An interview with David Bazan

"David Bazan (born c. 1976) is an indie rock singer/songwriter from Edmonds, Washington. Bazan was the lead singer and creative force behind the now-defunct band Pedro the Lion and is currently the lead singer of Headphones, a band he formed out of his interest in synthesizers. Additionally, Bazan is a member of The Soft Drugs, a band fronted by former Pedro the Lion drummer T.W. Walsh." [Wikipedia]

"Bazan recorded his first solo project, the EP Fewer Moving Parts, in between touring as a member of The Undertow Orchestra."

BrooklynVegan interviewer Paula Pou caught up with Dave on the phone on August 8, 2006. They discussed his new EP, Low bassist Zak Sally, his favorite NYC venues, Deerhoof, Pitchfork, Micah Hinson, and more…

BrooklynVegan Paula: What’s up Dave? Finally catching some downtime?

Dave: Sort of. We had a project here at the house. We had some storage space, which was basically the old studio, that was full of random shit—more or less—and we brought it all out and had a garage sale. We had a busy weekend.

BrooklynVegan Paula: You’ve always been lauded for your storytelling as a songwriter. What was the writing process like to Fewer Moving Parts?

Dave: All of the songs were written when Pedro still existed last summer, except for “Fewer Broken Pieces,” which I just finished a couple of months ago. The rest of the songs had been written for a Pedro record when I thought there was still going to be a Pedro record. Toward the end of the last summer, around September, things started to disintegrate and I made the decision to drop the name. A couple of the songs seemed even more perfect for a David Bazan release.

BrooklynVegan Paula: Did you feel like you got away with being more open or honest?

Dave: It’s hard to know if I got away with it or not. I kind of have an ever-changing standard about that stuff. The first song on the EP, “Selling Advertising, “basically came out fully formed in 35 or 40 minutes and for better or worse I always feel that’s a strong indicator of it being true of what’s going on in my subconscious. To me that’s an important part of the writing process. It was the same thing with “Fewer Broken Pieces” too. It had been unfinished for months and I just sat down and started strumming one day and 20 minutes later it was done. I’m still working through how to be creative and how to pin down that process, but when something comes out that quickly and I like it, I usually tend to think that it means something and that the song should exist and be released for better or worse.

BrooklynVegan Paula: Why release two versions of each song on this EP?

Dave: The idea came about because I was really into the acoustic version of “Cold Beer and Cigarettes.” That was the very first demo that I made of it. When it was finished I demoed it several other times and none of the recordings were as compelling as the acoustic one. I wanted it to be on the EP, but I didn’t want the definitive version of the song to be just an acoustic guitar, so I started thinking about whether it would make sense to have both versions on there and then as I started interacting with the other songs, I started feeling similarly about all but one of the acoustic demos.

BrooklynVegan Paula: On “Selling Advertising” you go after music critics. Want to talk about Pitchfork?

Dave: To me, Pitchfork is a mixed bag. On the one hand I think it’s been really good for independent music culture and there are a lot of really deserving bands out there who might not have reached wide audiences as quickly as they did if it weren’t for Pitchfork. On the other hand, I think, there’s a dismissive tone to them if they don’t like a band—there’s a flippancy that I think is really destructive to the culture and the way that people think about music. I have a tendency to do that too—I think everyone does—to say, “Oh, that is totally worthless. That song or that book has no value.”

I read an interview with Dave Eggers in one of the weeklies and the guy interviewing him sort of snuck in a little jab at one of Ethan Hawke’s books in one of his questions and Eggers kind of snapped at him and said something along the lines of, “If you’ve ever written a book or made a record or created a painting, you’d know just how almost impossible it is to complete something like that.” At the very least you can’t dismiss a piece of art the way that we’ve become accustomed to. That interview made me think about the way that I do that and having seen that tendency so often in print, I don’t really think it’s right. I think a lot of places like Pitchfork are guilty of being dismissive for the sake of entertainment and popularity or to make themselves feel big. I don’t really know what the motivation is, but it bums me out.

BrooklynVegan Paula: With a song like “Backwoods Nation,” (MP3) which finds you inciting “rednecks” to “pick up machine guns and kill camel fuckers,” were you going for social criticism or just getting stuff off your chest?

Dave: When I wrote “Backwoods Nation” it was nothing more than expression. Sure, it made me feel like a big man when I wrote it and it still has that quality to it where it’s satisfying to make criticisms like that, but when I wrote it I was just mad as hell. It was a couple of days after 9/11 and our response as a country—how the leadership of the country was responding—to that?°¦I just couldn’t believe it. We’d be driving around the country just seeing some of the most public displays of bigotry that I’d experienced in my life—on bathroom walls, on bumper stickers and in conversations in diners. “Backwoods Nation” is just how I dealt with it. Playing it over the years, it still rang true to some degree although it is dismissive itself of certain people in a way that I think is not totally fair. It was another of those songs that came out fully formed and I don’t think it’s a definitive statement about what I think about all that stuff, but sometimes it still resonates with me when I play it.

