"The last record [1998's It's Hard to Find a Friend] was also the same way [a solo effort], except I just had somebody who happened to be playing bass in the band that played on the record," says Bazan via phone from his home, on the eve of his latest tour. "It just happened, timing-wise, in a way that made it necessary that I do it this way. I'm really looking forward to not making records this way in the future. But for a number of reasons, it kind of had to work out this way. You know, the night before the mix, I wrote and recorded some of the lyrics. I had this concept of this record for so long, and it was just really stubborn in coming together. I spent a lot of time sitting in front of my computer screen, trying to piece songs together."
For this Pedro the Lion tour, Bazan has assembled a band that he hopes will ultimately turn into his permanent group; he has enlisted the help of his longtime booking agent (and Velour 100 member) Trey Many on drums and T.W. Walsh on bass (Walsh will actually be opening for select shows along the way, including Cleveland).
Taking its name from a children's book Bazan intended to write, Pedro the Lion formed in 1995 in Seattle, after Bazan quit his previous band due to a regional conflict. "I had started a band called Christopher Robin, and at the same time there was another local band called Christopher Robin, and they eventually became a little bit better known," says Bazan. "I played acoustic guitar, and it was real stripped-down and organic music, but I got tired of playing the songs that way, and I wanted to do something different. So I sat down with a four-track and started Pedro the Lion by myself, recording these songs, writing some new ones, and eventually I got some guys to play with me."
Each subsequent PTL release has been better received than the last, and the brilliantly hushed tones of Winners Never Quit are likely to follow that pattern. Along with the outstanding reviews, Bazan has also been the recipient of a number of flattering comparisons -- he's been likened to everyone from Sebadoh's Lou Barlow and the Lemonheads' Evan Dando to pop craftsmen such as Ron Sexsmith and Joe Pernice. Bazan doesn't shy away from any talk of influences, but is very clear on the nature of his songwriting.
"When I first started playing guitar and singing, the guys in the hardcore bands and the other versions of bands I was playing with thought I sounded like Lou Barlow," Bazan says sincerely. "So it wasn't much of a surprise. I was fine with it, because I'd heard of Sebadoh, and I had heard that they were really respected. To this day, I've never really listened to a Sebadoh record all the way through. I've heard some of their songs that I thought were good, and I just heard a Folk Implosion song that was totally cool. But I don't mind, because I don't take a lot of cues from Lou Barlow and Sebadoh as far as influence, so I'm not real sensitive about it. The bands that I have mimicked, like Bedhead, I've only been compared to once -- and when I was, I was so excited, because that's what I was shooting for."
Bazan's songwriting style is clearly very personal and confessional (even if it's not entirely autobiographical), which leads one to believe that it might also be, at some level, a therapeutic device. He offers an interpretation as quietly descriptive as his music.
"I have a hard time separating it," he says. "I feel like there are certain songs that I could point to that have really helped me to understand and to see. Songwriting is the main form that my creative impulse uses to find its way out, and just having an outlet, period, is really therapeutic and cathartic. Just being able to express myself in general is therapeutic, and songwriting is just one of the main ways that that happens."
Bazan is most obviously distinguished from his fellow indie compatriots by one very important characteristic -- he is a Christian. There is a certain segment of the population that will flee screaming at this point, and Bazan understands that reaction fairly well. The dichotomy between his secular and Christian audiences is an issue that he deals with on an ongoing basis.
"That's been a big issue all along, because I grew up in a Christian environment and wasn't allowed to listen to "secular music' for years," says Bazan. "At the beginning, I really felt a lot of pressure to write in a certain way, to include certain subject matter. Pedro the Lion definitely was the first time where I said, "I'm not interested in yielding to that pressure that I feel.' In the five or so years that Pedro the Lion's been a band, I've found a more true voice in just not being pressured by people about what I should write about or what the song should be. I've come lately to an idea of faith that I think is true and is deeply satisfying, but at the same time, I don't think that music is at its best when it's a tract for something. I think it's at its best when it reveals the human condition a little better and pokes and prods in either direction, whether it's toward Christianity or away from it.
"I think, if I wrote an entire record that undermined the American idea of Christianity, that it would serve as much a positive purpose as if I wrote a record that did the opposite. We need to think as human beings, and so lately I've just been trying to find what's in there and express it as best I can, even if it's really negative. I think the key is to keep a short distance between the creative impulse and the final product, without a bunch of pretense."
Previous tours have taken Bazan to churches that doubled as gig venues as well as the established alterna-bar routing, a practice he has since abandoned in favor of playing strictly in the secular environment. His argument for this course of action is fairly compelling.
"We definitely prefer to play in bars," says Bazan. "We just decided to stop playing churches, and there's a couple of things that I hope happen from that. We encourage Christians to come out of their cloister and come out into the real world, and have to communicate about something other than what would happen if you died tonight or whatever. It's really important to me that Christians quit playing these little games. I would much rather have Christians come into a bar than have a non-Christian come into most of the churches that we've played at. We decided that was the road we wanted to take, and we see a lot of people that believe similarly at the bars we play at, and I really am happy about that. It makes me feel good that maybe we're able to build a bigger sense of community between the two cultures in a way that I think is really healthy."
As Bazan attempts to delineate the rules of engagement for Pedro the Lion, he looks back over his recent history and his evolution with a certain measure of pride. "Almost all the songs that we've played and that I've written since the Tooth and Nail release [the 1997 Whole EP], we still play," he says confidently. "So I still like those songs, and I don't feel like I've gone a completely different direction [from] them. Lyrically, I feel a lot better about what I'm writing. I feel less inhibited and getting more that way all the time. The thing that I'm aiming for is feeling better about the process. I would like it to be more spontaneous and free-flowing. If I can create music that I enjoy and that I feel good about, then hopefully other people will respond to it the same way."