Last month, I had lunch with David Bazan the afternoon after one of his house show stops in Austin. It was casual and very insightful into a musician that has his head on very straight through quite a career thus far.
Doing the house show tour, have you had a favorite city or town you've been to yet?
I don't really have a favorite. [There are] buddies of mine I like. I love being in Madison a lot, because one of my best friends lives there. Sometimes the acoustic shows are cooler in one place than others. It's kind of my job to make [every stop] the best one. Even if the acoustics aren't as cool as the night before, or whatever, it's about giving the folks that are there the best show. In general, they're all just great. It's a cool thing to do.
Last night, someone asked you if there is hope in your new record. Why do you think that was a question even brought up?
Well, I think that people think of my music as being dark or morose or whatever. I think that there's the assumption there that those things are mutually exclusive from hope or whatever. As I said last night, I don't think that's the case. All this false positivity our culture kind of thrives on is mutually exclusive from hope. I'm not all that deliberate. There's no mission. I just write what comes out. Evaluating it in hindsight, I think that's all I really try to do, be as honest as I can about things, good or bad. That's a hopeful act.
You also talked about this record being more political. Do you find the approach to this one a lot more third person and less personal than anything before?
It's way less personal than Curse Your Branches. It's as personal to me. I don't think it's going to feel as personal to the listener. All of our perspectives differ, but it's about going through the same frustration, uncertainty that anyone has been paying attention for the last three years. Certainly the election was an interesting turn of events, but I think the thing for me was the economic down turn and the official collective response to that. The insane things that people are allowed to say about the economics and saying we need more deregulation and more tax breaks for the rich and multiparty systems. It's just utter fucking insanity. It should be characterized as such in any conversation anywhere. It's complete nonsense. We have to take it seriously as a set of ideas because of that. It's extremely frustrating of course.
In these economic times, how difficult is it for you to be touring? We just had a discussion about the ideas that center around Kickstarter, and I know you have used ways, not necessarily Kickstarter, but funding to help go out on tour. On this tour, in giving back for coming out, you printed out free posters for each show. With the years of Pedro the Lion and then Headphones up until now, do you think it's more difficult to be in a band? Do you think younger bands don't realize financial woes have always been there for being in a band?
I think, financially, it's more difficult. There's so many more people out touring and making music. There are a lot of people that are going to go on three tours and be done. There are thousands of bands that are going to go out on tour, in a negative sense, sort of use up the bandwidth in going out and living like a rock star for a few months and then go work a job or whatever. That's great, but there are other folks that are lifers. It boils down to that it's not easy, but I make my living by playing songs for people. It's unbelievable. Certainly, there are people who want it a littler easier and want an easier ride. I understand that. There's plenty of ways, if you're creative and dedicated, to make this work. I disagree that with a statement that "using Kickstarter is bullshit." There's an element to Kickstarter that highlights the fact that we're a community with each other. If people are serious, there's ways to do it. Maybe if you're implying that if someone is unwilling to go tour and to do the sort of hard, "in the trenches" sort of thing, and they just want people to fund their project without doing the work - it's just not going to work. You can say this won't work or this is b.s., but only time will tell if it is or not. Things are just going to run their course. It's not anymore bullshit than somebody who doesn't do anything creatively and just kicks up shit in the press for a living. That's bullshit. Somebody who makes something and goes out and does it everyday, how are [critics] needed to comment on what something else is doing. That's bullshit.
For years, back to Pedro the Lion, I'm sure you guys were busting ass to go out and do things…
…do you kind of wish that the new technology of Bandcamp and Rdio and Kickstarter kind of existed back then in the D.I.Y. scene, or is it a generalized statement for the Internet to just to exist and make things easier?
Back then, when the Internet didn't figure in largely with people…I mean, we would have little postcards that we would send to people with merch [options], and we would send them off. People would send them back with a check or money, and we would send them stuff. It's way easier now with the Internet for commerce. There were 1200 bands total in the United States touring and putting out records at the time. Now there's…I have no idea. 50,000? There's little perks, and there's challenges. I like my vocation a lot. Bob, my manager, and I will sit down and figure out how to make my vocation work. When a new technology offers a solution to an existing problem, we'll capitalize on that. When technology introduces itself as a problem we have to overcome, we'll solve the problem another way. In a way, I don't really think of anything like "Oh it's so hard now." I think "It's time to get in my van and go do this job that I love." I think of ways, and this tour is a good example of to that. The best feedback is from fans who say they dig it, and you hope they're truthful that they like it a lot. Most of the time I don't think about these things. The real obstacle I'm trying to overcome is trying to figure out how to make music that I like and is appealing to me. Once you do that, whatever happens, will just happen. Are people going to like it, I don't know. There's a pleasure you get from making something you like. That's what I'm thinking about. When people ask me how it's going, my response is "I think I'm getting better at guitar. My songwriting process is going well. I like how I sing more than I did a month ago." People try to put the responsibility on how things are going on somebody else. "Well, we're really not getting the radio support that we want." Fuck off. Make songs that you like. If you're always looking for something more than what's naturally coming your way, then you're always going to be discontented. I don't want to be around it. I do think it's an industry full of delusional malcontents. Then again, I don't ever have to deal with the industry. I just get to ride around in my van and play houses and rock clubs or whatever. It's cool.
Of all the things that sort of resonates with fans and the following you have, do you think that's one of the big things is shoving everything besides the music aside? Is it the truthfulness and "real" aspect?
