The following piece is a partial excerpt from former Believer managing editor Casey Jarman’s first book, Death: An Oral History, out October 25 with Zest/Pulp books. The book features eighteen interviews: among the subjects are a hospice volunteer, a funeral industry watchdog, a surviving twin, a former death row warden, philosopher Simon Critchley, and cartoonist Art Spiegelman.
David Bazan on Death
Stories about leaving one’s faith always seem to appeal to me more than stories of conversion. How does a person traverse a chaotic universe where they once saw order? How do you replace that huge absence in your life? Does some small part of you always remain faithful?
The first time I ever saw David Bazan, it was late afternoon. He was surrounded by a half-dozen fans outside the rock club where his band Pedro the Lion was scheduled to play that night. He was deep in conversation, not about records or touring life, but about perhaps the least rock and roll subject on earth: the Bible.
David Bazan’s shifting faith has always been present on his albums. His early songs work like modern parables; his best albums with Pedro the Lion take a cynical view of modern Christianity while retaining faith in the Bible’s teachings. Starting with 2009’s Curse Your Branches, the Seattle-based musician’s songs have detailed his creeping disbelief. That album seemed to meditate mournfully over the prospect of losing God, but overall, Bazan’s road away from Christianity has largely been a surprisingly hopeful journey.
Death was not always the focus of discussion when I met Bazan at a dive bar in North Seattle. But it lingers behind just about everything else. For Bazan, learning to live without the promise of an afterlife has led to a rediscovery of the concept of death. That he has faced that redefinition with open arms is unusual and impressive, but then again, Bazan—who has become one of the finest and most respected songwriters of his generation—has never backed down confronting difficult subjects.
The earliest experience with death I can remember was my grandmother’s aunt, who I called Aunt Anne. She had moved from New York to Phoenix to retire. We really had a close relationship. She was quite old. When I was in fourth grade, I was in class, and I asked to go get a drink of water at my school. I was out in the hallway and my dad came up the stairs. I was like, “What are you doing here?” And he said, “I have bad news.” I was kind of devastated. It wasn’t an event that I was expecting to pop up. Like, it didn’t occur to me that everybody here is going to die. Like, really, not just hypothetically.
That was the first one. We did the open casket funeral memorial thing. And I thought, She’s so pretty. She was all made-up. I’m sure it was probably hideous. You know, just seeing a dead body, it was very strange. I was sad. And then I thought, I’ll see her again in heaven. But that idea was pretty diffuse. There was a gauzy sense of, like, “You’re sad, and that’s okay, it’s okay to cry.”
I think religious people are torn between the rhetoric—“They’re in a better place,” which I think they really feel—and the reality of being in mourning. There’s so much about mourning and the physical process of it in the Bible than there is about heaven. Way more. The Old Testament is full of descriptions of mourning. Like, “Mourn with those who mourn.” It was a brutal world.
CHRISTIAN MUSIC ONLY
I didn’t know any non-Christians growing up. My next-door neighbors were Christian, and everyone from my Christian school. Everybody I knew was in the same boat.
I grew up in Phoenix, Arizona. In a conservative country, it’s a very conservative state. My dad was a music pastor for at least twenty years. He wasn’t a pastor who preached: his ministry was more relational and into music and people. We lived in California for two or three years in junior high and early high school, and we landed in Seattle by tenth grade.
In some ways my parents were really strict. We were sheltered. We weren’t allowed to listen to non-Christian music. But it didn’t feel oppressive. My mom’s a really strong, vocal woman. There was a progressive feeling in the house. I think that was because of the battles that ensued from her being herself in a very patriarchal culture. I remember being encouraged to think our thoughts, and to really engage with the world. Except, Christian music only. That was the big one. They were really protective about like movies and stuff. They would watch PG movies first, to screen them. No boobs.
I saw an R-rated movie at my friend’s house once. It knocked me on my ass. I freaked out. In fact, I felt so guilty that I told my dad about it. He picked me up from the house and I said, “I saw something, and it wasn’t my choice. It just happened.” He was like, “It’s okay. It’s nothing to be ashamed of.” They were great. They still are.
There were aspects of the Christian culture that really resonated with me as a kid. It was all very natural to go along with. I never questioned any of it. In high school, though, when I started to read the Bible and interpret it for myself, I started seeing a lot of discrepancies between what the church was doing and what the Bible strived toward. I had a critical eye for reform. I might not self-describe as a rebel, but there was a lot of excess and distortion all around.
