Photo by Dusty Henry
David Bazan, (front), practices with bandmates and Andy Fitts (left) and Alex Westcoat (right).

Old songs, new Bazan

By Dusty Henry

In a dimly lit underground practice space off of Leary Way in Ballard, David Bazan and his band mates Alex Westcoat and Andy Fitts stand in a triangle formation with their instruments and a six-pack of beer in between them.

The room has a lot of history to it; they have practiced and recorded in it for over five years. Vinyl copies of Bazan’s latest solo record, “Strange Negotiations,” can be found sitting on shelves and in corners. Various instruments hang on all the walls.

Bazan and Westcoat discuss how they might want to tackle a drum part on one of their tracks.

“Don’t think twice, it’s alright,” Bazan says with a smirk, quoting Bob Dylan.

The band then starts playing “Magazine,” the sixth track off of Pedro the Lion’s 2002 album Control. The drum-centric track keeps a methodical and industrial-inspired rhythm as Bazan swirls vocal melodies.

“Oh look, you earned your wings,” Bazan sings. “Are you an angel now, or a vulture?”

Pedro the Lion ended in 2005 with a farewell show at The Crocodile. But now, under the solo ‘David Bazan’ moniker, Bazan, Westcoat, and Fitts will play Control straight through on a national tour, with a stop in Seattle at The Neptune on Dec. 15. It also happens to be around the same time Pedro the Lion’s discography is being reissued and re-mastered on vinyl.

There is a complicated history to Pedro the Lion. The group was incorrectly over the years labeled as a Christian group -- a hard stigma to wear off because of Bazan’s once devoted faith. The band’s first EP, “Whole,” was even released on local Christian rock label Tooth and Nail. The band featured religious imagery on most of their releases but never in the orthodox Hillsong United way. Whether it was the doubting lyrics of “Secret of the Easy Yoke” on It’s Hard to Find a Friend or the comparison of an orgasm to Christ’s resurrection in the infidelity-tinged “Rapture” on Control, Pedro was far from conventional. In 2010, however, Bazan declared his agnosticism with his first full-length solo album, Curse Your Branches.

Fewer Moving Parts Means Fewer Broken Pieces

Two hours prior to this rehearsal, Bazan sat down with the Ballard News-Tribune to discuss Pedro the Lion’s career over biscuits and gravy at The Dish on Leary Way. To understand Bazan’s career, it works best to work from the end of Pedro the Lion.

“I needed distance from the machine,” he said. “The rehearsing machine, the touring machine that we’d become. The drinking machine that we had become.”

Bazan started to see the toll the band’s and his own mentality was taking on his relationships -- particularly with the people he played with.

“How are my friends getting chewed up and spit out? That’s not what I want, yet it keeps happening over and over again,” Bazan said. “That’s what I needed to get away from.”

While the Pedro the Lion name ended in 2005, Bazan clarifies that there is not a drastic split in his career between the Pedro the Lion catalogue and his solo material. He’s continued to play Pedro the Lion songs through his solo career and during the band’s ten-year lifespan, Bazan remained the only consistent band member with upwards of 25 different people coming and going as touring members. He likens the breakup to more of a simple name change.

The closest thing to a full-time member the group has had other than Bazan is T.W. Walsh, who was immortalized in the Pedro the Lion song, “Bands With Managers,” which had the climactic line, “I trust T. William Walsh, and I’m not afraid to die.” Walsh also headed up the vinyl re-mastering project and has produced Bazan’s last two solo records.

“Initially (the breakup) was rough because I needed to make a living,” Walsh said in a phone call from Boston. But he said things are good now between the two and their collaborations have gone smoothly.

It’s Good to Have Options

Bazan and his new lineup thought it would be a good idea to promote the vinyl reissues by playing one of the Pedro the Lion albums straight through. Bazan said he felt there was really only one option: Control.

