Mining the Darkness

Ex-Christian rocker David Bazan finds musical themes in a world without God

Emo-rock veteran David Bazan is driving through remote Idaho, so the phone connection is tenuous. I launch an icebreaker anyway. “I’m sure you heard the news,” I say. “I suspect you’re wondering the same thing I am: Is the guy from Death Cab straight?”

Bazan laughs (forced politeness), then adopts an earnest tone to mourn today’s news about the end of an indie supercouple: Death Cab for Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard and She & Him singer Zooey Deschanel.

“Man, that’s a tough thing,” Bazan says. “Ben’s a good friend of mine and a stand-up guy. I can tell you he’s hurting and doesn’t take it lightly. That’s all I know.”

Bazan, 35, married his wife 12 years ago, and they have two young children. Despite slowly losing his faith in Christianity to ongoing disappointments and unanswerable questions, the agnostic takes his vows seriously. (His 2009 album Curse Your Branches is his “break-up” record with God). “You have to keep close tabs on a marriage and be proactive in staying connected to your wife and kids,” Bazan says. “Just include your family in every decision. For me, it means bringing in my wife to discuss a tour. Is me being gone worth it next month, or do we need to eat?”

I ask if he’s mindful of the contrast between him and Gibbard. After all, the Death Cab leader plays arenas, divorces It girls and writes love songs. Bazan, on the other hand, does solo touring in his fan’s living rooms, remains married and writes songs about infidelity, alcoholism, suicide and God’s absence. In other words, Bazan’s songwriting tackles grown-up concerns. In fact, the ex-Pedro the Lion frontman recently released his most searing rock album to date.

“We do represent two indie-rock strains,” says Bazan, who formed his earlier, acclaimed, Christian-indie band Pedro the Lion around the same time as Death Cab. “But I saw Death Cab play months back, and even though my songs are darker, I was taken by how many bummers in a row Death Cab gives fans—in an arena, no less.”

Bazan confesses that Gibbard’s popularity is something he had to accept. “Death Cab’s success was satisfying at first because I saw how hard they worked. I’m also a hard-worker, but when I’d wake up in the morning and get in my tiny studio I began to wonder: ‘Hey, am I struggling here?’”

Bazan’s Strange Negotiations makes the struggle worth it. It’s a blistering meditation on what it means to be human when everything—particularly one’s belief in God—has been stripped away. The album is a metaphor for navigating the less secure world of post-recessionary America. Songs such as “Wolves at the Door” are at once topical and timeless: Surprise!/They took your money and ate your kids/And they had their way/With your wife a little bit/While you wept on the porch/With your head in your hands/Cursing taxes and the government

Indeed, the menacing lyrics and driving, minor-key Telecaster guitar riff snake their way toward a painful realization—namely, that the elite don’t have our best interests in mind. “Yeah, that song is different for me and does take a broader view of things,” he says. “I reached outside my comfort zone, trying to redeem these great chords I’d had lying around since 2002 with lyrics that could keep up.”

There’s plenty of classic Bazan in Strange Negotiations, such as the harrowing “Virginia.” The song describes a now-deceased woman who, when presented with concerns about her spiritual well-being, “smiled it off/floating high above the question.”

“That’s about a friend who died of an aneurysm, and the song’s an homage,” says Bazan, who changed the friend’s name to protect her identity.

That’s the other paradox at the center of Bazan’s music—sometimes you fudge things to make them more real. “On a creative level, I’m being as true I can,” he says. “Occasionally I choose to use brand names or make decisions geared toward success. But I’d never trade what I have. Like the cliché goes: Different strokes for different folks. This is how I choose to make music; this is the music I want to create.”

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