By Brandon Basse
I remember hearing Pedro the Lion’s “Almost There” in the front seat of my buddy’s mid-nineties Toyota Corolla. We were talking about bands he wanted to introduce me to when suddenly he shushed me, turned the volume up, and intently stared at the cassette deck as he earnestly lip synced the bittersweet half sung, half screamed lyrics, “…it’s on the tip of my tongue, it never goes away, it never comes to stay…” The track ended chaotically only for the next song start with a deliberate and bright sounding tones with lyrics about “Mr. Hole Fixin’ Man.” Those two songs served as my introduction to Dave Bazan. This would lead me to attend at least five Pedro shows in and around Yakima, WA between 1997 and 1999. The only distinct memory I have of Dave is a remarkable one. The venue was a Christian youth center and the opener was Destro, a two-piece noise metal band. They were heckled almost their entire set with cries of “You suck” and “Get off the stage.” The Destro duo was distraught and literally slid off the stage with their shoulders slung forward in a mopey posture that would’ve made Quasimodo proud.
Dave took the stage and immediately set about making things right. As his band was setting up, he stood at the microphone red-faced and trembling as he chided the young, presumably Christian hecklers for their lack of Christlikeness. To a 17-year old kid it seemed like Dave was reenacting Jesus’ flipping of the money changers tables in the Temple, but instead of declaring the venue a house of prayer for all people, Dave asserted that it was a house of music for all people.
Dave’s early musical career as Pedro the Lion, like his songs “Almost There” and “Whole”, expertly weaves a needle between self-discovery and self-doubt through the tapestry of his personal faith journey. The character in the Whole EP (1997) Is addicted to heroin, but in the end finds comfort in Mr. Hole Fixin’ Man, while in Winners (2000), the “Christian” brother is befallen by pride in his moral appearance while the drunk, “bad” brother rejoices that his tumultuous life saved him from a similar fate to his brother’s. Finally, for many Christian fans, it seemed that Dave and Pedro formally left the Christian music sphere when he made adultery a religious experience by singing, “Gideon is in the drawer…oh my sweet rapture, I hear Jesus calling me home” on Control’s second track. (2002). Any controversy or confusion surrounding Bazan’s spiritual leanings were wiped away by Achilles’ Heel (2004) “Foregone Conclusions” with the lyric, “You were too busy steering the conversation toward the Lord, To hear the voice of the spirit begging you to shut the f*** up…” Brilliantly, Bazan closes Achilles’, the last album before Pedro’s hiatus, with words that seem to perfectly capture how many Christian’s viewed him, “My old man always swore that hell would have no flame, just a front row seat, to watch your true love pack her things and drive away.” Like the lyric, Pedro would drive away and disappear until 2017.
Where Pedro’s career ended with suggestive or taboo lyrics, Luxury began with them. In Pink Revenge, the male vocalist sang, “You’ll never be a lady, no, not like me,” Bitter, Once Again’s, “And I say, never look down a boy’s shirt, ‘Cause nature will stand in the way,” or Flaming Youth Flames On’s, “..Nude at last, Make you gasp.” The bands are reminiscent of the Solimões River where half the river displays a coffee with cream look while the other side is black tea colored. The two sides run parallel to each other for over 3.5 miles, never mixing until the force of the Amazon’s current sweeps them into itself.
Early in their respective documentaries, there is a focus on the fully integrated self. Bazan states,
“Every single person in my extended family is Christian and the same kind of Christian that we were, Pentecostal, Assemblies of God. And…certain kinds of evangelical Christianity specifically there’s this push for your faith to be fully integrated in your person, your identity and it’s not some separate ornament to your life, it’s the fundamental thing…(it) permeates everything.”
Similarly, Luxury’s bass player, Chris Foley states, ”When I was exposed to the punk scene it was a full integrated subculture, What I found in punk rock was people believed in something wholeheartedly and had the zeal to do it and they weren’t living two different lives like I had seen in some of the Christian subculture.”
Ironically, Bazan leans into the duplicity described by Foley in Strange Negotiations, “there was a sense early on that there was a version of Christianity that was pure and based on Scripture that the people in my culture were barely paying lip service to. Bazan’s starting point is a Christian subculture. In taxonomical terms his phylum Christianity, his class Pentecostal, and his order Assemblies of God. The original iteration of Pedro the Lion was Bazan’s vehicle for shedding his evangelical skin. It allowed him to introspectively question his beliefs while also publicly confronting religious hypocrisy.
Conversely, Luxury’s starting point was not the questioning of the fully integrated self, but rather the celebration of it, albeit in separate contexts. The focus on self-identity is what kept the two bands flowing separately in the same artistic river. Where Bazan’s existential crisis, caused by his unprepared exposure to things like textual criticism, Nietzsche, and Hegel, Luxury’s existential crisis occurs at the end of their first iteration. While driving back from a large Christian music festival, Luxury’s tour van veered off the highway and flipped several times. The accident left singer, Lee Bozeman, in ICU and caused the band to reevaluate their priorities and led to the band becoming inactive for a period.
These crises acted upon both groups like the Amazon river on the Solimões, pulling the parallel streams into the chaos of crisis. Crisis helped Bazan shed his evangelicalism, while similar turmoil propelled Luxury deeper into the Christian faith with three members entering the Orthodox priesthood. Neither compromised their integrity by sloganizing the gospel, but rather, by going in opposite directions, came full circle to embrace the ideal of the fully integrated self.
Brandon Basse is a husband and father of four whose research interests include Christian music, World Christianity, and Contextual Theology. He is currently a Th.D candidate in Contextual Theology at Evangelical Seminary in Myerstown, PA. You can visit his website at Theology for the People to find out what he is up to.