David Bazan embodies everything that popular music is not: He's a devout Christian; he doesn't do hard drugs; and his live shows are as definitively un-showbiz as they come. On stage and in interviews, he's a little vague, and at times inarticulate, but what Bazan is able to communicate through his sincere, straightforward approach to songwriting has earned him adoration in indie-rock circles. So who is he? David Bazan is the mastermind behind Pedro the Lion.
Bazan grew up in a devoutly religious family in Seattle, where his father was a music pastor at a local Protestant church. "I had a pretty normal upbringing. I went to church every Sunday," he says. He began playing piano as a kid and then took up drums in seventh grade. From there, he started playing in a string of local hardcore bands with high-school cohort Damien Jurado (whose latest Sub Pop album, "I Break Chairs," Bazan helped write and record). It was in these formative punk years that Bazan cut his teeth as a musician, quickly learning the basics of guitar and bass, and honing his skills as a multi-instrumentalist.
In the aftermath of the grunge wave that saw just about every band from his hometown signed to a label, Bazan put the original five-piece Pedro the Lion together back in 1995, playing Christian music venues and festivals around the Northwest. "It gave me experience as a front man," he says, "and it also let me know what I wanted to do as an artist." Soon after, PTL signed to the Lord-loving Tooth & Nail Records (also based in Seattle) and released "Whole" in 1997 to mass critical appeal, both secular and religious. But that's when PTL, as a five-man act, fell apart, forcing Bazan to reinvent Pedro the Lion into his own image, decidedly distancing himself from the stigma of fronting a "Christian rock band."
"I realized that I didn't want to play Christian venues anymore," he says emphatically. "I like going to bars, I like playing in bars, and personally, for reasons I'd rather not get into, I would like the whole Christian-rock thing to disappear completely."
Bazan says it's better for the more devout kids to come see a Pedro show at a regular all-ages venue "to get them out of their cloister." Yet, Bazan hasn't cut the church community totally out of his schedule: "I still like to pepper the tour with some dates at some of the bigger Christian festivals, like the Cornerstone Festival in Illinois."
Pedro the Lion's songs are modern, personal deconstructions of traditional values, religious and otherwise. In fact, many of Pedro's former fans condemn Bazan's contemporary -- and sometimes doubting -- outlook, claiming his music is "veering from the path." His latest album "Control" (on Jade Tree), like his previous albums, deals candidly with moral topics such as pride, greed, power, lust, death and revenge. Not exactly the most uplifting of themes; instead, his lyrics are dark, enveloping character sketches that restlessly ruminate upon the contradictions that make us all human.
His low, sullen voice convincingly adds an element of pathos as well as honesty to his words. And far beyond all the religious iconography, Bazan's songs are compelling in their simplicity and raw emotion, and his tone comes across as critical, not preachy.
Even though PTL's lyrics are almost always a one-man show, Bazan sometimes enlists the help of friends to write and perform the music for the Pedro albums.
"It's fun to hang out with your buddies and play music," he says. "That's where I got the idea for 'Second Best' `from "Control"`. Me and my friend Casey `Foubert, from indie band Seldom` were jamming the riff back and forth -- he'd do a part, then I'd do a part -- and it just sort of came together. Songs, for me, don't usually come together at one time. It's usually a building process.
"Though it's a fairly undemocratic process," he adds. "I have the final say on all the songs." It's interesting to note that Bazan plays nearly all the instruments on the PTL albums.
Clearly, Bazan has found his niche, almost self-starting the whole introspective sadcore/slowcore style with the first Pedro outing, and expanding the genre even further into uncharted, heavier territory with his more recent releases. Even with the overwhelming success of his last two records, Bazan says he feels no pressure to fit into any category. "At this point in my life, I'm feeling free to do whatever. I'll always play rock & roll, and as long as I can still support my family on what I'm doing, I'll be here."
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