In February, TourKidd had the opportunity to chat with Sean Bonnette, vocalist and guitarist of the band Andrew Jackson Jihad (AJJ). Over the past several years, AJJ has taken their moving lyrics and upright bass-pluckin’ rhythms from the sweltering pits of the Trunk Space to European stages, gathering an impressive following of some of the most dedicated and passionate fans. Their music, which covers a vast array of genres but is concentrated in the folk-punk realm, integrates lyrics that combine adult themes of life’s struggles and major questions with the unapologetic honesty of a child. This blunt, relatable expression in their music has been a secret ingredient to the band’s success, as it has pulled on the heart strings of listeners and created anthems for fans to scream together, sweaty arm in sweaty arm, at AJJ shows. The powerful camaraderie felt and seen, through tears of joy and pain, at AJJ shows make them unforgettable nights of emotional turbulence that turn strangers into friends, impatiently waiting for the next AJJ experience.
To listen to the full Skype interview with Sean Bonnette, click on the image below or follow this link to TourKidd’s Bandcamp.
Band Profile: Andrew Jackson Jihad
Sean and Ben started playing as Andrew Jackson Jihad about ten years ago, and have added Preston, Deacon and Mark to the band within the past few years to create the band’s current formation.
Acoustic folky, punky, stringy, poppy, indie music with passionately-delivered vocals
SideOneDummy Records (CA)
Brown Wrangler Slacks
Favorite Ice Cream Flavor
May 5, 2014 – Released fifth full-length album, Christmas Island
Mar. 14, 2015 – Performed at the Viva Phx musical festival in Downtown Phoenix
Click on the album artwork above to listen to AJJ’s most recent album, Christmas Island.
AJJ has toured overseas quite a bit within the past couple of years. What international tours have you guys been on, and do you have any plans for another in the near future?[After touring across the United States and Canada throughout March and April, AJJ is going on tour in northern and western Europe beginning mid-May. For two months, the band will be playing shows in various countries, including Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Switzerland, England and Ireland. Sean looks forward to returning to Europe after having good experiences from his last two European tours.]
Sean: We toured a couple times [overseas last year]. We went to the UK, Holland, Belgium, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Switzerland, the Czech Republic….I’m missing some [countries], but there was a lot of places and it was really neat.
From touring overseas, have you noticed any differences between the concert cultures in the United States and those in European countries? Did you guys run into any conflicts while on tour, or does the culture seem to be pretty universal?
Sean: I would say a big difference between playing shows overseas and playing shows [in the U.S.] is that concert goers and listeners over there tend to stick with [artists] as if [they] were a sports team. Even if your latest record kind of sucks, [fans] will still come to the show, and they’re still rooting for you. They’ll just tell you that your latest record sucks….I feel like in the United States, if something is boring you, you kind of stop going.[Sean added that while the band didn’t experience many conflicts, many of their listeners overseas did not expect AJJ (commonly labelled as a folk-punk band) to play a wide variety of styles of music, including metal covers.]
Sean: We tend to hop around in genres sometimes. I think people [overseas] are used to a little more homogeny.[For Phoenix dwellers who attended AJJ’s show at the Crescent Ballroom on Dec. 30 last year, Sean informed TourKidd that that was the show at which they played a cover of Slayer’s “South of Heaven” for the first time ever on stage. Sean also guaranteed that it will not stand as the last time that AJJ ever plays “South of Heaven”.]
Sean: [“South of Heaven”] is a really fun song. Many of the guys in AJJ have metal backgrounds, particularly Preston, Deacon and Ben. They are all pretty metal guys…the cover that we were doing in Europe a lot was “Dragonaut” by Sleep, which we’ve incorporated into segues in the past. It’s got a really good riff in the key of E, so it’s kind of easy to help the transition from one song to the next by doing the Sleep riff. But in Europe, after a while, we started actually doing the song, like singing the verses and stuff, which made the Germans very confused- in a good way, I think.[Sean also announced that he is excited to soon share a mixtape featuring his cover of “South of Heaven.” He said the cover is a “weird surf version” of the song, and features solos from his friend John, a member of the band Wolf Eyes (MI).]
How have the additions of Preston, Deacon and Mark within the past few years influenced or changed the band’s writing and creative process?
Sean: It’s made the process a lot more fun for me. I can kind of ease up when I’m writing songs now; I can leave [songs] a little more open-ended now for four amazing people to go to and help sculpt them from there. But I still have a lot of anxiety trying to polish up the songs or even get them to the point where I bring them to the guys….It’s made it super fun to work on songs and also to play them live- it sounds a lot bigger, which his cool. The obvious trade-off is the potential for intimacy. I feel like we could get lost with a bigger arrangement, but we try to cut that back by allowing our shows to be pretty dynamic.
Andrew Jackson Jihad has received a lot of success within the past decade, playing at many larger venues and major events in recent years. Is the band still able to play very small shows at local venues such as the Trunk Space, similar to how you guys used to in your early years as a band?
