It’s been four years since our ears have been graced with a new Decemberists album, …
David Bazan keeps it real; that’s probably the best way to say it. His instrumentation has changed over the years, particularly since he retired his early aughts indie rock project Pedro the Lion. But what hasn’t changed much is the quality of his voice and the words he sings, which have long been the focal point of his music. He has a way of writing, as if he’s just speaking his mind. There are simple poetics to his words—they don’t try too hard to reach beyond themselves, and the result is a sense of humble honesty, a subtle melancholy that can only be soothed by the act of singing.
Speaking with him is similar to listening to his music. The main difference is that he’s funnier in conversation, though still with the pensive self-consciousness you might expect from a person who writes the kind of songs he does. I called him last week to talk about Blanco, the album he put out this past summer, as well as his latest release, Dark Sacred Night, a collection of Christmas songs that he’s recorded during the last 15 years.
We spoke for about a half-hour about the albums, his compositional process, and how he approaches making and performing music. Afterward, to my horror, I found out I had somehow only captured my half of the conversation on my call recording. I called him back to explain and he laughed. “No worries, man; it happens,” he said, and we got back to talking.
It was a strange experience, having the almost the same conversation twice in a row. The rough structure was dictated by the notes I had taken in preparation for the interview, but though we touched on many of the same ideas, the two conversations unfolded in different directions. Each time, it seemed as though speaking, for Bazan, was a process of thinking, his answers solidifying into being as they came to him in the moment, almost the same way a piece of music can feel at once rehearsed and spontaneous. The first attempt was lost, as things sometimes are to the digital ethers, but you can read our second conversation below.
Eleven: Although you’ve been releasing work under your own name for a while now, you’re also known by many for your work with Pedro The Lion. Do you approach songwriting differently when working solo versus working with a group?
David Bazan: Yeah, so I guess the way to answer that is the brand name doesn’t necessarily mean I’m working with a band or solo. Just because it’s the band name doesn’t mean I was working with a group the entire time, or just because it’s solo doesn’t mean it’s the opposite, you know? For each project, it just depends on whoever is around whether my process is more solo or with other people jamming this stuff in a room.
11: In your KEXP performance of songs off your album Blanco, I noticed you were using Ableton live and midi triggers as a way to perform as your own one-man-band. Do you typically compose with a Digital Audio Workstation? How do you approach using that as a tool?
DB: The DAW, starting in 2000, became a very heavily-relied-upon songwriting tool, and it was very neat the way you could kinda just spit whatever into it and arrange it into something meaningful later, which is great to be able to do. But I think I started to lose track over the years, in the decade plus, when I would write the whole song before I ever put it down on any kind of recording. I just knew how it went. And so I’m trying to get back into doing that. It’s really fun to be able to do that. It feels like a magical power. It kind of is, keeping that all in your head instead of making a computer do it.
11: Blanco features a lot of synthesized sounds, which sets it apart sonically from some of your older work. Do you see a distinction between composing electronically and using more traditional instrumentation?
DB: You know, I don’t really see a huge distinction there. The thing I was describing, where you just write a song on an instrument and you just sort of know how it goes, that is definitely possible on a synthesizer, and even a synth and drum machine kind of thing: where you just program the drum beats however many times you want but you have to remember it and play along with the thing. But I didn’t necessarily do things that way when composing Blanco. I hadn’t realized the thing about just knowing how the song goes, and it existing in your head completely before it ever gets into the DAW. That’s new since then, but I’ll do that with a synthesizer too. In fact, man, that’s really exciting to think about…
11: But even though you’re composing these songs in the DAW, you still choose to perform them by playing the keys and pads and pedals, without using a sequencer?
DB: So the way I did it on the KEXP thing, I’m triggering samples. On “Trouble with Boys,” those samples are one measure long, and it’s the sample of the arpeggio, but it’s still just a sample that I hit, and it ends when it’s done. They’re all just one shot samples, so if I play it, it lasts for a certain amount of time, and if I want to hear it more I have to hit it again. So in a sense I was trying to make my fingers and my feet the sequencer. You know? And that was fun. I haven’t done that much of it, but I will do more. It was pretty exciting.
11: I’d also like to talk to you about your most recent project, Dark Sacred Night, which is a collection of Christmas songs you’ve recorded over the last decade or so. Even though it’s a holiday album, it’s not a particularly happy one. Can you speak a little bit about your relationship with Christmas music, and perhaps why you chose to play these songs in particular?
DB: Yeah, every year I had to come up with two more Christmas songs, between 2002 and 2011, and so I’d just try to find ones that worked for me. It’s hard. It’s a melancholy record, but that’s largely because that’s the kind of thing my body does the best. I’m not all that bright and shiny … I don’t know. So I just gravitated toward that stuff and found a way to do it. Sometimes in protest. There’s been a lot of weird shit going on since the year 2000, politically, in my opinion. So I was definitely finding ways to comment on that.
11: On that note, one of my favorite parts of the album is your use of layered vocals, particularly on “Silent Night,” where the lines stand in contrast to one another and create this weird tension between the voices. Can you talk a little about your use of that device?
DB: I had always wanted to be able to do counterpoint. I’d seen my sister do it in college as a music major, and I was a musician, but I didn’t get to study in that way. I got the opportunity when that song came around, because I thought, “I’d really like to tackle ‘Silent Night’ at some point.” I mean, I love the song, but at the time, I thought, “I can’t really … It’s not that right now. All is not calm.” So I didn’t feel like I could, in good conscience, put it out into the world that way. So I added that other set of lyrics and that melody that’s kind of a counter to the song. And it’s not me doing it. Well, it’s the people in the song, who I suppose I’m pointing a finger at.
