Interview: Sean Bonnette of Andrew Jackson Jihad

words by Mark Huddle | photo courtesy of Andrew Jackson Jihad
| Thursday, September 17th, 2009

Andrew Jackson JihadIn 2000, I hooked up with a merry band of anarchists and hitched a ride to DC for the IMF/World Bank protests. I was living outside of Boston at the time. We had left around midnight, and sometime around 4:30 a.m. we pulled into a rest area on the New Jersey Turnpike. I was shocked at how many people were already milling around at that early hour. In fact, most, it seemed, were fellow protesters making their way to the nation’s capital. There was a lot of camaraderie, enthusiasm, and positive energy along that patch of highway. But what made it really memorable was when a small group of Mohawk-sporting ne’re-do-wells burst into the welcome center with their acoustic instruments and started banging out a few punk rock anthems. It was funny and inspired. As they finished up a rousing version of “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” the banjo-player yelled, “Thank you! Our next show will be at the Vince Lombardi Service Area! See you there in about 45 miles!”

Hilarious. And it got me thinking about the possibilities: no need for electricity, or amps, or PA systems — this was a strikingly populist expression of the punk sensibility! You could put on a show literally anywhere. Reclaim the commons! But, of course, no one ever accused me of being an original thinker. The fact is there is a long and exalted tradition of acoustic instrumentation in punk music. And in the past decade or so we’ve seen significant crossover between the so-called “Anti-Folk movement” and punk. Folk-punk is the real deal — musicians from Chuck Ragan to Tom Morello have given vent to their folkie muses. Bands like Against Me! have proudly carried the acoustic banner. Music as varied as Defiance, Ohio, Ghost Mice, This Bike Is A Pipebomb, The Tossers, and The Pogues have all been cited as practitioners of the genre.

Of the many who have embraced (or struggled) with this category, one of the most exciting bands is Asian Man Records’ Andrew Jackson Jihad. Ben Gallaty and Sean Bonnette have been setting the standard for acoustic punk for more than five years. Their 2007 album, People Who Can Eat People Are the Luckiest People in the World, is one of the genre’s most representative recordings. They’ve cut splits with French Quarter, Ghost Mice, the Cobra Skulls, and Apocalypse Meow. These guys have been really busy…so who better to explain pitfalls of the genre than AJJ. I was lucky to get Sean Bonnette on the horn for an extended interview. Here’s what he had to say.

Okay Sean, let’s get down to business. I wasn’t quite sure where to start, so how about this: “The Andrew Jackson Jihad Summer of Pain Tour 2009.” How painful was it?
(laughter) Well…let’s start out with the Triple Rock in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where Billy [Morrisette] from the Dillinger Four is the bartender, and he’s kind of notorious in Minneapolis and among bands that play the bar for “pouring them as he likes them.” Meaning, there’s a lot of alcohol that he pours in his cocktails. And we were playing this show with Kevin Seconds and Kepi Ghoulie — not to namedrop — and also with Apocalypse Meow who we did a split with. Kepi and Kevin don’t drink, so they gave us their drink tickets. And I ended up getting so drunk I ended up setting my hands on fire. (laughter)

Whoa — setting your hands on fire?
Yeah, the Camel cigarettes representatives gave me this lighter that was sort of shaped like a box-cutter–

Oh no…
So when you go to push the blade out — or in this case, the fire — you’re actually holding it upside down and sending a burst of flames into your hands.

Sounds like a marvel of engineering.
Later that night I slammed my finger in a screen door at a house show and then woke up the next morning and vomited.

And here I thought the tour name was about the rigors of living in a van for three months and trying to take your punk rock to the masses across the country. Little did I know there was some serious masochism involved.
Oh, it wasn’t masochistic — well, okay, I suppose it was masochistic because getting really drunk is painful sometimes. And we named the tour even before we went out so I think we sealed our own fate by having to live up to it.

