Pedro the Lion's David Bazan reconnects with his seventh-grade self on 'Havasu'

Before the band's Friday show at Skully's, Bazan discusses the challenging, therapeutic experience of revisiting Lake Havasu, which inspired Pedro the Lion's new album

Joel Oliphint
Columbus Alive
David Bazan of Pedro the Lion

In the last couple of years, David Bazan has spent more time alone playing guitar, but the change had little to do with the forced isolation of the pandemic.

“I was coming to the end of a 20-year marriage and processing all of that, so I had a lot going on in terms of processing and retooling myself and my life. And one aspect of that is I found a lot more leisure time playing the guitar,” said Bazan, a solo artist and longtime frontman of Seattle indie-rock band Pedro the Lion, which will visit Skully's on Friday, April 29. “[Previously], the honey-do lists would give me purpose and organize my time. So there was this question of, how do I spend my time? If I could do anything, what would I do? And I just started playing guitar a lot more. Before I got married, I was a dirtbag who sat around and played guitar all the time, and that was something that I felt some shame about. But then I realized, nope, that's a good thing.”

Rather than sitting down with a mission to write a song, Bazan embraced being at play — messing around as a foundational creative act rather than a mindless detour. He also did away with strict songwriting deadlines, instead focusing on processing and healing. “I didn’t kick my own ass if I didn’t write something,” he said. “I was gentle to myself. You don't need to be mean to yourself to get this work done.” 

Accordingly, Bazan made peace with the shifting timeline for Pedro the Lion’s newest record, Havasu, an excellent, intensely autobiographical album released earlier this year that proved to be even tougher to write than its similarly personal predecessor, 2019’s Phoenix. On both albums, Bazan revisits his childhood hometowns, remembering what it was like to ride his bicycle through Arizona streets (Phoenix track “Yellow Bike”) and switching out his school clarinet for the drums (Havasu’s “First Drum Set”).

On “Leaving the Valley,” the closing track of Phoenix, Bazan and his family depart his home with a U-Haul full of their belongings rattling along a desert highway. Reviving the closing guitar riff from “Leaving the Valley,” Havasu picks up where Phoenix left off with “Don’t Wanna Move,” which finds 12-year-old Bazan sitting quietly in the car, his insides roiling. “I desperately don't want to move to Lake Havasu,” Bazan sings, giving voice to the unspoken words of his younger self.

To get back into that seventh-grade headspace, Bazan made several trips to Lake Havasu City, which sits on the Arizona-California border, about 200 miles northwest of Phoenix — practically another universe to a tween. Over a handful of visits, Bazan would stay for a couple of nights, waking up at sunrise to drive around and visit old haunts while listening to music.

More:Feature music interview: Pedro the Lion at Skully's

“I was trying to immerse myself in that place and connect with what came. Pretty soon I would hit pause on whatever I was listening to and just start talking into the voice memo recorder. And usually memories would come, little catch phrases or little bits of direction for lyrics. And then once the sun was up and it wasn't so magic anymore … I'd go back to the hotel or whoever's house I was staying at and go into the bedroom and just try to translate what I found to a little musical moment with the guitar,” he said. “I'd do the same thing at the sunset magic hour, and then again when it was dark. I didn't have to finish things when I was down there, although I did sometimes. It was really just about capturing the feeling and enough of a musical moment where I could finish it later and know that it was rooted in this experience that I had down there.”

Bazan used a similar process for Phoenix, but this one took longer, partly because as time went on, Bazan realized his time in Lake Havasu was the basis for decades of suppressing his true thoughts and feelings, as well as the shame that accompanied the dissonance between his interior life and his outward posture. “Admitting how much masking I was doing was a big process of remembering and pinpointing and being aware of the inside feeling versus the outside, what I was showing,” he said. “I think the masking that I was doing [at 12] was the most extreme in my life, and it became permanent in that year. I was trying to reckon with it as completely as I knew how so that I could move on, because it really is the foundation for how I've been since then.”

On “Too Much,” Bazan walks listeners through his painful first day of school, feeling embarrassed, turning red. “Shrink along the corridors, feeling out of place, feeling like a fool,” he sings. But when his parents ask him how his day went, his response masks it all: “Pretty good, I guess.” 

As Bazan was processing and writing, he had to fight the urge to downplay the trauma of that year in Lake Havasu. “Part of the impulse to mask is that you're not supposed to draw attention to yourself. You're not supposed to be dramatic. You're not supposed to make a big deal out of it," he said. "I was doing literally the opposite of what all my impulses were, which was to dramatize the pain that I was in, to make a big deal out of it, as a way of stopping masking. And that was a difficult tug of war." 

The deeper Bazan dug, the more challenging the project became, particularly as the songs inevitably centered on his mom and dad. “Part of why you would mask your trauma is to protect your parents from feeling shame or guilt about anything they've done or didn't do,” he said.

Ever since Bazan’s 2009 solo album, Curse Your Branches, often described as the songwriter’s breakup record with God, Bazan has deconstructed his religious upbringing, and Havasu led him to the same place, particularly on the song “Old Wisdom.” “You're not allowed to see it, but you always had a choice/Between making a disciple and knowing your little boy/I thought it was sinful for me to know myself/And if I did I might wind up in hell,” Bazan sings. 

“That one still hurts my feelings — for [my parents], for me. … But it also names something that I really needed to say, and it lays the groundwork for other things that are coming on the next records,” Bazan said. “I'm so uncomfortable doing this because it has the potential of reflecting on them specifically and all of the grown-ups in my life generally. And because of that, I feel like I have the obligation to go deep enough to show that it's not personal. It's a cycle that they were a part of, and it happened to them, too. I think of them with the same compassion that I try to apply to my kid self. They were really just kids when they had me. Their brains hadn't fully developed yet when I was born. It's a wild situation.” 

Those discoveries have influenced the way Bazan parents his own kids as he tries to make space for their feelings and understand their interior worlds. “Maybe one of the kids is really struggling, and I think, OK, how can we lighten the load? Where are these demands that they're buckling under? Where are they coming from, and how can we renegotiate? Who do we have to talk to?” he said. “And usually it's just us. We can say, ‘Oh, we've been working from a script that we can just trash. We don't need this.’” 

Perhaps the most therapeutic result of Havasu, though, was the mending of Bazan’s relationship with himself. “I spent so much time trying to create distance between that traumatized kid and myself, and so to go back and to get close was pretty transformative for me,” he said. “When I was singing some of the songs, I realized I had made myself aware of my seventh-grade self that's still in there. And my seventh-grade self just felt so cared for, like, ‘Oh, man, your 46-year-old self is spending all this time thinking about me and devoting an entire album to me.’ And that felt really good. That's the kind of care and attention that I didn't know that I needed then, and people around me didn't know, but I did.”