On the way from his old band, Verbena, to playing solo under his birth name, A.A. Bondy watched a lot of movies and a few meteor showers in between watching movies, and finally in 2007 he recorded his first album in a barn near his house. His newest, When the Devil’s Loose, is out now on Fat Possum. This interview by Dan Collins.
Your songs seem to be a little on the dark side. You sing about vampires and the Devil. Where does that come from?
A.A. Bondy: Those can be as literal or not literal as one wants them to be, you know what I mean? That’s the way I look at that stuff. It’s just like if you slam your finger in the door and say ‘Jesus Christ,’ are you actually talking about Jesus? Or could you just as easily have said ‘fuck’ or ‘shit’?
Are these happy songs at all for you?
A.A. Bondy: The listener’s on the other side of the fence than I am. I don’t get to hear it like that. I don’t know what kind of things people get from listening to that stuff. I mean, I like music to be joy—pure expressions of joy—but at the same time, there’s also something about expressions of whatever … hardship or pain or whatever! I don’t think about any of those things before they start. They just come out the way they come out. It’s impossible for me to know what anybody’s ever going to make of it on the other end. The most I can hope for is that it did something to me in a way, and that maybe it will do something to somebody else in a similar way. But then again—how many songs are there out there that you don’t realize how dark the lyrics are because the music situation is something else?
Do you consider yourself a folk artist or an artist who brings things from folk to your music?
A.A. Bondy: I don’t know what ‘folk’ means. Maybe ‘folk’ implies some kind of ‘regular people’ connotation to it. I guess all people are regular people. I don’t know how to deal with all that stuff. I’m kind of against branding myself. I mean, I hang a guitar around my neck and have a harmonica on a rack like a folk musician. But Neil Young does that. Jeff Tweedy does that. I guess probably both of them could be called folk acts at some point. I don’t know. More than anything, I like to leave myself some room in case I feel like doing something else.
Todd Gitlin once said that indigenous folk culture separated regions, but it united the generations within each town or holler or neck-of-the-woods. Whereas pop culture, especially pop music, does the opposite—it can unite a generation across the world, but it stratifies the generations so that the parents don’t understand what their kids are listening to and vice versa.
A.A. Bondy: That’s true for everything, culturally. The world was smaller—I’m not being naive about that—but there’s probably a lot of those people who never left those hollers or whatever even up to the ’20s or ’30s. Whereas somebody like Bob Dylan, who’s twenty years after that, was able to move to New York and affect people who lived in the Dust Bowl, you know what I mean? There’s an upside and a downside to all that stuff. An 11-year-old kid can find a Skip James record on iTunes right now. Twenty years ago it’d be a little bit harder. I don’t know how all that stuff works. Basically what you’re saying is that there aren’t any movements developing independently of each other anywhere?
There are. But I guess my question would be—do you see yourself in the legacy more of that type of folk, where you’re learning from your peers who are older than you, not necessarily geographically but …
A.A. Bondy: I mean, I’ll eat whatever’s in front of me that looks like it tastes good. The folk thing—there’s many parts of it that I like, but there are songs on this record I feel are more like Otis Redding or something. It’s similar to like a complete omnivore, like Prince. To say what Prince sounds like … Prince sounds like Prince, but Prince is just like an amalgamation—a brilliant one—of James Brown, the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix. And Parliament. And all this other stuff. Some people are content, like Chuck Berry, to play the same songs the same way their whole lives, and then there’s people like Radiohead or whatever who loathe staying in one spot and doing the same thing twice. I don’t play guitar like I did five years ago cuz I don’t find that interesting anymore. I don’t know if I’m answering your question or not.
I don’t know, but keep talking!
A.A. Bondy: It’s hard to say. We don’t know how any of this shit’s really going to turn out as far as people’s access to information, especially from a musical standpoint. To my ears, those people are a lot more proficient musically: better singers, better players. It’s a less varied thing that they were working on, but they had way less distractions to pull them away from getting good.
Choosing to write a song within a specific genre—and sticking to those conventions—can actually free you up to get creative.
A.A. Bondy: That’s the thing about the last record. A lot of those songs—especially the ones that are just guitar and vocals—are taken from very worn-in templates of other things. I was learning at the time, and it was exciting to do something that had been done, but it was new to me. I don’t know if anybody ever comes up with anything completely new that’s not built on the back of something else, but the best things start out on a point and carry that thing to a new or interesting place.
