For his latest album Phoenix, David Bazan made a lot of phone calls. To himself.
Each day, rather than journaling, he’d use the voice memo on his phone for ten or fifteen minutes to talk to himself. These calls were a “meet and greet with myself.” And through them, he got to know himself better. At the end of each day, Bazan listened to the voice memo, often mining them for song ideas. He did this in, of all places, his grandparents’ house.
The creative process behind Bazan’s latest album Phoenix is unique among the countless songwriters I’ve interviewed. He stayed at his grandparents’ house in Phoenix, each day driving the streets of his youth as memories came flooding back of all his experiences, from church to soccer games to pizza. It was on these drives that he’d often have those meet-and-greets. He’d start in the morning before sunrise, drive for a few hours, then come home, Bazan repeated the ritual after dusk. These experiences gave him an arsenal of song ideas that formed his latest album. It was such a fruitful process that Bazan will do the same thing for his next three albums, driving the streets of the other cities of his youth as the memories, and songs, overwhelm him.
This is my second interview with Bazan. The first one, which you can read here, was in 2011.
How much writing are you doing outside of songwriting?
I don’t really have a daily writing habit, though I’m getting closer to it. In lieu of daily journaling, I've started opening up the voice memo on my phone and using it as a “getting to know you meet-and-greet” before the writing begins. It’s the first step of valuing my own ideas in private, because unless I get some external validation for my ideas, they seem ghostlike. For a while I called it “a phone call with myself,” but it’s just me talking for ten or fifteen minutes. Then I come back to it later and like myself. Laughs. I listen and make a point of not being judgmental, and it has been good.
There’s something terrifying about writing. And I'm learning the self-love that’s required to even sit down and commit to putting something on the page.
How do you know what to talk about each day?
Usually a train of thought just starts going. I’ve been inspired recently by Garry Shandling in his various forms. There’s an episode of the Pete Holmes podcast “You Made It Weird” with Shandling. It’s one of my favorite bits of media. They talk about psychedelics and marijuana and their effects on creativity. Pete mentions how people who take those things have such great revelations and epiphanies, to which Garry responds, “Yeah, but they never write them down!” So if I have a train of thought that feels important, I turn on my voice memo, which often ends up being just a bunch of tiny ideas strung together that I listen to at the end of the day. I’ve been trying to honor Garry’s admonition and at least write things down that are profound.
Why is it better to record these ideas rather than write them down? Is it purely a matter of practicality? Or is it that speech offers no filter?
That’s part of it. I have this aspiration that I’ll sit down to write one day, and all the ideas come pouring out unfiltered. For now, that’s what the voice memo does. I hope that I can get close to stream-of-consciousness writing, but the other factor is that I'm pretty transient. And as a result, I've been estranged from myself in a way that’s prevented me from using all of this alone time.
But now it’s about being comfortable enough with myself that I can face the page at all. The path to getting there is about being accountable for the thoughts I'm having. I hope to settle myself down in a way that I can do it through writing because there is an intimacy and attention to communicating through writing that we don’t have when we talk. There’s also an accountability involved with writing that you don’t always have with speech. That’s what I'm aiming for: more quality time with myself. It’s hard to get that with a phone and a voice memo.
Would you like to be able to write every day?
I'd like to, but in a way I already do, even though I'm not technically writing. Right now I'm working on the next Pedro record, and the other day I was in the shower working through a chorus and realizing that the middle two bars of the chorus aren’t right. Is it a melody first thing or a lyric first thing? I’m always crunching something to do with songwriting.
When you listen to those voice memos at the end of the day, are there song ideas?
Definitely. When I went to Phoenix to work on the current record and Havasu to work on the next one, I drove around and listened to music. When any idea came up, musical or otherwise, I used the voice memo. Some of the places and images I saw were so powerful and stirred up such memories that I'd just narrate the scene as I drive. Then when I listened back, I pictured what street I was on as I narrated. Those voice memos end up being chronologies of inspiration.
So if I have this correct: you drove around the streets of Phoenix during the day, then went back to your grandparents’ house at night to write. Did you have a favorite environment to write in?
