Ask Dave Bazan of Pedro the Lion what he thinks about people who call his songs depressing, and his response is unfailingly polite. "Different people relate to things in different ways," he says. "I don’t take it personally if somebody says that. I’ll just say, ‘I’m sorry it is that way for you. Maybe you shouldn’t listen to it.’" This is typical of Bazan, whose noirish music, which tackles some of the big problems of our society (adultery, corporate malfeisance, broken families), contrasts sharply with his pleasant, sincere demeanor. The man seems to be living proof of the psychological benefits of exorcising your demons through creative activity.
Pedro the Lion’s most recent album, Achilles Heel (Jade Tree), is the band’s fourth LP. PtL has gone through numerous permutations, but the band responsible for Heel features Bazan, frequent collaborator TW Walsh, and James McAlister of Ester Drang on drums. Bazan and Walsh are also involved in a side project, The Headphones, which will put out an album this year with Suicide Squeeze Records.
Achilles Heel is a return to form for Bazan, who says that he "set out to make sort of the logical next album after It’s Hard to Find a Friend." Friend was, Bazan says, "more charming and engaging, and more representative of my personality." He hastens to add that he doesn’t dislike the two records that came in between Friend and Heel, Winners Never Quit or Control, but that they were "more hard rocking, like I thought I had to make rock and roll records. I wanted not to have to kick ass. The songs on Achilles Heel might be too slow or too mellow, but whatever." (The recent Seattle Post-Intelligencer review of a Pedro concert, which compared the band to the Counting Crows, proves that some people definitely don’t get it, but as Bazan would say, whatever.)
The result is that Heel has lost the driving drums and distorted guitars and has gotten much more melodic, highlighting the lyrics and Bazan’s ability to create quietly dissatisfied American characters. The suicidal man sitting in his room with a shotgun, the neglectful husband who’s constantly leaving town, the dumped sweetheart — they’re all here, along with an unfortunate soul who’s fallen underneath a train and is looking up at the rest of the cars passing by, while his legs lie severed on the tracks. ("I was influenced by reading Edgar Allen Poe at an early age," Bazan says. Indeed!)
As one could discern from his subject matter, Bazan thinks about the state of America a lot. He recently started reading Harper’s. "I read that Thomas Frank article about Kansas, and I really think he hit it on the head about the political establishment using the culture war to distract people from where the real issues are," he says. "When you think about how much time people in Congress actually spend [on issues like homosexuality and abortion], it’s nothing. It’s not even on their agenda." Will he try to talk to people about politics from the stage this summer, when Pedro goes on tour? "I’ve been saying some stuff, trying to encourage people to read about politics and talk about it in non-argumentative ways with people, but this year, I feel like that’s not enough. I feel like saying, you need to know that some people you might respect think that Bush is just a little bit of a liar. Unique among other presidential liars. He’s really something special."
Bazan, more than most liberal-talking rock types, knows a thing or two about the culture wars. He’s written about faith and been publicly identified as Christian for years. On his fan page, in the Forums section, fans argue such topics as "if Dave drinks beer, is he still a Christian?" (Seeing as he freely offers "I like bars, and I like to drink," the issue doesn’t seem to be tormenting his soul.) Some people were even more offended by some of the lyrics on Control. One of the songs, "Rapture," is written in the voice of a man having sex with his mistress in a hotel room, who screams "I hear Jesus" at what seems to be the moment of orgasm.
"The more conservative element of the fan base has definitely checked out," says Bazan. "Right after Control [came out], there was confrontation every night. In Minneapolis, I remember about twenty kids standing around me, and backing me up against a wall, and explaining to me that what I was doing was wrong, and all this stuff." What did he say to them? "I basically said ‘I think we’re going to have to agree to disagree, if anything, because you don’t even know me, are we in a community together because we’re in the same category, or something? They want it to work where they reprimand me and I see the error of my ways and am like ‘I’m sorry, I’m going to take a break, and when I come back I’m going to be singing songs about Jesus and how much I love him.’"
Bazan still maintains that he is a Christian, but says "Christian culture is full of fear. It’s so reactionary. It’s really sad." (A few songs on Achilles Heel also address this misunderstanding of true faith, like Track 2, "Foregone Conclusions": "You were too busy steering the conversation toward the Lord/ to hear the voice of the Spirit saying ‘shut the fuck up’/ you thought it must be the Devil trying to make you go astray/ besides it couldn’t have been the Lord, since you don’t believe he talks that way.")
Track 8 on Heel, "I Do," which is voiced by an embittered father witnessing the birth of a son, proves once again that when listening to Bazan, it’s important to separate the lyrics from his actual personality. ("Now that my blushing bride has done what she was born to do/ It’s time to bury dreams and raise a son to live vicariously through/ The sperm swims for the egg/ The finger for the ring/ If I could take one back/ I know what it would be.") Bazan is happily married and his wife is expecting a child in October. He lives in a small town about an hour and a half from Seattle. His life sounds like an indie-rock version of the American dream. The studio where Achilles Heel was made is in a building on the same property as his house — about 150 feet away.
Maybe it’s all the rural peace and happiness, or maybe it’s the aforementioned therapeutic act of writing heavy songs, but Bazan’s perspective on the state of the world is heartening and philosophical. "We all find ourselves at different times in history," he says. "The people who lived in Rome, a hundred years before the fall of Rome, they had things to be depressed about, for sure, and if they could have seen the future they would certainly have been bummed. But in the meantime there was life, and living, and all of that. And I feel like we are within one hundred years of the collapse of this country, but regardless, there’s so much to learn and see and take in." And that’s not "depressing" at all.