August Arthur Bondy used to be known as Scott, back when he was fronting Alabama rockers Verbena. But like almost everything else, he's left that behind. Before Drive-by Truckers even cut their first album, Verbena fired the first shot of the whiskey-soaked Southern country-rock revolution, only to lose their way. A cocky young kid in possession of one of the finest rock debuts you're likely to hear, Bondy and his mates rode 1997's Stones-flavored Souls for Sale into the waiting arms of a major.
"I colluded with them in robbing myself of any innocence I had as far as making music," says Bondy. "It took a long time to get it back. They hang that huge bag of money around your neck, which dooms you in a ton of ways. It's like we got this ridiculous box of rock 'n' roll clichés handed to us, and we took it all on and really got our heads turned around."
Verbena's 1999 Capitol debut, Into the Pink, sounds beholden to producer Dave Grohl's alt-rock background, and by 2003's disjointed La Musica Negra, they sounded lost and desperate, probably all too aware their career was dead. In 2005, Bondy chucked it. He sold his Marshall stacks and electric guitars — except a $150 Alvarez — and moved to rural upstate New York, done with trying to earn a living making music.
As fortune would have it, Bondy married Clare Felice just as her brothers (who record as the Felice Brothers) were embarking on their own musical journey. Before long, Bondy returned with an acoustic guitar and harmonica for his rustic 2007 solo debut, American Hearts.
"They're partly responsible for this," says Bondy of Felice's brothers. "They were being born right when I moved back to New York from Los Angeles. I think some of what they were doing rubbed off on me in terms of they don't give a fuck. They only do what they want to do."
Rededicated to his craft, he gave up trying to please anyone but himself and began working a country strum with a dark, gothic undercurrent. American Hearts opened some ears, but ultimately Bondy felt constrained by the singer-songwriter genre. He longed to front a band, though he couldn't afford one at first.
Bondy finally assembled a band last year, and with guitarist Ian Felice's help, he recorded his second album, When the Devil's Loose. Released in September, it features greater sonic depth and detail, abetted by the warmth of the live-in-the-studio recording ethos. From the title track, which counsels not to "carry the doom of the living and the dying," to the folksy unrest of "Oh the Vampyre" and the brooding martial murder-ballad lope of train song "The Coal Hits the Fire," When the Devil's Loose evokes a forbidding, dimly lit world slowly making its way into the light.
It's little surprise then to discover these tales of lives on the brink or in transit dovetail with the dissolution of Bondy's marriage. But he hesitates to call it a breakup album.
"I didn't want to tout it as that because I think it's a funny thing to call a record," says Bondy. "I want people to attach what they want to attach to it. I don't want anybody to be told how to feel about something. I was unconsciously or self-consciously careful about making things too obvious. The songs are partly about that, though not all about that."
It was a hard-earned triumph to win back his musical innocence, and he does what he can to retain it, surrounding himself with people he likes and who make him laugh.
Bondy wants people to like his music, but he knows he has little control over who might hear it or what they might think, so it's a waste to worry about it. There's just no accounting for taste.
"People listen to my album and think it's sad, depressing and doomed," says Bondy. "Yet they'll watch Law & Order every night. I feel like I'm an outsider. It's like that classic situation where you're in a movie and what you laugh at, nobody laughs at, and what you find to be terribly sad, people laugh at. I've definitely had some very dissonant moments in movie theaters with my fellow man."