[29 April 2014]
Andrew Jackson Jihad’s new record, Christmas Island, is about the apocalypse. Sometimes.
It takes place at a couple different raptures, and it gets trapped inside a tomb or two. Sometimes the sky is “full of teeth”, but not always. Sean Bonnette toyed with the idea of writing a record full to the brim with these end time stories, but it’s only one of Christmas Island‘s principle themes, sitting alongside personal vignettes about grieving, long-distance relationships and weeping inconsolably at museum exhibitions. That last one is the story of “Linda Ronstadt”, which starts with a very literal premise—“Today I lost my shit in a museum / it was a video installation of Linda Ronstadt”—and plays it over a hundred times. It’s just as well Christmas Island isn’t all apocalypse, anyway; after the end of the world, you can’t go home and write a song. That’s why we only ever hear about the fictional ones.
Andrew Jackson Jihad were once called a folk-punk band, which doesn’t mean they sound like Violent Femmes. Essentially, they used acoustic guitars, an upright bass, and people didn’t know how to reconcile that with Bonnette’s deranged lyrics. They made things ambiguous with their second record, Can’t Maintain, which opened with scuzzy electric guitars and pounding drums, and later threw its listener into a delightfully ironic rocker called, uh, “We Didn’t Come Here to Rock”. 2011’s Knife Man took that further: Bonnette and bassist Ben Gallaty separated the folk they once made from the punk, and made both go out to work in turn. It suggested a band that didn’t really give a shit about a niche like “folk-punk”, especially if it didn’t serve songwriting and joke-telling. If Andrew Jackson Jihad fit wordy festivals like The Fest before, Knife Man only confirmed their place at them, making their lyrically transferable punk more raucous. These songs always meant shit, but now they meant it louder.
While Christmas Island features the same band that made Knife Man so expansive—Preston Bryant on keys and guitar, Deacon Batchelor on drums and Mark Glick on cello (though you’ll note the record does away with Bonnette’s kazoo solos)—the electric aesthetic is scaled back. Christmas Island is instead an acoustic record brimming with the feeling of an electric one, aiming to be as painful as its lyrics, as noisy as an ensemble of folk players can make it. It brings the heavy, but brings flourishes with it—short piano and string motifs are its best moments, as well as the bells that toll for the briefest of moments on “Temple Grandin”—another sign that this is all happening on judgment day, maybe.
The decision to go acoustic was partially the influence of John Congleton, who produced the record, and also acted as a songwriting coach of sorts. Bonnette suffered tremendous writer’s block while making Christmas Island, and the result of Congletion’s advice to him (“Just write, worry later”) is AJJ’s best record yet. Call it brutal piano-rock: it’s hilarious for a kneejerk reaction, but tragic when you think about it a week later.
Last week, I phoned Sean Bonnette to yell all these thoughts at him.
* * *
This record is pretty fucked up. There’s a lot of gruesome stuff on it—corpses, killing kids, cannibals, etc. When you wrote this record, did you know that all these songs were gonna have that deathly undercurrent? Or did you see that after and think “Oh, shit, I can’t believe I wrote all these things!”
I think it was probably somewhere in the middle of that. I can’t really control the way I write songs. Any time I try and control them and steer them in a direction I want them to go, I never get anything done. But the wonderful thing is when I kind of relinquish that control and go into the “zone”, like a trance ... that’s when I finish writing songs. So yeah ... after that I can step back and scare myself.
There’s this kind of view of your songwriting that you write in these bright major keys that sound happy and then use these lyrics that are brutal and macabre. Do you see that juxtaposition? Is it a natural reflex for you to write that way?
I think that’s more accidental than intentional, but when I step back and look at it, I’m pretty satisfied with that juxtaposition. I think that’s a strength of mine. Like I said before, those kind of things aren’t a hundred percent intentional.
You said working with [producer] John Congleton, he wanted to make a really heavy, brutal record—the lyrics sound like they’re written in that frame of mind. Like you wrote this thrash metal kind of record and then it became a piano rock record. Were you writing these songs with a genre in mind? Did the songs’ sound shift when they were done?
When I wrote the songs, I wrote them with the idea in mind that they would be easy to transform, through arranging with the rest of the band and with Congleton. I wasn’t really sure what they would sound like when recorded—John nurtured this environment for me where I could just be kind of writing whatever came to mind and not worry about any of the production stuff. You know, get the songs as simple as possible, just acoustic guitar, vocals recorded onto my iPhone. Really simple, and then we could work out the other stuff later. And some of the songs really did transform and go from being something really simple and pretty to being pretty ... rugged.