I've been specific about that in the past, but I have starting thinking more about writing in places where I've been successful before. There’s a bedroom in the basement of my house where I keep my instruments, and I've written a lot there. That’s reassuring to be able to go back there.
But writing in Phoenix was a tall order. I needed a process that accounted for the scope of the project. I slept in the back bedroom at my grandparents’ house. They’ve had that house since the 60s, and I've always slept in that room, so it’s always been a big part of my life. I wrote a bunch songs there. It’s not a writer’s haven by any means; it’s a cluttered room in an 84 year old woman’s house. But I feel safe because I have memories of safety there.
Did you try to stick to the same routine each day?
I had a pretty specific routine. I got up before sunrise every morning and got in the car. I wanted to be driving for pre-dawn magic hour. I’d listen to music, typically starting with Gillian Welch’s Time the Revelator because, well, that’s where you’re supposed to begin. It’s the perfect desert, magic hour record. Then I’d just meander around. There were only about ten or twelve artists I'd listen to as I drove the routes of my childhood. Some of the routes were pretty familiar, but sometimes I'd turn down a road that I thought was unfamiliar, but as soon as I turned I'd realize I had been there before because it would trigger a flood of memories. I’d collect melodies and lyrics too, so I was writing when I was out there.
I’d try to be back home by 8pm. Sometimes I'd drive down 7th Street all the way downtown to this coffee shop I like called Cartel. Then when I finally got home, I’d listen back to those voice memos and put some of them in slightly more finished form. The next morning, I'd work for an hour before my grandparents woke up, then we’d go out for breakfast. And the funny thing was that their favorite pastime was to drive around for a couple of hours after breakfast! We had the same agenda, so sometimes we’d drive together. Then I’d go to the bedroom to work on things in the afternoon. Then came evening magic hour: I’d drive around starting around 5:30, sometimes covering those same routes.
Because your song lyrics often came after you were flooded with memories as you drove, how much revising did you do? I can see not wanting to touch that original raw emotion too much.
That’s an interesting question. The way my process works is that I get the big chunks first: the chorus, stuff like that. Details come later. We all have that feeling when we first get an idea, and as long as it stays in that idea form, the potential is limitless. It’s a great feeling, but wanting to maintain that feeling keeps me procrastinating from filling in those details. I like that idea of limitless potential.
For instance, there were problems I was trying to solve right up until the last night we were tracking at 5am. All but one line of “My Quietest Friend” was written the last day of tracking. I had an idea of what I wanted to do, a few lyrics. But when I went to write it, I was stuck. I told myself, “This is all for you anyway, so just tell me what to do.” And that made me get rid of some lines. There were six lines in the chorus, and that voice in my head told me to get rid of the third line. As soon as I did that, the first line of the chorus, what you hear today, just came out. From that point, my process was to go outside, walk around this triangle block outside the studio—it’s 2am, by the way—lap after lap. I’d think of just one line, then go in and lay it down. Then come back outside.
I really hoped the second verse of “Quietest Friend” would make it on to the record. I wanted that story. It was the story of me hurting a friend really badly by going along with others who were mocking him. But I couldn’t force it on the record if the lyrics were forced.
I liken my process to cooking. There’s a lot of stewing: sometimes things bubble to the top from the bottom, and you think, “Oh, that looks like a potato!” And then you look closer and it’s a carrot. So while I do think the process is about being true to those original feelings, you also have to be willing to deviate from your intent.
Let’s get to the details of your process: computer or pen and paper for your lyrics?
Usually pen and paper, but for this record I did something I have never done before. I wrote all the lyrics on a giant poster board. I folded it enough times over itself so each song had its own section of the posterboard. That way I could see them all at once, and I could scan them all and see the connections. But I could also work on one song at a time if I wanted. It was very portable.
Where did you get that idea?
I used to write my lyrics on notecards or pieces of paper and put them on the wall, but it’s a lot easier to put them on one poster board when you’re traveling.
Do you have a favorite type of pen?
I’m too scattered to have a favorite type. Though I’d like to get there because I need to start being less flexible with my process. I need to learn how to have goals and have a routine. I’ve been too casual about my process, and that’s served me well in the past. But I need to be less flexible. I want rituals..
