On Saturday February 3rd, Seratones, a soulful rock band from Shreveport, Louisiana, exuding a somewhat punkish veracity, consumed the stage at Great Scott lead by lead singer, A.J. Haynes. She paraded the stage wearing a bright red blouse laced with large ruffles, black jeans, and deep purple boots that did nothing to hold her back from James Brown-esque foot work and stage mobility so energetic that one could argue exceeds the work of Mick Jagger. Behind her stood Travis Stewart on electric guitar who’s solos seemed to be set on fire by the love of feedback across from Adam Davis on bass who, without a hint of exhaustion, thrashed the entire set beside Tyran Coker who calmly took the to keys to paint a picture of jazz and gospel. In the back sat Jesse Gabriel, the drummer, who played steady rock with spontaneous burst of off time and polyrhythmic segments. A.J. 's unique voice and range plowed through all of this as she slipped in and out of her head voice as if her throat was coated in gold. They performed songs from their sophomore album, “Power,” igniting the urge to dance and yell without conscious thought.
But behind that of contagious groove and personality, the album was canvas for the exploration of society, power, politics (social and political), and the discovery one’s own story. I sat down with lead singer A.J. Hayne’s as she mapped out the journey behind “Power” and discussed the realities buried behind history and media.
How do you manage and treat your natural hair while on tour?
‘Kay. I’ve been thinking about this because I wear my hair out a lot and it does endure a lot of stress just being out. I’m just really conscious of how much moisture I’m around so I’ve been using Shea Moisture shampoo, charcoal, and I’ll wash my hair every two weeks or something like that. I use a co-wash. And then conditioner with hot water...and then cold. A good conditioner is very important. I use Paul Mitchell’s Maroola oil as a good overall moisturizer. It’s really light, so then I'll put a heavy leave conditioner over that. At night I always detangle my hair wet, take a big wide tooth comb, part it, and this is it.
I drink a lot of water. You don't realize that being dehydrated affects your hair. And if I’m not doing a show day I just put it up in a pom pom or throw a little turban on. Everyday it does something new. My hair has a mind of its own for sure.
My hairstylist is like a God sent. And I think that part of the frustration that black women with naturally curly hair have is learning about your hair and learning to love it. There’s so many negatives around that you’re compared to. Being compared to the status quo of what beauty looks like does have a big effect on your day to day life. You don’t realize how much you internalize. I used to wear my hair out because it was the easiest thing to do and now I realize this is a real conscious decision.
Honestly a lot of shows we play, there aren’t a lot of women of color. I’d really like to see that change. Even if there’s one or two there, it’s like I can see them and they can see me and it’s a very beautiful thing. I think it’s really important. Representation is important. You can’t be what you can’t see and it’s really frustrating that you say, ‘....to see another woman of color playing rock music,’ well we started this sh*t. It is frustrating how genre becomes less of something to help identify and more to put parameters around. So part of the shift from the first record to this record was me consciously looking for more soul music as that's the comfort that I need. All of the shifts that have happened in the world and all the shifts that have happened in my personal life…I needed soul music to feel sane. That’s why there is an active decision to kind of veer from what’s understood as the aggression of rock and roll. It’s really important to me to cultivate a space where women of color feel comfortable, where non-binary people feel safe, and making that messaage loud and clear. Before, I don’t think that that was something I was thinking of. I was just doing whatever. But now I;m passionate about getting more people in my space that look like me. Like straight up.
Zeale Hurston said it best. She said, “I’m only the loudest black whenever I’m thrown against a white background.” Instead of seeing blackness as something that is part of this entire universe of beauty, it’s something seen in proximity to something else and that is a problem.
What inspired this Album?'
I initially started playing out and meeting some of the guys in my band because I was playing some solo stuff. Then I made an active choice. I really wanted a rock and roll band. What does a rock and roll band mean? I was looking at Iggy Pop and the Stooges, MC5, Led Zeppelin. Obviously Jimi Hendrix was my gateway drug. I heard Jimi and felt like he reflected how I felt. I’m a big nerd too. There’s this really good book you should read. It’s called Just Around Midnight: Rock and Roll and the Racial Imagination by Jack Hamilton. It’s very important how the author defines the racial imagination versus race.
The more I looked into it I found this was ours from the jump. How have we been written out of our own history? Sonically pushed and visually pushed out of our own culture. It’s maddening! Audre Lord said, “Who gets paid what for speaking?” You know, who gets to write the narrative? And that’s where this album came from for me. Realizing that my story’s worth telling because I was interested in rock and roll, but not in the cult, which didn’t look like me. And I think it’s completely okay to feel that way. I think I denied feeling that way for so long because I wanted to take up space in the world.
I have nothing to prove. I don’t give a shit how authentic people think something is. I think there's so much about music writing and looking at how people write about rock and roll that's so sterile. The people that are doing the writing largely do not reflect the people from which the culture came. When you look up old writings about Jimi Hendrix you’re like ‘these people are fucking idiots! How did they miss the mark so severely with this genius?’ And almost erased his blackness. You’ll see that. It’s either erased or made a point that detracts from the music instead of working with.
