David Bazan sets the scene for his first new recording with Pedro the Lion in 15 years with “On a desert Christmas morning, 1981 / One month shy of 6 years old in the Valley of the Sun.”
It’s the opening line of “Phoenix,” an album that finds the singer sorting through his memories of the childhood home his family left behind when he was 12 to try and make some sense of how he’d gotten to the “grown-up mess” he sings of in another track.
Bazan recalls his therapist’s reaction to that first song, “Yellow Bike,” in which the joy he feels from that first taste of freedom quickly fades to where he says he’d trade his kingdom for someone to ride with.
“She was like, ‘Oh, that’s your core ache and you got that in the first song on the record,’” the singer recalls with a laugh. “I realized, yeah, that’s true.”
The Seattle-based indie-rock veteran had come up with the concept for the album in the summer of 2016, when a solo tour brought him to Phoenix.
“I was leaving town after a show at Crescent Ballroom and a night off at my grandparents’ house, feeling as low as I had ever felt,” he recalls.
He’d given up drinking a year before that particular visit.
“And after a year dry, all the pain that I was seemingly effectively managing with the booze was just all there,” he says. “I was on tour alone, having to sit with all these stored-up feelings. It was overwhelming, hard to manage. I was looking for safety in a way, for some kind of stability.”
He was hoping to find it at his grandparents’ house, he says. “But that was a complicated place because my grandpa had dementia really bad.”
So he went for a drive.
On processing his ghosts in Phoenix
“I was actively looking for a path to get out of that feeling,” he says. “I went up 35th Avenue from where my grandparents live, near Union Hills, and took Thunderbird over the edge of North Mountain to Seventh Street to see the house I grew up in. And as I was skirting North Mountain, it hit me. I thought ‘There are ghosts here that you’ve got to process. There are feelings you’ve let sit and you need to go through them.’”
At first, he was thinking a journal would do the trick.
“But within a minute,” he says, “I knew it was a record.”
He hoped it would help. “And man, it has,” he says. “I’m not usually this way, where I get an idea, make a plan and follow through with the plan. But this time I did.”
Arriving Jan. 18, “Phoenix” is the first installment in a story that spans several albums, each devoted to a different city Bazan has called home since leaving the Valley. An album focused on Lake Havasu City is planned next, with a chapter on Santa Cruz, New Mexico, following.
The fourth record will be based on Paradise, California, where he lived in ninth grade.
“And that record just got really complicated,” he says, “because Paradise isn’t there anymore. Then the fifth record is set in Seattle somewhat but also in America and Europe, on tour, which is a large part of what constitutes home for me. The road.”
The core ache of his ‘Yellow Bike’
It’s suggested that moving around that often had to play into that “core ache” at the heart of “Yellow Bike.”
“Yeah, that took a toll in a way,” he says. “I’m basically trying to unravel a bit of the loneliness I seem to carry with me. So I had the idea to try to retrace my path through adolescence and early adulthood and see what I could understand.”
Being the new kid in an endless string of towns, Bazan says, “You can’t really bring the hurt you’re feeling with you. I mean, it’s there, but it’s really rare that you’d fall in with people quickly in a new place that you could be yourself around them in that way.”
In his experience, he says, “I’ve calculated that it takes about a year to get into relationships with people enough divulge some of that stuff. And then it was always time to move. So that reservoir of hurt and pain over each set of lost connections, there was no place for it to go for five years in a row at a pretty formative time.”
That sense of lost connections hit especially hard when the family left Phoenix.
“It was just so thoroughly my home that I hadn’t imagined any other outcome,” he recalls. “The desert is an introverted landscape in a way that when I would go to the mountains and the trees for camping, that space resonated more with me. But by the time I was 12, I had made peace with it. Now, I go back through Phoenix with people who have never been there or haven’t spent much time there, and it’s such a foreign place to them. They’re like, ‘How does anybody live here?’ But it’s got a magic to it.”
Bazan’s evangelical Christian background also played a role in his feelings of alienation.
“They’re not that big on feelings,” he says, “or hearing your feelings or taking your feelings seriously. So there are just a lot of factors that helped me be a very lonely person.”
Bazan has clearly done his best to find the universal ache in his own tales of loneliness.
