It may not sound like it, but the new release, Believers, brought A.A. Bondy back in time, to the latter days of his louder musical life — back when he was fronting Birmingham rock outfit Verbena.
Producer Rob Schnapf — known for work on Elliott Smith and Beck albums, among many others — helmed Verbena's final effort, 2003's alternately sprawling and gruff La Musica Negra. When it came time to capture the pensive, delicately melodic Believers, Bondy headed back to Schnapf, though not without hesitation.
"I was worried," Bondy says via phone while driving around Los Angeles, where he currently resides. "It's no fault of [Schnapf's]. I wanted to do it because I like working with him and we have a lot of fun. But the record we made together years ago, I don't really care for. The way I work now and what I'm trying to accomplish is so different from what I was doing back then, but there's still concern, like, 'Well, if I go back to this same spot, am I gonna get bitten by that dog again?' "
Bondy's distaste for his former band's parting shot isn't terribly specific ("I wouldn't even consider it music," he says), but he places the blame — and captures the source of his later worries — directly enough.
"Something was wrong with me. I kind of got turned around," he says. "I wasn't making things for the right reasons anymore, basically."
Verbena got picked up in a post-grunge big-business wave, issuing two discs through Capitol — the first of which was produced by Dave Grohl. By the band's end, Bondy found himself lost in "some kind of weird corporate money haze," and when he stepped out of it, he stepped out intently, taking a healing span of quiet years before re-emerging as a solo artist with 2007's American Hearts.
"It took a while," he says of righting his musical perspective. "I left Alabama and went to New York. I didn't ever stop playing, but I just played when I felt like it for fun — which is why I started playing music in the first place.
"So it was some kind of physical therapy or rehab, like any number of ridiculous heart-tugging Hollywood films about somebody who had to relearn how to do something or whatever," he adds, laughing.
Bondy house-sat, "watched a lot of TV, dug some holes, walked around in the snow, smoked cigarettes." And the quiet left a brand in the rustic simplicity of Hearts, the songs from which flowed out of Bondy in a vibrant, couple-weeks-long burst of intense inspiration.
"I just couldn't stop writing songs," he says. "I wasn't judging them — I was just writing them and writing them, and I felt incredibly alive and in tune with things. And then I ... just went about making [that] record on my own. ... There were people around, but for the most part I was doing it on my own. Like somebody slaving away in a garage, and they throw the door open one day and there's a spaceship."
Follow-up When the Devil's Loose proved tougher to wrangle but ended up similarly pastoral, Bondy's soft rasp leading tales of dark protagonists imbued with folky simplicity and bluesy moods.
Believers is different — instrumental passages wind and curl, textures bloom and break, and Bondy leaves more space between his words to give the melodies room to wander. Lyrically, he shied away from direct narratives, focusing more on imagery, landing at something that sparks more like abstract poetry. The abstraction grew out of the desire to free songs from concrete experiences and instances, to "get at the joints between things, as opposed to the ends."
"I just found that in playing songs off the first two records, we would whittle more and more of them away. We had two records' worth of material, but I just found myself not wanting to play a lot of them, because I felt like the ideas in them started to appear to be very naive to me," Bondy says. "Not that I wanted to judge them and say that they weren't good because of that. I just didn't feel like I could support them anymore in terms of singing them. I just wanted stuff that had maybe more mutable meanings. I didn't really feel like making definitive statements as much. I don't feel definitive about things most of the time now."
The worry he felt ahead of capturing Believers, though, is definitively unfounded. The album, like Devil's, was ultimately harder-wrought than American Hearts, but on the other side of it, Bondy doesn't feel turned back around — he feels like Believers works.
"It would be nice to sit around and just spit a bunch of songs again," he says, nodding back toward his first solo steps. "Maybe that'll happen, but it doesn't feel like it.
"I've heard of other people talking about the same kind of phenomenon," he says. "Some of them are gifts, and some of them you have to dig for."
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