So were all the bands you were touring with Asian Man Records bands?
No, no, there were a couple of different bands. The one Asian Man band we played with consistently was Bomb The Music Industry. We played about four shows with them. There was Delay. They’re an amazing pop-punk band from Columbus, and they’re on Plan-It-X Records. And they release their vinyl on their own label, Big Record Label, I think it’s called. And then we had Vision of a Dying World who actually release their records on Jackson Milligan’s label called Single Screen Records.

So this wasn’t simply just a folk-punk extravaganza — there were a lot of different sounds on the tour.
Yeah, genre-wise it was a very diverse tour. (laughter)

I’m completely curious about this musical categorization. I’m a big fan of the band Defiance Ohio–
Yeah man, they’re really good.

–and after I started getting into them and I started searching around for this unicorn that they called “folk-punk,” you guys and Ghost Mice and a few others are considered the progenitors of the whole thing. And that’s kind of interesting in its own way. I’m an old guy — I’ve been bouncing around since punk’s first-wave, and even back then there were bands whippin’ out acoustic instruments. There was a lot of diversity in the scene back then. But now this whole genre has popped up onto the radar screen — are you comfortable with that? Does it really describe what you’re doing? What does folk-punk mean to you?
You know, this is a question that I’ve been asked by many, many people and I still can’t come up with a clear answer on my own about it. On the one hand, it does work as a description for bands like us, musically and ethically. But in general I think that everybody that cares about music a lot agrees that genres are really limiting. No band really professes themselves to be a part of a genre — that I’ve noticed — and at worst they’re annoyed by it. Think about something like “post-hardcore.” That was around three or four years ago, do you remember that? All of the hot bands were called that.

Post-hardcore, I’d kind of forgotten about that.
Yeah, it was all bands like Thursday and Thrice. But then when you compare them to another band that was called post-hardcore, Fugazi, then suddenly the genre is so broad that it’s meaningless. It meant so many different things to different people.

You know, I think…and you might disagree with this, so if you do, go ahead and slap me around…(laughter)…but punk kids are incredibly territorial; they’re really proprietary about their music, and I remember when Against Me! first started to emerge, and people were starting to notice them and their music started coming out with Plan-It-X and No Idea. Tom Gabel was another guy who had the “folk-punk” label attached to him. But as their music has changed, the level of bile that is directed at them–

–is really freakin’ serious! I mean, when they started to do mostly electric songs there was this sense of betrayal. When they started moving up the ladder of record companies there was this sense of betrayal. There are some people who wouldn’t even listen to the records on Fat Wreck because they thought the band had sold out. And I know that the first song on your new album is really rockin’ — I mean, is anyone giving you grief for that? Or have you been safe from that whole scene?
Well, so far I think we are. There are haters every now and again, but man, it’s nothing like what Against Me! has gone through. I mean, those guys get their tires slashed regularly. What the fuck? Who would do that?

Do you remember that DVD they did?
Yeah, We’re Never Going Home.

They spend so much time in that DVD kind of mocking the whole major label process. But then after the film had been out awhile, of course, they signed with Sire and people just completely lost their minds. The DVD was evidence of the sell-out and the corporate mentality that these allegedly anti-corporate rockers were just not supposed to have.


A few years ago I interviewed Tom for Verbicide and I asked him about that, and he said that the interesting thing about that is that people watch the movie, and they seem to think that the film ends and then the world just stops. Nothing can happen that will change what you see during the 90 minutes the film is running. But things do change, life goes on, and the band continued wrestling with these issues and discussing them. And they might have continued to poke fun at the corporations, but they were also negotiating in good faith. And the fans just couldn’t seem to get their minds around the fact that the world didn’t just end when the film came out. I don’t know why that is — maybe it just has something to do with the culture of celebrity.
That’s the tricky thing about making broad ethical statements about a work of art that’s going to remain unchanged for as long as it exists on the planet. You feel that way at the time. I think it’s actually beautiful to describe how you feel, because that’s all songs and poetry and movies really are. But then people try to hold you to that. People try to hold you to how honestly you felt when you wrote it, even if you might not be feeling that way anymore.

