Wax Stories #3: David Bazan – Curse Your Branches



Sophomore year of college seems to be the “existential crisis” year for most people I know. Freshman year is all about meeting new people, having new experiences, and having the misplaced sense of independence (“I’m an adult now. I don’t live at home. I live in a dorm that my parents pay for and use a meal plan that my parents also pay for”). After the hype of college life dies down, it’s time to process all these new ideas and worldviews that have been stewing over the past year. If anything, I found this to be true for me.

I get a bit nervous writing about faith and thoughts on religion on my blog; I fear what impression it may give people and put everything into some weird, pigeonholed context. However, I feel this album is a good outlet to talk about it. If anything Curse Your Branches has helped me move on from closed mindedness and in to something else that I’m still trying to figure out.

At the end of freshman year, David Bazan – still newly solo after the break-up of Pedro The Lion – played on my campus in association with our campus radio station KSPU. I’d been listening to Bazan and Pedro The Lion since high school per suggestion of my friend Nate. This wasn’t the first time I’d heard Bazan play, but I was intrigued at the idea of him playing on a Christian college campus. Pedro the Lion was often mislabeled as a Christian band, but at this point it was becoming prevalent that Bazan was no longer a believer. I remember feeling secretly guilty singing along to  “Cold Beer & Cigarettes” from his solo EP Fewer Moving Parts in high school, which featured the Bazan husky voice belting “what a cruel God we got” and references to vaginas and sexual deviancy. I was surprised Seattle Pacific University would even allow something like that presented under their banner.

Bazan stood on the stage with only a guitar and a light projection of broken glass behind him. He opened with a song that at the time was titled “Graduation Day.” Opening with a new song is a bit unusual, but I studied the lyrics as he sang. Primarily it questioned the biblical creation narrative, but it was the last verse that felt painfully relevant to the room:

So I swung my tassel
To the left side of my cap
Knowing after graduation
There would be no going back

And no congratulations
From my faithful family
Some of whom are already fasting
To intercede for me

It felt a bit heavy handed to me in the moment, but it was the first time listening to Bazan that I got the impression he had a statement he wanted people to know. If that were true, he definitely got my hooked.

That summer, in 2009, I went to Alaska with my buddies Zach and John to work at a helicopter tour company. After spending a year in the dorms feigning self-sufficiency, I got what it really meant to grind out 50 hour work-weeks and have most of your paycheck go to rent and bills. Being away from most people I know gave me time to think and absorb challenges I had to my worldview in the last year, among other things (future Wax Stories referencing Alaska are sure to come). At night when I would read on the couch, I’d put Pedro the Lion’s discography on shuffle through my laptop speakers. I’m pretty sure Zach and John were pretty sick of hearing it all the time, but it gave me a chance to really listen to what Bazan was saying on those Pedro the Lion albums and try and use them to decipher my experience hearing him at SPU.

Bazan released an acoustic version of “Please Baby Please” earlier that year that I listened to obsessively. But when I found “Hard to Be” (formerly titled “Graduation Day”) streaming on Last.FM when I got back from Alaska, I knew this album was going to take things further than he had with Pedro the Lion. I knew it was something I needed to hear.


And now it’s hard to be
Hard to be
Hard to be a decent human being

Curse Your Branches is the first album I can recall ever pre-ordering. I had it shipped to my new dorm, which I was living in alone for a few weeks before school started. My stereo was damaged during move-in, so it would be a while before I could actually listen to the vinyl, but I immediately pulled out the download code from the packaging and listened through my laptop.

I’d been going to Christian schools since I was 13. That doesn’t make me a theologian by any means, but gave me a decidedly evangelical perspective on things. I don’t want to completely disown my education – I feel like I did learn a lot of valuable philosophies and concepts, but I was really only seeing one side of a controversial and often upsetting story. Of course I had questions and issues with things that came up in the Bible, but everyone I was surrounded by was so sure that all of it was true and said they could cite exact scientific and moral reasons why. Everything could be explained through tactful apologetics. So any doubts I had, I repressed. Not specifically because anyone told me not to question, but because I personally felt it was inappropriate. So when “Hard to Be” opens Curse Your Branches, Bazan is bringing out all these questions I’d been denying myself all these years. It was heartbreaking, but at the same time intoxicating. It made me sad for him while feeling relief that I wasn’t the only one who felt this way.

