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On his 2011 album Believers, singer-songwriter A.A. Bondy spends about 40 minutes in the spectral yet sensuous place between waking and sleeping consciousness. Slowing the pace of Bondy’s evocative songs down to a drowsy crawl, and sprucing up his usually roughhewn musical trappings with layers of luminous, reverb-heavy lushness, Believers is a dreamy detour for the harmonica-slinging folkie. But for those who have seen Bondy in concert, the record sounds a lot more like his live shows than his first two albums, 2007’s American Hearts and ’09’s When The Devil’s Loose. Much like the half-remembered night visions that inspired Bondy while he was writing the record, Believers lingers in the mind even as the songs take several listens to take hold. But they do eventually take hold, and the grip is tight. Bondy—who plays tonight at the Church—spoke with The A.V. Club about the album, his dreams, and that Dylan-esque motorcycle accident he had last year.
The A.V. Club: You were based in Mississippi for a while, but you’re living in L.A. now, right?
A.A. Bondy: Yeah, I’ve been living here for a while. We came to make the record out here in February. And I was here pretty much all of last fall, then I went back to New York for a couple months to write in utter, cold, cold seclusion. I wonder if I needed to do that, but that’s what I did.
AVC: How do you like living in Los Angeles?
AAB: Um, it’s the cliché things that people like and don’t like about it. It’s the traffic, which is a huge bummer, but there’s, I don’t know, how many days out of the year where you just feel amazing, weather-wise. I heard someone say yesterday, “It would be nice to have a thunderstorm every once in a while.” But buckets of sunshine, cool breezes at night.
AVC: Why did you go to L.A. to make Believers?
AAB: Well, because Rob [Schnapf] works out here, and my girl lives here, so those are two pretty big ones.
AVC: Was there a particular reason you wanted to work with Schnapf?
AAB: We actually worked on a record years ago that I’m not particularly fond of [Verbena’s La Musica Negra], but I like him, and I know what he’s capable of. A lot has changed for me since we made that record, and I knew that we would laugh and that it would be a good. “Relaxed” probably isn’t the right word, but [it’s] a relatively easy environment to work in. He’s pretty good at handling personalities that tend to get stressed out or forlorn in the studio.
AVC: After making those first two records, was there a vision you had for this third record, something you wanted to do that was different from the first two?
AAB: I mean, I always end up with these vague ideas in my mind that I’m not able to articulate what it is that I’m going for. But I knew I wanted it to be a little more collared in, as far as instrumental and musically, and have more shifting colors, as far as sounds were concerned. I don’t think it’s that far off from the last record, really. But those records were made without any real players that I played with for any length of time, and this time the drummer, Ben Lester, and the bass player, Macey Taylor, we’d been playing together probably close to two years at that point. We kind of [figured] out the language between us that informs a lot of the way the stuff sounds now.
AVC: You get pigeonholed as this folkie singer-songwriter, but this new record isn’t really like that at all. Were you consciously trying to move away from that classification?
AAB: I mean, there might have been a time at which I was tired of it, but I don’t really work in reaction to myself. I felt like I was done; I’d reached my limit with finger-picking and playing harmonica. When I did that the first time, it was entirely new to me, and anytime you pick out a new instrument and get your brain really working to learn a new style or new task, creation is almost easier. You’re just fired up in a way you wouldn’t be if you were using the same set of tools you had before. I guess I wasn’t really getting anything out of that anymore—just guitar, harmonica, and voice. When you’re just by yourself with your guitar, you have to generate all the rhythm yourself; you’re responsible for everything, for the most part. And those kinds of songs don’t really lend themselves to being full-band songs, so it was natural for us to get pointed in this other direction. Just making weird loops and playing with them—a different set of weapons, sonically.
AVC: This is the most electric record you’ve made, but it’s also the slowest record. Believers has a very dream-like quality; were dreams an influence when you were making it?
AAB: They were. I was keeping a journal for a while, especially when I was in Mississippi. I was pretty diligent about writing stuff down every day. It’s interesting when you do that, because otherwise you just carry those bits and fragments around, and they usually just dissipate unless it’s a really substantial dream. And also just how, when you’re by yourself for a period of time, that can almost become dreamlike without interactions with other people by phone or by talking face to face.
I’m not quite sure how to articulate it, but I definitely wanted it to have an otherness to it. By that, I mean something you can’t quite put your finger on. That’s what most of my dreams feel like. Even when you wake up, you can’t remember what your dream was, necessarily, but you have a sense of what it is. The actual goings-on in the dream might not be very apparent, but you definitely feel affected by something that took place.