BrooklynVegan Paula: So, you came in at #85 on Paste’s list of the 100 Best Living Songwriters. What does this mean to you?

Dave: It’s flattering, absolutely. But those lists are, you know?°¦Bob Dylan and Neil Young are the top and then the middle and end are kind of arbitrary. And there are a lot of totally great songwriters that I honestly think are far better than I am that weren’t on the list. I feel lucky that some people would consider listening to my music solely because I’m on that list, but it still seems arbitrary. Also, full disclosure, I know the editors at Paste. I don’t know if they would’ve put me on there if they didn’t know me, but at the least, people should be aware of that.

BrooklynVegan Paula: How did you hook up with (former Low bassist) Zak Sally for the EP artwork? What should we make of the Paul Bunyan-esque David Bazan on the cover?

Dave: Pedro played the first of many shows with Low in 2000 and we toured with them in 2001 and 2004. Zak and I became buddies and when he left Low and started focusing on his drawing, he went on a book tour and wanted musicians to play at his reading/signings. I played one, he ended up crashing at my house for a couple of days and we came up with the idea to collaborate on something or other and this is what we decided on. I was really honored that he wanted to work with me. Part of his payment was a hammerhead shark in a bottle that I got at Ye Olde Curiosity Shoppe down by the waterfront. They also had a pig with three heads in a jar down there.

Anyway, he came up with the cover on his own. The first thing he emailed me as a PDF was the cover and I was kind of freaked out by it. He’d warned me that the character on the cover was going to resemble me, but I still have mixed feelings about being on the cover. It was his thing though. The concept isn’t particularly flattering, but it’s complicated because when he left Low I think he sort of wished that the band would end and when it didn’t he came away with a lot of complicated feelings and I’m sure that informed what he drew and the way he presented it. I was really happy. It has a tension to it that I like and I’m glad he put it in there.

BrooklynVegan Paula: At the other end of the spectrum, what’s going on with your other post-Predo project, Headphones? Will your interest in synths seep into your full-length solo release?

Dave: I just played a show on with Tim Walsh as Headphones, but I think what I’m going to focus on right now is the David Bazan album. Headphones will come soon after that’s done.

As David Bazan I have a lot more freedom with instrumentation. My records will probably be all over the place, so yeah, there probably will be a lot of synths on there, but it’ll be in conjunction with a bunch of other things and Headphones is going to remain in just synths and drums, without other instrumentation.

BrooklynVegan Paula: I read an interview where you said breaking up Pedro had actually strengthened your friendship with Tim Walsh. Do you guys plan to collaborate? What’s he up to these days?

Dave: He’s trying to play Soft Drugs shows and selling the EP online. He’s also got a day job as a Web programmer for McGraw Hill Publishing. I think we’re going to hang out and go watch Miami Vice tonight. I see him every couple of days and we get to play a lot of music together. He’s my best friend, but it’s still complicated and we do make music together, but we’re trying to keep the boundaries pretty clear as far as the “Dave Bazan” thing is concerned so there are no misunderstandings and no hurt feelings.

BrooklynVegan Paula: You were on tour with Micah P. Hinson. Did you guys hit it off?

Dave: That guy’s awesome! He had a guy playing with him called Nick Phelps and we all just had a great time. It was a great tour.

BrooklynVegan Paula: Are you planning on hitting the road again soon?

Dave: There’s going to be another stream of little solo dates in Texas and the south in the near future and then once the record comes out around March or April, I’ll hit the road with a bigger tour. I would like to get a band together for that, but it’s hard to know how exactly that’s going to work out.

BrooklynVegan Paula: Is there anyone you’d like to round up for a band when you go on tour to promote the full-length?

Dave: Hopefully playing as Dave Bazan and having the baseline of that being a solo show would mean that I would get to goof around with a bunch of more people that I’ve gotten to in the past. I don’t know if it’ll happen during the upcoming tours, but I really hope to go over to some friends’ houses more often and make little recordings here and there.

BrooklynVegan Paula: Do you have any dream venues you’d like to play next time you’re in New York?

Dave: I’ve never really been to any big venues over there. I hear about Irving Plaza and Webster Hall, but I really like Bowery Ballroom—that’s one of my favorite venues in the country. I played at Southpaw a couple of times and that place was also pretty amazing. But I guess Clear Channel owns Irving now so that’s kind of out for the time being.

BrooklynVegan Paula: What are you listening to?

Dave: I really can’t stop listening to Deerhoof right now. I’m also listening to this 90s band from Nova Scotia called Local Rabbits—I’ve been listening to the shit out of their record.

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