INTERVIEW: A Challenge to Release New Record Every Month Ended This Indie Rock Icon’s Creative Funk – Giving Fans Their New Favorite Tunes and Greasing the Wheels for His First LP Since 2011
You probably haven’t heard, but David Bazan is at the most prolific point of his career. The veteran rocker has been cranking away at his home recording studio since July of last year, blasting out 18 new songs directly to the public. Yet there’s been virtually no press, except a single profile in Paste.
Bazan isn’t willing to debase himself for more exposure. He deliberately pulled his music from streaming services such as Spotify, which, he argues, devalues recorded music so much that it’s “disposable.” He isn’t blasting press releases or exclusive mp3s to music blogs, instead promoting them through his social media presence to be bought directly at Undertow Music’s website. And he wouldn’t have it any differently. He told Pitchfork in 2014, “I’m willing to lose hundreds of impressions here or there in the publicity game in order to have people get my record and hold it in their hands… to have a slightly deeper relationship with it.”
The problem was, at the time of that declaration, he didn’t have a fresh record to give. And he hadn’t since 2011’s Strange Negotiations, a straightforward and confident rock outing—seemingly returning to normalcy after years of turbulence, most visibly in the end of his band Pedro the Lion and then his Christian faith. After that album’s release, Bazan says he went nearly three years without writing or recording any new songs, instead touring to pay the bills.
He played many, many solo tours, making living rooms his staple venue, but without any new material to workshop with his audiences, the updates at his site advertised old material exhumed or re-worked: a tour performing the Pedro album Control in its entirety, a tour with a string quartet as his backing band. He even took time to tour playing bass for a side band, Overseas.
This dry spell ended in the latter half of 2014 when he set a simple challenge for himself—to finish and release two original songs every month. The project’s title: “Bazan Monthly.” With only one rest month, he hasn’t failed to hit the target yet, and he’s about to finish up his tenth month, thus bookending the second “volume” or collection of ten songs as its own album. “I seem to respond to deadlines pretty positively,” he says.
That turns out to be the biggest understatement of our conversation. These songs are some of the most exciting of his career. Bazan is clearly having fun, putting professional engineering behind oddball ideas that would have likely been cut with a traditional production schedule. “Someone Else’s Bet” is punctuated by chopped-up nonsense vocal samples; “Goes On” runs nearly six minutes without changing chords once; “Oblivion” exists in a soundscape populated by robots and ghosts.
The rushed recordings are sometimes evident, like in “Over Again,” where Bazan’s double-tracked vocals noticeably mismatch. Still, the words and melody are clear, and the murky synths—sounding borrowed from Disasterpeace (who scored “Fez” and “It Follows”)—are so sublime that it doesn’t register as a flaw, much less a dealbreaker.
In a chat with Breitbart’s Big Hollywood, Bazan discusses the Monthly project at length and reveals that it has spurred him to record his first full-length album since Strange Negotiations, scheduled for next February.
You’ve been releasing albums ever since the days of Napster, and you shared some very powerful thoughts on music streaming and subscription-based services to The Great Discontent a couple years ago, talking about how people aren’t buying records anymore, and you made the case that Spotify is “straight up class warfare.” What was your thought process where, in the past few years, this trend has continued, and where reacting to this trend led you to change your schedule for releasing new music?
There were a lot of factors, and that was one of them, but it wasn’t the only one—the streaming thing. In the wake of this transition away from people buying records, streaming music only came in and, in some people’s eyes, put the nail in the coffin. But, because of file sharing and other things, we had already seen a very sharp drop in the number of music fans who were buying records.
In lieu of the income that some artists used to make from album royalties—I was definitely one of those, being on independent record labels—the other way that you have to make a living is through touring. So I’ve been touring a lot, and it started to get to be too much for my family and my wife and myself.
So that was the real impetus for trying to figure something else out. The conversation went something like: I had proven to myself and others that I’m more than willing to work as hard or harder than anybody else among my peers by touring consistently. So I just needed to figure out a way to work that hard from home. And if there isn’t a model ready-made to do that, then we gotta figure out something on our own.
So that was where the Bazan Monthly thing came from—really, it was an experiment. One of the things that I had to do was I had to start writing more songs. I wasn’t writing or recording any new music for three years. So that was a big part of it, which was clearly my fault, so I was trying to remedy that. Trying to present it monthly and package it in a way that’s just different and sort of dislodge people from their newfound habits, from not buying music.
Were there any other possibilities you considered before choosing two songs a month?
Well, the Patreon model was one of the things that my mind went to immediately, and I thought through that a bunch and eventually realized that it wasn’t for me, for a lot of reasons—one of them being that I don’t make videos. And I’m sure there’s other ways to do it, but at the time it was mostly people making videos. And I just realized, I don’t want to spend my time making videos. I’ve never had the desire to do that. If I had, I would have made even one video in twenty years of putting out music, but I haven’t.
