Darkness & Redemption: Damien Jurado and David Bazan

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Darkness & Redemption: Damien Jurado and David Bazan

paste01cover-75.jpg This story originally appeared in Issue #1 of Paste Magazine in the summer of 2002, republished in celebration of Paste’s 20th Anniversary.

The gothic Christ-haunted world of Southern writers like Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy and Eudora Welty—a place where the darkest strains of human nature so grotesquely illustrate the desperate need for redemption—has found an unexpected successor in the indie rock world of Seattle. The genteel grandmother is now the self-righteous politician. The troubled moviegoer takes shape as a variety of sad, young narrators. But the startlingly honest and unnerving exploration into the most malevolent corners of the human heart have definitely made their way up to the Pacific Northwest.

Damien Jurado and Pedro the Lion’s David Bazan have much in common, from their shared conservative Christian upbringing to their refusal to conform to the expectations of their growing fan-bases—either the college radio kids in their Weezer t-shirts or the cool church kids, squirming uneasily as Pedro breaks into “Rapture” a vividly descriptive song about adultery.

Before Bazan had college students poring over his lyric sheets, he was drumming for Jurado in a series of local Seattle bands—The Guilty, Linus and Coolidge. They’ve collaborated on most of Jurado’s records and bounced ideas off each other throughout their respective careers. And both have just released albums that rock much harder than anything they’ve done before—Jurado’s I Break Chairs with his band Gathered in Song and Pedro the Lion’s Control. Now they are touring together, sharing musicians, and Bazan is once again playing drums for Jurado as of Gathered in Song.

But their songwriting stvles couldn’t be more different: Jurado with his vague, emotive vignettes of sorrow and loss; Bazan with carefully-constructed musical novelettes as violently incisive as Ms. O’Connor’s.

The two spoke of their respective approaches over a meal at the East Atlanta Village eatery, The Heaping Bowl, before a show at the nearby Echo Lounge.

“I don’t really care about craft,” Jurado says. I always write a song and leave it as done. Dave takes a song, writes it and constantly thinks about it—where will this song go? What will I do with this song? I wish I had that energy to sit down and go, Hmm, what should I do with this song?”

“The reason I have to do that,” says Bazan, “is because when it just comes out the first time, it’s not this really complete and vital piece that can stand on its own. But then, I can take this thing and push it into something bigger. Whereas your thing is already bigger, but you don’t have the patience to the write the drum part and bass line.

“Or the intelligence” Jurado quips.

The result for Jurado is fragments of confusion, beauty, and hope, but mostly sadness, disillusion and self-disappointment, as in “Like Titanie”:

I have many problems
Fears I can’t ignore
I don’t know the meaning of “self-destruction”
I have many questions
Places I keep going
I don’t know the meaning of “no trespassing”

Bazan, on the other hand, is two-thirds of the way through a trilogy of Jade Tree releases held together loosely by a common theme rather than a single storyline—not enough characters make it out alive at the end to continue on to the next recording. The first album in the series, Winners Never Quit (basically Bazan solo record), follows two brothers in a Kennedy-esque family. One can’t stay out of trouble; the other is a highly respected candidate for political office. When the polls start looking bad, the candidate pays to swing the election in his favor, justifying his actions with the view that his opponents have no respect for his brand of family values. His wife tries to uncover his crime, and, seeing everything slip away, he kills her in a rage. Then kills himself. In the finale, the black sheep brother attends the funeral in chains while the father wonders what he has done to deserve God’s wrath. Throughout the eight songs, Bazan proves himself a master at capturing the mood, and the project has the feel of a movie where the soundtrack overtakes minor details like cinematography and dialogue.

This dark tale with such chilling songs as “A Mind of Her Own” and “Never Leave a Job Half Done” came as a shock to many fans, but ultimately served to prepare them for the much darker, much louder Control, which explores family relationships and the high-pressure corporate world. The album begins with frighteningly honest look at marriage.

