a long talk

‘It Was Always All Pedro’

David Bazan had to reckon with Pedro the Lion — but really, himself — to arrive at the band’s future.

Photo: Ryan Russell
Photo: Ryan Russell

Halfway through Havasu, the surprise sixth album from the venerable Pacific Northwest indie-rock outfit Pedro the Lion out today, “Making the Most of It” offers the closest thing to a statement of purpose in their catalog. “I’m trying to make the most of it,” singer-songwriter David Bazan admits over a rock riff that seems to mimic the difficulty of finding lasting inner peace in its pained, slow strokes. “Not looking for a perfect fit.” For most of a decade, between 1998’s release of the genre classic It’s Hard to Find a Friend (a nod to a song on Tom Petty’s Wildflowers) and the band’s 2006 breakup, Pedro the Lion was an outlet for Bazan’s prodigious talents as a singer, guitarist, bassist, drummer, and a writer who unpacks complex human problems with a novelist’s eye for detail. Friend’s “Bad Diary Days” recounted the story of a boyfriend who learned his relationship was over when he discovered ticket stubs from a secret movie date night. “Bad Things to Such Good People” — a highlight from 2000’s Winners Never Quit, a concept album about the bloody unraveling of an influential family’s political aspirations — visits the aftermath of a murder as the parents of the defendant work through their guilt and disappointment. You gleaned what he felt about the world through the architecture of his stories and through conversations at live shows, where the performer is unnervingly open with fans on prickly subject matters like politics and religion.

The son of a church music pastor in an Arizona Pentecostal community, David Bazan rose to stardom in the burgeoning ’90s Christian music scene thanks to the unblinking honesty of the discussions about faith raised in his lyrics and the slippery balance of moody slowcore, shades of emo, and stabs of country at play in his compositions. Over time, the front man began to wrestle with the core tenets of Christianity; he suspects his colleagues grew tired of shouldering the burden of being in a band with a front man writing every part, and whose audience felt comfortable asking intense questions about theology and prodding the people on stage for details about their personal faith journeys. Pedro the Lion disbanded in the mid-aughts, and Bazan spent a few years out in the weeds, returning with 2009’s Curse Your Branches, a chronicle of his loss of faith and a solo album with Bazan’s name in huge block letters that took up half the cover art, as if to say, “This isn’t that other thing.” Ditching the band meant shedding a lot of support from Christian fans suddenly conflicted by the bitterness and skepticism of songs like “When We Fell”: “With the threat of hell hanging over my head like a halo / I was made to believe in a couple of beautiful truths / That eventually had the effect of completely unraveling / The powerful curse put on me by you.” Working under his real name, Bazan lost some of the brand recognition Pedro had accrued at a moment when indie rock began to bleed into the mainstream, as peers like Death Cab for Cutie signed deals with major labels and acts like the Shins popped up in The O.C. and Garden State.

Bazan persevered, exploring new avenues in his music, writing more personally about his own thoughts and struggles and touring the country in intimate living-room shows. Director Brandon Vedder’s 2019 doc Strange Negotiations captures the experience, stopping on glassy-eyed, overwhelmed attendees trying not to cry as Bazan performs mere feet away; it also outlines the performer’s decision to start using the Pedro the Lion moniker again in 2019. That year saw the release of Phoenix, Bazan’s first Pedro album since 2004’s Achilles Heel. Phoenix shared memories of growing up in the Arizona capital. The plan is to make five albums about the five cities the artist lived in during his formative years, digging up memories of adolescent discomfort. Havasu picks up where Phoenix left off as the artist adjusts to a move from the southwest metropolis to the considerably smaller Lake Havasu City right as he’s beginning to fall in love with music and maybe a classmate or two.

It’s a quiet record about an exciting but uncertain time and a revelation for Pedro, an album still rooted in the elaborate storytelling of the band’s early work but also informed by the soul-searching and reflection of the solo records. I spoke to David Bazan over the phone this week about the many twists and turns he’s taken since Friend.

