AJ Haynes is the lead singer and songwriter for the Louisiana-based band Seratones, whose first album Get Gone burst onto the scene in 2016 with an infusion of Southern blues rock and punk. Critical acclaim for the album quickly led to an NPR Music Tiny Desk concert and the opportunity to tour with the iconic Charles Bradley.
In August 2019, Seratones released their second full-length album, a hard-hitting and groove-heavy record produced by Cage the Elephant’s Brad Schultz, fittingly called Power. Haynes says she learned to “tap more into my own stories with these songs,” and that “the more personal my writing got, the more deeply I was able to connect with people.” In addition to her work with Seratones, she has spent ten years working as a counselor at Hope Medical Group for Women in her hometown of Shreveport, LA, one of the very few abortion clinics still left in Louisiana.
Haynes was kind enough to speak with FRONTRUNNER regarding what all went into the making of Power, including what she learned from Charles Bradley, the importance of a “classic sound,” and what “soul music” means to her.
One of your inspirations is Charles Bradley. You have said that in moving from the first album’s sound and aesthetic into the new album, Charles Bradley as a bandleader was a big influence. Can you tell me more about that?
Well, prior to touring with Charles Bradley, I just appreciated his music. And then, getting to support him for some shows, I just realized how much I needed that presence. I feel like there is something about soul music that is a haven. I think everybody finds solace in it.
[Charles is] just a force. There’s a purity and a love that he radiated that was inspiring. I haven’t really seen that in a very long time. It just seemed like he was genuinely connected with everyone in the audience. I think he told his story in a really uncomplicated way, and that’s what helped me pay attention to tap into my own story. Being a heady, super wordy English major… [laughs] I found that it’s really easy for me to hide behind a lot of words. What I really appreciated about Charles Bradley was the brevity of his words, and that he didn’t hide behind anything. He was out and open and very vulnerable. That’s fucking terrifying, right? To be that naked in front of people. But seeing that every night strengthened my belief that I now have [that] we’ll be rewarded for our vulnerability. You just have to put yourself out there. As long as your intention is from a good place, and your message is clear, then there’s nothing really to be worried about.
There’s a lot of power in simplicity when you’re talking about important things.
In “Power,” the track, you have this beautiful clear image: “We take two steps forward / They take one step backward.” I’m wondering if that is an idea that you grew up with, or if you remember who you learned that from. Because I think it reflects the simplicity you were just talking about.
I mean, I work really hard. I believe in hard work, and that’s an ethos that I was raised with. The reality is that progress isn’t this transcendent sparking clean trajectory. It’s really difficult hard work. That push and pull is what progress is. I think about my great-grandmother and how every day she worked her ass off, and I think about grandmother, I think about my mother, I think about my dad’s process, and how he became a better man, after a lot of struggles. But that’s just how things work.
That phrase is something [from when] Lewis Pesacov and I were hanging out. He’s someone that I cowrote with a lot and has become a really important creative friendship, and also spiritual friendship. We really, really clicked. We’re both really interested in how to write something that feels classic, that feels like it’s timeless, and not for any other reason than, that’s how you reach people across the board: you speak to real experiences.
And you have to start from yourself. The first record I was definitely borrowing from a lot of Luciferian imagery, and I was obsessed with–and still am–the rock-and-roll occult mythology, and the more I talked to him about it, it was like, “Oh, this is really cool, it’s fun, but it’s not me.” You know? It’s not borrowing from my stories. The more I looked at, what are my day-to-day struggles as a teacher, what are my day-to-day struggles working at the [Hope] clinic, it’s that you just keep pushing. [It’s] that onslaught of what are called “TRAP laws,” that are these tiny little stabs to your ribcage that don’t kill you, but still you’re bleeding out– it’s what those do, but you still keep pushing forward. So [it’s] that idea of “keep pushing, this is how it works.” When we think about something, for example, like the Selma march, that had to happen, and as bloody and awful and terrifying as it was, that’s how we got the [1965 Voting Rights Act]. And now, we are in a place where gerrymandering and all these really insidious things are threatening the thing that all these people fought for. So [it’s] that revelation of, “OK, things have been fought for, but that doesn’t mean the fight is done.” You have to keep pushing in the ways that you can.
You mentioned the Hope clinic, which shows up in the video for “Power,” too. Tell me the process of choosing what went into the video.