And then the other thing was that, I really like the a la carte kind of sales model. I like not having people on the hook for stuff. And I’m certainly not saying it’s wrong to do it the way that Patreon does it. It’s a model that’s worked well for a lot of people, but for whatever reason, it would give me anxiety, so I’d really rather stay with the a la carte kind of way of dealing with consumers through a transaction rather than a subscription.
How did your label react when you first told them the new plan?
Well, Barsuk has given me a pretty wide berth. We’ve had a really kind of wonderfully open communication with those guys, where there’s that aspect of being on a label. The climate of this marketplace or whatever that we’ve been really frustrated about, we have been really candid and respectful in our discussion of that with them.
So when we came to them with this idea, they were rightly kind of troubled by it, is how I would say it—not dissimilar to the house show tours and to other things; they realized that we’re really trying to improvise some ways of doing this that are gonna work and that are helpful—and that we’re not just pulling shit out of our ass. It’s not just spasms, you know—essentially, we’re trying to be smart about this thing. And so, they had seen other kind of cockamamie schemes work out recently, so they decided to just kind of trust us and give us space to do this project, more or less, independent of them.
I’m glad you asked the question, ‘cause I think that it should be a point of pride for them; it was a very artist-friendly thing to do.
When I first found out about the project, I thought it was a great idea, since the market is so crowded, to remind people, hey, I’m still here, more than every two or three years when you’ve got a record. We even see pop stars doing that now where even if they won’t have a new album out for a year, they’re doing guest appearances on a Top 40 hit every quarter to stay in the public’s memory. Do you think that’s kind of influenced by the Internet news cycle, how people are always just caring about what’s new and covering new releases, and then things that are maybe a week or a month old are getting short shrift?
I think less about the Internet news cycle and more about the particular fans of mine that I keep in somewhat close contact with via Twitter and Facebook and also the intense kind of touring and house show schedule that I’ve kept up. I always feel like I see everybody or give the opportunity to interact on a very regular basis. So, to me, this felt like an extension of that.
I hadn’t made any new recordings since 2011, and the fans were bothered by that. We were giving them something and keeping the dialogue kind of open. And that was something that I was interested in, too—thinking and kind of hoping that I would be on the road a lot less. As it turns out, I haven’t been on the road a lot less, just a little bit less, so they’re just getting it both ways—live and recorded.
You mentioned that this was kind of pushing yourself at your home studio. Can you describe the writing and recording process, and do you keep in mind how the whole ten songs will sound together or just see how it turns out when you’re done?
Well, one of the beautiful, scary things about the monthly release is that I didn’t have any songs in the can. I was, every month, trying to write and record two songs in real time, and that sounds easy enough, but they have to be good. They can’t just be like any old two songs. They have to be songs that I’m happy to be a part of the catalog, ‘cause in a year or two these are just gonna seem like two albums in the catalog, you know? And so it was scary, but the timing of it made it so that I couldn’t overthink the process.
So I would come up with an idea, and—kind of like attraction and romance, you know, if you’re attracted enough to be together for a little while, chances are you could probably make a longer-term go of it. Because true compatibility is a myth, so you can only really hope for it to be that good. So that was kind of how I felt about the tunes, like, “well, I’ve sat with this song idea for four days, and I don’t hate it yet. So it’s due next Thursday, so I just have to finish it,” and I don’t get to overthink it—to sit with it long enough to decide, “oh, it’s not really the right thing.” I just have to go with my gut. So that was what the process was like—just scrambling to make something that I hoped that I liked.
You can really see the experimentation. There’s wild differences in the sonic space even from one song to the next on some month’s releases. It’s really playful at times, like, I’ve been listening to “Island/Ocean” over and over and it’s just like, who is this guy? Compared to all the somber stuff you’ve done. This project is the first time you’ve used synthesized drums, right? I remember that was a rule for Headphones, that it was live drums.
I’ve had to produce this stuff in a much smaller space than I’ve ever made any other music. I usually make records in the basement of my house, in a big sort of living room area, and now I’m sort of relegated to the downstairs bedroom, which is about 11’x12’, and my kids are doing homework right outside the door, so I have to do whatever I’m gonna do pretty quietly.
Yeah, I had to learn how to use a drum machine, and I kind of broached that on Volume One on a couple of the different tunes. And I guess it was songs Three and Four were the first ones that I ever—I think I had some that I had released that had drum machine on them. I might be wrong about that. Maybe one other one—I think the first version of the song “Progress.” But yeah, it’s been a trip, and now I love it. I just sit and play electronic drums on the 4×4 pad just all the time, it’s so exciting.
