Sometimes the holidays can be a massive bummer. Seattle singer-songwriter David Bazan’s new album, Dark Sacred Night, provides a soundtrack for those moments. A collection of the Christmas tunes he's put out over the years on 7" vinyl via Suicide Squeeze, the album mixes somber standards ("Away in a Manger," "Silent Night," etc.), covers (John Lennon and Yoko Ono's "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" and Low's "Long Way Around the Sea"), and original tunes (plus bleak lyrical additions to classics) to offer musical solace for the season’s lost souls. In Bazan's signature style, each melancholy-drenched tune weighs heavily on the spirit. Join the chorus at Nuemos this Sunday, December 18 for David Bazan's Christmas Miracle, the least-peppy (but perhaps most therapeutic) Christmas concert of the year.
In anticipation of the show, we chatted with Bazan about the powerful resonance of Christmas tunes, connecting with the religious themes despite no longer being a believer, and how his whole discography warned against Trump.
What draws you to Christmas music and led you to record the songs that appear on Dark Sacred Night?
I was drawn to it because there’s a magnetism in there. The religious side of Christmas was such a huge part of my upbringing and personality. So [when making these songs], I guess I was just trying to process that and interact with it. And then once you get into it, it’s really rich thematically, especially with the level of hypocrisy within a Christian tradition. There’s just a lot to write about. [Laughs] I’m kind of poised to at least want to write about it.
Without the prodding of my buddy, [Suicide Squeeze founder] Dave Dickenson, I don’t know if I would have ever done any [Christmas recordings]. Years and years ago, when he kind of suggested it, I thought, well, I want to work with him, and this sounds like something low-key and kind of rad, but I wondered if I could do it. I wondered if I could sing Christmas music.
Speaking to that religious side of the songs, you end a couple tracks—“Away in a Manger” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem”—with a drawn out “amen” as if it were the end of a prayer in church. It’s pretty impactful. What led you to that choice?
It just felt natural. That’s actually a part of the recent Christian tradition within music that I’m comforted by for some reason. It’s a beautiful little thing that happens at the end of certain tunes. It’s so beautiful, the way that it’s harmonized in the traditional sense. You hear these things all your life if you participate in it, and then I get to a situation where within myself I can represent them by singing the harmonies and playing the guitar. It’s cool to get to try those things on.
Did the process of choosing which Christmas songs to record come naturally or did you end up getting hung up on any tunes?
All of it was something to get potentially get hung up on, because I attempted each pair of songs in isolation, in a way. I kind of compartmentalized and just kept my head down to do the two at a time [every year]. So when I had them all together for the first time, it took me a while [to sort out the album]. I thought, well, let’s find the upbeat tunes and place them strategically in to help balance the whole record. And then I realized, there’s no upbeat tunes on here. [Laughs] “Jingle Bells” is technically upbeat. And so I had to think, is it possible to sync these songs in a way so that it’s even listenable at all? I didn’t know if it was. And to some degree, for some people, it’s still not. But for me, I wasn’t able to come up with a track listing of ten songs that felt balanced and felt like it was going somewhere. So that’s why I had to pull those other four songs [from the 7” vinyl series] off. The ones with that weird string stuff kind of fit together, but it felt out of place on the record.
It would be weird if an upbeat Christmas song like “Up on the Housetop” or “Jingle Bell Rock” was suddenly thrown into the mix. It wouldn’t really feel like a David Bazan Christmas record.
The only reason why I would even do something like that is because I felt bad about subjecting everybody to this really kind of morbid thing that I was doing. Even as I’ve started to play shows on this tour, I’m continuing to have to let go of it. Every night I feel apologetic because it’s such a heavy show. But I know what I need, and there are some people out there who need that too. I did have trepidation about putting out a record that’s just so dark, but like you were saying, it just would’ve been disingenuous if I tacked on something.
That was a really neat aspect of doing it two at a time over the years, because I couldn’t deny what I was up to that whole time. It was sort of my subconscious—my Christmas id—expressing itself in a way. And I’ve had to reckon with it, which has been good. It’s been helpful, actually.
Do you feel there’s a cultural role Christmas songs fill that other music doesn’t?
Yeah. It’s the only folk tradition that we really have left that we reference every so often, you know? These are folk songs that we all still sing from time to time, or at least they’re playing in our life.
They’re so singable. Since they’re pulled from so many different times periods, the expression of it is far much more rich musically, harmonically, lyrically than any aspect of pop music that is currently in vogue. Everything at any given time conforms to a somewhat rigid sort of cultural guideline for whatever reason, but because Christmas music comes from this whole range of music over hundreds of years, it’s just some of the best, most beautiful music that we have.
