Balance and Doubts: Inside the Upcoming David Bazan Documentary

Interviews, Local Music
Dusty Henry
photo by Charina Pitzel (view set)

Director Brandon Vedder settled in for a long drive, coming home from a shoot. He was in the process of finishing his short film A Certain Kind of Light and had his sensors out for the next story he wanted to tell. He turned on an episode of Pete Holmes’ You Made It Weird podcast and heard a familiar voice - Pedro The Lion’s David Bazan. Vedder had lost track of Bazan around the same time many other fans did, when Bazan ditched the Pedro moniker and decided to begin releasing music under his own name. Vedder listened as Bazan recapped Holmes with journey from faithful doubter to agnostic skeptic.

“I listened to that and I got that feeling that I always get when I know this is gonna be the next three years of my life,” Vedder recalls.

When Vedder got home, he got to work. Rather than just throwing on Bazan’s solo records to catch up, he decided to collect all of his lyrics from his debut Whole EP through the Bazan Monthly single series that was being rolled out at the time.

“Being able to look at it in that way and cross-reference and see the story unfold from this kind of different, omnipotent perspective really got me just incredibly excited about what was possible using the art form of film and being able to go back and forth in time,” Vedder says. These were just the first steps toward making Strange Negotiations, a documentary centering on Bazan.

While Vedder was piecing together the story so far and connected with producer Alison Mo Massey (also a friend of Bazan’s) about making the film a reality, Bazan was continuing his pursuit to find a new route to success as a working musician — touring and playing house shows for half the year, creating a subscription-based single series, and looking for anything that could maintain his artistry while also keeping a roof over his family’s heads. When Bazan finally met Vedder for coffee in Los Angeles while on tour, he was initially surprised at the proposal. But documenting the house shows was already something on his and his manager Bob Andrews’ minds. And so Vedder embarked with Bazan on five tours, documenting Bazan’s interactions with fans and observing the recording of his latest album, Care. The film is still in production, with a Kickstarter ending this week, but what’s emerging is more than just a retrospect of Bazan’s career and more a look at faith and existential questions emerging throughout the country.

Watch the trailer below and then read the following interview with both director Brandon Vedder and David Bazan himself:

When did you begin filming?

Brandon Vedder: I think I started right around when they started putting Blanco together. And then the last thing we shot was the recording of Care... [Bazan] had just recently started with that Monthly stuff and started that engine going again. It was an interesting time to jump on and start capturing what he was doing because I felt like there was a sea change happening and there has been a lot of movement, I've felt like, for the time I was able to capture. It seems like a very good time to be in his life in order to tell this story.

How much presence did you have in the studio?

David Bazan: It was just the three days down at Swift's in Oregon, you know, Richard Swift. I had already done a lot of the creative side. I had done about 80 percent of the creative side of the programming of the drums and the bass and the synthesizer stuff before I went down there. So the process that Swift and I engaged was...He's so fast anyway, but it was the icing on the cake that we were really needing to come up with together. And then him just going through the parts that I had brought in and making choices about them.

When I think about the new record, I tie it to Blanco. Do you think of it as a companion piece and what story do you think you're trying to tell between these two albums?

DB: I think it is a companion piece in some ways. I love Blanco and I knew that I wanted to continue to make music that was based on drum machines and synthesizers more and more. Yuki Matthews was such a huge creative part of Blanco. I would send him things that sounded, in some cases, a bit more like Care initially where they would just be sort of dry and smaller. Yuki just has a way of making things feel epic and grand that just turns me on. I just think it's fantastic. Left to my own devices, this sounds more like me on my own. It hearkens back to the Headphones record.

As to the latter part of the question, I think that both records are pretty personal. Neither of them are autobiographical, exactly. They have representative elements in them, I think, but if people read them as autobiography, that would be pretty grossly not representative. They are about me wrestling with what it's like to be a middle aged artist who is trying to make a living from their art with a family, life and kids, in a shifting industry landscape. Shifting is maybe a polite way of saying a bombed out industry landscape where half of my income used to come from album sales. It's just me really wrestling with that place and that struggle. Some of the trade offs I think that happened to a lot of us when we're not really aware that they're happening. Dealing with the repercussions and trying to make sense of it, find the path forward. They're really me trying to find balance and processing the things that come from having been out of balance just working too much, basically, but having to work too much because it's just harder to make a living doing that stuff.

Both those records, even if it doesn't call that by name a lot of the time, I'm writing about those struggles. The object of a lot of that stuff is my affection for my life and my family. Sort of saying over and over again, it's implied the balance is making sure to protect what I have with them from this thing that get a little much. You've got to really watch, I think, the balance of work when you're doing this kind of work. I feel like it's me sort of expressing my love of them and my desire to choose them and the things that stand in the way of that at times. I haven't talked about that stuff. I was pretty hush hush about what...I still haven't really talked about what the name Blanco means but there are implications out there. They're love letters, in a lot of ways, to my family.

It seems like your family plays a role in the film as well. Were they open to participating?