Your old band, Verbena, was definitely doing something different than what you’re doing now as A.A. Bondy. Was it an immediate night-and-day change? Or was it a more subtle change for you?
A.A. Bondy: It wasn’t really like day into night, because the day took three years to turn into night, or vice versa. To anybody else, if you put those records up back to back, you could think that. But I think there’s examples on all three of those Verbena records that you could trace from what I am now to what I was doing then. The majority of it you couldn’t, but I think there’s still like a little kernel of it in there somewhere.
What were you doing during that three-year sunset or sunrise?
A.A. Bondy: Living in the woods, watching movies, digging holes, stuff like that. Watching meteor showers.
Why the name change? Your first name used to be listed as ‘Scott.’
A.A. Bondy: My legal name is Auguste Arthur Bondy. And ‘Scott’ is just kind of like a nickname I was called since I was a child. I don’t know … that’s my name and I liked it. I didn’t think ‘Scott’ had a very good ring to it. It’s the same thing with songs. I just like to do things until they feel right, and that felt like the right thing to do at the time. I don’t think I attached any great weight to it or anything like that.
You also use it as the handle for your music now, even though you seem to have a stable lineup of musicians that you play and record with. Was there a reason you decided to call the project ‘A.A. Bondy’ instead of having a band name and advertising the thing as a band?
A.A. Bondy: I just didn’t really feel like getting involved in situations that come with most bands, which is having to be somewhat responsible for each other. Being on your own affords you a lot of room to change directions. I didn’t want to be in a band anymore. It just seemed like over time—I was at fault for a lot of the downside of that—I just didn’t like it anymore. I like playing with people a whole lot! All the players on this record are pretty amazing in the way they just kind of throw themselves in there and go along for the ride and don’t phone it in. As far as the guys around me now, Ben Lester and Macey Taylor and Ian Felice are probably playing with me for the rest of the year. All the Felice Brothers guys are great. The Elvis Perkins guys helped me out. I know a lot of people, somehow, who know how to talk to their instruments. And I like ’em all as people, which is probably more important than what their abilities are.
Which songs on When the Devil’s Loose did the other musicians help you the most with?
A.A. Bondy: Probably the ones in which there’s like a full band because of everybody being in the room—and we just worked it out, as opposed to taking a razor blade and going back and cutting things up until they worked. I’d just gotten to a place where, you know, a lot of times—first idea, best idea. At least half of them. Three or four of them were cut totally live, including the vocals. Nothing really done one thing at a time.
What was a song where you intended it to mean one thing and people’s reaction to it was surprisingly different from what you’d intended?
A.A. Bondy: I don’t know. I don’t talk about it with people all that much! You hear a lot of things where people say, like, apocalyptic stuff or whatever—Revelations-type stuff. I don’t know that I think in terms of stuff like that. Words come, and I arrange them so they feel right and a lot of times without a really stark sense of what they mean. I just like loose things. The idea’s not to be intentionally vague, it’s just to move things around until they feel right and then hopefully there’s something there. I mean, there’s a few songs that are really literal. There’s really literal stuff, you know, references to specific things, on this record…
Can you give us an example?
A.A. Bondy: No … ha ha! You know what I mean? This record is kind of born out of a relatively sad, kind of intense time, and I didn’t really want to put it out there in a way that made it very obvious what was going on because I didn’t want it to be about that. If you see someone happy on the street or crying on the street, it’s enough to get the gist from how they’re acting—and depending on what kind of mood you’re in, to be affected by however it is they’re feeling at the time without knowing what it was that caused it.
A.A. BONDY WITH WILLY MASON AND NIK FREITAS ON SAT., JAN. 16, AT EAGLE ROCK CENTER FOR THE ARTS, 2225 COLORADO BLVD., EAGLE ROCK. 8 PM / CONTACT VENUE FOR COVER / ALL AGES. CENTERARTSEAGLEROCK.ORG. A.A. BONDY’S WHEN THE DEVIL’S LOOSE IS OUT NOW ON FAT POSSUM. VISIT A.A. BONDY AT MYSPACE.COM/AABONDY.