July 14th, 2011 | by CASEY JARMAN Music | Posted In: Deep Cuts, Columns

Deep Cuts: David Bazan, "Strange Negotiations" (with Q&A)

     
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Bazan, Deep Cuts
Welcome to LC's new (and hopefully recurring) feature, Deep Cuts, where I’ll be writing about one song in-depth, ideally with a bit of help from the folks who made it.**

This week I’m zeroing in the title track of David Bazan’s second solo full-length album, Strange Negotiations (Bazan plays with his band this Friday at Mississippi Studios). As a record, Strange Negotiations is bound to be divisive for longtime Bazan fans: It has a raw, barreling sound that harks back to his old band, Pedro The Lion—specifically the well-loved 2002 effort, Control—but it also features some of Bazan’s most straightforward and punk rock-ish tunes to date.

The title track, though, relies less on feedback and raw energy than it does on Bazan’s distinctive songwriting chops and an increasingly subtle vocal delivery that has only grown more textured along his path from bright young parablist to skeptical troubadour. “Strange Negotiations” features less chord changes and unexpected musical twists than most of the songs in his discography, and it also draws from a thematic well that most songwriters would use towards a dry protest tune or hollow patriotic ballad: the U.S. economy. But instead of an angry rallying cry for financial reform, Bazan produces a startlingly moving ballad about lost traditions and fucked priorities in the Wal-Mart era, pulling the political into an arena that’s deeply personal and gutwrenching.

I spoke with Bazan about the tune as he chomped on In-N-Out Burgers somewhere in California en route to Portland. But first, here’s the song—on temporary loan, generously, from Barsuk Records [UPDATE: Loan ran out, we added this YouTube video so long as it lasts]—and the song's lyrics.

THE SONG



THE WORDS

You blew all your inheritance
And now you're trying to pin the blame on me
And I could write you off so easily
Except a hundred million other people agree
You kick and scream to get your way again,
But the writing is on the wall
Any minute you'll go on to your reward
Someone else is gonna make the call.

In these strange negotiations
Man they really are gettin' me down
Strange negotiations
Feel like a stranger in my hometown
Strange negotiations
You know I'm looking for a way around
All these strange negotiations.

You cut your leg off to save a buck or two
Because you never consider the cost
You find the lowest prices every day
But would you look at everything that we've lost
And yeah, it's true, I learned it from watching you,
But now it's you who doesn't know what a dollar is worth
You got the market its own bodyguard
And all the people are gettin' hurt

In these strange negotiations
Man they really are gettin' me down
Strange negotiations
Feel like a stranger in my hometown
Strange negotiations
You know I'm looking for a way around
All these strange negotiations.


THE INTERVIEW

WW: Hey David. Can you first talk about the sound of this tune—was there a specific sound you were going for here?

David Bazan: Absolutely. Neil Young, straight-up! [Laughs] It’s the rhythm section part of it that was very Neil Young. The simple bass phrase and the drumming. It’s kind of a mix between "Out On the Weekend" from Harvest, and "Heart of Gold" (1) The hi-hat phrase is just kind of a variation on the way the hi-hat works on “Heart of Gold." I guess it's like the harmonica section, but it's a little bit of a variation because of how we ended up having [drummer Alex Westcoat] perform it. So that's the bass-and-drums basis for it, but the rest of it is just whatever sounded right to us. The acoustic guitar performance isn't aping anything, really, we just wanted it to sound cool. If anything it might be a little of a reference to the acoustic guitar vibe on [Beck's] Sea Change (2) but even then it's pretty different.

The music is pretty straightforward for you. 

Yeah, and the whole record is kind of that way. I tried to write a lot of the songs where it's just the same chord progression over and over again. There are three distinct chord progressions that make up that song, but they all have a similar trajectory to them. 

What got you wanting to play simple in that way? 

I started going down that road with Curse Your Branches: "Please Baby Please" is basically two chords back and forth; "In Stitches" is four chords repeated all the way through (3). The kernel of that came from being in the Undertow Orchestra (4) with Vic Chesnutt and Mark Eitzel and Will Johnson—all of their songs were similar in the sense that they were really simple, not a lot of chords, not a lot of tricky changes. My tunes were unique in that there were a lot of chords and changes. And I thought, "Why do I make my songs so complicated? I don't like my songs any more than I like their songs." So it dawned on me that I could maybe break out of my mold a little bit and do things in a slightly different way, just to give my catalogue a little variety and improve as a songwriter.

Can you talk about what this song is about to you, and how you got to this song as a writer?

