Open negotiations: David Bazan on songwriting and transparency

David Bazan has more fanatics than fans. As the songwriter and creative force behind Pedro the Lion, Bazan spent 11 years building a dedicated following that largely pursued him into his solo career. Fans came to Pedro the Lion shows for disarmingly simple rock songs that always seemed to reward another listen, and they stuck with Bazan because his weighty lyrics and rich baritone delivery were what breathed life into every Pedro track. His charming anti-charisma and radical honesty found expression at shows in the form of mid-set question-and-answer sessions, a tradition he started in 2000 and still sticks with. 

Formerly of Pedro the Lion and Headphones, indie rock singer-songwriter David Bazan comes to the Southern on Thursday, November 17.

With Pedro the Lion, Bazan was a Christian frontman on the edges of both Christian rock and high-brow indie acceptance, and no fandom is more fulfilling than the kind that needs defending. So it was no small controversy when Bazan released Curse Your Branches in 2009, chronicling his loss of faith in 10 tracks. Undoubtedly, Branches alienated some of Bazan’s Christian fan-base, but it is a testament to his songwriting and the deep connection he has with his devotees that most of them remain devoted.

In May, Bazan released Strange Negotiations, an album that saw the vulnerable tone of Branches grafted onto political subject matter. He and his band come to the Southern this week, which, for the uninitiated, should leave enough time for a few meaningful laps through his discography. Bazan and I spoke via cell phone while he was driving to Des Moines.

Strange Negotiations came out half a year ago, and word has it you’re already putting together songs for the next record. What state are they in?

There’s a bunch of them hanging around. The guys in the band I made Strange Negotiations with have worked on some of the tunes that will be on the next record, but all the songs originated with demos I made. I think the record after the next one will be more of us sitting in a room and working out the tunes. But this next one? It’s a rock and roll record. It’s going to be stripped down, but in a different way than Strange Negotiations was. I’ve got a lot of the songs sort of developed but exactly how they’re going to find their way onto the record remains to be seen. At this point, they’re all missing some lyrics, and to play them live I would have to be finishing them in the next week or so. So we probably won’t be playing any.

Q & A sessions between you and the audience have been part of your live show for years. Have your fans ever been able to resist using them for song requests?

Well, it would be a little harsh to say that you’re not supposed to, or that no one will be successful. But it is futile to make requests during the Q & A, because we’re just going to play off the setlist. Basically, we try to have any kind of interaction that the audience wants to, so people try to steer it whichever way they want to go in, and I also end up steering it into the best direction for the energy of the show. People often default to asking me what book I’m reading, but sometimes I get asked interesting questions.

Your solo work is more explicitly autobiographical than anything you released with Pedro the Lion. Do you ever have hang-ups about putting out confessional material?

Not really. In a way it makes it better for me to be able to really connect with the tunes when I’m singing them, so in that sense it’s been a little easier at times because of the direct presence of my own autobiography. The only anxiety I’ve felt was after Curse Your Branches came out, but that was because I just did so many interviews in which I was telling aspects of my story, about coming away from faith. When all those interviews hit at once it just felt gross. Like there was just too much of me out there. Worrying about my old Sunday school teacher Googling my name, or whatever. I don’t mind being transparent, but 10 or 12 of these long interviews hit within a week or two, and the whole size of the thing made me feel vulnerable.

You recently sang over an instrumental version of Deerhoof’s “No One Asked To Dance” for a split 7" series. What was it like putting words to a Deerhoof song?

It was ultimately a really positive experience, but the tone of the song that I was trying to add the lyrics and melody to was so different than anything I had ever done. A lot of small factors ended up in me just being really stuck. Songwriting can be so natural. You just write what comes to you, and over time you figure out the process that works for you. But that process in someone else’s work is often so hidden to me. I like Deerhoof a lot, and in the end I guess it was hard to feel the need to add anything to it.

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