Both Christians and non-Christians have embraced Pedro the Lion’s thought-provoking brand of indie rock since David Bazan’s critically acclaimed 1998 release It’s Hard to Find a Friend. His new record, Control, is bound to shock some listeners with its graphic depictions of extramarital sex and the dropping of the s-bomb, as it tells the story of a man who has an affair and is later killed by his wife. Amidst the R-rated content, Control has made its way into the top five on the CMJ chart and has even received praise from some Christian listeners.
When I heard Control, I wondered why Bazan was using such strong words on the album. On April 28, I got a chance to ask him during the Pedro the Lion Minneapolis performance. In between songs, Bazan was fielding questions from the audience. I got up the courage to ask, “Why did you drop the s-bomb on the new record?” First, Bazan explained what the “s-bomb” was. Then, he said that he essentially wanted to be true to himself because he uses that word a lot. He also mentioned to the audience that if profanity offends anyone, then they probably shouldn’t pick up the new album or get the new Jade Tree Records sampler (He drops the f-bomb on the sampler).
The next question the audience asked was where he stands spiritually and if he serves Jesus Christ. It must have been an amazingly awkward moment for him, but he handled it gracefully. He said that at times Christianity is messed up, but he’s got no problem with Jesus.
I felt a little dumb asking about the s-bomb and because in some sense I felt that my question had triggered the question about his spirituality, I apologized to him after the show. He said he didn’t mind the question and there wasn’t any reason to apologize. He said he actually enjoys taking questions from the audience.
On April 29, I was able to do a 20 minute phone interview with him. He thoroughly addressed questions concerning his faith and some of the controversial lyrics from Control, answers that will explain where David Bazan is at spiritually and artistically.
Modrich: You grew up in the church. It seems like you have kind of a cynical attitude towards the church or maybe you’ve been hurt. Where did that come in?
Bazan: I don’t feel like I’ve been so much hurt. I went through a period where I think I really misunderstood Christianity and the way that it worked. The reason why it was a problem was because the goal of Christianity–if a person believes in the biblical God and feels alienated from him–for that alienation to be resolved and there to be some reconciliation and that was never really the case. That wasn’t really happening. So there were aspects of Christianity that I started to question. But more than that I just tried to look deeper in it and find out if maybe there was something that I had been missing and I found out that there was. Now that I’m satisfied with that reconciliation and that connection with who I believe God is. The way that the church does it is really destructive and wrong. It’s really difficult for me to harmonize what I perceive Jesus being about and saying and what the history of the Christian church has been. Even after the Reformation, there were definitely some real positive things that took place. But it didn’t take very long for it to deteriorate again into basically a more insidious version of what was wrong with Catholicism at that point prior to the Reformation. It’s not so much that I got burned by the church personally or anything like that. But as far as the aims of Christianity and what Christ says about love, I think that Christianity is such a tremendous failure as a religion, or Christianity at large anyway. People’s ridicule of it as a faith is very well founded. At the same time, I have a really intense love for Jesus and the Bible, a deep satisfaction in the connection that I feel with God and with what I perceive as possible, because those things are true and because God loves us the way that he does. That’s kind of more where I’m coming from with that so that’s where the cynicism comes from.
Modrich: How much does your faith play into your songs? How much of that is reflective of your personal faith and how much of that is part of the story?
Bazan: Usually the characters and the scenarios are all fiction. They’re sort of modified by my thoughts and ideas. They’re obviously come up with out of my mind. A lot of times it will be a character that is representing some part of something that is interesting to me or some irony or something that has particularly grabbed my attention. Then they’re usually modified by my thoughts and feeling about it. It changes whether or not I modify it to reflect my beliefs or to be a reaction, sort of playing the devil’s advocate and being the opposite of what I believe and trying to make some point that way. But then there are other songs, like “Secret of the Easy Yoke” and “The Longer I Lay Here,” which the characters and the scenarios actually are autobiographical. Then they are modified later and turned into fiction so that the story or the song is stronger, rather than having to rely on the facts of my life; that’s influenced by different books on poetry that I’ve read. One in particular is called The Triggering Town by Richard Hugo.
In poetry–which I don’t feel like I write poetry–it’s a pretty big deal to not have to stick to the facts because a lot of times that will ruin it. It is a fiction at a certain level and so it’s not wrong to not stick with the facts of a feeling or something like that. Sometimes the truck just needs to be brown when it was white always. Brown is just a way better word to use in the context of the poem. So that’s how that works. As far as my faith influencing it, it does in the way that I believe that God exists and that he created the world and because of that he created art. I believe that he created art for a purpose and also he gave us the ability to reason for a purpose. I think critical analysis and sort of figuring out art and also just doing art is pretty important. And that if he created art, then it would ultimately be even like he created everything for his glory. So I really believe that art for art’s sake is God’s glory. When we just do art for the sake of it, it’s something that is right and good. When we do it for the sake of proselytizing or sloganizing or evangelizing or something like that, then it bastardizes this thing that was never meant for that. But actually [art] does a way better job of getting at truth in its nature state, when it’s done for its own sake, which again I believe is God’s glory. So that would be how my faith influences it.
Modrich: Is your music misinterpreted or do you feel the listeners are getting what you’re trying to say?
