On 'Phoenix,' the first Pedro the Lion album in 15 years, David Bazan finds the answer to loneliness in a surprising place
“Why am I still so lonely?”
The question nagged at the core of David Bazan, who recently reformed the rock band he killed off in 2005, Pedro the Lion. Bazan had a loneliness problem, and to start the process of solving it, he had to go back to the beginning, when he was a kid pedaling the streets of Phoenix, Arizona.
“I remember what it was like, astride my yellow bike,” Bazan sings on “Yellow Bike,” off Pedro the Lion's first album in 15 years, Phoenix. He describes the thrill of seeing the bicycle next to the tree on Christmas morning in 1981, and then the freedom he felt when his dad finally let go of the seat. And yet, Bazan recalls a “little ache inside” his 6-year-old self — loneliness.
“I'd trade my kingdom for someone to ride with,” he sings at the song's close as distorted guitars ring out and fade away.
“What I realized is that ‘someone' has to be me,” Bazan said recently by phone. “That sounds unsatisfying, I'm sure, to anybody who's struggling with that, and it did to me [at first]. But there are certain things that I need to provide for myself.”
Through the process of making Phoenix, Bazan learned to trust the instincts of his own subconscious, and in so doing, he found the answer to his loneliness problem. “My subconscious has exponentially more resources to actually do this work than I could connect with consciously,” he said. “One of the ways in which I befriend myself and fill that void is by having a relationship based on accountability with myself. And when that voice speaks, I want to know it already from all the interactions that we're having, and to take it seriously. That's the voice that suggested writing Phoenix in the first place. And I listened to it and knew to take it seriously and immediately made a commitment that I don't think I wavered from.”
Getting there wasn't easy, though. For years Bazan relegated himself to solo albums and tours, often playing house shows because playing in a band didn't seem tenable. Bazan's creative process is insular and solitary, which didn't fit his idealized vision of a band. “A ‘regular band' meant people who are collaborating on that basic level — on the part-writing level — with me. That's what I was aiming for. I kept trying to turn [Pedro the Lion] into this Fugazi-like, collaborative band,” Bazan told Alive toward the end of 2017.
But those attempts at collaboration didn't go well. Bazan would get frustrated while writing, come out of his creative cocoon and ask for feedback from bandmates, who would then give him ideas. “Then there's a certain point where I'm going to be like, ‘Cool, thanks for the feedback. Now I'm going to finish this and make all the decisions on this song, and it was kind of a tease that you were involved at all because I just needed a little bit of wind in my sails, and now I'm gone again,''' Bazan said. “I shouldn't do that to people. I shouldn't have ever done that to people. I didn't mean to do that to people. So now I'm learning what it looks like to not be that way.”
“The process of me getting comfortable with the Pedro approach is just learning to have the resources to actually do my native process without needing to fill up my tank a bunch of times in the midst of it. I can fill up my own tank now,” he continued. “Collaboration is great. I'm in collaborative bands. I love it. But there is a thing that I've been meaning to do with myself that I'm finally getting to do. … So now I get engulfed in my solo composition process and I forget what it was like to feel lonely in it, because now it's a relationship with myself, and I'm excited to see myself and I like my ideas. … It's the redemption of this relationship that I put on the shelf forever because it was unpopular, because it would make it hard for me to play with the musicians that were around me that I wanted to play with.”
While mining his childhood on Phoenix, Bazan also deals with a subject he has touched on in virtually every Pedro and solo album since the late '90s: Christianity. Sometimes Bazan remembers his religious upbringing fondly, like on Phoenix track “Piano Bench,” which recalls his father playing piano (“His gentle nature soothed me”) and his mother singing (“The ache in her voice moved me”) at a Sunday evening service. Elsewhere, Sunday afternoons feel like a tomb on “Model Homes,” and the temptations he was taught to avoid in “Powerful Taboo” made him feel like a stranger to himself.
“I did have the desire to achieve some kind of balance there,” he said. “I had to just populate the record with moments that scratch the itch that were true to the way that it felt for me. … I was trying to stick to the kid view as much as possible, because there's something about the sincerity of and the devoutness of my own faith as I experienced it growing up that is important. I was a very devout little dude all the way up into my mid-20s."
On Bazan's 2009 solo album, Curse Your Branches, which has come to be known as the musician's “breakup record with God,” he sings, “I swung my tassel to the left side of my cap/Knowing after graduation there would be no going back.” Ten years later, on closing Phoenix track “Leaving the Valley,” Bazan turns the same statement into a question: “If I swung my tassel to the left side of my cap/After graduation, will there be no going back?”
The question hangs there at the end of the record, unresolved. “It's laying groundwork for future thoughts about those things,” said Bazan, who admitted that Phoenix is merely the first installment in a series of albums. “All the religious stuff is going to continue to build. This stuff isn't going to land all the way till album four.”