Spotlight: A.A. Bondy

Justin Jacobs on September 18, 2019
Spotlight: A.A. Bondy

“I feel like I walked through a hidden door in the back of a Mississippi gun cabinet and appeared onstage in Brooklyn.”

That was A.A. Bondy during his performance at the Williamsburg venue and record store Rough Trade on May 10, and for the few hundred in attendance, it felt like an appropriately disorienting description, too. After all, a Friday night with A.A. Bondy isn’t exactly a common occurrence. And here he was: a thin body of sharp angles, head shaved, standing alongside a keyboard and little else.

That very morning, the singer-songwriter had released ENDERNESS, his first album in almost eight years. And, in the interim since the sparse, melancholy-folk of 2011’s Believers, Bondy hadn’t just been laying low—he had vanished, like a ghost, in the eyes of the small but devoted fanbase he’d built since 2007’s American Hearts.

“There’s this pressure to have a story, some angle to hook people so that they’ll click or whatever. But I’m worried that, if I told it, it’d get in the way of people hearing the record and entering into the music cleanly,” he says weeks later, from a hotel in Berlin. “I just wanted to put the thing out and wait for everyone to go, ‘Wow, what a pretty record!’”

The thing is, ENDERNESS isn’t just a pretty record. It’s music unlike anything else in 2019: human but harsh, heartbroken but hopeful, and stripped down to nearly nothing beyond Bondy’s levitating vocals, an echoing drum machine and some haunting, enigmatic synthesizers. It’s whispered music that billows like a squall and leaves listeners shivering.

Though it’s the fourth LP of A.A. Bondy’s career, ENDERNESS is also an utter reintroduction to, and reinvention of, his sound and songwriting. The Louisiana-born and Alabama-raised Auguste Arthur Bondy was a burgeoning, major-label-signed, post-grunge frontman in his mid-‘90s act Verbena before he scrapped it all, dropped the power chords and re-emerged under his own name as an anti-folk hero in 2007.

With his solo debut, American Hearts, its 2009 follow-up, When the Devil’s Loose, and Believers, Bondy created a new folk mold for himself in five years, with swirling, darkly shit-kicking guitar ballads that rumbled like far-off thunder clouds—the bright, anthemic, acoustic strumming of the day be damned.

When Bondy’s tour behind Believers finally wound down, he packed a van and drove across the country; his guitar, however, wasn’t giving back to him as it had for so many years. He eventually settled down in California, where surfing and a slower lifestyle overshadowed a drive to pump out more music.

“[Surfing] is a terrible waste of time for someone who wants to get better at writing—writing is hard for me, and I’ll often do anything to get out of it,” he says. “The ocean is always there saying, ‘Come waste your life with me.’ If I were to paddle out right now and catch a good one, my face would hurt from smiling so hard. Surfing is drugs.”

Months turned into years. Bondy made new friends. Tides rose and fell, over and over and over again. Bondy’s muse still existed, but it remained in hibernation. The world he’d been a part of since the early ‘90s marched on without him; he waved in the background. If it was surfing that drew him away from his life as a touring musician, then it was also surfing that washed him back ashore.

After a particularly harsh wipeout one day, he had a moment of surreal inspiration. “I woke up on the beach, barfing seawater, and these two Latino fisherman were on either side of me; one was clapping me on the back,” Bondy remembers. “I went home and fell asleep. When I woke up that night, a little birdie flew into my mouth and sang the song that’s now called ‘#Lost Hills.’ That was the beginning; it was a relief to sing a good song again.”

Bondy began to write and record in his “small house on a dirty, shallow lake in Agoura Hills” near Los Angeles, but the folk-rock he’d become known for seemed to have vanished. His new songs were simpler, blunter, less shrouded in poetry; they called for new colors to come to life.

In the song that became “Killers 3,” Bondy paints a sinister picture, each phrase separated by a chasm of breath: “Murder/ Is more entertaining/ Than peace/ Ever will be/ To a killer/ Hungry-hearted killers/ Everywhere I go/ Walking the streets.” Bondy’s voice, fed through a computer, splays out into eerily stacked harmonies, and the brightness of the “Sha-la-la-las” that follow is simply unsettling. He uses the guitar more like an impressionist painter than a riff-writer; only two songs on the record include his former instrument of choice. Most of ENDERNESS is dimly lit, buzzing and awash in electronic sounds. It seeps through the speakers until the room’s entirely submerged.

Bondy finished the record, but then that little house on the shallow lake burned down during the California fires in late 2018. (The fires ended up destroying 1.8 million acres of land.)

“The cops came through at 2 a.m. with sirens; there were flames on the hilltops. I threw my cats in the van and drove away,” says Bondy. “Seven hours later, I was drunk, watching TV with a bunch of other fire refugees. As the sun came up, the news choppers were over my neighborhood, and it was clear that I was fucked.”

Things ended up turning out OK. His computer, with the completed ENDERNESS, was safely by his side. A few months later, the first press releases were sent. Bondy appeared with aviator shades on—atomic explosions could be seen in the lenses’ reflections. Everything was reduced to ashes, but he was watching it burn from a safe distance.

“I knew that I wanted to find a way back to the world,” he says. “I’m still amazed I finished it.”

This article originally appears in the September 2019 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more, subscribe here.