Sessions: David Bazan
Photographs by Christy Byrd.
This session was recorded and mixed by Kyle Byrd. Interview by Matthew Shearon and Kyle Byrd.
What was the recording process like for Curse Your Branches?
It was pretty slow. I mean, I played [the songs] on acoustic guitar for a long time, but I didn’t know how to transfer them to the other format. I didn’t want it to be a solo acoustic record. I wanted there to be bells and whistles and full band arrangements even if I didn’t want it necessarily to be electric guitar rock, which I didn’t. So I wasn’t sure how that was going to sound, or how to really attack the problem. It was a lot of trial and error recording stuff, re-recording stuff, realizing that the re-recordings were not as cool as the original demos. So I’d use the demos to build up new versions of the tunes. So there were a lot of different versions floating around ‘til I had the ones that had the feeling that I wanted, which even then it’s not exactly right. But that’s just how it is. I still played the majority of the instruments. But when my friend Yuuki Matthews came in to play the bass on “Please, Baby, Please” he had an idea and I just let him do his idea. We produced the moment a little bit but it was really Yuuki’s bass line. It was the same way [when] my friend John Roderick played some guitar and did some BGVs on it. I said, “I don’t know what this needs, so just lay something down.” In some cases, a guy would just sit and play six or seven tracks of whatever he felt. Then I would go back later and edit those performances together into a part that I liked. That was usually after a certain point where I had the track built up to a certain degree where I was playing the drums, or programmed the drums, or played the acoustic guitar, or piano, or whatever.
How did the electronic/programmed drums come about on the album?
On the song “Curse Your Branches” I had laid down an acoustic track. It was really minimal miking, and I meant it to be doubled drums. I meant there to be two doubled tracks panned, basically. Then I thought, “Maybe I’ll do an acoustic drums track with programmed stuff.” In the end, the acoustic drums are in there, but they basically sound like an automated reverb or delay send of the electronic drums, because there’s stuff moving around underneath there. But it’s so quiet that is sounds like dubbed out electronic drums. After having done that, I was pretty lost by the time I got to “Heavy Breath.” There was kind of this David Bowie quality to the way that the [Roland] 707 snare drum sounded, and I just decided to go with it. It hints at this particular version of glam rock. It has some of the textures that turn me on about that. Honestly, “When We Fell,” that white guy blues thing, that’s programmed drums. The floor toms are my friend James [McAllister] but the kicks, the snares, and the fills, and all that stuff is samples of my own drum kit that I programmed in there.
I heard you’re using Black Lion Audio in your rig. How did you hear about them?
Just from surfing the Internet. They’re amazing! I spend a lot of time online lusting after gear, trying to figure out different ways to make shit work for cheap. Shiny Box is dope! Mojave Audio is great too!
Have you been listening to a lot of Vic Chesnutt lately? (Check out Bazan’s cover of “Flirted With You All My Life” above.)
I’ve been thinking about him a lot, and I’ve been playing this song [“Flirted With You All My Life”] a lot. [It’s] on his last record, and I can only assume that he played it every night the month before he killed himself. It’s so heavy. He’s a very trippy dude. I guess I’ve been listening to him, but not any differently than normal I suppose. I was having a pretty big Vic Chesnutt moment last fall. We were in a band together called The Undertow Orchestra that played at the Belcourt Theatre [Ed., in Nashville, TN].
Would you ever put out a covers album?
We put out a Tour EP not too long ago that had a couple of covers on it. “Let Down” by Radiohead, “Political Science” by Randy Newman, and “Metal Heart” by Cat Power. I guess it would be an interesting thing to do. I have thought about putting covers up online. There’s a couple of Gillian Welch songs that I really like, and some Deerhoof and just various odds and ends.
Which Gillian Welch songs?
“April the 14th.” That song f*cks me up. I like a lot of her tunes. There’s four on that record [Time: The Revelator] that all kind of have a similar tone. “I Dream A Highway,” that song [“April the 14th”], “Everything is Free,” and “Revelator.” They feel like ruminations on the same themes melodically and harmonically. It’s so good. I’ll put those on and loop them in the car driving for like 6 or 8 hours.
Speaking of the road, where are you guys headed next?