You know when you hear the legend of Fugazi and the way they were doing stuff, it's just empowering that you could decide to do it your way and all it takes is thinking a little bit outside the box. It's certainly less glamorous. I know from experience, the glamor part of being in a rock band is appealing, but once you get away from it and acknowledge that there's more contentment in just figuring out a way to do it if you want to. I love Fugazi's music and I would love it if they were goofballs like the Dandy Warhols or something. It is a layer of what they do that is appealing. It informs their music, and clearly you can't separate the two. The things they do just comes right out the way they do their business. Maybe that appeals to what their music. I know a lot of people that know like Fugazi's music and don't know about any of that stuff and it doesn't matter to them. Maybe it's the same with my music. [Maybe] they like it and don't know what I'm doing or whatever. The way I judge what I do is based on other bands. That certainly appeals to me. I really liked the ethic that Fugazi used.
As far as songwriting for you now, what are you most focused on about still improving upon yourself. You talk about constantly bettering your [pause] well, I guess I shouldn't say product, then it may seem tainted, but this "thing" that you're doing - art. Especially for this record, what did you want to improve over Branches? Last night [at the show] you mentioned something about improving your voice from a lot of the Pedro stuff and how it sounds. Where is the improvement this time?
It is an endeavor in a way. It is an art form. It is an art form that is market ready. A pop song is made to transmit easily. It is to me. I do strive to be an artist and create art, but I'm involved in a format that's not particularly challenging. Pop songs. Folk songs. I'm not against the grain in writing songs. That said, there's an impulse that I have to get better at the process and make it truer. You try to lay a hand on it and make it better of course, but you try to make the process sound more visceral. You hear certain songs and there's clearly no distance between the spark of the idea and the execution of the idea. You can just feel the energy of it on the recording. In that process of having an idea and seeing an idea turn into fruition and getting a recording to that idea. There are a lot of obstacles to making that happen. I think, overall, it's about getting better as you get past those obstacles. It's pretty vague. There are specifics, like settling on a recording medium I'm fluent with. Some people develop relationships with the people they record with. There are relationships with other musicians that can communicate ideas back and forth. The ultimate goal is to have an idea and execute it well enough.
The first song on the record, the first song you played last night. You talk about it being a very political record, upon first listen, I found that song to be very inward. Who is that referring to? That particular song. Is there a personal side to Strange Negotiations?
Yeah. It is a really personal record. For me, it's a vague, but people who believe that the best way forward is to put their trust in the hands of the very wealthy cooperate sector. The people who care and whose job it is to make money. in that song, it's the people I refer to as "wolves." People who are motivated by the potential for profit. People who believe the best sort of economic system is to put as much faith in those people as possible. That's sort of the metaphor I'm getting in my mind. It's giving them the kings of the kingdom and sort of trickle down theory that's been going on for thirty years now. That's who the "goddamn fool" is.
Do you think that was appropriate to lead off with that one for the record.
I use to only sequence songs with the lyrics, but then when Branches happened and T.W. Walsh was so involved with that record and he insisted that I rethink the way I sequence records, and that I should do it based on the music. For awhile, up until the sequencing was done, "Future Past" was going to be the lead one. Then we thought "Wolves at the Door" was so bare and the way it clicked with the drums and [the fact] that it was a simple song. In a way there's some controversial lyrics and gets to the chorus right away. In some way people will be like "Okay, that's some pretty bracing lyrics, I want to see what this [record] is about," or someone will be like, "Nope. I don't want to listen to this." For me, I would have been drawn in. I do think that song and the [chorus] in that song is the whole mirco-theme of the record [centered around] "I think this is crazy" and "things that are not at fault" and "I think you're foolish." Also, you're my uncle or my childhood friend's parents and I love you. You're a part of my community and I can't dismiss you, but there's a tension there. I think that song encapsulates the record and the idea of the record from the start. Also, a lot of the people and me who are involved with the decisions just go with our gut. Later on, hopefully you're relying on your subconscious to help you see those decisions...That's what I'm talking about. For me, doing the process better isn't about making things "tighter" or making decisions better as I'm doing it. It's about trusting my subconscious and trusting my gut. Being able to hear enough to make those decisions. In that sense, Strange Negotiations is a step in the right direction for me to making those decisions.
My last question, before we head to the radio station, unfortunately we lost a songwriter like Vic Chesnutt, but fortunately we have songwriters like you still around. How do you feel about the state of music where sometimes it's more about the show and less about the content? Is that something that just always has existed?
I think it's something that just has always existed. I do think there are plenty of examples of content rising to the top or content being respected. You have your Bill Callahan's. Sam Beam. There's something about that style of music that got attention right away, and he's gone on to transcend the style of music. He's just a serious practitioner of music and songwriting. It's getting more and more rich as time goes on than getting more and more watered down. It's tough because I don't think people are working for the long term and working for that. The way that king of culture, the way business works, it's year to year the way you climb. It's week to week. That effects everybody. It's like "Hurry up and get some attention!" I think people who can shelter themselves from the tyranny of [that culture]. There's emphasis on first week sales. It's focus on eyeballs, and most of those eyeballs are fickle people who aren't really devoted to anything. They're devoted to lifestyle changes and music is a part of that. That's fine. It's a form of escapism...It's the tortoise and the hare. I think a lot of the flash is short-sighted. It's deeply American. The 80s are a great example. A lot smoke blown up people's asses. When it all blew a way, there's still records there that hold a lot of meaning. When you create something, you don't if it's something that's going to last for a long time. Just find the pace that works slow enough for you. Figure out who you are as the tortoise in the race is just wiser. There's so much more content, it's insane. You're not on the road looking for approval from fickle people. It's the single culture of radio singles and now it's Internet. Now there's this false sense that they're indie bands that there's this deeper meaning, and it's just not. It can be maddening to see all the time. I saw it with myself. I can't be worried about that shit. [Laughs] I need to figure out what I want to do with myself and whatever happens, happens. You can't make people do anything. Well, you can. I don't think it's a good way to go.