It’s a summer Tuesday in Kansas City. I’m standing in recordBar, born in a strip mall but now one of the city’s preeminent live music venues. In between sets, I’m at the bar sipping on an energy drink cocktail. I feel like I need a shot of caffeine after a long day, but little do I know my energy level is about to be lifted, whether I’m ready or not.
Eventually, AJ Haynes and her band Seratones hit the stage. They’d be forgiven if they started the set out slow or possessed less enthusiasm about playing a Midwest gig on an early weeknight. That would not be the case tonight, however, or any other night for that matter.
While many singers and bands have stage presence and know how to work up a crowd, there’s a genuineness to Haynes’s performance. One of my first remarks to her after the show was that she seemed to be having more fun on stage than I’ve seen out of just about anybody. That enthusiasm is infectious, as evidenced by a crowd of dancers that seemed to keep growing throughout the set.
Following their performance, I was able to speak with Haynes for 30 minutes before the band packed up and left for the next stop on their tour, in support of their new album Love & Algorhythms. In a short amount of time, she talks extensively about several topics and displayed a thirst for knowledge that you don’t see from many people.
“I need to know how something works, in terms of what shifts and shapes culture,” Haynes said. “I think as an artist, that’s my job to understand. If I’m using something, if I know the parts, then it helps to synthesize and create something new. For me, this is the whole reason I started a band.”
She continued, “To make something out of thin air, I need to understand the air. I need to understand how we’re breathing, what are the processes of being human.”
Haynes’ musical style is inspired by a wide range of artists, including Frankie Beverly & Maze. For this specific album, she counts American jazz musician Alice Coltrane, Italian composer Giorgio Moroder and the Queen of Disco Donna Summer among her influences. She says that she made playlists to go with each song on the album that acted as reference points.
“I would be close to burnout, but it would help to get home, take a shower, and put on Donna Summer’s ‘I Feel Love’ or ‘Journey in Satchidananda’ by Alice Coltrane,” Haynes has said about these influences and how they helped her deal with the struggles of composing the band’s latest album, especially in the age of Covid. “Alice Coltrane and Donna Summer are both divine in their own different ways.”
Love & Algorhythms is defined by the relationship between love and algorithms, especially when it comes to dating apps. Algorithms have a tremendous effect on how people match and meet. There can be plenty of pain and plenty of joy in the process, which is emblematic of the human experience.
Haynes quotes science fiction writer Octavia Butler about this struggle. “God is Trickster, Teacher, Chaos, Clay.” Life is chaos, and we have to make sense of that, especially in regards to love and the dating world.
Keeping with that science fiction theme, the album is described as an interstellar synthesis of astral soul, R&B and sci-fi funk (if that doesn’t tickle your musical fancy, I don’t know what will). Seratones’ sound is utterly incomparable to other artists’ sounds, and that is, in large part, due to the wealth of resources inside and outside of the music world that Haynes utilizes. The album takes many unexpected twists and turns as it picks from punk, rock, soul, R&B, electronic and other genres.
As a Black and Filipino artist, Haynes has a unique perspective on the world that she looks to share with others. She is a member of the Grammy Recording Academy’s Black Artist Collective, a special advisory group that aims to amplify Black voices. Being on the board of the Memphis chapter, which covers a very diverse region, she looks to reflect that in her chapter as well as the Recording Academy as a whole. All institutions throughout the country grapple with racism, and people like Haynes are committed to helping this one specific (massive) institution make positive changes toward inclusivity.
Bringing it back to the music, Seratones is for all. You see this as Haynes jumps off the stage, surrounded by passionate fans, feeding off their energy and vice versa. In this moment, nothing else matters. Just imagine spending an hour each night with that environment. It’s easy to see why live music is such a powerful motivator.
For Seratones, the love of music has powered its travels across the country and beyond. The band has played in intimate venues with dozens of people discovering their music for the first time, and they’ve also played at massive festivals in front of thousands. Whether at South by Southwest, Reading Music Festival or in a strip mall in the Midwest, the energy and enthusiasm are always present.
It’s the brain chemical serotonin that comes from listening to music that inspired the band’s name. It was created from the phrase “put it on wax,” which in Spanish is the word “cera.” In the music industry, the phrase means to record on vinyl. The band switched the name from Ceratones to Seratones as a play on serotonin.
But just because you’re having a good time doesn’t mean you can’t think critically about the world around you and share an important message. Haynes keeps that in mind in her writing.
“The really valuable part of the creative process is being present in challenging times, being able to tap into something that people need to hear versus something that is just for the sake of it,” she has said. “There’s this American ideal of the pursuit of happiness, but I don’t want to chase happiness. I want bliss and wholeness. This world we’ve created, that we were able to discover through working through ourselves—I want to sit in this world longer.”