A.A. Bondy and the Fabrication of American Hearts
At this year’s South by Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas, National Public Radio put together an intriguing lineup for their nationally broadcasted day party, on that caused an impressive line to snake from the front door of The Parish well down East Sixth Street. With the release of his wonderfully literate debut album, American Hearts, a couple weeks off, singer-songwriter A.A. Bondy seemed a mismatch with the established artists on the bill like Vampire Weekend, Yeasayer and Bon Iver, bands who also happened to be amongst the most buzzed about acts at SXSW. Needing only an acoustic guitar and a harmonica, the then-unheralded Bondy played an enthralling and compelling set. In an era where the relevance of the singer-songwriter may be waning, Bondy offered hope that a singular voice can still be captivating and intriguing.
Since the release of American Hearts, Bondy has been become a veteran road warrior, perpetually playing shows around the world, a handful of them as a headliner but mainly opening for a wide variety of artists including the Cold War Kids, Bon Iver, The Felice Brothers (his brothers-in law) and the ultimate troubadour Alejandro Escovedo. Just before Thanksgiving, Bondy returned to New York City for a midweek show at the Mercury Lounge, his first as a Manhattan main eventer in many months. Prior to the show, the articulate and opinionated Bondy had time to talk about the recording of American Hearts, whether there is any originality left in music and ponder the diminishing influence of singer-songwriters upon modern culture.
In speaking with Bondy about his craft, one thing becomes abundantly clear: for as much as Bondy loves music, he’s not a fan of the music business. Although the NPR showcase exposed Bondy to a widespread audience, he wasn’t enamored with the whole SXSW experience. “I’m not trying to bemoan a fortunate situation, I think I just tried to do too much,” he says of the eight other acoustic performances he gave during the four day event. “It’s easy to move around in that environment (with just a guitar) but I didn’t feel like it was about music very much anymore,” Bondy says, a little exasperated at how to explain his conflicted feelings over the costs and benefits of the industry wide gathering. “You’re trying to fight above the chatter to get the people to pay attention to you and write about you; you’re promoting and you’re working on building a relationship with some of these people.” In the end though, is it worth it? “I’m sure it had some effect. It’s taken a lot of people time to notice the album just because it doesn’t seem like something that announces itself immediately.”
Recorded in a small studio atop his brother-in-law’s barn in upstate New York, American Hearts is Bondy’s first musical effort since the dissolution of Verbena, his late Nineties hard rock band. With Verbena finished, Bondy sold all his electric gear, moved into the woods and debated whether he wanted to continue with the musician’s life. “The only real fun record is the first one,” he explains. “Then it becomes a process. I just got worn out about fighting people over stupid things like record sequences, cover art and all that extraneous stuff. You forget what the point is after a while.”
“I started writing cause I wanted to write and not cause I had a record in mind,” he says of the renewed fervor during which he wrote most of American Hearts within a one week span. “I was making a group of songs that wanted to be together. I didn’t know how it would come out but I didn’t really care. There wasn’t anything else outside of that barn but me and the speakers. Other people played on it but whoever came into the barn became part of that weird world,” recalls Bondy of the recording process. “I followed my intuition with all of it – the guitars, the vocals. I knew what songs needed something more, which ones didn’t. They [the songs] told me where they wanted to go.”
American Hearts is a marvelous album, abounding with Bondy’s concise eloquence with which he skillfully works with the vagueness of language to ponder weighty ideas and craft complex expressions. “Witness Blues,” with its poetically indistinct accusatory refrain, serves as fine allegory for any day of reckoning; “How Will You Meet Your End?” shimmers with Pale Rider symbolism and “Vice Rag” casts a winking glance at societal crutches. “American Hearts,” the album’s superb title track, juxtaposes pro-American slogans of indomitability with a compassionate reminder to not tread so harshly on our own brothers and sisters. In many ways, it is a delicately expressed protest song for a post 9/11 world where outright songs of opposition are treated akin to treason. “That song has a lot of mottos. Maybe it’s a little over the top,” he ponders. “That’s how I felt at the time. It’s kind of a pretty small view of what’s going on in America. It’s not really about how we treat the rest of the world,” he says, offering some insight into his mindset. “I like songs that leave something up to the imagination but that one really doesn’t.”
