THERE ARE few albums that have nestled their way into my mind and thought process more than David Bazan’s Curse Your Branches. It’s a layered construction of circular theological questioning and time-old philosophical arguments. It’s the story of a father wrestling with the implications of his doubt, and one family trying to hold a home together.
Talking to Bazan about the album was difficult. Not because the quiet-voiced singer is a bad interviewee—the 45 minutes that we spent talking went by quickly—but some of the questions he raised struck just a little too close to home. There is an element of human blindness and divine mysticism to our faith that we often want to gloss over. Curse Your Branches is a picture—terrifying in its settled lucidity—of what it means to wrestle with the divine.
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What’s your "relationship status" with God?
Well, I guess the way I usually talk about it, is that I still have this perception that God exists in some form that I’m only mostly comfortable with sometimes. But there’s still a giant question mark over what form that could be. Is it as generic as a collective consciousness? Or is it a personality that exists in space and time and has intentions, a free agent, do you know what I mean?
A lot of the time, I’m concerned with, I’m still unpacking. It’s like my exit interview from Christianity is still ongoing, I’m still pretty curious about a lot of the minor points. I don’t believe that the Bible exists because God intended it to, so I’m curious what things transpired to make that document come to fruition the way that it has. If there is a God who is a free agent who acts deliberately with humans, is he present in that document occasionally? Is it all a distortion is only part of it? I don’t know. I’m just trying to figure it out.
I was grew up in a Christian home and there were plenty of nights I’d lay up in my bed and think about hell. Were you a kid who thought about those things?
Oh, I thought about its implications endlessly, but I never once questioned those fundamentals until I was in my mid-20s. There were plenty enough to think about before that where, if you think about the Bible and its teaching and things, and you look at whatever people say about it, you’re not seeing that.
You’re seeing a lot of hypocrisy and a lot of people who are part of a club, but don’t really give a shit about lot of the particulars of their belief systems and when they do it’s always geared to the political, or stupid superficial things like drinking and swearing. They could care less about the poor, but if you smoke and drink you’re in danger of hellfire. There was a lot of inconsistent sort of thinking about the nature of the religion. For years and years, I didn’t even think about questioning the fundamentals, because no one was getting the fundamentals right, so there was a lot to think about and mull over.
Were there any particular authors, books that had an impact on you during this time?
Uh, not really, I mean, like after the fact, I heard a bunch of interviews with Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, but I mean now, to my mind, I don’t care much for Dawkins. He’s an extremist.
Dawkins and those guys aren’t just like, “well maybe he doesn’t exist,” there’s militancy to their message.
They’re fundamentalists just the same as Falwell.
But just because you’ve rejected Christianity, it doesn’t mean you want to be placed in that camp?
Jonathan Fitzgerald reviewed Bazan’s live debut of “Curse Your Branches” in New York, and interviewed author Carlene Bauer about walking away from Christianity. Joel Hartse described “dying inside” when he heard of Bazan’s agnosticism. David Sessions interviewed journalist David Plotz about how reading the Bible dimmed his view of God. Micah Towery discussed the struggles of belief with poet Joe Weil. Mike Griffin recounted his own journey into agnosticism.
People are going to do what they want to do. I’ve got my own concerns that I’m actively pursuing and I can’t worry too much about how it looks on the outside. Like I’m working math equations with all my wit and all I have, I can’t also worry about how it looks on some level. If people ask me what I think about Dawkins, I’ll say this or that. He does have some interesting points. Just like anybody, he’s a very intelligent, much smarter man than I am. But at the same time, his conclusions and his attitude strike me as being fundamentalist, and they are not compelling to me.
Going backwards, as you played with Pedro, was there a frustration with being put on some type of Christian pedestal. In “Bearing Witness,” you talk about being some type of prophet. What’s that like dealing with that pressure as you’re trying to deal with your own mind, much less other people?
