Interview

Shawn Braley
David Bazan: This is Dave.

AltOhio: Hi Dave, This is Shawn from Altohio.

DB: How’s it going, man?

AO: Great, how are you?

DB: I’m well, thank you.

AO: You sound a little congested or something.

DB: I’ve got a cold.

AO: Sorry to hear that. But, when I was preparing for this interview, I had a lot of trouble because I couldn’t figure out what I could ask you that hasn’t already been asked hundreds of times.

DB: Well, that’s alright.

AO: It just seems like you’re this artist that draws great, inquiring minds to you, or people that always ask great questions, which a lot of artists don’t have the pleasure of getting.

DB: I don’t know what to compare it to. I have had some pretty good interactions with my interviewers. It’s really been pleasant.

AO: I guess I could start by how the tour is going so far?

DB: It’s going really well. Me and five other dudes. We’ve got a really good chemistry; both in the van and on stage. It’s going really, really well.

AO: That’s great. Are you touring with different members than you have in the past?

DB: Yeah, I haven’t toured with a band, except for last October, I haven’t toured with a band at all in four or five years. Then last October was the first time I’ve toured with a band, since, like I said, four or five years ago, and it’s some of the same dudes that were on that tour, but it’s not exactly the same band.

AO: With the release of Curse Your Branches this past fall do you feel a freedom knowing that you got how you felt about God and faith more out in the open?

DB: When it comes to start recording the next record I’ll feel more freedom because I won’t really have to touch on that anymore. It’s not like I necessarily did have to, but apparently I did because I’ve been pretty bent on writing about it over and over again on Branches. I’m satisfied with the writing on that record and what it communicates. So, yeah, it’s nice to kind of have that. It’s as clear a communication as I know how to do.

AO: I had read the interview you had conducted while at Cornerstone and everything, and the interviewer was talking to kids at the festival and they were kind of, even with Curse Your Branches, they were twisting the songs to mean what they want them to mean.

DB: It’s fair for them to take the music how they want it. If they assume to know what I think then it would be better for them to read an interview or something like that, but that’s not really what’s important. They can take the music for however it hits them, that’s fine.

AO: Do you feel like you’ll ever break free from the Christian label that has been applied to you?

DB: Well, I don’t know. I mean I am now defined by Christianity as much as I have ever been, even though I’m on the outside of it. It’s probably the most recognizable factor about the new record. With that said, it just is what it is. I mean, anybody at this point who would be like “Oh, that’s a Christian band” just have their heads so far up their asses, so if that happens to me then I don’t care. But if people say, “Oh, that guy is just obsessed with Christianity” then that’s probably true and that’s fine.

AO: I had read an interview where you said you’d never had any bad experiences in the church to have this more doubtful approach, but was there any specific, defining moment that you started thinking that this was all B.S.?

DB: Well, at a certain point, you just got to assume things. I mean, the story of the fall, it just was a thing of going back and evaluating these claims and proclaiming the literal truth and inerrancy of the Bible, which Christians believe is God’s word. I started thinking about that and looking into it and, to me, there’s just not a good reason to think that. And from there, just really thinking about the fall and hell and the odyssey of this issue of God’s ostensible omniscience, omnipotence and benevolence at the same time, which placed against human suffering. I just started to evaluate those things and started coming to conclusions that were opposite of the conclusions of Christian faith.

AO: Yeah, I can understand that. I am a Christian, and I am personally dealing with my own doubts, and your music, even as far back as It’s Hard To Find A Friend and Whole EP have really been relatable to me. But then when you released Curse Your Branches, it was really what I was going through now, but on the opposite side that you’re on. I am dealing with those questions and I’m still trying to find the answers, and I’m trying to be open to the idea that it could be on either side of the fence. It’s just extremely scary to me.

DB: Oh, yeah, it is scary. I agree.

AO: That brings me back to when you talked, in an interview, about the grief you felt when you lost your faith. Can you go into that more?

DB: It’s pretty straightforward, I mean, I lost something that I didn’t mean to lose that was historically really, really important to me, and it turned out to be different than I thought. My whole life until I was twenty four or twenty five, I hadn’t really thought twice about some of the fundamental ideas, that when I really started to think about them they all kind of unraveled and it was relatively devastating.

AO: Were there certain ways that you dealt with that grief?