I never really questioned the fundamental of premise of Christianity. There was always lot to fight for. I think the world saw that through Bush’s presidency: the country was interested in a particularly ugly expression of Christianity. That was what my focus tended to be. I was just trying to do that better.
PEDRO THE LION
My band Pedro the Lion started in ’95. I was 19, right out of high school. We were just playing youth groups. The first club I ever headlined was in ’98, down at the Tractor Tavern. We started out in a youth group culture, but we were on the progressive edge of that conversation. I mean, I don’t know how progressive we actually were. It was easy for us to develop a following. There was a pretty thriving Christian music scene underground in Seattle. We were opening for other bands and playing for a hundred to three-hundred people pretty early on.
We played churches and—you know, back then there were “Christian coffee houses.” The youth pastor would call it that. It wasn’t actually a coffee house, but the youth group decided it was going to have more of a coffee house vibe than a church vibe. It was just like playing at churches where they had funky lamps up and shit. There were also some Christian clubs that were all-ages. I had some friends in the independent music scene here, and we started to cross over a little bit, played the Velvet Elvis in Seattle and some other all-ages spaces.
Before too long we were playing in front of our own big crowds. And slowly, I realized I didn’t want to be in the Christian ghetto, I wanted to play rock clubs. I wanted people to engage with us in the world, buy our record at Tower. I grew up only having that little shelf-space at the Christian bookstore, ten or twenty different tapes to choose from or whatever.
On the early records, I’m wrestling with ideas. There’s a lot of doubt in the music. But the doubt was about this physical manifestation of a belief system. I thought an honest discussion of these topics in the public discourse, started by me or anybody else, would be helpful. Music was a way to explore thoughts and ideas, and not to convey religious slogans.
With Pedro the Lion, I could, in good faith, expose people to my songs and not feel like I was trying to dupe them or take advantage of them or convince them of something. I was just expressing myself, and, you know, that would reveal something truer or more powerful.
There were a lot of conversations about God and faith and death and that kind of stuff before and after our shows. A lot of Christians in particular, had a cultural experience where there just wasn’t room to talk about the criticisms and ideas that I was going into on It’s Hard to Find a Friend. It hit home. They saw me as receptive, and I was game. It was like our version of free love, you know?
“THE MESSAGE IS GETTING LOST IN THE MUSIC”
Not too long into being a songwriter, you start to hear about the old folk singers, Johnny Cash and these guys. A huge chunk of old country folk songs are murder ballads. I think that was in the air. I guess it was just really natural to write about death. It’s dramatic. In one sense, it’s not something that we tend to deal with very often, but each one of us is going to deal with it, for sure, one way or another.
I played Petra for my uncle when I was a kid. It was exciting for me, because it was something that really appealed to me at eleven or whatever—and it was safe, because it was Christian. My uncle kinda stepped back for a second and said, “Hmm, it sounds like the message is getting lost in the music.” That was kind of at the forefront of the culture that I was brought up in, and my orientation toward music. So it took me years to kind of break from that. When I did, I was just already into writing about heavy shit.
I’m also naturally just melancholy, or whatever it is, and the way that my voice works, it’s hard for me to sing fast passages. And I guess I’m probably better at words than I am at atmosphere.
“PRIESTS AND PARAMEDICS”
My mom’s brother was a paramedic. I think he was a paramedic for fifteen or twenty years. But in the last few years of him being a paramedic, he started a church, so he was a pastor and a paramedic at the same time. And his church was in downtown Phoenix. There was a lot of drug abuse and whatnot. He would tell us all these stories about being on the job as a paramedic. That was one of those things they were told to do: relay stories to your family that they can deal with as a form of therapy, because if you keep all this stuff inside you’re going to go nuts. It was cool for us. We got to hear the most amazing stories: the most fucked up, funny, tragic stories.
One of the stories he told at family get-togethers was about a guy that he’d seen a half a dozen times on various calls. He was always hurting himself from being too fucked up, and this I think he had tried his hand at cooking meth, and it blew up. It basically burned him very badly. So they get him into the ambulance, and he’s mostly unconscious. Then he comes to, and he’s all strapped down, and he says, “I’m going to die.”
