“We’re like a 56-year-old dog”: A conversation with Sean Bonnette of Andrew Jackson Jihad

WQHS recently had the opportunity to interview Sean Bonnette of Andrew Jackson Jihad. Check out the conversation after the jump, and don’t miss their show on Novermber 1st at Union Transfer!

HH: Okay, so first of all, tell me about Knife Man. I’m sure I could look on the Wikipedia page and see where it was recorded and the process and all that stuff, but I want to hear it from you.

SB: Okay, well, about Knife Man, what can I say? I wrote Knife Man during my last year of college, going to school for social work, while at the same time doing outreach for a homeless shelter, and as a part of my final studies there, I developed a program that connected the services between two organizations: one that served homeless youth and one that served homeless adults. So that was kind of the mindframe that I was working in, a very social-worky set of circumstances. So, the theme of social justice and racial discrimination and empathy, those were all, and have always been—in terms of empathy at least—have always been a pretty important part of our band and my songwriting. So I wrote it kind of with all that stuff in mind, and exhausted after class and school. That’s the best time to write songs, is when you’re exhausted. We recorded it at Audioconfusion Studios in Mesa by our good friend Jalipaz, and we brought in a lot of great collaborators on that record. We had Owen Evans from ROAR—he was the guy that kind of produced that song “Big Bird,” it was the last song on the album, it sounds super big—and Preston Bryant and Deacon Batchelor who are now in our touring band. Preston plays guitar and keyboard and Deacon plays drums. They were a heavy part of the record in terms of collaborating and making it sound different than our stuff usually sounds. And we had Shane Kennedy, who also played drums on “Sad Song” and “American Tune”—he’s a really amazing drummer in Phoenix.

HH: Yeah, I don’t know too much about the Phoenix scene because I’m all the way out here in Philadelphia…well, Connecticut right now, but Philadelphia. But I’ve noticed both as a listener of Andrew Jackson Jihad and because I’ve read basically every interview I could find, but in terms of separating yourself from the actual content of the song…I feel like on some songs, it might be a narrator, but it might also be you. I’ve noticed this also with Paul Baribeau and the Mountain Goats, like, the Mountain Goats sing about pretty brutal stuff.

SB: Yeah! (laughs)

HH: But a lot of times it sounds like a narrator. How do you defend stuff like that when it sounds like it’s you? I hesitate to even ask if songs like “Back Pack” or anything like that is based on personal experience or things you’ve experienced as a social worker…this question isn’t even sounding like a question anymore.

SB: No, that’s a good question. Well, for social work stuff, it would actually be illegal for me to talk about clients I’ve had and break the HIPAA law, so I don’t do that. Some songs do come from experience, and other songs like “Back Pack” or some of the super-brutal ones come from trying to place a metaphor for your feelings and just happening to use really brutal imagery for that. With “Back Pack,” I actually wanted it to be an action movie song.

HH: With “Back Pack,” sorry to cut you off—it’s beautiful, but sometimes I have to turn it off. It’s so powerful. It’s brutal!

SB: Woah. Thanks! We’re gonna be playing it on the next tour. We finally worked out a live version that we’re pretty happy with.

HH: So tell me about preparing to tour with the full band. I actually just went to Union Transfer for the first time last week, kind of keeping in mind that you guys would be there, and it’s a much bigger venue than I expected. Are you guys playing big places on this tour?

SB: On this tour, we’re definitely playing the biggest places we’ve ever headlined. So wish us luck. I know Future of the Left are very popular, and they’re gonna bring a lot of people. Actually, our last show in Philadelphia was, I think, the biggest show we’ve ever played, or headlined. It was at the Unitarian Church and there were well over 600 people there. It was amazing. It was so much fun.

HH: That’s awesome. That’s a great venue, it’s an awesome place. Are you excited to come back to Philly?

SB: Yeah, very. It’ll be our fourth time playing in Philly.

