The provocative Pedro the Lion frontman is the subject of the new documentary Strange Negotiations.
David Bazan’s straightforward and bluntly honest brand of indie rock won him secular and Christian accolades alike starting in the mid-’90s, especially as songwriter and frontman for the influential band Pedro the Lion. Bazan was raised in a Pentecostal church, and always assumed he’d be a music minister; as part of Pedro the Lion, he became a success story for a different breed of Christian music, one that was musically and lyrically adventurous as well as blunt about the struggles of faith, which set it apart from the more predictable inspirational pop that drenched the Christian radio airwaves.
But Bazan shocked many of his Christian fans in 2006, when he dissolved Pedro the Lion and began a solo career — a move that coincided with a shift in his religious beliefs, away from Christianity.
As a solo artist, Bazan has since recorded five solo albums. He no longer identifies as a Christian. But he speaks freely and passionately about his loss of faith and his love for his family and friends who are still part of that world.
In the new documentary Strange Negotiations, which shares its title with Bazan’s 2011 album, filmmaker Brandon Vedder follows Bazan beginning shortly before the 2016 election and continuing into 2017. That period spans a tour in which Bazan plays house concerts, confesses his difficulties with fatherhood, talks with fans — many of whom are navigating their own challenging relationship with faith — and grapples, especially, with the mounting evidence during the 2016 presidential election that assumptions he still held about American evangelical Christians were wrong. It concludes with his decision, in 2017, to re-form Pedro the Lion, in hopes of rediscovering a sense of community he’d lost in years spent touring alone.
Strange Negotiations is an absorbing and painfully honest movie; Bazan has no interest in presenting a façade. Instead, he’s honest about his pain and his struggles and his hope.
I recently spoke with Bazan by phone about trying to understand how to move forward in light of the 2016 election, his goals as a musician, and how he writes his raw, honest music.
About two-thirds of the way through Strange Negotiations, the 2016 election is happening, and you’re driving down the road. You say something really striking: “The people who taught me to be a decent person are losing their minds.”
That sentiment is really familiar to me, and to others who felt during the election and the years since like they were watching their elders betray what they taught us. Have you found that sentiment continuing to affect your work in the years since?
For me, it’s heartbreaking over and over again. You just think, “Surely now they can see. Surely now they can see.” What do I do with that? Knowing that certain people that I love deeply, and depended on, are just going to go to their graves being stooges for fascism and authoritarianism? That’s still something I’m trying to make sense of.
The big project that I’m working on now is trying to show the path by which people who have the capacity to be good, and can recognize good, get co-opted by authoritarianism and by conformity and by violence. I think that everybody has the capacity to be in balance and to do good.
But I want to show that this can happen to anybody, and it has to do with what you do with your hurt. It has to do with what you do with your secrets. It has to do with what you do with your shame. It’s a scramble for all of us to understand how this is happening and why it continues to happen and what’s the difference between me and a person who can’t see the harm that this is doing. I’m trying to find the hopeful way of describing it, so that even if people are kind of lost to [those ideologies], are not ever going to be found, at least the rest of us can figure out how to interact and how to be kind and loving.
Because the hurt and the anger that I feel is kind of … yeah, I wish I could shut it off.
The only description I’ve really landed on is “mourning” — like I feel like things I assumed were true about the world, and about people I previously respected, have turned out, in many respects, to be built on sand. How they think about idolatry and compassion and fear and putting others’ needs ahead of your own. It’s really sad.
With that said, I still speak the “language” natively. And you do too. Do you feel like your work is translating or finding spaces for people who are stuck in that same place?
Having an expertise in something like Christian culture at this point is tough. I grew up feeling like the people who were elders were making a distinction between religion as faith and religion as a club. They would even say, “It’s not a religion, it’s a relationship.” I took it to heart. I needed to sign onto it, as a kid. I needed to believe that [Christianity] was more than a club. I realize now that I was clinging to that.
The principles that I was collecting along the way were the foundation of my belief system, and I thought that’s what everybody was doing. I was on board to have to think about all those things and to have humility in the process. I think that there are still people who are motivated by those things, and who feel like Christianity is the only place to do that.
Now, I just want people to be free to follow their ethics, to know that the conformity that the system is built on is at odds with [those ethics], to give people the freedom to think their own thoughts about things.
That’s what I was fighting for in myself when I started this journey in 2005 of being more honest with myself about my faith. And I know that’s made me somebody that people in that [evangelical Christian] world don’t really want to listen to — and fair enough. But I want so badly for people to have the opportunity to meet themselves.
