Pedro the Lion: The Aquarium Drunkard ​​Interview

For more than 20 years, David Bazan has been asking and answering questions. His records, mostly released under the Pedro the Lion banner or his own name, have served as settings for the Seattle-based songwriter to grapple with big concerns. His early outings in the late ’90s were filled with slowcore-influenced folk songs about God and doubt. In the early 2000s, as the War on Terror ramped up, he released two concept records about greed and murder, blood-soaked examinations haunted by Calvinism and American ego.

Bazan shuttered Pedro the Lion in 2006, but the albums he’s released under his own name carried familiar threads. 2009’s Curse Your Branches documented his “breakup” with Christianity. His next record, 2011’s Strange Negotiations, dealt with the subsequent fallout. Bazan’s maintained a prolific pace, and he’s never stopped tinkering with the format. He experimented with a music subscription service. In 2017, he released the synth-pop confessional Care, produced and recorded in collaboration with the late Richard Swift.

All the while, Bazan was literally answering questions. Audience Q&As have remained a reliable feature of his live engagements, whether held at rock clubs or fan-hosted house shows. Reflective of Bazan’s typical subject matter, the questions asked are rarely easy ones. Fans offer queries about politics, the creative process, and Bazan’s spiritual journey. Unafraid to grapple in public, Bazan speaks his mind.

This week, Bazan returns to Pedro the Lion with Phoenix. Like Winners Never Quit and Control before it, it’s a concept album, but one of an entirely different stripe. Based on Bazan’s youth in Phoenix, Arizona, it’s the first of a five-album cycle that will document the places that defined Bazan’s upbringing: Lake Havasu, Santa Cruz, Paradise, and Seattle, places the Bazan family moved during his youth for his father’s job as a music pastor in the Assemblies of God church. “Evangelical, with a side of speaking of tongues,” Bazan explains, nursing a small tray of tater tots at Gracie’s, a small, dimly lit bar in downtown Phoenix. He’s in town to gather video for the band’s upcoming tour. It will be projected behind the trio as they perform the new songs.

Pedro the Lion is back and there’s no getting around the “rebirth” idea associated with the album title. But it took bottoming out to get there. In 2016, Bazan was frustrated. He’d been touring mostly on his own since ending Pedro the Lion, and he found himself questioning whether or not any of this was sustainable. “I was like, ‘OK, I think I’m just “solo guy” for…the rest of my life?’ Could that be?” Bazan says. “When that really sank in —that as things were going, that’s exactly what it was going to be—it just really crushed me. I was existentially disappointed.”

Touring brought him to Phoenix, where his grandparents still lived. After playing a show, Bazan visited them. It was a disorienting reunion; his grandfather, who’s since passed away, was gripped by dementia. “We had a bizarre interaction and it caused this place that had felt like home always to feel very…not like that,” Bazan says. “I was already pretty low and it really knocked the wind out of me.” Before leaving for San Diego the next day, Bazan took a detour and drove by the house he grew up in. “As I was coming up Thunderbird Road, I thought to myself ‘Why does this town, and the other towns I’ve lived in, feel so haunted? What is this emotional pull I can’t sort out?'”

He initially thought an “elaborate journaling project” might help to sort those complicated feelings out, but soon realized he was working toward an album. And as the process began, he realized he wanted it to be a Pedro the Lion album, specifically. “When I was really honest with myself, I wanted to play rock & roll in a band,” Bazan says. He recruited guitarist Erik Walters and drummer Sean Lane to go on tour under the PtL name, and when the trio finished their dates on the road, they headed into the studio to cut Phoenix.

Like Joan Didion’s writing about Los Angeles, or Flannery O’Connor’s examinations of the American South, Phoenix is as much about an inner place as it is about a location on the map. It’s an examination of how our surroundings shape and reflect us. In these songs, convenience store shopping sprees and wrecks on the freeway become parables; model homes and bicycles become poignant illustrations of Bazan’s deepest desires. Like so many before him, Bazan has gone to the desert in search of a landscape big enough to project his fears and hopes upon. “I chase you around this desert/Because I think that’s where you’ll be,” Bazan sings, reframing Randy Newman’s words from “God’s Song” on “My Phoenix.” Phoenix is a monument to the enormity of the questions that define a life. In documenting his own youth in vivid, geographic detail, Bazan’s created a work that doesn’t seek to offer up answers so much as it aims to fully inhabit the questions.

Aquarium Drunkard: Following a synth introduction, “Yellow Bike” opens Phoenix. It feels to me like it lays out the thesis of the album — it’s about how far you go away from the concept of home, but also the ways that feeling stays with you. Did making this record require coming up with a kind of nostalgia you could use to not run from the present, but live in it more fully? 

David Bazan: For me, this is a very therapeutic record. If I’m by myself, alone, I’ve been reflecting on my ten-year-old self. I was on a trip recently almost imagining my ten-year-old self riding shotgun, walking [him] through, “Yo man, this is what we get to do in just 30 more years. You get to do this — and there are downsides, and we’re working through those.” I connect with that little guy. He loved to travel. My grandma and I traveled a bunch, my family would go on car trips a lot. And I loved them. I loved music so much as a kid. The idea that my life is…

AD: It’s built around those things now.