I wonder, too, if there isn’t something specific to this particular subculture as well, in that so many of us who grew up in it felt ourselves for whatever reason to be outsiders. And so when you have something in that context that you can call your own — or feel that’s your own, and then suddenly it also belongs to a lot of other people that you might not feel too comfortable with — it can throw you into a sort of existential crisis. (laughter) It is a tough thing. I don’t know what it is? There’s something about the enthusiasm and intensity of punk rock fans and the culture itself — maybe because there are ethical choices that are made when you embrace not just the music, but the lifestyle. You mentioned ethics earlier. What are the ethical underpinnings of your particular scene?
The problem is that every band that makes this kind of music has different ethics. And that’s the problem of the folk-punk genre, because it’s a caricature of things that are actually happening. But it doesn’t exactly get it right or portray things completely accurately. For instance, Ben and I both eat meat. Some other musicians or bands do eat meat and some of them don’t. I happened to think of it as more of a dietary choice than an ethical one. But I know other people for whom that is incredibly important. You see, I think a lot of people would consider that an ethic in folk-punk music — or the caricature in folk-punk music. It turns out to be a very broad genre — lots of different bands doing different things. They can’t all share the same ethics.

But I suspect there are certain ideas that are standard for many of the practitioners — like the DIY spirit, for instance. I hear a lot of that in the bands I listen to and in your music.
Yes, absolutely, that’s true. I love the do-it-yourself ethic. It’s the most economical way to run how you do things in a band. Then again, we signed to a record label – well, not “signed,” but “handshake” onto a record label so that they could do our records themselves.

There is something to be said for taking the path of least resistance every once in awhile. And your label is Asian Man — which is legendary in the whole DIY scene. You shouldn’t feel too guilty about that. (laughter)
Oh no, I don’t. Our band is very pragmatic. If at some point it becomes easier for other people to do things than us — like booking our shows or putting out our record — then we will do that. We take the path of least resistance always.

Makes sense to me.
You know, I think the kids who are dogging Against Me! are…well, I don’t know, anarchists?

You mean they can’t abide by the band signing to a corporate label?
Yeah. I saw Against Me! a couple nights ago actually. We got tickets for test-driving a Kia, which is awesome because not only did I get to see Against Me! for free but I got to drive around in an air-conditioned vehicle which I haven’t done in a long time. (laughter)

Wow, no air-conditioning in Phoenix. That’s hardcore.
Yeah, you get used to it. But there were these punky anarchist guys at the show and they were really young — and I’m sure really well-intentioned — and they passed Tom Gabel a note after he’d just performed this new song called “Teenage Anarchist,” which I think you’d really enjoy hearing because it tries to explain a lot of the stuff we’ve been talking about. Anyway, they passed Tom Gabel a note and it said “You failed us.” And it had this anarchy symbol. And Tom was very cool about it. He was kind of sarcastic about it and he said he’d hang it up on his bathroom mirror so he could look at it He said, “At first I thought it said ‘USA’ and I thought, how did I fail my country?” You know, he was very smooth. He wasn’t a total dick about it but he explained how that kind of thing probably hurt his feelings a lot.

Well let’s focus on you guys now. What do you listen to? What are your influences? We’ve focused on genre so far, but as a song-writer, as a musician, what do you like and what does Ben like, if you wouldn’t mind speaking for him?
Oh yeah, I know what Ben likes. (laughter) Ben likes Johnny Flynn. And Communique a lot, and The Clash is one of our mutual favorites. Against Me! we both love — they’re just really, really good. And Neutral Milk Hotel — which is pretty obvious after we put out that seven-inch.

Oh yeah. But what a masterstroke though. I lived in Athens, Georgia for six years and I had the pleasure of seeing NMH and Jeff [Magnum, singer/guitarist] solo a few times.
Oh man, you’re lucky. Oh my God.

