David Bazan Goes Home Again With Pedro The Lion’s Latest
For some of us, the concept of home is simple: it’s our town, our family or a carefully curated house. For singer-songwriter David Bazan, however, home has always been a question mark. And not only because he moved around a lot as a kid.
In order to provide an answer to that question, Bazan returned to his Pedro the Lion moniker after 15 years to create a suite of records about the various places he has inhabited over the years, the first being Phoenix (out January 18 via Polyvinyl). He lived in the titular Arizona town for the first 12 years of his life.
“These records are a process of trying to find home,” Bazan tells TIDAL. “And Pedro the Lion is also a home of mine that I had kind of vacated for a long time. Pedro is just that kind of home spot.”
Bazan launched his Pedro the Lion project in mid-‘90s Seattle, releasing four albums that interrogated the singer-songwriter’s oft-conflicted religious beliefs. For most of Pedro’s life, Bazan acted as the main architect of the project, arranging and writing each song, and then a cast of rotating band members picked up their instruments and played. When he returned to the name more than a decade later, he also returned to this method of music-making.
“I found so much joy working this way,” Bazan says in a release. “At the same time, I was also aware that not everyone wanted to play in a band where the singer wrote all the parts and might perform them on the record. …Being insecure and wanting to find camaraderie, I became conflicted about my natural process.”
That insecurity, along with a rotating door of band members, finally got to Bazan, and, in 2005, he went solo — which proved to be even more tumultuous, as the musician was constantly on tour and found himself retreating into the bottle to cope. It was on one of those solo tours, in 2016, that he found himself back in Phoenix, staying at his grandparents’ house and feeling low. He had recently quit drinking, and being back in the place he had spent his early childhood was awakening all kinds of old ghosts that he had yet to exorcise: shame, loneliness, a disconnect with his family’s God.
“Why did I feel all this longing?” Bazan says of his trip back home. “Why do I feel like I have no control over how I feel when I’m down here? I had so many unprocessed hurts from this place.” Instead of shying away from those feelings, as he had done for decades, he decided to funnel them into song.
From there, he started working on what would be become Phoenix, an album that finds Bazan young and lonely, wishing for a companion (“Yellow Bike”), contemplating the American Dream (“Model Homes”) and facing the darkness of his hometown via a gruesome accident (“Black Canyon”). Religion recurs frequently, the big questions standing side by side with a young Bazan, bereft because he spent all his allowance at the Circle K. He spent still more time at his grandparents’ as a form of research for the record, driving around in the early dawn and late evening, jotting down notes as he rolled by the shopping centers and places of worship of his youth.
And Phoenix is only the first in a series of self-reflections through music; Bazan plans to also write records about former hometowns Lake Havasu City, Arizona; Santa Cruz, California; Paradise, California; and, finally, the sometimes-intangible concept of home.
Read on for more about Phoenix, religious shame and post-dawn drives through the Magic Hour.
Do you see this series as an autobiography in locations?
Yeah, that’s a great way to talk about it. An autobiography of locations and themes. Traumatic events that we experience as kids, or events that are overwhelming that we didn’t know how to process. Those are sort of like departures from the path that we want to be on or a path that we can be on once we contextualize those things. I’m saying it in a goofy way, but it’s basically going back and unpacking different events, even if I’m just representing the event loosely in terms of what the facts of the story are.
Some of the songs might be very directly autobiographical in certain ways, but the important part to me is that I’m dealing with these themes. It’s kind of a trail of breadcrumbs. There’s a sense that we can become strangers to ourselves and I have done that and I’m trying to go back and make friends.
You weren’t in Phoenix for that long — 12 years. Seems like it made a pretty big impact on you.
Part of the impact of it was that as soon as we moved, it was kind of frozen in amber for a lot of reasons. But one reason was that the culture I grew up in wasn’t one that was very good at processing feelings or taking feelings seriously.