David Bazan: It’s exciting. Part of the project is to, in a way, be for my 10-year-old self what he needed then. There were situations I just got clobbered by as a kid. There wasn’t anybody to help me unpack it or come to a good understanding it. Part of what I’m doing is being present, being really aware of what’s going on, but when those memories come up, especially when I’m in a place like Phoenix, I’m being here to feel those feelings, and go through them with that person.

AD: I really love “Clean Up,” and its message that you have to care for yourself so you can care for others. Was there some sort of breakthrough associated with that one, where you recognized that by attending to your own stuff, you could better help others? 

David Bazan: Partially. I live in my head a lot. There’s a few spots on the record that are basically about that. Getting your stuff together, meeting your own needs, as a matter of routine you can count on. [That’s] required to be any kind of friend to anybody and that’s something that I’m still learning in some ways. 

AD: There are specific callbacks to the music you originally made as Pedro the Lion on this record. There’s a big truck in the song “Black Canyon,” which also ties back to “Priests and Paramedics.” Squandered inheritance is a thing that comes up here—so “Circle K” connects back to Winners Never Quit. So at some point, you decided, OK, this is going to be a Pedro the Lion record. Once you were committed to that, did you take some joy in returning to ideas you’d utilized before? 

David Bazan: It wasn’t so conscious. It was when I’d run into something I’d be like, “Oh my gosh, can I do this? Is this meaningful? Or is this just sort of wanking?” With each thing that stayed in there, it had to rise to the standard of being meaningful to me. It took me a while to even know what it meant for it to be a Pedro record.

AD: Given the tenor of our times and your past discography, I somewhat expected a political record. But it’s not political the way some of your more recent albums have been. 

David Bazan: Not directly. Part of this record is laying the foundation for the arc of this five-album series. This record lays the groundwork for why I feel the way I do about politics and why it feels like there’s a disconnect between what the people who raised me told me and what they’re doing now [politically]…I know it’s just not as easy as [Christians are just] being hypocritical. There are other misunderstandings buried in there [some] as deep as the tradition itself, in some cases. It’s too big of a thing to write about that directly, but it’s all connected. That’s a debate or discussion that people feel is distinct from other concerns, but it’s all the same thing. You could call it human morality or whatever, but it is about our collective idea of what’s right and wrong and how we tribe up. 

AD: If I think about it in those terms, “Clean Up” can be read through a political lens, the same way another of your songs, “People,” is a political song. You’re speaking about how you can’t force your pain and the things you hate about yourself onto other people. 

David Bazan: Yeah. In many cases, what I forget is that I’m trying to solve these problems in my head. And if I look around, there are a dozen things right there I could do to make my situation better and to get that weight off my shoulders.

AD: Have you been in therapy? 

David Bazan: Yeah. I’ve been in therapy since May. 

AD: Have you picked up tools in therapy that inform your creative work?

David Bazan: I think so. The short trajectory of it is that in 2015, I coincidentally quite drinking. Not 100%, but I started smoking weed and just forgot to drink anymore. Which was, for me, amazing. I had been fixated on it. 

AD: As a coping mechanism?

David Bazan: Oh yeah. There was a pain that began as a kid and got compounded with each move. My ability to rep that pain to anybody I knew got less and less. The bigger that it got, the more inappropriate it was to bring that to bear on friendships. What I needed was not available. So once I started drinking, to try and deal with that pain, it multiplied it under the surface and reduced my ability to deal with it more. I was in that for 13 or 14 years.

AD: You made a lot of those Pedro records during that time, obviously. 

David Bazan: 2002, I would say, it probably began in earnest. I wasn’t super sloppy until ’03, ’04, but ’04-2010…they were some sloppy times. 

AD: It’s strange, because I remember you being pretty open up that stuff. 

David Bazan: Heck yeah. I’m an open guy. But I didn’t know what was going on. All that pain showed up and was just like, “Yo, bud.” The ache kicked in. I just felt like goddamn. I remember the first batch of solo touring I did after I was not drinking, it just sort of descended. From there, it was just trying to get a handle on it. Eventually, I was able to get into a therapeutic situation. That’s been excellent. I wrote a lot of the record before I starting therapy, but finishing it…“Quietest Friend” came last. I think some of the understanding that [allowed] that song to be able to be written came from therapy. I showed [my doctor] “Yellow Bike,” and she was like, “Oh, you’re writing about your core ache.” And I was like, “Oh yeah, I guess I am.” I showed her “Quietest Friend” and she told me there was an enormous amount of kindness for myself, and that’s something we’d been working on a lot.

AD: In that song, are you the quiet friend? Or are you the one hurting that friend?  

