By Margaret Welsh
Pittsburgh Current Music Editor
“It’s just not ok to give the impression that everything is ok,”David Bazan tells a small but rapt audience, in Strange Negotiations, a new documentary about the singer/songwriter.
“There should be some sense that, until everything is ok with the world, there’s always going to be that wrinkle.”
Strange Negotiations. 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 5. Regent Square Theater, 1035 S. Braddock Ave., Regent Square. $12. cinema.pfpca.org
It’s not the most earth-shattering observation, but that willingness to engage with the not-ok-ness of the world is part of what has won Bazan his ardent fan base. Raised Pentecostal, Bazan, who grew up in Phoenix, Arizona, planned to become a pastor before getting into music. When he started Pedro the Lion in the late ’90s, his raw lyrics, idiosyncratic melodies and lo-fi sound felt revelatory in contrast to a Christian music market full of overwrought positivity and sanitized knock-offs of whoever happened to be topping the secular charts.
Pedro the Lion wasn’t a Christian band per-se – as one non-religious fan put it to me in the early 2000s, “I think the dude’s a Christian, but you can’t really tell.” But the band played at Christian music festivals, and records like It’s Hard to Find a Friend and Control dealt seriously with faith without glossing over life’s harsh realities: betrayal, fear, rage, doubt. Everything was not ok, and for many young Evangelicals it was a big deal to hear someone acknowledge that. Bazan became a kind of angry young prophet figure.
Strange Negotiations,, which was filmed over three years beginning in 2015, finds Bazan at a different point in his faith journey, though some might still describe him as a prophet. “Curse Your Branches,” his 2009 break-up-with-God record, alienated and aggrieved some of his long-time fans, but endeared him to those who had experienced the same kind of breakup – “recovering evangelicals,” as one fan describes herself in the film. Performing and releasing several more records under his own name, Bazan took a break from playing clubs and launcheda rigorous tour schedule of intimate living room shows as a way to more reliably support his wife and kids.
Filmmaker Brandon Vedder – who began his career shooting for concert films like Pearl Jam: Live at the Garden – lets Bazan speak for himself via older interviews and concert footage, as well as in real time, usually in the car where much of the documentary takes place. Vedder and Bazan traveled more than 7,500 miles together, rolling up together to house show after house show, but Vedder stays out of the way, allowing the viewer to vicariously experience the loneliness of the road.
Live performance is where Bazan shines, his shaggy voice powerful and heartrending in a way that his studio recordings don’t quite capture. Often, the camera catches audience members weeping at Bazan’s lyrics, or struggling not to. At every show, Bazan opens up the floor for questions, which are sometimes combative (“How did you get so bitter?” one woman asks) but are usually just earnestly curious.
The film follows Bazan’s already well-documented de–conversion, but it’s not just about faith: Strange Negotiations, provides an unglamorized picture of what it’s like to be a medium-successful musician at a point when, as Bazan puts it, all your buddies have either gotten rich off of music, or given up. Bazan’s struggles with alcoholism and depression crop up – both are common issues for touring musicians. And the 2016 election looms in the background, here providing the frame of the nation’s own crisis of faith: “The people who taught me how to be a good person are losing their minds,” Bazan says of the Trump supporters in his orbit.
Like Bazan’s music, Strange Negotiations is a lean, no-frills project. Sometimes it feels almost too intimate, particularlywhen we’re listening in on phone conversations with Bazan’swife and kids, who he’s away from for nearly half the year. But Vedder brings a light touch and avoids sentimentality, presenting a worthy and ultimately encouraging portrait of the artist. As Bazan puts it in one interview, “I started seeing vulnerability as the antidote to all this anxiety and self-loathing.”