David Bazan’s songs aren’t so much filled with the holy spirit as they are haunted by it.
The Washington-based singer-songwriter made his name in the mid-1990s in Pedro the Lion, a band whose lyrics specifically embraced and reinforced Christian religious themes. At the same time, the music supporting those lyrics wasn’t like anything else happening in that arena. It was impassioned and complex. It was good.
Pedro the Lion was soon playing to people around the country and the world, with matters of faith seeming to have little to do with the band’s success. Bazan was something of an iconoclast, openly vying for the Lord while playing dingy dive bars and Christian music festivals alike.
But like any worthwhile artist, Bazan continued to evolve. Much to the chagrin of the faithful, he came to stop professing Christianity. This is not to say he became an atheist, but that he stopped specifically advocating for the God that so many Pedro the Lion fans worshipped. For some, this was a line in the sand, one of their own going astray. There were quickly two camps: those who cared about the spiritual lives of the people playing the music they loved, and those who were indifferent.
“Faith is a vulnerable thing, not a battle.”
Pedro the Lion came to an amicable split in 2006, with Bazan striking it out on his own. A number of solo releases later, he has further distanced himself from Christianity even though religion pervades a number of his newer songs. Bazan presently tours by performing in people’s living rooms—much smaller, relaxed shows for far fewer people.
To what extent did your religious upbringing influence your decision to write “Christian” music?
Growing up the son of a music pastor, my relationship to music itself was shaped by that pretty dramatically. As evidenced in the tunes, I’m a fairly earnest person. When I was young, that earnestness took the form of communicating the Christian message, to represent my worldview. You grow up in a culture telling you you’re supposed to have it in every song. That way if someone only heard one song, they’d still hear the gospel.
I played to who I played to because I was in that world. It’s where I lived and expressed myself. By the time I started writing It’s Hard to Find a Friend, I was thinking, I don’t want to be in this cultural Christian ghetto anymore, and I had no idea if it was possible to escape it. I felt trapped. I had a deep desire to have a valid voice outside that ghetto.
Looking back, it’s weird because those songs are very concerned with Christianity. I didn’t view them as Christian because they’re not slogans for Christianity. They’re honest interactions with whatever subject matter I was dealing with at the time. It’s easy to have success in the Christian world if you’re any good at all because so much music is so bad and false. To me it is a real feat to escape that world.
How does it become public that a Christian artist is struggling with his faith? Is there a press release involved?
I had very little interaction with the Christian music industry. I was on Tooth and Nail for however long it took to make that EP [1997’s Whole]. I don’t have a lot of experience with what tends to go on in contemporary Christian music. Even though I was on Tooth and Nail, they didn’t manage bands’ images.
CCM [Contemporary Christian music] is very image-driven. The image of the people singing has not that much to do with who they are personally. They might be gay, or drug addicts, or having affairs. Those images are managed by publicists. When it does come out, it’s a scandal. For me, I never would’ve been able to put up with image-making bullshit. One meeting where someone says “Here’s how we want to present you,” it’s “Go fuck yourself.” That’s how I’ll present myself.
What kind of backlash was there when your fans put it together that you no longer identified as Christian?
I got letters in 1997 telling me I was demon-possessed because of the way my lyrics went, a feature of putting out music that Christians were aware of and felt entitled to speak into. Christians are very conservative thinkers in a lot of ways. In most cases they’re very tribal thinkers.
When we toured for Control—that was the album that said “shit” and “fuck”—I had anywhere from five to 25 people come up to me after the shows to tell me what I was doing was wrong. I was still self-identifying as Christian then, and that gave them that much more authority in their minds to confront me. Later, when I stopped professing Christianity, there were a lot of bad people saying terrible things on the Internet, primarily.
“The other thing wrong with Spotify is that it normalizes a certain behavior. You now have instant access to any music you want. It removes a mental barrier that I think is helpful in people understanding how things work.”
My parents were always concerned, though the backlash throughout the years never got to them. When I put out a record, they were concerned about my mental health. It was depressed music to them.