David Bazan: To spill the beans about it, I guess…I wish I was Bill Callahan and didn’t talk at all. [Laughs] The first verse and chorus are really about ignoring a certain part of myself, the more introverted part of myself, because the extrovert in me needed so much more connection than it had access to. I couldn’t hear the introvert in myself and what it needed, and that made it hard to hear the introverts around me. The second verse is about a particular situation…I hurt a friend. For me, the moral of the story is, for my whole life I’ve been asking myself, “How do I prevent that from happening?” The answer was I had to find a way to heal the pain that I was in or else it was never going to stop happening. There’s a sense in which it’s about hurting that friend badly, and turning that inward on myself. I put that in there because that’s a hard turn to make, to realize, “Oh, I fucked that up because I didn’t have my oxygen mask on.” That’s a counterintuitive way to respond to a situation of hurting someone else; that’s not how my brain worked. Every time I sing that song, it’s a way to remember, “You have to have a routine of putting your oxygen mask on, or else you’re going to hurt other people. If you want to stop doing that, this is the solution.”

AD: That’s another concept you explore on this record: the divide between outer life and inner life. You need to have both in alignment for things to work. Is Pedro the Lion, as a band or a concept, sort of a helpful metaphor for describing that balance?

David Bazan: Yes. Coming back to making records as Pedro is a reflection of this same process. Some things I learned making Phoenix were also things I needed to learn to do Pedro. Pedro very naturally [has always been] me writing and arranging all the songs and having other people play them. [Some past collaborators] didn’t really want to do that very much and I didn’t have the value for my own feelings to say, “Well, this is how it has to be, and only people who want to do this will come along.”

Friend was me writing all the arrangements and Jonathan [Ford] coming in and changing the bass lines up a little bit and adding some neat hooks here and there, but it was my process. 99% of the decisions were mine to make on that one. Winners was 100% that way. With Control, I had help in a couple spots figuring things out, but it was 95% me piecing stuff together.  By the end of that process, I was on to something I could easily be convinced was a selfish project. But it was really just my project. I wrote and orchestrated parts for this particular kind of ensemble that looked like a rock band—and I wanted it to work like a rock band—but it was really just my trip that I was on. I couldn’t own that in a way [that acknowledged] “You need to do this, so the people you include in this, that’s the criteria.”

It took me until 2017 to say, “This is OK for me to do this.” I still felt guilty about it, but I needed to push through and say, “This is what you need to function in this vocation.” I was able to find people who wanted to do that exact project with me. When they get the parts in their hand, they don’t feel like they’re playing someone else’s jam. They are able to make it their own and we push it around together. We take these tightly orchestrated bits and find a way to play them like improv. 

I’m writing these very detailed scripts for these actors or players to learn verbatim, to know the dialogue like the back of their hand. Then, we get in a room together and find the real emotion together.

AD: Like if you’re the Coen brothers, you write your script, but you have to have George Clooney or Frances McDormand or Tom Waits show up and bring it to life. 

David Bazan: Lebowski is a great example. The scene where the “other Jeff Lebowski” is at the bowling alley and he’s leaning back saying, “That’s fucking interesting, man.” They’re having that first conversation. The way the dialogue hands off back and forth between [Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, and Steve Buscemi] is orchestrated so tightly, but to be able to do that, you have to know how to push the energy around with each other. All these things rely on the actors nailing, not the exact thing, but riding the wave of the energy just the right way.

AD: While you were making Bazan records, every couple of years you’d do a detour, with a project like Overseas, with Will Johnson and Bubba and Matt Kadane, from Bedhead and the New Year, and Lo Tom with TW Walsh, Trey Many, and Jason Martin from Starflyer 59. Did those projects help you conceive of how Pedro the Lion could work?

David Bazan: Yes. The bands I love the most are these deeply collaborative bands—Fugazi, Radiohead, the Beatles, Television, Deerhoof. Or at least I perceived these bands to be that, regardless of what the actuality is. I idealized that. I thought real sophistication can’t happen outside of that kind of collaboration in a rock & roll setting. That’s stupid. Of course, it’s not true. But there were all these reasons I wanted to do a collaborative band. I thought part of what people needed to stick around through thick and thin was to have ownership of their parts, that they had that incentive. I wanted to have that kind of deep, long term band with people. 

When I realized I was in two fully collaborative bands, I thought, “Man, that’s enough. That scratches that itch. Now you’re free to do Pedro the way you want to do it.” I am not in charge of either of those bands. I’m one-quarter of the decision-making process. I realized I could do [my] band the way I should, the way I needed to do it.

AD: You’ve always been open and generous with your audience. People profoundly identify with your songs—they recognize their own spiritual journeys and their own struggles in them. Does that ever get too heavy to deal with?

David Bazan: Occasionally that happens, but mostly it’s just listening. That’s what people want. I don’t have any answers for people except the answers I’m learning as I go, which tend to be the same things anyone would say: you’ve got to be kind to yourself or else you’re not going to be able to be kind to other people. words/interview/j woodbury

Aquarium Drunkard has launched a Patreon page, which will allow readers and listeners to directly support our online magazine as it expands its scope while receiving access to our secret stash, including bonus audio, exclusive podcasts, printed ephemera, and vinyl records. Your support will help keep an independent cultural resource alive and healthy in 2019 and beyond. Pledge today, and find us on FacebookTwitterInstagramSpotify, and Mixcloud, and sign up to receive our weekly (Sidecar) newsletter