Biblical end-of-days imagery overshadows many of the songs but Bondy’s not interested in salvation or conversion, he just knows good symbolism when he comes across it. “I don’t know why people don’t understand that songs can be narratives that aren’t necessarily me,” he says with a slight tinge of annoyance. “Obviously, anything you write, you’re in it: how you relate to the world and see things. That perspective can be used for things outside of yourself as far as the fabric of the story. I don’t know how that stuff gets in there. A lot of the songs were like taking a vacation.”
On “Rapture,” which contains some of the album’s more overt religious references, Bondy makes a not-so-subtle nod to opening phrases of The Rolling Stones’ Exile On Main Street track, “I Just Want To See His Face” After laying the track down, he was surprised to find out it was an original Stones’ lyric. “I always thought that they must have gotten that from somewhere, from one or two obscure records,” he confesses. “I still suspect that that’s borrowed: highly. They borrowed so much,” he says moving the conversation over to the Stones’ songwriting history. “You look at the liner notes and “Love In Vain” used to be listed as a Jagger/Richards composition. They know exactly where that came from,” argues Bondy, referring to Robert Johnson. “It’s kind of interesting that they would turn around and stomp on The Verve for borrowing from that cover album. That’s the nature of stuff though: people borrow from songs, refashion them and that’s the way that works. Everything’s built on the back of something else,” he proffers. “I’m not sure how I feel about the whole thing.”.
Although American Hearts is cut from the singer-songwriter mold, it’s not a description Bondy takes to warmly. “I don’t like that term,” he says succinctly. “You play guitar, you have a harmonica around your neck, you write songs a certain way,” he catalogs. “When people work a lot on their own, they tend to come up with things that are personal. That record was made in the same way someone would write a book or paint a picture or something like that. Just a person telling stories,” he offers. “I don’t know what the songs mean.’ I know what parts of them mean.”
Playing an acoustic guitar on stage with a harmonica hanging around your neck will inevitably draw comparisons to a distinctively mercurial folk singer. As I lead up to this subject, Bondy can see where I’m going and the displeasure becomes evident in his expression. It is apparent that the Dylan question has been raised before. “Anyone that writes their own songs and has a worn out voice gets compared to Bob Dylan,” he says, slightly matter of fact. “I don’t know how anybody couldn’t be a fan of some of those records. Whether people know or not, most modern music in some way owes something to him,” he proclaims. Moving beyond Dylan, Bondy looks at the larger picture and exhibits a little frustration with those who demonstrate ignorance with the past. “Think back to when Michael Stipe said, The Beatles meant nothing to me.’ I mean, look over at your guitar player and he’s playing a 12-string Rickenbacker. I don’t know if you know it . . . ” he shakes his head and tails off.
Can Dylan’s profound influence on a generation be repeated? Can one person with a guitar still make a difference? “I don’t think so,” answers Bondy, after giving the question some thought. “Not so much anymore. People can affect you with the sound of their voice. The problem with that configuration is that it’s so clichIt’s like watching something about the Sixties, hearing “Fortunate Son” come on and seeing footage of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. All the symbols already mean something so you have to undo what they mean. Part of me wants to send it another direction. It’s probably a hard thing to do.”
“When you’re playing guitar by yourself, there’s a couple people you’re going to be heavily influenced by in the end,” reasons Bondy. “I think a couple guys do a really good job of it like Tom Waits and Dylan. Both of those guys handle the blues in the same way as Stevie Ray Vaughan. Eric Clapton means nothing to me but those old guys . . .,” he pauses to collect his thoughts. “The thing that always impresses me is the way they work in blues colors. They are able to conjure something else, some other thing that someone wants. You get a guy like Jimmie Rodgers and then Hank Williams comes along and there’s new production techniques, record sales, the pedal steel and then he sings like Jimmy Rodgers and writes good songs like Jimmie Rodgers. Tom Waits hears Captain Beefheart and that adds a new dimension to his stuff. The key is finding those things and borrowing from them in a way that you can do something new with them, that’s not simply copying it. I’m perplexed that some people can do that and its totally acceptable and others can sound like no other band and no one will listen to it.”
