Interview with David Bazan
On a sweaty June night, in the Byward Market of the Nation's Capital,
I had the chance to chat with someone who I've wanted to interview
for a long time - David Bazan. Due to his insane touring schedule and
rigorous work ethic, he is a hard man to track down (as I've been trying
for years). Last Wednesday, David and I popped into Minglewoods
as he had a window of minutes before playing live at Mavericks just
down the street. Bazan is no stranger to honesty (both in his songwriting
and in his speech) and we talked about everything under the sun; politics
fundamentalism, Christianity, 9/11, recording techniques and Pitchfork
Magazine. Bazan's newest record Strange Negotiations was released
on May 24th, 2011.
AndTheHits: What started you down the road of music?
David Bazan: Well, from an early age, I grew up going to church and my dad was a music pastor, and my parents were always pretty musical, so it all just sort of influenced me.
ATH: I’ve been chronicling your work and your interviews for quite some time – Do you get tired of people asking you the ‘Christian’ question or where you stand from a faith perspective?
DB: No, no – it doesn’t bother me at all. I mean, it only really comes up with people who are interested. And it’s something I’ve been interested in for a while. My friend Jessica Hopper wrote a piece in the Chicago Reader about ‘elevating the conversation’ and I think it’s a topic that many of us are interested in.
ATH: Is Level With Yourself about coming to grips with losing faith and being alright with it – or just being okay with you are?
DB: In general, I feel like it transcends the faith question and that it’s more just about what the title says and being honest with yourself. Ya know – quit stopping trying to spin things for your own benefit. That’s a big theme on the record – be honest with yourself, take stock of your good and bad actions and submit to the consequences of your bad actions.
ATH: Are there some themes of patriotism and American politics in Wolves At Your Door?
DB: Well it’s politics in the sense that I said in a blurb ‘working class, free-market fundamentalists misunderstand the world in the same way that the Grizzly man misunderstood bears’. They’ll fuck around with you for a minute but eventually, they’re just gonna kill you and eat you. They’re not on your side – they’re not gonna take care of you. When you finally help them achieve ultimate power, it's over. People put their trust in the type of people who couldn’t give the smallest shit about them. We’ll fire them and their families from a job they’ve been faithful to for years and years just to make a buck. What has passed for patriotism in the USA over the last 10 years, I feel like Wolves At Your Door is anti that.
ATH: Talk about your recording techniques on Strange Negotiations – your drums always sound really deep, thunderous and big. Are they recorded to tape or digitally or both?
DB: Well ya know, I like to make drums sound a certain way. I had help this time – I had an engineer friend doing the engineering, but in the recording process, I had Alex (the drummer) not play a lot of cymbals so we could really blow up the drum mics. Because when you add cymbals, it just makes it that much harder to add compression and distortion the whole thing. I’ve just picked up a lot of tips over the years. A lot of times, if you have a really compressed drum sound and you go to the chorus and the drummer is just bashing on the cymbal (*makes ssshhh cymbal noise), it just washes everything out. Some of it is also about writing drum parts in such a way that they’ll record well. But I really do like distortion and compression on drums…a lot.
ATH: Is it tape or digital?
DB: It’s been all digital for a little while. I do like tape and I will probably make a record on tape pretty soon, but it’s just so damned expensive. We’re usually just maximizing whatever money we have to record the thing. I’d rather pay the guys a decent wage while they’re working as opposed to spending it all on 60 minutes of 2 inch reel tape.
ATH: At times on Strange Negotiations, it sounds like you are really pushing your voice (especially in ‘Eating Paper’) and the effect is pretty powerful. Was that a painful experience or did the songs just come out that way?
DB: They did just kinda come out that way, although, by the time we got done with the recording, and I was cutting some of the vocals, I had very little voice left. And so there’s a passage in Eating Paper where I get pretty agro and I was like ‘Okay – I’m recording this vocal now and if I go all the way there, I might not be able to sing for the next couple of days’ because I was already really hoarse. Level With Yourself and People also came at the very end and I finished Level and thought ‘Do I have enough left for People?’ because we were gonna mix the whole record overnight, basically.