Wake up, coffee, then write. I do have one thing approaching a ritual, though. When I have the urge to open Twitter, I instead open iBooks and read Writing Better Lyrics by Pat Pattison. That helps with the discipline. The question for me is do I want to make it broad and do all sorts of writing like journaling, or do I want to stick to songwriting?
I want to go back to the process behind Phoenix. If you found a route that evoked a lot of memories, would you often retrace it?
It wasn’t as conscious as that, but there was a lot of repetition. We lived in one house when I was growing up for about a year and a half. It was close to the school and the church, which was the epicenter of our life. I have a vivid memory of driving to school each day from that house. I retraced that route a lot, and I felt that if I made that a part of my routine, I’d get layers of memories. But then I’d turn down one road and realize that was the place where I did karate for six weeks. And over there was the place where we’d eat pizza after soccer games. There was so much cheese on that pizza that I’d choke. I don’t think I’d ever remember that if I hadn’t driven down that street.
I’ve gone to all four towns I grew up in once I decided to embark on this process. The other thing I got from all this is that I no longer take for granted where I live now. I took those places for granted when I was a kid, and it took going back to realize how loaded they are with meaning. Now, when I’m home, it helps me realize that I’m in one of those places at this very moment. It too is loaded with meaning.
What song on the new album was the easiest to write?
Ironically, it was “Quietest Friend.” It was the one that I waited the longest to write. It freaked me out the most because of how I interacted with myself when I wrote it. The last day of studio time, I sat for five hours beating my head against the wall thinking about that song. I was getting nowhere: I’d get a line down, sing it, then realize it was bullshit. But when the writing finally gained momentum and I made that agreement with myself that I mentioned earlier, it flowed in about an hour.
I wonder why that happened.
I had to get out of my own way. There’s a part of myself that I’ve been estranged from since I was two or three years old. Making this record was about trying to make friends with myself, ending that estrangement. I made this record for that part of myself as a gesture of “you can trust me.” That part of myself insisted that I make this series of records. I owed myself the best try I could muster. And that part of me appreciated the care that went into making this record and how I had to change in order to do it. I see this record as a giant bearhug of that other part of myself.
What song was the hardest to write?
“Black Canyon” for sure. I owed reality something on that one that I usually don’t bother with. If I see a red truck but it needs to be yellow in the song, it’ll be yellow. My uncle told us the story in that song, and I wanted him to listen to the song without being pulled out of his memories of the event.
The other thing I don’t think I’ve been good at is tone matching between lyrics, melody, and chords. I like to juxtapost poppy stuff with fucked up lyrics. That’s a neat trick, but honestly it’s also easier to do that than to get the tone just right. I started with different lyrics, melody, and chords to emphasize the humorous effect of the story. For us, it was a hilarious story that had tragic aspects. But I had to recognize that the story exists outside his telling and our hearing. It’s something bigger, and I had to honor that. People who are going to connect with those lyrics will realize how fucked up it is. The tone had to reflect that. That song probably took six months of hard work.
Last question: who are you reading now?
Unfortunately, I’m not reading as much as I wish. Now I’m reading that Pattison book and a Brene Brown book called Braving the Wilderness. They are both self help books in a way. I've also started to go back to things I've read in order to jump start my reading. I always used to think I'm not allowed to read something I've already read before. Laughs.
I've also been reading the Dave Eggers book What is the What. There are some devastating stories in there. The Wendell Berry book Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community is still a part of my rotation. I listened to the Tom Petty biography by Warren Zanes three times and I'm going to read it soon too. That’s been quite a companion for me all year, and it also informs this record. I first listened to it on my way down to Phoenix to write the record. That’s about the best education I've ever gotten all in one place.
The last time we talked, you mentioned your subscription to Poetry magazine. Did that lapse?
Ah, it has. But you’ll be happy to know that I saved all the issues and still go through them. I’ll put a bunch in a bag when I go on a trip so that I can skim through them. On the topic of rituals, there a distinct pattern of disorganization in the way I consume. I read whatever’s right in front of me. I’d love to be a little more deliberate and less seat-of-my-pants.