AVC: Do you feel like most of your dreams are good dreams, nightmares, or something in-between?
AAB: Mostly in-between. I’ve had dreams that were plane-crash dreams where I wasn’t scared, and plane-crash dreams where I was terrified, where you really feel the forces of physics at work. Your brain will sometimes simulate things that you’ve never experienced. They’re all over the place.
AVC: Is there significance to the album title, Believers?
AAB: It felt right at the time. It still does, because even that, it’s like a statement and a question, to me. I don’t know, I just liked it. A lot of times, I’ve seen other artists talk about their record, and they have very clear ideas about what their visions are, and I don’t necessarily know exactly what I’m doing. I just kind of root around until something feels right.
AVC: In the press materials for Believers, the album is described as being “made up of scenes gathered in actual places, but also of scenes from another place.” What is that other place?
AAB: It’s the notion of the conscious and unconscious running together in a sphere. How you carry certain events, especially relationships between people—you just carry them around with you, and they pop up at odd times. That’s basically an attempt to soundtrack, because I don’t think I can articulate those things so well, and also because those things are so subjective. I go visit my grandmother; she’s 94, and the way her brain works is a total trip. She won’t remember something from two days ago, but she’ll remember what it was like being a little girl in Louisiana, and all this stuff, just swirling around. And what triggers it to come out is kind of a mystery. That’s the hard thing, especially in terms of words, not saying too much while still implying enough to generate some kind of image for the listener.
AVC: Music is such a powerful memory trigger for people. Are there songs you don’t like to revisit because maybe they’re associated with times of your life you don’t want to go back to?
AAB: Um, none of them are really painful in that way. There’s a couple that have to do with girls that I don’t really want to deal with because the sentiment behind that song doesn’t exist anymore. Most of the time I leave them because I don’t like them, or I don’t feel like what they said at the time is relevant anymore. “American Hearts,” I don’t know if I necessarily believe that song anymore. I really believed it at the time, but it’s really a naïve view of American war politics. Maybe that’s why it worked at the time, because most people don’t really understand what’s going on or why this country operates the way it operates. At the time it felt significant, but I don’t find myself believing it anymore.
AVC: You were in a motorcycle accident last year in upstate New York. What happened?
AAB: Oh, yeah. I guess at the time it felt like a silly Bob Dylan imitation, given the geography. Myself and a buddy of mine—Simone Felice, who used to be with The Felice Brothers but now he’s on his own—I hadn’t been up for a while, and I just moved back to New York from Mississippi—and we’d gone and ridden our bikes to this big reservoir called the Ashokan Reservoir. He spun this news on me that he was about to have his aorta replaced by a mechanical aorta. That was a pretty trippy conversation—that it was going to be his last ride ’til whenever. Then we get back on the road. There’s construction on the highway. I wasn’t really paying attention. I didn’t see the signs and there were these huge ruts in the road. I hit one of them going about 50 miles an hour, and was ejected from my ride. So yeah, I just got dinged up and lost some skin. It’s funny when you’re missing skin on specific points of your body. It makes everything a little bit tougher to accomplish—shower, butter your toast, whatever.
AVC: Were you in the hospital for a while after that?
AAB: Just the afternoon. They didn’t really do anything. It was like a $1,000 bill to basically do what your mom would have done—wiped you off, sent you home.
AVC: Have you ridden motorcycles since then, or were you kind of spooked after that?
AAB: I was, at first. All of a sudden the reality of being on a machine like that. Just kind of like, “What am I doing on this thing?” Cars seemed bigger and heavier than they had prior to that. But, you know, you get back on, you become used to it, like things tend to do. But it was spooky at first.
AVC: Did it change your perspective on life at all?
AAB: You know, that didn’t really happen. Maybe a long time after the fact, your brain might replay those, “Oh, if I had bounced into the other lane,” scenarios or something like that. But at the time it just felt very scientific. Front wheel hits hole, handlebars start shaking, I go down. You’re in shock when you can’t look at your feet, that’s happened to other friends of mine who have gotten into wrecks. My friend Jesse one time flipped his bike into a ravine, and he said he laid on his back for a while until he got the courage to see if his limbs would move, because he wasn’t sure if he wanted to know the answer. But I didn’t really have that, in the heat of it, that kind of creation of a line at which everything afterward appeared to be brighter. It’s kind of like a glorified bicycle wreck when you’re 7 or 8. You skin your knee.