For years, David Bazan had served as the token evangelical Christian in the mopey, emo-inclined, songwriterly branch of the indie-rock scene. Performing with a revolving-door array of sidemen under the name Pedro the Lion, he produced supple, hypnotically downbeat music that seemed to live beneath a perpetually dark Seattle storm cloud. It was consumed with issues of faith, morality, self-doubt and the struggle to find the right path.
Then between 2004 and 2005, everything flew apart. Bazan not only endured a personal crisis of faith, but his band imploded. In both cases, he felt he needed to step clear of the wreckage.
For Pedro the Lion, which had existed since 1995, the seeds of destruction were actually sown with the 2003 addition of drummer Tim Walsh as the band's first permanent member.
"Stakes were a lot higher because then there were two dudes trying to make a living off this thing. The pressure and the weight of the whole thing just got really heavy. Our relationship got really strained and very confused," says Bazan, who also admits to struggling with alcohol during this period. "I could've just gotten two more guys to join up and said, 'Oh, it's the same thing, it's Pedro the Lion.' But I just felt like I had to get some distance and clarity."
Bazan ultimately shelved Pedro, and began releasing music under his own name, beginning with 2006's Fewer Moving Parts. It was intended as a stopgap EP release, but it would be three years before Bazan finally released a proper full-length, 2009's Curse Your Branches. Bazan suggests that the album, which expresses his disavowal of Christianity, dictated the subject matter.
"It wasn't my idea to write my first solo album about religion so on-the-nose. I came along kicking and screaming driven by my sub-consciousness, which was very insistent," he says. "My subconscious knew what it had to do for me to sort of move on. And I just was the last one to really know."
Branches throws down the gauntlet from the start on its tender, lilting opener, "Hard to Be," which asks, "You expect me to believe that all this misbehaving grew from one enchanted tree?" Bazan says he'd been struggling with his faith for several years.
"There's this description of faith, as being about what you hope for. And I thought, well, I should try to make my belief system something I hope is true. Do I hope that hell exists? No. Do I wish that God's a vindictive prick? No. I want dignity and peace and justice for people. So I want to believe in something that could yield that."
The irony is that for all he's changed, Bazan is in some ways very much the same. It's an issue he begins to address on his appropriately titled new album, Strange Negotiations, which is sort of a missive to his old life.
"I've realized that culturally speaking, I'm still an evangelical Christian, like a non-practicing Jew. I feel like I've been on this years-long exit interview for Christianity," he says with a laugh. "I'm kind of at ease with my very natural connection with the evangelical Christian community, though for good reason, they're not that comfortable with me."