Well, I was really present and paying attention for the [2008] presidential election via shows like This American Life and the NPR Planet Money podcast (5) and things—being pretty present about the recession. I'm not an expert on that stuff, but I got a pretty reasonable look at what was going on. And then, hearing the analysis of Tea Party people and things, it was very frustrating. That they would blame Obama, who had been in office for two months for the recession was just the height of stupidity. If they're being sincere, it's just so dumb. 

So those thoughts and feelings had been brewing for awhile, and I had just been writing words and waiting for songs to come through. That first verse started to come out and it flowed pretty easy. Things like that brew for a month or two or five or eight, and sometimes my subconscious is apparently working on a thing that I'm not even aware of. So when that one came out, it just came out pretty quick. I was glad, because it conveyed a lot of things I'd been feeling. 

Who is the "you" in this song?

In that song I'm really talking to economically conservative baby boomers who were frustrated with being removed from power—who had been in charge for basically 30 years and had supported supply-side economic theory and those kind of policies and basically sunk our economy (6). That's a little bit simplistic, but that was pretty directly where the song came from. 

There's a sadness in the tune, and it echoes a lot of what else is going on in the record, which is the desire to dismiss people that I'm frustrated with but ultimately an unwillingness to do so.

On "Level with Yourself" and "People," it seems like you're trying to find common ground but also casting stones at people. You seem to be riding that line throughout the disc.

Oh, yeah. And that's how it feels in real life. Part of the desire with all this is to have my words and actions mean something—I want to have meaningful responses to these sort of conflicts. So I'm not going to shy away from saying "that's crazy, what the fuck is your problem?" But I also want to find ways to connect.

When I was younger I read C.S. Lewis' The Great Divorce (7), and I still find it really fascinating. The picture that he painted of hell was people living in proximity to one another, and then falling out with each other so thoroughly that people just lived way, way out on the outskirts because they just kept burning bridge after bridge. That's instructive to me still. If you can't find some way to live in harmony with the people around you, even if they're acting way crazy, you need to try harder, you know?

So can you go through the first couple of verses here in the song?

Yeah, the "you blew all your inheritance and now you're trying to pin the blame on me," that turn is about how when Obama got elected, it became somehow the fault of Obama and the people that supported him that we were in these dire straits. And in my opinon—in the analysis that I agree with—it was actually them flushing all of the capital that they had when they came on the scene down the toilet. And that second line, "I could write you off so easily/ except a hundred million people agree," that's kind of the strange negotiation part. We have to take seriously these ideas that are crazy just because so many people share them. That seems inappropriate: You should be able to say "Look, here's the facts—here's how it works." But if enough people disagree, you have to take their voice in the debate seriously, and that can be really frustrating.

The facts are kind of beside the point.

Absolutely. It's spin. The people who are most effective at spin win, and Democrats have proven that they can't craft a message to save their lives.

And then when you talk about finding the lowest prices every day, that sounds like an allusion to Wal-Mart.

Absolutely. It is a direct reference to Wal-Mart and the notion that "Yeah, I'm saving all kinds of money, but I'm not able to do the vocation that I used to be able to do: I used to be a shop owner, I used to be whatever"—the landscape has changed and been decimated as far as the individual citizens being able to do small entrepreneurial businesses. They don't have the buying power of a Wal-Mart. So it's just that shortsighted thinking: I'm saving all this money but there are no manufacturing jobs left in the United States.

You talk about it in the song like something that's being passed down generationally—there's almost an erosion of the culture there, and I wonder if you can speak to that?

I wonder if I can, too! There are contradictory values at work: The financial conservatism and frugality, that's something I aspire to and I learned that from the previous generation. But we're not understanding the dynamics. That's the "You never consider the cost": No one's looking behind the curtain to see how these things work or why the prices are so low, you know, so there's this disconnect...it's a cultural disconnect. It runs parallel to a thing that happens in the record, too, which is that I picked up these high ideals from the people that were my elders growing up. And now I'm growing up and trying to have my words and actions mean something, so I'm looking around and [that generation has] just sort of lost the plot, in a way. They're at such cross-purposes with themselves that they're not able to sort it out. 

That's something you discuss really bluntly on the song "People." So does this make for some awkward conversations with family and the "elders" you're talking about?

I talk about it with my parents and my aunts and uncles and my grandparents to a large degree, but it's tough, because you want to find harmony, too. I certainly don't say, "I wrote a song about it, do you want to hear it?"

It seems like the theme of the song, and the record, is that you want to be more honest with the next generation than the previous one was with you. 