DB: No, they are not. They're not open at all. [laugh]. That's suddenly been a thing that I think Brandon's wanted more of and may still get some more of yet. I think there may be another shoot in our future, but maybe not. Part of it is just because, coincidentally this film is being made at a time when things are about as raw as they've ever been for me. 2016 was a very tough year. To recognize that the balance is wrong and that you want to make it right is a great thing. Actually achieving that takes a long time. And achieving it in a way that kind of last. It's not a quick fix that you're gonna have to figure out next year too. It's hard.

Part of the reason why I think it was difficult to have Brandon and his shooting is because we're not really our best selves as a family in 2015 and 2016. We were struggling. There were plenty of times when Brandon was around...Usually when Brandon was around, I was getting ready to leave on a tour or just getting back from a tour because it was around playing shows or something like that. Or just getting back from working on the record or whatever. In a lot of cases, it was like, yeah, we can't really have somebody in our house filming us when we haven't seen each other in seven days and it's gonna be fucked up. Reentry is just painful. There's just something that never quite becomes easy and you never really want it to become easy.

BV: A big part of the beginning of the film was just spending a ton of time together. Figuring out those boundaries and learning. Me learning to read Dave as much as I can and just be sensitive… Finding that balance between what I think is good for the film and what's good for my friend Dave now and all that stuff. It's a shifting landscape all the time, because with docs it's just so hard because you can always be getting more and you always want more… You're just hungry to get as much as possible. Dave with his family is such a huge part of the context of who he is and that's why I was always interested in getting that stuff. I think we've been able to find a pretty good balance in that.

On the Kickstarter page, it's stressed that this isn't a movie just about Dave but a film about modern American spirituality. What made you want to subvert the typical music doc format and broaden that scope a bit?

BV:  Dave and I have been talking a lot about that. One of the things that was really important to me very early on was to kind of take this slow and not define exactly what it is before it was ready to be defined or it made itself available to me. I held off on financing and held off on a lot of stuff and did it myself so I didn't have to define it too early.

In my previous films, I've felt like a tug this way or that way. I had already been a little bit too committed to one direction to really go down that path and see what was there. I wanted to do the exact opposite with this. I think we're still very much in that process because I still haven't quite started editing the actual film. It's just been editing pieces of content to support the Kickstarter and to get things going and to get grants and people's attention.

The focus would be moreso on the conversation around seeking truth and just ethics. The kind of basis of that and the language with which most Americans understand that is through Christianity. So that kind of becomes the default foundation for that kind of that conversation because that's the language with which most people understand it. Certainly that's the language that Dave grew up understanding it, from everything that I had heard and known. When I got into shooting these house shows and that really kind of made itself clear to be more or less the setting of the film - all these house shows. These kind of conversations started coming up in smaller towns that usually documentaries… people just don't have direct access to some of these secondary and tertiary markets in the South or Midwest in terms of what people are actually talking about and what they're actually concerned about. That's obviously one of the things that rose to the top and lead those conversation, because so many people have had a really personal experience with Dave's music in regards specifically to their faith and to just their thoughts on the existential. Dave has certainly been through all of that pretty publicly. It just seemed so interesting to me to...It's really taking after Dave's lead, in terms of him using art to have these conversations.

DB: When Brandon asked about making the documentary, that was definitely something he talked about as being a part of [the film]. It wasn't exactly clear what the most filmable or narrative aspect of what I do was going to be the main thing, sort of the back drop or the focus even. There's house shows, there's the religious de-conversion, there's just music industry, the story of a middle-class musician just trying to make a living that's representative of a certain thing that's worth maybe making a thing about… But, I had an interest because of his interest in the religious subject matter that it's a tricky thing. The story of that for a lot of people is more nuanced than the sort of categories of "he used to be a Christian and now he is not a Christian" binary, kind of nature of that stuff the way that most people understand it. I've, more than anything, just rejected that binary as a thing. I just think it's silly. Representing that in film, it seemed like [Vedder] had an interest in trying to capture the nuance of that and that seemed like, 'okay, let's try to do that. That could be interesting.'" I like the idea of promoting that. That like, 'Look, you don't have to fit in a category.' That's a message that I'm happy to get out there. That's why I represent, I hope.

I suppose that maybe there's a little bit of the old religion in me, in terms of evangelism. I feel like if we went through this process together, that we would find the things that make it tick because I don't think about that stuff so much and if that stuff is broadcast that vulnerability is good.

A lot of what you're saying about the movie seems like it mirrors the direction of your music career. Faith has obviously been a big focus in the Pedro The Lion records and Curse Your Branches. Some of that's still there in Care and 2016’s Blanco, but you're also talking about being a husband, a dad, and coexisting with those things at the same time as those big existential questions. Would that be fair to say?

