THE S/T INTERVIEW: David Bazan Discusses Booze, Branding, and Losing His Religion Like R.E.M.

[Photos by Adrian Bischoff]

Words by Madeleine DiGangi

David Bazan is known for throwing fairly intense themes into his music–addiction, despair, and of course, religion. His first solo record, Curse Your Branches (Barsuk), continues the trend, but this time, Bazan’s losing his religion. Pretty heavy stuff, but his smart, wistful songwriting keeps everything lighter than you’d think.

We caught up with Bazan at the start of his fall tour.

self-titled: You’ve said this record is your most personal and autobiographical to date. Do you think people are responding well to it so far?
It seems like it. We’re playing the new songs a lot, and they’re translating pretty well live…some people start to cheer, a little bit:

That’s always nice to hear.
And the feedback for the record is mostly positive/ I’m not always used to that, so that’s pretty cool [laughs].

There’s a lot of discussion of the whole agnostic thing. Is it getting tiresome talking about it, or are you kind of wanting to proclaim it?
It’s somewhere in between. I definitely don’t feel like I have a message that I’m trying to get out to people or anything like that, but at the same time, each conversation I have feels valid and enjoyable. So when people want to talk about it, it’s fine with me.

Well, people either get caught up in one or the other.
Yeah, and I’m working on figuring things out as I go along, so sometimes re-reading interviews helps me clarify what I actually think about something. I’ll read it, the regret registers, and I think, ‘Well, I guess I just need to be a little more thoughtful next time.’

So…religion and booze, two things that people rely on–that you relied on–so much. Now that you don’t rely on either, is there a sense of relief?
I don’t know. I feel content, but I don’t know that I’m sure what I transfer that reliance too. I still have an ongoing relationship with both of those things. I guess that’s part of what occupies my mind–figuring out what they mean to me.

Having to play the songs every night causes you to reflect over and over again on them.

Do you find it cathartic?
Yes, I do very much.

Lyrically, the record seems to be about the imperfection of god, but also your imperfection as well. Did you set it up that way?
Well, you know the way that it generally works for me is that I’m just trying to get something out. It’s difficult for me to take stock and have perspective at the time. Until I’ve got some distance from it, it’s about the frailty of the whole thing…definitely. My faults and my failures, and then what I perceive to be the failures of a belief system.

You included a cover of Dylan’s “The Man in Me”. Why did you pick that song?
Well, I just liked that song so much as a singer/songwriter kind of dude, or someone who sings pop songs. You know, there’s this desire for people to find a cover that they can do and own…With that one, to my knowledge it hasn’t been popularly done, and I was so happy to do it. I just love the song so much.

And it really works with the rest of the songs.
Yeah, it’s strangely appropriate. And you know, it’s so funny the things that I take for granted. When I’m singing songs–it’s a love song, but I never thought of it that way–people who know me say, “it’s such a great expression of things, of you and your wife,” and I think, “really?”

It’s a humble love song. Which fits with the humbleness of the other songs…
That’s really interesting. I agree. I like that.

“Seeing David Bazan on a T-shirt is a little weird.”

Do you think there’s going to be a shift in your audience with the shift in your views?
You know, I don’t know. From my vantage point, there’s been a shift from when I stopped using the Pedro the Lion brand name…we definitely lost 60-70 percent of folks when I killed the brand name. They stopped coming to shows, buying records–that’s the shift that I am aware of, but it’s hard to tell.

It’s funny that you call it a brand name. Do you feel like you’re more in control, since it’s not a band or a genre, it’s just you?
Yeah, just the discussion of it as a brand name…I realize it sounds a little crass, but I think it’s kind of accurate, ’cause that’s what you’re developing over time. It’s a pleasing byproduct of going out and playing shows for 10 years.

It’s not a bad thing, but yeah, a name on a T-shirt is kind of a brand.
Yeah and it’s branding in its most basic sense. We try to be aware of that, and take the piss out of it a little bit, but at the same time, we’re realizing now that that kind of brand recognition is…more means more ability to pay the bills, less means less.

Well, it’s not a crass brand. Do you like having your name be the brand versus anything else?
I don’t know, it seems like the least complicated thing and I guess I like that about it, but seeing David Bazan on a T-shirt is a little weird.

This record feels less raw.
Yeah, I made the record. My buddy [former Pedro the Lion member Tim] Walsh mixed and mastered it, and he really was set on a certain level of fidelity that was slightly more than I’ve done previously on records. I thought that was just fine, and I let him do what he wanted to do.

The production gives it a fullness that kind of detracts from the emptiness of the doubt in the lyrics.
Yeah, that is true.

Do you ever doubt yourself?
Well, yeah, I mean, the process should be one that’s careful and measured. I do go back and reevaluate conclusions and reasoning, but I haven’t found anything yet to do another 180 on…At this point, I don’t doubt my doubts in the sense that I haven’t changed my mind again, but I spend so much time reading about the fine points of the religion that I left behind, ’cause I‘m still curious.

Yeah, that knowledge seems to come naturally in your writing.
I’m not an academic or anything, but I know that world fairly intimately.

You also know the world of drinking pretty intimately as well. It’s funny–they’re both very emotional crutches. Do you find music to be one too?
It can be certainly. But at the same time…one of my buddies went through AA, and they warn about the desire to drink when you’re happy about something. You know, you booze to celebrate and it dulls that sensation. Same thing if you’re bummed about something–you drink as well.

I think music at its best doesn’t dull my senses as much as it simply enhances them.

What do you find yourself listening to?
Funnily, we haven’t been listening to much on the road; we’ve been talking and making fun of each other instead:.but I’ve been listening to [Radiohead’s] In Rainbows recently, and Hail to the Thief. The Beatles are on everyone’s iPods right now, too, and that’s pretty great. I really like that Gillian Welch record, Revelator, and a band called A Weather, a sweet kind of sad record.

The Beatles and Gillian are pretty simple and enhancing.
Yeah, that one Gillian Welch song, “April 14th,” it’s tough to hear that tune without getting pretty morose, real sad:such a sad song.

Lot of morose music, but the good thing about music is it doesn’t transform your state to anything regrettable.
It’s a weird kind of state, ’cause it can serve as kind of an escape, but I don’t feel like it’s a negative impulse or an unhealthy thing.

I mean, it’s music.