David Bazan's new album, Blanco, only sounds like a departure. Though vintage synthesizers bathe the songs in a dreamy haze that recalls artists like M83 and Cliff Martinez, those textures surround familiar central figures: simple, perfect melodies sung by Bazan's ringing bell of a voice, giving form to lyrics that unflinchingly dissect the dark corners of the inner life. Produced by longtime collaborator Yuuki Matthews (of Crystal Skulls), Blanco sounds like a distant descendant of Bazan's 2005 Headphones project, in the same way an iPhone is a descendant of a Walkman.
Synths aside, it's the same work he's been doing since the first Pedro the Lion recordings came out in 1997, and with a renewed vigor (and more complex, better songs) since his solo debut in 2006. We've been friendly for several years, but I've been a devotee of his music for several more, so I didn't feel too weird about inviting him to Stranger HQ to talk about his new direction.
David Bazan will be at the Neptune on Friday, June 10.
It's always worth considering the question of personal versus autobiographical, but your work is uncommonly intimate. I'm thinking of the first verse in "With You," from the new album: "I might have found someone who could love me/Might have found someone true/But I turn around, my life's half over/And I'm with you." That's a brutal sentiment, the kind of thing that if you're in a marriage, even one with good communication, you wouldn't really want to say out loud.
Well, with that particular song, the way that I see it, it's a layer of me that's like the paranoid version. Like when your thoughts run and you can't stop them and then you construct this world, this other way of interpreting everything. You're on your sort of sane track most of the time, but every now and again... somebody's flipped the switch and you're over on that other track for a minute. So for me, that song is an airing of that paranoid track's concerns, you know? And sort of honoring its viewpoint.
Then the next verse lets the narrator have it: "You might have found someone with better genetics/You might have found someone not so blue/You might have found someone who didn't inspire you/To be untrue."
After those first two verses, then the bridge is sort of the context for the thing. Like this guy's away from home, having a hard, hard time. And then it's kind of like Jacob's Ladder, the movie. There's all this anxiety, but then you return to the story and it's a dreamlike scenario where actually all the person's anxieties are unfounded, at least for the moment. This feeling of connectedness that you're longing for, and you believe that it's happening, then all of a sudden you're on the outside of it, and the anxiety takes over. But both [the anxiety and the sense of connection] are ephemeral... It's a way darker song, I think, than it even appears to be.
But then "Someone Else's Bet" is wrestling with a different element of anxiety. "Dinner's on the table/Your mother's at the door/Kids are watching TV/You never needed me more." It's a romantic sentiment, maybe not in the classic sense, because there's dread involved. But that sense of responsibility—either just naming it or worrying about being able to fulfill it—is a recurring theme throughout your work, from Pedro the Lion onward.
Growing up Christian, the ultimate goal, the ultimate point of everything that death puts a very fine point on, was God and heaven. So on your deathbed, those are your thoughts: thoughts of eternity and the afterlife. It's sort of a statement of my shift from faith and the Christian God tradition to faith in, I guess, more materialistic humanistic dynamics. When everybody else in the room is concerned about the afterlife, on my deathbed I'm gonna be seeing if I'm leaving my wife in the lurch. Because I feel like I owe her certain things, and I'm responsible to her for certain things, and I can, any of us can, easily create a massive deficit in regard to that contract, without really knowing it. But it's also a hypothesis, because you don't really know what you're gonna think.
It's hard not to read the themes of this record in relation to the process of reconciling your life as a professional musician in a shifting, shrinking music business with your life as a husband and father—as a person.
A lot of the way that Blanco came to be is because of me trying to get off the road more. Basically, all of my thinking now is trying to be strategic in a way I should have been for years. The road is great, and you have to do that, but you really should try to minimize it. I mean, if you have the tools to do it, and you do. You can prioritize some of those things a little bit more than you have been. And so, all that is to say yes, that is something that we're really struggling to balance.
I know that the subscription service [Bazan Monthly offers subscribers two new songs on the first of each month for a limited period] has had good artistic results, including the songs that make up this album. But it seems that a lot of being a musician now means you have to be an entrepreneur.
You do. You do!
Maybe it was always that way, and we just came of age during a period when it was possible to kid yourself that wasn't what you were. How do you feel about the changing nature of what's required of you?
Um, it's a lot. I can find myself feeling resentful every now and again about certain aspects of it. The work itself is not a problem, and the extra stuff. But then having to defend yourself constantly for saying that you feel like people should buy your music if they like it. When your heart is really hurting because you miss your family and it's causing real problems in your relationship, and you're trying your best, but you wish you had another three weeks at home before you have to leave, because you're getting somewhere with the relationship woes and trying to come back from them. That's happened so many times, where it's like literally two days before I leave on tour, we come to this détente, or some peace and agreement and understanding. And it would have been so great to bask in that for five days, to live in the same house. We wouldn't have been on vacation, just like doing the dishes and stuff without all of that tension. But then it's like okay, I gotta go for six weeks or whatever. Basically I realized: Okay, you've proven that you're willing to work hard and you're committed to this thing, so just zoom out and figure out a way to be a little smarter about it. And the first form that took was figuring out a way to basically monetize work that you can do at home. I thought, you gotta get home and write songs. And you've got to make recordings as furiously as you drive a car. And you need to monetize that in a way that is a little shorter-term, potentially, than the album cycle. That's where the Monthly thing came out of. Now what I think I was right about was that I needed to get the frequency up—of my output. But in hindsight, I feel like the album cycle is fine, but I need the albums to be a lot closer together. It's been five years since Strange Negotiations.
Have you noticed that the entire nature of time has changed? Maybe it's the internet, or maybe it's getting older, I don't know. The idea that your last record came out five years ago: I remember the day it came out, and it seems like just the other day. But 2011 also seems like a lifetime ago. But it also seems indistinguishable from, like, 2002.