It really didn’t come to bear on me too directly. I have pretty good boundaries as far as that stuff goes. I decided a long time ago it’s unreasonable for me to try and catalogue what type of music I make. It can’t work that way, it’s not a healthy or sustainable way to live. It’s entertaining to me when I come up against it, but it doesn’t figure into how I come to decisions. Like, I’ve lived my whole life, and I might run into that 3 percent of the time, in the old days.
You’ve been dealing with people wanting to put you into a certain camp, a certain doctrine, a lot of labeling, people wanting to talk about God. When it came to making Curse Your Branches, did you ever have a hesitation because of the fact you’d have to do a lot of interviews like this, talking about Him? Was there any hesitation about opening up like this?
No, because I’m not that much of a planner, I don’t consider. You know how in Driver’s Ed they tell you to aim high, look down the road? Well, I don’t do that. I aim pretty low when I’m doing stuff.
Musically, is this is the first time you’ve ever fleshed things out with production?
Yeah, it’s really fun. I always denied myself that, for whatever reason, and it’s fun.
You started this tour off with the small house shows.
Playing those shows was a hoot and the intimacy of the Q&A’s and the actual music, it was really fun.
Hardest question you got?
They don’t and I don't look at each of those little moments. It was just a conversation, and sometimes the conversation will be a little more intense or more substantive, and there was that. I don’t recall because I’m just talking to people, in that situation it’s way less of a gimmick and more of conversing.
In this album, your family plays a huge role, lyrically, in the narrative of this autobiography, how does that interjection of a private subject play out, with them, when you’re writing about people you see on a daily basis, what’s it like interjecting them into such a public expression?
Well, I have to make sure it works for them, to some degree.
No, negative feedback, you talk about your mother worrying about you, I don’t know?
There’s definitely some. It’s tragic to her, and she’s not even mad that it happened to begin with, she understands. She knows that I’m a conscientious guy who is being very honest with myself. I’m doing what’s right as far as I know.
That last song on the album, “In Stitches,” hurts to listen to. When you’re talking to your daughter, and she’s asking you questions about God, what do you tell her? When she asks you, “daddy, what’s this about?” what do you tell her?
I usually say I don’t know. And then, this is what your grandparents say, and then this is what another friend of ours thinks. A lot of it is little stuff like, she’s saying, and I was saying, “Look at those clouds kiddo, look at how fast they’re moving,” and she says, “God’s doing that,” and I said, “Well, it depends, you can think that, but if you believe that God created the universe, then you believe that he created weather systems but it doesn’t necessarily follow that he’s actively making weather all over, all the time.”
Sometimes it’s just helping her apply logic to those situations, not debunking the existence of God, or supporting the notion of the existence of God, but applying what she may believe to reality.
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So just because you’ve reached a point of agnosticism or whatever, you’re not trying to instill that into your daughter?
Aw, hell no. I’d like her to have her options, I mean her options are limited because of certain sociological dynamics, you know, but, given who she is and where she comes from, I’d like for her to have as much choice as she can. I just try to give her as much information as is appropriate for a five-year-old kid.
With your own view of the nature of God, there’s plenty of references to the harder side of God’s nature, what do you do with the “gentler side” of God? Christians when they want to talk about God, they point to Christ because of his servanthood, etc. How do you deal with it?
That’s something people say, “I know you don’t talk about Jesus on this record, you can’t start with anything else but Jesus.” And actually, Jesus was the antidote to something, according to the doctrine of Christianity, and really you have to look into the nature of what that state was to begin with. If you’re using Jesus to let God the Father off the hook, then you have to say, “why were we on the hook to begin with, what’s the deal with this?”
People try to reason that original state away, I can understand people’s motivation to do this. If God is not changing and he’s omniscient and he’s omnipotent and he’s benevolent, it doesn’t add up, you know what I mean? Like, he made this mistake that he had to remedy, it apparently was our mistake, but if he’s omniscient, then he knew what was going to happen, what was the point, the purpose of this stuff? The Biblical answer is, “His own glory,” which is fine, that’s his prerogative, of course, but if He wants us to be inspired to love Him, then that doesn’t work.