Sean: The past couple times that we’ve played at the Trunk Space we’ve done so with very little advance notice. And that makes it a lot easier to happen; [the venue] still gets pretty full, but people have less of a chance to build up their expectations. We still really love the Trunk Space and still are involved with the Trunk Space, and we definitely haven’t played there for the last time, but it’s easier to play at small places if we do it on the sly with very little advance notice…but then again it’s also difficult because you want to give everyone a chance to go to the show.
After going on so many tours to various cities and countries, how has your view on touring, booking, promoting and the whole process of organizing shows changed, from the perspective of a promoter?
Sean: I noticed that when we started promoting shows in Phoenix and bringing friends of ours from out of town [to Phoenix]…and [giving the touring artists] all the money from [our] shows, it built up a lot of goodwill and – dare I say – karma for when we decided to go out and tour the country ourselves…I think probably the best thing that you can do as a young musician is to be generous with your time and book shows for [artists] when they are [touring in your city] from out of town, because they will probably return the favor when you go on tour yourself. So from that perspective, [during] the first eight or nine years as a band, we couldn’t really play any shows in Phoenix expecting to make any money because we usually made sure it went to the touring bands. That ethic…is still with us, it’s just harder to book shows now because we’re busier.
Knowing what you know now, including your success as an artist and experiences from tours, is there anything that you wish your younger self would have known?[Sean said that he wouldn’t tell his younger self anything because he wouldn’t want to alter how his life and career have developed thus far. He also wouldn’t want to make his younger self “prematurely cocky.” However, he would like to be able to inspire his younger self with ideas of an optimistic future.]
Sean: One thing that I would like to do is to tell my younger self that all these amazing things are going to happen. If I could tell 19-year-old Sean that we were going to do a tour with Against Me! one day, I wouldn’t have believed me….that would have been really exciting to hear….but at the same time, that might have also affected the way I turned out. Giving yourself advice is a lot harder than giving other people advice.
I believe that much of what we take away from life’s experiences has to do with the people that we come across. Were there any bands, promoters, or even venues that you were introduced to while on tour that have really left an impression on you?
- Matt of The Gunshy (IL). AJJ has played many shows with him and, years ago, opened for him at their first Trunk Space show. Matt, described by Sean as “a very cool and patient” man, has been one of the most influential people in both Sean’s career and personal life.
- Glass and Ashes (CA). Sean said that the band was “very inspiring and encouraging.”
Personally, one thing that I love about AJJ shows is the intense energy that the audience brings to the show. Every concert, everybody in the pit goes crazy and screams all the lyrics to every song along with you guys, it’s addictive. How has this aspect of your shows influenced how the band performs and your writing process?[Sean said that, as far as performance is concerned, there exists the “cliché transfer of energy”; the band definitely reciprocates on stage the energy that the audience brings to the show. When it comes to writing, Sean concentrates on his own thoughts and tries not to anticipate how people will receive his new work.]
Sean: I feel that the thing that people connect with is that [AJJ’s music] is vulnerable music. You can’t write vulnerable music when you’re thinking about what all these people, who you don’t know, are going to think of it….We constantly remind ourselves that we should be making music for ourselves and letting people hear it, rather than making music for other people. I feel like it’s purer that way.
What would be your ideal concert to see? Any band, time period, setting (real or fictitious), with anybody, etc.
Sean’s Dream Concert (on the particular date of this interview): “A Singer-Songwriter Showcase”
- Opener: Stephen Steinbrink
- Headlining: Neil Young and Leonard Cohen
- Where: the set of Pee-wee’s Playhouse
- With: his fiancé and his friend, Ryan
If you could play only one of your songs to introduce someone to Andrew Jackson Jihad, which song would you play him/her?[Answer: “People II 2: Still Peoplin’”, Knife Man or “Getting Naked, Playing With Guns”, Christmas Island]
Click on the album artwork above to listen to AJJ’s Live at The Crescent Ballroom album (track 18 is “People II 2: Still Peoplin'”).
Being from Phoenix but having lived in Michigan for the past few years, is there anything about Phoenix that you have come to appreciate or really miss?
- Sean appreciates “how Phoenix constantly changes.”
- Jobot Coffee
- All kinds of Mexican food
Sean: My favorite burritos are Arizona burritos, for sure.[According to both Sean and Playboy Manbaby, AZ burritos officially reign supreme.]
I have to ask, how did you guys come up with the name Andrew Jackson Jihad?
Sean: Me and Ben were at work, just kind of free associating, and we were talking about Andrew Jackson for the day, just stories that we had learned in history class about the guy, like his assassination attempts and how bitter of a man he was. So the idea of incorporating Andrew Jackson into a band name kind of stuck out. I think mostly it was because [the band name] could be left open to interpretation, or left not making sense. It’s sort of a cop out, but it’s always been a cop out. We’ve always enjoyed the fact that whenever people try to interpret [the band name], we can just be like, “Sure.”
Growing up, how did you find your niche within the large city of Phoenix and its dynamic arts community?
Sean: I found [my niche] at the Willow House, at 3rd Avenue and McDowell…now it’s a place called Hob Nobs. During my senior year in high school, getting to go to the Willow House all the time, I think I lucked out. It’s a beautiful thing, to find that. And I think Phoenix has a really good that.