What was the journey to Havasu like? Where and when did the writing happen?
I made my first trip to Lake Havasu City as a part of this process in January of 2018. And a few of the ideas that came up then made it onto the record. I’d always been working with the guitar figure from the end of “Leaving the Valley” on the previous Pedro record, Phoenix, and was already finding ways of varying that back then. I was just trying to collect impressions of the place and remember feelings and memories. I probably went there four times over 2018 and 2019, and was kind of writing on synthesizers and drum machines.

I was supposed to turn the record in by November of 2019, but I realized I had some more personal work to do before I could really do the lyrics the way that they needed to be done. So I put the record away for about a year. I still was working on it in the background, but just not every day, front of mind. I wound up picking it back up in November of 2020 or so. I recorded it in about a couple weeks, in bits and pieces, in a studio from January to May of 2021.

And it’s your first surprise release.
Yeah. The label had the idea. We thought it was something to try. I don’t know all the reasoning behind it, but part of it, I think, is just attention spans being so short these days. Also, time. Three months feels like a year sometimes, these days, just with all the stressful news. I don’t know why …

It definitely feels like more is happening, or we’re aware of more that’s happening than ever before.
Yeah. The normal three-month teaser period for a record just feels like, oh, this is still a thing? It just feels like things kind of pop up and then blow away a lot quicker. If you’re making a record, which isn’t the only way to release music, a lot of times, you’re trying to have a play-through experience. You put the songs in a certain order, thematically or sonically or whatever, to have a flow. That’s how it’s meant to be heard, so it’s nice when the first thing people get is the opportunity to hear all the songs in context, to choose their favorites, as opposed to us dictating what people’s favorites should be in the form of focus tracks.

When you released Phoenix in 2019, we heard that it was the first in a longer series dedicated to cities you’ve lived in and your experiences in them. Havasu is your second release now covering growing up in Arizona. There’s a nice balance of end-of-childhood songs and these teenage memories. When did you live there?
I was 12 and 13. It was my seventh-grade school year, from summer to summer. That was ’88, ’89.

Lake Havasu has such a curious history. It’s sort of like a terraforming project. The mission was to route fresh water into the West Coast, so they built a dam and a city, but over time the city that had been this wonder of American industrial prowess became a massive party destination. It’s a really typical American story. How did you like the place?
It’s completely synthetic. The lake, as you say, is this man-made thing. It’s a dammed-up river that forms this isthmus that they modified and transformed into an island, then put up a bridge they imported. They transformed this kind of desolate place, manufactured a town from nothing.

Well, we had grown up going to some other desert lakes with our grandparents for camping. So there was this kind of vacation-spot feel. The locales around those vacation spots we saw weren’t as developed as Havasu is. In the summer, it’s so, so hot there. I was there one time when it was 129 degrees. The rest of the time, it’s just very pleasant, really beautiful. I mean, growing up in Phoenix, a big city, you see smaller towns that have JCPenney catalogue stores instead of a mall or something like this. As a kid, that was a big deal to me. A JCPenney catalog store always kind of depresses me when I see them because we lived in a few small towns. They didn’t have the amenities the bigger metropolitan spots did. It felt pretty isolated, but there was a romance to that, too.

What’s the inspiration for revisiting these locations from your past?
There are a lot of unprocessed feelings — I dare say trauma — from being a kid. I think this is a way for me to process some of it. I’ve done therapy, too. But these places are so vivid … I thought, I’m going to do an art project about it. Then I realized I make records. Maybe I’ll make records about it. Once I got the idea, I was really inspired and motivated. I’m trying to capture the feelings of these places as I experienced them in a sonic and a compositional way. That’s a neat challenge and not something you can really measure the success of.

Havasu is maybe the quietest Pedro the Lion record. Now that you explained how the experience of moving to Havasu from Phoenix felt like slowing down, I’m curious if the sound of this record is trying to access the feeling of your life quieting down that year.
I mean, they’re both desert locations, but the energy’s very different. I remember trying to learn how not to be so serious in Lake Havasu City. There was this battle. I was getting sadder on the inside, but I was also moving through junior high trying to find ways of having fun. There was this pull. So, the down-tempo stuff on the record, I suppose, is a nod to what my inside energy was like that whole time, and what I was carrying, versus trying to be upbeat, like people always want you to be.