It is like a movie. Well, it's like The Matrix. I mean, it feels like little bits and pieces are filling every gap in our awareness, and I think that it does change the way that the fabric of consciousness feels. Because 2002 feels like the Arizona desert compared to now.
Okay. I'm glad I'm not the only one... You address all this pretty succinctly in "Oblivion" with the lines "But it's no good to complain of fatigue and existential pain/On a six-week solo drive/While your friends work nine-to-five." There is always that element of, well, guess what: You fucking asked for it.
You did it on purpose. You fought for this. And a lot of that existential pain is just a pre-self-loathing confusion, because you think, "I've always thought that this was going to pay off one click or two higher on the scale."
Right, because there are higher clicks.
There are clicks that are higher, and that's fine. I definitely take pride in being somebody who is willing to work. There's a line in The Usual Suspects that, on the scale of human life, is really meaningful to me. He says, "To be the most powerful, you don't have to have the most money or the most guns or the most men. You just have to be willing to do what the other guy won't do." And that has certainly informed my life. It's like, "Well, can you take more?" And if the answer is no—fine. But if the answer is yes, then you will take more. And in the midst of doing that—which is a fight to do a thing that is also itself a fight—you find yourself losing faith momentarily that you've made the right decision to devote your life to this thing which occasionally, when everything comes together... if home's bad and work is small-and-meaningful but too small to sustain. And you're getting ready to be 20 years into doing it, you lose faith a little bit, you know?
I massively do. Sorry if this is the most obvious thing in the world to say, but it's interesting that the theme of wavering faith continues to be your theme, whether it's religious faith on Curse Your Branches or faith in yourself and your family and your vocation. Is that the central subject for you?
I guess my understanding of faith is that you collect data about a certain hypothesis, and then you get to the point where there's no more data to collect but you have to decide if you believe that thing that you've been leaning toward or not. Everybody has faith about everything we're doing every day. You know, there's a distinct lack of certainty to human life.
That lack of certainty is magnified when your livelihood, and your family's, is tied not only to making music but to people liking it. And also buying it.
I feel like I know where I am on the spectrum of capability with this thing. I know the distance between me and Elliott Smith, for instance. And it's quite a distance. And that's fine. I am myself. But I also have seen my ability to connect with my thoughts and emotions and turn them into music that I still like 10 years later. Not all of it. A small part of it. But those things combined with my willingness to work hard—I mean, I'm a pretty modest person in general, but I've started to realize I can say this, plus a quite pure set of intentions. Not that I'm not egomaniacal and narcissistic in some aspects. But in regards to music, I'm not. I've made sacrifices over and over again to be true to what's coming out of my body. And I believe that's the way to do art, or whatever I'm trying to do. I've cobbled these values together, and to me they sum up to: Yeah, keep going. This is the right thing to do. And factored into that is it's not going to harm you or your family, ultimately. It's going to enrich them, ultimately. That being true to what you love and being smart about how to do it equals that... I have done the math and it seems like this is going to work. The faltering faith comes sometimes when I think, "Man, it really looks like it's not going to work."
Is that the hardest thing to grapple with as you keep going: knowing with all the good intentions and talent and hard work, it could still fall apart? There could still be some pothole you never anticipated?
Absolutely. Bad bounce, man.
Has all this increased productivity changed what songwriting is like for you? Or what you're writing about?
Absolutely. And particularly because of the public deadlines we set up so that I didn't have a choice but to finish. I realized pretty quickly that in most cases, to finish everything, to actually have a completed recording, and not just some stripped down thing, like, "Oh it's minimalist"—meaning we didn't have time to do anything else—I had to stay so zoomed in just to finish it that I never had that moment to zoom out and see what it was.
Meaning you wouldn't stop to obsess over a song, whether or not it was good, or good enough?
Yeah. Occasionally I would do that, but it's such a rabbit hole. Which is maybe appropriate in some cases, but it was so disruptive to a process that needed to really stay on track that I just stayed zoomed in and tried to calibrate my feelings. I hypothesized about what this zoomed-out guy would think, just so I didn't go all the way out there and get the bird's eye view, which would have derailed me. "Well, I feel like the zoomed out guy would think that this is corny, unless it feels kind of sad right here, and then I think he would like it." And so then I learned to stay zoomed in. Honestly, I didn't know what was going on with those tracks until like a day after everybody had already started listening and, you know, talking about them.
Did that zoomed-in-ness allow you and Yuuki to feel more free to incorporate the synth textures that are so dominant on the record? I know there were a lot of keyboard sounds on the Headphones record, but the Pedro and Bazan records are very guitar-based. Have you always been a secret synth head?
In 2000, I heard a Flaming Lips song on The Soft Bulletin. It was this off beat—really drum fills with chimes—and the way that square wave bass synthesizer thing sounded, all distorted... It freaked me out, and I thought, well, I want to hear that kind of thing all the time, like, couldn't there be music that was all distorted synthesizers?
I'd say your dream has come true.
So I bought a Nord Lead 2 as soon as I possibly could, and I set about to turn Pedro the Lion into a synthesizer and drum-set band. But I really was ignorant of the way to get that sound, so I kind of put it on the shelf and kept experimenting, but I didn't have a lot of time to devote to it. I thought you get a synthesizer and you make it make that sound. I didn't realize that a Holy Grail [reverb pedal] and a distortion panel on the output of that thing, and I would have gotten my wish for another $200 or whatever.
It's like cooking.
I know, and I didn't have the recipe. At any rate, I started to learn about synthesis, and it's taken me 15 years to figure out how to make a record that sounds like the record I want to hear. So I am really excited for what comes next, because now I have some familiarity with the tool set.