So rather than accepting some type of fatalistic type of God, you just can’t deal with this idea of God.
It just doesn’t make sense, it feels like that story has a human author, or a committee of human authors who couldn’t get their shit together exactly right. Right, you know what I mean? They couldn’t figure out the logic of that story enough for it to work, that’s what it seems like to me.
In the end, I refused to superimpose that narrative on the character of God. That’s the narrative that I think, “why lay this over character of a supreme being?” I think it’s made up by dudes and I don’t want to mischaracterize this being that may exist.
As you’re proceeding in your agnosticism, what would it take for you to have belief in a different system?
Let me put it this way: there is something else. There is here, and there is now, and there are people that need to be treated with respect. There is more than enough to do and think about, as far as the ethical implications of our actions today and tomorrow and the next day.
Some sort of pie-in-the-sky reasons for why it all exists is beside the point, in my mind. It really, there’s so much to figure out besides that. And so I do have faith. I have faith that I can expend energy in these very temporal concerns and that there is deep meaning there. Not in some hedonistic way, but learning how to delay gratification in a meaningful way and I can learn how to treat them well, and live in harmony with the natural, or inanimate world.
Do you feel like there’s an undercurrent in Christianity where people relate to this struggling faith, or post-faith?
It depends, I’ve run into people who say that it’s compelling to them, despite the fact that they maintain a robust faith, and then other people, the nature of their faith is such where they can’t listen to the album at all.
Have you encountered much opposition, people who want to “save” you?
Yeah. Mostly on the internet, but that exist.
You talk about enough meaning existing in our life through action, what do you think about someone like Derek Webb or other artists who have come out of the Christian sphere?
I have a lot of respect for anyone who is doing any amount of self-reflection at all. I have a lot of respect for that, no matter what conclusions they come to. I’m inspired by anyone who has a set of convictions and if they are true to those. We’re all holding down a different stake in the tent. I’ve come to my own conclusions, but I realize how limited my own perspective is.
Looking down the road, will David Bazan ever tackle social issues like Webb?
That would be nice, I have the notion that I have to get my ducks in a row at home, and make sure that I’m taking care of the people around me first, but again, it’s a local thing. There’s a lot to do. You’ve got the Robert Putnam kind of bowling alone ideas of community, and I feel like a lot of the spokesmanship happens on a national level or on this media level that lacks meaning and the teeth to get things done.
In your own town there’s a ton of needs that need to be met and you just have to show up and try to get things done. But where community service is, what’s that word when people are on the internet? Anonymous.
I don’t know that me mouthing off about something actually helps anything. It makes me look like a big man, and there are people who do it, and when I see it, I don’t think ill, but I have a hard time when I see other people doing it, even fucking Jars of Clay who are digging wells for people in Africa. That’s awesome man, like seriously awesome, and I don’t have any kind of misgivings about that, but when it comes to me, I feel a bit of a blowhard. To be like, “you should go out and dig wells for people.”
What’s the place of the Bible in your own life?
I read it all the time, I read it with my daughter all the time, I want her to have a solid ability to understand the faith. It’s kind of like reading it for the first time, but not in the way that people hope I am.
Yeah, it’s like when you watch The Usual Suspects the second or third time, you have a very different perspective, like trying to figure out this god character, who could he be representing, a god who could potentially exist, in his action and figures? Or is this just a superstition of a bunch of xenophobic people?
Where do you go from here? Nietzsche talked about the sky being wiped clean. Is your horizon empty?
There is a freedom but the sky isn’t wiped clean. The freedom is in, “I know I can’t know,” so the freedom is off that way. I just can’t allow that pressure to come to bear and the whole goal is to treat people in a decent manner and not be a self-absorbed prick, although that’s a difficult thing to muster sometimes. It’s a lot of practical and pragmatic instances, but the sky isn’t wiped clean, I have no fucking idea what’s up there, and I do care and I’m pursuing conclusions, if I can find them.
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