Six months ago, David Bazan released an album depicting a man in deep turmoil, a lapsed evangelical Christian with a drinking problem and marital troubles.
That man was David Bazan.
The album, Curse Your Branches, is a riveting example of pop music as confessional, as philosophy, as therapy. It also rocks—lean and straightforward, with rugged hooks to match Bazan’s direct, Everyman voice mixed prominently over spare arrangements. It’s one of those records in which the message persistently tugs at your ear, much like the music of his former band, Pedro the Lion.
Fortunately for the 34-year-old, his problems—which beset him in the mid-2000s—have been managed, if not conquered. “They don’t feel like crises anymore in the way that they did,” Bazan says. “They are things that are years behind us, which makes it really pleasant. But the questions that I was dealing with that introduced the crises are still more or less unanswered and are regularly on my mind. I’ve become more and more comfortable with leaving them unanswered.”
Bazan’s central preoccupation is his Christian faith. The Seattle-based artist comes from a long line of holy rollers. His great-grandparents on both sides were pastors in the Assemblies of God; his father is a pastor, as is his uncle. His parents met at Bible college. Until his late 20s, Bazan adhered to the family’s deep religious beliefs, but then doubts crept in and ultimately took over. “In my particular line of descendents, I’m the first person who defected from the faith,” Bazan says.
One of the more impressive aspects of Curse Your Branches—Bazan’s first full-length as a solo artist—is how it frames the religion issue to make it accessible to secular humanists, agnostics and heathens of all stripes. On the lead track, “Hard to Be,” Bazan intones, “Wait just a minute/You expect me to believe/That all this misbehaving grew from one enchanted tree/And helpless to fight it/We should all be satisfied/With this magical explanation for why the living die.”
Picture an evangelical minister hearing that from his son. “I’m pretty fortunate in that my family, while perplexed, are pretty understanding,” Bazan says. “It helps that we’ve always had a good rapport and I’ve always been forthcoming with them. When I was a pretty bad drunk, I never hid it from them.”
Although his family has been tolerant, others—including fans of Pedro the Lion’s more positive Christian themes—have branded him a heretic and even called Curse Your Branches “dangerous.” Bazan expected that, but he’s been pleasantly surprised at how nuanced the overall response from the Christian community has been. That’s probably because Bazan and Pedro the Lion weren’t part of the Christian-music establishment, but rather appealed more to “fringe Christian fans, people who might say their favorite Christian band is U2 or Over the Rhine. I keep an eye on message boards and stuff, and one writer said that Curse Your Branches was the album he heard recently that made him think most about God. I hadn’t thought about it that way. Overall, the response has been exciting to me because people are using their brains, thinking independently. As long as that’s happening, there’s hope.”
Serial doubter that he is, Bazan questioned his methods while writing the tunes for his solo effort. “I went through a period in the songwriting process where I said to myself, ‘This is not philosophy. Just pull yourself out of your head and write entertaining songs,’” he recalls. “But I realized that this is philosophy on some level. The songs have to hang together for five or 10 years. I have to perform them, and I’ve been able to interact with them in some meaningful way night after night.”
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It wasn’t until recently that Bazan accepted himself as an entertainer, albeit in a very limited scope. “Early on in my consumption of music, and then playing music, I was drawn to the heavy themes,” he says. “I really didn’t like it when people would say, ‘You’re an entertainer, after all.’ I was way too self-serious to appreciate that. It’s only been in the past three records or so, out of seven, that I’ve started to get that impulse. There’s a sense of humor in the songs. I guess it’s entertaining to me.
“I also believe that music made in the taste of the artist making it is the most compelling,” he says. “I don’t ever see myself pandering.”
David Bazan performs with the Headlights and Kissing Cousins at Alex’s Bar, 2913 E. Anaheim St., Long Beach, (562) 434-8292; www.alexsbar.com. Mon., 8 p.m. $10 in advance; $12 at the door. 21+.
This article appeared in print as "Leap of Faith: Former Pedro the Lion leader David Bazangrapples with his Christianity."