How did your upbringing influence you?
I grew up in Columbia, Louisiana. I grew up in the country. And with one of my best friends - I wasn’t allowed to go to her house. I never put two and two together. She had birthday parties and I wasn't invited even though I was the only person that would really be there for her. I found out later that her dad was an ex-Klansman. For me, being based in the south for so long and living in it, I see all this and I think that there tends to be either rose tinted glasses or sort of a perception gap with people who don’t live in the south. They’re like, ‘Racism is all down there,” and I’m like, ‘No its not! It’s everywhere!’ Part of making the “Power” video was me rediscovering history about Shreveport. We have this calanthean temple that was founded by a woman, was the black mecca of Shreveport during reconstruction. No one knows about it. Count Basie performed there, all these amazing artists.
*Ari Lennox begins playing*
I love Ari Lennox! I didn’t really start getting into her until I heard, “New Apartment.” I heard that song and was like, ‘Oh my god! This is everything that I feel!’ She has a great voice. She’s gorgeous. We need more songs that talk about exactly how we feel! Like I’m gonna walk around the house butt naked. That’s what we need to write songs about! You don’t realize you need to see yourself until you do.
Most poignant experiences?
This girl came up to me after a show and she was like, ‘I really need you to do more punk stuff,’ and in the back of my head I was like, ‘All I have to do is stay black and die, first of all.’ I often times have been made to feel like I’m not enough of something and too much of something else. There’s a lot of feedback from people who don’t get it. You don’t have escape from it but you have the position to defy, you have the position to rename, you have the position to reclaim, you have the position to call shit out. There’s no escaping that because our lives are more complex than that. You can’t escape your blackness, you can’t escape your womaness or whatever your sexual or gender identity is. I think where I am learning to grow is asking myself what it means to be this and defining it in my way. I think the more people who do that help to escape that structure. All these things you’re defined by.
Also, touring is hard too. I’m in a band with all dudes and I never thought it to be a thing until it started being brought up and brought up again. Initially I was kind of annoyed by it and then I started being like what does that mean? What are the things that frustrate me? What are the things that I find enriching? And just being honest about it instead, “We are all the same.” No we’re not. We’re not the same. And those differences should be valued. I think sometimes a lot of artists that are women try to simplify it by saying, “Why am I being called this?” If I'm being called a ‘black, female, artist’, I'm proud of it. That means that I have all these experiences to draw from and I can sympathize better than anyone that doesn’t have multifaceted experiences.
I’m not saying that straight white dudes need directional experience at all. I’m just saying that often times they don’t have to deal with that complexity at all. They’re not made to deal with complex emotions, code switching, and navigating different worlds. They don’t have to deal with that and we do. How fantastic is that a tool to use as a creator? That’s really cool. You can transcend worlds, you can go between, you can make up new worlds. I think David Bowie was a great example of that. Bowie and Prince. They were like, ‘I have all these ideas but I can do what I want. Fuck you.’ I love Prince and when he died I was like, “Who’s gonna do that?”
How was all this reflected in the album, "Power”?
I did a lot of co-writing with this. I did all the lyric writing and was able to get a lot of great feedback from the people that I co-wrote with and some guidance which was really wonderful. I absolutely love collaborative work and I love someone now being okay with someone not being worried about my feelings. You know, being really critical in a way that feeds the art. Each song is 100% my personal experience. These are all facets of my lived experience and I’m sure any persons’ lived experiences. You’re frustrated with certain things, you don’t know what’s coming next but you have to keep showing up, or with “Permission,” you have to give yourself permission to be loved, or give yourself permission to have pleasure. I think that’s just as important as being socially active. Admitting being afraid.
“Crossfire” is the song that’s most personal, coming from a place and feeling absolutely powerless. Being worried about what happens if I get pulled over by a policeman. These things that you live with but you're almost too afraid to say it out loud and you want to say it in a space where it’s not polarizing. You just want to express it. This is how I feel. I just need to say it and experience it. Sit with it. Everything dealing with “Power” is an exploration of questions, and statements. It’s multidimensional. When I think of myself and what I’m trying to explore it’s what I think of soul music. Soul music is a range. Soul music is Ray Charles to The Ronettes to Rick James. Soul, Do-wop, that whole range. Sam Cooke. There’s a thread there and that thread is how these artists are able to state something in a unique space.
You look at Curtis Mayfield and he’s calling muthaf*ckers out. Sistas. Whities. He did it in a way that’s inviting and I think that’s what soul music is about. It’s not an aesthetic. How do I shame the fucking devil but make people listen and invite people to listen. That’s a really hard thing to do. I think with punk music it’s like, ‘You’re gonna listen. You’re gonna listen. You’re going to listen. Listen to me now!”
There are few things that get under my skin more than people explaining to someone else how they feel about something - but it’s done to us all the time. Especially as a woman of color. Especially being anyone who isn’t a straight white dude. But even straight white dudes are told how they’re supposed to be. How they’re supposed to behave. I think that ties into how misogynistic rock and roll culture has become or how it’s been written rather and there’s some extremely fucked up about that and no one calls it out. But it’s exciting to be creating at this time because 4 years ago they didn’t have ‘she shreds’. We didn’t have a network of women creators. This is such a cool time to be creating. We can find our communities even though we’re going from city to city. We get to connect with all these people we wouldn’t be able to connect to before. That’s pretty incredible.
