At the age of 12, Pedro the Lion founder David Bazan’s family moved from his childhood home of Phoenix, Arizona. The first of several family moves, the experience turned out to be a major disruption that would impact his ability to attach in relationships, as well as in planting geographic roots. To this day, the singer-songwriter/multi-instrumentalist is haunted by a lingering and pervasive sense of dislocation.
In both his work as the driving force behind Pedro the Lion and his solo career, however, those feelings have mostly taken a backseat to his struggle against his Christian upbringing. But on Phoenix, religion recedes into a more neutral, even fond backround element as Bazan revisits his childhood home in a love letter — albeit one fraught with tension — to the city, the people he grew up with, and the wounded child he never quite came to terms with. The opening installment in a series of five albums, each to be named after a town Bazan has resided in, Phoenix appropriately enough also marks a return from the ashes, as the first album under the Pedro the Lion banner since 2004’s Achilles Heel.
On a call to Billboard days before the new album’s release, Bazan talked at length about where he’s been and where he’s headed. Read a condensed version of the conversation below.
On December 31st, 2017, you tweeted that you were starting a drive through the desert listening to an audiobook of Warren Zanes’ Tom Petty biography, on your way to start writing what would become your new album Phoenix. How much of a shadow does Tom Petty’s cast on the songs?
Evidence suggests that Tom Petty might’ve said that his songs weren’t autobiographical. In the book, his oldest daughter says that they were very much autobiographical, but that he just didn’t realize it. I understood my own emotions through his music so much that I just assumed he understood his own emotions that way too. So it helped me recognize that I’ve also done that — I’ve tried to be open and available to my feelings, but there are just some feelings that are too difficult to live on the surface. And they’ve been expressed primarily through songwriting in a way that I didn’t fully appreciate until I listened to that book.
There’s a specific anedcote in the book where, on the record Wildflowers, the title track is a whole series of kindnesses — “You belong among the wildflowers / You belong in a boat out at sea / with your love on your arm / somewhere you feel free.” His therapist, apparently, said “Hey, do you know who this song is [sung] to? I think I do, but I’m curious what you think.” And Tom was like, “No, I don’t know.” And the therapist said, “It’s to you, man. You wrote the song to yourself.” That song is a really vulnerable and profound expression of self-kindness, so when I saw it in that new light, it gave me a capacity to allow that kind of kindness in to myself via a song. It put me in a good headspace self-kindness wise, which was going to be really necessary for the process of mining the memories for this record.
So, as much as you’ve directly delved inward in your own catalog, there have been things you’ve touched on that weren’t necessarily clear to you?
Yeah. People would say, “Why are your jams such a bummer all the time?” [Laughs.] And I’d say, “I don’t know. I’m a fun guy, I like havin’ fun.” Part of the process of these records is recognizing that, like so many people, I started hiding my various hurts away, especially once we started moving to all these different towns. But it was like Tom Petty’s own relationship with his lyrics. He seems from his lyrics like he was this very emotionally literate person the whole time, but it turns out he really wasn’t until later!
So we can say the same thing about your records — “He seemed so emotionally literate!”
[Laughs.] I guess it’s more complex than “is” or “isn’t.” Sensitivity is allowed in songwriting — it’s a must. But in the rest [of life], it might just be too painful to be sensitive in that way. So there is an emotional literacy that I can claim that I look back on and think, “Yeah, you were doing the work,” but it was all coming by way of my subconscious. My conscious mind was a little bit more of a dumb-dumb than I was probably giving it credit for.
There have been past Pedro the Lion songs inspired by your your paramedic uncle. You were 10 years old when you first heard his gruesome story of a man committing suicide by stepping in front of a truck, which you sing about on the new song “Black Canyon.” But hearing that story isn’t actually one of the traumas you address on the record.
The trick with that song is that the story we heard as a kid was identical to [what’s in the song], but the tone was much different. He didn’t dwell on the specifics of the accident. He was telling it among other stories where these messed-up things happen, but the paramedics are conditioned to find humor in things. When I first wrote the song, I wrote a different melody with these almost… jaunty chords. It wasn’t dark. It had this kind of jovial tone that was almost tongue-in-cheek, but not quite. I realized that [listeners] needed to understand that I understood that this [event] was fucked up. There needed to be cues.
[My family] would tell stories of them growing up, and some would have a little bit of a brutality to them. It was just a more brutal time. Schoolbus experiences that my mom had, for example, are just really shocking to me in context [now]. Like, ‘Wow, there’s just abuse that no grownups do anything about.’ But [for us it was like] ‘Oh, that’s just what her experience was.’ That “Black Canyon” story was from when we’d have dinner and everyone shared stories. It was easily the most gruesome one, but even then my uncle’s buddy was like a comedian. We knew it was messed-up — there’s a real angst [when I sing the line] “Come on Ray/ we can save him” — but when we heard it, it was funny.
