Formerly known as Andrew Jackson Jihad, Phoenix, Arizona’s AJJ rose to prominence shortly after their 2004 formation and the subsequent release of 2005′s Candy, Cigarettes & Cap Guns. At the time, other folk punk heroes like Johnny Hobo & the Freight Trains and Kimya Dawson helped take the genre to new heights alongside AJJ.
Since then, the band’s sound has evolved, as has its roster of killer musicians, but founding members Sean Bonnette and Ben Gallaty have always stayed true to the punk roots and values established in the band’s early days with thrashing melodies, introspective lyrics and a strong bent toward political and social commentary.
In the aforementioned early days, the band grew to popularity with its catchy style and thoughtful lyricism (“I’ve got an angry heart filled with cancers and poppy tarts/If this is how you folks make art, it’s fucking depressing,” from the 2007 song “Brave as a Noun” off People Who Can Eat People Are the Luckiest People in the World, for example), but the 2011 release of the enduringly popular Knife Man on legendary Bay Area indie label Asian Man Records leads us to AJJ’s current place in the pantheon of acoustic punk nerds. It’s a good album for newcomers, too, especially during a pandemic; to wit—when Bonnette sings on “Hate, Rain On Me” from Knife Man: “I wanna put on my sweatpants/You know I’m trying to quit/I want to give a shit again.”
For those newcomers, the elder punk statesmen, for all the tranqs, lobos, zipheads and even just Santa Feans in the know, the Knife Man 10 Year Anniversary Tour comes to Meow Wolf on Sept. 29. As a longtime AJJ fan who counts Knife Man among my favorite records, I got a chance to speak with singer-songwriter and frontman Bonnette about the 10-year milestone, pandemic shows, songwriting and mental health. Happy 10 year anniversary, Knife Man!
SFR: Knife Man is an album that clearly deals with themes of mental illness, loneliness and isolation. What do you think of the current discourse about mental health, especially during and on the ‘tail end’ of the pandemic?
Sean Bonnette: In regards to the current mental health discourse, what I’m seeing lately is a wider understanding of the effects of—and the definition of—trauma; both to the individual and across generations and communities. At the same time, I am also seeing a rift in how we as a society process massive, looming trauma. I think the themes from Knife Man you identified will always be relevant, sadly. Wah-wah.
I enjoyed many of your quick Instagram Live sessions during the pandemic. Is that something you only started doing during COVID-19? Are those IG Live sets something you might continue off-tour, or do you think they had their time and are done now that live shows are coming back?
I loved doing those. They gave me something to do during a very uncertain time. We had started toying with livestreams a little bit before the pandemic, and I think we will continue doing them sporadically. The lockdown was a very interesting time for entertainment. It leveled the playing field, in a sense. Saturday Night Live was really weird for a couple weeks. I look forward to playing more outdoor shows as weather permits.
In some of your songs that deal with darker subject matter, it almost feels as if a persona, or a different side of you, is coming out. Do you have a songwriting persona that you adopt, or do you think it’s pretty much all you, all the time depending on what you are dealing with or wanting to discuss? Some songs get into the territory of what some call ‘murder folk.’ Do you agree with that characterization?
Whoa, ‘murder folk’ is a great name for a genre! AJJ definitely has a few murder folk tunes. I’ll adopt a persona from time to time. Sparingly. A lot of the songs are direct commentary, but a lot of them are from the subconscious as well.
What kinds of things do you pull your inspiration from, besides other music? What is your process when it comes to writing? Do you ever have a concept for albums?
We’re on tour with two of them right now! Xiu Xiu and Emperor X are inspiring and influential. Xiu Xiu’s vulnerability and honesty is heroic. Emperor X is pure chaos magic. I really love the cross-pollination of inspiration and influence across mediums. I love putting pieces of films in my songs. Sometimes a piece of art will grab me in just the right way and I’ll have to process it into music. I usually write melody and lyrics together first, usually from a tune I’ll get stuck in my head. I write songs compulsively, but when I start to notice recurring themes, I’ll follow those threads and it makes writing the album easier.
What’s your favorite song to perform live? What’s your favorite city you have played?
I love to try out new songs live, helps me finish ‘em! Favorite city? That is a big question. Los Angeles? Budapest? Berlin? Melbourne? Santa Fe? Home? My favorite city to play is the city I’ve never played before. To quote Dewey Cox, ‘It’s a beautiful ride.’
If you weren’t living the dream, playing punk music and touring the world, what do you think you would be doing? What was your childhood dream job?
I bet I’d be a therapist. When I was a kid, I wanted to be a filmmaker, but I don’t think I’d be good at it. Gotta be really organized to make movies.
Editor’s note: This show sold out after our interview, but don’t panic! Tickets often become available through craigslist and such for sold out shows—if you’re vigilant and care hard.
AJJ with Xiu Xiu and Emperor X: 7 pm Wednesday, Sept. 29. Sold out, but good luck. Meow Wolf, 1352 Rufina Circle, (505) 395-6369