Honor Thy Hidden Intention: A.A. Bondy on the Rebirth of Enderness

In the promotional photo that accompanies A.A. Bondy’s Enderness, the songwriter’s first album in nearly eight years, the image of a mushroom cloud explosion is reflected in Bondy’s aviator shades.

Sometimes, an artist has to blow things up. And while Enderness is a decided departure from his previous work, shifting away from minimalist folk to electronics and synths, it remains wholly recognizable as his. From opener “Diamond Skull” and its hollow and claustrophobic incantation of a litany of cultural detritus to “Fentanyl Freddy” and its depiction of the all-too-increasingly familiar sight of addiction, Enderness is a record that finds Bondy’s lyrical focus as interesting as ever, even as he almost completely abandons the guitar for the first time in his career.

“You know, I read this story about Kurt Cobain and how when he lived in Aberdeen, he got this punk magazine with a picture of the Sex Pistols on it,” Bondy says. We’re talking on the phone and have detoured into a discussion about the differences in how we process music in the internet age. “And he had no way to know what they sounded like. But he picked up his guitar and tried to write music like what he thought they looked like they would sound like. That’s incredible to me.”

These days, Bondy isn’t interested in explaining much. He doesn’t want to talk about promotional selling points, dish about what he’s been up to since the last album, or explain the record’s shift into warmblooded synth-pop. It begs the question: Can someone put out an album and really just let people hopefully come and engage with it as it is in 2019? No need for additional insight? The irony of us doing an interview about just that is, I suppose, too obvious.

Aquarium Drunkard: You put out your first three solo records about every two years for the first little span, but now it’s been seven, almost eight years since your last record. What’ve you been up to?

A.A. Bondy: I don’t know. I mean, I know. [Laughs] I dunno. Walking around?

AD: In the last interview we did, about Believers, you said “people get a style and sometimes that’s their style forever. That’s just what they do. I’ve never been that way. I get tired of what I do, and I have to find something else. And the change, even if it’s simple or subtle, is really hard to implement because of the inertia.” This record is really different. Was that was part of it? Was part of it just you trying to find where you were going with your work?

A.A. Bondy: I mean, I think that’s it. There was just a convergence of things that happened toward the end of touring that whole record. Like losing money, and shows being canceled because of people having shingles on their face. [Laughs] Just lots of weird shit. I was in a relationship with somebody, and they moved all my stuff out while I was on tour. So I felt completely unmoored or something. I got back from Europe, got in my van, and drove back across America. And that was the fifth time I’d driven across the country in about an eight month period. Just landed on my friend’s couch, and I’d just started surfing before that, so I kind of threw myself into that.

So I’d pick up my guitar, and it just really wasn’t giving anything back to me anymore. So I fell into this crew of people out there just surfing and eating drugs. Doing drugs in a social way [laughs] instead of in an anti-social way which is most of what I’d done prior to that. It kind of opened up a certain area was closed off. You know, someone would sweatily dance over to the computer and put on a song, and you’d never know where it was coming from. Someone would play “Heart of the Sunrise” by Yes, or some obscure Prince song. And it was all about getting people off. And you could feel the temperature of the room change if someone picked something interesting. I wanted to make music that was a little more…I mean, I don’t think I achieved uplifting music with this record, but there are definitely aspects that aren’t so forsaken as the older stuff. I slowly taught myself how to use other equipment. I sent my acoustic guitar to my father, my other guitars are ashes. I kind of escaped a house fire—basically escaped that with just my computer. Does that answer your question? [Laughs]

AD: This was one of the California wildfires last year, right?

A.A. Bondy: Yeah, there are a lot of wildfires. There was the Camp fire which was the worst one, and then there was the Woolsey fire, which is the one that got Neil Young, Rick Rubin’s house…and mine.

AD: So how much notice did you get before you had to evacuate?

A.A. Bondy: Well, it’s one of those things you become sort of inured to that kind of thing. A handful of times every year, you’re used to the sky being filled with smoke. It’d been that way since I lived there. So, my landlady was all tripped out that morning because she’d driven from a bit more inland from where I lived, and there was fire on both sides of the road. So she came in all bug-eyed and freaking out, imploring me to gather my things. And I was just like, we’re fine. [Laughs] It was smokey and hot and dry and that stuff. But I laid down with my phone and started getting all these alerts and everything. So I basically got out with my notebooks and my cats and my computer.

AD: You had just finished the record right before the fire?

A.A. Bondy: Yeah, it was a really weird week. On Monday of that week, this goose—I lived on a lake—and this goose would come back every year. People who’d lived there longer than me said it had been coming back for 10 years or so. On Monday, I found that bird dead in the road. I really liked that bird. Then two days after that, I went and bought a turntable so I could listen to the test pressing of the vinyl of the album and that night, this guy went in and shot up this bar and killed a bunch of kids on what was country night or something like that. Then the next night was the fire. It was a fucked up week.

