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NPR Music News

Pedro the Lion's David Bazan in conversation with Hanif Abdurraqib

Updated January 26, 2022 at 3:44 PM ET

In 2019, Pedro the Lion released Phoenix. It was the fifth Pedro the Lion record, and the band's first in 15 years – though David Bazan, the songwriter behind that project, had been steadily releasing music under his own name. The return to the old moniker was a rebirth, in part, and signaled the start of a new project: Bazan planned to make five Pedro the Lion records, each named after and inspired by the places he lived growing up.

On Jan. 20, Pedro the Lion surprise-released the next installment: Havasu, written about the year Bazan spent as a teen in Lake Havasu City, Ariz. In it, he writes from the perspective of his 12- and 13-year-old self, a perspective that's complemented by the wisdom of age. As part of NPR Music's Listening Party series, we played the album in full on our YouTube channel, then hosted a conversation between poet, author and MacArthur Fellowship award winner Hanif Abdurraqib and Bazan about the record. Here's an edited version of their conversation; you can watch the whole thing on YouTube.

Hanif Abdurraqib: When listening to this album, I began thinking about albums that are defined by geography – an album where an artist goes to a place and then the work becomes one with that place, like Bowie's Berlin trilogy, or albums that are a definitive cartography of a city, like Los Angeles by X. This album is not only about a place, but you took multiple pilgrimages back to this place, Lake Havasu City in Arizona. Could you give some background to your relationship with it as a young person and how that has shifted?

David Bazan: We moved there, after living in Phoenix my whole life, when I was 12, in the summer between sixth and seventh grade, and I spent one year there. A lot of changes were happening for me – my sister and I went to Christian school growing up until we moved and went to public school, and just that experience of making friends (or trying to make friends) in junior high. It was a desert lake town. I grew up going to desert lakes with my grandparents – a week in the summer, camping and swimming and water skiing and stuff. So it felt like a vacation place, but then you go and live there, and you don't really get to access the vacation part of it; it's just a small town in the middle of the desert. When I go back there, I'm reminded of the unfinished business I have with that kid. That kid needed attention – that 12-, 13-year-old-kid – and so this is a way for me to go back and see that kid, and parent that kid a little bit from where I'm at now, in a way that no one could really see to do when I was there the first time.

I'm very interested in perspective as writers – in the perspectives of the speaker in a song or a poem. [In Havasu,] we get that "I," "my" – and that is presented as your younger self; it's very much autobiographical, but speaking as you, grown up, transmitting a narrative through your younger self. I'm interested in persona work, but it becomes, I think, a bit more emotionally fraught when the persona that's being embodied is a past version of ourselves.

Yeah, it's true. I really had to ask the question: What was this kid feeling? What was the experience I was having and what was I presenting – and what was the gap between those? You know, you're not supposed to dramatize your pain; you're supposed to downplay it and suck it up and go with the program or, like, conform to the environment that you're in. And I realized: I'm masking pain – how long have I been doing that? Where does this pattern go back to? And for me, that year was a year of becoming a master at masking pain. It was scary to go back and try to picture what this kid was going through – and ask, how long has it been since I really reckoned with those experiences that I was having?

I really love "First Drum Set," because I like a song that is doing a lot without really moving too far along a landscape; we're just present with the childlike wonder that comes with getting something of your own and messing around with it. So much of this album is about not having autonomy – and then [this song] is kind of like: "This is something that I can have for myself." How much intention do you put behind building out this emotional arc, while still leaving room for pleasure and childlike wonder?

It was intentional in the sense that, you know, if you can only really transmit four or five key things over the course of a record, I wanted them to be the things that rounded out the tension of my experience then – the things that had explanatory power, like: There's still some hopefulness; there's still some sense of a person who is going to continue on through this. It was at the beginning of the year [in Havasu], this experience with drums and having something, like you said, of my own – and that was going to be the start of a path that leads me to here: to arranging music, and all these things that have been so helpful to me.

I'm often thinking about what I like to call the recovery process, which comes after a project is done. When you exit a project that is of a heavy emotional weight, how do you come back to yourself? For a project like this, that's even more of a distinct question, because you were present with a different version of yourself in the making of this. I'm interested in how you're finding the recovery process: coming out of this record and crawling back to the real, full version of yourself – and what you've learned about yourself going into these specific chambers and coming out.

I'm really coming to terms with just how intensely and for how long I have been masking my pain and disappointment as a person; it's caused me to want to just be really mindful about that and do that less. By doing this work, I'm bringing these kid versions of myself that I've been estranged from back into my current, real-time self. Part of what I learned by spending time with the mindset of my 12- and 13-year-old self is that there's a cheesiness that I loved then, that my body and my process led me into on the record. ... Part of it is just realizing I have a natural taste for certain things that I shed over time because they're not as cool. Sitting with this record and the choices that I made – I just like myself and the cheesiness that I gravitate toward, or the sappy, romantic stuff, a little more, and I feel like I'm more comfortable being that way.

Marissa Lorusso contributed production to this story.

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