Interview: David Bazan [November 2014]

By Mike Petruccelli

David Bazan has always been known for being a prime example of a great singer-songwriter. Both his early work with Pedro the Lion and recordings under his own name have been acclaimed and revered by fans and critics alike. However, the three years after his 2010 release ‘Strange Negotiations’ proved to be difficult for him from a creative standpoint. With motivation to write, he ventured into a project in early 2014 where he began to write and record two songs a month for five months, which is entitled ‘Bazan Monthly Vol. 1’. On top of this, he also recorded a collection of songs from his discography with Seattle’s Passenger String Quartet which was released as ‘David Bazan + Passenger String Quartet Vol. 1’. They have been touring the US recently and I was given the chance to sit down with him as a fellow musician (and huge fan) to ask about production, songwriting, and if he still gets the usual moments of self-doubt that many musicians do.

It seems that 2014 is a year where you’re deciding to do different things when it comes to making music,especially when it comes to distribution and the Passenger String Quartet. Did you not want to release another full solo album? Has this idea for the ‘Bazan Monthly’ been in the back of your head for a while?

I wanted to release another regular record but I’ve been having trouble writing, and in the meantime with that happening I also realised I wanted to tour less than I did. I have kids and a wife and it just hit me that I need to stay at home with them more so I needed to come up with a way that made me work as hard at home as I did on the road. The obvious answer was to write more tunes. There will be another record down the road, but there’s going to be a couple more volumes of ‘Bazan Monthly’ before I record a full album again. I do like albums a lot, but now that ‘Bazan Monthly’ is done it’s kind of like a weird record of mine for anyone who stumbles on it.

You’ve also recorded some of your older songs with the Passenger String Quartet. What has it been like touring with them? Where did you meet Andrew Joslyn, their head violinist?

I met them in Tacoma Washington in the summer of 2012. It was a series of shows held by a promoter where different collaborations happened between different artists and the quartet accompanied the artists that evening. We did four tunes and it was four of them that made it onto the record: ‘Bands With Managers’, ‘I Do’, ‘Wolves Wait At Your Door’ and ‘Strange Negotiations’. Later on in the night we discussed making a record together.

That’s pretty rad. I’m assuming there is an extreme difference playing with classical instruments then. What is it like playing with them vs. a traditional setting with drums, bass, and guitar? What’s it like performing with them?

Oh man, it’s fucking epic. It’s really cool, you know? It emphasised different aspects of the tunes. Everything is a little more romantic. Also, I think people imagine it to be like Dark Party kind of deal where it’s light and airy, but the way that the show is sonically, it’s loud. Moody and loud, at least more than what people are anticipating.

So, when it came to adding and doing older songs, were there any in the back of your head you knew you wanted to do? I’m asking this because they seem to shine in different ways with the quartet, like ‘When They Get to Know You They Will Run’ seems to just change tonally with feeling and speed.

[laughs] Yeah, it’s so strange. That was the weirdest one and it was my favourite after we recorded it. It does have a Dark Party sort of feel to it, but it’s like it’s being sung by a weird perverted uncle. I didn’t necessarily feel like “This should be on the record” or anything like that, but there were songs where I thought “Let’s see where we can go with this one”. After those first four tunes and the range of things Andrew did on them, I started to project ideas like “Okay, maybe this will be in the vein of something we want to do”. Andrew also had some suggestions of what he wanted to do as well, so we worked in a variety of songs to make it work out.

So, with the ‘Bazan Monthly’ songs, I’ve noticed more self-reflection involved as well as some pinches of experimentation with production like distortion on the vocals, heavy reverb, rough around the edges recording, kind of like ‘Fewer Moving Parts’. What was your main focus on production and where did you record?

With production I just played it by ear; I had to work pretty fast with writing two songs a month for the ‘Bazan Monthly’ project. There were a few situations where I needed to lean on T.W. Walsh and Yuuki Matthews for production, and it became a collaboration between the three of with recording and mixing. We just had fun and made good use of the tools we had, and some of the choices were mine, some Walsh, some Yuuki. There wasn’t a shift in recording where it was “Let’s make the record like this,” we just followed instincts. If you listen to their production on T.W.’s solo records or Yuuki’s producing, it kind of melted together with the ‘Monthly’ songs. I did some of the recording in the bedroom and basement of my house, some of it at T.W’s house in Boston, some of it in Yuuki’s apartment, and some of it in hotel rooms on the road.

One thing I also noticed is that you usually write some lengthy explanatory lyrics with your songs and on the ‘Bazan Monthly’ tracks it looks like you held back a bit and kept it minimal with some of the lyrics. Is there any specific reason for that?

The process of making songs for me is that the best stuff happens when I lean in on my subconscious and let my conscious mind kind of get out of the way. I feel like the subconscious weaves things in a way more sophisticated way with writing and gives more depth than the conscious mind. So, because I had to move so fast with these songs, I had to go with my gut with writing lyrics. I would think to myself while writing, “Well, I don’t know what that totally means, and the meaning will come to me later, but I like the language and right now that just feels right”. In the end, it turned out that the meaning became really rich and interesting.

Are you at the point where you have little to no doubt about your confidence as a songwriter? Does the “What the Hell am I doing?” moment ever come across you when you’re writing songs?