My uncle said that his first thought was, “We’re not supposed to say anything. We’re supposed to calm them down. We’re not supposed to speak about that.” But he said, “Which is more my responsibility to him? Is it Phoenix firefighter protocol or my responsibility as a pastor?” So he decided to tell him. He said, “Yeah. You are probably going to die in about five or ten minutes. Before we get to the hospital, you’re going to be dead. So if you want to take a minute to just get right, think about things, whatever—now’s the time.” And he said the guy, who had been kind of spastic just prior, got really quiet and maybe said thank you, I don’t remember. But he got really inside himself, and then he died.
THE WORLD JUST GOT BIGGER
On all the Pedro records, I was some shade of Christian. I was Christian through the writing of Achilles Heel. It was that year that things started to really shift.
My dad actually kind of put it to me. He was dismayed when he said this, but he told me, “Most people need Christianity because they want to act bad, but I feel like you want to leave Christianity because you want to be better than Christianity allows you to be in your mind.” I was like, “Yes, that’s exactly how I feel.”
The world just got bigger, you know? The possibilities just got wider, and the narrative of Christianity just started to collapse on me, starting with original sin.
I had a daughter, honestly, is what happened. And I just looked at this little thing and I said, “We only kind of intentionally made this.” I’m not even as responsible for this being as God theoretically is for the creation of something from nothing. I thought, There’s not a thing in the world that she, in her innocence, could do that would cause me to want to punish her. And the way the Christian narrative works, that’s what happened.
Original sin—as a metaphor or an actual historical event, either way—and the dynamics that it described and the symbolism of this shift, it’s such funny stuff. It just didn’t make sense to me. It’s the equation that branded all human beings as, you know, fundamentally sinful. And it just seemed stupid.
In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve committed sin in their innocence, their ignorance. They were literally achieving the knowledge of good and evil by the sin. If that’s not the definition of innocence, I don’t really know what it could be. So, in their innocence they made that sinful mistake, and God said “At least for the next couple thousand years, I’m not even going to reveal what the plan is.” We’re apart apart. It really does feel like you’re fatally sort of separated. People try to describe it as, “Well, he had a plan all along.” It doesn’t feel like that.
In her innocence, my daughter is unconscious of separation the same way that human beings—even according to that story—really had a difficult time grasping what that separation from god was about. It just hit me: none of this makes sense as what an intelligent being would do. This is just an origin myth. So that happened in 2004, when we had our daughter. I was just really working through all of that. When original sin left, I just thought, What is going on? What is this any of this? There’s no question that needed an answer: the answer being that Jesus was crucified as a sort of supernatural event.
“WHAT DO YOU PICTURE AT THE END?”
Most people who are interested in the music didn’t know about me losing my faith until 2009, when I put out Curse Your Branches. Then like thirty thousand people found out about it in a very detailed way, not to mention some innocent bystanders on the bus reading about it. But I had been functionally not a believer since late early ’05, so in terms of my community and my family, things trickled out slowly for years and years.
It created some anxiety. I still don’t talk about it with my parents a lot. I don’t know if I ever said to them outright that I’m not a believer. I’ve said it plenty in public, so they have access to all that stuff, but when Branches came out, I didn’t know what they knew, either. I knew all this press was going to come out and I didn’t know to what degree they would react. They are very much like “let sleeping dogs lie” kind of people. So I went to them and I just said, “Hey look, I love how our relationship is going.” There had been some conflict earlier, over our daughter. I said, “There are things about me that I don’t present to you guys out of respect, but I don’t want you to think that I’m doing that to try to hide something from you, to be false in some way.” So that was a heavy conversation that I felt like a lot was riding on.
My wife and I both stopped going to church for a couple years. Neither of us brought it up, there was no discussion. And then once my wife was pregnant, she was like, “I’m interested in going to church again.” I went with her sometimes. But then I lost my faith totally, and I was in sort of shame every time I attended church with her.
Sometimes it was really painful. There was a couple months where I was really wrestling with it and I experienced, you know—despair. It was like an intense breakup. It was really fundamental.
So in that process where she was dabbling in church again, I pushed back and said, “Look, if this is just the only you know how to do family, I think we should just think we should figure something else out.” Like, “If it’s really stirring your relationship with the cosmos, great, but I don’t think we should do it to conform to tradition.” Once our son was born, for some reason, she just never went back. It’s been six years. She hasn’t shown any interest or desire.
