As Andrew Jackson Jihad, Sean Bonnette (with partner Ben Gallaty) exists in a unique realm of decidedly punk rock musicianhood. With each consecutive album, the band manages to gain slightly more attention from the larger independent music listening world. AJJ is known for their bare bones, agressive folk sound that utilizes acoustic guitar and upright bass, but also with each conescutive release, they’ve began incorporating horns, more strings and even on the last record, Knife Man, kazoos. Most immediately striking about AJJ is Bonnette’s brutal, unbridled and unhinged vocal style along with their catchy yet hellishly dark lyrics that definitely draws influence from literature.
One thing I love about Andrew Jackson Jihad is a certain nakedness in the lyrics and performance, like there’s nothing to hide behind. Would you say that that’s been a running thing through the music you’ve always responded to?
Yeah, I think so. Although I do also like artists that write through a character or don’t write about their lives directly. Like John Darnielle, like that album Tallahassee is entirely fiction. Nick Cave writes through characters a lot I imagine. I used to write songs a lot more guarded. Our first record has a lot more silly songs. Most of those songs weren’t really based in truth except for maybe the feelings behind them, I think that was my experiment in trying to write fiction.
How do your ethics differ from standard punk rock ethics?
My ethics come from the National Association of Social Work’s code of ethics. I kind of traded in my punk rock ethics for those when I went to college. Three’s a lot of overlap between the two. There’s a lot bigger problems then whether so and so did a Honda commercial or is endorsing Jameson or whatever. I don’t know any other bands situations, they might have a family. I don’t have a family; I don’t know what that’s like. I would do an M&M’s commercial, probably.
You’ve got a reputation that precedes you as being almost severely super duper nice. It seems like your band name can’t come up without a conversation about how nice Sean Bonnette is. I know that the record label Silver Sprocket Bicycle Club briefly sold pillowcases with your face on it, so it’s sort of a thing. Yet, your lyrics are often so extreme and violent with a focus on sadness and macabre. I’m curious how niceness and honesty interact in your life. Is it important to you be perceived as nice?
Not to be perceived as nice but to try my best to be nice. Honesty and niceness are the best when they intersect. Sometimes people can be very nice but they aren’t honest, and being dishonest is not nice. Then there are people that are completely honest to the point of brutal honesty, which is also not nice. So the way I try to tackle my life is through being as honest as I can about how I feel. Say you came up to me with a book you’re writing and I was to say, “it’s bad.” That’d be much different than saying, “I found this less believable,” and using a lot of “I” statements.
I was very lucky when I was 15 to get to volunteer for an organization called Teen Lifeline which is a non-profit suicide and crisis line for teenagers. It’s peer-directed so when a teenager calls the number, they talk to another teenager whose been kind of trained to deal with crisis calls like these and it’s supervised by a master-level clinician. From that I learned a completely new way to, me at the time, of interacting with people and listening. It focuses a lot on what is called “Active Listening,” the five skills being: Paraphrasing, Reflecting, Minimal Encouragers, Open Questions and Closed Questions, and how all these components, when combined differently, will get all different kinds of results from your conversations with people. Also never asking “why?” If you have to ask a “why” question, just phrase it differently where you don’t actually have to use the word “why.” Oh you had a bad day? Why did you have a bad day?” Or “What made your day so bad? Is a bit nicer. I think some people who think I’m a nice guy may just be paying attention to how I talk and how I sound nice.
Do you have people you hate? People who hate you?
Not really. The kind of hate that I have is really brief. I will convince myself I hate something or someone but I’ll instantly talk myself out of it and try to find out what is making me hate that person so much or try to see where they’re coming from. The moment that empathy kicks in I can’t hate anyone. I kind of wish I could.
Empathy seems to be a centerpiece of your lyrics, a lot of AJJ lyrics seem to be about empathizing to an almost insane or horrific degree. There’s often violent imagery in your songs. Have you had negative reactions to that? Or have you felt pressure to modify your subject matter so as not to offend or make people uncomfortable?
Oh yeah, this one song “Red Red Meat” we say “I like to eat red red meat. I like to feel it digesting inside my tummy and I support animal testing. I’d kill a kitten to save a human being.”
That’s gotten a couple negative reactions from audience members. One guy when we played it at a show, jumped on a chair and started cussing at me, saying he hoped I’d die. Since then I’ve modified the song to streamline it and make it even more personal to my situation now. it’s, “I support medical animal testing only/ I’d kill my dog to save my grandfather who has cancer.” Which is sad to think about because I’m cuddling with my dog right now and she’s the best. Hopefully that will never happen where someone will kidnap my dog and force me to kill him to save my grandfather.