Or just be more consistent about it. Because I think that there was a seduction that took place in technology and progress and American Exceptionalism as an identity—all this stuff that you hear Fareed Zakaria (8) say. He makes so much sense, but baby boomers on the whole can't listen to what has to say without feeling anything but offended and defensive, because they just drank the Kool-Aid about how all this works. The evidence is that we have all these working class people who are Tea Party people, just the foot soldiers for the Koch brothers (9), and they aren't seeing the way they are being manipulated. They're voting against their own interest and arguing against their own interest because Fox News and these other outlets are manipulating them and using some sort of old American identity as a motivator to get people to maintain positions that don't add up. 

So, we were listening to that Fareed Zakaria [recently] and it reminded me of a line in "Strange Negotiations" that is harsh as hell, but the only real change that is going to be able to happen—because of all the dynamics of the baby boomer generation—is that that generation is going to die. Then maybe people my age will have five or 10 years of seeing what's possible when you get that big of a blockage out of the system. That depersonalizes it, in a way, but that's what's coming. I think it's all harsher because Western people are so unprepared to think about death and think about legacy in that way.

But what if your generation falls for the same shit the boomers fell for? What if wanting to make things better is kind of a young man's game?

I don't know. I mean, Noam Chomsky insists that things are getting better (10), little by little, when people ask him about it—and maybe it's a two steps forward and one step back thing. I don't know. I'm hopeful. But I think that the actions of the individual effect the community and the community impacts culture—things are really important in that way. So I don't think me shooting my mouth off about something in an interview or on a record is going to be the thing that brings change, but that's the only way it could happen—is to take my role and my family and my own successes and failures and my community really seriously, and insist that the people I'm close with do the same thing if we're going to participate in a social compact together. That's the only way I could see it working. And in the end I don't know how it'll turn out. It could still turn out badly. But I'm hopeful enough to sing about it and write about it and try and to make sure my words have more meaning as time goes on.

I guess that's where the rubber meets the road.

Of course, and it's also about making peace with the people I'm frustrated with—not just the baby boomers, of course. That's why I continue to write records that bare my concerns so bluntly when I would rather maybe be more vague and stylish or something. Because in the end, I don't love participating with media that lets me escape reality, I like stuff that grabs me by the back of the head and forces me to stare hard at it. In the end I guess, subconsciously, I'm motivated to make music that's that way—however effective it is or isn't.

—CJ


REFERENCES

1. Neil Young, Harvest; "Out on the Weekend""Heart of Gold"

2. Beck, Sea Change

3. David Bazan, Curse Your Branches; "Please Baby Please"; "In Stitches"

4. The Undertow Orchestra; David Bazan with the Undertow Orchestra, "The Devil is Beating His Wife"

5. This American Life; Planet Money

6. "How Supply-Side Economics Trickled Down," Bruce Bartlett, New York Times; "Same Path," 2008 Obama campaign advertisement

7. About C.S. Lewis; The Great Divorce at Powell's Books

8. Fareed Zakaria; Fareed Zakaria, "Are America's Best Days Behind Us?", Time Magazine

9. The Koch Family; Jane Mayer, "Covert Operations," New Yorker Magazine

10. Noam Chomsky articles galore

11. All the lyrics from Bazan's new record.


**THE MISPLACED INTRODUCTION

I wanted to begin this column with an apology, but it seemed unfair to Mr. Bazan to start that way, so here it is in telltale italics: I'm sorry that my dusty little corner of the internet isn't as fascinating as it should be for some time. When I started at WW, I saw the LocalCut blog as a tool for hosting thoughtful conversation of limitless scope and range. One of my first projects was a five-part, two-session interview with Pete Krebs that remains one of my proudest achievements. And while elements of LC retain that spirit (Nick Jaina's column, currently on hiatus, is engaging and fantastic without exception; Robert Ham's Videosyncrasy is such a great idea and teaches me so much about the artists who participate in it; Our Cut of the Days and Q&As sometimes go to unexpected places), a lot of it is standard-issue blog stuff. I hate blogs almost as much as I hate Twitter. This is the sort of thing I'm interested in doing: Engaging my favorite local and national artists in conversations about their work and about everything else. I won't call this a weekly column—because those never pan out—but I'm hoping to do it about once a week. The format may change (I'm not wholly stuck on the Q&A format, even, I really just wanted an excuse to talk to David Bazan this week), but I do intend to provide a lot of links, as I did this week, and to keep said links the fuck out of the text, where they are a huge distraction. I plan on picking only songs that move me or fascinate me, and they won't always be particularly timely or new. I really just love the idea that a single song could have so many arteries; that a single song could lead us to all kinds of discovery. I can't think of a better way to start the thing than with Bazan, so I'd like to thank him one more time for chatting. See you all soon.

 
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