At some point I said, “What do you picture at the end?” And she goes, “I don’t know.” And I said, “Well, think about it. Take a second.” And she said, “Okay.” And she sat there and she thought for like, fully thirty seconds. And she said, “Yeah, I think heaven and hell are probably real.” And I was just curious, so I was like, “When’s the next time you think that will cross your mind?” And she said, “The next time you ask me.”
So that’s the difference between us. She doesn’t worry about it, and I really hate that there isn’t a clear answer. I sit and trip balls over it. Just, “What is this? What the fuck is going on?”
THAT COULD ALL JUST BE WORLDS AND WORLDS OF PEOPLE
The universe wasn’t just this collection of data in my mind growing up. It was this very elegant set of characters: it was divine, transcendent; it was this struggle, this fantasy-battle. Going from that to like, “It’s just raw data,” that’s a big mental shift. But it was freeing in a way. I wanted to be able to come to my own conclusions. Or rather, I was already coming to my own conclusions and it was causing problems: I needed to be able to do that without it being so disruptive to my psyche.
My wife and I were definitely of the mind that you weren’t supposed to have sex until you got married. Even as we got closer to being married I realized, Wait a minute. What? It’s absurd. To what point, to what end, and where is this coming from? We started realizing that it was just up to us.
And that’s the thing with Christianity: it’s tough to pin down because of the forms that it takes, even within a particular person. It’s not super consistent, and it changes from denomination to denomination. As I got older, it was “All things are lawful, but not all things are beneficial.” Within that framework there are all these interpretations, these ways of finding yourself and how you act in the world. They try to make you think there’s one way to do it, but they all do it differently. All things are permissible, but not all things are beneficial. To me that just said, “You gotta think for yourself how to act.” That was how I thought of Christianity as I got deeper in deeper in it. I saw a world of possibilities.
The one thing that I was unsure of how to resolve was homosexuality. I was enough of a literal Bible guy that it was sticky. I knew how I felt, which was that it was not a sin. But I couldn’t reconcile that with what I thought I was supposed to believe. No one would ask me questions about it, but it felt really vulnerable not knowing where I stood on such a major issue.
Toward the end of my believing, heaven just seemed kind of crazy, considering the size of the universe and quantum physics. When heaven disappeared completely for me, everything just made more sense. The entire project of life is trying to make sense of the data that’s in front of me. What is this? What explains its existence? What’s happening next? Is there a next?
We are conscious, inexplicably, and then we die. There’s symmetry and elegance to that. It makes sense. The idea that we come online to perceive certain aspects of this life, but more importantly, to learn about what’s coming next? That doesn’t’ make sense to me. Why not just be what it is, rather than a precursor to something else? There’s no orientation to consciousness obviously. You don’t go into some room and people tell you, “Here’s what to expect.” It’s like, you just come online and you’re just here doing this thing.
“YEAH! WE’RE DONE WITH THE DEATH TALK!”
I have a reasonable expectation for myself as a good actor in the world. My perception is that it came from the somewhat rigorous philosophical framework of Christianity. Just thinking about goodness, and my behavior—those were things I took seriously and I thought about it a lot. I want that for my kids, and I don’t know where it will come from. Or maybe the culture was just coincidental, and I would have emerged somewhat similarly in terms of my fundamental framework.
I wonder how it’s going to be for my kids. Do they really have reasons to act right? I think for me, the reason didn’t have anything to do with God. I think people who insist that morality flows from god—like, “Well, if there’s no god I’m just going to shoot up and fucking kill myself right now.” But what about the consequences? Do you want to die? There are consequences that you’re going to be super bummed about. You’ll go to jail, you’ll have withdrawals from heroin.
When my daughter was four, we were driving: my wife and my daughter and maybe one or two buddies who were visiting from out of town. I pulled into this parking place real quickly, and my wife goes, “Oh, God.” I made fun of her overreaction, joking, “We’re all going to die!” And my daughter goes, “Wait a minute. We’re not all going to die.” Then she goes, “Oh. We are all going to die. Just probably not today.” She was like four years old, and that was what she said about it. And I was just like, “Yeah! We’re done with the death talk! She already gets it, she already knows what’s up.”
Within the last two months, our dog died. She was the love of our family, really a particularly special animal. We went to the vet because she’d collapsed, and it turned out she had tumor in her belly that we didn’t know about. So we were all there when they told us the prognosis, which was not good. My wife and kids were all there, and we said, “Alright, let’s do this.” We were all pretty broken up. We went to another room and they brought her in. She was still alive, and wagging her tail. She was pretty cold because she had lost all her blood flow. We were all there when they put her to sleep.
