If there’s one thing I’ve learned about talking to A.A. Bondy over the years, it’s that conversations can take unexpected turns – sometimes fruitful, sometimes dead ends – but you also never quite end up where you expected. It’s a similar spirit to what seems to occupy his work as a songwriter. AD talked with Bondy this past week about his new album, Believers, experiences since his first solo records, discomfort with his own work, liminal states and how, whether autumn or summer, it’s all about perspective.
Aquarium Drunkard: It’s been a couple of years since your last record, When The Devil’s Loose. How have things been going for you after these first two albums?
A.A. Bondy: Well, you know, I’ve had so much experience crammed into the first four years [since the release of his debut, American Hearts – ed.], that it seems like a lot longer. Prior to that album coming out, there was this dead zone in terms of touring or anything like that. It came out in 2007. The last time I’d toured with a band was 2003. 2008, 2009 – I’ve never toured that much in my life. Even more so when the second record came out. So, I guess in some ways, everything sped up. Which was cool in a lot of ways. I guess if I look back at it – it’s just a weird little trip. There’s never been this situation where you walk outside your door one day and things have changed entirely. You go outside and a brick has been moved six inches to the left, but over time, a whole building moves. So it’s tricky. It’s kind of changed slowly in front of our faces. I don’t know who this ‘we’ is I’m talking about. [laughs.]
AD: The royal ‘we.’ [laughs]
AAB: Exactly. Back when we wrote [Believers], we were very tired from all the touring we’d been doing. [laughs] The whole idea of getting older is kind of psychedelic in its own way. Not actually psychedelic. But you actually think about time as a construct and the way you perceive things and just the mindset you carry forward and the things you discard. It’s just a weird job that I have. [laughs] I look at two years gone by, or three years, or record to record, some things change not a bit and other things do a lot.
AD: Were you satisfied with the results of the last record in terms of success and touring and all that?
AAB: Yeah, I’m satisfied with how it did. I’m not necessarily satisfied with that record. I don’t do really well with looking back on things I’ve done. I’d like to. There are a couple of records, a few songs scattered over those records, that I feel like I got it right. But most of them, I look back and either I can’t listen to them at all or they make me somewhat uncomfortable. I don’t know why that is.
AD: I was just doing an interview with Matthew Sweet where he talked about how he never goes back and listens to his completed records because he just wants to hold on to the positive memories of the recording process. Why go back and listen to your stuff?
AAB: I don’t generally do it with those other two records. There might have been times on road trips when I’ll be bored and want to look back on something like that, but it’s usually so awkward that I’ll turn it off. But usually your iPod will be on random or one of the other ways you cross paths with your own music. My girlfriend and I were driving up north around Thanksgiving and she had satellite radio. One of my songs came on, and I had to make her change it. It doesn’t happen that often, but when it does, it usually takes me a long time to pack it up, things I sing, and then finally put it away. Once it’s put away, I won’t listen to it anymore, but it’s almost like there are lessons to be learned after it’s finished. Like ‘this song, I really took in the wrong direction. Why am I uncomfortable with this? Why does this make me feel that way?’ Those are the things that help me form whatever instincts I have when I go to the next thing. I’m pretty much done with this record. It took awhile to make in terms of recording and we hit some snags in technical issues that happened in mastering, so I had to listen to it for longer and in a far more detailed way than I’d would have liked to. So the withdrawal from it took awhile.
AD: Is that going to affect the way you go out and tour it, or is that something that is a completely different beast?
AAB: It’s far less stressful to play stuff live. What will happen is we’ll get together and rehearse. Hopefully the songs we want to play will all work, but if some of them don’t, we either have to try them another way or let them go. It’s weird, sometimes, the things that don’t want to work. But yeah, it is different. Hopefully now we have enough records to pull from to keep things interesting. You don’t necessarily get bored, but you can’t help but get tired of things after awhile. I don’t know how much touring we have coming up. Probably about two months. Towards the end we’ll reach a peak where we really feel good about everything – where you’re good and strong and capable and can express yourself without trying. And then you just want to go home.
AD: I feel like I’ve noticed over the years that, if you want to hear a band or artist play the songs off of a certain record, don’t go see them on tour for the album after that one because you won’t hear much of anything off of that record.
AAB: I feel like it depends on how big that bands is. I think it’s the opposite for really big bands. For them, you’ll only hear a few songs off of that new record. Like if you go see U2 or the Rolling Stones, you’re mainly going to hear every jukebox hit they ever had. I’d like to think that we take the songs with us that I feel are the best, but we will end up with the occasional person who just has to hear a particular song off the first record. And the reason we’re not playing it is because I don’t really believe it anymore. And if I don’t believe it anymore, I don’t know why anyone would want to see me play something I don’t believe in. It’s not like we sit backstage and go ‘oh, they’re all just so good! I wish we could play all of them!’ [laughs]
AD: If you look at albums as a snapshot of a writer’s frame of mind, of course, years down the road, they’re a different person. So they may not identify with those things and not want to play them. I feel like I asked you to play a particular song one time and you said something similar to that – that it wasn’t a song you felt invested in anymore for one reason or another.
AAB: Do you remember what song it was?
AD: I think it was “Lovers’ Waltz.”
AAB: Yeah, probably. I won’t play that anymore.
AD: And you said something very similar to that, which I get. It makes sense. It’d be the same thing with someone not liking going back and reading a journal, I assume.