How many songs did you write in those sessions? You said you had some self-doubt issues and you kept on writing. Were there a lot of leftovers?
Yeah, there were a lot of leftovers. I’d say I probably wrote about 30 songs, which are still around! After that, John sent a list of songs he really wanted to record and then we—the band and I—talked it over and added a couple more that we wanted to record. So yeah, from there, there’s about 15 left over. I’m probably going to cast most of those back into the ether.
Nothing you’d want to keep for another record?
Well, I wouldn’t want to keep them back for another record, but I wanna put them away for a while and then I want to return to them. Work on them again. That’s another thing I do a lot, is like, I’ll have a scrapheap of lyrics and melodies and half-finished songs that I can always come back to with a fresh frame of mind.
It interests me that was the structure of making the record—like, it sounds like a really free-form, write a song no matter what you think of it in the moment kind-of-thing. And yet this record is so cohesive, so where Knife Man felt a lot more anthologized, 16 songs about different things, this record feels more together and specific as a result of just writing.
Yeah. There was a false theme that I had running in a lot of the songs. For a little bit I thought it was gonna be, like, an album about the apocalypse, and that’s where “Children of God” came from. There’s a song called “#Armageddon” I wrote, and we realized we weren’t gonna record that one. They weren’t all about the end of the world, but I’d say there are about two or three on there. I’m kind of relieved we didn’t make an album about the apocalypse, though. I think the record is like—all the underlining themes of this record are a lot richer and more personal to me now.
Having that kind of temporary idea did manage to unlock a lot more songs even though we ended—or I guess I ended up scrapping—that idea. It’s a lot easier to write when you have a theme or a character to write in. Like, I’ve written a lot of really good songs by telling myself I’m writing for a different project. Like, “Oh, I’m gonna start a three piece rock ‘n’ roll band, and we’re gonna call it The Bible 2”.
That’s a good band name.
It’s a great band name! We were thinking of calling the album that, but we Googled and we saw there was already a couple albums and a comic book called The Bible 2. Another thing I’m grateful for—I’m grateful we scrapped that album title, because Christmas Island is a way better album title.
I feel like I might be missing something within the record—was that album name a specific reference?
I would only like to say it’s worth a Google. It goes on further with the juxtaposition theme, though—something that sounds happy but is actually really sad.
I love some of the references on this record. On “Do Re and Me” you reference Man is The Bastard (“Man is the Bastard is a brutal fucking band”) and their song about Thomas Lenz—that comes out of nowhere. Were you listening to them when you were making this?
[laughs] That was um—like, syllabically, that fit, as a pretty cheeky reference. But also, Man Is The Bastard was a Claremont, San Diego band, which ties into what that song is mostly about, which is the Heaven’s Gate Cult. They’re interesting. A music teacher who had a nervous breakdown met a nurse when he went to the hospital, Bonnie [Nettles], and they together started a kind of doomsday cult that sort of focused on the Hale-Bopp comet. Oh my god—to go down the wormhole, they made a lot of money web developing and that kept their cult operating.
That’s where the “website-making man” line on this song comes from, then?
Yeah, yeah, exactly. And their website is still running, which is funny! They died in the early ‘90s, when I was a kid living in San Diego.
To me, there’s this culture of metal to the record—like gruesome scenes on a t-shirt as a neutral thing—and a lot of the lyrics sound like that. But then you have lyrics about Temple Grandin (“Temple Grandin to the bullshit”) in there on two songs, and her role on the record is of like a juxtaposition from that gruesome stuff—these songs are motivated in a different way. How did you come to use her in the record?
Well, in my household growing up, she was kind of a hero of ours. My little brother was at a young aged diagnosed with autism, so—once again, early ‘90s—we found out he had autism and through learning more about autism we learned about Temple Grandin, and we realised that her condition gave her a really unique perspective and strength. I absolutely love her story and the things she’s doing, particularly her hugging machine.
And the whole Temple Grandin, Stevie Wonder, Helen Keller to the bullshit thing in that song, it all comes from a kind of now-classic hip-hop trope. Do you listen to Lil’ Wayne much? Well the trope, I think it comes from “She Will”. You know, he just really subtly drops it—“I’m Ray Charles to the bullshit”. I also kind of got the idea from Treasure MammaL, who has a song called “Stevie Wonder to the Bullshit”. But it just basically means to blind yourself to the haters, to any of the stuff in the world that upsets you. To just refuse to see it.
