Music

Soul (Not) for Sale

A.A. Bondy doesn't wish to cheapen his haunting brand of folk music.

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At the moment, things are going well for A.A. Bondy. Two years ago, he was a relatively obscure indie-folker with a debut on Fat Possum, a record label known for discovering once-obscure Mississippi bluesmen like R.L. Burnside before expanding its roster to include the Black Keys and Andrew Bird. Bondy was signed to a major label during the early aughts, a phase in his career that he jokingly refers to as "an experiment in psychedelic exploration and money collection." Today he's working harder than he ever has, but strives "to not care about caring," keeping his head down and moving forward.

You can discern an intense desire for honesty in every note of A.A. Bondy's latest and most-celebrated album, When the Devil's Loose. It's a profoundly moving collection of minimalist Southern gothic folk, only this time with a mild flourish of stark bass guitar and drums on half the tracks. It's a record that, lyrically, is fraught with nefarious deals (And the shadows go like ghosts across your room/Oh, take the world and burn it in a spoon), epic struggle (This is the mountain/This is the lightning/This is a man pulling on his iron chain), and slivers of redemption (And if you need a hand put away your hand/Speak the words and you will understand) — all of it draped over a neatly made bed of guitarmanship that pays homage to the delta blues and classic country without lapsing into retro-karaoke.

Superb as the record is, the way Bondy sees it, if he forecasts a positive scenario — growing success, glowing profile in a top music magazine, or whatever — something bad tends to happen. He feels it's better to not crave anything."It's weird," Bondy admitted. "Nothing comes to mind when I think of what I can't afford to buy. I'm just not hungry for things."

More people than ever turn up at his shows now, as compared to his early days as frontman for Verbena, an acclaimed but strangely uncommercial rock outfit from Birmingham, Alabama, that benefited from the attention of Foo Fighter Dave Grohl, who produced the band's bone-rattling debut, Into the Pink. Despite the arena-size Southern punk-metal riffs, male-female vocal harmonies, and poetic lyrics, Verbena swan dived in 2003. That gave Bondy a chance to wander into upstate New York, master a Skip James-esque guitar approach, and, three years later, emerge from a barn with a full-length album, American Hearts.

The buildup has been gradual, almost secretive, with American Hearts initially being released by Birmingham indie label Superphonic before getting picked up and rereleased (with wider distribution) by Fat Possum. Bondy would go on to tour with the biggest names in the current indie-folk movement — Conor Oberst, Bon Iver, Elvis Perkins. But Bondy's aggressive-music background (his band, after all, did display a leaking plasma bag on one of its CD covers and wrote a face-crushing track called "I, Pistol") immediately set him apart, a Christ-haunted (or is it hunted?) lamb, alone in a world of lions. Recurring cosmic images of guns and floods and plagues make his music a bit deeper, edgier, than his less apocalyptic, more quotidian peers.

Still, Bondy is quick to sever any connection between his current folkie-with-a-deadly-past incarnation and his previous stint as poster boy for disaffection. "I don't believe in that style of music," he confessed, "even though [rock] has gotten much worse."

And then Bondy, rather surprisingly, paraphrases Canadian-American minimalist painter Agnes Martin: You shouldn't feel bad for an artist if he wasn't successful. He was probably only as successful as he wanted to be. Which definitely isn't to say you should expect to see Bondy begging Timabland to produce his next record. For the 36-year-old Louisiana-born post-punker-cum-balladeer, it's more about living — and performing — in the moment, not about pushing a product.

"Salesmen believe they're worth more than their work actually merits," Bondy observed. "Others with better talent don't always have the same confidence. I've got a pretty good case of look-at-me-don't-look-at-me. Some people like that in an artist. You want to be looked at for the right reasons, but even that's a lie."

Which is why Bondy rarely reads reviews. He's exhausted by answering the same questions. When asked about his influences during the creation of Devil, he replied: "I don't know. The roadhouse scene from Fire Walk with Me? Seriously, I don't think I'm any less influenced by watching a dog walk up the street."

Bondy is already dreaming about a break from the road. He thinks he'll end up back in Mississippi playing music, drinking beer.

"The last tour got so long that all I cared about was what was right in front of me. I picked up chess, playing against the computer. I got better. There's no love in that game."

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