The album then goes into a borderline parody of the Parable of the Weeds from the Book of Matthew on “Bless This Mess”, then a parable of Bazan’s own with “Please Baby Please,” and then to the title track “Curse Your Branches.” This is the one of all the tracks that will stick with me the most.

Red and orange, or red and yellow
In which of these do you believe?
If you’re not sure right now,
Please take a moment
I need your signature before you leave

How are we supposed to be so sure on what is the right religion or mode of thought when we have so little to go off and so little (relative) time to decide?

All falling leaves should curse their branches
For not letting them decide where they should fall
And not letting them refuse to fall at all

These lyrics completely wrecked me. Every paper for a theology class that required some sort of faith statement would from then on have a burned copy of Curse Your Branches attached to them. The questions on this album sparked conversations with friends who were feeling the same things and with artists I’d interview for the paper. It prompted me to debate with my professors in class and call out things I thought were bullshit. To my surprise, sometimes they’d even agree with me. I’d spend late nights, when I should’ve been studying, reading lengthy interviews with Bazan talking about his lose of faith and reading the Bible with his daughter. There was so much I wanted to talk about with him. I wanted to hear it from him. I did this for years, and still sort of do today. I’ve realized he’s not the only one asking these questions, but he has become a figurehead to me for all the doubters.

Through all this though, I never have forsake my beliefs totally. I’ve really tried to rationalize myself out of it, but I can’t. There’s still something there. I can’t explain it and that’s really frustrating. I know I sound really ignorant and I don’t really know what to say to people who call me out on it. But this album changed how I view Christianity. It’s not as black and white for me anymore. It’s not something I can shout out some facts I read on an online form and claim I won. I’m not so much interested in debating anymore. I’m more interested in respecting people for who they are and accepting the same respect in return. I’m not going to stop looking for answers and questioning the weird things that are bound to come up.

When I finally got the chance to interview Bazan a few month ago, I didn’t prepare the questions I would have in 2009. Just as I began to realize I am more than whatever views I’m struggling with right now, so is he. The subject was touched upon a bit, but mainly to help tell his story. When I spin Curse Your Branches today, the questions he brings up are still unanswered. I don’t know if they ever will be, but I feel like I’m in a better place for it. Bazan and I haven’t had the same realization exactly. I don’t think two people ever will. I just hope we can learn to accept that without taking offense.

And why are some hellbent upon there being an answer
While some are quite content to answer I don’t know?

Next week: Grand Ole Party – Humanimals

Previous Wax Story: Elliott Smith – Either/Or

Follow me on Twitter: @DustyEffinHenry

Callow Rats

A bowl of lukewarm, orange chili slops in front of me. I’m pretty sure they made it from a can or something. When I asked the cashier at the Insomnia Café, “Can I get a bowl of chili?” he looked at me as if it were the first time he’d ever heard the phrase in his life. Strange, it took them long enough to bring it.  I don’t remember this place from when I used to hang out around here. It’s just a block off of Callow, next to where “The House” church and café used to be before it went out of business — or whatever you call it when a church ceases to be. From the outside I assumed it was going to be some dingy place where the culture-craving youth hang out and talk about punk music, but to my surprise there are XBOX 360s and pool tables set up. Seems to be set up more to give kids something to do rather than complain. I feel like a total jackass sitting here in my peacoat, slacks, and tie.

I keep thinking about Callow Avenue. Elmo’s Adult Book Store, Dave’s Loans & Guns, the Artists for Freedom and Unity Gallery, La Poblanita Mexican Store, and just a few blocks over Noah’s Ark Restaurant. Come to think of it, why didn’t I go to Noah’s instead of this place? I’m sure the chili there is at least warm. Oh and of course there’s The Charleston. Supposedly it used to be an adult film theater (no, not highly intuitive dramas, the other kind of films adults like). Before that I think it was just a regular old movie theater. It’s hard to imagine either these days. The pale, dirty face of the building is not entirely welcoming. The bold and generic font bearing “The Charleston” seems so wholesome and respectable until you look down at the reader board right below it with the names of bands like “The Helen Killers” and “The Knife Hits.”