We walked through that, which is truly not the same as human death, but it was training wheels for death in the most profound way it could have been. So I think the kids understand it more now.
Have you read The Road? Cormac McCarthy’s book? It’s one of my favorite books. Toward the end, the kid in the book is sort of adopted by this family. They’re Christians, and the mom tries to teach him to pray, which he’s never done. He tries, but praying to God doesn’t do anything for him at all. So he starts praying to his dad. My take on it is that he doesn’t believe that his dad is actually in spirit form up above him somewhere, but that he’s sort of interrogating the memory of his dad. When I read that, I was deeply moved and I thought, “That has so much more meaning than any conception of heaven had ever been for me.”
The things and the people that you’ve lost, you have the opportunity to honor and interact with them by interrogating their memory by a form of prayer or meditation or whatever. You have all these memories and you really get to interrogate them, and you create new modes of thinking and interpreting your experience.
To me, that’s a really meaningful kind of afterlife. Only the conscious beings alive are experiencing it, but you’re still available to people. You’re available because you existed. My kids have got data on me. They know about me.
THERE’S NO BIRD’S-EYE VIEW
If you had any consciousness to evaluate the moment after death with, it just seems like it would be so boring. That’s something that I would worry about or lament. But you don’t get that opportunity, I assume. It seems like you don’t. Once the lights go out, I always think, That will be so boring. But it won’t be boring. It won’t be anything.
There’s no birds-eye view. That Radiohead song, “Videotape,” plays around with a lot of stuff. Every Christian has a different picture of what it’s going to be like in heaven, what they hope for. Do you watch it from a videotape? Are there highlights? Do you get to understand from the bird’s-eye view of what it all was? It’s almost intoxicating. It makes me giddy to think about it: there is no bird’s-eye-view, there’s just the subjective viewpoint that you have. Your little window on the world is your consciousness, and your eyeballs and skin are what it is. Of course. Of course that’s what it is! That makes more sense! Why would it have been any other way? That’s how my brain wraps around it now. That’s how it hits me. The lights just go out.
The kernels for my shifts in thinking were maybe a paragraph from a book by someone smart and important, or they were things that someone fucking said at a bar, where I just thought, “Fuck, I never thought of that before.” It’s not scientific, but I do have this process where I reserve judgment about a set of things for a while and just think about it.
IT’S GOT TO BE MUCH HARDER FOR THEM THAN IT IS FOR ME
Technically speaking, I’m going to hell. My grandmother will tell me that I’m a Christian even when I say I’m not. “No, you are. You just don’t know it.” She thinks I’m going through a phase.
If I said to my grandma and family, “This is what I think happens when you die,” outright, they would be kind of horrified. A couple of my cousins—who are my age, and we’re like buddies, and they’re Christians—we have deeper philosophical conversations. It’s just two dudes talking about what you talk about late at night when you’ve had a drink or smoked some weed. But with the older generation, it doesn’t come up that way. They still won’t look directly. It’s gotta be tough. It’s got to be much harder for them than it is for me.
My dad has always been a little bit more open to kicking the tires of his existential model. It’s way more tense with my mom at this stage in our life. She probably is just like, “Where did we go wrong?” She’s probably actively thinking that and feeling shame. It’s heavy for her.
Faith drives that wedge between us, but it doesn’t have to. That’s my message: there are a lot of things we have in common. You want social justice. I want social justice. You call it kingdom-building, I call it social justice. You value hard work. I value hard work. You value the environment, you know, leaving a campsite better than you found it—I have that same value.
We’re not going to disagree about anything but the existential. In some cases, the existential informs the political, but even then I think there’s common ground.
I think that a lot of the identity of Christianity in America now is so intertwined with politics. The fact that I’m not a political conservative is definitely a strike against me. That’s one of the dings on the checklist to find out if you’re being a good Christian. I say swear words, I don’t think drinking is wrong. I don’t think doing some recreational drugs is wrong.
My mom and I will sit at dinner, and I’ll try to illustrate the things that we have in common. In doing so, sometimes we end up getting in arguments, because I’m a little overzealous—I just think this is basic shit. “Of course you don’t think Mike Huckabee is reasonable or good.” But she does, on the surface. And then I’ve just hurt her feelings. Or I say something like, “All media is biased for sure, but it’s more laziness than a liberal bias. You can’t say Fox News is biased to the same degree as everything else. It is actually performance art, it’s a prank. It’s theater.”