It’s pretty simple. I was just like, “What does my city look like to me?” and “What are all these buildings that are kind of in conversation with each other?” I think my focus as an artist is not to prod people or provoke people necessarily. It isn’t spectacle shock-art. It’s to simply reflect what I’m seeing. This is something that I really appreciate about afro-surrealism, and surrealism that’s coming from typically marginalized perspectives, is that you don’t have to make anything absurd–you just show what the fuck is in front of your face. [laughs] Like, what’s more absurd than a confederate monument that sits in front of the courthouse? And the fact that Hope [clinic] doesn’t have windows, because when it first opened in 1980, people would shoot the windows out? That’s absurd. So it’s just a simple reflection.
That’s what I loved about what Danielle [Calodney] provided [as director of the “Power” music video], because she’s also from Longview [TX]–so she’s from the area. I feel like oftentimes people that aren’t from the South have a really skewed perspective of how we live in the South, and how we live with our history. It’s often seen as really inflammatory: there’s just ranting raging rednecks everywhere, these caricatures of how we survive. And that’s just simply not it. Yes, we deal with our past in a way that is in real time. But I think that process and conversation is important. We have to deal with being uncomfortable, and we have to find the spaces to figure out those conversations. We don’t get to hide from each other, in a lot of ways.
I think there’s a lot of beauty, too, in the joy you represent in the video. You sort of feel the insidious history and presence of the monument, and the tension of [Hope] being one of the few abortion clinics left in Louisiana, but literally at the end of the video there’s just a party.
Yeah! I wanted to end with a party, a celebration of like, “We’re still here ,and we’re still pushing.” Because I think the most important thing to hold on to is that joy, you know? That’s what inspired me in the churches I grew up in. Like, we didn’t have a lot of money. I grew up poor! But we’re still able to figure it out and celebrate each other.
And also, all my friends are really good-looking! The things that I miss most about Shreveport are all my babe friends and the food, so I was like, “I want all my fine-ass girlfriends to be in this video!” [laughs]
A lot of people have been surprised at how much your band’s sound changed from the first album to the second, and you already said that part of that is looking more inward and thinking about what music is you, versus what is interesting but not you. But when you met [producer] Brad [Schultz] did you already have an idea where you wanted to go with the album?
Yeah, yeah, absolutely! So, as far as Brad as a producer–something I really appreciate about Cage the Elephant is that they’re able to write fucking classic three-minute-thirty-second pop Beatles songs that are still very personal, but very relatable, and especially that they are able to do that in a way that always seems fresh. It’s hard to do.
I wanted to write classic shit, but we are also in 2019. Not to say that classic things can’t exist, but how do we make things still relevant to now? How do we take little turns here and there to sonically have some immediacy? Because I think that’s something that is really important to this band. How this band started, and what I enjoy about it and what makes it unique to me is that there is an immediacy. I think there’s a difference between “aggressive” and “immediacy.” It’s a fine line, but what immediacy has is a self-awareness that aggression doesn’t. I think that’s something that Brad brings. He’s very intense and he has a sense of immediacy. But he’s also very, very empathetic, and a good listener, and always curious.
One thing that all of the songs on Power have in common is that they all have really strong grooves. So whereas there was a reverb-y guitar kind of sound that tied the last album together, this one is tied together more by the focus on simplicity.
Yeah, totally! We went through a lot of changes, just getting older. We’re all in our 30’s. First of all, you couldn’t fuckin’ pay me to be in my 20’s again–I don’t care how much money it is. Also, you can breathe a little more [in your 30’s]. You realize that if you’re not trying to talk all the time, if you’re not trying to make noise all the time, then you can breathe and make sound with intent. And Jesse and Adam are an amazing rhythm section! They’re really fun to work with, and I’m always in awe of what they do. So being able to have that as an actual base instead of the kind of guitar assault we had with the first record–that was just what we all needed. Let’s just establish a groove and a good message, and it will make sense. The bands we listened to, like Brick, have a good groove, man. Look at P-Funk, look at Isley Brothers. You don’t really see bands in R&B anymore! Which is weird, isn’t it?
Yeah, not much. That’s a good point.
One of my favorite writers, Toni Morrison, said that if there’s a book that you want to read that hasn’t been written, you have to write it. And honestly, if there was a band that was making what I wanted to hear I’d just stop. Because this shit is hard! [laughs] And taxing! And very demanding. If that band existed, I’d be like, “OK, we’re good. I’m done here, y’all!” But it doesn’t. So I feel like also the purpose of this band is to fill a niche that needs to be filled.