It’s really been a driver of what I have been doing with my life during this time. But now, I have a bit more focus than I did before. And a lot of people are trying to illuminate their little corner of the world, and help people. I just hope that more people can be set free from captivity.
A lot of the documentary is about you trying to make a living in your particular career moment. The economic realities of making a living require you to do a lot, to be on the road all the time. There’s a sense in which the music business requires you to fit into a certain box and conform to a set of demands in order to survive.
From an early age, I was pretty scattered — really focused but also couldn’t really follow through with anything. In a way that’s why I chose music as a vocation, because I couldn’t change, as much as I tried. I wanted to be a disciplined person. I wanted to be all these things, but I just failed constantly at it. So music was a way for me to harness that, because with making records, it was deadline-driven, and that’s a social pressure. I was able to organize my actions and my behavior through making music in a way that I couldn’t do any other way.
I don’t really have a choice in how honest I am. I have a choice in what I write about, but this is the only way I know how to write about it. What comes up in the tunes is a creative process that leans heavily on my subconscious. When I do that, what comes out is what has to come out. In a way I can’t help but be my authentic self because my ADHD or whatever is just too extreme.
So, I’ve done 20 years at this grueling job, and I’m very faithful to it and I’m very committed to it, because it’s all I could do.
And do you sit down to write an album “about” issues, or does it come to you another way? What’s your songwriting process like?
With [2009’s] Curse Your Branches, I wanted to turn over a new leaf and make music and records that weren’t so obsessed with my internal lies, and with religion, and with addiction. But if I’m going to produce something that has creative depth, sonically, somatically, I just don’t have a choice about what happens. Your subconscious, it’s like dreaming. You don’t have a choice about what you dream. You dream what you need to dream. And so it’s the same thing with creativity. People who do make those choices apart from their subconscious, I don’t trust them.
Sometimes focusing on your pain so obsessively in art, I’m sure, can be unhelpful. But I’m doing what I can. I wanted to be allowed to do this. As I said in the movie, I wanted to be allowed to play in this particular sandbox and feel valid doing it. It’s really satisfying to come to that understanding with yourself, despite the ups and downs of how people respond to you or accept you or reject you.
You’ve always challenged orthodoxies, whether it was within the Christian world or now outside of it. But do you find there are other orthodoxies you’re challenging, stuff that you see in the world that you find yourself butting up against?
Yeah. I have an internal desire to find some sort of unifying explanation for the different ways that people, myself included, wind up in trouble ethically, or holding ideas that turn out to be bad seeds. I never fancied myself a contrarian, because I always really thought that everybody was doing the same project — just trying to be better. That’s been the most disappointing part. When people say something about themselves to me, I think that they’re telling me the truth, or doing their best to. And if anybody’s ever misrepresenting themselves, I just am not prepared to deal with that. I mean, I eventually can figure it out and get past it. But in the moment I’m sort of primed to just believe what people tell me about themselves.
I saw someone talking about the new Pixar movie.
Soul? [The film, about a jazz musician transported to a mysterious realm, will come out in 2020.]
Yes. I haven’t seen a trailer or anything, but I saw somebody commenting on it online from a Christian perspective, but sarcastically. They said, like, Oh yeah, that’s what everybody needs, to find their true selves and to follow their passion, ha ha. Then all the comments were like, it’s so freeing to have a safe identity in Christ because my identity changes all the time and blah blah blah.
I’m reading this stuff and just thinking, I can’t tell if they’re joking. Then I’ll realize, like, “Oh man, they’re deep into this captive mindset.” What I experienced [when I was a Christian] was feeling estrangement, reinforced by my family and Christianity, because of the notion that I can accept myself only if God accepts me first. That’s pretty fraught, because your idea of who God is depends on the culture you were brought up in. How kind you think God is depends on how people treat you — how kind they are, how punitive they are, how driven by shame they are.
Within evangelical Christianity, there’s always this talk of a kind of counterintuitive wisdom that is represented by Christianity. The world thinks that this is wisdom, but Christians know that it’s something else. The first shall be last, the last shall be first. But when you get down to it, it’s not [what they believe] at all. That’s how they trick you, I guess — by having this benevolent spin on it.
Part of my life now is just mumbling the f-word at everybody, figuring out how to protect myself from this cycle that happens over and over again, where I believe that people are good and have good intentions. Being disappointed by the way that things really are, over and over again.
And then just realizing, I’m hurting now, and when I get over this hurt, I’ll be able to have and own my ideas about things, and find peace with myself. That I’ll be able to have more kindness more easily for people who are still foot soldiers for authoritarianism.
Strange Negotiations will be released on digital platforms on November 19.
This conversation has been edited and condensed.
Author: Alissa Wilkinson