So we talk about that, and I insist on talking about it, and then she cries. And then I’ve made my mom cry. What’s wrong with me? It doesn’t happen every single time we get together, but you know, it happens twice a year.
My mom is searching for any loophole that her system accepts for me to not go to hell. You know, like I was saying, you know, if theology and Christianity is it’s an art and not a science. So there’s a lot of room, and she is, I’m sure, actively trying to just sort it out. Because it’s just too uncomfortable, the idea that I’ll burn in hell for eternity.
I understand the power that that idea has, and the amount of leverage that it has as an idea is really out of proportion with anything else. I mean it really poisons everything. It poisons all of Christianity, it poisons every reaction. It really makes free thought unrealistic as a thing that you can do, because it’ll always put you in danger at some point. So I see the power it has over her, and I empathize with her, I’m crushed for her. For me, it’s an unnecessary stressor. It’s a source of profound stress, and it doesn’t need to be there.
I wrote about it in “When We Fell.”
“If my mother cries when I tell her what I have discovered
Then I hope she remembers she taught me to follow my heart
And if you bully her like you’ve bullied me with damnation
Then I hope she can see you for what you are”
I just wrote the song, and the lines came out and they felt potent to me. And then I thought, “Fuck, I can’t put this on here. She’s going to hear it.” As soon as I recorded the demo, I emailed it to them and said, “Hey, here’s a song I just wrote. I don’t have any plans, designs to put it out yet, but before I even broach that internally, I just wanted you guys to hear it.” They understood what I meant, that I asking for permission in a way. And they said, “This is a great song. You should definitely put it out. But it’s perplexing to us, the way that you see the world.”
That was over email. That was definitely a moment of candor and openly facing the conflict that we were having. But they were very supportive. They’ve always been very supportive. My mom has definitely struggled with whether or not she is right to be supporting me playing music. She has said that if I was only singing about girls or superficial stuff, it’d be one thing, but I’m singing about these things that she is concerned will influence other people to go be in hell for all eternity. She’s really torn.
She said to me after that song came out—the record was doing well, the press was good. I was really excited; it was in the first week or so that all the press scores were starting to hit. And I was telling them about that, how excited I was—they were so excited, they had been following it all. And she said, “I need to tell you something.” I said, “Okay.” She said, “The only reason why I taught you to follow your heart is that I thought Jesus lived in there.” I said, “I know, Mom. But the thing is, is I feel like I’m doing the right thing.” And she said, “I know. It’s so strange. I also kind of have that feeling some of the time, but I just can’t reconcile it with what I actually believe.” So, that was a very sweet moment where we saw that we have this thing in common, but the dogma that we sort of both frame it in is disruptive, and not in a good way.
She’s one of my favorite people. She’s so intelligent and really passionate about justice. All of her stories from being a kid are about sticking up for this kid and that kid at school—really taking up the cause for the underdog. That was her role as a kid. She did it in church while we were growing up, we watched her do it. But she can’t connect that those impulses with the bigger sort of political narrative that is opposite of the club that she belonged to. She’s a revolutionary who, if the things in her life were a different way might subscribe to Sojurners or something like this, rather than Pat Robertson’s magazine. I really have huge respect for her. I call her for advice, still. Some situation will come up, and I’ll be like, This is so hairy, I don’t know what to do here, and I’ll call her. Nine times out of ten she gives me amazing advice. One time out of ten she gets insecure and she says, “Well if you just put Jesus at the center,” and I’ll say, “Mom. Stop. You know that I’m calling you for specific practical advice, because you’re so good at it.” But it’s rare when that comes up. She’s so brilliant. I really like her.
STATING A HYPOTHESIS EVERY NIGHT
The reason why all of the ego and the self-focus of being a musician winds up feeling ok is because it’s in the service of something bigger. Part of the history of songwriting, and particularly folk or folk-pop songwriting, is that it’s one sphere where the musicians and the songwriters try to keep a record of the culture. I feel like I’m a part of that. I’m heavily borrowing from my own lyrics, which are borrowing from other people’s lyrics, I suppose, but we all are just trying to accurately bear witness to our little corner of the universe in one way or another. Not literally, necessarily. But just, “What is the appropriate response to your status in life?”
