Twenty years from now, when Shreveporters of a certain age get together and reminisce about the year that Seratones broke out of Highland and became certified rock stars, lots of folks will say that they saw it coming. They’ll say that they weren’t surprised to see Connor Davis, formerly a pizza cook at Frank’s Pizza Napoletana, performing on national television during CBS This Morning this past March. They’ll swear that it made perfect sense when Vice’s Noisey.com, one of the most popular music-focused websites on the Internet, became so enchanted by lead singer A.J. Haynes that they dedicated an entire article to the outfit she wore at South by Southwest. It was just a matter of time, they’ll say, until someone made rock stars out of these incredible young musicians.
Maybe some folks saw the breakout success of Seratones as a fait accompli, but I sure didn’t.
Today’s popular music, at least the kind that normally generates music industry buzz, is mostly auto-tuned, apolitical and boring. Seratones, on the other hand, are honest-to-God rock n’ roll firebrands producing a profoundly loud wall of distorted, take-no-prisoners chaos that somehow seems to be whipped into submission by Haynes’ fiercely ethereal vocals. I would never have predicted that these four young musicians from Shreveport – A.J. Haynes, Connor Davis, Adam Davis and Jesse Gabriel – would ever be famous. I would have told you that they were too damn good to be famous.
UNITED BY PUNK
Before they joined forces as Seratones, the band members were each involved in the Shreveport punk scene of the early 2000s. Guitarist Connor Davis and drummer Jesse Gabriel played together in punk rock quartet, The Noids, while bass player Adam Davis fronted an abrasive hardcore group called Sunday Mass Murder. Jesse and Connor have known one another since sophomore year of high school, where they bonded over a mutual appreciation of Black Sabbath and became fast friends. The Noids and Sunday Mass Murder often performed on the same bill at venues like Big D’s BBQ, H & H Lounge and Mia’s Pub, where A.J. was usually in the crowd – even if she’d had to sneak in through the back door due to her age.
“We all came together and got to know one another through punk,” Haynes said. Many of the venues where the members of Seratones took their first steps towards becoming performers are clubs and underground music venues that most Shreveporters may never have visited or even heard of. Venues like the tiny lobby of Centenary College’s KSCL 91.3 FM, once the site of regular live music showcases, and David Nelson’s Minicine?, a microcinema and performing arts space in the 800 block of Texas Avenue, were instrumental in bringing the band members into one another’s orbits in the mid-2000s.
An early incarnation of Seratones, A.J. Haynes and the Monkey Business, formed in 2009. They’d play sets comprised of classic rock and punk covers at venues like Bear’s on Fairfield and events like the Texas Avenue Makers Fair. “We just got tired of playing other people’s songs, so we decided to write our own music and it developed from there,” Haynes said of the band’s evolution. A turning point came when Haynes got wind of the first Louisiana Music Prize in 2013. One of the prizes included in the Louisiana Music Prize’s top prize was recording time in a professional studio. “We saw the
Louisiana Music Prize as a great opportunity to record. So we wrote some songs, and we won,” said Haynes.
Good things continued to happen for Seratones following the Louisiana Music Prize win. During their first out-of-town show, they caught the attention of a Fat Possum Records staffer. Fat Possum is an Oxford, Mississippi-based independent record label that is known worldwide for a signature “punk blues” sound and a roster that has included The Black Keys, Modest Mouse and R.L. Burnside.
“We played a show with The Nervs, a band that has a dude in it who works for Fat Possum Records,” Jesse Gabriel said. “He told the label about us, and they contacted us and had us come play a show at The Blind Pig in Oxford. And they liked it.”
On December 21, 2014, Seratones officially became Fat Possum Records’ newest signees. Almost immediately, a tidal wave of media attention crashed into the band and that wave has yet to subside. Interviews on National Public Radio, song premieres on prominent music blogs and photo spreads in influential rock magazines followed, all without even releasing a record. Seratones were beginning to look like the “next big thing” by mid-2015.