“Silent Night” is stunning; “Away in a Manger” too. I put “Away in a Manger” on the record because it’s just so damn beautiful. It’s just peaceful. I love Christmas music. Not all of it, of course, but the Mariah Carey Christmas record is totally fantastic. From end to end, I love it. It’s part of this really vibrant and beautiful tradition that I hope this record is a part of, even it’s the sort of arc half-brother to the Mariah Carey record. It’s sweet and goodhearted at its core.
my entire discography is about this— David Bazan (@davidbazan) November 9, 2016
Changing gears, in the aftermath of your presidential election, you had one tweet that really struck me. It essentially said that Trump’s rise was what your entire discography was about. As someone that’s been listening to your work since the Pedro the Lion days, I certainly agree with that assessment. But what led you to that statement?
All of my catalog is about fidelity. And it all asserts that small, tiny fidelities are the thing that makes things go well. And tiny little infidelities add up to catastrophic, world-changing tragedies. And I feel like I maybe haven’t always spelled it out, but it’s all there. Like Control is about infidelity—not just in unfaithfulness in marriage, but like not cleaning up after yourself in a bathroom—and how just the million little we do in our interior lives matter. It spills out on the world stage occasionally, depending on who you are. Would you let people get away with what you let yourself get away with? So I feel like I’ve always talked and written about fidelity and infidelity and all its forms, and really drawn a line to what happens when those things go unchecked in big political and religious spheres.
And this Christmas tour is all about that too. Like at Christmas time—with “Away in a Manger” and “Silent Night”—we’re sort of quietly sitting in wonder at this delicate fidelity; this vulnerability that is a part of the narrative of western civilization. And I want to have people connect the dots from there to what our lives are like now. Because that’s how it works, that’s how everything works. You reap what you sow. It’s not rocket science, and yet the people who taught me that have lost the plot, you know? I don’t mean my folks specifically, I mean whatever boomers and grownups that raised us have collectively kind of lost their minds. They’ve been taken for a ride, and allowed themselves to be completely bamboozled. I’ve also written about that a lot—allowing yourself to be bamboozled.
Yeah, “Wolves at the Door” has certainly stung over the past month.
I know… I sing it every night on this trip. It’s brutal. “People” and “Strange Negotiations”… those are all in the show along with a lot of the Christmas songs. When I sing that first song on the record, “All I Want for Christmas,” in conjunction with “Wolves…” and “Strange Negotiations”… that’s the whole thing. That’s the whole ballgame right there. And that’s what I fell like I’ve been singing about my whole career.
Generally, I feel on the margins in my career, in my life. I drive around alone and play guitar in people’s houses. It’s not exactly a place of cultural honor or whatever. So it’s easy to feel like I’m just subjecting these poor people to all the darkness, and the concerns, and the theories about human beings work. And sometimes I would doubt that this was something helpful or not true on a bigger level. Was it just for me? And then when something so decisive happens, like the election of a despot in the United States… I don’t know.
I felt like I was vindicated to at least having been doing that work. What came back to me was that I hadn’t been doing this in vain and I hadn’t been wrong about any of it. And so that was a part of it too, just a confirmation for me. I don’t get a ton of encouragement, and I’ve said before that you can’t need more encouragement than you’re going to get or else you’re gonna run out of gas. And that morning [after the election], it just felt like… at my worst it was an “I told you so.” Like, “Wake the fuck up, you idiots that are following me on Twitter who voted for Trump.” Because there are some of those out there. I don’t know how stupid you have to be to miscalculate like that, but we’re finding out now so…
I personally know that there’s at least a small sect of Christians and former Christians, because of your old roots in Christian rock, that still turn to your music as a sort of voice of reason in comparison to the more extremist Christian right.
I’m not a believer, but I’m singing all these tunes and connecting all these dots—these are Christian dots to connect. You know what I mean? Here’s this ideal that we all get lip service to, that we all get super focused on during the Christmas season, and yet the fruit on the tree is so utterly different. These are Christian ideas that we’re trying to highlight for Christians. Between the Christmas record and the election and all that, I’m only talking to Christians now. Because I’m trying to reason with them. I’m trying to hold up a mirror to Christians and say, “What are you doing?” You cannot celebrate the nativity—this refugee baby—and to bear the fruit that you’re bearing now. It’s utterly inconsistent. And now I don’t care if people are listening or not, because I know the stakes and I know it’s possible because it happened. The fruit showed up. It’s there and you can’t deny it. So, it emboldened me.
I understand why Christian people might listen to me. There are very few voices who are making sense of that mess within Christianity. Maybe actually none. Because it takes courage. The people that have the voice to speak within that movement, they’re still doing the math, you know? The math doesn’t need to be done anymore. We know what this is. We know what the betrayal of Christian ideals it is, but not according to Granklin Graham or these despicable men who still have a voice in the movement. They were still able to motivate 80 percent of white Christians to do this thing, so say the statistics.
Is there anything else you'd like to add?
The concert isn’t for everybody. It’s earnest and I’m careful with people, but it’s a heavy show. It’s a show for processing Christmas grief, as well as national grief in general. There’re a lot of hard feelings. It does resolve in a way that I think is meaningful. But I don’t want anybody to show up thinking, “Oh! This is gonna be fun!” If you don’t like therapy, then you shouldn’t come.
David Bazan's Christmas Miracle
Dec 18 at 9, Neumos, $18