Yeah, it’s funny, but for me at that time and that place it was some of the most resonant and satisfying music I’d heard in a long time. It really got to me. I’ve been tracking down a lot of stuff by you guys that I hadn’t heard and was really blown away by that cover. I love it.
Wow, thanks that’s a great compliment from someone who has actually seen Jeff Mangum live.

Well, you know, he’s still popping up periodically. I had some friends who caught the Elephant 6 tour last year in Syracuse and Jeff showed up and played a little bit. He was in the background but he was there. He’s kind of like JD Salinger or something. But I still hold out hope that someday he’ll return to the fold.
He’s a very elusive and alluring figure — in our new mythology, I think. And he’s also a dude, which is hard for me to wrap my mind around. (laughter)

Let’s stay on the influences for a minute — especially your songwriting. Your lyrics are distinctive — there is no doubt about that. One of the weird things about writing about music is that you’re always comparing things to other things, which has got to be really frustrating for the artist who’s creating the art…
Oh yeah, but I do that too. I’m not sure you can get away from that.

It’s hard to listen to music in a vacuum. You hear those sounds and it invariably reminds you of something else. I hear influences in the music I listen to. But as a songwriter, who influences you as far as the words are concerned?
A lot of gangster rap, actually. (laughter) And Pantera, a lot of metal.

Ah ha! That makes so much sense! That is just awesome. I would never have thought of that. But then you consider a song like, say, “The People II: The Reckoning” — those lyrics are straight-up gangster rap. But I would never have made that connection.
That is probably my favorite genre of music. I listen to a lot of gangster rap artists and other hip-hop as well. Like Aesop Rock is incredible. Brother Lynch Hung, he’s very gangster. He made a record in 1992 called Season of da Siccness. It’s one of the most brutal recordings ever. The unspeakable things he raps about are haunting and fucked.

Well let me ask you this then because some of your lyrics are pretty disturbing. Like in “People II”: “There’s a rapist and a Nazi living in our tiny hearts/Child pornographers, and cannibals, and politicians too.” That is hardcore stuff. But the sound of your music and in many of your other lyrics, there’s a hopefulness, too. Gangster rap sometimes is so relentlessly brutal, but you seem to have managed to take many of those themes and also find a balance — or even infuse it with some humanity that might not have been there?
Well, my favorite author is Kurt Vonnegut…he has more than enough hope to make up for all the gangster albums in the world.

But at the same time, Vonnegut really captures that existentialist vision of a world defined by absurdity. Everything seems hopeless right up to the point where the individual has to say, yes, things are bad but I’ll make my own destiny. There’s always hope for the future. Vonnegut may just give you the lever you need to balance your more brutal observations about the world.
Yeah, I’ve studied him extensively.

What is your favorite Vonnegut novel?
Breakfast of Champions.

Oh yeah, that was the first one I ever read.
Me too. My mom gave me that book.

I think God Bless You Mr. Rosewater is my favorite. I think there is just something about that dark, hypocritical world and the hopeful light that shows through at the end that really touches me. Alright, let’s inform people about the band itself. How long have you and Ben been performing?
It’s been more than five years now as of July.

How did you meet?
We met at a coffee shop that we both worked at.

And I read recently that you were in the social work field?
Yeah, I’m actually in my last year to get my bachelor’s degree and I’m currently employed at a homeless shelter.

I worked on homelessness issues in DC and New Orleans back in the ‘80s and early ‘90s. So I commend you. Back then, at least, the issue was sort of in the public consciousness — it was in the newspapers every once in awhile — it sure isn’t anymore.
Now it’s almost accepted.

Yeah, especially in warm places like Phoenix!
Well, it’s okay here in the winter if you’re homeless. It’s really temperate. But in the summer we actually have a death count due to dehydration.

