The Thirsty 7 with David Bazan

By: Brandon Forbes

Singer-songwriter David Bazan released a solo record last fall which marked the death knell of Pedro the Lion, his more famous musical alter ego. After eight years of recording under that moniker, Bazan has started out fresh under his own name with an EP that finds him continuing in his role as both critical storyteller and indie rock purveyor. Fewer Moving Parts, which showcases art work from former Low bassist Zak Sally, juxtaposes five new “plugged” songs with their unplugged versions. Opener “Selling Advertising” blasts shoddy music journalism in the blogosphere with squealing synths, while the driving “How I Remember” recalls the harder moments of 2002’s Control. “Fewer Broken Pieces” harkens to the dissolution of Pedro the Lion with Bazan’s classic mocking tones: “I still run the show, don’t you forget it.” Synth-heavy “Cold Beer and Cigarettes” is one of Bazan’s darkest stories yet, and longtime tour favorite “Backwoods Nation” closes out the disc with a scathing critique of post-9/11 America.

I was able to sit down with David after a recent solo acoustic date in Chicago and ask him about the future of his songwriting, his political turn, and how Bob Costas made it on the EP.

Is the Fewer Moving Parts EP a taste of things to come? When are you planning on releasing a new full length and will you continue to feature dual versions of each song?

Hopefully I’ll be releasing a full length with Jade Tree in the late spring of this year. They should all be new songs. Unless I run out of ideas, that is. I’ve put shitty ideas on records before and I don’t know what would stop me from doing that again. (Laughs) At this point, I think I’ll keep the dual electric/acoustic versions with the Fewer Moving Parts EP only. I know Pitchfork has said that they sound too similar, so why the hell did I put them on there, but I think there are some subtle differences. It’s not only the instrumentation difference, but also how the instrumentation affects the vocals, and a couple of little arrangement changes. Plus I had planned on doing the solo acoustic tour before the EP came out and I wanted everyone who was going to come out to get a taste of what that was going to be like. In the future, I probably won’t put them on the same record. Maybe I’ll release them online separately.

On the Headphones project, where you used synths rather than guitars, did you find that your songwriting approach changed dramatically? Will there be another Headphones record?

With Headphones I composed everything on the piano or synthesizer. I’m actually going to move away from the guitar with my live shows and more toward the piano from here on out. I really don’t get a lot of joy out of playing the guitar and I’m not that great at it. I think of myself more as a songwriter and not a performance artist. Any amount of proficiency you get in the piano doesn’t deteriorate into wanking or masturbation onstage like it does with the guitar. It’s more about the study of song and how song works. You start paying a lot more attention to chord relationships. I just feel like it’s a better medium for the way my brain works.

I’m going to do a couple of David Bazan records before I get back into Headphones. I’d like to work a few years on building up the brand again, so to speak, before I put out another Headphones record because it really didn’t sell that well. Depending on what happens, Headphones may have just been the link between Pedro and Bazan.

The song “Fewer Broken Pieces” seems to be about the demise of Pedro the Lion. Could you talk a little bit about this song and its enigmatic mention of David Byrne’s appearance on Bob Costas’ talk show?

It is a rather earnest song, but I actually wrote the first verse and chorus before Pedro broke up as a riff on myself relative to my previous failures with other band members. I finished the song after the break up so the second verse is more truly about the band’s demise. So about David Byrne: he was performing that song “Glass, Concrete, and Stone” from a solo record of his that came out a few years ago on the Costas show and it was one of those bizarre things where I was flipping through the channels and there he was talking to Bob Costas. And Costas asked the inevitable question about the Talking Heads getting back together and he was like “Nope, there’s no way.” So when I wrote “Fewer Broken Pieces” and the lyrics “I still run the show,” I was thinking about that interview.

There are oftentimes sinister, broken characters and dark themes that appear in your songs. Tracks like “Coffee & Cigarettes” and “How I Remember” especially have some disturbing themes and shady characters. In telling these stories, are you aiming for cultural and social criticism or just telling a story?

My album Control was the depths of darkness in an almost monochromatic way. I would say that’s definitely my darkest record. You know, I think a lot of times the best way to do social or religious criticism is through fiction. I think of Flannery O’Conner in this respect. I never really think when I’m writing about fiction versus non-fiction – I just write what comes out. I know the more popular style of American songwriting is autobiographical, and I’ve adopted the tone of that in some ways, a sort of earnest sincerity, but I’ve dropped the autobiography. But I think that writing fiction can almost be more revealing of yourself than nonfiction in the sense that it’s more revelatory of how you think about more than just the events that have happened to you personally. It’s all the accumulation of the movies you’ve seen, and the books you’ve read, and the albums you’ve listened to, and the girls that you’ve encountered. There’s so much more of you that doesn’t get a voice if you stick to autobiography and only let the swirling mass of your true history ooze out a little bit at a time.

Thankfully, I haven’t ever propositioned the cashier at a store and had security called, like in “Coffee & Cigarettes”, but it’s a really interesting scene to me. It doesn’t have anything to do with my actual circumstances, but I could see a different me at a different time doing something like that. It’s more about you as an author empathizing with your characters. As far as “How I Remember” goes, it seems to me that it’s more of a Jekyl and Hyde kind of story about a guy who’s doing all these things without realizing it and then finding these women in these sinister positions and not knowing how it happened. Both of these songs are more heavy-handed and complicated than the other three songs on the EP.

