How David Bazan Reclaimed Pedro the Lion On The Band’s First Album in 15 Years
There have been plenty of reunions from the indie rock Golden Age of the late ‘90s. Upon reforming, bands usually follow one of two paths: they merely go through the motions in playing old songs, or head in a different direction from what made them successful in the first place. Either way, both routes leave the most devoted fans dissatisfied, and fail to spark the interests of the uninitiated.
But with Pedro the Lion, David Bazan seems to have uncovered the key to successfully reviving a bygone musical project: incorporating the most rewarding elements of a rich back catalog into heartfelt new material.
Frustrated by a musical machine that “wasn’t working,” and wishing to distance himself from a band name that had been founded in Christian beliefs he no longer held, David had abandoned “Pedro the Lion” in 2006 for a solo career (a symbolic move, really, since he’d always been the band’s sole consistent member). And after using his own name to release a handful of EPs and three well-received — if under-appreciated — full-length albums, he finally reconsidered the Pedro moniker in 2017.
“It’s weird to love it again, like when I was a kid, but suddenly I do,” he’d tweeted in October of that year. “It’s a part of me I cut off for a long time. I know what to do now.”
“What to do” was reclaim the name, form a band, and apply all of his past learnings and greatest successes to a new era of Pedro the Lion. With new guitarist Erik Walters and drummer Sean Lane, even the old Pedro songs now have a fresh energy at live shows, which are seamlessly interwoven with new material.
“I was always running from my natural way of doing stuff; always pushing for greener pastures,” David admits of not wanting to dwell on the style or tone of his earlier work. “This record was the first time that I allowed myself to embrace the recipes from 20 years ago.”
Phoenix – due out January 18th on Polyvinyl — is the first of five albums named after towns that David lived in as a child and young adult. A remarkable achievement, it’s his most vulnerable and intimate record in over 20 years; a cohesive, focused work of art bound by a deeply personal and nostalgic theme. Fortunately, he’s already recording the next in the series, titled Havasu (after Lake Havasu City, Arizona), and plans for the fifth to be his “home” album.
We caught up with David to chat about this exciting – yet in many ways, familiar – new era of his career, and how the past will continue to inform the future.
KERRANG!: Now that you’re using ‘Pedro the Lion’ again, is the decision to do so playing out as you’d hoped?
DAVID BAZAN: I think it is. Basically, I needed a different way to do my job. And mostly, I just wanted to be in a band again. I wanted that feeling, and also felt like it would help if the audience had that expectation. I loved playing solo, but there are too many unexpected things for an audience member, because every time I come out it’s something totally different. I wanted some stability.
That was gonna happen either way — I was probably gonna call it Bazan Band or something, but…it just didn’t feel that cool to me. Then I realized that the process I’d rediscovered was the same as when I was doing it 15, 20 years ago. And last year, we played a set of mostly old Pedro songs, and the people in the band and I and the crew had the feeling we were hoping for. And [the audience] seemed to appreciate what we were doing.
At the show this past summer at Music Hall of Williamsburg in Brooklyn, there was definitely a palpable energy different from David Bazan shows. And on the album itself, you’ve once again captured that wistful, emotional, longing vibe of older Pedro albums…without singing about the same things you did as an unsettled dude in your 20s. How did you tap into that?
The record that comes to mind for me is It’s Hard to Find a Friend. [Subsequent EP] The Only Reason I Feel Secure has it a little bit, too — but Friend is unique amongst the Pedro records because it’s the record on which I was the most vulnerable and the least self-conscious. The subject matter [of the new album, Phoenix] was looking back at ways that I created hurt for myself and misunderstood the world as a kid. So there’s this kindness there that I think is also on Friend.
I can’t aim for a sound, necessarily, or a feeling — I just have to try to be as open as possible and trust that my body has the ingredients in it already. I think more than anything, I just tried to open myself up on this one, and that made it feel like the early Pedro stuff to me.
Did visiting your hometown of Phoenix to draw inspiration for this album help you get there emotionally, too?
It really helped. It was endless fodder for songwriting. My job was to go down there and feel all the feelings, collect all the memories, and explore the themes that those memories and feelings brought up. From there, certain themes crystalized into a lyrical hook that I could expand upon. It really was a good process for me — I’ve never done that kind of ‘writing trip.’ I’ve always written from my bedroom or a rehearsal space. To go down there and collect those impressions really helped.
I just had to banish self-doubt at a certain point in the thing — which is scary because there’s still shit that I don’t like once it’s all said and done. But banishing self-doubt yields so many more moments that I love, and that are really true and will be long-lasting for me.
Of all the songs on the new record, why did you choose to play Quietest Friend on every night of the most recent tour?