Let’s talk about the new record. You’ve been selling copies at your merch tables all summer. When does it come out via Asian Man?
September or October? I know they have everything ready. The liner notes for the vinyl are ready now. I mean, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was out this month. But I know that lately they’ve been trying to push release dates more — trying to build a little hype, I guess.

I had a chance to hear the master online. I’m curious — as someone who loved the People Who Eat People record — is this an extension of what you were doing on that album, or were you guys experimenting with some different stuff?
Yeah, we were experimenting more. Kazoos, electric instruments…

Kazoos are awesome.
Kazoos are awesome! They’re the coolest instruments ever. (laughter)

It’s the most democratic instrument ever invented because even tone-deaf people like myself can play the freakin’ Kazoo.
Fun to record harmonies with. This time we set ourselves a timetable for when we’d have it done. And I think having a deadline really pushed us into power-thinking mode. I don’t know if that sounds silly, but we really carefully considered every arrangement we’d have for the record and who we were going to have play on it. We didn’t give ourselves too much time to sweat it. We got it to the best we could sound, which usually… Any musician will tell you that a lot of times the best is the first take if you don’t screw it up, and that’s how the mixing process was. Just make it sound as organic as possible. Our friend Jalipaz recorded it and mixed it. He’s remarkable, I think.

Did you have the luxury of recording it all at once or was it recorded over a longer period of time?
If I recall correctly, it was recorded over a month and a half of Thursdays.

So every Thursday for six weeks you’d go in and cut a couple of songs?
Yeah, the first two weeks were spent getting vocals and bass and guitar parts down. And then we’d send songs out to friends in other parts of the country. So like, the Bomb The Music Industry guys recorded their parts up in New York on Jeff Rosenstock’s recording console. And Allyson Jenkins recorded her stuff up in Sacramento. After that we got a lot of instruments dropped on us all at once and then had a chance to mix it.

There are a lot of guest players on the album. That sort of leaped out at me — all the new sounds — the song “Heartilation” which kicks off the record, a heavy rockin’ electric tune; there’s strings, horns, and then that incredible kazoo sonata. This isn’t just two guys doing the stripped down folk-punk thing. So you’re laying down the foundations and then sending it out around the country for others to add their amendations.
Yeah, and here at home. We’re lucky to know a large surplus of incredibly gifted musicians that are nice enough to have blessed us with contributions to our recordings. It makes the studio experience for us really, really fun. When we play live we can’t mess around that much. But in the studio it’s fun to make a big record and collaborate with all these other people. The goal should be to make the best record you can make and not be limited by who is in the band. We’re very lucky to get to do that.

So Phoenix is really hopping. There’s good music around there?
Oh my God, yeah, I’m in love with our music scene.

Who is out there that we should know about?
A Phoenix native you should know is Foot Ox. They’re in Portland now, but he’s one of the most incredible songwriters I’ve ever heard. The same goes for our friend Stephen Steinbrink. He used to call his band the French Quarter, but then he went solo. Thurston Moore is a French Quarter/Stephen Steinbrink fan. He mentioned them in Arthur.

God, what doesn’t Thurston Moore know? His brain must be three sizes bigger than everybody else’s. The guy has the best record collection ever.
Totally… He’s omnipotent. He has like the Eye of Sauron looking out for cool indie rock bands that he’s going to review. (laughter)

I knew it! I knew we’d eventually work in a Lord of the Rings reference in this interview. If you weren’t going to make it, I was going to.
That’s hilarious. (laughter)

Well before this thing totally runs off the rails, what’s next? I’ve tried to keep up with your splits — but I haven’t been completely successful. I’m really impressed by how prolific you guys are. What are you working on, and where are you going next?
Well, one thing we’re thinking about is that instead of getting practice space, maybe we’ll use the money to go into the studio. Like maybe once a month? I’m not sure if we’re going to do that, but it would be really awesome. We’d use the time to generate ideas. But mainly it would just be to explore what we can do for the next record, instrumentation-wise and as far as arrangements go.

