“I am finding the shows cathartic and have really been leaning into that…and I’m having a good time doing it.”
David Bazan, the former songwriter and frontman for Pedro the Lion, told me this before his “Christmas Miracle” show this week at Swedish American Hall. Bazan explained why the set, which is in support of his stunning new Christmas album, Dark Sacred Night, is at times crushingly sullen: “The show is heavy because I am playing half of the Christmas album, and there is this longing on that record for justice and for peace, and there is definitely that in the show, and the other half of the show is back catalog songs that tend to pertain to the political situation.”
When Pedro the Lion began in the late ’90s, Bazan was a devout Christian. But in the years since going solo, he has parted ways with his belief in organized religion. I wondered what drew him to making a Christmas album. “I didn’t necessarily mean to make the Christmas record,” he told me. “I was recording the songs two at a time
[over several years] and just trying to focus on the feelings that I had [while recording them]. So it’s a compilation, and one of the things that you get from that is…you can trust there’s no pretense there, no ‘album’ sort of pretense.”
It’s a similar process to the one Bazan employed for his previous album, the synth-infused Blanco, which drew from his limited release Bazan Monthly singles series. In putting together Dark Sacred Night, Bazan told me, “I made all this stuff. I want to honor these things and put it together in a way that feels true now and feels balanced, but it’s full of these vulnerable feelings that I might not have willingly shared all at once [in an album format].”
(illustration: Rob Goodman)
At Swedish American Hall, Bazan told stories and took questions from the audience in between songs, a practice he’s perfected from years of doing living room shows. Like the fans in attendance that night, I too was interested in Bazan’s take on the holidays and how that informed the grief on full display in his recent album. Bazan spoke of the “pressure” of the holiday season, which he likened to an “international deadline…that we are all up against to have good cheer and be merry” and pointed to the commercial side of Christmas here in the United States: “Maybe it’s that religion had warned me against crass commercialism, and that’s something that really crystallized for me at the holidays when I was a little kid.”
Bazan’s family had a certain Christmas Eve tradition. “When my sister and I were kids, my dad’s Christmas bonus at the church he was working at wouldn’t come until Christmas Eve, right at quitting time. So at like 5:30, he, my mom, my sister, and I would load up into the car and head to the Kmart that was just a mile away. As my sister and I waited for our parents to come back with our gifts, we would watch as other parents who arrived too late with their bonuses in hand, would be turned away, crying. We sat there, and on one hand we were feeling lucky that we were going to have our Christmas presents in time, but also we were feeling shitty that while we were so concerned with our own family situation, there were other kids just like us who weren’t going to get anything.”
That tension is prevalent on Dark Sacred Night. Bazan covers classics like “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” and “Jingle Bells,” but with a newfound desperation. There’s a contemporary interpretation in the mix too, as Bazan covers friends and former tour mates Low with “Long Way Around the Sea.” The album wraps with an original track, “Wish My Kids Were Here.”
And this week, it seemed like concert attendees knew just what they were signing up for when the “Christmas Miracle” tour rolled through town. After a rousing electronic-fueled folk set by show opener Owen Ashworth, otherwise known as Advance Base, Bazan took the stage to a cheering crowd ready for a singular evening of holiday not-so-much-cheer. Most of the set centered on tunes from Dark Sacred Night with somber selections from Bazan’s vast catalog rounding out the night’s performance. A highlight came by way of one of those audience questions as a fan asked, “Could we sing a song together?” Bazan obliged as he led the packed room in a transcendent version of “Silent Night, ” which also appears on the record.
That night, Bazan told me his favorite part of touring is when he takes the stage and gets to perform. The counter to that, though, is that it takes him away from his family. “My kids and my family…bring me joy. I love music, too. I really love hearing music, recorded music, and going to see bands that I love play live. It’s one of the great joys. And then playing music myself.”
For Bazan’s first-ever music video released last month, he brought together those two joys with the Blanco track “Trouble With Boys.” The video, which was directed by Bay Area filmmaker and San Francisco Film Society fellow Brandon Vedder, features Bazan’s daughter breathlessly running through suburban sprawl intercut with a close-up of Bazan as emotion and an avalanche of tears overtake his face. It’s a stirring piece, punctuated by one of the artist’s most eloquent, honest, and hopeful lines of his career: “You are worthy of love.”
I asked him about that single bright spot in a songbook filled with so much sorrow. “I think that care is the fruit of love, and my catalog is about caring about little details and little moments in people’s lives that are hard,” he said. “Part of why I don’t have that much positive relief or release [in my music] like that one is because it’s hard to find a place to put it….usually in [popular] love songs people say, ‘I am going to love you forever baby,’ and come on, that’s bullshit, no you’re not. There’s just this falseness to expressions of joy occasionally and love that I have always tried to carefully avoid by just trying to sing about things that felt true in a way that I could represent in song”
2017 is gearing up to be a bright one for Bazan. A Vedder-directed documentary (he was still filming this week during a living room show in Modesto, CA, and at Swedish) will be released. The film follows Bazan as he tours the country, dealing openly with his struggles with faith, balancing family and career, and pursuing greater justice and tolerance in the world. Bazan will also be releasing new music with longtime collaborator TW Walsh (who was half of Bazan side project Headphones), alongside Trey Many and Jason Martin — as Lo Tom, a new rock band he is fronting — who will be releasing their first album via Barsuk Records next year.
And fresh solo music from Bazan himself is nearly guaranteed. Whether it be a full-length album or songs released as they come to him, you can expect Bazan to continue to press deeper into the darkness and everyday tragedies expressed in so many of his song’s characters. It’s in those characters that we see ourselves, our neighbors, our leaders — maybe not always at their best but at their most honest. The tales Bazan has been sharing steadily now through his two-decade-long career are odes to that honesty, that care for the detail, that love for people no matter their circumstance. As Bazan explains, his songs work as “a sign post. Like saying, ‘Hey, if you understand how this song works, and you haven’t gotten yourself into this fucked up situation yet in your life, now you’re going to be able to see it coming and avoid it maybe.’ All narrative works that way, really. But also, there’s a way to empathize with people who are hurt and marginalized, and theirs are voices that need to be amplified, too.”
Rob Goodman is a writer, artist, and marketer living in San Francisco. When he's not going to shows he's helping brands and startups tell better stories with his marketing firm, OpenVerse. He dreams of taking a cross country road trip to document the nation's best BBQ joints, and is a life-long illustrator –– working with bands like Ben Folds, Guster, The Go! Team, and more.