Near the end of my high school career, this became the only place to catch local shows. Typically they booked terrible hardcore bands with even worse names. If ever a decent band was playing, or if I knew of a friend playing a show, there was no doubt going to be a hardcore band attached to the lineup. The inside is dark. Most surfaces are painted with thick, eternally sticky black paint. A makeshift stage where the movie screen used to be stands on the far side of the room and a bar stares across from it on its own separate platform. Everything is written on or has graffiti layered on it. The bathrooms are a particular treat: green walls covered in band stickers and never stocked with soap or towels.

We used to play a game when we waited for the doors to open at shows. We’d stand in a circle, pretending to be engrossed in conversation, while secretly we counted how many people walked out of Elmo’s Adult Book Store. The numbers were always surprising, especially for so early in the day. None of them was ever looking up. It’s funny how Elmo’s has been around since I was a kid, riding in the car with my grandma playing slug-bug, yet I’ve seen at least 3 church related businesses start and fail there since I was a teen.

I think we — my friends and I — all had a love hate relationship with Callow Avenue. On one side, it was the one place to see shows. A luxury not so luxurious. On the other hand…. Elmo’s Adult Book Store, Dave’s Loans  Guns, the Artists for Freedom and Unity Gallery…etc. It represented everything about Kitsap County that we loathed. Now I’m back here and I feel more left out – like I got picked last for kickball or something – than at home. A lot of it has to do with my oh so in vogue Seattle wardrobe. I typically don’t dress like this. I’m actually in town for a wedding. But I know that everyone in the Insomnia Café doesn’t know that. I look like some prissy Seattleite who got lost after a ferry ride over. Or maybe a prince trying to see life as a pauper. Or maybe they don’t notice. But I do. Oh and to make things better, to pass time I’m making notes in a Moleskine. Wow. Really?

I look out the window and over towards Callow again. Did you know that “callow” means “immature or inexperienced?” Callow Ave does seem immature, but I can’t say it’s inexperienced.

I’m trying to distract myself from feeling out of place by reminding myself how shitty Callow Avenue is. I couldn’t wait to get away from here. To move to Seattle where there is always something to do and there’s culture and always great bands playing and hip girls with great taste in music who will teach me about bands like “My Bloody Valentine” and “The Smiths” and you have no restrictions and and most of all, nothing reminiscent of the bleak feeling that is Kitsap County. Three years later and I come back and feel like an outsider. And I don’t want to feel like an outsider. But there is no way in hell I want to live back here again.

I remember reading on The Charleston’s web site about a movement they were trying to create called “Callow Rats.” The owner described Callow as a place to get away from gossip, politics, parents, and things of that sort; he especially made a strong point about the parents part. He said that Callow isn’t just a place to get away, but a place to fit in. I’ve seen too many post-generation x trying to be gen-x movies to really take this seriously on a surface level. It just sounds too corny, even though I feel he’s sincere. But maybe I bought into this philosophy without knowing it. Am I that cheesy?

I think I’m callow. I haven’t had much life experience that isn’t tied to some sort of formal education. I still get chills when I watch the end scene of Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey. Moving to Seattle and living without my parents felt like such a grown up thing to do. Instead of growing up, did I just morph into a Seattelite instead? Am I not a callow rat? Was I ever? Did I want to be? Do I want to be? It sounds awful lonely. But I feel lonely right now. I feel desperate and alone in a place that I think fondly of for times of being reckless and making fun of perverts leaving an adult book store. It doesn’t seem so funny anymore. Maybe just a little bit though.

This chili really isn’t very good. I don’t think being a Seattle prick has anything to do with the objective fact that this is not good chili. I’ll probably stop at the Starbucks by the ferry on the way home and get a vanilla chai lattee to get this taste out of my mouth. I’ll probably feel more at home in a franchised Starbucks than I do in this awkward Bremerton cafe. True Seattlites don’t really like Starbucks though; they’d much rather support a local owned and/or sustainable coffee shop. I think I care too much about these geographical labels. It’s time to put away this pretentious Moleskine and kill some vampires on this arcade game behind me. Callow rat or spawn of Seattle. I’m not going to pretend that I don’t care. I’m sure in a couple of weeks when I’m looking at the skyline from Gasworks Park, I’ll think to myself “this is home” and Callow will feel like nothing but a point of reference to show me how far I’ve come since then.

How about I just shut up. Those vampires aren’t going to just kill themselves off, now are they? I can afford a few minutes of being a callow youth.