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The Vanguard and Bros Houligan Present...

Pedro the Lion

with Oceanator
Wed Apr, 13 8:00 pm ( Doors: 7:00 pm )
The Vanguard
All Ages
$20 adv // $25 dos
Pedro the Lion
Lake Havasu is a community of winding hillside roads, launched in the 1960s alongside a brick-for-brick rebuild of the original London Bridge. “It’s this very synthetic, gimmicky place set in this soulful, desolate landscape,” laughs Pedro the Lion’s David Bazan, who moved to the Arizona city for one year in seventh grade. Bazan collected his earliest childhood experiences for 2019’s Phoenix, the prolific artist’s celebrated return to the Pedro moniker and the first in a planned series of five records chronicling his past homes. To write its sequel, Bazan traveled to Havasu four times over several years, driving past his junior high campus, a magical skating rink, and other nostalgic locations that evoked feelings long suppressed. “An intersection I hadn’t remembered for 30 years would trigger a flood of hidden memories,” he says. “I was there to soak in it as much as possible.”

Driving the inscrutable loops of Havasu’s lakeside, Bazan listened through an audiobook of Tom Petty’s biography, eventually dialoguing with Petty’s voice in his mind. A revelation from the book—that Petty subconsciously wrote the song “Wildflowers” as an act of kindness toward himself—inspired Bazan to approach his own work with radical generosity toward his young self. “I wanted to be there for that kid,” he offers. “That twelve year old still needs parenting, and still needs to process.”

To revisit his past with openness, Bazan modified harmful work habits he’d accepted as necessary. That meant doing away with deadlines, and accumulating moments of play as he felt moved to—“Rather than squeezing stones every single time. I’m on a slow journey away from that,” he clarifies. As he worked through the music that became Havasu, flexibility and curiosity informed the arrangements. Bazan began writing on a simple synthesizer and drum machine setup. He detoured to a more elaborate assortment of analog electronic equipment, then woodshed his original two-handed keyboard arrangements on fingerpicked acoustic guitar.

Concurrently relearning his catalog for a weekly series of livestream concerts also renewed his gratitude toward songwriting. “I was trying to evaluate what I have to show for 20 years of kicking my own ass,” Bazan quips about the strenuousness of full-time touring. “But the garden of my songs is what I’ve been building. It doesn’t have to be an ego test.” Approaching his discography with appreciation reconciled cognitive dissonance about the music of his childhood, which Bazan had dismissed as cheesy. “As a kid, that Richard Marx song would come on and I would swoon. I’ve been working my whole life to pretend that wasn’t there, and I wanted to honor the sappy, emotional kid that I was. It helped me see myself,” he admits.

When he entered the studio with co-producer and engineer Andy D. Park (who worked in the same capacity on Phoenix), Bazan planned to make a desolate, desert-informed record. But the duo quickly realized a rock configuration closer to Pedro’s classic sound would convey the landscape and stories best. Bazan switched to a Les Paul, which brought smoothness and linearity; though he’d planned to use a drum machine, he laid down scratch drum kit and bass as an experiment. Listening back the next day, those initial rhythm section takes had a sense of joy and ease that augmented the record’s themes of psychic healing. “First Drum Set,” which faithfully chronicles Bazan’s lifesaving switch from clarinet to drums, builds the explosive jubilation of musical self-discovery into triumphant fills, like a throbbing heartbeat overflowing with love. “Teenage Sequencer” takes on the rattling anxiety of mind-body disconnect, using trepidatious bass, vacillating guitar slides and hopeful tambourine to evoke the crushed-out ups and downs of the mutable edge of thirteen. “There goes nature, pulling me along like a sequencer,” sings Bazan, wondering: “Will I always be a teenager now?” And on “Making the Most Of It,” stuttering hi-hat adorns downtempo, arpeggiated guitar, adding playfulness to a reckoning with concealed emotion. “I can go along to get along, but let me know when I can quit making the most of it,” Bazan shrugs. Yet the contrasting optimism of the music reflects an imperative to communicate feelings both light and heavy: to break through the scar tissue of tender memory and find peace.