“POWERFUL BEYOND BELIEF”
A.J. Haynes is front and center in much of the media coverage of the band, her light-up-the-room smile beaming out of the pages of publications ranging from The New York Times to Women’s Wear Daily. When NPR Music’s All Songs Considered podcast describes Seratones as “a kick-ass rock band with all of the stage presence in the world,” anyone who’s seen the band perform live knows that NPR is referring, in large part, to Haynes’ incredible swagger. When she’s onstage, she commands attention with her voice as well as her exuberance – it is obvious that she genuinely loves performing.
It seems to me like we’re in an era of women kicking ass in rock n’ roll.
A lot has been written about Haynes’ childhood and upbringing. She was born in Japan, but moved to America at an early age to live in Columbia, Louisiana, a town 30 miles south of Monroe with a population of 390 according to the 2010 census. Beginning at age six, she sang in the choir at her grandparent’s church, Brownsville Baptist, where she was instructed to “hit the back wall” with her voice. The incredible size of her voice, which Paste Magazine described as “powerful-beyond-belief,” is difficult to comprehend the first time you experience it. A video on YouTube shows Haynes joining the similarly full-voiced singer of St. Paul and The Broken Bones onstage in Ft. Lauderdale for a rendition of their song “Make It Rain.” When Haynes starts to sing, the audience roars with amazement. Cell phones come out. Audience members look at one another as if to say: “Are you hearing this?!” For a diminutive, 27-year-old woman, Haynes possesses a voice that sounds as if it is not only trying to “hit the back wall,” but to tear that wall off of the building.
A childhood spent singing gospel certainly shaped that voice, but Haynes doesn’t want to be defined solely by the church days of her youth. The narrative of gospel-singer-turned-punk-bandleader is an oversimplification of her lifelong relationship to music and performance. It’s the stuff that PR firms and music promoters dream of, but it’s not the whole story. A passionate interest in music that took root early in her life has been shaped and informed by so many other forces. The do-it-yourself ethos of punk rock, jazz, fashion, women’s rights and world literature are all in there. She can speak and sing fluently in Spanish, and appears to be as comfortable belting out a classic punk anthem to a crowd at the Red River Revel as she is quietly crooning an ancient Mexican love song in the corner of Ki Mexico on a rainy Wednesday evening.
Haynes credits her ability to always appear to be comfortable and confident onstage to her years spent teaching at Caddo Middle Magnet and C.E. Byrd High School.
“There’s this weird parallel between the classroom and performing onstage,” she said. “They’re both places where people are trusting you as the expert, and you can’t show any fear. But you also have to draw them in, to be vulnerable. That’s what makes a good performer.”
For their part, the guys in the band seem to understand that Haynes, as a front woman with charisma to spare, will command a lot of the attention. They seem supportive of Haynes and even proud, in a quiet way, to be part of a woman-fronted band.
“It seems to me like we’re in an era of women kicking ass in rock n’ roll,” Connor Davis said. “I’m proud of that aspect of our band.”
In November 2015, Seratones set out on a stretch of tour dates with popular soul band St. Paul and the Broken Bones. The tour included sold-out performances at some of the most revered music venues in the U.S., including Washington, D.C.’s 9:30 Club, which is often listed as one of the best live music venues in the world. “Playing in front of that many people feels like that part of the roller coaster when you’re being pulled towards the top,” drummer Jesse Gabriel said. “But in a way, it’s easier than playing to a room full of friends. You can be whoever you wanna be in front of people who don’t know you.”