DB: I mean, it was all kind of muddled together. There were periods where I was certainly trying to escape the grief by just getting as fucked as I possibly could by drinking. Then later there was much more healthy ways of dealing with it just by writing about it or expressing it in conversation with friends and family.

AO: You’re realization always kind of reminds me of Nietzsche in The Gay Science where he talks about “God is dead” and such. That piece always stuck out to me because the idea of God being dead in our lives is a frightening idea.

DB: It’s hard to say because God being dead assumes, well, I haven’t actually read that particular passage by Nietzsche, but I mean it’s scary. You’ve got this thing that everything hinges on and then you realize that it’s not quite what you’ve thought but in the end I think that just being has it’s own set of (inaudible). You know, we’re still here, and we assume that God is at the center of everything, and maybe He is but if He’s not it doesn’t change that fact that we’re still here. It’s funny because people think of it as a loss, but if it wasn’t there anyway than it’s not an actual loss it’s just a perceived loss. I know that that can be pretty powerful but the facts of the matter may not have actually changed, it’s just your thinking that has changed. The thing that I’m trying to do with it is just trying to understand the reality of the situation a little better and not hang a bunch of mythologies around that reality to help try to explain it without figuring out what that reality actually is. Which, I don’t use the word mythology to mean that it’s fictional but we mythologize. We imagine these structures and Christianity does that a lot. Even if one considers the Bible reality, we imagine extra biblical structures that we don’t even realize are extra biblical because they’re so engrained in our culture, like, asking Jesus into your heart, there’s nothing like that in the Bible. I guess Revelations 3:20 has been distorted to sort of imply that but that’s not what that verse is talking about anyway. And so in Christianity, when someone considers the Bible to be reality we mythologize even the Bible and we add all these extra structures in our minds. And with that, I don’t think the Bible is reality and so there’s another canon which is just what is. What does exist? There are all these extra structures that we layer on top of that that are just kind of unnecessary. So I’m just trying to break those down if possible and just get down to what is. Not what I wish was or not what would be really great or convenient if it was, but just what is. To me, that’s a big deal.

AO: In regards to that, I had read that you just wanted to get some distance from Christianity and when you find the answers it might be that those answers would lead you back but at the same time you doubt that that would happen.

DB: That’s just the thing. I don’t know what is currently hidden from me in terms of information and data. I don’t know what those things are. That’s sort of the nature of these things, I don’t know what I’m going to end up when I find out, that’s how that works. I suppose, with what I know now, the vast majority of data that I have found, the Biblical view of Christianity is not what I’m going to arrive at but if that is what I discover than I’m not going to deny it and I’m not going to not engage in it because of some hang up that I had.

AO: Distinguishing between the truth and what you want to be the truth?

DB: Yeah, exactly.

AO: I read some criticisms of you online, on quite a few blogs, with the release of Curse Your Branches, that some Christians are going to pray for you and they’re just encouraging people to pray for you and everything.

DB: I really appreciate that.

AO: But it seems like at the same time, they’re not allowing you that distance that you’re trying to get.

DB: Yeah, and luckily they don’t have a choice in the matter. When people come to different conclusions publicly other people are often pretty opinionated. I understand where people are coming from. People are naturally extremely invested in their worldview and the thing that I get more than anything, which I understand too, but it’s comically condescending, is when people say “Oh, God will bring him back around.” To that I think it’s great if what they mean is he’ll eventually come to an understanding of reality, that’s what I’m after too. But, what they really mean is: they know reality and I’ve lost my way and God will bring me back around to their understanding of reality. Which, like I was saying, that’s a natural thing and I get that but it’s really comical. This is difficult stuff for people to navigate in general, particularly if they’re not taking a very active role in navigating it. People just accept the social norms and don’t really look too deeply into it, and I understand that too. But one’s credibility in this discussion, for me personally, depends a good deal on how seriously they are looking into it and how thoroughly people are questioning and evaluating various truth claims.

AO: In some of those same blogs people have been critical of the way that you are talking to God, especially in songs like “When We Fell” and “In Stitches”, saying that you’re taking a simplistic approach to how God deals with those types of questions.

DB: That’s interesting, do you remember enough to elaborate? I haven’t heard that.

AO: Well, to be more specific, in “In Stitches” when you say “When Job asked you the question, You responded who are you to challenge your Creator? Well if that one part is true, it makes you sound defensive like you hadn’t thought it through”. Basically he was saying in Christianity, what do we have that God has to answer for if we’re His creation? So, basically he said it was too simplistic to just think that God should have to answer for Himself.

