A conversation with David Bazan and filmmaker Brandon Vedder about Pedro The Lion, the exhaustion of filming, and reckoning with Trump’s America.
It was a Sunday at 11 AM when I called Brandon Vedder to interview him and David Bazan about their recent documentary, Strange Negotiations. I found it funny that, in an alternate reality, David and I would probably both be at church around this hour. Back in May, I’d seen Bazan’s band Pedro the Lion play at Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro in support of the new album, Phoenix. I’ve been listening to his music for more than twenty years and went to speak with him when I saw him outside. “I just wanted to thank you in person,” I said. “Your music helped me have the courage to leave church.” With a knowing look on his face, he simply said, “That’s a hard thing.”
Pedro the Lion began as a Seattle slowcore project in the Nineties, initially characterized as a Christian band with their release of the Whole EP on Tooth & Nail Records. David Bazan continues to write the lion’s share of the music, having toured with a revolving cast of over twenty musicians for live shows. Bazan shared his struggle with faith on the subsequent debut album, It’s Hard to Find a Friend, perhaps most evidently in the song “Secret of the Easy Yoke”:
Could someone please tell me the story / Of sinners ransomed from the fall / I still have never seen you / And some days I don’t love you at all
Bazan’s lyrics go beyond spiritual trials. After moving to non-religious label Jade Tree Records, Bazan infused two concept albums, Winners Never Quit and Control, with tales of political corruption, murder, religious hypocrisy, corporate greed, infidelity, and the sense that we could be treating each other better. Achilles Heel was more direct than conceptual. The song “Foregone Conclusions” laid out Bazan’s perspective on the bedside manner of many evangelicals:
You were too busy steering / The conversation toward the Lord / To hear the voice of the Spirit / Begging you to shut the fuck up /
When Pedro the Lion played that song at a Christian music festival in 2004, panties reportedly were thrown on stage as a sign of approval. There were likely attendees that would withdraw from an F-bomb dropping on a song about God, but others obviously understood what Bazan was saying about the incessant salesmanship of their brethren.
By 2006, Bazan needed a break from the Pedro the Lion moniker and, among other projects, began touring by himself under his own name. While he would come to resurrect Pedro the Lion, Bazan has not done the same for his faith. 2009 saw Bazan booking an acoustic tour in people’s living rooms and Barsuk Records releasing Curse Your Branches, described as an album about breaking up with God. Having aired his deity laundry, Bazan began to take a look around. Strange Negotiations, the album he released in 2011, might serve as a better State of the Union Address. The title track describes the alienation many Americans are experiencing as they are squeezed for our collective financial sins:
But now it’s you who doesn’t know what a dollar is worth / You got the market its own bodyguard / And all the people are getting hurt
This album also inspired the name of Vedder’s documentary. Having read the Kickstarter pitch for the film, I know that he followed Bazan around for two years filming conversations about art, faith, truth, and America. That’s where our conversation started.
D.T. Jones: How did you get involved with Dave and decide to make a documentary about him?
Brandon Vedder: I listened to Pedro the Lion in high school and college. I was on a drive after finishing a film and I was listening to a podcast by Pete Holmes, called You Made It Weird, and Dave was on. It started a fire. Afterwards, I went home and printed out all Dave’s lyrics and put a book together so I could read them as a narrative. Our mutual friend, Alison, produced it.
DJ: I rented your film, In Pursuit of Silence, last night and was fascinated by the spiritual and scientific aspects. I also read about A Certain Kind of Light, focused on death and listening. Do you feel like Strange Negotiations is a culmination of these ideas?
BV: Sure. I started by shooting bands, but I’ve always been interested in bigger ideas.
DJ: Did you have to adapt your approach after Silence?
BV: I had to be small and agile and keep up with the pace of what Dave is doing. There was a closeness, without a cam op or a boom op that would’ve complicated production. So that was a challenge, being a one-man band and having to scale up to 3 or 4 cameras and record sound at a venue.
David Bazan: If I can chime in for just a second… I would say that Brandon’s process was as manic as my own. It wasn’t really a choice. We had to get in my headspace. I was inviting him into my insecurity. We are both really hard on ourselves, and although we were able to pull it off, we were both fatigued all the time.
I tell Dave about meeting him outside of Cat’s Cradle, and he responds…
David Bazan: Yeah, it is a hard thing. It’s a lonely thing, leaving that club.