Bazam: I don’t know. The audience that Pedro the Lion has runs the gamut, it’s difficult to know. For instance there’s some people with Winners Never Quit” The first song is a critique of the lack of love and the self-centered, self-righteous manner in which I think the church goes about doing certain things. Some people understood it as that, but then a lot of other people understood it as this very pro-Christian statement about how I’m a good person and I’m gonna go to heaven because I’m a good person. Also just playing out some flaws in the theology of why we go to heaven and what earns us that. Different people responded really differently to it. I don’t know, that’s just one example, so I don’t really know. I think that it is maybe misinterpreted as much as it is interpreted correctly. But I also know that people are just coming from all kinds of different places and are going to interact with it in many ways that I don’t even begin to know. At a certain level, I just try to write what I feel I’m supposed to be writing or what is coming out. No matter what is, I think people are going to interpret it or misinterpret or deepen it in all sorts of different ways. There is a certain amount of misinterpretation, but I don’t think it’s peculiar to my music. I think that’s just the way that art goes. I say misinterpretation, but that’s to say they’re just different interpretations and sometimes interpreted opposite to what I’d perceive it to be.
Modrich: There were four songs on the Control album. that I had questions about specific lyrics. How does the affair and then the idea of the rapture go together? Where are you going with that one?
Bazan: That one was a completely different song and I started rewriting the lyrics when that other song wasn’t working so it turned into this image of an affair. For the chorus, I felt that because the music already existed, it kind of did lift up into that kind of anthemic chorus, maybe [there was an] orgasmic reference in the song just because of how the lyrics were going up until that point. It seemed like it would work dramatically. So I set out to find a way to represent that from the perspective of one of the people involved, most likely the male. What I was looking for was something that felt kind of dirty and sort of represented to me an adulterous affair. The thing I came up with was the most tasteful and yet the most dirty in a very sacrilegious fashion using that language as an expletive to communicate the pleasure or ecstatic feeling that he was experiencing.
Modrich: With the songs “Indian Summer” and “Penetration,” “if it’s not penetration, then it’s not worth a kiss.” Is that talking about corporate America?
Bazan: Definitely. I don’t think that people with money are better than people who are poor. They just have the opportunity to take advantage of other people in a way that I think that poor people would do if they had the chance. It’s just the way that I think money takes advantage of people without [it]. It’s hidden a lot in this country more times than not with paying extremely low gas prices and just having general wealth relative to other countries. It’s masked a lot and I wanted it to be put in terms that I think it exists in. It’s very brutal and disgusting the way that it works. In terms of the way when a man rapes a woman. There is a very deliberate thing to it and something that is very brutal and very violating. Those were the terms in which I wanted. I don’t feel that’s very obvious, so that was what I was hoping to communicate.
Modrich: What was the line “I feel the darkness growing as you cram light down my throat,” from the song “Magazine” really in reference to?
Bazan: Just dealing with a lot of people that I know who grew up and didn’t have anything to do with Christianity or God. Their experiences with the church have been so off-putting. Not necessarily because the content was offensive, in most cases the real content of the Bible or Christianity wasn’t ever gotten to because they were so offended or so judged or whatever initially. That’s the idea-the force and the arrogance or whatever with which Christians wield their Christianity–actually furthers the cause they’re supposedly fighting against doing harm to the concept of who Christ is. So that’s the “I feel the darkness growing stronger as you cram light down my throat.” The irony to me is there is a sense in which Christian people naively or ignorantly are trying to live above reproach as though it was possible. I think of misunderstanding what Paul was trying to say at that point. By that standard, by trying to live above reproach there is this notion that a person could get through a day without sinning or that those sins are able to be tallied and maybe sort of getting less accrued to you. But by furthering the cause of “darkness,” they’re actually working the other way from being above reproach to actually there’s quite a bit to be reproached for. So that’s kind of the line fit together. Then the chorus just expands upon that a little bit, and is a reference to when Jesus is talking about the Pharisees being white-washed tombs. Being so concerned with the superficial when what is going on inside is the thing that is so screwed up and is such a problem.
MM: I’ve noticed that as the albums have gone along it seems to be getting progressively more negative. With the last song “Rejoice,” it’s kind of unclear. At one time you say it’s great if it’s meaningless, then it’s meaningful, then it turns to shit, then it’s rejoice. So which is it?
Bazan: Well some of the point of that song was an ambiguity to it. I think that people perceive the song “Winners Never Quit” to be ambiguous as well. I really liked the role that song played at the end of that record. “Winners Never Quit” was actually meant to be some sort of resolution to that record. I think that it is. I think it’s possible to get to what that song means. But this one, [“Rejoice”] I meant to be the predecessor to the next record, which is going to have some level of resolution in it and include themes of redemption. Because of that, I didn’t really want there to be any resolution. But at some level, that “Rejoice” is resolution to me, because a lot of it is very similar to “Winner Never Quit.” It’s when we come to the end of our rope and realize how futile trying to go it alone is that it’s a possibility for redemption to really make sense. For me, at different times the rejoice part is either cynical or sort of joyous. It was meant to be vague at a certain point and I’m hoping to get the next record out in a timely fashion so that the resolution comes before everybody is just totally pissed. Which is too late now I realize, but that was the idea.