We were walking, holding hands, with our bare feet in the sand,
And the seagulls overhead when I broke the spell and said,
“I could never divorce you without a good reason.
Though I may never have to, it’s good to have options,
But for now I need you”.
But it was only in my head because no one ever says
What they really mean to say when there’s that much at stake.
So I told her I loved her, and she told me she loved me.
And I mostly believed her, and she mostly believed me.

Married for two years, Bazan imagined this song from walks he’d taken with his wife at Carmel and Cannon Beaches. But he’s quick to point out that his writing is fiction, and he included her in the writing process.

“It deals with issues that neither of us can deny come up in the context of a committed relationship” he said “But I don’t think that either of us feel them as strongly as characters in the song or are as dishonest as that guy is. But I think that those are universal things that pcople are afraid to voice. We all have feelings of unfaithfulness. Just because you have a feeling doesn’t mean that you’re going to follow through with it or it’s valid.”

The adultery scene of “Rapture” was a little harder for his wife to accept.

“The ‘arch her back, screams tor more thing,” he says. “And jus the vivid references part—she doesn’t really care for them. She just feels like they’re dirty and kind of gross, which is good because I think they are too. And that’s kind of what I was trying to portray—but sort of the pleasure of what’s dirty because [it’s always there].”

The wife in the story is less understanding, and murders her husband. In the ironic and dirge-like “Rejoice’” he closes the album with a whimper:

Wouldn’t it be so wonderful
If everything were meaningless.
But everything is so meaningful,
And most everything turns to shit.
Rejoice.

Taken by itself, there’s no absolutely no hope found on Control, which he calls “the trilogy’s The Empire Strikas Back.”

Jurado didn’t follow that analogy until sitting down with the lyric sheet one night while Bazan was on stage. “I said to Dave, ‘When I got to “Rejoice,” I was looking for my handgun to put it in my mouth and just blow my fucking brains out because there was no light at all.’ And he said, ‘Exactly! That’s why it’s like The Empire Strikes Back with Hans Solo being turned into a copper penny.”

But his Return of the Jedi is in the works with the help of band mate T.W. Walsh, who has been opening shows on the tour with his own songs. Bazan promises a much more uplifting conclusion to his gothic tales.

For me, redemption doesn’t mean anything outside of the context of intense tension and darkness” he said. “I’ve wanted to write a record that had redemptive themes on it for a long time now, but I just didn’t feel like it was time yet because—on a certain level, I know that people ing and going at different times. But then there are fans who are following the thing. AndI want hem to be on that journey so that when the redemption comes, it actually means something, It’s not just flippant. I want there to be a sense at the end of Control, that there’s no hope. I know that when people who aren’t Christians sing about God, for whatever reason, it’s so much more profound and meaningful to me than when people who are Christians sing about God. I wanted to create a setting in which redemption would actually mean something, and for me that was extremely dark. On a personal level it’s dark. And for me to write it was a really hard process.

Jurdado adds, “You watch TBN or go to church, and you want to ask, ‘What about the bad? What about the shitty feelings I have? What are we being saved from? ... I think Dave is making that record where, ‘This is what life is like without light.’ And there’s no light. It’s like a Montana flat. A thousand miles of just darkness.”

Jurado has already recorded his next album for the Secretly Canadian label. He plans to keep his acoustic side separate from Gathered in Song, which is still looking for a record label after leaving SubPup.

And Bazan hinted that the next record could be the end of Pedro the Lion.

“I want it to happen as fast as possible because I don’t want the tension to be there for three years,” he says. “There’s a sense in which everything Pedro’s been about is going to be complete after this next one, but it may just continue on with other projects.”

Fortunately for both young artists (or unfortunately, I suppose), humanity never ceases to provide inspirations for tales of fallenness and grieving. Expect Jurado and Bazan to continue probing the sinister and sad places of the heart for years to come.

Josh Jackson is Paste’s founding editor-in-chief. Follow him on Twitter @joshjackson.