As one of Seattle’s preeminent singer-songwriters, David Bazan's career as a solo artist (and Pedro the Lion frontman) has been less about tugging on heartstrings and more about drenching them in sorrow. But there’s always been a beauty in his sad-sack lyricism. That delicate side gets pushed to the forefront, thanks to his new collaboration with the local players of the Passenger String Quartet led by Andrew Joslyn. Since its formation in 2011, the Passenger String Quartet has brought its classical accompaniment touch to the contemporary Seattle music scene and Joslyn has collaborated with the likes of Macklemore, Allen Stone, Suzanne Vega, Kris Orlowski, Duff McKagan, and Mary Lambert. This Friday, November 21, David Bazan and the Passenger String Quartet head to the Neptune Theatre to close out their tour in support of the newly released David Bazan and the Passenger String Quartet: Volume 1.
For our latest Fiendish Conversation, we chatted with Joslyn about fitting his arrangements to the acts he accompanies, somehow making Bazan songs sadder, and the disorientation of playing arenas with Macklemore and Ryan Lewis.
How did you initially get connected with David Bazan?
Back in 2012 in Tacoma there was a Cathedrals show that Aaron Stevens was putting on and the Passenger String Quartet was hired to back all three bands that were playing that evening. It was a Pretty Broken Thing, Kevin Sur, and David Bazan was headlining. I had already written arrangements for the first two bands and then Aaron reached out to me and was like hey you should see about doing arrangements for David and see if that's possible. And he was kinda like the go-between and fostered that. I gave a call to David while I was on tour—he was in the middle of a living room tour— and we just kind of hit it off and started talking about how to go about the process.
At first he was a little skeptical about the whole thing, because he was like, “Well, working with strings is kind of hit or miss. You don't really know what you're in for.” But I sent him rough drafts of the arrangements and he was just like, "I'm sold, let's do it." So we played the show and were really excited about the crowd response and just overall… I dunno, there was a synergy and a magic in the air after we played the show. And we set about making a record.
When composing arrangements for songs that are already written, what are you listen for in order to find spots that you can insert orchestration?
It always depends on the project. For me, first of all I look for harmonies that are implied that are not fully fleshed out. Sometimes if they are playing a full chord then it's like, “Well maybe there are some interesting tensions that can be thrown on top, or sevenths, ninths, and whatever to make it sound fuller. For certain songs, if I want it to have that kind of unsettling feel, then I throw in those really bizarre notes, like interesting jazz chords or substitution stuff.
When I arrange there are two ways I do it: Either I will sit down and notate out melodies that come to my head as I'm listening to it originally or I'll notate out original stuff that is already there. For example, from the original Pedro the Lion recordings there are certain melodies and baselines that are so idealic that you can't write without them. For me, I was a huge Bazan fan beforehand, so the work actually was much more difficult this time around than with other projects because I already had a very set idea in my head about these recordings. Listening to "Priests and Paramedics" or like "Bands with Managers," it's like, I knew them so, so specifically in a certain way.
On top of additional harmonies and stuff, I've been an improvising violinist and viola player for a really long time so sometimes I'll just essentially let the violin speak for me. It's kind of a weird way of putting it. I've been playing the violin since I was five, and sometimes melody lines and interesting chords will come out just letting the music speak for itself and just standing aside.
Are the songwriters you collaborate with generally receptive to you arrangements or do they push back?
Thankfully, I've had a really good track record with all of the artists that I've worked with. With the arrangements that I've sent to David, like 95 percent of the time it was on the mark. But I also make sure I do my research and I make sure I sit down and talk with the artist before I even touch anything. And just be like, “Do you want me to go off the page and just do whatever I want, or do you really have a specific idea?” There are certain artists that are very controlling of their art and they'll very much be like, "I have this melody line. I don't know how to write it out, but can you write it for me?" I don't want to just throw my own stamp on the whole thing and just shit on the original, that wastes my time and it wastes theirs. I feel like I'm sensitive enough to the artists and I also take enough time and care with writing new melodies. Something else is I make sure that I don't step around on vocals, because that’s really important. I always make sure it ducks out when there are really important lines or choruses. I make sure there is stuff that is either complimentary or it’s taken a back seat to the song.