Over the past year, Bondy has gained a wealth of experience introducing himself to crowds that range from warm and accepting to downright disrespectful, notably a chatty and dismissive crowd of Cold War Kids fans at Webster Hall this past October. At the Mercury Lounge, Bondy received a well-deserved welcome from a packed house of fans that were there for no other reason than to see him and Bondy, who was accompanied by Nicholas Kinsey and Lawson Feltman of Elvis Perkins In Dearland, relished playing before an eager audience. The moment wasn’t lost on him. “There’s a bunch of little things we’ve done or big things depending on how you look at it. A year ago, if I played Mercury Lounge, I’d probably be playing to fifteen or twenty people and six months before that, probably no one.” He’s not mystified as to the cause and effect. “It’s going out there and playing. More than I ever have.”
“It’s weird opening for some people and seeing what their fans are like,” resolving any doubt if the man on stage is watching the crowd with the same interest as he is being watched. “Some bands have really good fans: they’ll give you a minute to get your foot in the door and then they’ll let you go the rest of the way with it. There are all kinds of great bands playing to empty rooms before people who didn’t care. It can be quite rough.” When I mention the Webster Hall crowd from the month before, Bondy grimaces. “I don’t even want to talk about that,” he says with a slight grin that shows he may be a bit relieved that he wasn’t the only one who thought he faced an insolent crowd. “Out of a whole year of touring that was probably the worst show. You’re up there and you get a sour attitude and there’s no way to win in that situation. You don’t want to feel like you want it to be over,” he says of the experience. “You don’t want to feel like that up there.”
The benefits from exposure to a wide variety of crowds greatly outweigh the occasional bad night and Bondy has learned a ton from the legion of disparate crowds he’s seen. This past summer, Bondy played a number of shows with Bon Iver and was impressed with the whole experience. “Those guys had a thing going and people showed up,” he says of the warm and fuzzy Wisconsin indie-sensation. “People are there for an experience: they’re not there for just one song, they want to be taken somewhere and that’s what it’s about. Justin [Vernon] does a really cool thing too: by the way he acts and the way he plays those songs, it invites people to be a part of the whole thing.” Can Bondy create that type of atmosphere? “I don’t know. I may not be built that way. I want people to be part of it but I don’t know,” he reflects. “You try to bring yourself someplace else and you hope they [the audience] go with you.”
When Bondy is comfortable on stage, he banters freely, if not sometimes oddly, with the audience, letting loose an occasional stream of consciousness reverie filled with surrealistic humor. Far from being thought out in advance, it’s usually not remembered long after the event. When I ask him about a considered and well-developed idea he related at SXSW about an animated TV show or movie about crack-dealing squirrels, it is clear he hasn’t thought about it since proposing it to the crowd at The Palm Room. In fact, he seems pleasantly embarrassed about what he might have said. “I’ve said a lot of crazy shit over the past year.”
It does beg the question though, what is Bondy’s type of humor? He doesn’t get exhaustive with the topic but it’s clear that it’s a little more cerebral than slapstick and knock-knock jokes. “Those records where the girls would end up with their heads cut off by the river,” he replies in a manner that seems more disturbing in print than it does in person. “A lot of people get killed on those old records. It’s really dark and macabre and I like songs like that. We probably don’t have any understanding of how hard life probably was back then where people pined for a simpler way of life – but there’s comedy in those records. I just think it’s funny.” He also seems to find cosmic humor in unlikely places. “I have this weird habit of daydreaming and modern Christian radio will be on and I don’t hear God in that at all,” he explains. “I don’t know what God sounds like but those people aren’t inspired by what they’re singing. It’s a really sad thing because you look at the Staple Singers and by way of that music you can believe in something bigger, like something other than us.”