It might be my favorite on the record. I think it’s Sean and Erik’s favorite too, maybe. Once we started doing it, the opening band H.C. McEntire, the lights guy, and a lot of people were like, ‘Man, I think that’s my favorite song of the set.’ We were still kinda getting used to it, and I was really psyched to hear that it was working. I just love to play it. It’s so cathartic and helpful to play that song, so I was glad that other people were into it, because it felt so good.
There’s that final coda at the end of the song, where the music really opens up, and you refer to writing the album within the lyrics. Does that moment feel like some sort of breakthrough each time you play it?
Oh, yeah. It’s really fun and ecstatic. When I got the idea to do these records – Phoenix, specifically — it was kind of a deal that I made with myself. There are plenty of other things that I just did not pull off in my life, and that song, Quietest Friend, is the clearest representation of a fulfilled promise. It’s almost about that, in a way. It’s a triumphant feeling to have honored what I needed to do, I guess, for my internal purposes. It rips, too — it’s so fun to play.
When you play live, you’re known for taking questions between songs. How did that tradition come about?
It started in New York in 2000. TW Walsh and I play in Lo Tom together now; that was the first tour he played as a hired gun in [Pedro the Lion], and he was also opening the shows. One night, just as a bit of banter, he said ‘Any questions?’ It was funny, inspired by this thing that Shellac does, where Bob Weston and Steve Albini challenge the audience to stump them with a question. And so after that show, I asked, ‘Man, can I use that?’ And he was like, ‘I won’t ever say it again, probably. It just came out.’ At that point, I was actively looking for a way to do banter; I enjoyed it but it was unruly and I didn’t know what kind of structure there could be. I wanted there to be audience interaction, but I didn’t really know how, and so when he did that, it opened it up in my mind. Pretty soon it became a fixture, because what it yielded was so exciting. I’m doing that a little less these days than I had before, but I still did it at the Pedro shows.
We would beg you not to stop.
I’ll work on that.
Having done so many shows, do you have a most memorable performance ever?
Some of the Headphones [a synth-rock project with Frank Lenz of Starflyer 59 and Pedro drummer T. W. Walsh] shows were memorable. I was so in over my head, and drinking really heroic amounts of alcohol. There was one at one of the crappiest – but also most beloved — venues we’ve ever played. It was a bar in Houston, Texas, called Mary Jane’s Fat Cat. The bathrooms didn’t work that well all — they would flood and sometimes you would be standing at the bar in piss. And the audience was rowdier than we were used to – not against us; rowdy and with us. And there was a venue also equally memorable – not quite as run down, but divey in the best way – called Walter’s on Washington. You would go to Houston and play one of these two places that were across the street from one another.
So this Headphones show that we played in 2005 — we were opening for Minus the Bear, with The New Trust and Criteria at Walter’s. Something happened to the PA, and after the second band, we had to move the entire show across the street to Mary Jane’s. It was a protracted process, and we were drinking a lot, and by the time Headphones got on stage, I had the spins.
We got through that one, and it was rambunctious and ecstatic — the energy there was just always special. Some places just have a good energy, even if they’re rundown and awful in a lot of other ways. I won’t forget that night, even though there was so much booze. I think there was Jack in the Box involved….
You make a lot of weird decisions when you’re that drunk.
At least you didn’t puke on stage.
I don’t think I ever did that. I was definitely a thrower-upper when I was drinking, but it never happened on stage.
So now, back to today: you’re using ‘Pedro the Lion’ again, and the old Pedro vibe is very much there — though you’ve certainly grown. Does this feel like a new era for you, musically?
It does. The cookbook now has everything in it: from the very first things that I did, to the last Bazan record, Care. Now, in a three-piece rock band, I get to explore all of the stuff that was expressions of me. I was always looking for the next thing and happy to flush the last thing down the toilet — and now I’ve just realized: It’s all me.
That was an expression of my self-loathing, I think. That’s what feels new: I’m getting to do this work without the process being so defined by my self-loathing. And that is, in a way, what I did on Friend, because I didn’t know enough about myself or the world to hate myself then. So in that sense, it feels like a new opportunity, and I’m certain that the music that’s gonna continue to come out will draw on all that stuff in a way that feels exciting.
Havasu [the next Pedro album] has got some strong Headphones vibes, for instance. In that way, Pedro is finally a way for me to express all my impulses under a brand name that people will recognize. It’s the sweet spot that I’ve been hoping for — it just takes a lot of work to get in any kind of sweet spot…and even more to stay there.
Phoenix is out January 18th on Polyvinyl Records. You can pre-order it physically and digitally HERE.
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