But the thing that I meant to do in the song was to change the use of these tropes. There’s also that Helen Keller line, and this rapper Aaron Cohen has a Helen Keller to the Bullshit song where you not only don’t see it but you don’t hear it either. But I looked up these figures and try to see the other things. Like, it’s not their handicaps that are helping them survive, it’s their talents. It’s Helen Keller’s ability to connect even though she has these things hampering her, and it’s Stevie Wonder’s talent. And with Temple Grandin it’s “finding a nicer way to kill it”. If you follow the logic through the pop trope then Temple Grandin would be the funniest, where it would just be, refuse to process it, be unable to connect or process anything.
Temple Grandin is the part of the trope you’ve coined, then? It’s yours where the first two were influenced?
Yeah, I had this idea to lay out the trope and then contribute my own thing to it.
There’s a line in “I Wanna Rock Out In My Dreams”, which I love, where you say “The older I get the more articulate I am at whining”—and I feel it rings true for the record. There’s this metaphorical imagery to your songwriting now, where it used to be more plainly stated, and literal. Did you want make that shift? Do you feel your style has changed this way?
Yeah. Ultimately I think it’s true of myself and anybody who writes songs. I wanna change as a songwriter. I want to change the way I write songs. I want my lyrics to become richer. That line is kind of self-effacing, but at the same time it’s also ... patting myself on the back for being more articulate! And that’s a lot of what songwriting is. It’s just a nicer way to say whining.
In a way I see that line is a sequel to “Sad Songs” [from Knife Man], a song about how you write whiny songs and how it’s productive, at least to you, even if it isn’t to others.
Yeah, it’s dangerous to write songs about writing songs! I try not to do it and on those two occasions I definitely did it, because like I said I can’t control it. I don’t typically like songs about being a musician—songs about touring can sometimes be the worst. But then you get “Playing In a Travellin Band” by CCR [Creedence Clearwater Revival], so there’s exceptions to every rule. And rules are dumb. [laughs]
Having said all this about these great metaphors, though, you’ve got “Linda Ronstadt”, which is a super literal song on a record a lot more surreal than it. How did you come about writing that one? Did you strive to keep it that open?
I wrote it the afternoon the thing happened, which is pretty rare. A lot of the times if I’m writing about an event in my life, it’ll take a while to process it, and I think the special thing about that one is that I hadn’t processed it by the time I started writing it. As with all the songs I had absolutely no idea what it was going to turn into. But it turned out being probably the most honest song I’ve written.
Even the four similes you have in that song [“a dog that never stops barking / like a cut that never stops bleeding / Arizona sunsets in the early evening / or a grown man inconsolably weeping”], the final one is literal ... a simile that actually happened?
Yeah, I like that part a lot. Like, three similes that then just go into like, “or ... it was exactly like this.”
Obviously there are songs you’ve written way back like “I Love You” that were very character-based and from a different perspective. Do you feel you still write from character, or is it all your own perspective?
Man, that’s a really good question. I think for the most part I write from my own perspective, and I do sometimes still write from character, but I don’t write so much to highlight the character anymore. It’s more like the things that the character’s observing. “Getting Naked, Playing With Guns” I’d say is the closest thing to getting into a character and writing a song.
I’m glad to hear that.
Yeah. That was me writing ... I don’t want to give too much away about the content of the song, but I’m the “neighbor kid.”
What always stuck out to me about “Sad Songs” is the line where you say “Who gives a rat’s ass, Steve / just write a love song”, and I always wondered if that was you really thinly disguising yourself in a character.
With “Sad Songs” I really for a time got into the idea of creating a completely different character that could perform and release their own single, and try to make it sound as old as possible. Kind of like, I would create this long lost outlaw country great that people are just now coming back around to—named, I think, Steve Chavez. And that didn’t end up happening, but that’s an example of when I’ll try and write for a different project, which is a lot easier than trying to write for Andrew Jackson Jihad. That’s how “Kokopelli Face Tattoo” was written. And “I Wanna Rock Out In My Dreams” was kind of written for something similar to that. I recorded a Casio version of that song—the demo was this Casio thing—and I really wanted to go into like a Blue Stop, the train stop in Chicago that I live near, and put it on a boom-box, have a karaoke microphone, dress up funny and sing that song. I didn’t end up doing that either. But I go a song out of it!