That hotline I’ve been working at, they’ve hired me as a supervisor now, and sometimes I’ve got a call out the kids when they use the word “faggot” or “bitch” and say “Hey man, that’s kind of gay bashing,” or “What did you mean by that?” I can’t write them off, which isn’t what I’d want to do, I just slowly have to call them out any time they use some kind of shitty language or express a bogus attitude. That has definitely helped me become a ore accommodating song writer.
What inspired you to name a song “The Gift of the Magi 2: Return of the Magi?”
I often found myself comparing things to “The Gift of the Magi.” It kind of became a running joke in the van, where I’d compare stuff to that. So the song itself became about that, I wanted to write a song that was a more updated version of the story. The woman gives away her hair, so she’s no longer beautiful and so the guy leaves her.
Do you get depressed? I know that this is a weird question. I guess I ask because of the perception of you as this really nice guy, but then you have these ultra-empathetic lyrics, and so I wonder, if somehow there’s a link between ones ability to empathize and a tendency toward depression. And as a member of a touring band that people want to see, can you be depressed, is there time to be alone and shitty?
I think my personality type is pretty extroverted and outgoing. The way I recharge my batteries is by being around people, which is different than a close loved one I have. The way she recharges her batteries is really by going inward and not talking. I feel most comfortable being around people and talking and listening, but I do get kind of worn down sometimes on the road. I try to never take out my depression on people. But I do get depressed. I think I’m fortunate enough that I haven’t needed to seek help in some time I think counseling is great if people can find the right counselor, and if you look hard enough you can find the right one.
This came up when I interviewed Dennis Cooper, who is known for writing especially dark, often brutal fiction and yet he’s a total teddy bear personality…
I think a big part of that is being allowed to really express yourself. Like with Mr. Cooper, he can write endless volumes of really gnarly shit and purge himself of all that stuff so that it’s no longer in him but on the page. I mean, that’s why I write songs. It’s an incredible therapeutic outlet, when I can just vomit up all this bad shit I have inside and put it on a record and then it’s no longer in me it’s out there. Then other people can hear it and kind of vomit onto the pile as well. That’s why I believe our band is really positive, even though a lot of our songs are very negative.
Do you read your reviews? The song “We Didn’t Come Here To Rock” really seems like a reaction to some kind of negative review. Was it? Do you read reviews?
Funny story that involves Jesse Michaels and his father Leonard Michaels. We played a few shows with his band Classics of Love in Southern California. I’d just written that song which was kind of in reaction to the whole idea of anonymous message boards or comment sections. I got really mad after reading some stuff that somene wrote, I think it was someone writing about how my voice was weak. Since then, my view of those things has changed because i no longer read comments and seldom read reviews, which was some advice that Jesse Michaels gave me.
We played that song at a show with him and it was like right before we met him. He comes up to me eating skittles like (chewing sounds) I like your shit man, it was good. You came right out of the gate with cunt. Cool. Want some Skittles? He gave me some Skittles. What’s that song about? Reading reviews and stuff. Oh yeah? You can’t do that. Don’t ever read reviews. My dad read reviews and it just devastated him and then he stopped and always told me never to read them. Just stop there’s no good that can come out of it.
Yeah, so it was great to get that kind of advice and some skittles from Jesse Michaels. He’s a really awesome guy. Whether it’s incredibly complimentary or devastatingly negative it’s going to affect you in weird ways. There’s nothing good that can come of reading those things.
What would your 5 desert island books be?
Breakfast of Champions, anything by Murakami, Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi and probably the autobiography of Mark Train. Twain is just a real smart funny author that can tackle these large subjects while pointing out how terrible they are, yet he provides hope. He also has an abiding love and trust in humanity. If we could ever be compared to any two writers I would most prefer Kurt Vonnegut and Mark Twain.
If I can include several volumes of a graphic novel, then Preacher by Garth Ennis. It’s the story of a priest who’s losing his faith and is granted the power of god so he can tell anyone what to do and they have to do it. It’s brutal, it’s so fucked up. He tells a guy to “go fuck himself” and he cuts his penis off and shoves it up his ass. It’s brutal. That’s just the first issue! It’s a vital, very important comic book, it’s up there with Sandman.
If you were to write a book about music what would you write about?
My first reaction would be to write about Phoenix music, postulating about what kind of traits the bands share and how the dessert effects one’s songwriting process. There are many different Phoenix bands that don’t seem to share too much in common. But I think Phoenix has informed us and then bands like Foot Ox or French Quarter to bring out the kind of dark honesty. But then there’s also Phoenix bands like The Gin Blossoms and Jimmy Eat World for whom that doesn’t really come into play at all.