HH: How is the process preparing for a tour with more than just you and Ben?

SB: It’s a lot of fun. Yeah, me and Ben, when we were touring really heavily as a two-piece, we just never really practiced. Maybe once to try to work out some new songs or something, but for this one, we’re very meticulous about our arrangements and trying to make it very dynamic and big-sounding. So it’s a really awesome challenge. And thankfully, Preston and Deacon are both amazing, amazing musicians. And they both are bringing really good ideas to the table for the live versions of our full-band songs.

HH: Very cool. So you guys are going to Fest soon, and you’ve played there before, but tell me about it. What’s it like being around so many awesome bands all at the same time, who are kind of all more or less doing their DIY thing? It’s a pretty punk thing.

SB: Yeah, it’s very…I was gonna say it’s really surreal, but it’s not surreal, it’s like the most real thing ever. (laughs) Like I remember the first time I played Fest, I made a huge point to go see Planes Mistaken for Stars because it was one of their last shows for a long time, and this was…God, like 2006, I think? Six years ago, when we were still a relatively young band, and the next day I saw Gared from Planes Mistaken for Stars walking down the street and I just tripped out, and I was like, “Woah, man, that was a great show!” and he was like, “Thanks, brother!” But then later that night I saw a member of another pop-punk band really incredibly faded, like I could have mugged him and no one would have known. It was like the most vulnerable position I’ve ever seen a person in. So you see shit like that at the Fest, which is really cool—bands that you really like, bands that you’ve kind of exalted and put up on this pedestal just walking around being normal people. So that’s super fun, and then the performances are great.

HH: Yeah, you probably have very supportive audiences.

SB: Yeah, oh yeah.

HH: Well, I guess all of your audiences are supportive if they’re coming to your shows.

SB: Yeah, especially our audiences. They’re wonderful people.

HH: Would you say your fans are mostly teenagers and twentysomethings?

SB: Um…yeah, I’d probably say that. I don’t know how to average it, maybe like fifteen to twenty-five. Which is weird, because I’m turning twenty-seven this month.

HH: Happy birthday!

SB: Oh, thank you very much!

HH: Were you into punk as a teenager? What kind of music did you listen to?

SB: My early teenage years, I really liked Korn and Limp Bizkit and the Deftones, who I still really really like. And then I think it was like sophomore year when I started listening to Simon and Garfunkel a lot and I read about Pavement in Spin magazine and I got into Pavement a lot. Just that first record.

HH: Yeah, it’s the ultimate high-school feeling bummed out in a small town thing. At least that’s how it was for me.

SB: Totally. Oh, totally. I love that record for that. Yeah, the first time I heard punk was when I was very, very young because my mom was into punk. She’s always liked the Dead Milkmen a lot, which…you could probably hear a lot of their influence on our music. And the Pixies, who are probably still my favorite band of all time. So I was really lucky to get into punk rock and then a lot of other things from a young age. And I never really rejected any of the music that my mom listened to or my grandparents listened to. I’ve always been pretty open-minded. I actually started listening to punk more as the band started. I started listening to Against Me! and This Bike Is a Pipe Bomb, and those bands definitely informed a lot of our sound.

HH: That must have been crazy to be listening to Against Me! and then all of a sudden be touring with them.

SB: Yeah! That was amazing. That was so cool. (laughs)

HH: That’s a really big deal. That’s like a huge fucking deal.

SB: Mhm. Huge. Like, dream come true. Against Me! has a lyric: “If you would have told me all this when I was fifteen, I don’t think I would have believed it.” Any band that opens up for Against Me! I think thinks of that line.

HH: Yeah, you’re like a teenage fanboy, and then you’re playing for them. It’s crazy.

SB: Totally. Just punishing them. (laughs)

HH: So, tell me about the video for “Fucc the Devil.” It’s so funny. What was the idea behind that, were you guys just goofing around?