DB:  For me, I don't have the same existential crisis that I used to either. It is still fun to really sit and ponder the 'why are we here?' conundrum. That's always good for an evening. But in general, I don't walk around with the crisis in my body anymore. I made peace with my inability to really come to conclusions about what's behind the curtain. But I do continue to reference that tradition and the language of that tradition. One, because I'm still processing. Even if I don't have an existential crisis that needs to be solved anymore, I still am processing the trauma of having that existential crisis in the context of Christianity for so many year, you know? That's one way to do that is to write about those things. That's certainly what Branches came from. Years after my 'de-conversion', but still very much needing to process all of that stuff. It comes from that a little bit, but also when you're talking about how to be a dad, how to be a husband, how to be a citizen, how to participate with your fellow humans; I defer to the language of that tradition. It has such a rich literary heritage at this point.

In some ways, I always envied non-believers when I was younger who sang about God, because there is an authenticity and sort of credential that they have that a believer doesn't have. Because a believer is just singing about God because of propaganda, 'cause they're trying to tell people about God. A non-believer sings about God  because there's something there that's interesting thematically, there's an existential thread that they're pulling at. But as a non-committed, not as an advocate to anything. So it's kind of a pleasure to use that now because I wasn't really an advocate before in my music, even if I might have been personally, but I certainly couldn't be an advocate for it now [laughs]. Using that language, there's a potency in singing those words now that there wasn't before in some ways, when they're detached from the duty of it and they're detached from maybe their literal reference to it. Now the language just gets to be as powerful as it possibly can be without all the loaded baggage of actually being religious. I don't know how to say all that that well, but it's a reason why there's still some of that stuff in there.

I also talk about it a lot and it comes up at shows and on podcasts 'cause we're in a crisis; the United States is. It's a crisis about religion, I think. Christianity has just ruined this place. The malignant form of it that passes for Christianity, anyways. I get a lot of people asking about [it], just curious to have my perspective about that and I've been sharing my perspective constantly unsolicited because I'm so worried and so there's a sense that I'm trying to talk to my own family. “Hey guys, look. Pull it together. Come to your senses. Please.” That's still in there and that's a part of the movie. The thread is the same. The impulse to do this stuff is the same. I think it runs through all of the work. But my reasons for using religious language and talking about religion is just very different now than it might have been in the past.

BV: I think the form of documentary in trying to explore that nuance and create a deep and rich enough space for that nuance to exist in felt really right for a long form documentary. I found that I have a hard time as a short form storyteller because so much of what I'm interested in is the silence in between moments, the things that make you feel before..that soften your heart before the punch. That's what's so exciting is that the film aims, in that longform nuanced way, to explore all this stuff with the opportunity to go all the way back to the beginning of Dave's career to today.

The Kickstarter description talks about wanting to approach the subject without a slant and trying to be respectful of both sides. How do you have that conversation in a respectful tone?

BV: The film very much has no ax to grind or no point of view outside of Dave's, or it intends to as much as possible. There's no aim at being prescriptive at all or suggesting. That kind of gets back into the opportunity you have with a long form project like this is just to create a space for these conversations to be had in context with the way Dave runs his business and the way Dave interacts with his family.

These religious conversations become so polarized and so simplistic and that's when they get so dangerous and black and white. I think to fill the room with smoke, that is real life, is a way to have a more inclusive conversation. You just can't fucking hate someone if you know enough about them. When someone becomes a three-dimensional person, it's really hard to have such a one-sided view of them. The idea is to explore Dave's life in whole in that just that and Dave's vulnerability in that will be disarming enough that if people give the film a chance, that it wouldn't be offensive.It takes a page out of the way I've watched Dave run the house shows and the inclusive nature of the conversations where people can start out a question or a comment with a really angry tone or a bitter tone and watching the way that Dave softens that and is able to create a conversation around that without ridiculing that person.

Dave, it seems like that's a lot of what happens on your tour. The question and answer segment kind of gives that platform for people to talk about it in a comfortable space.

DB: The music is why we're all there. So of course we're going to have different political viewpoints in some cases, even though there's a strong political component to my music that might leave certain people out anyway.

Part of what makes my brain tick and why there's a certain melancholy to what I do is for some reason I've always found myself aware of, not always but often, I'm aware of the person in the room that's having the worst time. Or just realizing that as good of a time that some people might, there's somebody here that's just really struggling and feeling alienated or whatever. Usually that's not a white man who feels embittered and is the odd man out. But in this case, it is that person. Usually that's not the underdog that I'm thinking of, but right now at my shows, the person who's probably most uncomfortable, like at my Christmas shows for instance, would be Trump voters. So even while my message is still pretty brutal or worried to the degree that I talk about it, it's certainly in the tunes.

People are in an odd spot, so I try to be gentle in between and during the Q&A. We just have the music to always go back to to soften whatever the situation is. If there's something contentious that could come up. Especially if I don't jump into a political basher. There's taking requests or something. There's way to get it back or just play something...I dunno, you just have a sense of where it needs to go tonally to resolve tension sometimes. Having the music there and because the music is really why we're all there to begin with and why I'm talking about this stuff with anybody is because I have an audience because of music. I just happen to be one of those artists who very much believe that the perspective and the art are the same and if you want the one, then you're gonna get the other. If you don't want that perspective, you might have to stay away from the art.

Strange Negotiations is currently crowdsourcing funds for production via Kickstarter, with the campaign ending April 6.

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