I’m absurdly pragmatic when it comes to creativity. Like, the way I create a song is, I just sit down and make time to do it, and then do it. It’s not like the muse comes in at any time. It’s just like, “let’s go to work, it’s work time.” [laughs] It’s fun, but still work.
Do you ever jot down ideas, though, while you’re out and about?
Oh yeah, always. For sure. Yeah, I sing random things to my phone. Like, [I’ve been] inspired by a blinker sound… [laughs] You’re just in your car and you’re like, “Blinkers on. Blinker song.” I really am inspired by the mundane, honestly. I think that those are really the most interesting parts of our day: the things that we don’t really pay attention to.
So would you give Seratones a genre? Or if not, what would you say instead?
I mean, I call us soul power. [But] soul isn’t necessarily a genre, is it? Soul is an intangible ethos, and it’s a lineage. It’s also something [more] that’s hard to articulate. In my brain, I gave us a definition because I have to have definitions. I have to have a theoretical framework for any art I do. But when you look at soul music, it came from the church. It’s the spirit that moved from the church into black people out in the everyday world. From there, it’s how black culture affected the greater world. [It’s] these conversations about difficult topics, told by a group.
If someone says they’re a soul singer and they’re not paying homage to black women, I have nothing for it. Soul to me is integral to black women’s experience and the oral tradition that you find in the culture. I’m not saying that you have to be black, I’m not saying that you have to be anything to make good music or soul music. I’m saying you should have an awareness of where things come from, and give credit where it’s due. You think about Charles Bradley, he was singing to his mom the whole time. How beautiful is that? He’s telling his real stories, talking about his struggles in a very uncomplicated way, had an amazing band, and paying homage to the women that helped him, or created him. That’s what soul music should be about. That’s soul music. I don’t give a shit what anyone else wants, but I’m calling it that.
Have you gotten any surprising reactions to any of the songs from Power yet?
People love “Over You,” man. I had no idea.
What do you think it is about that track?
Because it’s a “fuck you” breakup song! People love breakup songs, man. And I wrote that song in like, 2 minutes, bruh. It was like nothing. I was just going through it. Some songs just kind of tumble out. Basically, the way we set it up was we would start with some drum loops and bass loops, along the lines of hip-hop, and he was like, “Just sing, just make some shit up,” and I was like, “OK!” And then basically what happened with the song is what came out in the microphone. [laughs]
That’s kind of relates to what we’ve been talking about so far. Maybe you shouldn’t overthink it.
Really! Yeah, dude, don’t overthink it. Every time I try to overthink it, it turns to shit. We just gotta keep it simple. I mean, that’s what Motown did, right? They were able to keep it simple. But then they also had a very distinctive image. I just love what Motown did. We don’t really have anything like that, you know? I mean we have The Internet. We have The Free Nationals. They are awesome. But it’s not as many. Part of that is it’s fucking hard to have a band. That’s the reality: can you get a bunch of adults in a room to agree to do things? And like each other? We all like each other in our band. I don’t always realize how unique that is until I’m like, “Oh man, this isn’t even a thing anymore!”
You started giving some shout-outs there. Are there other bands you really appreciate right now? Either in Shreveport, or just anywhere?
Yeah. Sunflower Bean are old buds–we used to be on Fat Possum [Records] together. Julia Cumming is just a force and a badass lady, and that whole band is so cool. They’re all really sweet. You know who I’m listening to right now, are Ari Lennox and Nick Hakim. Obsessed with their records. Who else am I listening to? I’ve been into a lot of Ethiopian music and a lot of World Music. My boyfriend’s turned me onto this app called Radiooooo. You can pick a decade or an era, and then pick a country, and it’ll play random songs from these different places. I used to be a World Music director, so it’s fun to revisit that.
In the weeks since POWER came out, have you had time to think about what the year holds or what’s ahead? How are you prepping for the rest of the year?
We are actually in the middle of tour right now. I just try to wake up at an earlier hour and do some yoga and maybe breathing exercises, and try not to have a panic attack! [laughs] And take more vitamins. I mean, it’s kind of what any other adult does. I gotta make sure that I’m intact and that I don’t fly off the rails.
Also remembering to have fun! I’m such a workhorse. For me the fun is on the stage. The farther away I get from the stage, the less fun it is. But it’s all a function. It’s the fun in function. Gotta end with a horrible pun! [laughs]