DB: That it’s simplistic, that doesn’t make sense to me, but that’s the beef that one would have with that is I mean, that’s what God is saying. Ostensibly that’s what the character of God in Job is saying, “who are you, O man, to question me?” And yeah, someone could definitely say that. Who is a human being to question the creator of the universe? Of course that’s what people say.

The answer is if we are created beings we are created with the capacity to ask. In all other spheres of thought or discussion, the creator of another person or situation is the one responsible for the outcome. It is built in deeply to our ethical system, yet God, the ostensible author of the ethical system, is not bound by that same ethical system. If people want to claim that is the case, and I see that people may by default have to claim that if they are a Christian. But that’s not convincing on the level of on the one hand God ostensibly made the universe, and our bodies and the ecosystem and DNA and all of these intricate things that are just stunning. Then on the other hand, it just doesn’t compute. What it sounds more like is that the characteristics that we attribute to God were made up by people who were speculating what God would be like. Of course we’re not going to be able to develop a system or viewpoint about God’s character that is as flawless and intricate as creation itself, because we’re not capable of that. On the one hand people can say, “Who are we to question God?” If the Bible is, in fact, God speaking directly to us, then I can see how that would come up, but I just don’t think that it is. So, in a sense what I’m doing is questioning human institution, but if there is a benevolent creator who is just and fair then that Being wouldn’t be threatened by honest questions, and more than that, He would have satisfying answers for those honest questions. Then there are people who say, “Well, there’s mystery”. That’s fine, but if the mysteries include fundamental injustices that are systemic errors in the layout of the universe than that’s not satisfying to me, the answer that that’s just part of the mystery, and anybody who is satisfied by that I just really doubt. I think that people are basically motivated by fear and that’s why they can’t look at it like that.

AO: I would agree with being motivated by fear because that’s almost like how I feel when I’m looking into it because I am afraid to continue going and find out I was wrong about something.

DB: It’s scary to be wrong about anything, particularly when eternal death is on the line.

AO: So, how do you feel when people say; “If I die and I’m wrong, I’m going to be alright, but if you die and you’re wrong then you’re going to hell”?

DB: I think making a decision based on those things is cowardice and also I just think they’re wrong about death. I have faith that hell is not real, that it was made up by dudes, or misinterpreted, even from the text of scripture, which I don’t hold to be true necessarily or God’s word. But just because someone’s holding a gun to your head it doesn’t make the resulting confession true.

AO: To me, it seems like even God would be disappointed in that kind of logic.

DB: It’s illogical and that’s the point, and if God is the author of logic than I agree, He would be disappointed. There are basic logical steps that one can go though to discern information and I just don’t think that the author of the human body and photosynthesis would require His followers to violate basic logic to believe in the religion that honors Him. It doesn’t compute. It’s contradictory.

AO: That’s where I’m running into problems trying to navigate through my own faith. You’re one of the only artists that I can think of, in recent times, who’s had such an impact on a particular set group and not even been a part of that group. When you first started Pedro The Lion back in 1995, what was your purpose then?

DB: I was really trying to re-appropriate Christian music. I thought that the model of Christian music had really run amuck. If it wasn’t just fundamentally unnecessary or inappropriate, and I was trying to basically do it in a way that I thought was right. Then I pretty quickly figured out, maybe in ‘96, that it was just a bad model all the way down. So, I just continued with the same kind of earnestness that I approached making music that communicated something about Christian faith to music that communicated something about me and my thought process in my little corner of culture.

AO: So were you originally trying to make a Praise and Worship band with a more honest approach?

DB: Not necessarily a Praise and Worship band, I think the basic function of that is to have people singing along. I think it was a performance and not a crowd participation band. I was just being a songwriter, and on the Whole EP… Whole EP is a classic sort of arc of falling and redemption, and I deliberately was aiming for that there. I wrote a Christian allegory basically. Shortly after that I realized that that was kind of a flawed model, too.

AO: Did you feel like you were just forcing it or it wasn’t totally honest or what?

DB: It was a sophisticated slogan, but it was a slogan nonetheless. It took me awhile to realize but any pretense in making songs personally doesn’t feel appropriate to the endeavor.

AO: So do you think that that same model goes towards an author, like say C.S. Lewis or Tolkien or something like that?