Though Bazan wrote, arranged, and performed most instruments himself—as is characteristic of most of his work, solo and with Pedro the Lion—several key collaborators helped him find the self-accepting tenderness needed for Havasu. Pedro live drummer Sean T. Lane makes appearances on every track, but on a self-constructed noisemaking instrument called “the bike.” It’s composed of various metal objects and strings mounted on a bicycle frame, rigged with contact mics and run through a drone-accentuating pedalboard. “It can be percussive, it can be ambient. It’s a real nightmare machine. It’s just great,” Bazan enthuses, highlighting its crucially menacing counterpoint to the otherwise “wistful, melancholy, guilty pleasure romcom” progression of “Own Valentine.” A warm moment exploring his synth setup with longtime collaborator Andy Fitts led to the insistent new wave sound of “Too Much.” And on album opener and cinematic scene-setter “Don’t Wanna Move,” a riff appears that was first devised by Pedro guitarist Erik Walters and used on Phoenix’s closer. “I was psyched to open this record with it,” Bazan says. “I’m trying to have a flow between the records, so if people want to engage with that, there’s something there.”

Though the next three albums in the series are not fully written, Bazan currently understands Phoenix and Havasu together as a completed exposition in a traditional three-act structure. “I want to paint a picture of how my family and parents and everyone I love got coopted by nationalistic, authoritarian religion,” he lays out. “I’m planting the seeds for that, and my own culpability is part of it.” Though these careful compositions pave the way for darker stories in later acts, Bazan resolutely emphasizes the curative nature of returning to Havasu, mentally and musically. “It gave me the ability to make vulnerable choices, and connect with a part of my younger self that I didn’t want to turn my back on,” he suggests. “I worked through a lot of self-judgment, and was kinder to myself on this record than I have been before in any songs.” The result is an open-hearted acknowledgment of shame and elation both, spaciously but delicately arranged in affirmation of the nurturing those feelings deserve—even if the kid in need of validation has long since grown up and moved away.
There’s a line on Oceanator’s debut full-length when Elise Okusami belts, “I think I think too much.” It’s a plainspoken yet resounding thesis for an album called Things I Never Said, which sees the NYC multi-instrumentalist hyperbolically equating early adulthood malaise with apocalyptic destruction. The type of anxieties that form when thoughts bottle up and stress gets the best of you. Throughout the record, allusions to intrusive thoughts and depression-induced stasis are weaved in between references to falling skies, rolling fires, and the possibility of the world literally falling apart. “If the sun never came up tomorrow / do you think we would even notice?” Okusami asks in “I Would Find You,” a moody ode to staying out late and sleeping until the afternoon. Or as Okusami puts it, “keeping to the shadows.”
However, while her emotional and physical solitude makes for a resilient foe, Things I Never Said is ultimately a record about finding comfort in the face of destruction. Whether it be through appreciating the little things, like “hot tea on a cold fall day / and dressing up for Halloween,” or forming a bond with someone you can mutually confide in about mental afflictions (“I told you I could never be enough / you took me by the hand / and told me you understand”).

Complementary to the extraordinarily direct subject matter, the songs themselves are punchy, sticky, and immediately engrossing pieces of heavy grunge-pop. The album opens with pounding power-chords that Okusami tastefully palm-mutes in order to accentuate the hook, and then lets rip by the song’s gratifying climax, adding a simple yet hooky lead riff for extra emphasis. Although she recruited a couple friends/members of the Oceanator touring band to play many of the bass and drum parts, Okusami is the sole songwriter/arranger of her music, and the instrumentation feels intimately connected with her lyrics.

“Heartbeat” is a racing power-pop cut with a joyously shreddy guitar arpeggio that perfectly translates the chest-thumping rush of being near your loved one into song. “The Sky Is Falling” is a song about being consumed by depression and witnessing everything fall down around you while you remain stuck in a state of paralysis. In it, Okusami’s voice is cleverly quiet, stark, and resigned as the chaotic, walloping guitars thrash and burn around her. One of the record’s standouts, “A Crack In The World,” breaks down into a half-tempo churn toward its end, as Okusami swears that “I’m still trying my best” despite the news on the TV. The song literally sounds like it’s spiraling down into its titular crevice, while Okusami desperately claws at the ground to keep “the skies blue anyway.”

There’s no concrete resolution to the album, but rather a vital reminder that love and friendship, both with others and herself, will always reign victorious in our darkest moments. The album ends with a song aptly titled, “Sunshine,” in which Okusami, backed by just her chugging guitar, details a day of venturing outside into the sun and subsequently accepting herself in solitude. “I’m okay,” she repeats a few times at the end of the track, before resolving with the renewed comfort of “on my own.” The album artwork features a cartoon sketch of Okusami sitting alone in a chair in front of a blue background that could very well be those blue skies she was fighting to maintain sight of. Her tepidly peaceful demeanor on the cover art suggests that she’s wise enough to know that this feeling won’t last forever, but that it will in fact return—echoing two of the last lines on the album: “Sometimes it gets me down / but I usually come around.”