Don’t spook the songs
Scott “A.A.” Bondy plays Santa Fe on Tuesday, Jan. 12, the fourth date in a 24-gig U.S. tour that begins Friday, Jan. 8, in Memphis. He had a little less than a month’s rest after being on the road in Europe from Oct. 5 to the second week of December. Pretty grueling, but also rewarding.
“In Germany, it went off,” the musician said in a recent phone talk. “I’ve never been through anything like that, ever. We were opening for The Felice Brothers, friends and former brothers-in-law of mine. The first show was in Berlin and we were jet-lagged, you know, like that, and during the show it seemed OK, but then at the end, they just wouldn’t stop clapping. It was something. They got it.”
Bondy was the lead singer of the Alabama band Verbena from the time he was in high school in the early 1990s until the group’s breakup in 2007. Not long after that, he came out with his solo debut, American Hearts. His second disc, When the Devil’s Loose, was released by the Fat Possum label four months ago. On the title track, he sings about the sadness of a slave. “I don’t mean ‘slave’ in terms of literally somebody in servitude of another,” he said, “but you can be a slave to emotions, where you can be completely consumed by the tragedy of others and make your own world as sad as it can be.”
When the Devil’s Loose is what’s called singer-songwriter music, but to be more precise, it plays in shades of country, folk, and blues. It’s sometimes melancholic, sometimes spooky, Bondy’s voice both soulful and feral. “I Can See the Pines Are Dancing” is a gorgeous track. He sings, “This is the light that shines, and I can see the pines are dancing. This is the leaving of another love. This is the howling at the moon. These are the arms you fell into. I am a fire, and I must burn today.”
In a statement about the new album, Bondy said the project began in upstate New York, with snow on the ground. “I got out of there, drove around the country for a bit, and landed inWater Valley, Mississippi.”
Eight of the album’s songs were recorded in Water Valley, a town in Yalobusha County in northern Mississippi. On these, Bondy sings and plays guitar in an intimate, raw setting, with just bassist Macey Taylor and drummer Paul Buchignani. Two songs (including the title track) were recorded in New Paltz, New York, with a bigger band that included piano and violin as well as guitars, bass, and drums.
What aboutWater Valley? “I’m here right now,” Bondy said. “I haven’t really dug in too deep around here, but I have spent a fair amount of time here. It’s a lot different than the Catskills. It’s really flat. It gets on more like swampy stuff when it gets wet, almost like Louisiana. It’s small-town America, you know: small-town Southern America.”
Bondy relates to land, especially the landscape of Louisiana, where he was born and where he spent summers with his grandparents after his family moved to Alabama. He also used to hike in the Catskills when he lived nearby. In his conversation with Pasatiempo, he brought up Terrence Malick’s 2005 film The New World, which relates the arrival of English settlers at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607, “and what it must have been like for these people from Europe to land in this untouched wilderness,” he said. Sounds like it could be the subject of a song, but he hasn’t written it. “No, I can’t really write about things. Things write themselves. I figure if I do the right things, experience the right things, and pay attention to the right things, the songs just happen. If I end up having to work on them, that’s where I run into trouble. It’s almost like you have to look at it out of the corner of your eye, you know, or it’ll get spooked and run off.”
When the Devil’s Loose holds quite a lot of musical variety. One nice contrast happens between “Oh the Vampyre,” a lonely, quiet lament, and “I Can See the Pines Are Dancing,” which has a broader mix and a beautiful, ringing guitar melody.
“You know, I don’t know,” Bondy said of his diversity. “Sometimes it might be easier to just be Chuck Berry. Chuck Berry is Chuck Berry. I don’t know, I can’t hold a thought for very long, and I just end up ... It’s almost like there’s dedications to 1960s radio or something on there. ... I remember specifically thinking like that on that ‘Pine’ song, like wanting to do some kind of Roy Orbison song.”
Then there’s the vampire problem. It’s a haunting little tune, with lyrics that include: “See my teeth so sharp and my blood so stale. You know I could drink the world and never get my fill.” Seems like a great time to have a song about vampires, with the raging popularity of the Twilight series. “Man, you know, like I don’t even care about that song. I wrote that like three years ago. It just fell out. I don’t remember when I wrote it or why I wrote it or how I wrote it or anything,” Bondy said. “It was just like, ‘Well, this’ll be OK.’ It would never occur to me to write that song now. I have the worst luck with stuff like that. If you listen to it, it’s pretty plain that the protagonist of that song has nothing to do with teenagers and being young and beautiful. I just happened to ride the same goddamn wave that everybody else rode. That money didn’t find its way into my bank.”
Well, let’s talk about guitars, then. Many guitarists wind up collecting instruments. “I don’t do that,” he said. “I tend to just get the ones I need. At one point I did have a few, five or six — cool ones, but I don’t have a need. ... I like to have one and I get attached to the sound of one instrument and how many sounds it can make, as opposed to using a bunch.”
But sometimes you pick up a different guitar and it can bring out different ideas. “Yeah, that’s true. It can inspire you. I believe in instruments being complicit in changing direction, but I played this hollow-body Guild from one of The Felice Brothers, and that’s what I have, a Guild hollowbody ‘ Slim Jim.’ It’s almost like it’s not a guitar— not the way I used to recognize it. It’s just like a really different instrument, and you can’t play it like you’d play a Stratocaster. It just will not let you do that. You can’t do ridiculous guitar solos on it.”
Bondy and his Guild are coming to Santa Fe with two fellow musicians. “Macey Taylor plays bass and some weird science-fiction organ, a 1970s synthesizer, and we have Ben Lester fromWisconsin. He plays pedal steel and drums and other instruments. He keeps showing up with new stuff, which I really appreciate because it keeps things new for me, ’ cause I’m just lazy. Me and Macey are from Alabama, and we’re just lazy as hell.”