All of the members of Seratones will be spending a lot of time on that roller coaster in the months to come. In April, the band was named one of “10 New Artists You Need to Know” by Rolling Stone. That same week saw the publication of major features on Seratones in The Wall Street Journal and Entertainment Weekly. This is a band that has been shot out of a cannon, and they don’t look to be landing anytime soon. Following the May 6 release of their debut record, Get Gone, they’ll be touring for the better part of a year. This Summer, they’ll follow up back-to-back national tours opening for Thao & the Get Down Stay Down and The Dandy Warhols with appearances at several huge international music festivals in England and France. They will share stages with everyone from Red Hot Chili Peppers to Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings. In August, they’ll play a string of nightclubs and festivals in Germany, France and England. The more they’ve traveled, the more the band has grown to appreciate the fact that being from Louisiana gives them a foot in the door with new audiences.
“We carry this mystique because we’re from Louisiana,” Haynes said. “People are automatically intrigued because of that. Louisiana is just sexy as hell. It’s this crazy juxtaposition of severe poverty and the creative forces that seem to live in the air here.”
THE SHREVEPORT SOUND
Would Seratones sound the same if they weren’t from Shreveport? The summers in Shreveport are long and stiflingly hot. The cultural offerings and the political climate can leave much to be desired, especially in the eyes of young artists. In short, it is the perfect swamp for rock n’ roll music to crawl out of. It is a Petri dish for creative, frustrated young people with a van full of amplifiers and nothing else to do on a Friday night. This is as true today as it was in 1954, when Elvis Presley snarled and shook his way into the American consciousness from the stage of Shreveport Municipal Auditorium. Decades before Presley, there were the politically charged 12-string folk blues of Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter. Along the way, the city has also been called home by rockabilly pioneers, avant-garde experimental music collectives and country music bad boys who were outlaws long before “outlaw country” was a genre on iTunes. Shreveport, for whatever reason, is the kind of place where musical misfits have always fit right in.
According to Seratones guitarist Connor Davis, it’s also the kind of place that encourages musicians to master various styles.
“At one point, I was playing in a psychedelic band, and I was also playing in a cover band at the casinos,” Davis said. “The casino gig was how I was paying my bills. I was also in a punk rock band playing violent thrash versions of Elvis songs. And no one judged me.”
Haynes believes that this lack of a distinct musical and cultural identity is one of Shreveport’s most compelling characteristics.
“Shreveport is always trying to figure out its own identity,” Haynes said. “A situation like that is a blank slate where you can do whatever you want. Shreveport takes care of us. It also drives us crazy. But that’s how it is with any family, they piss you off sometimes but they also care for you.”
WHATEVER LIES AHEAD
Seratones have come a long way, but in many ways the band is just getting started. They’re still loading their own gear into and out of a battered old van with three doors that don’t work, a window that doesn’t roll down, and a hole in the roof. They’re still working the merchandise table after shows and sleeping on the occasional couch. Somehow, Haynes finds the time to moonlight as a freelance journalist from the road, her byline surfacing regularly in The Times and Rouge Magazine. For a young band that has achieved national recognition and is just beginning to get a glimpse of what real success would look like, they remain incredibly levelheaded. Life as a professional musician can be tough, but Seratones seem prepared for whatever lies ahead in 2016 and beyond.
“Buddy Flett always says: ‘Take your vitamins, don’t ever stop playing and don’t start hating each other,’” Gabriel said. Flett, a Shreveport native who has toured around the world with Kenny Wayne Shepherd and is a veteran bluesman with multiple Grammy nominations, should know what it takes to make a career out of music.
“We’re ready,” Haynes said. “It’s fun and it’s terrifying. It’s like being a teenager, when your limbs are too big for your body. You don’t know what to do, but you figure it out.”
Get Gone, the debut album from Seratones, was released on May 6, 2016 on Fat Possum Records. It is available for purchase in formats ranging from vinyl record to digital download. The album features artwork by Shreveport-based artist Nate Treme. To stream or purchase tunes from the record, visit Spotify, iTunes, Day Old Blues or FatPossum.com.
1. Choking On Your Spit
6. Get Gone
8. Kingdom Come
9. Don’t Need It
10. Take It Easy
11. Keep Me
Album is available wherever music is sold