SB: Well, yeah, actually, speaking of touring with Against Me! …Andrew Seward has been a really awesome supporter of our band for a while now. Last April, he filmed a video for us, for “The Gift of the Magi II” where he was filming from the back of a truck, and we were running behind getting a bunch of stuff thrown at us by Treasure Fleet and Joyce Manor and a bunch of Gainesville friends. And that video went really well. I think that was actually how we got our hat thrown into the Against Me! tour, was I went to go see Against Me! in Phoenix and Andrew was kinda like, “Man, I wanna do another video for you guys, but we’re never in the same place at the same time!” And me thinking I was all slick was like, “Well, if you wanna tour together, we’d be in the same place, like, a lot.” He’s like, “Okay, I mean, we’ve only got short runs for a while, do you want me to throw your hat in?” And I’m like, “Yeah! Do it!” And so with that in mind, we had to do a video with him. Not like, we had to, but we totally had to! It was awesome! So the whole concept came about talking on the phone—I think Andrew wanted to dress one of us up as a cat and kind of do the man-cat-style video but ROAR already did that really well a couple months ago with their “I Can’t Handle Change” video. But then over the course of a couple different phone calls and brainstorming, we came up with a pretty solid concept of a guy in an apartment, just sucking…

HH: He does suck, yeah.

SB: (laughs) That’s our buddy Mark, he’s our tour manager man. You know, just a lazy, slothful man sitting on the couch. Actually, that kind of comes back from an old idea of doing it in Claymation, which we weren’t able to pull off. That would have been…well, we’ll do it later. Yeah, I don’t know. Just brainstorming, we came up with the devil guy idea and did most of the rest of it on the fly, like over the course of three hours. We had to generate a lot of beer cans, a lot of empty beer cans for the set. It was a really fun set to design. Pizza and beer and junk food and cigarettes. (laughs)

HH: So, when you write a song, do you think about the potential for a video? Do you think in cinematic terms?

SB: I think I have before. Actually, yes, for “Big Bird”…well, the way that song came together was super wonderful, because it uses the same melody as another song on the album, “Distance,” and kind of most every song I write has that melody. It’s kind of like a ’50s love song. But when we started practicing for that song, we had the old lyrics, the “Distance” lyrics, with the “dgggggg dggggggggg,” that kind of sound, and I imagined the scene in Boondock Saints, where, uh, have you seen that movie?

HH: Yeah, I have.

SB: Where Willem DeFoe is like, his shirt is off and he’s like, “IT WAS A FIREFIGHT!” He’s like shooting bullets in the air. That was a cinematic image that I always had in mind for “Big Bird”.

HH: In terms of songwriting…it’s a really hard thing to talk about, I imagine. I’ve never written a song, but I do write, and it’s so awkward to talk about. But if you would humor me for a second, what are the influences in terms of strictly writing…do you find yourself being influenced by poetry or different literature or other bands that are active right now?

SB: Thematically speaking, I really like Kurt Vonnegut, the science fiction author. He writes from a really cool place of humanity and empathy, although I can’t say he’s influenced me too much lately. I don’t know. Are you talking more about sound or words?

HH: Words.

SB: Words? Man, um…on the last record, the words came a lot from personal experience and being able to empathize with stuff I was seeing on a regular basis, and just writing as a way to process all the stuff that I was dealing with on a daily basis. So I tend to do the “art as therapy” route a lot. I think I’ve been switching gears a little bit lately on that end. Now I’d like to be able to describe things a little bit better, like feelings and images and fears.

HH: Does Ben write songs at all? What’s the dynamic with you guys?

SB: Ben writes really, really good songs, actually. But he doesn’t write them for this band. We just recorded an EP for his band—it’s called Ben Galaxy and Wiccan Babysitter, well, “Benjamin Galaxy and the Wiccan Babysitter” is the name of the band, or at least of the record we just recorded. (laughs) But he writes awesome rock and roll songs and I played bass on the record.

