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Sympathy for the Devil 

How Pedro the Lion made a great rock album about (of all things) politics, ethics, and faith

Wednesday, Apr 19 2000
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David Bazan is a good Christian with a habit. He's been doing a lot of interviews these days about his band Pedro the Lion, and he's been telling anybody who'll listen not to, you know, play up his religious background. "Issues of faith are definitely very intriguing to me, and I would like to read about them," he says over the phone in his hoarse and measured voice. "But every now and then it comes out where that's the only thing that's talked about."

It's not that Bazan is afraid of looking like someone who's emptily proselytizing for show. It's just that he thinks ideas about rock music and ideas about faith don't mix well for most people, and because of that, this is the part where you'll probably stop reading.

So maybe it's worth pointing out that Focus on the Family, which publishes a moralizing and homophobic pop culture rag called Plugged In, probably won't see much of merit in Winners Never Quit, Pedro the Lion's second full-length album. It's a 34-minute morality play, but things get messy on the way to redemption -- a wife is bludgeoned to death, a brother is abandoned, a philandering politician philanders, God is rejected, the wrong things are coveted, and in general the Ten Commandments get a good swift kick in the shins. But those aspects aren't entirely clear, or even emphasized, on first listen. On the surface, Winners is simply a sharp and bracing pop-rock album bookended by acoustic meditations ("Slow and Steady Wins the Race" and the title track) and stuffed inside with ocean-sized guitar hooks.

The rough story line of Winners is election-season perfect. Two brothers -- one sincere and destined for failure, the other self-deluded and destined for greatness in politics -- circle each other's lives as the politician scams his way to victory. A little blood gets spilled in the process -- there's a small matter of the politician's killing his wife before she rats him out -- but even that only bolsters his sense of entitlement. "Even my own darling dear misconstrued what was so clear," Bazan sings on "Eye on the Finish Line." "Given the time I think she would have understood that it was for the greater good/ Soon I will meet her at our mansion in the sky." The lyric sheet is headed with an intriguing epigram that circumscribes the entire story: "A good person is someone who hasn't been caught."

It's difficult to ignore the lyrical and emotional territory Bazan explores on Winners -- he wrote and recorded all parts of the record almost entirely by himself -- because rock doesn't enter this world very often. Hedonism is abundant in rock -- indeed, it's the genre's driving force, from Elvis pleading for one night of sin to the loaded crotches of a legion of metal bands to the glassy-eyed sexuality of the jailbait army that rules the charts today. But deeper ideas of sin and guilt -- hedonism shackled to a sense of the consequences -- aren't amplified much, except by a few sullen folkies.

Bazan, who tellingly refers to himself as the "author" of Winners Never Quit, says the genesis of the album came from the nugget sneaker-ad wisdom he used for the title. "There was a disgusted, sarcastic feeling I would have whenever I would hear that -- 'Winners never quit.'" he says. "It conjured up these images of 'Pull yourself up by your bootstraps' and baloney like 'If we just press on we can make the world better,' and all that other junk. I became really disillusioned with all the positive projectioning. It's not the reality that I've been let in on." Growing up in the Pacific Northwest with a brief stint in Santa Cruz, Bazan was raised a Pentecostal, though he currently attends Presbyterian services, somewhat grudgingly. "As far as denominations go, I know that with the construct as it exists now there's no way around it, no other way to really go about it -- I don't really belong to any particular church."

Pedro the Lion -- PTL, if you like -- formed in 1995 to forward Bazan's obsessions with slow-moving guitar bands like the now-defunct Bedhead, and released the striking It's Hard to Find a Friend in 1998, with a follow-up EP, The Only Reason I Feel Secure (is that I am validated by my peers), released last year. There are a couple of somber moments on Winners in that tradition, but the latter is truly a breakaway record both in sound and lyrical sensibility. "Before, I was always writing for drummers who weren't attuned to the drum set, and so I would write simpler parts," Bazan says. "This time, I just played what I wanted to rather than trying to simplify. I was able to let loose a little bit more, and play the parts that I would normally write." Recorded mainly in Bazan's Seattle basement all by himself, the "big multitrack project" offered its own unique problems. "This was definitely the hardest lyrically -- to do something pleasing where the songs could stand alone if they needed to, but clear enough where people would notice that there was still a concept there. That was really difficult, probably more so than playing everything on the record, or writing everything. To the very last minute, I was piecing lyrics together."

And while the album does take on issues of faith and morality, recently Bazan has made a conscious effort to remove his band from an exclusively Christian rock domain. After his last tour of churches a couple of years ago, he quit that circuit in disgust. "If you've read some Christian authors, you might've run into the term 'Christian ghetto' -- the state of art and thinking within this thing that is the Christian industry or the Christian community or the Christian cloister," he says. "It's true that once you step into the Christian cloister, you're really hard pressed to find any active critical thinking going on in the realm of art, literature, and music, even theology and philosophies of living. We were really super-discouraged by that.

"Not to mention that, just from a business standpoint, we've never been swindled as many times as we were by Christian rock promoters."

But in a way, Pedro the Lion has jumped from one ghetto to another. Winners is the band's first record on Delaware-based independent label Jade Tree, which, depending on how you look at it, is either graced or saddled with a rep for releasing "emocore" albums -- that nebulous subgenre of post-punk that's been a source of both loud and passionate self-reflection and melodic moping. "I don't totally associate with what could be considered emocore at large, much in the same way that I really don't identify with Christian rock at large," Bazan says. "Both can be pretenses that I probably wouldn't use to define my band, but I know a lot of people will use that term, and I try not to take it too seriously."

Actually, Bazan doesn't much care who does or doesn't show up at his band's shows, which include touring bandmates Trey Many on drums and bassist T.W. Walsh. "There are a lot of Christian people who come to our shows, but all I really hope is that people are compelled to think about issues I think are overlooked, spiritually and in general," he says. "I would feel satisfied with people who listened to the record, embraced the act of listening and thinking, and then came away saying, 'Fuck that guy, I disagree with what he's trying to say.' If they really dug into it."

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Mark Athitakis

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