That was one of the things that I noticed about this record. On certain tracks, I was like, “I didn't know that this song could be any more melancholy... but now it is.”
Yeah. “Priests and Paramedics,” we took the bleakness of it and just drove it into the ground. And as I was writing it, I remember distinctly, I was weeping (incoherent weeping sounds). Essentially, I took one melody line and made it into a canon for the verses. How much more bleak can you get? (Laughs)
What made you want to focus on working with contemporary artists instead of taking a more traditional, classical route?
When I was in college I completely had a fallout with classical music. I had been doing classical music since I was five years old, so I was really entrenched in the system: I was doing the master classes, I was applying to grad schools for performance. And it got to the point where… I didn't like the politics, I didn't like the egos involved, and I didn't want to be an orchestra drone—that was the bottom line. I got so disillusioned with it that I quite classical music in college and joined a rock band. My whole thing is the music that really moved me and really got my blood pumping was rock and hip-hop and all this contemporary music. But I still have all this training and all this love for classical music, just not the culture itself. And then it slowly, after touring for a long time and completely going off the beaten path away from classical music, it is really bizarre that all of a sudden it is completely coming full circle now. Now there is the Passenger String Quartet that I am leading and all the arranging and orchestral writing that I'm doing is fully taking on all those influences, but applying it in a contemporary context. Now I feel like I have a reinvigorated love for classical music, because now I can see how much power it has in these other mediums.
What was the name of your band in college?
The first band I was a part of was this group called Handful of Luvin', it was out of Bellingham, Washington. It was an Irish rock band, kind of like Dropkick Murphys meets Dave Matthews. (Laughs)
I also met Kris Orlowski in college and we started collaborating and doing a lot of work together. Through gigging so much and being an avid session player in Seattle, I networked my way through all these different artists in Seattle and elsewhere.
Do you have any post-show routines?
It changes from tour to tour, I've been finding that after a performance, especially with this tour, it can get so emotionally overwhelming. The last song that we play is "Strange Negotiations" and it clings to you emotionally and always puts me in a weird mood. I always give myself like a good ten minutes; just not talk to anybody and be a recluse. Like I need to process emotionally what just happened. It's almost like a little meditation post-show that I need to do just to be back in the real world.
It's kind of the same thing when I was touring with Macklemore. When you play in a crowd of 35,000 people, you need to reacclimate yourself to real life because when you're out there, performing in that context, it's so weird and it's a lot to take.
Are there any up-and-coming local musicians that you think people should check out?
I know she's been getting a little bit of buzz, but I really like the music of Prom Queen, Celene Ramadan. I've already been talking to her about doing a collaboration on a song, but I love her ability to take a whole era of music and really encapsulate it in her live show and her visuals. She just put out a full album of music videos.
Two other artists we've been listening on the road with Bazan. One is Chris Staples, he just got put out by Barsuk. American Soft is a really good album. And Andy Fitts, Smokey Wilds. Beautiful albums, and really I don't think a lot of people know about them.
Those were both Albums of the Month over here at Seattle Met. So we’re at least familiar with them.
(Laughs) Rad. Well that's perfect. That's the thing that is funny, I think the general populace has certain things that they'll catch wind of and they’ll either grab onto or they won't. There are certain artists out there that might not be making waves but they are making really beautiful, influential music.
Anything else that you'd like to add?
We're working on our debut album. I think that we’re going to have Erik Blood produce it. Because I don't want to have a classical album, I want to have classical arrangements, but I really want something very different.
So that will be comprised of your own compositions?
Yeah, that's something huge that I want to take on. I want to start writing original work because we've done so much collaboration as a group. I think it's important that we now start putting together our own stuff. I'm really excited, but it's also an interesting challenge for me.
David Bazan and the Passenger String Quartet
Sept 21 at 9, Neptune Theatre, $21–$25