HH: How did you guys meet?

SB: We met working at a coffeeshop called the Willow House.

HH: And you just hit it off and started writing songs?

SB: Yeah. I started playing him some songs and he just whipped out an upright bass that his dad had just given him or let him borrow for a long time and he kind of learned how to play upright bass through being in the band.

HH: Wow. Do you guys feel old now? I mean, you’ve been around for a while.

SB: Yeah, I go back and forth between feeling old and young. If I frame it as an individual, I feel still relatively young. But as a band, I mean, we’re approaching our ninth year. So, yeah, we’ve been around for a while.

HH: Yeah, in dog years, that’s a really long time.

SB: Yeah, totally. What is that? Seven times eight is fifty-six. We’re like a 56-year-old dog.

HH: So, describe your ideal show. What’s the venue? Who’s there, and what kind of songs are you playing?

SB: Okay. My ideal show…well, my favorite venue in the world is the Trunk Space in Phoenix, Arizona, so I guess my ideal show would be the Trunk Space with fixed air conditioning and a liquor license where there is no barricade between the young people and the people of drinking age. Actually, no, no liquor license. All ages show, no booze. People can drink in the parking lot if they want to. But yeah, the air conditioning is fixed. And for all the people there, the people in attendance, if I got to choose, it would be all of my friends and family, including the dead ones. Jesus Christ and Albert Einstein would be there. Arthur Russell would play. He would be a guest star, back from the dead.

HH: Can I come to this show?

SB: Yeah, totally. Of course. Everyone’s invited.

HH: Okay, cool.

SB: Also, yeah, everyone who wants to go to the show can fit into the show somehow, like, the Trunk Space will magically morph to fit to capacity anybody that wants to come.

HH: Yeah, and it’s somehow still intimate, and you can see everyone.

SB: Right, right. And there will be plenty of water for everyone to drink.

HH: And it’s free. No, maybe it’s not free. How do you feel about that?

SB: What, about free shows?

HH: Yeah, I don’t know. Because it’s hard to tour. I can’t even imagine. Like, it’s fun, but it must be so draining and difficult.

SB: It’s a bunch of fun. I think it’s important to get your needs met as a musician. So I definitely like free shows, but depending on the amount of resources you have to burn in order to get to the free show, I think compensation is good. That’s why I like playing college shows a lot, because it’s generally free to the public, like, anybody can come, and then the university just pays you out of the budget. And it’s awesome. But at the same time, as a fan of music, I love paying for shows. I’ll pay what the band demands to see them if I like the band enough.

HH: Yeah, I feel the same way. I was reading the Bomb the Music Industry! manifesto on music, like, “Bring your CD and we’ll burn it for you! Bring your t-shirt and we’ll put a design on it!” And I love it, I love the thought that—what’s the term—“we want you to spread the music because we want people to listen to what we think is in good taste.” But at a certain point, you know, you have to get some support.

SB: Yeah. No, I agree. I’m not mad at anybody that downloads our records. If they buy it, that’s also cool, but you’re not a bad person for doing it, because everyone does it, you know. There’s no really big social stigma against downloading records. I mean, I do it, you know? But I buy records too sometimes. (laughs)

HH: So, I’m gonna sidestep the whole folk-punk thing.

SB: (laughs) Cool.

HH: Because I don’t really care, no offense, about labels. But on your Wikipedia page, it says you were nominated for an award for “Best Americana Band”. What was that like? What is “Americana”? Is that a style, or…?

SB: Well, that’s actually one of the only true things on our Wikipedia page. I’ve looked at it, and it says that our band was named after some kid, some ska kid…does it say that? Are you looking at it right now?

HH: Yeah. Okay. “It is believed that the name of the band was inspired by Ryan Kolnicki…”

SB: Yes!

HH: “A legend in the ska scene in Arizona. The band’s song ‘Scenesters’ is also a dedication to Ryan Kolnicki.”