I feel like the Pedro records released before the band originally broke up were these short story collections, these elaborate character studies. But now, the character being studied is you.
For now, it is. I might edge back into some more fictionalized writing in the next couple of records in the series. The foundation here is pretty dang autobiographical, which is a new thing for Pedro.

Now that you’re bringing the gains, the personal writing and the more political subject matter from your solo career — not to imply that Havasu is overtly political — into the original project, it almost feels like you’re trying to tie your entire musical history together in these new albums. I’m not sure if that’s intentional or if it’s just growth that we’re seeing.
I think it’s more the latter. Hopefully growth. There are little nods in Phoenix. A lyric from a Bazan record ended up in there. There definitely is an awareness of the possibility of tying it all together. I don’t really experience the brands as that different from one another as I’ve gone on. Now that I’m using the Pedro name again, it just makes sense. In a way, it was always all Pedro.

Was it heavy picking the name back up? I was watching your documentary Strange Negotiations the other day, and you said you felt like Pedro was the root of what was bugging you at the time you broke up the band. I can see how coming back to that title might be daunting.
It was. It’s been a journey to understand the dynamics of that stuff. Somehow, because of the household I grew up in and the religion I grew up in, I was disconnected from myself at a really early age. I really have noticed, looking back, that my subconscious has reached out a number of times with ways of connecting, like an imaginary friend, something like that. For whatever reason, I couldn’t go through with it anymore. Pedro was a project where I was initially, for the first three records, writing and performing almost all of the pieces of the arrangements, the drums, the bass, and the guitar. It was a way to connect with myself. I had been so disconnected from myself that it was away from my intelligence and competence, these things that I kind of needed. I couldn’t hold onto it for the same reason I never could. It wasn’t popular with the people that I was around or living with. And no one really wanted to be in a band where the singer wrote all the parts and played them all on record. I got it. It made sense to me. I mean, it’s just reasonable for anybody to say, “No, I don’t want to be in that kind of band.” I don’t discount those guys for wanting that. But I just wish, now looking back, that I could have just been like, “Hey, well, I understand. No hard feelings. This is how this project has to go.” I didn’t really have enough of a connection with myself to do even that. So at a certain point, after Control, I gave that process up and looked for a more collaborative process with other people.

I finally realized that the process I had put on the shelf of arranging and writing all these parts myself — because I like these little arrangement puzzles that I wind up making — it’s just something I really love to do. So coming back to Pedro is really a way for me to relate to myself after being so disconnected for so long. It was confusing to me, too. Pedro the Lion is a band name. It always meant having a band. It meant camaraderie. I got mixed up over the years about what it meant to me. But I’ve realized it was a source of stability for me personally, having this project to pour myself into. That was a space for me to learn about myself and make decisions based on my whims and what I wanted without having to bug everybody else. It’s been tricky, but coming back to it just feels real good. I love playing the drums and bass. I like the guitar and making little arrangements.

I think there’s more of an appreciation for the auteur now, the person who juggles a few different creative roles, then maybe there was 20 years ago. There’s more of a knowledge about personnel now. We didn’t use to read credits as much as people do now. Rap fans can tell you who mixed certain records; pop fans keep track of charts and writers and producers. It wasn’t like that in the 2000s. People like us who combed over that stuff back then were outliers.
I feel that way too. I thought I was the norm, because I just couldn’t get enough of it.

It must’ve been a curious spot being in that band. You had this growing audience of secular fans, and you also had territorial Christian scene fans. That had to be a trip. “I’m here to play drums. I don’t want to talk about the Trinity.”
Right. That was a thing. Absolutely. People in the band were getting questions about Christianity at shows from people hanging around. They were like, “That’s not anything to do with me.” And that was definitely a weird thing for people. People at the merch table would really get it.

I could see that. I found out about Pedro the Lion, I think, on the first album while attending a Christian college right before George W. Bush got elected. It was a weird fit. I was a gay kid and the school followed biblical law, meaning if it was barred in the book, you could get expelled for it. You wrote the song “The Longest Winter” about a guy afraid of growing old alone. I thought those were my prospects back then.

