David Bazan: Prodigal Strum

What a loss of faith means for the former Pedro the Lion frontman’s family, fans, and career.

David Bazan doesn't fear hell anymore. He used to lose sleep over it, worrying about the fate of his soul."I have lied awake for 45 minutes or an hour—maybe two years ago—terrified that hell was real," he says.Back then, he had reason to be afraid. Bazan, raised an evangelical Christian, was taught that nonbelievers literally have hell to pay. But his faith is gone now—and he's not afraid to let God or anyone else know it. Curse Your Branches, his first full-length solo album, is an autobiographical look at the 33-year-old singer-songwriter's fall from the grace that launched his career as the frontman of Pedro the Lion, where Bazan was once the darling of the Christian indie scene, known for his artful, guitar-driven metaphors about trying to trust and understand God.He's not that man anymore. He spent the past five years drinking heavily and trying to decide what he believed. Now, nearly 15 years after he started making music, Bazan is a committed family man and father of two, his drinking's under control, and he's on tour with a full band for the first time since Pedro the Lion disbanded in 2005.Bazan even played the Cornerstone Music Festival this year without incident; when he previously performed at the Christian festival, in 2005, he was so drunk he got kicked out.On Branches, Bazan blames God for original sin and admits that he drank to forget the religion of his childhood. But it's too simple to call it an album about breaking up with God. If anything, it's more like a contentious divorce that drags out for years, with Bazan just beginning to feel the repercussions of his loss of faith in both his personal and professional lives.He's also trying to navigate his relationships with his wife and parents, who remain Christians. Recently his spouse asked him to attend church with her, and although he went along, he said it felt like going back into the "belly of the beast." Occasionally his mother still gives him books and videos about Christianity, "hoping for some silver bullet to bring me back to God," he says.Bazan's family and friends have had time to adjust; he says they have seen "incremental changes" in his beliefs over the past five years. And Trey Many, Pedro the Lion's former booking agent and one of its many drummers, says that Bazan's faith has waxed and waned throughout their 14-year friendship."Dave is somebody who grew up in the church and has parents who are very serious about their faith," says Many, who is also still a Christian. "From my point of view, he came to question certain things. I don't get the impression, from knowing him or listening to his songs, that he's just, like, 'OK, I've figured this out. And I'm done.'"These kind of interactions weigh heavily on Branches. On "Harmless Sparks," Bazan sings about "being tempted to question his birthright/In front of his kids and devout wife.""In hindsight, [Branches] does strike me as a pretty vivid reliving of those feelings and restating of them, because I am still living them to some degree," Bazan says. "I think the social fallout is the biggest burden of the process of changing your faith, especially if your whole family is in that camp."While those closest to Bazan might have predicted this shift, Branches is Bazan's confirmation to fans that he's left the flock. He's known as a Christian singer/songwriter, and every Pedro the Lion album reaffirmed this. "I could tell you why I doubt it/And why I still believe it," he sings on "The Fleecing" from 2004's Achilles Heel, released just as Bazan started drinking heavily and questioning God. "But I can't say it like I sing it."Bazan admits he can no longer play "The Fleecing" and other Pedro the Lion songs. "They just don't resonate with me," he says. "They represent a mind-set that is much different. So it feels disingenuous to play them."Will Bazan's Christian fans still listen if he no longer sings about faith? Many recalls that most of Bazan's early followers "came from a background in the church," and surmises that fans might "be offended by certain things" that Bazan sings about now. And because Bazan fields audience questions during performances, his fans feel as if they know him personally. "I've seen people form a single line at the merch booth at shows, just to ask him questions...about their marriage or their faith," Many says.Some fans might not have seen Branches coming, but Many suspects that some share Bazan's skepticism—and will only listen harder. This is a dynamic Noah Gundersen understands. The 20-year-old singer/songwriter was raised a Christian but lost his faith a few years ago, and that worldview now factors into his songs. Earlier this summer he opened for Bazan at Seattle Pacific University, a Christian college, and witnessed the packed house and rapt crowd that Bazan drew. For him, it's Bazan's ability to lyrically question faith without bitterness or cynicism that will keep Christians listening."It's kind of scary to start to question some things, like where do we go when we die? Is belief in a God logical? Is there a Creator? I think that's what impressed me most about David's set," he says. "It seems like he had spent a lot of time, just digging into those issues that are kind of scary."Regardless of where Bazan's chosen to take his music, he's remained a witty and poignant writer. "Please Baby, Please," the only song on Branches that isn't about God, is a pop-infused three-act memoir of the way his heavy drinking negatively impacted his daughter's life.Eric Elbogen, the songwriter behind Say Hi and a friend of Bazan's, also appreciates what it's like to have personal changes affect his career. Once known for quirky lyrics about vampires and spaceships, in 2008 Elbogen released The Wishes and the Glitch, a more mature and autobiographical album inspired by his move from New York to Seattle. He's been touring with Bazan for the past few months, and has heard rumblings that some fans long for Pedro the Lion songs. But Elbogen believes that Bazan's new beliefs can only help him musically. "I think that any time you step out of your comfort zone or you have a big change in the way that you perceive the world, it's easier to take advantage of that from a creative standpoint than if you're stuck in the same monotonous rut," he says.Bazan is ambivalent about how his recent realizations will affect his career; it's difficult for him to predict anything when he's still actively trying to define his beliefs. His primary reading material on the tour, for example, has been histories of Christianity. While he may no longer fear eternal damnation, he expects to be thinking about God for the rest of his life."I just think that it's all a progression," says Many. "I don't know that he'll stop writing songs about God. Maybe he will. But I would bet that he won't."music@seattleweekly.com

 
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