AAB: I mean, I guess it could be. It depends. That song, maybe that’s the reason with that one. I shudder when I think about having to play it. It’s not something I played a lot ever. Those acoustic songs off the first record, especially, are tough. I just don’t find myself playing like that anymore. I saw something not too long ago where something about my new record said ‘I wonder if there will be any songs as good as “Vice Rag” on it.’ And that says right there what somebody’s in for. When I wrote that song, I was just ripping off guitar styles I liked and my simple idea of what simple folk music was like and it just turned into this thing. The comedy of it wasn’t something I expected people would find, and I’m glad they did, but it became a parody of itself almost. I don’t want to get up there and carry a jug that has three X’s on the side of it, you know. There are some people out there like Chuck Berry, people that find an amazing style early on, that genius, and then that’s their style forever. That’s just what they do. I’ve never been that way. I get tired of what I do and I have to find something else. And the change, even if it’s simple or subtle, is really hard to implement because of the inertia.
AD: Let me use that as a springboard to talk about the new album. As someone who has followed your work for awhile, it’s quite different sounding. For one thing, I feel like the guitar takes a far smaller role throughout the record, or that the playing becomes more minimalist even though the guitar gets more treatment. There are other instruments that come forward.
AAB: The thing is, there’s more guitar on this record than on the others by a lot. There are probably times where everything stacks up and makes like a weird, noisy picture, and the kind of guitars I play and the strings that are on it, once you put it through an amp – I saw someone write that on the first song [“The Heart is Willing”] that there isn’t any guitar until the bridge. They thought the guitar was a piano. Another friend of mine was saying that it had another quality to it. There’s not one song on the album that doesn’t have at least one guitar going all the time and on most there are two or three at a time. It’s just a different sound. It’s not that there’s anything less.
I guess it’s kind of a minimalist way of playing guitar. I don’t think of it that way. That style of playing started happening when we were touring for the last record and I don’t know how it happened. It just started happening. Like I went in one end of a tunnel and came out the other and because it was dark in there, it’s hard to say what took place. It’s a weird process. I couldn’t have learned how to play like that. I feel like I finally stumbled onto something that is mine, even though it might not be readily identifiable to the ear. I still feel like the way I’m playing, the way the guitars are layered, is my shit. I couldn’t have learned that – the finger picking like the [John] Fahey records and stuff like that – because it’s still pretty intensive with the right hand and there’s still syncopation and all that shit. But the fundamentals of it are not something that is really apparent in the result.
AD: The album, down to the cover art, has this really bleak feel to it. The black and white photo on the front. What is it of exactly?
AAB: It’s a picture I found of a guy on a road. I thought, on one hand, the thing that appealed to me about it is that it looked like I thought the record sounded. You’ve got this lone figure on some sort of unknown landscape, but then there are these amazing, wonderful lights over their heads. Like this lone figure and these rows of wonderful objects over their head.
AD: I felt like this was a fall record in every way. Just a perfect, autumn record.
AAB: It’s so funny. I was making it and I started to feel like it was a summer record. We were making it and we recorded it in California. I could almost hear it echoing out of some weird, big house that you don’t know what the person inside is like. It has this haunted vibe about it. That’s the funny thing about impressions.
AD: Talk to me about the album title, Believers. For a record that, on the surface, has this chilly, haunted vibe, like you said, Believers seems like an odd name to go with it. Is there a theme that goes with it or the record, that you wanted to use that name?
AAB: I liked it because it sounded like a series of stories. It also sounded like a question at the same time. It’s just like the picture. Most of the process of this record was working so that moments would happen. I wanted things to feel a certain way and basically every thing is some kind of impressionism. Even with the words and all that stuff. There might be a chorus in a song that might relate to a more traditional, grounded kind of chorus, but even that – most of the lyrics are just like your brain would jump from idea to idea. It’s some kind of stream of consciousness thing and trying to be in control of that in some kind of way, which is very frustrating, and I don’t think I pulled it off in the way I wanted to. In a lot of places I know I didn’t. But I was just trying to impart this whole thing where you can feel a stack of given emotions at any time. Where before, the songs would be all very simplistic and pointed in one, almost naive, direction. Like, ‘this is what sadness is like,’ or ‘this is what patriotism is’ or some shit like that. But I realized after playing all those songs, that rarely does one emotion overtake everything.
It’s that weird kind of beauty of being lonely at times – something very narcotic about it. That was one part of it. It’s not all about that. But that’s kind of portrayed in the picture. I don’t know. I tried to make a record that would express something that I can’t really articulate. It’s not all about that, but I don’t know. The music for a lot of that came very quickly. Music is usually the easiest part. It’s just channelled out. It’s putting words to that stuff that becomes tricky for me. I want there to be some kind story and some kind of something to be evoked by the way they go together and sound, but I don’t want to be that didactic anymore either.
AD: There’s a song on the album titled “DRMZ.” I assume it’s pronounced like ‘dreams?’ Any reason for that particular spelling?
AAB: Yeah. I just like misspelling words. It would’ve been boring to just say ‘dreams,’ with an ‘s.’ So that’s my claim to the word. That’s another one of the themes to the record. I did a fair amount of living, not so much writing, alone in this house in upstate New York in January. The times in my life where I’ve spent weeks in isolation, especially in winter locations where everyone shuts themselves in during the winter weather, there starts to be this run together between sleep and dream states and conscious states. It’s very hard sometimes to feel conscious unless there’s another pair of eyes that you’re communicating with, so that whole period, unless I talked to other people on the phone – and even then if it was just for a minute, it was very easy to fall back into this continuous loop of existing. These waking and sleeping states seemed to be crossed up in some strange way. words/ j neas
MP3: AA Bondy :: Surfer King