You touch on something in Havasu’s “Old Wisdom” that comes up in Phoenix’s “Quietest Friend” and “Powerful Taboo,” the idea that it’s possible to interpret the Bible verses about denial of self too literally and grow up walled off, avoiding experiences that aren’t that bad and might help you to grow as a person.
I didn’t really understand how big of a role the denial of self played in my development as a kid, and the doctrine that love of the self was one of man’s chief sins. I see how this played into me abandoning myself over and over again in my life. With these records, over several records, I can bring ideas out in abstract ways, concepts that kind of come to me in particular songs, knowing that they’re building toward something. It’s definitely one of the guns that might go off in a later act. I’m experiencing my way through the process of making this bigger collection and trying to find ways to sprinkle seeds of ideas throughout. Certainly, “Powerful Taboo” and “Quietest Friend,” and that phrase “the devil’s bargain” comes in. I don’t name it, but it’s there in “Old Wisdom.” I think it’ll get developed more in the next three records.

I assume Santa Cruz is next? You mention it at the end of the last song on the album just like you mentioned leaving Phoenix at the end of Phoenix.
Yeah, that is what’s next.

Havasu has this song called “First Drum Set” where you talk about picking up the drums because a band conductor had his fill of woodwinds. That really rang true to my experience of band in middle school, where the reason you played an instrument could be that simple. I played clarinet for six years because that was the one I could get to make a noise during fifth grade tryouts.
Yeah, they let you play all the horns and different things. I wanted to play sax so bad. It just wasn’t in the cards. Beverly Hills Cop was a really huge influence on me, musically, in a certain way. I was obsessed with that song “Axle F,” like most kids. Between that and “The Heat Is On” … that saxophone riff. I really loved it. It was fuel for my desire. But I switched gears pretty quickly once I got that drum set.

This isn’t that dissimilar from Dave Grohl’s origin story. He wasn’t seeking the drums out. They kind of found him. He got a few lessons and never looked back.
He’s a fantastic part writer.

He conceptualizes other instruments, like the guitar, as a drummer. Everything is sort of in sync in his head. They’re not so different. How does that work for you as someone who also plays guitar, bass, and drums?
I do like how things interact. There are little moments on the record of call-and-response parts, like on “Making the Most of It,” cutesy little handoff moments. You can obviously do that in a group, with other people, passing stuff around like that. That’s my favorite part of it, making little arrangements that have these interlocking pieces. In Spinal Tap, whenever Nigel’s describing their music, or the music he is trying to make, he says, “Simple lines intertwine.” He’s making a joke in a way, kind of mocking something. I was kind of like, “Ouch, that’s what I like.” That’s the music I’m trying to make, for real.

There’s a line in “First Drum Set” where you describe music as “sports about feelings.”
That’s specifically about drums. Drums are so physical. It’s like a full body workout, especially if you’re Dave Grohl.

I want to revisit the 2000s because I feel like stepping away from Pedro the Lion when you did was a fascinating choice. Coming into 2005, 2006, there was a huge audience for the kind of music you were making. You could have put out a record where you didn’t even apply yourself, and there was a really strong chance that it could have blown up. Bands were getting snatched up by the labels. Newer bands were popping up all over television. You toughed it out, but you did it a hard way. Talk about that choice.
I didn’t know what I was doing wrong, and it kept seeming to me like something was going wrong, and I didn’t understand what it was. So, my inkling was to take a break from the energetic and organizational output that the band required, and kind of keep a smaller profile and footprint while I still did the work. It took a long time! Geez. It was a personal decision. There was a path in my mind. But I didn’t have the courage to do it.

Releasing Curse Your Branches as the figure you were in the community you were involved in was very courageous.
Well, thank you.