AD: I hear guitars on opener “Diamond Skull” and “Lost Hills” near the end but between those two songs, I really don’t hear them at all, so it seems like you really were focusing on other sounds. It seems mostly synthesizer/keyboard driven.

A.A. Bondy: Yeah, it was just whatever was lighting me up. It’s weird. This is the way I feel about rock music and traditional song forms in general now. It feels like we’re entering a time where those forms can’t hold energy in a way they once did. It’s clear that they can’t. It’s clear that rock and roll does not hold any of the power that it once did, as a vessel that you can put heat into. It doesn’t mean someone can’t come along and do something interesting with electric guitars, and that’s probably happening all the time, and I’m sure a lot of it has to do with me playing guitar for years and years. A friend of mine had this really beautiful old 1930s Gibson acoustic and he let me borrow it. Probably one of the nicest instruments I’ve ever played, but it felt like getting out an antique car. You see those guys on Sundays, driving their antique cars. [Laughs]

AD: You talked about things you were listening to that made you think about things differently. Were there any particular artists or types of music you were listening to when you were putting this album together?

A.A. Bondy: Yeah, there were some albums and things that I was listening to trying to figure out what they were doing in the studio and get a feel for what was going on. I think I tried to start figuring out my synthesizer then. I remember like Jacques Greene, that “Another Girl” girl song that has that Ciara sample in it. Then there are those Brian Eno records that he did with Harold Budd, but The Pearl in particular. And you know Art Laboe on the radio in Los Angeles? You’d just hear these really cool like not-quite hits like Friends of Distinction’s “Going in Circles” and stuff like that. All those things were just really getting to me. I wasn’t so parochial in terms of what I was listening to, but that had been happening for years. I don’t know if I can really articulate what I was after. I was talking to my friend and we’ve both been listening to a lot of Nirvana. It‘s so shocking to me to look back at someone that young have that much of a sense of who they are and what they’re doing. I feel like so much of what I’ve been doing for most of my life has been imitating forms to some degree. I guess everyone feels that way to some extent.

AD: But even Cobain talked about that right, feeling like he was copying.

A.A. Bondy: Yeah, absolutely, but I think he was really aware that he was synthesizing something entirely new. And it still stands apart in how beautiful and shining it is. None of his peers have really approached him in terms of that kind of luster or whatever. I’ve made records where I felt good about what I was doing, but it’s weird.

AD: You said in a previous interview that it would take you awhile to process a record after you’re done with it, but once you’re done with that, that you’re done with it. That there are chunks of your back catalogue that you just don’t play anymore. So with the instrumentation you’re using on the new album, how are you approaching those older songs live, or are you?

A.A. Bondy: Well, I only am because I feel like if people came and I didn’t, they’d be disappointed. So I have to figure out which ones I can tolerate the most out of it. I don’t like that. It’s so weird. It’s a thing that kind of only exists in music. You don’t see that in painting or film or whatever. I have a biased opinion about it, when it comes to see someone playing live, I want to see what excites them. If I can tell that it excites them, even if I’m not into it, I can really respect that.

AD: Do you have concerns about the newer record alienating older listeners of yours? I can see a lot of people who loved American Hearts finding this record difficult.

A.A. Bondy: I think that’s just something that happens. There’s something about those older records—there are people who show up at my shows, and this is hard for me to take on and understand, but there seems to be some really intense emotional shit going on with people with some of those songs. And I think when you change somehow that there’s a potential for people to feel like you’ve undermined or demeaned whatever you did before that made them feel good or a certain way. Concerned about it? No. But I’m concerned people will show up to the shows expecting some kind of transaction that doesn’t exist anymore. I don’t want to let anyone down really, but that said, that way of doing things isn’t available to me anymore.

I don’t know that I ever would’ve worked on anything if I hadn’t worked on this. I was talking with a friend of mine about this very thing. It’s like that scene in Scarface where he shows up with the convertible Cadillac with the leopard seats and he’s so proud of it, and Michelle Pfieffer is at the top of the steps and says “I’m not getting in that thing. It looks like a pinata threw up.” You really feel like you did something, and everyone is like “Oh, fuck this.” It’s not like I did something really unintelligible or harsh or difficult or anything. It’s more like, “where’s the banjo?” [Laughs]

You know, I’m just now coming to grips with the band I was in 20 years ago. To some extent, I can sometimes hear part of a song and not want to pull my stomach through my mouth and throw it at someone. It’s so embarrassing. So it makes sense to want to escape being a Kurt Cobain impersonator, but then you get to a point where—I remember reading this writer Joy Williams—she talks about once you figure out how to produce an effect as a writer, you have to discard it, every time. And there probably are people who work like that.

AD: That sounds like one of those Brian Eno Oblique Strategies cards or something.

A.A. Bondy: I told a friend of mine years ago that I thought people should use Oblique Strategies in bed. Because you have things like “leave the room, shut the door.” “Honor thy mistake as a hidden intention.” [Laughs] words/j neas

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