[23 October 2011]
“The display went out on my phone one time, and I needed to get in touch with someone while I was on a long drive,” says A.A. Bondy. “But I’d mapped out this way.”
His fingers searched through his phone and found his list of contacts, then worked from sheer intuition. They scrolled through the list, blind to the names and numbers, the way some people dowse for water. He selected a few people at random and reintroduced himself.
“Eventually, I focused on my target,” says Bondy. The process was not unlike sonar; Bondy compares it to the way astronomers use light to locate dark matter in the universe. He sent calls out into the night, let them shape the black space around him, and then drove onward. I don’t ask him where he was going, and he doesn’t say.
If you follow your instincts, then where will you arrive?
Roughly one year ago, Bondy’s instincts brought him to Los Angeles, California. They led him to Venice Beach, where the Pacific Ocean breaks along Bay Street. They taught him to surf, and urged him to stay afloat while the ocean followed its own instinct and tried to pull him under.
They also led him to record Believers, the third album recorded under his own name, out on September 13 via Fat Possum Records.
Believers may be Bondy’s most intuitive album—which may also make it his strangest for those along for the ride since 2007’s American Hearts. The arrangements flow, then ebb; guitar and organ echo more than they shout. And Bondy’s voice, tough as lead, sinks into the murky depths he summons from his band.
For Bondy, being a surfer is like being a musician: Both acts are ground in instinct. As a musician, however, Bondy is less interested in being the surfer than he is in being the wave.
“Have you ever ridden a horse?” he asks, by way of a comparison. “You know how that feels so odd? Like the horse seems kind of crooked, at first, when you’re galloping on it, and there’s all this mass under you? Surfing didn’t feel like I thought it was going to. It didn’t marry up. But once you’re inside the thing, you’re not a tourist anymore.”
The most powerful A.A. Bondy album may be the one where the songwriter disappears below the surface and becomes part of his dark, whirling mechanism. If you plan to ride along, then you ought to hang tight.
What were you doing just before I called?
Watching a surf documentary.
It seems like surfing has become a very consuming pursuit.
There’s the unknown in it, which is, I think, crucial to my having an interest in something. People who put themselves in the middle of unimaginable forces.
Does that also inform music for you?
That’s what I like to hear when I listen to music. I like to hear things that people can’t put their fingers on. I listened to a lot of wordless music when I was writing Believers, because I think it’s so much easier to assign anything you want to it. Words are hard to arrange in a way that leave room for that.
How did you put yourself in an unfamiliar place with Believers?
I don’t know that I did… I tend to remove myself from people. A lot of the music for the record came up when my band was rehearsing and we were in pretty good shape. We’d been touring a lot and ideas would break through really fast. Once it came time to put words to them, that was the real struggle.
Is writing lyrics difficult for you?
Was there a time when you thought it would become easier?
At this point, I think to wish that is to be naïve. There have been times when things have just come out. I think only in maybe four instances during the last three records has it happened in a way that’s relatively easy, like being in a trance, when this stuff was allowed to come out without being conscious of it, and without the normal doubt machine having its way with whatever was coming to the surface.
How long did it take you to write the lyrics for Believers?
I had this idea that I was going to put up a wall, walk by every once in a while and make a stroke with a brush. I tricked myself into thinking it was going to be easy. And I basically ended up working on the words to “Down in the Fire (Lost at Sea)” in that manner, which is not really working at all, for about 6 or 7 months. It took that long to lazily put one together.
Two weeks after the release of Beginners, you hit the road. How will you spend those weeks?
Hopefully surfing. I was getting up at 5am every morning, surfing for two hours. Then I’d get home by 11am, and I’d be spent and calm. I wasn’t really hungry for anything else.
Is it more comfortable for you to be on the road than it is to record?
The thing about playing live is, every moment is a new moment to redeem yourself and jettison what took place 10 seconds ago. You’re constantly becoming something. With a record, there’s all this evaluation of what took place yesterday, or five minutes ago, or two weeks ago, and does this work, does this work, does this work. Basically, you ask yourself this question until it’s answered definitively, one way or the other.
What did you hear around your house as a kid?
I spent a lot of time by myself as a kid. But both of my parents had decent record collections. When you’re a kid, everything’s kind of decent. My dad was a Creedence Clearwater Revival fan. I got my mom’s Led Zeppelin records when I was 14.
I had a really good record shop that was within skateboarding distance of my house. It was the classic, ’80s and ’90s record shop, owned by the same guy who worked there every day. He could be kind of cantankerous, but he would turn you on to good stuff. So that’s how I got into whatever American indie rock of the ’80s and ’90s, [like] Sonic Youth. That’s when I thought I had my own world to myself.
Have you ever wanted to record under a name other than your own?
No, not really. I had a friend send me an e-mail that said I should just shorten it to ‘Bondy’ because it rolls off the tongue better. He might be right about that.
But you haven’t shortened it yet.
No, I have not. It takes me a long time to do things.