It’s like the SpongeBob people moving the show to the surface. So many people came to Pedro to hear you grapple with your faith and to find a friend in that struggle. Then you quit the church! I love that a lot of your Christian fans have stuck with it.
Me too! I was really naïve. I didn’t think it was going to stay put where it was, but people did follow, and new people found it. But yeah, if there had been a way for me to keep using the Pedro name, internally, I think that probably would’ve been better in the long run. What I did was fine. I was doing my best and I really was trying to just understand what was going wrong. And like I said, I got there, it just took forever.

Now, you’re giving us five consecutive records.
Yeah. No sweat.

All’s well that ends well. I cannot let you go without telling you I’ve used “The Longest Winter” in screen names and gamertags for over 20 years now.
Oh, that’s awesome. That sentiment was a big part of that song because the culture you were in was saying, “You can be how you are, but you just have to be alone.”

As a kid, the only gay men I knew were two guys in the church practicing celibacy.
That’s horrible, man.

I turned out alright. My college landed in hot water for its LGBTQ policies years after it would’ve done me any good. In the 2000s, you could run an ostensibly straight-only institution.
For what it’s worth, in ’98, when I was just starting to do interviews for stuff and talking a lot in the press, I was really freaked out about a couple of things. But one of them was that I was freaked out if somebody asked me how I felt about being gay or gay people. I knew how I felt and I knew what the community said, and they were not the same thing. I hadn’t found my ability to be myself and to think what I thought about things. I was scared to even admit my thoughts about that. I knew that there was nothing wrong with it. I know that it’s love and that those people are just dead wrong, but I didn’t have the courage at that point to come out and say it until probably a couple years later.

It was the family-values era. I didn’t talk about that stuff either, for obvious reasons.
The stakes were enormous. I’m so glad that song resonated. Was it a sad song for you? Did it bring comfort somehow? Did it feel like a prediction you were unhappy with?

It felt like somebody gets it, the palpable fear of and the settling into the possibility that you never find what you’re looking for in life.
I was 22 when I wrote that song, and when I played it over the pandemic it just hit me … I was exactly double the age I was when I wrote it. It’s like, How did I know this? I shouldn’t have been that sad, that upset. But I was. So anyway. Well, thank you for telling me about that.

It took me several years to figure out what exactly was going on in “To Protect the Family Name” because I projected my own dilemma onto it.
That’s not far off. I don’t understand everything I write, and that’s good. It’s probably better that it retains some mystery when you’re putting it out there. Eventually, your subconscious might find understanding. Sometimes it’s through people saying stuff. “Oh, did you ever think about this song?” Did you ever hear the story about Tom Petty’s therapist asking him about “Wildflowers”?

I haven’t.
His therapist asked him who it was written for. It’s all this real positive love stuff, like you belonging with your needs met and with your love on your arm and all this stuff. And Tom’s like, “I don’t know.” And the therapist says, “I think it was you. I think you’re writing to yourself. What do you think about that?” And Tom Petty was like, “Yeah, that sounds right.” He had no idea.

I love asking musicians why they wrote things. Often, there’s no answer. Sometimes it’s filler that you can tell is filler, stuff they thought up on the spot. That’s kinda funny to me. You spend your life trying to find an answer only to get to a certain age and realize it was a dumb question in the first place.
There isn’t always a definitive reading, but it is fun to sort of just tease things out and unpack. When I put It’s Hard to Find a Friend out and started touring, I got to hear people’s interpretations of the songs, and initially it really bothered me that they didn’t have the same interpretation of the song that I did. And so I would try to tell people what my version of it was. I realized that’s how this goes. Once it’s gone, once it’s out of me, people get to choose. And then I reveled in hearing people’s different takes on things, and it didn’t weird me out that it wasn’t the same as what I meant or what I felt I meant, or anything like that.

It can take a long time to come to that realization. I’m real glad that I figured out, as a writer, that there’s only so much explaining yourself that you can do and once a work is out in the world, it belongs to the world, and hopefully you’ve done enough putting your specific spin into the thing that your voice comes through. But sometimes it doesn’t, and that’s okay, too.
Sometimes that’s part of the expression, too, having that kind of barrier, where meaning is opaque. That can be intriguing too. But yeah, I feel all that.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

‘It Was Always All Pedro’