Is it a natural progression for you to experiment like this? Your live shows are you and Ben — guitar and bass and whoever else might sit in with you. Is that too limiting? Is this a way to stretch out and do something else?
Me and Ben playing alone happened after we asked our drummer to leave. And we realized it made it a whole lot easier to go on tour. We didn’t have to worry about anybody else. But we have tried to elect new members. For example, our friend Stephen Steinbrink was in the band for a short while — during which [time] we made some recordings — and it was really fun to play live with him. But then he went on tour with French Quarter and he’s exploring his own projects. We’ll have members for a short while, and they’ll realize that we’re jerks or have a kid and then it’s just me and Ben again.

The reason I’m poking around about this is that I guess I’m still obsessing over folk-punk and where it comes from and why it’s gaining in popularity right now? I always try and contextualize things in the broader culture. What’s happening that can help us account for it? But then listening to you, I’m reminded of something I read Chris and Hannah of Ghost Mice saying about why they went acoustic…they wanted to do a European tour, but they didn’t have any money. It was just way cheaper to carry your acoustics over there. You can literally play anywhere. It was all very utilitarian.
That’s exactly right! I was really interested in making electronic music, [but] you need a computer and software. I lacked the skills and the money necessary to make that possible with electric instruments. But then my friend Joel offered to sell me a guitar for like 50 bucks and I figured I’d start there. But at the same time, on a broader scale, it’s made making music really accessible to a whole lot of people. Guitars make noise. And if you don’t care what the tone is, then the notes will still be there. I think that’s a really, really beautiful thing.

In that sense there’s a sort of ideological logic to this — in the DIY sense of the word. It demystifies music-making in the earliest punk rock sense: “Here’s three chords, now go start a band.” This is just another expression of that.
That’s what the Minutemen would have done.

That’s right. If you remember the Minutemen documentary, We Jam Econo, on the second DVD in the set there’s footage of them wailing on acoustic versions of their songs. That’s from the ‘80s. This folk-punk thing may be a cohesive genre now, but there are a lot of people who have played with this over the years–
Oh yeah, the Knitters, Billy Bragg–

Yeah, Patti Smith — I have a couple of bootleg recordings of her doing acoustic sets back in ‘78 or ‘79. There’s kind of long tradition of this sort of thing. I was just listening to Chuck Ragan’s Rumbleseat project. I think those recordings were originally made in the late ‘90s.
Yeah, you know, we didn’t exactly feel like trailblazers when we started out. But you’re right, things have really started to cohere into what we’ve got now. Maybe that’s just a natural part of the evolution of the music. People are a lot more comfortable with what we’re doing. They aren’t shocked by it in any way.

Okay, Sean, this has been great but I’ve also taken up a lot of your time.
No, no, this has been fun.

I’ll tell you what, I’ll give you the last word. Are you or Ben involved in any causes or organizations you’d like to make our readers aware of? I like doing that for the good people who let us burn up a lot of their time — give a shout-out to something you think worthy of the effort.
Yeah, I can push an agenda. (laughter) You want to hear it?

Absolutely. Fire away.
When I was 15 years old I started volunteering for an organization called Teen Lifeline. It is a peer-based suicide and crisis hotline. It’s run by teenagers with the support of many master’s level clinicians and suicide counselors that kids in trouble can call. That really inspired me when I was young. I know that’s the line of work I want to pursue when I’m done being in band. There’s nothing any more honest that I can imagine. Teen Lifeline is currently supported by the 1-800 Hopeline, I believe? Volunteering and working for a non-profit is a way to really channel that idealism. And it really beats running off and joining the army!

Another group I support is called the Tumbleweed Center for Youth Development. They have 12 programs to help at-risk kids. I work at the Drop-In Center for homeless youth as an outreach worker. Now they run an art gallery and a screen-printing shop all run by youths from the drop-in center. So a big shout-out to them as well.

Okay great — I’ll make sure it gets in the piece. Thanks a lot for the chat.
Thank you, Mark.

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