“It’s the only record that I could play every song, that I could stomach playing every song on it,” Bazan said. He would clarify that while It’s Hard to Find A Friend may be his favorite album after going through the re-mastering process, he said half of the songs he can’t play anymore in both topic and instrumentation.

With a catalogue full of reflections on spirituality and religion which do not necessarily align with his current worldview, Bazan said he does sometimes change lyrics so they will be “true now.” For example, in the song “The Fleecing,” he changed the line from “I could tell you why I doubted and why I still believe” to “why I don’t believe.”

Control in itself is a concept record, detailing the story of a man who gets caught up in the corruption of big business, leading to a moral collapse of infidelity, instilling crooked values in his children, prioritizing profits over everything else -- all leading to his eventual murder by his wife. Bazan’s latest solo record Strange Negotiations also deals heavily with the issues of capitalism.

“It’s too bad that we lament the very same things ten years later,” Bazan said.

I Trust T. William Walsh, And I’m Not Afraid to Die

Bazan doesn’t claim to be a staunch audiophile, but he is honest in knowing what he likes and what he thinks sounds good. He carried over this mentality into the re-mastering process.

“I don’t necessarily have the best ears in the business, but I care a lot about (the sound),” Bazan said.

Walsh said that initially the pair tried working on the albums through email and phone calls. After some difficulties trying to understand Bazan’s vision for the project, Bazan opted to fly over to Boston for two days to work with Walsh on the project in person. The two were then able to sit together side-by-side and Bazan could give his input more personally. Walsh said this was much more effective.

“I wanted to do the purist route and change as little as possible,” Walsh said. The original masters had a lot of work done to them with effects so it was difficult to make any radical changes, Walsh said.

Walsh found the project difficult in comparison to his other projects.

“It was kind of challenging, honestly,” he said. “It was hard to be impartial and getting past familiarity.”

Of all the reissues, Bazan said he is pleased with his first album, It’s Hard to Find a Friend, the most. He said he was less self-conscious about what others would think and just followed his impulses.

“The only voices I was listening to were the internal voices,” Bazan said. Hearing feedback from people on later records said it made it harder for him to focus. “Don’t worry about the bullshit,” he recalled telling himself. “Try to make something that you like.”

The only thing he did not like about It’s Hard to Find a Friend is the ending track, “Promise.” The song focuses on God’s promise, with the chorus “is there any reason to be scared when a promise is a promise I know?”

“It’s in a lot of ways a call to deny data; to choose dogma over data which I clearly don’t believe that.”

Walsh felt Achilles’ Heel benefitted most from the re-mastering treatment. Originally the band sent the album to a mastering house but was unhappy with the results. Due to a time crunch, Walsh recalls mastering the whole album within something like an hour, he said.

Walsh and Bazan differ on their feelings about the production on Control. Walsh said it was too distorted for his taste, while Bazan wanted the fuzzy, overblown sound on the record. Walsh said he remembers during the recording of the album, when the engineer would go to the bathroom, Bazan would turn all of the knobs on the board to max levels to get the “pushed to the limit” sound.

The only major Pedro the Lion release to not make the cut in the reissues was the Whole EP. Bazan thinks of the release as “Pre-Pedro” and not in the same category of the other releases. The band has not played songs from the album on the tours in years and didn’t contact the label about masters.

Eye On The Finish Line

Back at the practice space, Bazan stands with his back to Westcoat and Fitts with his eyes closed and striking his Fender Telecaster with every chord. After they finish “Magazine” they immediately play it again. Fitts and Westcoat focus their eyes on Bazan, concentrating on every beat and moving with the groove of the song. Once they finish again, Bazan simply says, “Cool,” with a laugh.

The band communicates with nods as they play through the rest of the album. Bazan at one point suggests Alex play with “slow-core restraint” on the final track “Rejoice.”

“Wouldn’t it be so wonderful if everything were meaningless?” Bazan sings on the song, crooning over chunky reverb-tinged chords. The band finishes and opts for another beer run before they go through the album again.

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