Andrew Jackson Jihad, Part 1

Andrew Jackson Jihad, Part 1

Get to know Phoenix, Arizona's folk-punk duo Andrew Jackson Jihad with part 1 of this series as the band spend the summer on the "Andrew Jackson Jihad Summer of Pain '09."

- James G. Carlson
Photo by Alyson Schill

posted July 29, 2009

Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes… the ones who see things differently – they’re not fond of rules... You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them, but the only thing you can’t do is ignore them because they change things... they push the human race forward, and while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius, because the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do.

-Jack Kerouac

“Sometimes less is better” is a true enough statement…and that is certainly the case when it comes to Phoenix, Arizona’s folk-punk duo Andrew Jackson Jihad. Sean Bonnette, guitar and vocals, and Ben Gallaty, upright bass and backup vocals, are the whole of this musical endeavor…and they are all it needs. Bonnette’s guitar playing, which is less centered on technical finger-work than it is on busy strumming patterns, tends to be quite percussive, canceling out their need for a drummer altogether. Gallaty’s bass playing, though done with a remarkable degree of skill and style, is also wonderfully chaotic. And while every element of their sound is more than a little notable, Bonnette’s vocals especially stand out, with a peculiar and full-of-feeling style of delivery.

Lyrically, Andrew Jackson Jihad cover a variety of topics, including everything from the often terrifying and sometimes comical human condition to abusive fathers, feelings of abandonment, personal anguish and self-deprecation, from the absurdities of religion and their vengeful Christ to the horrors of teenage drug use, relationships, serial murder, and sometimes just life-things in general, but not in the way you might think. That is, the lyrics are often full of irony, razor-sharp wit, and raging openness, the words pouring forth in a way that seems less composed than conjured on the fly, and yet he speaks and sings and passionately shouts in equal turns, daring and unabashedly and unapologetic, all intelligence and heart and guts. And if Andrew Jackson Jihad’s catchy, powerful and unusual music doesn’t draw you in, their lyrics will certainly hold your attention and keep you listening.

In describing the Andrew Jackson Jihad’s sound, one can easily say they are a punk band gone terribly wrong. And many of us are glad of it. Of course, it is undeniable that there is a strong undercurrent of punk running through their songs, while much of the rest is hardly classifiable with any degree of specificity, but instead runs the gamut from anti-folk and acoustibilly to experimental Americana and the gritty, frenzied strummings of twisted roots music. In fact, it was during the ‘08 Asian Man Tour, after the Wilkes Barre show, that a reviewer by the name of Brian Kremkau wrote about the Andrew Jackson Jihad, saying their songs were, “…almost like punk rock campfire music.” Such a description, though clever and fair enough in many ways, fails to encompass their sound in its wide-ranging entirety. In other words, it simply falls short of giving Bonnette and Gallaty their due credit. But...no matter how much thought I give the subject, I too fail to offer up a fitting term for their sound.

Earlier this summer, Bonnette and Gallaty embarked on a rather ambitious tour, aptly named “Andrew Jackson Jihad Summer of Pain ‘09,” again with other Asian Man Recording artists Kevin Seconds, Kepi Ghoulie, O’ Pioneers, and Bomb the Music Industry. The tour is still underway, having started in the Southwest, moved across much of the country toward the Northeast, and then scheduled to head back again to the Southwest. Next week Bonnette and Gallaty will be in Pennsylvania, at which point I plan to catch up with them in Wilkes Barre, PA, and then again in my hometown of Philadelphia. There’s even some befitting poster art contributed by visual artist Julia Wertz for the tour, which one can find at the Andrew Jackson Jihad homepage.

Just in time for the tour, these fun, goodhearted, slightly crazy, and acoustic instrument-wielding lads have finished recording their second full-length on Asian Man Records, “Can’t Maintain,” which, unlike their previous releases, shows them offering up two or three electric, straightforward punk compositions. For those of us who have followed their work closely, we have already seen such efforts in songs like “Randy’s House” and “Let’s Get Murdered,” as well as a few others. But none of them have anything on the first track on “Can’t Maintain,” “Heartilation,” which is probably their heaviest song so far, with full-on distortion, standard punk drumming, and great lyrics like: “I wanna break apart my heart / glue the pieces to my car / crash it into a wall / I don’t want to feel at all / I wanna break apart my heart / douse it in gasoline / till the fire burns clean / flick a cigarette like that movie Con-Air / doused in gasoline...And, if you think that you’re better than me, alright / there’s no one to love, no one to trust, in my life.” Despite certain shifts in instrumentation and composition, which are necessary to the songwriting process (in the opinion of this writer), Andrew Jackson Jihad have remained true to the sound that has earned them a worldwide following. To those of you in that following, I am sorry to inform you that “Can’t Maintain” is currently only available at their live shows while they tour this summer...that is, until September, when it will be available from Asian Man Records’ mail order.

Having only established their endeavor in 2004, Bonnette and Gallaty have been busy little beavers, as the saying goes, working hard at building upon the early homemade recordings that served as their foundation – a few demos, a full-length titled “Candy Cigarettes and Cap Guns” (rumored to be re-released on Asian Man in the coming months), a six-song EP titled “Issue Problems,” and a live album. Since then, the duo’s ceaseless touring and recording has caught the attention of Plan-It-X Records, Art of the Underground, and Asian Man Records, who have all three released recordings from the band to date. It was Andrew Jackson Jihad’s three-way split with their fellow Arizonians Golden Boots and Portland’s Flaspar on Nightpass Handmade Records that served as their first official release on a label, however, and that was in 2006, a mere two years after they formed the band. Asian Man then released their first full-length on a label – “People Who Can Eat People Are the Luckiest People in the World.” With songs like “Brave as a Noun,” “Survival Song,” and “People,” “People Who Can Eat People Are the Luckiest People in the World” has unquestionably become a favorite among Andrew Jackson Jihad fans. Not long after the “People...” album was released, Bonnette and Gallaty were back it again, recording an amazing split with Ghost Mice on Plan-It-X Records – “Only God Can Judge Me.” Now we have “Can’t Maintain,” which is sure to strike the same massive chord as its predecessor with their enthusiastic fan-base, as it definitely shows the same level of quality and dedication. Moreover, it is decidedly a clear indication of what to expect from them in the future.

In addition to “Can’t Maintain,” Bonnette and Gallaty have also put out an eight-song self-released album titled “Operation Stackolla.” They didn’t stop there, though. They couldn’t. They have a calling; and that calling has also called them to create two split 7” records, one with Cobra Skulls, on which they play a cover of Neutral Milk Hotel’s “Two-Headed Boy,” and another with Apocalypse Meow, on which they’ve given us yet more Andrew Jackson Jihad originals.

Indeed, Bonnette and Gallaty have put the fun back in folk punk. In fact, shortly after I introduced Andrew Jackson Jihad to a good friend of mine, she stated that, “They’re probably the most important and fun thing to happen to acoustic music since the Violent Femmes.” Even though I hadn’t listened to the Femmes in a long time, I thought about it and couldn’t help but agree with her to an extent. It’s true that there are a lot of incredible acoustic projects in music these days; but on the other side of that coin, there are also a lot of terrible ones. And while Andrew Jackson Jihad undoubtedly belong to the former, I can’t help but find them nearly peerless in what they are doing. And that is why I chose the Kerouac quote at the start of this article; Bonnette and Gallaty are the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes... the ones who see things differently. And you can’t ignore them because they do change things... and while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius, because the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do.

Keep stopping by throughout the next two weeks, as I have recently interviewed Bonnette and Gallaty, and I plan to publish that interview in its entirety after the Pennsylvania shows.