I want it to be silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright. I want peace and dignity for every person, and that’s the song I wish I could have sang, but I couldn’t because it didn’t reflect what was happening, this demonic culture that we live in. It’s just disgusting the way that we think of people, and the way that we think of money and foreign lands, and I wanted to write a song that indicated that: in the name of your god, you do these filthy, immoral things. Murderous things. Evil. And sometimes you gotta call out evil instead of celebrate the baby Jesus. I think you really do honor the baby Jesus by calling out evil. That’s just my opinion.
11: I think the baby Jesus would agree. This record is a collection of songs that were recorded over the span of more than a decade. How do you go about putting together a collection like that, something that still feels like a cohesive whole?
DB: So I’ve made records for a long time, and when you’re putting a record together, when you’re writing a record, you’re kind of arranging it in your head. Subconsciously, your body tends to know where things are gonna go, but you’re really trying to make something that works as a whole, and that’s greater than the sum of its parts. It can be a bunch of great tunes, but when you put them in a certain order it makes this experience that you want to sit and have.
11: And perhaps because these are all Christmas songs, that helped the songs fit together thematically as well?
DB: Yeah, because my brain is my brain, and because Christmas brings up pretty specific things. I’m wrestling with the same themes in slow motion for a pretty long time. Two songs at a time. In the end, it hung together because I’m obsessed with what I’m obsessed with, and some of the things take years to kind of glean understanding about, so when I went back and put them together, it wasn’t that hard to make things match thematically. It was more just the energy of the tunes, and even if they’re saying the same things thematically, they’re coming from different people’s pens.
You know, there’s John Lennon, and Wayne Coyne wrote the lyrics for one of the songs, and I put it to the “Greensleeves” melody. So I’m representing a lot of different people too. The Christmas record is unique because if I wrote three of those songs in their entirety I’d be shocked. So it’s going over a lot of people’s work, and that makes it really fun, because there’s some unbelievable lyrics on that record that I didn’t write that are just fuckin’ rad. “Long Way Around the Sea” is so good.
11: Being an artist who’s known for your lyrics, does it feel different for you to sing other people’s songs?
DB: I can only sing shit that feels right to me, both the tone and content of a song, lyrically and musically. I’m only going to sing lyrics that I can sing fully, you know? Really be present with them and inhabit them all the way. So it’s funny, when I’m performing them, I don’t even really think of them as somebody else’s lyrics, or even my own, I just think of them as, “These are lyrics that I’m trying to intone right now, in this show, in this moment. I’m just trying to tune into whatever’s there.” And if I’ve already chosen previously to sing these words, I’ve already done the work of knowing that I’m down with them. And I’m always making that choice. If I’m not into something, I’ll stop singing it. In a lot of cases I’m just really grateful to be playing such amazing tunes, these covers especially.
11: What’s your relationship with your older work? Do you often listen to it, or not at all?
DB: I make music that I hope to like listening to. Some people don’t even think that’s necessary, or even something they’re interested in doing. They just make it and put it out. But for me, I don’t know, I came to music first as a consumer, and I obsessed over music as a consumer before I was ever really able to play it myself, in terms of putting together the kinds of songs I was listening to. So because I came to it as a consumer first … I was trying to have those experiences, where it wasn’t sounding like my favorite bands necessarily, but it had the same kind of sophistication.
So I’d make stuff and then listen back to it for that experience. I was trying to turn myself on, and I hope that I go back to that stuff and understand what I was doing. There’s stuff that I go back to from 1998 and I like it, and there’s stuff from 2004 that I’m not that into. And there’s also stuff from 2004 that I like, that I wrote. You try every time to make something, I do anyways, that I like, and that I’m going to like ongoing. But it’s also just a moment in time that you’re trying to be true to, and capture something about it, so it’s not like you have a choice. You’re making choices, but whatever your body is trying to do, that’s what you’re trying to tune in to. So yes, I do want to listen to my old records, but only rarely is it a great experience. And I hope that average goes up over time, listening to my own stuff, where I’m like, “Yeah dude, fuckin’ murdered it.” But that’s just not always the case.
11: I always like to ask musicians about other musicians who they think deserves more shine. Who are you listening to right now that people should be up on?
DB: Protomartyr. They’re a Detroit band. Their most recent record, The Agent Intellect, is a great record. The new Preoccupations record. They used to be a band called Viet Cong. The new Angel Olsen record, My Woman. Chris Cohen, this guy who used to be in Deerhoof. Dave Dondero is a buddy of mine. Wye Oak. The singer of that band has another band called Flock of Dimes. That’s just a few; there are so many.
11: You’re set to play here in Portland at Revolution Hall on Dec. 17. Will that be a Christmas show? What can people expect?
DB: Yeah, it’ll be stuff from Dark Sacred Night, maybe not the entire record but the majority of it for sure. There will be probably like half Christmas songs, half non-Christmas songs, kinda all mixed together in some formulation. I’m just starting to work on it right now. Today was the first day I set everything up and started working on the Christmas show. It’s a Christmas tour, so people are expecting Christmas tunes; it just won’t be every single one.»
– Henry Whittier-Ferguson