Working through your own shit as you’re writing songs is part of that, but that’s the initial discovery. What ends up being therapeutic is singing the songs night after night after night. They kind of do a number on you, over time. You start to discover new things in there. You make connections between lyrics that you didn’t notice before. You’re sort of stating a hypothesis every night to see how it sounds to you, and sometimes I’ve even turned on songs, and started to sing them from the other direction, because the fifteenth time I sang my hypothesis at a show, I just was like, “I don’t know, maybe it’s this other way. Maybe my perspective is a little uptight or something.”
They’re all works in progress in a way, because your perspective is constantly changing. That’s especially therapeutic and cathartic. The initial act of writing it can be therapeutic too, but even songs that don’t feel that way initially can get there later, if I can sing them and I like them.
I’ve never pursued numbers and people and money. I was doing this other thing where I was trying to tell the truth about the world as I saw it. In some ways, that always feels worthwhile, because of a sort of optimism I have that it’s slowly going in the direction. I’m slowly finding equilibrium as an artist. I’m still, weirdly, in that phase. I don’t even think that I’m qualified to answer the question “Was it worth it?” I guess I would say “Absolutely, it’s worth it,” because it’s been enough gas in my tank the whole time to keep doing it, even though I have not yet felt like I have reached version 1.0 of the thing. I think I’m still in beta mode.
I do feel like that there’s something I’m trying to achieve that is achievable. And then I’ll feel like I might be able to answer that question a little bit more. I assume, based on how I feel about it looking at it from this side, that hell fuckin’ yeah it’ll be worth it. I have faith that it’ll be worth it because I watched Fugazi play. I watched Elliott Smith play solo acoustic in a little theater in Seattle. I know what it’s like to get that new record by the band that you love. So yeah, it’s worth it.
YOU CAN’T LEAVE STONES UNTURNED
Occasionally, I’ll come to a topic or idea that seems like I should consider it being it off limits, but in every case, I just think, No, I can’t. You can’t leave stones unturned. Or I can’t, anyway. That’s just not how my brain works. It seems like we could all do with more data about what it is to be human. I will say that when you think of the Mark Linkouses and the Vic Chestnutts of the world—all these brilliant artists that make the choice to take their own lives, you wonder, Is it just a trick of genetics, or is it that they’re flipping over page after page, learning about everything, and finally they flip to that one page where they are just like, “Fuck,” and that’s it? You think about that. But I don’t think it’s inevitable.
If you go down the rabbit hole too far, does it lead to ending your life? That’s the sort of thing that I suppose one would be afraid of where you’d say, “Maybe I should back away from this precipice, existentially or philosophically.” But I don’t think I’m gonna back away from the precipice. I don’t feel like I’m in mortal danger from it. It’s painful, and it’s challenging, but I think that just understanding our place here more and more, whatever that might mean, is really important.
I know that for some people, the well just runs dry—or apparently that’s what happens—and they choose to end it. But I just feel like that’s just one of the outcomes. There’s nothing that I’ve come up against where I think, “No, I’m gonna save this for later.” There’s a morbid fascination that probably propels me. You know, like loving Edgar Allan Poe, “The Pit and the Pendulum,” when I was a kid. Just like, what the fuck is this? It blew my mind.
I aspire to be an artist. Maybe that’s a little juvenile to say it that way or something, but whatever. I don’t think of it as a negative thing to really face down all this existential garbage. It strikes me as a positive, you know? It strikes me as one of the perks of this endeavor, that I actually have time to think on it. Somebody else would have to call in sick from work if they were having a super heavy existential day, and that’s my job. I feel like that’s what getting to be an artist is, if you get to do that as a vocation. You moonlight as somebody without a horse in the race and take everything in.
I feel like I’m just beginning. I feel like I’m in beta mode, and 1.0 is not going to be less engaged, it’s going to be the most engaged. If I get there, it’ll be scary. You know what I’m saying? It won’t be like, “Oh, the new Bazan record is pretty good.” It’ll be like, “Holy fucking shit, someone send an ambulance.” That’s what I think. For some musicians and performers and writers, there’s a period in their career where they’re just working at such a level that it feels like a perpetual motion machine for a minute. I’d like to do that, if I can, even if it’s just for a couple months. I wouldn’t mind squeezing five or ten years out of it either.
I don’t feel like I’ll want to slow down. I just need to see my kids a little bit more, that’s all.