go in and all the lights are on overhead. People are there, and I walk in at 8 p.m., and I go and I sit with my sweatshirt on and my over shirt, and I pull out my guitar. I stand there, and I'd play with full lights on and all that stuff on. You play five, six songs – all bangers. Like all uptempo, rambunctious. I finish that one, and it's almost like the end of a mini set where you ramp it up. Like go out on a big one and then that's Act One. And so then what I would do is I would say to the host: “Hey, can you dim all the lights except for the ones right by me? Dim them all, kill all those and just dim these ones or whatever was available.” And then, as that was happening, I'd take my sweatshirt off and my overshirt and put the thing back on. Suddenly the mood is totally different. And I was able to use that space in that way so now I can play quiet songs. People had this cathartic experience. So, basically, I started learning the rudiments of how the energy could work with just the minimal elements that I had at house shows. And then, knowing when we got to the show with lights, that I was going to use those to try to create as much of that as possible. So that's what I showed up with. Just a really big hunger to figure out how to use the lights to work the acts, and Terrence Ankeny, our lighting designer, was just totally down, and we talked through it. Slowly he's been sort of changing it and working it out and it's just been great. I learned some stuff from the Tom Petty show that I saw last year. I learned some stuff from a U2 show that I saw last year. Just trying to collect little bits and pieces of what I might want to do. I've never had a vision for anything on this scale. Not like it's so massive, but even just this, and when Casey just gave me that little word it just sort of just broke something up in my brain. Like, oh yeah, I'm into concept records. It's just the show is a concept record. Every time.

It's cool to see you take this opportunity of the reunion to do something on this sort of scale and take advantage of the resources that you have.

Yeah, it took a little bit of vision and a little bit of risk, and it's been the best. The best thing I've done just having Terrence out and having lights and then really being deliberate about how we're using them and trying to make it cool. It just feels great. I watched Tom Petty and U2, and I was just thinking, “I don't know how my thing would scale up at all. I can't even imagine what that would be like,” and I thought, “That's not good.” And it just made me want to play rock and roll and then realize like, oh, and lights. Like, that's gonna be fun. It's going to be really fun. I just love it. I can't imagine going back.

Do you think, with all things you have planned, is Pedro what you see yourself doing for the forseeable future? Do you see solo Bazan coming back?

Pedro is probably what the umbrella of that everything's going to be for the next five years. Yeah. These all these the records the last 10 LPs paved the records and they all have elements of all of it that I've done before. But yeah, it's just a good fit right now. We've got a good band, good crew. It seems like everything's in place to have a sane and healthy time doing this for a little while. Unless something weird or unexpected happens. I guess "universal willing" is the way the way that people say it sometimes. It's been really fun. It feels like the first home base I've had mentally doing rock and roll. There's no self-sabotage hanging around. It's all pretty good.

Pedro The Lion at KEXP // photo by Jake Hanson

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