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On the road with singer-songwriter David Bazan

David Bazan in an Aliso Viejo park.
David Bazan in an Aliso Viejo park.
Kevin Lloyd/KPCC

Indie singer-songwriter David Bazan played a house show in Aliso Viejo Tuesday night. It's an example of the intimate connection he makes with fans both as a person and through his music, exploring topics like religion and political disillusionment in a deeply personal way.

Part of the way he connects with fans is by doing small house shows on his Living Room tours. He tours by himself, without a band, playing acoustic shows hosted by fans in their living rooms. The shows almost always sell out relatively quickly, as they're kept small due to the intimate venues. The sales are all done through Paypal. "I feel like the people that are at the shows have a good experience, and it builds trust."

Bazan says that doing these shows lets him come back to the same area more frequently than if he were to perform with his band at a rock club. He says he can do his solo tour in his van for under $100 a day, and gets a much higher percentage of tickets per person. "A lot of the things [I] do are geared so the pressure of money isn't the first thing on my mind."

That intimate relationship with fans includes a certain degree of trust; his merchandise table is self-serve with people told to leave money and make change appropriately for what they take. "I've never run into problems," Bazan said. "People are good."

Bazan's used that relationship to fundraise, offering things like T-shirts in return for donations, including an "I helped Bazan buy a van" and "I helped Bazan make a record" shirts. Much like sites like Kickstarter, Bazan directly appealed to supporters for specific items and received a strong response. Bazan said that he wants to avoid going back to the well for fundraising from fans unnecessarily, as he thinks he's built an organic relationship with thousands of fans and doesn't want to take advantage of that, despite fans saying that they loved the chance to get involved.

Bazan says that shifts in the music industry mean that artists have no choice but to become more intimately involved with their fans, particularly on a fiscal level. Bazan addressed the issue of people no longer buying records. "They're listening to records, but they're getting them for free. And that's not a great thing. There are plenty of myths. I've heard it's said, 'Aw, it doesn't matter because artists never got paid for album sales anyways.' That is just flat not the case. Roughly half of my income used to come from album royalties, and now probably 5 to 10 percent comes from album royalties, and I have to be on the road way more." Bazan said he worries that, with more artists forced to sell their songs to commercials to make money, it could have a chilling effect o what musicians feel comfortable expressing.

He does see a bright side. "There are way more people making records, which I tend to think is a good thing. It might destabilize my ability to make a living, but it's democratizing the process of making music."

Bazan's always been open. Going back to his days when he made music under the name Pedro the Lion, he's always done Q&A breaks with his audiences throughout sets. That doesn't mean he always gives fans the answers they want; during his Aliso Viejo show, he was prodded to do a particular cover and to play the piano the owners of the house had in their living room, but he opted not to do the cover and not to play the piano due to feeling his skills aren't where he'd want them to be to do that.

The theme of feeling inept in certain areas came up several times. He said he switched to playing bass because he hated himself while playing guitar because of the enormous potential of the instrument that he wasn't reaching. That self-doubt comes through on his first solo record, "Curse Your Branches," where he struggles through his feelings about religion and sings honestly about leaving the church and leaving God. He says he's had doubts about the church ever since he was a teenager, but didn't fully leave his faith until the mid-2000s, winding up an agnostic.

"I was always disappointed with the church since I was 15," Bazan said. "It was an adherence to and a faith in the core ideas of Christianity that kind of kept me Christian that whole time, until about 2004 when I started to more thoroughly examine those core concepts and realize that they're not compelling to me."

Bazan said that he realized that his shift away from Christianity was the biggest shift he was ever going to go through. "It was devastating." He said that he knows it's not an experience unique to him. "Millions of people tend to figure out who they are in relationship to the religion that they grew up with."

Writing that first album was a struggle musically for Bazan as well as spiritually; it took him three years to write his first solo record. "Financially, those three years that I was writing 'Branches' were terrible, because there was no new product to represent or to sell to the people." Still, he said he's glad he had the freedom to take that long. "I was just really digging around trying to find out what the F I was going to write about and what I could sort of get behind."

Bazan said he's tried to write lyrics that are less literal, but that he can't avoid it. "I've always written about my concerns in a very on-the-nose kind of way, and I had the strong desire to stop doing that. But instead, I wrote about my concerns in the most on-the-nose way that I've ever done." That to-the-point feeling has hit home with a lot of fans and helped give him a passionate fan base.

Those spiritual struggles were explored notably in a 2009 feature in the Chicago Reader, written by his former publicist. "It was like the most brilliant bio that anybody could have written," Bazan said. "It really elevated the conversation that I was having with writers about the record, because she was able to write about the record and sort of the background of the record in such a nuanced way, but also, she coined 'the breakup letter with God.'"

Those spiritual struggles shifted to political struggles on his most recent album, "Strange Negotiations." He deals with the political divide between Baby Boomers and the next generation, as well as what he sees as problems with conservative ideology and corporations. He said he has a conservative audience that follows him because he deals with religious issues, and "They're difficult records for those people."

He says that, on that album, "I'm mad. I'm angry on the record, and I'm angry at politically conservative people. And so I say mean things in my anger. And then I say loving things right after. I feel that tension and people express that tension to me, but at the same time, there's a sincerity and I think a thoughtfulness that is implied on the records." Bazan said that he thinks his audience knows he's not being flippant and that he's not just taking potshots for the sake of being mean.

Bazan talked about some of the other divides in today's society. "It's a crazy example, but with 9/11 there are some people who would very readily believe that it is an inside job, and there are other people who would never go there in their brains. And that's an example of, there is something that divides people." Bazan said that there's a difference in what people have faith in and believe are the core ideas, ranging from politics to Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt.

After our initial interview, we went out with him for a beer and a bite to eat before his show. Most of the conversation continued to revolve around his music, but he shared some of his other interests, like listening to comedy podcasts on the road (he's partial to WTF with Marc Maron) and NPR (we didn't put him up to saying that, we swear).

Bazan said he has an album he's looking to finish around the new year, which should be available in April or May of 2012. Bazan's looking to be more prolific; "It's time to just make records." He's also compiling previously limited Christmas records into a Christmas album. Bazan will be coming back to Southern California, this time with his band, on Dec. 9 in Costa Mesa.

Bazan plays a Dec. 2009 house show:

Related: Singer/songwriter David Bazan plays Long Beach (3/8/2010)

KPCC's Mike Roe and Kevin Lloyd collaborated on this story.