I have had the privilege of meeting the coolest, best humans who call themselves Christians in the world. This is the lottery I’ve won. Extreme goofballs and really uptight close-minded hate-mongering Christians, I just don’t hear from them very much. The worst was when it became a popular trope to say I was a bad father because I abandoned Christianity. In Christianity, the father is the spiritual leader of the house, and I was leading family to hell. But that’s fucking insane and not too difficult to write off.
You were one of the first songwriters to tap into these living room tours and crowdsource these intimate events that cut out all of the middle men. How has the Internet enabled that sort of touring and independence?
I don’t think we could’ve done it without the internet. Now that we have done it, maybe we’ll do it by mail. The whole process would take enormously longer. It’s basically crowdsourcing venues, and ticketing via the internet.
[In the early days of Pedro the Lion], I put in at least a couple years calling home on payphones, using calling cards, certainly in Europe. We had directions on a page. We would spend time printing out Mapquest directions. Sometimes you gotta pull over and call the venue from a payphone. “How do we get there?” Now I’ve got GPS and a smartphone.
Atheism certainly seems to be on the rise online, especially on various subreddits. Do you have a take on how the Internet might be facilitating the decline of religion?
I haven’t spent much time on Reddit. I’m just a tourist there. I can’t claim to know much about that. I appreciate the balance that atheists bring to the table because the conversation has been so one-sided for such a long time. It’s been lopsided in terms of religion dominating and being the most sensible thing. That said, atheists can be fundamentalists too. It’s not great. They’re just fundamentalists about something else. There are a lot of people in the middle whose voices are just my very favorite to lift up and listen to. They are the most sane, I think.
Some of your releases and collaborations are available on SoundCloud but not Spotify. What led to that decision?
The existence of Spotify and how it came to be made me furious. I thought, What can I even do? The labels that owned all these catalogs exploited them one last time. To me that was indicative of the way the music industry is not about music art or love, but about money. Those people aren’t in the same business I’m in. As much as I can, it’s helpful for me to make a distinction there.
The other thing wrong with Spotify is that it normalizes a certain behavior. You now have instant access to any music you want. It removes a mental barrier that I think is helpful in people understanding how things work. If you refuse to participate in the cost of a product you love, you can’t expect those things to continue to be produced. That refusal is extreme entitlement and brattiness. I think ultimately you’re harming music, this thing you claim to love. Spotify is one growing factor in people misunderstanding that relationship.
“To me it is a real feat to escape that world.”
To people saying this is the direction its going, to get on board, I’m going to be a Luddite and say no. If the only way to make money writing songs is to put them on commercials, does this make for more social commentary or less? Peter Paul and Mary put it best: If you really say it, the radio won’t play it. Those dynamics are still at work.
What music has caught your ear lately, artist’s faith be damned?
I have a hard time keeping up. It takes me a while to know what I like. Lately, I love Broncho. They’re a rad band and I really like both records. I’m a really big fan of Angel Olsen. “Benji” by Sun Kil Moon. I am so moved and blown away by their towering genius.
You’ve spent time in both the devout world and the less-than-devout world. What would the Dave of today tell the devout Dave of the past?
I only for a moment thought of myself as an atheist and it didn’t fit for a minute in my brain. I am a navel-gazer. I’ll take a kernel of info or revelation and pore over it mentally and interrogate it endlessly. Knowing specific instances of the devout life well, there isn’t a magic bullet. I think it would have something to do with humility. Faith is a vulnerable thing, not a battle. It’s a hopeful thing and it’s certainly pointed at some object or another. It’s not certainty. If it really is faith, it’s vulnerable and humble.
What I see in the devout these days is militant and devoid of humility, a war-like posture. I don’t know Islam well, but I gotta imagine it’s like Christianity and Buddhism in that if you look at original documents, it’s a call for personal peace, passion, and humility. If somehow you’re not achieving that with whatever your faith is, then you’re fucking up. Stop.
Illustration by J. Longo