SB: I have no idea who Ryan Kolnicki is.

HH: No way!

SB: Maybe Ryan Kolnicki’s buddies edited the page to stoke him out or something.

HH: And I was going to ask you about that, too. I was like, wow, that’s so cool you have all this respect for this kid! And about “Scenesters”…

SB: Oh, I hate that song. (laughs)

HH: Really?

SB: Yeah, it’s so bitchy.

HH: It’s kinda bitchy, yeah. But it’s funny.

SB: At the time, I couldn’t really accept, you know, being a seventeen or eighteen-year-old guy, that people are going to like what they like and that they’re fine for doing that. You know, I was just so much more concerned with what other people did than enjoying myself at the time that I wrote that. I don’t know. It’s a very bitchy song. But anyway, I don’t know who Ryan Kolnicki is. I bet he’s a nice guy. But Americana music…they put us in that category because we play with acoustic instruments and have some kind of country swing to us from time to time. Which is fine. We didn’t win, we’ve never won any of those awards. Except I think we did win Best Band, Best Local Band recently, which was a huge honor. I really like the Phoenix New Times. 

HH: Have you totally established your set list and what you’re gonna play for this tour?

SB: Um…not exactly. There’s definitely songs we’ve practiced more than others. I think we have like sixteen to eighteen songs that we’ve got kind of in the can and we’re going to have the same skeletal structure for each show, but I think we’re gonna kind of switch in and out several songs. Do you have any requests?

HH: I would really like if you played “Sense and Sensibility.” The Pink Couch Session version of that is probably one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard.

SB: (laughs) Thank you very much!

HH: But I feel that way about a lot of your music…not to get super corny, but it’s helped me through a lot of weird stuff in my life.

SB: That’s really wonderful and awesome to hear. Thank you.

HH: So, if Andrew Jackson Jihad had a perfume, what would it smell like? Like, what would be in the ingredients?

SB: Hmm…

HH: And what would be the name of the brand? You know how it says, like, “Lady Gaga…”

SB: (laughs) So, the name “Lady Gaga” is already taken?

HH: Yeah, that’s already taken. Totally.

SB: Aw, man. Well, let me think…as far as the fragrant ingredient, it would smell a lot like coffee, maybe tobacco, and Liqua. That delicious beverage Liqua. (laughs)

HH: Reminds me of the part in Anchorman where they’re talking about the Sex Panther perfume and how it’s made of gasoline…

SB: (laughs) It’s been a couple years since I’ve seen Anchorman. I don’t remember that part.

HH: Yeah, it’s the most ridiculous movie in the world. Actually, last night, I just watched Dazed and Confused for the first time ever.

SB: Oh, what?!

HH: I can’t believe I had never seen it before.

SB: Yeah, that movie’s incredible! McConaughey… “I get older, they stay the same age.”

HH: That’s a very good impression.

SB: Thank you! Yeah, he plays himself in that movie really well. It’s kind of like a documentary about Matthew McConaughey.

SB: Oh, yeah. That’s a repeat viewer, instantly. So…UPenn, is that closest to Philly?

HH: Yeah, it’s in West Philly. Philly is so underrated. It’s the best.

SB: It’s a beautiful place. I like it a lot. Is Pilam dead?

HH: Holy shit, you know about Pilam?

SB: That was the first place we ever played in Philly. We played there with Delay and Algernon Cadwallader and another band, it was super good.

HH: And they just broke up!

SB: I know, right? Rest in peace, Algernon! They’ve got awesome stuff coming as individuals, I’m sure.

HH: I can’t believe you played at Pilam.

SB: Yeah. That place is awesome. It’s like the revenge of the nerds in real life. Give that place my love. I hold that place in very high regard.

HH: I will. And thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me, really.

SB: Thank you!

- Heather Holmes; Buzz or Howl (Wednesdays from midnight - 2am @ WQHS.org)

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