bazan
Image: Lyle Owerko

IT’S NO WONDER Seattleite David Bazan launched a career based on religion and rock—he grew up less than a mile away from the Pentecostal Evangelical Christian church where his father was a pastor and musician. As front man for Pedro the Lion from 1995 until 2005 he was one of modern Christian music’s first mainstream successes.

His first full-length album, Curse Your Branches, out September 1 on Barsuk Records, is a marked departure from those days of religious rock. Rather than offering Pedro the Lion–like lyrics subtly infused with faith-filled messages, Curse captures Bazan’s tumultuous turn away from his deep-rooted religious beliefs. The result is a prime example of Americana folk poetry steeped in metaphor and unforgiving self-examination.

Bazan recently sat down with me to talk about his home-recorded new effort just as it hits stores.

How do you compare the music of Curse Your Branches with the music you made with Pedro, your other group Headphones, and 2006’s self-released solo EP Fewer Moving Parts? After Pedro I allowed myself to make more elaborate recordings. For example, on Curse there might be four different guitar parts going on at the same time. Fewer Moving Parts feels like a rock record to me, where Curse Your Branches …it’s not not rock and roll, but the songs just called for something different. And it’s a lot more autobiographical than any of the other records.

Did you intend for Curse Your Branches to be an overarching breakup letter to God, as it’s been referred to so far? I didn’t have a real strong sense of intention. It was a winding process of discovery, and, at the point I realized they were autobiographical tunes about drinking and religion, I was horrified. But then I played the songs more at shows and I recognized that I had a deep connection with them; I really enjoyed them despite [the fact] that on paper they seemed like a bad idea. I grew up believing a particular set of things about a very particular characterization of God, and this record could be accurately seen as a breakup letter with that characterization.

What was it like growing up as an Evangelical Christian? Maybe the expected answer is, “Oh, it was terrible, there were all these rules and we couldn’t have any fun,” but my experience was great. I lived about half a mile away from the church where my dad was the music pastor, and this whole neighborhood was my stomping ground—I just have the warmest memories of that place.

So when and why did you take a step back and start questioning your upbringing? I really didn’t question my faith until I was 24. It was a gradual process, although I always was rather aware Christians in my denomination weren’t really doing things right. I didn’t know it at the time, but the right-wing political movement had basically hijacked the church, and there was a real disconnect between what I was seeing and what I was reading in the Bible.

In 2005 you got kicked out of the Cornerstone Festival—an officially “dry” Christian music festival in Illinois—for having a milk jug of vodka in hand. This past July you played there again. How was that? I was anticipating some kind of controversy, but it didn’t happen that way. I didn’t feel isolated; even if I don’t believe the same thing as the audience, if people are trying to do what they think is right I feel like I’m on the same team as them—whether they’re Christian or not.