Sunday, 20 September 2009
When I was researching for my recent post on the divide in music between sacred and secular, I couldn't help but think of Pedro the Lion. The now defunct band was comprised primarily of David Bazan and a rolling cast of characters including such notables as T.W. Walsh (Headphones), Ben Gibbard (Death Cab for Cutie), and Casey Wescott (Fleet Foxes). Over the years, Bazan has received praise from the independent music scene for his lyrical honesty, covering subject matters such as sexual sin, alcoholism, and loss of faith. Despite these controversial topics, Pedro the Lion was still embraced by some in the Christian community, including the Cornerstone Music Festival, where Bazan and his troupe were invited to play until 2005, when he was removed from the notoriously dry event for being intoxicated, a milk jug full of vodka in his hand.
It wasn't always this way. Bazan is a pastor's son who attended Northwest College, a private Assembly of God school. In a recent interview with eMusic, Bazan denied claims that he just had a bad experience, saying, “my experience with church was pretty positive. I was very serious about my faith. And for me, that meant a lot of thinking outside of the box.... I led songs in Youth Group, I did that in college as well. Church was such a social thing, and I loved that. I read the Bible a lot, and took it at face value and tried to see what it could mean.” Yet despite his intense involvement with church, Bazan couldn't find harmony between his faith life and his sinful nature.
Songwriting, and therefore Pedro the Lion, was both Bazan's outlet and his method of processing the thoughts in his head. The band formed in 1995, releasing their first EP, Whole, on Tooth and Nail Records in 1997. This would be the only release on a Christian record label; the band quickly moved to Jade Tree, on which all four of the band's full-length albums were released. It was a rocky road for the band, one on which Bazan recently told Relevant Magazine his bandmates figuratively “ended up getting chewed up and spit out, one by one.” He goes on to say,“It certainly wasn’t my intention, and I didn’t know why that was happening. I had to step away from that and figure out how I was causing it to happen.”
Pedro the Lion's demise was bitter but sweet. While it allowed for Bazan to renew friendships with his former bandmates, it also drove him down a dark path of alcohol and depression. In her recent article, “The Passion of David Bazan,” former publicist Jessica Hopper describes this time in his life:
Bazan says he tried to Band-Aid his loss of faith and the painful end of Pedro the Lion with about 18 months of "intense" drinking. "If I didn't have responsibilities, if I wasn't watching [my daughter] Ellanor, I had a deep drive to get blacked out," he says. But as he made peace with where he found himself, the compulsion to get obliterated began to wane.
The David Bazan of today is a much more broken, humbled man. He's coming to terms with where he is, as he tells Relevant Magazine, “I perceive that God exists. For whatever reason, that’s a part of my wiring. What I was trying to figure out was Who or What that could be—given the data that is available.... I have a lot more peace about it, even though none of the big questions have been answered for me. I’m a lot more at ease with where I am, and with a lot of things that I do. I’ve run the equations on several of those key issues enough times. I at least know the terrain pretty well and that gives me some comfort. I’m kind of moving ahead being pretty honest with myself or as honest as I can be. And the songs have certainly helped.”
The songs he refers to are those on his first full-length solo album, Curse Your Branches, released on Barsuk Records on September 1, 2009. Part mourning the past and part looking to the future, the album contains some of the most emotionally bare lyrics Bazan has written to date. Quoted from Hopper's article:
This brown liquor wets my tongue
My fingers find the stitches
Firmly back and forth they run
I need no other memory
Of the bits of me I left
When all this lethal drinking
Is hopefully to forget
He follows it with an even more devastating verse, confessing that his efforts to erase God have failed:
I might as well admit it
Like I've even got a choice
The crew have killed the captain
But they still can hear his voice
A shadow on the water
A whisper in the wind
On long walks my with daughter
Who is lately full of questions
The second "about you" comes in late, in a keening falsetto, and those two words carry his entire tangle of feelings—anger, desire, confusion, grief.
Regardless of where your faith may lie, the words and music of David Bazan are heartfelt, honest and pure. He overtly discusses his life, his struggles, and his thoughts of the future with a lyrical delicacy that few songwriters can compare to. While he reaches out, some in the Christian community are reaching back to him, including John Herrin, director of Cornerstone Music Festival, who invited Bazan back to perform for the first time in four years. He told Hopper, “I know David has a long history of being a seeker and trying to navigate through his faith. Cornerstone is open to that.... We welcome plenty of musicians who may not identify themselves as Christians but are artists with an ongoing connection to faith.... We're glad to have him back. We don't give up on people; we don't give up on the kids here who are seeking, trying to figure out what they don't believe and what they do. This festival was built on patience.”
What do you think Christians can or should learn from the words of a man who has lost his faith?