DJ: I’ve read interviews with you that say you reformed Pedro the Lion for musical reasons, but did you consider having to speak with your Christian fans again?
DB: The affiliation brings a certain attention and scrutiny. Some people may not have gotten the memo from 2005. Others may have had shifts in their thinking. I spent a lot of time deconstructing. Now it is time for reconstruction. I wanted to hang out with people again. I wanted to bring tenderness back to Pedro.
DJ: Returning to the name Pedro the Lion probably stirs certain feelings. What is your relationship to faith now?
DB: I was engaged in a conversation in my head. I thought it was with God. I didn’t get to keep that conversation, even though it had a lot of meaning for me.
DJ: I know a lot of people probably ask you “what was the hardest thing” about leaving church. What was the easiest thing about leaving church for you?
DB: It’s such a relief… I had thoughts that don’t fit into the program. Part of me is contrary. I want to think my own thoughts… evaluate the data. I didn’t like the obligation, the tension. People asking for an answer and assuming that it’s going to be along the party line.
DJ: It’s interesting to me that use the words party line, that phrase. That’s part of what the documentary is about, right? Not just your relationship with faith, and talking about it with people after shows, but also how American Christianity relates to the current political conversation… or lack of it.
DB: I always thought language was the way to change the behavior. The words were the seeds, the fruit was our behavior… peace, love, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness. No one’s trying to grow anything. They’re beating each other up with it. It’s just bad math with words. I grew up with a more idealistic sense of how people should treat one another… the implications of the Good Samaritan. People that know that story, people I love and respect, they supported a sexual predator and proto-fascist for president. There’s an extra layer of disappointment, having to remove yourself from a social group acting in a way you never thought possible. It’s a shock. It’s a blow.
DJ: Do you take some sense of hope from our system of government, the bureaucracy, stonewalling a guy like Trump, keeping him from doing as much damage as he might have if he were German in the 1940s?
DB: It took a while in Germany, too. We’re right on track if we don’t mobilize our interest in democracy. We have to insist. We have to do it at the ballot box. We’re at an impasse. I don’t want to listen to some guy’s elevator pitch for authoritarianism. We have to talk to our moms and dads and our college roommates that have conservative podcasts. It’s the third quarter and it’s a toss-up. It shouldn’t be close. I have hope, but there’s a decent chance it goes the other way.
DJ: I read an article recently about the conditions at an immigrant detainee camp. I also heard that Ocasio-Cortez caught flak for referring to them as concentration camps. Tell me how you feel about that.
DB: She’s the greatest threat they have right now. She’s not gonna be able to say anything without taking flak. Even if they don’t meet the definition of concentration camps, they’re baby versions… denying soap and toothbrushes to children like they can’t afford it. Immigrants aren’t creating economic difficulty in this country… it’s the hoarders siphoning money out of the system, outsourcing jobs. It’s a con job.
DJ: Do you think there’s a way to incentivize people to treat each other better?
DB: Yes. I think the incentives already exist. But it’s a question of narrative. Maybe they are unaware of the incentives. Or they aren’t as turned on, not as excited by looking for similarities between themselves and people that talk in a language that they don’t understand and sounds harsh to them. We’re all just people. We’ve all got problems. Trump’s got dad issues… he shouldn’t be in charge… he’s a wounded person. A wounded person that’s seduced other people.
DJ: Seduced. That’s a good way to put it. Last year I read about Christians defending Trump’s affair with Stormy Daniels by comparing him to King David. What do you think of that?
DB: You can make the Bible say whatever you want, support whatever you already believe…
DJ: Like slavery.
DB: Or concentration camps. They’ve got blinders on, supporters of Trump. I read that kids were being molested and I shared that with someone I love that also happens to support Trump. He said those kids were probably molested before they even got there. I don’t know why. I think that’s wrong on six different levels. I love him dearly, but his values don’t add up. It’s like finding out your family are monsters. Like a zombie movie. They got bit. How? I don’t know how. I was with them the whole time. I didn’t see it.
We talk a little more about the Christian bookstore that David bought Christian death metal tapes from when he was 14, and how one of his favorite bands is Fugazi. I ask Brandon about his next films. He says he is working on a project called Upriver People with the Karuk Tribe in California. Then they have to go. But I’ll be thinking about this conversation for a while.
If you appreciate carefully crafted film storytelling, I would recommend any of Brandon Vedder’s documentaries. However, Strange Negotiations will be particularly essential if you, like me, are a longtime fan of Pedro the Lion.