DB: Yeah, I mean, nonfiction is different of course, because in that you come up with a thesis and then try to prove that thesis. If you’re making a work of art, those things might naturally be in there, and if you’re dealing with archetypes then those things naturally come up. The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe is an interesting children’s story and it’s affirming to Christians because it’s the story of Christianity and there are some really poignant moments in it, but I wouldn’t say that it’s his finest work. It’s not great literature.

AO: Do you think that it’s because he is affirming the faith through it? That kind of bogs it down a bit?

DB: Not necessarily affirming the faith, there are plenty of works of art that affirm faith; Flannery O’Connor in her way, but she would say that she was constantly surprised by what her characters were doing in the story because she didn’t know what was going to happen. It wasn’t a neat and tidy statement of some classic story. On the one hand, the reason The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe is not great literature is because it’s not original. It’s just restating the same story with different ornaments. I’m not saying it’s not worthwhile to read, it’s just not completely his own story.

AO: I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of Joseph Campbell and the hero archetype and how a lot of stories just take that same archetype and you just apply your own world to it.

DB: Oh yeah, and Star Wars is a classic version of that, but you can feel it even in that. It’s original on some level, but the story feels ancient and profound in it’s connection with the things we already know and understand.

AO: So, going from the Whole EP and your disappointment with how you approached that what major changes do you think you made going into It’s Hard To Find a Friend and going on from there?

DB: Well, it’s a much different record. I was just writing tunes. I wouldn’t necessarily characterize my feeling about the Whole EP as out and out disappointment, I just felt that I didn’t want to do that anymore. As you’re moving along you’re just trying to figure out how to do it different or better. So, that’s what I was doing on Friend.

AO: I had discovered you, I had always heard about you, but I grew up in a more strict religious upbringing where you aren’t even supposed to listen to music that sounds like it would be on secular radio. So I had heard about you peripherally alongside other bands that were on Tooth and Nail records or whatever. Then finally I was at a record store in Cincinnati and I picked up It’s Hard To Find A Friend. That was four years ago, and it just really struck me, and that’s kind of what even made me start asking questions. I had always had the questions but I was always afraid to ask them, so that album opened up the idea that it’s okay to start asking questions and not being afraid, even though now you’re asking much more open ended questions that aren’t coming to the same conclusion but it allows me to feel safe that I can still ask those questions and still be a part of the Christian faith.

DB: That’s great. I am happy to hear that. While I ended up outside of it, I know a lot of people who I respect very much who believe. They have grappled with similar questions and come down on the side of faith, and I don’t have any less respect for them because I believe them when they communicate their conclusions about things.

AO: But was that an intention you had when going into making It’s Hard To Find A Friend and the records that followed? Or did you not realize that until people were coming up to you after hearing it and telling you?

DB: That wasn’t a deliberate thing on my part. I was attempting myself to be honest and to write things that were meaningful to me, and I couldn’t have guessed or known that that would be the effect that it would have on people. In hindsight, though, it makes sense that when a person is expressing something honestly that it would lead others to follow their thoughts and express things honestly. It seems natural, but it wasn’t part of my intention. I couldn’t have, at 21, known that.

AO: With Curse Your Branches I read that you said you never intended it to be as autobiographical as it was, but to me, it seems that you’ve always written autobiographically. Which I guess I don’t know since I don’t personally know you, but the songs, with the exception of Control, which seems more satirical, from every other album seem extremely autobiographical.

DB: They often feel that way, but Control of course is fiction and Winners is fiction and except for “Secret of The Easy Yoke” and “The Longer I Lay Here” Friend is fiction. What I would say about that though is it’s not necessarily any less personal. In some cases it’s more personal than your autobiography, because your autobiography is influenced by so many other things than your own choice, but when you write fiction that’s all that’s out of it; your taste and your perception. In a lot of cases the autobiographical stuff that I might write is not as personal, in a way, as the fiction I might write. But with Pedro it’s like 95% fiction. It was very personal fiction, so it has a very confessional feeling to it. Nonetheless it’s not stories about me and my life, whereas Branches follows a narrative that is about me, my life more or less.

AO: So basically what you meant by that is the songs specifically state things that happened in your life, but with your older albums they haven’t specifically happened in your life?

DB: The stories that are in the other songs are personal because my connection with the lyrics are expressing something very directly a part of me, but they’re not stories about things that have happened in my life.