It would have been great if there had been someone to pull that little 9-, 10-, 11-year-old kid aside and be like, ‘Yo, man, this is come heavy stuff. You don’t have the tools to deal with this, so it’s OK to feel this way.’ Just validating the feelings that I was having. All of it was formative for me.
In Phoenix, I had all of my innocent, childhood experiences. I was a pretty engaged little dude. Pretty turned on by the world, therefore also kind of easily hurt. [Where I lived] started off as something to launch into and write about, and then for me it turned out to be such good fodder for the kind of songwriting that I’m interested in doing.
When you sat down to write specifically about those years, did you dredge up memories or feelings that you had forgotten about?
Absolutely. The record was the beginning of the process for me, the broad strokes of the process that is kind of continuing apart from the record. Just personally, it was a way for me to open myself up to a lot of memories that I was probably keeping at bay, because they were maybe too painful or I didn’t really know how to process them.
Part of it is that this is the first time in my life that I’ve had enough kindness and compassion for myself where I could even think about these things without being overwhelmed by shame and self-loathing. I was more open to processing that shame than I had been previously.
That’s interesting that you say ‘shame.’ You don’t think of a lot of 9-, 10-, 12-year-olds as having that much shame yet.
I did. Part of it was evangelical Christianity and the messages that I specifically took from it. In that context, everything was about your relationship with God and the possibilities of all that. By the time I was 5, I just knew that I wasn’t really worthy of a relationship with God. I was really plagued by that lack of connection and wondering how to bridge that gap. I spent a lot of years after that trying to understand that and having my experience defined by that.
Catholicism is pretty famous for instilling guilt, otherwise known as shame. And evangelical Christianity has its own various ways of putting shame into a small child.
In a child’s world, everything is sort of the same size. It was interesting to me how you had all scales on the album: from a bike to a gruesome car crash. How did you choose those macro and micro moments?
A lot of that was intuition. The car crash, that whole gruesome scene, that was just a story from my childhood. Phoenix is a kind of a brutal place. It’s extreme in so many ways. There’s a lot of more road rage, there’s home invasions; it’s a slightly more dangerous place. I wanted to represent my experience with that, but not just talk shit about Phoenix, because I love it. I wanted to represent it all. So that song, that story struck me as the way I might be able to do that.
There’s a lot of respect and attention in the telling of the story for my uncle and his colleagues, even if the guy colleague was expressing a pretty scandalous version of the humor that is, of course, common in emergency services settings. That story connected with some of the other scenes that were going on in the record already, but took it to its most extreme place. I wanted there to be some kind of climax like that, and also enough darkness at a certain point in the record where the darkness that I feel in my Phoenix, the wrestling that I’m still doing with some of that, would make sense — or have a context.
Basically, looking at all the different memories and all the resonant moments that were coming to my mind as I would drive around the town — certain of them just turned into hooks more easily than others. Beyond that, certain hooks seemed to have a place in a bigger narrative in a way that just flowed better.
A visit to Phoenix spurred the idea for this record. Will you visit all the other locations as well?
The process is that I go there and I drive around during the morning Golden Hour or Magic Hour and the evening Magic Hour; those parts of the day I must be out on the road driving the routes that are familiar to me from my time there. Usually from that, a ton of helpful things flow both mood-wise for the tone of the song and memories and themes that those memories link up to.
Being there helps me make choices and think about instrumentation, the density of the parts and the tone of everything in a way that feels very specific to actually going there and just soaking in the feeling of the place.
Does it feel strange to come home again when it comes to this project, to Pedro the Lion?
I’m learning that our true sense of home and belonging has to come from ourselves in a way that I didn’t have the skills to do before. So there’s familiarity, allowing myself to interact with old recipes that used to define me that I had put on the shelf for a long time. In a sense it feels like, ‘Yeah, I can come home. I can use those old recipes alongside all of the new recipes that I’ve developed over the years.’
So there’s a comfort and a homecoming there, but also a realization that that itself isn’t home, but I can use those experiences to help me understand what home really is. It isn’t a place. It isn’t even people. It’s you.
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