Pedro the Lion: A Different Brand of God-Rock

In person, David Bazan looks like he should be resolutely hauling crates of clams on a fishing dock out in New England with a bright yellow rain slicker and trusty pipe. Bearded, slightly paunchy and fitted with the mouth of a hearty sailor, Bazan hardly fits the part of the lead singer of the most controversial band in modern Christian rock, Pedro The Lion.

Having publicly stated a strong sense of empathy for Ted Kaczynski, Bazan, 28, is also a vocal proponent of the anti-globalization books of Noam Chomsky and Michael Parenti, the kind of leftist stances that haven’t exactly endeared him to the born-again set.

At the same time, secular rock critics often have trouble seeing past Bazan’s fervent Christianity, dismissing his cathartic body of work as that of an overly earnest, sickly-sweet naïve innocent.

In truth, Bazan’s philosophical mission lies in the gray middle of purgatory, somewhere between Dante’s Inferno and Nirvana. After all, if Jesus himself hung out with prostitutes, tax collectors and alcoholics, then why can’t we sing songs about the sinners, too?

Pedro The Lion’s music feels like incredibly slowed down hardcore, what would happen if a Fugazi 7” got stuck on the wrong turntable setting. The guitars are predominantly spare and borderline hypnotic. Bazan’s heart-breakingly rueful voice belies the graceful poetry of his lyrics. Beneath the plodding drum dirge and dollops of feedback, his gem of a voice remains hopeful, proudly wearing his sin on his sleeves.

Born the rebellious son of a religiously/politically conservative professional musician father, Bazan moved to Seattle in 1991. Bazan attended high school with Damien Jurado; the two becoming fast friends by bonding over a mutual love of Christian metal band The Crucified.

After fizzling out in a series of short-lived hardcore bands, Bazan formed Pedro The Lion in 1995. Eventually Bazan’s musical forays were conflicting with his religious philosophy studies and, at the begrudging advice of his father, Bazan dropped out of Northwest College, a small liberal Pentecostal university in Seattle, his sophomore year and concentrated on songwriting full time.

Early reviews oftentimes compared Pedro the Lion to a WWJD? version of Sebadoh. In 2000 Bazan began feverishly penning Winner’s Never Quit, a pessimistic and earthy allegorical parable about commitment, dogma and capitalism. The album told the story of two prodigal brothers destroyed by their own ambition with Bazan’s somber, poignant voice serving as a sort of all-seeing, all-knowing Steadycam.

2002′s Control was a pulpy matinee morality play comparing corporate America to a failed marriage with four distinct acts. A divorce is contemplated, an affair is started, anger is misplaced, and eventually the wife just ends up stabbing her husband in his sleep. Jesus’ name was only employed in a profane moment of adulterous bliss. In Bazan’s melancholic creative universe, Christ may eventually come back but it isn’t happening nearly as fast as it ought to. Bittersweet lines like "If it isn’t penetration/then it isn’t worth the kiss" virtually guaranteed he’d never get invited onto the 700 Club.

Having for the time exhausted the possibilities inherent in concept album form, Bazan’s latest, Achilles Heel (recorded with current collaborators TW Walsh and Ken Maiuri), finds him returning to a more song-based cycle and personal-as-political songwriting approach.

Reached via cell-phone while in the back of the PTL van en route to a gig in Dallas, a humble and soft-spoken Bazan said the move away from linear storytelling was his way of dealing with what he termed a "musical identity crisis."

"Even if you think you’re going to write a song about how much you love flowers, at one moment during the recording process you realize that you fucking hate flowers,” explains Bazan. “Now you can’t write that unless you abandon the concept. Creativity should be about discovery, rather than some sort of an exposition about something you’ve already decided. If you get an idea that’s really good and you feel strongly about, there should be no framework set up that would prevent you from using that idea, you know? Basically, it just ties your hands."

Bazan, still sad and simmering with a slow-burning righteous fury (and with his creative hands free once again) makes every single note on Achilles Heel count. Imagine an intimate audio counterpart to films like "American Beauty" or "The Safety Of Objects."

It’s clear that Bazan isn’t planning on letting his faith coerce his art into avoiding taking on difficult issues anytime soon—and doesn’t see any conflict between his dual identities as musician and Christian. "Most times if people ask if I’m a Christian, I say no," admits Bazan. "I say that to be clear because what’s associated with Christianity [currently] are certain ideas about politics and abortion and questions of whether I would potentially be a supporter of George W. Bush. I say that I believe in the Apostles Creed and I can further clarify that if people want, but I certainly wouldn’t vote pro-life—the culture war issues are of no consequence to me. I think it’s all just window dressing, politically I’m very much a leftist. Very much left of the Democratic Party left."

Be that as it may, Pedro The Lion do still venture full on into the world of God-rock once a year, at the Christian-designated Cornerstone summer music festival in Bushnell, Ill. It’s a tradition Bazan feels the band has to remain a part of.

"I just wish the Christian culture would just disappear completely, so in that way I’m a little conflicted about it but at the same time [playing the Cornerstone festival is] a chance for us to be missionaries to the Christian community each year," explains Bazan. "There’s a lot of people like me who haven’t totally forsaken their faith but are just really perplexed at the way it’s being practiced. We feel alienated and feel outraged about it and beaten down when we have to be around other people who supposedly believe what we believe. And so for those people we go back as sort of a solace for them."

In the opening shot of Fellini’s 1960 film "La Dolce Vita," playboy photojournalist Marcello Rubini hitches a ride on a 900-foot tall Jesus statue being flown into Rome. Italian models sunning themselves on their roof, assuming End Times are in full swing, begin to genuflect in earnest but are horrified when Rubini pops up from behind the statue to ask for their phone numbers. Much like Rubini, Bazan’s hands are digging in the dirt somewhere between the sacred and the profane. Amen to that.

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