“Some of the specifics of my life are unique to me,” he says. “But a lot of humans are trying to find their way out of this peculiar loneliness that we get into without knowing it. So hopefully it won’t just be my memoir. I don’t know, I need justification to say ‘Everybody listen to me sing.’ And the possibility that what I’m doing might be helpful to somebody is that justification.”
The writing of ‘Phoenix’
The singer returned to his grandparents’ house when it came time to write.
“It was January 2018,” he says. “I went down for about four days with the express purpose of writing as much of the record as I could. I’d get up before sunrise and drive along the routes that I was driven by my parents as a kid. Then I’d come back at 8 a.m., record the things that came up, then go get breakfast with my grandparents. They love driving around.”
He’d go back out and drive around some more at sunset, finding inspiration in “that second magic hour or whatever people call it,” he says. “I just would try to be out collecting feelings, memories and impressions, then come back to the back bedroom at their house and log them in. I left there with more than enough material to work with.”
It was a “really romantic” experience, he says, one that gave him comfort when he came back to Phoenix last month for his grandfather’s funeral.
“He died in November and was cremated,” he says. “And the funeral was pushed back to the holidays when everybody was already going to be there. So those were some sweet times where we were on the same wavelength, me and him and my grandma. Retirees and dirtbag rock and rollers like to do the same thing. Eat food, drive around, listen to records.”
On returning to Pedro the Lion
He was already committed to making these albums about his isolated journey through this world by the time he decided to start a new version of Pedro the Lion.
“I was looking for a different way to do music and my job,” he says. “I had been playing under my own name for 10 to 12 years, and for most of that time, I was performing solo, especially toward the end. And I found myself really wanting to be in a band again.”
But first, he had to figure out what being in band would mean.
“The way Pedro worked back in the day,” he says, “was I wrote all the drum parts and the bass parts and guitar parts and sometimes recorded them on the record and then people learned those parts and played them live (and sometimes on the record). Then in 2017, I realized I’d exhausted all the other ways to do it and they hadn’t worked. So I thought, ‘Well, let me try that old way of doing it again.'”
After two or three weeks, he says, “I realized that the old way was, in fact, called Pedro the Lion. I thought, ‘Man, this really feels like Pedro. This is what this is called.’ And becoming Pedro the Lion again helped make the ‘Phoenix’ record what it should have been.”
The whole process has been a cathartic experience.
“I set out to do these records because I really hoped I would find the solution to this loneliness,” he says. “And I’ve begun to. I hear people pushing back, saying ‘I’m not doing therapy’ and ‘My art isn’t therapy.’ I don’t know. I guess this kind of is. It’s trying to use the art form to learn and to grow and explore.”
The right balance of sadness and joy
He could have started the album at birth, he says. “But that’s a bit unwieldy.” So he chose the day he got a bike because it struck him as a second birth.
“I’d gotten used to what life was at the speed that you’re able to go,” he says. “And once you get that bike, the scale of everything changes. I was out there making my own choices and exploring my own feelings. I could choose where I was gonna go.”
He also felt the song struck the right balance of sadness and joy for an opening track.
“There’s excitement and possibility,” he says. “And I still feel that. I ran into some dead ends with the bike and with touring and loneliness. But feeling the joy of that first taste of agency is the compass to help me get back. I even say that in the song: You’ve got to turn that energy around. And I think going back and reliving all of it, the good parts and the bad parts, is the way to do that.”
And in doing that, he came to understand that he was never actually alone when he was cruising Phoenix on that yellow bike.
“I slowly sorted out that I am somebody to ride with and I’ve got to be that person for myself,” he says. “I’d always been thinking, ‘I just need the right somebody else and I’ll feel better.’ But I’m learning that I’m the right somebody else.”
He’s back at Crescent Ballroom next month on the “Phoenix” tour.
“I want this record to be the skeleton of the show,” he says, “and have the flesh and muscle be provided by the older songs.”
The show will also feature video they shot last month in Phoenix.
“We caught sunrise and midday and sunset and nighttime,” he says. “So everybody else around the country, they’ll get a taste of what you all will know as just outside the walls of the Crescent Ballroom.”
Pedro the Lion
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 13.
Where: Crescent Ballroom, 308 N. Second Ave., Phoenix.
Details: 602-716-2222, crescentphx.com.
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