I feel this record might be your most collaborative and you write a lot of songs that I feel were out of your comfort zone—“Coffin Dancer” sounds like nothing you’ve ever done before, really atmospheric. Did that develop while recording and having a full band?
Let’s see, that one. I think I finished that one when Preston [Bryant] was visiting me and we recorded a demo of it. I knew I wanted it to be something atmospheric. The demos of it ended up really long. It’s mostly the two chords, Am and C, and with all that space I got to figure out all the parts that I wanted and when we got into the studio we truncated that a whole lot—John was like, “You know, this song kinda feels a little long! How ‘bout chopping off all these big empty spaces and kind of squishing everything together?” It’s still kind of one of the longer songs I’ve written. I knew I wanted it to be soft and kind of spooky. And then Jamie [Stewart of Xiu Xiu] came and put his vocals on the middle verse.
I was straining myself trying to work out who sang on that verse.
That’s all Jamie Stewart. Dream come true. I fucking love Xiu Xiu, I think they’re the best. I’ve learned a lot about songwriting from Xiu Xiu. I think finally recognizing that and looking at how Jamie writes songs, and lyrics especially, was a big win. Sometimes I get surprised when I have a little bit of perspective, and do something [with someone] I’ve been enjoying for years and realize just how that’s kind of effected the way I write songs. It makes me feel good, kind of part of a lineage.
To have him on the record is kind of a passing of the beacon? That you’re now part of that lineage?
I don’t think Jamie has passed any beacon because he’s still making incredible work, but it just felt really good. We opened up for Xiu Xiu in like 2005 when we were like super young and had no fucking clue what we were doing as a band, and in spite of this, John emailed Jamie and said “Hey, you wanna sing on this?” and Jamie was like “Ha! I remember them from when they were young!” The vocals were done for us the next day.
This record is kind of an acoustic ensemble piece, done with the same band from the live record you released last year [Live From The Crescent Ballroom]. Do you know how you want to approach these songs live? Are you gonna play them as an acoustic ensemble?
Mostly acoustic. We’re working on ways to make it just as grating. That’s not a nice word! But as driven—as overdriven. I’m getting a pedal for my amp that can distort my acoustic guitar enough, and we’re gonna bring an electric bass along with Ben’s upright. We’re gonna do older songs, obviously, but for the more rock ‘n’ roll songs Ben will play electric bass.
One of my favorite things about this acoustic set-up is you get these amazing flourishes, these one-off sounds—like “Do Re And Me” sounding so sweet and the piano on “Best Friend”. You get these small things you wouldn’t get electric.
Oh, absolutely. We’re gonna have a cello as well on the tour, as well. Our tour manager, Mark, is a really good cellist. He’s played cello on our records, from “American Tune” to now, and he’s gonna be playing a sweet electric cello. It looks so cool.
You said you were happy with this record but maybe your next one will be better—you’re as happy as you can be with the self-doubt in your songwriting you had. Do you like listening back to it now? I assume you’re still proud of it?
I love it. When I said that, I pretty much say that in some form of another with the end of every record, that I hope our next one is better. And better can be completely subjective. I would like to get a lot out of the next record—as much as I got out of this one. As far as the self-doubt stuff goes, that’s over for now. I hope it never comes back! You could call it writer’s block, but the way I’d like to write songs for the next record is to continue on from what I’ve been doing on this one. Just keep writing songs, don’t worry about any big album looming in the future. And it’s fun to have a lot of songs. It’s fun to have a lot of songs you don’t know what to do with than no songs and just the idea of an album.
The last lyric on this record is “Bad Lieutenant 2 is the greatest movie ever”. I forgot to ask—do you actually think it’s the greatest movie ever?
I don’t think it’s the greatest movie ever, but I think a video store clerk somewhere totally thinks it does. And I think it’s one of the best.
I thought that was a cheap shot to get Nicolas Cage to appear on your record.
That’d be nice! Nicolas Cage is my favourite actor. Matthew McConaughey is giving him a run for his money right now. I love what he does. That six minute video of him losing his shit. That’s his actor’s reel. If you need a guy that will freak out beyond any reason, he’s your guy.
Robin Smith can be contacted by email.