AO: So, it seems like from Control to Achilles Heel, in those couple of years, you had a lot of songs that talked about people shoving their beliefs at you, “Foregone Conclusions” for instance. Was that from having that happen your whole life and just being fed up with it, or had that specifically been happening to you around those times?

DB: In that case, that’s a good example, the way that I was thinking in that song it would seem to indicate that it was happening to me. I didn’t really get that much, but I saw a lot of other people do that to other people, and also growing up Christian, I was directed to do that to people. I was just using the devices in that song, the Christian pronouns and whatever else, to communicate something about that concept or that idea, but it didn’t correlate directly with any conflict I was having with another person at that time.

AO: I can relate to that coming from such a strict religious family, that they feel like they need to talk to me when I go to a church that isn’t the particular denomination that they are or I don’t wear my hair in the particular fashion they feel is appropriate. That’s why “Foregone Conclusions” stuck out to me. That and the song “Magazines” when you’re basically saying what you’re shoving down my throat is basically pushing me further away. But with the songs, like “Magazines” seems to be about fake people basically, then you get to the part about being “above reproach” and there’s this shift. It doesn’t seem like it’s going to be a song about faith at all on any level and then you come out with that. Is that song more based in faith than I’m realizing?

DB: It’s hard to say. I think that song is a little looser in its theme. I think the two verses both have references to faith. It really has to do with superficiality and the presence superficiality in a lot of the practice of Christianity. As people who ostensibly understand deep truths about the universe, they should be above petty superficial concerns, and yet Christianity is full of almost nothing but petty, superficial concerns. People talk about holiness and never thinking about neighbor love or social justice. They’re thinking: Do you swear? Do you drink? Do you XYZ? And so it has more to do with that. And honestly, lyrically, we’re playing that song on this tour in spite of the lyrics. I am not really a fan of those lyrics anymore, but we enjoy playing the song so we try to look past that.

AO: When you play your older songs now, how do you feel about them? Especially when you’re playing a song from Pedro and it has a religious background or faith story in it.

DB: Well, they all kind of do, even the new tunes are informed by faith, but it just depends on the tune, I won’t play “Secrets Of The Easy Yoke”, the concerns I was expressing in that song are not concerns of mine anymore. Then there are other ones like “Penetration” or “Bad Diary Days” or “Slow and Steady…”, those are songs that carry concerns that I still have and are not incompatible with my current idea of things.

AO: So you’ll only play songs you can still agree with basically?

DB: Yeah, I’ll only play songs that I basically like and that resonate with me, and sometimes a song will resonate with me even if it’s slightly different that what I might think, or peoples’ interpretation might be that way but I still find it compelling and the lyric may resonate with me nonetheless so I’ll still sing it.

AO: It’s too bad, I haven’t seen you live before this tour and I do love the song “Secrets Of The Easy Yoke” so I guess I’ll never get to see that one live.

DB: It’s on Youtube with the band somewhere.

AO: You had said if you didn’t feel like you had a responsibility to the record company to sell records, you wouldn’t do interviews, but at the same time, at your shows you take questions from the audience throughout the show, so I was just wondering why you feel it’s important to field these questions that people have directly?

DB: I don’t really know, but I do feel like it is important. I feel compelled to do it, and I feel a responsibility to do it. Interviews are a little different, interviews, for the most part function to sell the record and the logic behind it is saturating the media market. I don’t have a value for that. I need to sell a certain amount of records to make ends meet, and I need to sell more than I currently am to keep a band together and pay them a living wage, so in the mean time, I will keep doing it. Particularly tour press helps a lot. But I’ve done more interviews and been more famous on this record than I have been on any other and it hasn’t sold as well necessarily so it’s a bad trade off I think. I’m not interested in fame. I want to be able to do this for my job and if I can do that with being as un-famous as possible that would be ideal.

AO: So you’re selling fewer records with Curse Your Branches than you have with your other records?

DB: Substantially less, yes.

AO: That’s terrible because I think it’s your best album.

DB: Yeah, thank you. I’ve sold 16 thousand copies of it, and Winners and Control each sold 50 thousand copies a piece.

AO: That is a large difference. The Amazon 2.99 deal seemed to help though.

DB: Yeah, we sold 12 hundred records in one day with that.

AO: Well, thanks for taking the time out to talk to me, and not rushing it or anything.

DB: My pleasure.

AO: I hope that the tour goes well, and I’ll see you Monday.

DB: See you then.