Defined by faith

"It's just such an uncool set of topics to write a record about," indie singer/songwriter David Bazan says, self-deprecatingly, of his latest effort, Curse Your Branches (Barsuk, 2009).

Religion permeates the album, and while Seattle-based Bazan acknowledges that the subject can get "way up its own ass" and says it is not necessarily the "brand name" he'd like to be associated with, it's something that he can't seem to escape. Biblical references appear throughout his extensive body of recordings — Bazan was the principle member of indie-rock band Pedro the Lion and the experimental electronic three-piece Headphones — and the matter is inevitably brought up during the nightly Q&A sessions he holds with fans between songs at his shows.

"It's kind of silly for me to have those feelings because it's what I'm defined by at almost every turn," he admits. "In the end I became cool with that aspect of it. It's stuff that I'm obsessed with, that I'm endlessly interested in."

Bazan, who began with a relatively "devout faith," explains that his views have shifted over time to a "faith in a few different things and a few opposite things." And the transition is apparent in his recordings. Throughout Curse Your Branches, the singer takes a more confrontational approach than he has in the past, railing against the traditional idea of God as an omnipresent father figure. (In fact, a review by Chicago Reader described the album as "a harrowing breakup record — except he's dumping God.")

"If you knew what would happen," Bazan declares on "When We Fell," "and made us just the same / Then you my Lord can take the blame." Similarly, Bazan explores the consequences of losing faith and its practical implications on "Heavy Breath": "Is a ship without a captain just as doomed / As a ship without a crew," he asks, "Cause of all my friends who try to tell the truth / There are still a faithful few who insist they won't know what to do / If no heavy breath blew up these lungs."

"People criticize and say, 'Well you're talking to God, how can you not believe that he exists? You can't really have it both ways.' But on a lyrical level," Bazan explains, "I'm using the device of speaking to the person of God to debunk a human institution's claims about God.

"On 'In Stitches,' it says, 'When Job asked you the question / You responded who are you / To question your creator / Well if that one part is true,'" he says. "Like, if this testimony about you is true, then you're a f—ing a—hole. It's a dependent clause. And there's a lot of that going on on the record.

"Again, I think that highlights the vague and constantly shifting nature of the person and personality of the ostensible creator of the universe. Everybody's got a slightly different take on who he is, and they all claim that theirs is the right one."

Now, Bazan is bringing his take to a club near you. And although he spent the last four years touring solo after disbanding Pedro the Lion in 2006 (going so far as releasing a DVD of performances and interviews titled Alone at the Microphone), this time around he's enlisted a full band for a "more visceral, kind of exciting" experience.

So exciting, in fact, that he took the band into the Champagne, Ill., studio of legendary producer Steve Albini (Nirvana, The Pixies) and spent 12 hours recording a handful of songs for what would become Bazan: Live at Electrical Audio. The record, which was released earlier this moth, includes tracks from various projects spanning his career and was recorded live with no overdubs. His only complaint about the session?

"We really needed that day off as a day off. But instead of having a day off to chill out, we worked five times harder than we did any other day on tour. We recorded 16 tunes in one day. It was incredibly long. The last two hours… those guys are champions."

But while the return to a full-band format has been a nice change of pace, Bazan will always have a soft spot for acoustic solo performances, especially the living room shows he began playing last year. What started out of necessity, he says, became one of his favorite outlets as a performer and helped hone his craft. 

After agreeing, at the behest of his record label, to refrain from touring until the release of Curse Your Branches, Bazan found himself itching to get back to performing, so came up with a compromise. Why not play small living room shows at fans' houses until then? And when the label gave him their blessings, he put the plan into full effect.

"I played the shit out of some house shows last year," he says. "I think I did 80 or so. And they are great! They're really intimate, and it's kind of exhilarating. You're either playing well and making everything work right, or you're not. So having done a lot of them, I'm getting used to being able to at least pull of the rudiments of what I'm doing somewhat expertly."

[Dane Smith can be reached at rocknrolldane@gmail.com.]

who: David Bazan, with opener Headlights
what: Lyrical/narrative singer/songwriter
where: The Grey Eagle
when: Thursday, March 18 (8:30 p.m., $12. thegreyeagle.com, davidbazan.com)

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