“Selling Advertising” seems to be a harsh condemnation on “hipster journalism,” à la Pitchfork. Care to elaborate?

The song is very tongue in cheek, which is part of the fun of it for me. There’s been some controversy over the song, especially involving Pitchfork. Some of the people over at Pitchfork got really upset over the line “Am I a Christian, are you a Jew” thinking that I was making a religious or racial slur. For me the gag is that they have a pretty consistent way of tagging and branding things in a certain way – kind of like Karl Rove – that pigeonholes you, and then when you call them on it they’re like “You’re taking this way too seriously.” In one review, Ryan Schreiber suggested that putting out a cover of Radiohead’s “Let Down” was an attempt to rally our waning fanbase, as if to suggest our fans were deserting us, when in fact the turn outs at the shows were higher than they’d ever been and the record was selling higher than any previous one. So it was really a statement based on nothing factual, but it was couched in such a way as to influence people to jump off the bandwagon. So I think that in this day and age if someone insists that they should not be put into a certain category and you continually place them in that category based on a few surface assumptions and then let it stick, it’s clearly an attempt to be dismissive of that person’s work.

The joke about being Christian versus Jewish was a riff on Schreiber, saying, like, “Is your name Jewish?” and if it is, do we have to re-hash the whole religious debate over and over again about the Jews killing Jesus etc. Of course all of this is based on the premise that I’m coming from a position of Christianity, which is how they’ve categorized me. It’s funny how they laud bands for being nuanced or approaching music in a complex, splintered fashion, yet champion this categorical view of the world by making these Karl Rove, axiom-like judgments: “We champion underground bands you’ve never heard of.” And, of course, there can be no room for complexity in these judgments. I wrote an email to Brent DiCrescenzo, the guy who reviewed Winners Never Quit, because his review was basically an ad hominem attack.

Maybe these writers aren’t journalists and have never been to school for it, but they need to take into account logic and logical fallacies because these are important and fundamental terms to know if you’re writing for a public audience in a manner that is supposed to be fact-based. He responded that I was just reacting to a negative review, but I respect and am interested in negative reviews that are based on actual criticism like “This song is boring” or “The acoustic guitar playing is poor.” But people doing poor journalism in an influential way is not cool, in fact, it’s really despicable.

So anyway, they got really upset about my mentioning the Jewish thing which, in reality, was really the most satisfying response because it really proved that they couldn’t take their own medicine. I mean they do this all day long to me and other artists and if there is any hint about a response back they lose it. And then to misinterpret the song as me really doing the same thing of being intolerant instead of just suggesting the fact that “Isn’t religious intolerance a similar thing?” Anyway, more people need to tell lazy, sloppy journalists to go fuck themselves.

Zak Sally, Low’s former bassist and current indie publisher, did the art work for the EP. How did you get involved with him on this project?

We had done a lot of touring with Low before he left the band and then after he left he was doing a lot of work with his publishing company La Mano 21. He did a book tour but he was so embarrassed to do a book tour that he asked his friends in each town that he knew to come and play. So he spent a couple of days in Seattle for book signings and I played for him and that’s when we decided to collaborate together on the EP artwork. I actually fought him on the existing cover but he was like, “No, sorry, this is the cover.” But after a lot of discussion, I got him to change the eyes a little bit. When he sent it to me I could tell that he had just whitened some things out and re-drawn a little bit and I was like, “Wasn’t this a Photoshop thing?” And he was like, “No, I drew it on paper and scanned the whole thing in.” So then I was like, “Man, I am so sorry I made you change anything.” So we just ended up meeting in the middle with his changes and I think it turned out sweet.

You seem to have moved to a place of political criticism more than religious criticism as is evidenced by “Backwoods Nation.” Do you see yourself more interested in political topics now than religious ones?

Even before 9/11, the WTO riots in Seattle really got me paying attention to leftist politics for the first time, or at least left of the Republican-Democrat divide. In just a matter of two or three weeks I read all these books and everything changed. After 9/11, I was just so heartbroken by the US response, I was like, “Oh right, of course that’s what we do.” I did write “Backwoods Nation” three days after 9/11 but didn’t see fit to put it on Control. That record was already done. We tried to put it on Achilles Heel, but we decided that it just didn’t fit on that record. Up against the 1 & 3 songs on this latest EP, though, I feel it fits in with the dark mood. I mean, this song isn’t meant to be a political paper or thesis statement, but I was just fucking furious about what had happened and it’s an expression of my rage on September 14, 2001. We were on tour then, and driving around the country we saw all these horrific bumper stickers and the most overtly racist comments I’d ever seen on bathroom walls. That, coupled with hearing conversations in restaurants and seeing everybody waving the American flag, I felt like it was absolutely a fascist moment. I was on the phone with my wife the whole time and she could feel it too and she was like, “I really think we should move to Canada because I don’t want our children to fight and die for these things we don’t believe in.” In retrospect, I kind of wish I had just pulled a Neil Young and put out the song immediately, like the week after 9/11 happened. But, unfortunately, the way things now are still so politically terrible, like the whole issue with Iran, it seems just as applicable.

All opinions expressed by Brandon Forbes are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.

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