There’s more support. Even with my advocacy work. When I first started working at a reproduction health and abortion clinic we didn’t have any support. There was very little and now we have this amazing network of support which is so cool. People are able to come together in new ways and that’s really unique. This literally did not exist years ago
It’s really important for me to create a space where people feel comfortable. I want everyone to come into my living room, you know what I mean? I hope that’s what our music does - invites people in. Take your shoes off! Tell me how you really feel about things. Listen and then someone will listen to you. I really love that dynamic. Live performances are like a relationship. It’s like two steps away from speed dating. It’s like, ‘Checked you out on the internet and now I’m here! Don’t make it weird!’
*Aretha Franklin begins playing*
I wrote an essay about Aretha Franklin actually. It was published in Talk House. It talked about the performative correctness that was pushed on her versus her real lived experience from which she draws this fucking voice. The voice is more than just the sound coming out of her mouth. It’s everything she feels. You believe what she's singing. She didn’t write all the songs you know. My favorite song of hers she co-wrote.
She co-wrote “One Step Ahead.” I love that song. I love the sweet stuff - the precious side of her I really adore. I feel like she had to be so strong all the time. She’s remembered as a powerhouse but I like to remember her as someone who could be really delicate. Just the subtleties in her voice. That’s who I want to emulate. That’s who I want to channel. Not the her sound but the feeling of her. How she committed to a song. Not everyone can do that. There are amazing singers but I don’t believe a fucking word they’re saying. And that’s okay. I don’t have to. A lot of people love it. I just can’t get into it.
How has touring been?
Touring’s been pretty grooling. We travel in a van. For this tour we’re all running everything ourselves. There’s no budget or space to have someone else abroad. The fiscal realities of every creative endeavor is not fun. Aside from that, touring is great. I love going from city to city. I love meeting people in every city. I just don’t like touring in the cold. I feel like I have to work twice as hard to sing. Other than that things are going great.
What was it like working with Brad Shultz?
I love him! So it's funny. I’ve been a huge Cage the Elephant fan for years. Have you ever seen one of those kinetic balls (or whatever) where you can open and close them? That’s what he’s like. His energy can be everywhere at the same time and crazy and then really laser focus and really intense. He just flexes between those - usually to their extremes - which is great. I love that kind of energy. We’re both Tauruses! I know how other Tauruses work so that’s cool. He’s like a bolt of electricity. He can drink more espresso than I’ve ever seen.
But he’s got that ear. I love trusting his instincts. Obviously his technical prowess is awesome. He’d just be like, ‘I don’t know if that sounds quite right,’ and then he’d explain it and then I’d do it again and he’d be like, ‘That’s it.’ And he’d be f*cking right. This was our second time working with a producer and I really enjoyed working with him. We co-wrote together. He’s really imaginative. I mean like you’d expect anyone in that position to be but the way that he imagines is just really cool. And just tinkering trying to get just the right sound. He’s really resilient. He just kept things moving. A good producer to me keeps the flow.
Are there any other people you’d want to work with?
If I could, I would clone Quinn Wilson, to have as a creative director. I really want to build more relationships with visual artists. I feel like where I’m lacking as a creator is being able to transfer sound to sight. It just adds another dimension to your music and that’s just not something that I have been focused on. I also just get tired of looking at myself. The decision to have my face on the album cover was like one part function the other part reclaiming space which I think is really important to do. Also it’s like, there’s a singer! You recognize the band now! And the way people get album covers now is unfortunately through a little circle on the internet. I’d like to approach the next album cover a little differently. I don’t like taking selfies. I don’t like looking at myself all the time. I don’t like making videos of myself.
I also feel like a dinosaur sometimes. Like there's a gap. I grew up with flip phones. I didn’t even have a Blackberry. I wasn’t even that fancy with a keyboard. So moving from that to understanding visual culture. That’s how people consume music now. It’s more visual these days than anything. I’m on instagram because I have to be. I have to understand the language.
Because there is a language but there is no way this is good for my mental health. You can’t not compare yourself to other people and then we have literal points. I miss the mystery of discovery. I think our heroes obviously flourished in making their worlds like Bowie and Prince but I don’t think there was an intimacy that was demanded or expected of them. It’s bullshit. You have to adapt and that's fine but I’m also just annoyed by it. But you also have to take a step back and not overthink it. It’s work out on its own. Don’t get too in your head about it. I have to tell myself that.
How do you get in the groove?
Make a time and do it. You just got to show up and do it. A lot of it is being uninterrupted. I’m always in gathering mode - picking snippets up and ideas here and there but it never really happens until people leave me alone. Isolation. Sit down. You’re going to show up at this time. Turn your phone off, airplane mode, and just do it. But you have to be uninterrupted. Every time you get interrupted that deep work gets thrown off. That’s my advice. It’s not very sexy at all.
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