[Note: Re-listening to Bazan’s first solo LP Curse Your Branches before publication, he appears to utilize drum machines on two songs, “Heavy Breath” and the title track.]
Now, as you’re going out and doing living room shows, what kind of feedback are you getting from fans about the new project?
It’s been super positive. It feels strange to me, in a way, because this music is far less deliberate, in a way, because I haven’t been so consciously a part of the process. I’m really leaving so much of it to my subconscious; I feel it’s tied to my ego a little less. So it’s all been positive feedback, weirdly, and more vocal than I think I remember on Strange Negotiations or the last couple of things that I had done.
But it’s really weird, because it’s not sticking to me the way that it would have previously, somehow. I don’t know if that makes sense, but people say, “Oh, this is like my favorite stuff that you’ve made.” And I just think, “Wow, that’s weird.” And I don’t have the same stake somehow. I don’t think it’s a bad thing; I think it’s a really positive thing. And I think that it’s an indicator that I’m gonna be able to stay this free and just have fun making music and have it be—I don’t know, less serious isn’t the right word, but a little less self-serious or a little less ego-driven and more… I’m in some pretty uncharted territory here verbally, I really don’t know… but the feedback has been all positive.
And it’s just so strange, because I don’t really know what to make of it. It’s almost like I don’t even believe people, because I don’t know how to relate to everything that’s come out because I don’t have time to form my own opinions about it the way I usually did when making a record.
Right, everyone else is absorbing it and critiquing it when you’re just moving on to the next stuff.
Yeah, I don’t even have time to spend as much time with it as people listening to it, and that’s a first. Usually, I obsess, work and work and overwork until the point that it’s due, so I guess I’ll know in a year or two how I feel about the process, but so far, I love it. I’m just so grateful to be making new songs again. It really felt like a big part—the thing that I love to do, the reason why I started doing this in the first place—was kinda dead, totally impotent. So it’s fun to be doing it again.
The final release from Volume Two is gonna be the beginning of next month—how long do you take off between new volumes?
This last time in was just one month. Last year, 2014, we did July through November, those five months. And then I took December off and then started up again in January. The plan has been changing periodically, but as it stands now, I have to finish a record by October 1st, basically, because I want to put out a full-length as soon as possible.
So that means basically February, in the first couple of weeks of February, there’s gonna be a new full-length record. So instead of doing Volume Three, I’m just gonna high-tail it and make a full album and then put it out. And that long lead time is down to vinyl. Vinyl lead times have just exploded, in the wake of all this interest in Record Store Day and the market kind of shifting, because there’s just a limited number of vinyl pressing machines, so now vinyl lead times are like four and a half months. Yeah, that’s the plan.
In a sense, I have no downtime. I’m already running late even now, in one sense, in terms of getting stuff done in time. I seem to respond to deadlines pretty positively, so I’m looking forward to that happening again.
I didn’t realize you were working on a full-length on top of all this. Last question: bottom line for artists is you do have to put food on the table. You said before that you can tour a little less because of this, but can you share how the Monthly project is doing—whether it’s increasing sales and renewing interest.
I think it’s done pretty well. My hope was that—I was doing four six-week tours or thereabouts ever year—and my hope was that it would replace the income for fully one of those tours so I could move from touring roughly half the year to three six-week tours a year. We haven’t achieved that, and there’s been some question whether or not it’s a little bit confusing for people.
It seems to be the case that some people don’t necessarily know what it is right away, and people are still finding out about Volume One, which, in terms of my bandwidth and my thinking, is kind of old hat at this point. But that’s just the way that information works. And it’s maybe a little harder to wrap your mind around for people who aren’t so close and paying such close attention to what’s going on in Bazan-Land than maybe a full-length record would.
I think it’s been exciting, especially for people who are really close to Bazan-Land. And for me, the biggest boon is that now I’m writing songs again. And I’ve written 18 songs in the last 11 months, and I hadn’t written but one song in the previous three years. So, moreso than worrying about the market and all that stuff, I feel like I’ve gotta own what I’m doing, and that’s hopeful.
I guess, to give you an idea, I think what I want to do in the wake of this is to put out a full-length record every February and just have that be my new kind of clockwork. And then if I have extra tunes, then do an EP or the monthly thing. But the 7” format is questionable, whether or not that’s been everybody’s favorite thing or just the most likeable format. I’ve got a lot of people asking, can you do the monthly release and then have a 12” at the end? So there’s been a lot of little things that we’ve been wondering: is this the best? Is this as efficient as it can be? Like I said, it’s been an experiment—and one that I’m so, so glad that we’ve done, and I’m really proud of it.
I’m hopeful that if I’ve found my stride again, that’s all I can control, so I just hope to be putting out music that I’m really turned on by and have the frequency up from what it was. And I’m hopeful that that’ll work for me and get me off the road a little bit more. We’ll see.