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Pedro The Lion
Pedro The Lion
Pedro the Lion has always been David Bazan, but it took a long time to get back there.
In August 2016, during what he now recognizes as his lowest point, Bazan was touring the country alone in an aging minivan and found himself in his hometown of Phoenix, AZ. In need of a break from the road, he spent a night off at his grandparents’ house instead of driving on to San Diego. Before leaving town the next morning, after realizing that even the most familiar places can become unrecognizable, Bazan gave himself the gift of a quick detour past the house he grew up in, and on the way, experienced a breakthrough — one that would lead him both forward and back to another home he had built many years before.
From the beginning, Pedro the Lion didn’t work like the bands Bazan had played drums in, where each player came up with their own parts. Instead, like scripting scenes of dialogue for actors to play with, Bazan recorded and arranged all of the skeletal accompaniments for his obsessively introspective lyrics and spare melodies. Each player would then learn their parts and, together as a band, they brought the skeleton to life. While bandmates played on a few recordings, Bazan often played all or most of the instruments himself.
“I found so much joy working this way,” Bazan remembers. “It came naturally and yielded a feeling and a sound that couldn’t have existed by any other process. At the same time, I was also aware that not everyone wanted to play in a band where the singer wrote all the parts and might perform them on the record. Someone even suggested it might not be a valid approach to having a band in the first place. Being insecure and wanting to find camaraderie, I became conflicted about my natural process.”
By 2002, after recording Control, the high rate of turnover in the band finally caused Bazan to ditch his “natural process” in favor of a collaborative writing process. When, after a couple more years, this move did nothing to stabilize turnover, Bazan was perplexed. In November 2005, Bazan decided to stop doing Pedro the Lion altogether.
Ironically, Bazan didn’t see “going solo” as a chance to revert back to his original process of writing and playing all the parts. For the next decade Pedro the Lion felt off limits, even forgotten, like a childhood home Bazan had moved out of. He pushed forward with releasing solo albums & relentless touring in living rooms and clubs, through every part of the US and beyond, sometimes with a band, but mostly on his own. It took a toll on his family and more acutely on himself. By the summer of 2016, he still hadn’t found the personal clarity or the steady collaboration he’d been seeking and was at the end of his rope.
“I had abandoned my natural way of working in the hopes of creating space for a consistent band to write with…and it hadn’t worked. So I got a rehearsal space, mic’d up drums, bass, and guitar, and really leaned into my original process again. It immediately felt like like home. Before long I realized it also felt like Pedro the Lion.”
In June 2018, with Bazan on bass, vocals, and arrangement writing, Erik Walters on guitar and backing vocals, and Sean Lane on drums, Pedro the Lion went into Studio X and Hall of Justice with producer Andy Park to create Phoenix , the first new Pedro album in 15 years.
The songs themselves are the result of mining your past for who you are now. On opening track “Yellow Bike,” Bazan encapsulates a core ache he’s been exploring since 1998’s It’s Hard to Find a Friend with the line:
For someone to ride with
Phoenix also deals with having to be better to yourself in order to be better to others on “Quietest Friend,” and harkens back to Control’ s “Priests and Paramedics” with a story about EMTs facing a gruesome scene, and storytelling as coping mechanism, on “Black Canyon.” It bears witness to both what was around and what was inside, with the signature kindness and forgiveness that lightens Pedro the Lion’s darkest notes.
The result is a twisting, darkly hopeful introspection into home and what it means to go back, if you ever can. It is rock and roll wrapped in tissue paper, its hard edges made barely soft. Every melody is careful, a delicate upswing buoyed by guitar lines that hold each tender feeling together like string before ripping them apart to see what’s inside. It is an ode to the place he still loves despite how alien it can appear to him now. It is the story of a life from the beginning, but not a linear one. This life is a circle, and Phoenix goes back to that first point, to show that when we are looking for home we’ll eventually run into it again, whether it’s in the desert, in a rehearsal space, or on a stage.
Over the course of his extensive career as an influential songwriter, record producer, and studio owner, John Vanderslice has carved out a singular place for himself in the landscape of American indie rock. Raised in rural North Florida, Vanderslice was forced into piano lessons as a young child, and eventually picked up the guitar and started writing songs as a teen. His relationship to songwriting transformed at fourteen when he was given a Tascam 424 tape recorder—the process of using the tape deck as an instrument was a revelation for him, and he began to channel his early influences (Led Zeppelin, the Kinks, David Bowie) into freewheeling, intuitive explorations of song.
After moving to San Francisco in 1989, Vanderslice made three records as a part of the experimental band MK Ultra, including the critically-acclaimed The Dream is Over. His obsession with recording craft persisted: while working as a waiter at Chez Panisse in 1997, he opened Tiny Telephone Recording as an affordable outlet for the Bay Area’s indie rock community. Tiny Telephone has since developed into a laboratory for some of the most inventive recordings of the genre, including the prolific output of Vanderslice’s own solo projects. Between 2000 and 2014, JV released 10 records on Barsuk, Dead Oceans, and Secretly Canadian, and collaborated as a producer and musician on records by Spoon, the Mountain Goats, Okkervil River, Death Cab for Cutie and Tune-Yards. He toured tirelessly across the US and Europe, playing over 1000 shows and headlining tours with Sufjan Stevens and St. Vincent.
After the tour cycle for 2013’s double release of his solo album Dagger Beach and his Bowie re-imagination Vanderslice Plays Diamond Dogs, Vanderslice took an extended break from his solo career in order to build an ambitious new Tiny Telephone studio in Oakland, and to take on record producing as a full-time job. Since that time he has produced over 70 records by artists such as Grandaddy, Samantha Crain, Into It. Over It., Teen Daze, Cherry Glazerr, Sophie Hunger, Frog Eyes, Bombadil, and Strand of Oaks.
In April 2018, Vanderslice decided to leap back into his solo career with full force, hunkering down for over 50 days with Telephone engineer/producers James Riotto and Rob Shelton in a process that yielded The Cedars—Vanderslice’s most ambitious record to date. The album’s name is taken from an 11 square mile serpentine canyon that exists in the remote wilderness of West Sonoma county, 90 minutes north of San Francisco, where Vanderslice owns a small portion of communal land nearby. The Cedars is filled with one-of-a-kind geological phenomena: Mars-like red slopes, bizarre mineralized rock formations, and high-alkaline springs that have fostered over 8 different plant species found nowhere else in the world. Vanderslice developed an obsession with this area not only because of its mysterious beauty, but also because it’s almost impossible for anyone to get there due to natural barriers and the surrounding private land ownership.
This obsession with finding the impossible was channelled into his new record: The Cedars (out on Native Cat Recordings spring 2019) approaches the craft of songwriting from every direction but the front, in a non-linear process driven by drum machines, synthesizers, and an unpredictable palette of sonic textures. In an act of getting both figuratively and literally lost in the woods, Vanderslice finds himself favoring chaos and deconstruction over well-worn paths of familiar sounds and instrumentation for his new album—and the results have landed him in a place that’s uncharted, under the spell of a myth.