Andrew Jackson Jihad: Optimism Through Pessimism
The music of Andrew Jackson Jihad often casts its gaze upon the darkest parts of humanity. The songs on Knife Man, their most recent album, deal with homelessness, selfishness, laziness, self-sufficiency (and the lack thereof), murder, compassion (and the lack thereof), hopelessness and more, but vocalist and guitarist Sean Bonnette doesn’t see his band as the ultimate bummer machine they appear to be. “I consider myself and our band to be pretty optimistic,” Bonnette says. “The way I view my songs is that they help me get through stuff, and if people connect with them, I have a theory that it might be because they have the same feelings, and hearing another person say that might be validating for them.” Bonnette’s theory seems to be becoming more and more valid, as the band’s audience has grown steadily over the past five years, and their albums continue to garner praise from inside and outside of the punk rock world.
To be fair, Andrew Jackson Jihad’s music isn’t entirely comprised of songs to slit your wrists to—there are also some songs where you can slit your wrists and laugh at the same time. “American Tune” dissects the privileges of white, straight males in America in such a straightforward way that the absurdity becomes laughable. Just when it seems that Bonnette’s outlook is changing on “Gift of the Magi 2,” he delivers this line: “I’ve got my whole life to live/ And I’ve got all my love to give/ To all you fuckers that I hate.” On injecting his songs with humor, Bonnette says, “You can’t really get a lot done by just being angry about something. I think the humor is another aspect that makes the music optimistic, because it doesn’t leave someone bereft of hope if there’s a joke in there.”
Knife Man also sees Andrew Jackson Jihad continue to evolve musically, as Bonnette and bassist Ben Gallaty, the two permanent members of AJJ, are joined on nearly every song by guest musicians and additional instrumentation. Because of their usually, sparse acoustic instrumentation, the band is often lumped in with the folk-punk movement made popular by Against Me! and Plan-It-X Records in the early ’00s, but Bonnette has a more fitting descriptor for the type of music he and Gallaty make: “‘Acoustic rock’ is the closest thing that describes our band, even though that sounds way lame. The term ‘folk punk’ reeks of something with an expiration date. I’ve seen it happen with plenty of other genres where it was a thing for a while, then people abandon it and swear up and down that they never liked it,” he says. “It’s like rap metal.” A mandolin finds its way onto a few Knife Man songs, as does a kazoo (which is fucking awesome), and “Sad Songs” prominently features a piano, but the majority of the album features the classic punk rock instrumentation of electric guitar, bass and drums. There’s definitely a folky vibe on a lot of Knife Man, but there’s also a lot of fuzzed out indie rock, á la Neutral Milk Hotel, and spazzy poppish-punk, like Bomb the Music Industry!
In the time since Knife Man was written and recorded, Bonnette has temporarily relocated from the ultra-conservative metropolis of Phoenix, Ariz. to Chicago, Ill. In addition to adapting to the drastically different political and meteorological climates, Bonnette has also adapted his range of influences. “You can say my taste in music is kind of changing—developing and growing into stuff like Ted Nugent and Nine Inch Nails again. I think it might be related to memories of the snow, because I used to listen to a lot of that stuff in Minnesota [as a kid],” Bonnette says. “I think there’s actually stuff on Knife Man that Nine Inch Nails influenced. I didn’t really realize how profoundly Trent Reznor’s lyrics affected me as a songwriter. He’s incredibly good at stating his condition, but his condition is always full of despair and hate.” It’s a connection that most people probably wouldn’t make, but I, for one, will never be able to listen to “Back Pack” without feeling NIN’s influence again.
This spring, Andrew Jackson Jihad will tour with a full band for the first time ever. “I wanna rock. Ben and I both really wanna rock right now, and there’s only so much rocking you can do with acoustic instruments before you get tired of it,” he says. Bonnette and Gallaty expect to play half of their set as a traditional, acoustic Andrew Jackson Jihad set (without a setlist, as is the band’s tradition) before being joined by a drummer and an additional guitarist onstage. Bonnette also expects some extra instrumentation, including mandolin, keyboard, and maybe, just maybe, kazoos.
Andrew Jackson Jihad will be performing with Laura Stevenson & The Cans and ROAR! at Mojo’s in Ogden on March 23.