In honor of the new records I picked up at Lou’s this weekend I thought I’d post this interview I did with David Bazan a few years ago. He’s a rad gentleman and made for a great interview. Nothing quite beats this line from the song “Penetration,” when describing the music industry.
Cause if it isn’t making dollars
Then it isn’t making sense
If you aren’t moving units
Then you’re not worth the expense
If you really want to make it
You had best remember this
If it isn’t penetration
Then it isn’t worth a kiss
–Pedro the Lion “Penetration” Control
Pedro the Lion was a name of a character songwriter David Bazan lifted from his own rough copy of a children’s book he had set out to write prior to playing music. Pedro the Lion is a band that has chameleon like qualities, changing sonic colors from a simple folksy introductory EP called, Whole, in 1997 to a full fledged rock opus in their latest release, Achilles Heel. The band is made up by auteur David Bazan, whose thoughtful narrative and conceptualizations have made a cross over from typical Christian rock to a well-respected independent act that is proudly housed by Jade Tree Records. Both David and longtime collaborator, TW Walsh have made a clear line of trajectory from the early days of David alone in a room with an acoustic guitar to a full band, touring nationally and receiving critical acclaim from every respected musical outpost.
David comes from a musical background and his life has always had music in it in some shape or form. “My dad is a musician. He was a church music minister and he gave music lessons to supplement our income as we were growing up and he gave my sister and I lessons and my sister continued on with the piano but I stopped taking it in 6th grade. I played clarinet in fourth and fifth grade and started playing drums in school band in 7th grade. I continued to play for the next 6 years or so throughout junior high and high school. Except for a year we lived in Santa Cruz, CA and the junior high didn’t have a school music program. But I tried to play with people that I knew and stuff. By tenth grade I had started playing in rock bands and by the end of tenth grade I had started playing guitar. I guess for about a year I had been playing drums in bands and stuff. That was about 92′ and by 95′ I had started Pedro the Lion. I played in various bands for about three or four years but I was always writing my own songs.”
Some of the benefits of school music David took with him are, “you become familiar with it and you understand the discipline of it. Being in real life music situations on a regular basis really helps you and helps you to become a better musician. What I’ve found that I’m good at is a rhythm because I don’t have a really keen sense of melody. I have to know what I’m doing to do it. I’m not one of these guys that can just pick up a guitar and just make crazy music with it that I have no idea of what I’m doing. School music gave me a good foundation for rhythm that has helped me.”
PTL’s first few records, Winners Never Quit, Progress and 2002’s Control are conceptualized albums about morality, faith, redemption and life all told in a beautiful laconic voice with simple and cohesive instrumentation. However, Achilles Heel is a rock record and according to David, he purposely, “decided not to do that (concept album) after the release of Winners but happened upon it while doing Control. It was sort of just in the heat of the moment that it went that way. I’m just sort of learning about making art and how to do it and I’m slowly learning inspiration and discipline. Trying on hats I suppose and trying to figure out all the different ways it could go. You know because its songwriting based and not sound or band based. This one came about the way that it did mainly because there is a band in place and it wasn’t just me. The songs being the biggest part of it but the sound being important as well.
Like many singer songwriters, there is a fine line between the heavy-handed and the ambiguous, for Pedro The Lion each song and subsequent album can have different meanings to different people. As a songwriter, David knows what he is talking about; his thoughts and lyrics come from a personal place and he leaves it up to his fans to decide what they take from his songs, hopefully to make their own conclusions about what the songs may mean. “There’s value in ambiguity. It’s inevitable that some ambiguity will come from the songs. You can make it as clear as you can possibly make it and people are going to interpret it differently. I have an interpretation of my own and I know what I meant to say and it boils down to my interpretation verses what other people interpret as it is.”
Like most artists, David is in a constant state of evolution with the way he writes, “Usually, or at least in the past it starts with me sitting down with a guitar. You sit down and start playing and that’s kind of how it begins. Sometimes I’ll sit down with a notebook and do some free writing. Usually that way a few lyrics will come out intact or a few jumping off points. I used to come at from a more conceptual angel where I would have an idea about a song and I would try and write around that. I would sort of see the beginning and the end, or the bait and the switch, its not that formulaic but a song usually has an arc to it as far as how much information you give right off the bat. The idea or the character develops from there. I used to start with a concept and then write it. But I have enjoyed, on this album, not doing that as much just letting the song take whatever shape its going to. Usually your subconscious knows the formula and knows what works and what doesn’t. So it does what sounds good at that moment.”
Composing songs is no easy feat, composing good songs is even harder. Luckily, David isn’t short on intrinsic talent, his years spent learning music and his musical background and strong understanding of rhythm make it easier for him but it’s not a cakewalk either. On the length of time it takes David to write a song, he says, “I think the shortest is two or three hours. I don’t know exactly if the song took 11 hours or something. I don’t really keep track of how long the process takes.”
It is a bit of a process and everyone who takes part in making music has a their own personalized way of approaching it. For some, inspiration comes from news, personal life or an over active imagination, for David its not so much a ritual as it is an approach. Like landing an aircraft or putting a puzzle together, it takes a considerable amount of skill to compose a cohesive and engaging song, David manages to do this consistently through hard work and diligence. “Sometimes you just have to sit with a song for a long period of time for it to start to make sense. You can work on it for like an hour a day and then come back to it after a couple weeks and you have a better perspective of it.”
Being part of a functioning and working band takes practice. Since Control, with its full backing of musicians, the transition from single musician to a member of a band was easier for David. The reason of course was his time spent in school band where he learned key aspects like, “Listening is a big one. Being able to do what you’re doing and listen carefully to what everyone else is doing. In jazz band and drum line or any kind of ensemble situation at school or in drum lessons, they always emphasized the importance of having big ears. You’re trying to blend. That was a really big lesson. Trying to be good at what you are doing and also understanding that you are part of unit and knowing that unit is important is also a big part of playing with others.”
‘This is how we mutlitply…’