What do you remember as the best book your were assinged to read in High School?
Probably The Great Gatsby, I loved that book.
Do you have any books you would consider guilty pleasure reading?
Well, there are no guilty pleasures. But I read a lot of rock and roll biographies just for the sake of it, and to learn from the mistakes of others. I really like Shakey: The Story of Neil Young. It seems pretty honest, because it doesn’t just talk about all that Neil young does well, but what he does badly, like inter-personal relationships. The book paints him as kind of a selfish guy that will have Crazy Horse on standby just waiting to go on another tour and get their paychecks, but then he’ll just go off on his own or pick another band and leave Crazy Horse high and dry for awhile.
One book I wouldn’t’ recommend is the Gene Simmons autobiography. As entertaining as it is to hear about Kiss, I just couldn’t finish it because it was just too much banging, it just gets kind of gross.
What’s the last book you remember having felt strongly ambivalent about?
Are you familiar with Cerebus? It’s written by this guy named Dave Sim who created the longest running independent comic book in history, like 9-12 huge volumes of graphic novel. I read 3 books of Cerebus. But in terms of the guy’s personal life, he’s gotten a lot of flack for being a misogynist. He’s sworn off women, he’s celibate, divorced from his wife. His religion is one he created himself just a mix of all three Abrahamic religions. He’s just a weird guy, if you want to do an interview with him you have to sign a contract that says that you don’t think he’s a misogynist and if you own a comic book store and want to carry his stuff you have to sign that contract. So I wanted to read his stuff but I wasn’t so sure i wanted to financially support him before I got to make my own decision about how I feel about his misogyny. I read the first 3 books and from what I’ve seen his characters don’t really like women and all the female characters follow all these shitty archetypes of being really weak or super selfish. I’d like to finish it, but I think I’m going to buy them used.
Who are some of your musical peers whose talent you most revere? Who is the best songwriter you know?
Off the top of my head I’d have to say Jeff Rosenstock. He can articulate his condition so well. Everything he seems to write about is for the common man of today, in our age group. Every record he puts out I can instantly relate to. His writing is incredibly modern, metropolitan and honest, true, sad…and good. From a mechanics standpoint, he’s a brilliant composer, and an incredible arranger. He actually knows musical theory and how to make pop songs really, really good. Owen Evans, from Roar, does the same thing and from a musical standpoint can really tug at my heartstrings. He makes beautiful candy that just drips into my ears. Patrick Stickles from Titus Andronicus is an incredible songwriter. I think mainly because he lacks any kind of filter and since following him on Twitter I can really see what makes him such a brilliant songwriter, he shoots from the hip and asks questions later. I hope that’s not taken as a criticism. I think he’s a genius.
I’d recommend Dear Nora, and the Key Losers. They’re perfectly appreciated in their scene, they’re not under-appreciated but I think the kids who listen to our music should also listen to theirs. It’s beautiful. Katy Davidson is the lead singer of both bands and her guitar parts are so insane, and the melodies are just like completely alien to me, I could never think of them.
If you were asked to do one of those Band on Band reviews, who would you interview?
It wouldn’t’ be who I like the most, but I’m trying to think of who I’d actually have genuine questions for. Oh, fucking Kool Keith! For sure! Just to kind of hang out with him. The thing that I’d hope to find out just from being around him is just how crazy he actually is. That’s not a nice way to phrase it, but he creates these amazing records where he just kind of raps in character and he’s got these really cool, kind of libertine values he expresses in his music that I would just kind of like to get close to.
Is there any one event in your life that’s most changed you?
Yes, volunteering at Teen Lifeline, the suicide prevention hotline where teens talk to other teens. It changed the way that I approach and talk to people, it changed my interactions and the meaning I get form interacting with people, which has a trickle down effect on how I write songs. Especially having started working for them in the last year or two I’ve had to beef up on all that stuff again, it’s affected how i approach writing music and how I write about my interactions with other people.
A few times there would be another volunteer that would come into the organization and I would be like “What’s up with this person, they’re a fucking dick.” My supervisor Nikki would always very patiently explain to me and probe and get me to figure out that people are they way they are for a reason, and once you work to understand what that reason is, you can no longer really dislike them, or you can, but you can no longer lash out at them. That was a very pivotal moment for my life. Just finding out, “Oh this person is a huge asshole because of this.” and you can insert any weird dark thing you like into that. Or their background differs from mine in this way so i’ll be more patient with them now.
Andrew Jackson Jihad play The Knitting Factory this Friday, 4/20 with Joyce Manor