So yeah, it was an extremely fond memory of bonding with my family — my uncle, my aunt, my grandpa, my mom, me and my other cousins. For me, the story has a familial warmth. But it took me a really long time to find the right context for the song, the lyrics, and the story to live on the record. I started that one on the trip you mentioned earlier. It was the first one I started and it was almost the last one to get sorted out.
How much effort are you planning to make so that the albums in this series are distinct from each other musically, not just thematically?
Huge. That was a really big consideration for Phoenix. I wanted a record that represented how that place feels to me. On the vinyl, it’s on three sides, and the fourth side is an etching of the map of Phoenix, where you can see the grid that the whole place is based on. There’s a desert feeling there, and there’s a civilization-in-the-middle-of-the-desert feeling that I was hoping to somehow capture. Phoenix turns slick if you’re downtown and then it’s real sunburnt in other places. And it’s strip malls. It’s all these things.
[Lake] Havasu [by contrast] is this tiny, suburban weirdo place in this vast, desolate wilderness, also in the desert. It’ll have a much different — but still desert — kind of feeling. And then Santa Cruz and Paradise are in the mountains in the woods, and one of them’s by the ocean, so that’s going to have a different kind of density. [The album] Havasu, as it’s turning out, will likely have a very deconstructed kind of sound, because of where [the town] is. I’m going to these places to collect memories, but also to collect the feeling — how the music might reflect each space. That’s a really big deal to me. I want to be able to go to these places and put on the record and drive around and feel like the music is perfect for my feelings about it.
So it sounds like you’re underway, at least on the next one.
Yeah. I’ve had to be working with a thematic outline for the whole series, to some degree. It’s somewhat loose, but I am actively working on the songs for Havasu now. I’m also looking forward to the shows because we’ve taken video of Phoenix hoping to capture the light at the various times of day that the songs are set in. So there’s another sense in which I want the sound of the music and the place to work together, because there will be video behind us of these places onstage. That’s one of the beautiful things about the desert, that the light is easier to capture than in other places. The sky is just massive. These places contain magic, and I want to show people some of their beauty.
You’ve been an avid adopter of the living room-concert model of touring. How do you forecast its future?
As long as the Internet stays similar to what it is now — free and open — that particular model [will remain] such a helpful part of one’s touring possibilities. The specific model that I adopted was based on my need for consistency and portability. I needed to be able to tailor tours to my own needs and have a lot of control over the ticketing and all of that. But there are other models of just, like, “get in the van” — various ways of being able to monetize playing songs for people. When all else fails culturally, we still have our homes and places that we live, where we can all gather and be turned on by art and music and expression and readings and poetry and dance.
And each other’s company.
Yeah! I mean, anything you can think of, you can host in someone’s living space. It was such a gift to have to come up with something like that. Right now, we’re going to be focusing on band shows in venues, but I’m going to pepper little house-show runs in here and there throughout the year. A friend of mine put on a show on Election Night, just to give everybody a diversion. [Laughs.] Playing that show solo reminded me that that’s a part of myself that I shouldn’t give up just because I’m in this band that I love so much.
I’m looking ahead to playing solo about 5 to 10 percent of the time, just to maintain that relationship with myself that’s a vital part of how I understand my songs and rock and roll. Playing some of the new songs solo for the very first time — on an instrument that I don’t play in the band — informed how the band versions work live in a way that’s really cool. So house shows will always be a part of what I’m doing and, at certain times of my life, I’m sure they’ll be my bread and butter again as well.
And you think they’ll be a part of what we’re all doing.
I think so. It’s just too fun. You leave your first week-long run of doing that and you think, “I’m never playing in clubs again.” And then you realize, “Oh, everything has its place.” Like any comedian would tell you, it’s going to take you ten years to get there. But now the bar of entry is just lower. There are personality types who aren’t type-A who need to express themselves and might not have [any other] path. Some people are too sensitive to be in the club ecosystem. It’s a system that you have to develop rhino skin to be in. [Because of house shows] some people will get into rock and roll who [otherwise] might not have.
I was reading about how it was almost painful for Elliott Smith to bring his songs to the stage because the context was always so hostile. You’re in this urine-soaked hellhole [Laughs] and you’re probably going to get ripped off at the end of the night. Club touring has changed a bit since the ‘90s, but if you could get your sea legs on doing house shows, the gentler weirdos among us would have a [more viable] entry point. And we need those gentler weirdos to sing us their song.