Asheville, NC. The Grey Eagle. It’s a cool town. We ate at this Mexican restaurant called the Neon Iguana or the Electric Iguana or something like that. [Ed. Note: ?] We have this thing where we roll up to a restaurant and judge it based on the font sometimes. Like, we were told that this is a cool place, but it couldn’t be cool if that font is their choice! It was terrible, the name and the sign, but we went in anyways and it was amazing! [laughing]
Do you have a preference over serif or sans serif fonts? What is your font? [laughing]
I mean, I think in general we probably rock sans serifs. Some of it has to do with kerning. I mean, just like the way it hits you. On stuff that I do, my buddy Zack Sally who was in that band Low, he does these hand letters and it’s really plain. You know, like on Sesame Street when we were kids, they would paint the letter “P” on a window and it’s just the most plain it could possibly be. Everything is the same width. Some of the Blue Note Jazz things have that. But my buddy Zack does it on his comics and on artwork that he has done for Low and for other people. I really like that. There’s something about plain, blocky that just really turns me on. We looked really long and hard for fonts that were that way for the last record and used something that was close. We went through pages and pages of stuff and called all of the layout dudes that we knew. Bob [Andrews], my manager, likes that kind of thing too. Bob laid out the DVD. He grew up in Nashville, went to art school in Memphis, started tour managing Uncle Tupelo in the early ‘90s, and started doing all that stuff.
What is it like playing with the new band?
Me and the other guitar player [Blake Wescott] played in bands together in the late ‘90s, and he was actually the second drummer in Pedro the Lion. But I hadn’t played music with him since 1996, 1997 maybe. Although, he did work on a handful of Pedro records in various forms. It’s pretty cool! The bass player [Andy Fitts] who played keys and percussion on the last tour is a guy who I’ve wanted to play with for a while, but I just didn’t have a band. I wasn’t really playing with other dudes. And the drummer [Alex Wescoat] is just brand new. I had met him earlier in 2009. He was recommended to me by somebody, and he’s great! He’s really, really good.
With this band, how are you able to express yourself differently on stage? Can you pinpoint that feeling?
There’s a lot of space in the music so that everybody can really hear what’s going on. One of the things that I got from playing solo for so many years is that the lyrics and the vocals became basically the only thing. I saw Dolly Parton on Oprah Winfrey probably 12 years ago. She had these huge fingernails and she sat there and she played her guitar. It was in open tuning and she just played the guitar with one finger. It was almost like hitting a tape recorder. It was just accompaniment. She wasn’t a guitar player in that context. So I started thinking of my guitar playing like that, like it’s accompaniment. I could be playing an Autoharp or some other thing that just keeps time and conveys the harmony. It just became about the singing and the lyrics, and when I got back into the band that’s something that I wanted to keep in tact. I don’t know if I was able to do that good of a job of it with the machinery of the rock band. Everything kind of made it so that I couldn’t hear my vocal half of the time. When we got back together for this stuff I said, “Okay, so I tried to do this last tour. It didn’t work. We’re going to do it this tour!” Like, I’m playing guitar too. My amp volume is one of the factors in that. If your amps are way too loud the vocals get buried. That’s how it goes. So we try to keep all the stage volumes real low and have it be a quiet band. One of the benefits of that is that everybody is really listening to one another, and everybody can hear one another. I tried to emphasize that I didn’t want us to have anything but vocals in our monitors. If we start being like, “Can I have more of my guitar in my monitor?” Then pretty soon the drummer needs more of himself because the stage volume just got louder. Just a lot of these little factors we made it so that it’s about the singing still. In the meantime, with everybody listening to one another we’re just playing together really well, guys are filling up the holes where they need to be filled in intuitive ways, and it’s inspiring to me. We’re playing “Shit Talker” with the band right now. I was like, “Okay, we’re going to play this song.” They were working it out and they’re like, “You son of a bitch!” It’s a trip! There’s not a lot of repetition in that song. It’s mostly cowboy chords though!
Do you find the songs changing when you play with the band?
Yeah… absolutely! Subtle, different things sometimes, and sometimes pretty massive aspects of the tunes. Yeah, it’s fun. It’s really fun! And I just don’t hate my own guts while we’re on stage, which is really fun. That’s a nice thing. I mean, I still do kind of, but mostly I just think I love what’s going on in my ears right now. I still have a lot of self-loathing, but it’s overcome by those thoughts and those feelings.