ATH: I should mention that Eating Paper is one of my favourite tracks on the new record, for sure.
DB: Dude – thanks a lot! I wrote that with my friend Jason Martin who used to be in a band called Starflyer 59. My friend David came up with the repetitive piano riff and it’s almost Dr. Dre-sounding, in a way.
ATH: Seeing you in Toronto last year, you played bass live but you play everything on the recordings. Is there any reason you chose to play bass in a live setting?
DB: Well, now I’m back to guitar. There was a lot of uncertainty and anxiety about having a band again. A part of my frustration in being in Pedro The Lion was because I really hated myself on the guitar. I was so limited – my playing was so limited. And it has improved but basically I hit this ceiling of what I could express because my skill level was so low and I felt like with the new band, on bass, I could express more things with the amount of skill I had. So I started with bass last year - I didn’t want to get back into that self-loathing cycle of playing guitar. But I’ve eased back into playing guitar. Pedro was always me on guitar – but with this band, we had 2 guitarists for a while. Now, it’s back to only me on guitar but I’m enjoying it a lot more.
ATH: Paste Magazine said ‘Bazan is one of the most nakedly confessional writers since the Laurel Canyon heyday of Jackson Browne and Joni Mitchell and he rocks a lot harder than both’. Do you have any thoughts on that quote?
DB: That’s really neat. That tradition of songwriters is pretty profound, I think, and just to be doing the same vocation and the same craft as some of those people, even if I’m not doing it at the same level, it’s an honour to be a songwriter. Just to be a part of that in any small way is pretty humbling and just makes me feel proud. As far as rocking, when I was 14 or 15 I got into Fugazi and they are still one of my favourite bands. There’s something about really emphatic music that works really well with my tastes. Ya know, I sometimes wonder ‘why not be more mellow?’ but I don’t think I’m as nuanced as an expresser of music at this point. For me, it’s about bashing it out.
ATH: People have debated your faith separation for a long time and some say ‘Curse Your Branches’ was the lynchpin, but to me, even ‘Control’ was a beginning of that back in 2002. Was writing ‘Control’ a pivotal point in your life?
DB: Uh, not necessarily. It reflected a shift that happened for me – but it was a political shift. Right as I was finishing ‘Winners’ in 2000, the WTO riots had just finished up in Seattle and I had a bit of a political awakening that was reflected in Control. When I had that awakening, and I was reading some books and realizing there was actually a left wing that I wasn’t even aware of (left of the democratic party in the US), I thought ‘I want my next record to be very political’ – but then I realized that I didn’t want to hit it so on the nose. So I thought ‘I’ll absorb all of the ideas and just let it all come out’. And then 9/11 happened as I was finishing up Control, and I had this sense that I wanted it to feel like Pinkerton by Weezer in a sonic sense. I wanted it to sound really dirty and raw. And I had these other things I wanted to express like social commentary but what I wanted it to capture was the tension of that time in my life – where there was a political tension that was so strong and unbreakable. And so that’s what I wanted to achieve. But I think the faith shift you’re hinting at didn’t come until later – like 2003 or 2004. In 2004 and 2005, the big dominoes started to fall.
ATH: Did you ever read the pitchfork review of ‘Backwoods Nation’? And did you find it ironic that the song ‘Selling Advertising’, which basically bashes the marketing world, seemed to piss off the writer greatly?
DB: Well ya know, the song ‘Selling Advertising’ was actually directly geared to Ryan Schreiber – the guy who ran Pitchfork for years. He was the first editor in chief and he started it all. I mean, with the Pitchfork review of ‘Winners’ and ‘Control’ and ‘Achilles Heel’, it became clear that there was sort of an editorial agenda – and every time they wrote about me, they were just taking hypocritical cheap swipes at me. So eventually, that song came falling out.