Happenings /// A Night with David Bazan and Passenger String Quartet

53-atlgI’ve loved David Bazan’s music since I was sixteen. I remember listening to his former band, Pedro the Lion’s, “Achilles Heel” on repeat while cleaning my teenage bedroom. Naive to what he was singing about half the time, I was in love with the warm grittiness of his voice and the pulse of his songwriting. I had no clue the upbeat, “Transcontinental” was about a man’s last moments after getting run over by a train. I did, however, know he gracefully sang the phrase “shut the fuck up” in a song called “Foregone Conclusions” that also referenced the Holy Spirit. I made sure to turn it down anytime I heard my devoted Christian mother’s steps in the hallway outside my door. Call me a rebel, but it became one of my favorite songs in Bazan’s lengthy catalogue.

I’ll give a brief history because it’s essential to understanding his following.

Even as a fan, I don’t think I had a handle on just how much he’s been a part of until I started researching for this piece. He’s fronted both Pedro the Lion and Headphones, with plenty of collaborations and projects in-between, before going solo under his own name in 2006. While his music alone is noteworthy, it’s an aspect of his personal story played out in his songwriting that’s been a topic of conversation in numerous interviews, amongst fans, and during sets where Bazan himself is known to ask the audience, “Are there any questions at this point in the show?

At one point in time, David was a professed Christian. He managed to write lyrics that perfectly captured the difficulty of following a tradition bestowed upon you by your family, which at times, makes zero sense. Not only was he able to sing what so many of us with similar upbringings were already feeling, but he was still clinging to the faith, and that made him a sort of hero. If this super intelligent guy can still find something worth overriding his logic for, then there’s got to be something here, right? Not to mention, this “Christian” music (or so we were quick to label it), was actually good.

Fast forward a few years and Bazan is essentially like, “Yeah guys, sorry to break it to you, but I just don’t subscribe to much of that stuff anymore.” Lyrics about believing are altered at live shows to express the opposite sentiment, and it seems as though every conversation about David Bazan’s work ends up circling back around to his faith, or lack thereof. I listened to a live interview recently in which three Christian musicians who were huge fans of Bazan dialogued as though they were desperately hoping he’d have a change of heart (totally understandable if you think his eternal salvation depends on it). But with a lot of fans, it seems like the determination to see him change his mind again isn’t actually about David Bazan, but themselves. It would be easier to let this one respected artist do the work of proving religion is worth committing to, than to face their own doubts head-on. Bazan’s gift is that he can gut you with a lyric. His words resonate whether you have a faith background or not. On this current tour he’s raised the stakes by pairing up and releasing brand new recordings of both Pedro the Lion and solo songs with the company of Passenger String Quartet.

I pulled up to 3rd and Lindsley this past Wednesday a bit nervous. Before the show, a text message gave me the email for Andrew Joslyn, the leader and composer of Passenger String Quartet. For whatever reason, I was told I could get a quote from him if I wanted to. I’ve never done an interview in my life but I’ve read enough of them to know how it goes, so I emailed Andrew, assuming he wouldn’t respond anyway. I heard back thirty minutes later. The answer was yes.

This was one of those, “fake it ’til you make it” moments where you just have to learn by doing. It was about an hour before the show was to actually start. I walked in and three feet in front of me stood David Bazan setting up his own merch table. I told the man at the door I was on Andrew Joslyn’s list. They both looked up at me for a second and David asked me my name, which I had failed to actually say. I was so busy trying to gather myself and avoid saying something stupid that I had said nothing at all. Nonetheless, they let me in and I sent a message to Andrew letting him know I was waiting near the bar. I didn’t know the stereotypical personality-type of a composer/violin player, but for the sake of being prepared for the worst, I just assumed he would be stoic and nonchalant. My theories evaporated immediately as we sat down to talk.

Born in California but hailing from Seattle, Joslyn was once an English literature major, which becomes obvious if you read any of his tour blogs. Formerly immersed in classical music, the structure started to feel stifling, and he began exploring how to incorporate his knowledge outside of solely orchestral circles. The risk paid off and as of today, Andrew has played strings for the likes of Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, Mark Lanegan, and many more. You’d expect him to be more worn out by the road. Instead, I found myself talking to someone who seemed genuinely grateful for a life of travel and working with artists he admires. “I’ve been a serial collaborator for sure.” When asked who his favorite artists have been to work with, David Bazan was his immediate response, emphatically stating, “He’s honest and he’s true and he’s just a regular guy.”

We sat and talked for well over an hour about topics from synesthesia (look it up), to the difficulty of staying in love with your art without getting burnt out. Andrew had composed strings for Bazan’s song, “Hard to Be”, which is essentially all about the story of Adam and Eve and the choice to leave the faith despite disappointing his family.

“I swung my tassel to the left side of my cap / knowing after graduation there would be no going back / and no congratulations from my faithful family / some of whom are already fasting to intercede for me. Because it’s hard to be, hard to be, / hard to be a decent human being.”

I had read that Joslyn really connected with the song, so I asked what his spiritual upbringing had been like, assuming he was raised in an environment that familiarized him with the Genesis story. Imagine my surprise when his response was, “My parents were both Zen Buddhists.” He went on to explain that he was actually born in a Buddhist retreat in California with a father who had been raised Christian and a formerly Catholic mother. What he loved about the song was how, no matter what religion, there are common themes about the human condition and our struggle for understanding.

Our time ended and Andrew left to change clothes before taking the stage with David Bazan and the other three members of Passenger String Quartet. They formed a semi-circle, with David in the center, and became facilitators in one of the most heartfelt shows many of us had experienced. I’d seen Bazan before, but his new marriage with Passenger String took the songs to another level. At points, all I could do was lean up against the table and sigh out a deep breath. Looking around, it seemed like most of my friends were doing the same. Everyone on stage was just a regular person, but the atmosphere in the room was anything but. It was enough to make you question everything and finally believe in something.

After the show, Andrew asked me what I thought. I didn’t think my opinion mattered nearly as much as he seemed to think it did, but I was deeply flattered and told him it was brilliant. I joined the band for one last drink before introducing them to the Nashville staple that is the Hermitage Cafe. At 1 o’clock in the morning I ate a patty melt, which I would regret for days afterward, and David Bazan kindly paid for everyone’s greasy meals. These are the kinds of experiences you can only have in a city that acknowledges how everyone is both remarkable and human at the same time.

Tour dates and Vol. 1 of David Bazan & Passenger String Quartet, available at DavidBazan.com

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