Oh, dude, yeah. I’m shocked every time I finish a song.

[laughs] But why is that though?

I don’t know why, you know? I think that the ‘Bazan Monthly’ project has been helpful and has reminded me that I like the songs that I make though. ‘Impermanent Record’ and ‘Deny Myself’ were easy to finish because I had them mostly written before the project started, but it was ‘Nobody’s Perfect’ and ‘Sparkling Water’ that were very difficult to write. I hadn’t done the songwriting process for over three years at that point; it was tough to get perspective because I had to work so fast and there was no one else around. It was just me, the guitar and the room. So, it was 98% doubt at that point, but once the second release came out I started to realise I liked the songs, and it wasn’t until the third release where I found that I had the skill set to write again, so I worked from there. Part of my goal with the monthly project is doing another two volumes of ‘Bazan Monthly’ all through next year, starting with Vol. 2 on January 1st. I wouldn’t mind doing two songs a month forever as long as I don’t fall back in that zone of “I don’t know what I’m doing.”

I am asking you this because every once and a while I always go through moments of weird self-doubt with writing songs and I usually visit a song or two that I’m proud of to remind me how to continue on with writing. Is there anything like that with you? Do you ever revisit something or have an “anchor” to remind you why you do what you do?

Yeah, I‘ll go back and listen to some stuff. Sometimes I will peruse and see the whole range of what I’ve done. Other times I will just get on the internet and search for performances of different musicians. It’s a good way to get turned on and in the mood with music, and to focus on making something beautiful. It’s a way to not get jaded or technical, you know? You believe in it. I feel like that’s a good launching point because there’s also an element of longing to do something beautiful, it’s not just “I need to write a song”.

You always have a tasteful way of mixing music and words. With your composition, do you write on a guitar or anything other than that? Piano, drums, etc. Where does the process usually start for you? I had a friend say you recorded the drums on ‘Control’ first and then wrote the music to it, is that true or just lore?

I think that’s mostly lore, all that stuff kind of happened the normal way. The drums did sort of lead the way on ‘Control’, more so than on ‘Winners Never Quit’ or ‘It’s Hard To Find A Friend’, but those songs mostly started with an acoustic guitar. Sometimes I start writing on guitar, sometimes on a piano, and other times the lyrics or melody are the driving force for the idea.

So, it’s all kind of contextual?

Yeah, I’ve done stuff like first line exercises where I just go off a notebook full of individual lines of lyrics. I would write down a line or two and then I would read back through them every once in a while, and the next thing you know it I’m writing a tune. There’s not a set way of writing. Once I have a set way of writing a song it doesn’t always work so I’ll move on to another way of writing. Anything I hear about someone’s method of coming up with a song, I’ll give it a try.

Do you show your songs to anyone before they are completed or is it something you have to finish first?

Yeah, I sent a lot of stuff to Walsh during this writing process. I specifically asked him if he could serve the purpose of looking at the ‘Bazan Monthly’ tracks. It really helps to just send him songs. Sometimes I play songs for my wife, but it’s usually down the line when it’s relatively polished.

You and Walsh are close, yeah?

Yeah, he’s like my brother. We talk on the phone all the time. He’s my best friend and we’ll send each other tunes. I’ll send him stuff, he sends me stuff.

This is a super important question for me because it’s the one question I always wanted to ask you. I went to school for audio production and recorded a full album at one point in my life. After the process it made me view music and songwriting in a very different way. Do you think there’s an element to home recording vs. studio recording that helps your music or was it mostly a financial decision?

Pretty much everything I made has been recorded in my own little project studio, and it moved around from place to place. I’ve named it different things for records: I would call it ‘Control’ or ‘BRS’ but it was just me and my computer or whatever tools I was using at the time. Part of the decision comes from the fact that I started to record my first record before the Digi 001 which was the boom for DIY recording. That was the first consumer Pro Tools rig and before that you had to spend $10,000 to get a rig. So, there was very little middle ground, but if you could get a 4-track or 8-track machine you could put together an ADAT studio for the cost of three days in a studio. At the time, I was working on independent labels with no budget, and so I viewed it as a DIY, lo-fi 4-track project. Home recording was the thing that I was into and it became relatively easier over the years to do in a high fidelity kind of way. It’s just something I’ve always been interested it. The record I made with Passenger String Quartet was the first record I ever made in a studio.

I’ve been a first person autobiographical writer for a very long time and I can’t imagine what it’s like to write from a fictional perspective. On the flip side, has first person songwriting changed how you view writing in general?

Well, it’s all kind of a mix of everything. Things became more autobiographical after ‘Curse Your Branches’ but I don’t feel like I have an easy relationship with any of it, so it doesn’t feel weird to try and mix it up. ‘Achilles Heel’ was so different from ‘Control’ because after the first ‘Control’ tour I was like, “Fuck, I’m in an emo band! I didn’t mean to be in an emo band.” That’s why ‘Achilles Heel’ was not a rock ‘n’ roll record. I felt like I just needed to change it. It’s like in art school they say, “Don’t do the same thing twice” and I can’t say I do that, but there are subtle differences between each record.


Try these three interviews

Interview: Greywind [Reading 2016]

Interview: Arcane Roots [Reading 2016]

Interview: Trash Boat [Reading 2016]