Andrew Jackson Jihad, Part 2

Andrew Jackson Jihad, Part 2

With introductions now out of the way, in part 2 writer James G. Carlson gets to check out the Andrew Jackson Jihad as they perform in Wilkes-Barre, PA, and then sits down with the duo for an interview.

- James G. Carlson
Photo by Alyson Schill

posted August 7, 2009

After nearly a two hour drive northbound on Tuesday, July 28th, I was visiting Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, for the first time. Though I didn't stray much from Café Metropolis on Main Street, the experience was well worth the long drive. After all, it isn’t every day one gets to attend an Andrew Jackson Jihad show, since they only visit Pennsylvania once or twice a year.

For a small town in the Northeast, Wilkes-Barre wasn’t exactly what I expected, as the seemingly endless miles of heavily wooded roadside and large mountain ranges in the not too distant background on the way there led me to imagine a rustic piece of small town America, something akin to the Poconos. Instead, I found myself at the hot, bustling center of a well developed town on its way toward becoming the beginnings of a real city.

From the Main Street side, Café Metropolis was a boarded-up storefront with one of those pull-down locking gates securing the plate glass windows on either side of the door. There were no signs, professionally made or otherwise, indicating that we had arrived at the right location. In almost every way imaginable, it looked very much like a piece of abandoned commercial real estate. In fact, if it hadn’t been for the sound of drums and guitars emanating from the establishment’s interior to the street outside, it is quite possible that I never would have found it at all.

But as I drove slowly down Main Street, just as I began braking at a traffic light turned red, I heard the thunder of kick drum and tom-tom, the pop and snap of a snare, the crash of cymbals, and the chords of an electric guitar ringing out in all of their distorted magnificence. At that point, I parked the car curbside and began walking around the block to the rear entrance. As luck would have it, I was able to cut through a sort of alley halfway down the block, which took me right around to Café Metropolis’s rear door.

As is usually the case at all-ages venues, there was a man at the entrance taking money and stamping hands. “Have Andrew Jackson Jihad played yet?” I asked the man. Without looking up from the magazine he was reading, he told me that Andrew Jackson Jihad would be starting in about ten minutes. Sometimes leaving late for an early show pays off. It was perfect timing on my part. After all, I had traveled there with the singular purpose of catching Andrew Jackson Jihad’s set. That is not to suggest I wouldn’t have enjoyed the other bands present. The truth is I would have been stoked to have gotten there in time to catch Delay’s set. And…having neither heard nor seen the other two acts that night -- These Elk Forever and The Greek Favorites -- it no doubt would have been cool to have experienced two new bands.

Having forked over a bit of cash for both me and my good friend, K, we were given admittance to the establishment. Like countless other independently owned and operated venues across the country, this one wasn’t much to look at, with band stickers wallpapered throughout the place, with sharpie tags scribbled from floor to ceiling, with an evident lack of general up-keep, and a large number of teenagers and young adults sweating and chatting and waiting for the next band to take the stage. Most of the other people in attendance were outside between sets, smoking, wiping away the slow rivulets of sweat running down their faces and bodies, and engaging each other in excited conversation.

Only moments after arriving, I saw Sean Bonnette and Ben Gallaty -- the two young men who together make up the core of Andrew Jackson Jihad. They weren't difficult to pick out in the crowd, as they certainly aren't your run-of-the-mill, nondescript individuals. On the other hand, they aren’t the most stand-out guys either. But I didn't approach them at that point, as it was clear that they were reading themselves and their equipment for their set.

Phoenix, Arizona's folk-punk duo Andrew Jackson Jihad have been traveling the highways of America this summer on the ’09 Asian Man Tour, otherwise referred to as “Andrew Jackson Jihad’s Summer of Pain ’09,” playing their unique style of folk-punk for the City Earth Underground at various venues and house shows. July found me fortunate enough not just to attend one of their three Pennsylvania shows but to interview them as well. They were on tour promoting their upcoming full-length on Asian Man Records -- "Can't Maintain" -- in addition to a few other EPs and 7" records, such as their splits with Apocalypse Meow and Cobra Skulls, and a self-released collection of songs titled "Operation Stackola." Yes, they have been busy recording and releasing a number of amazing original song collections to independent music in general and folk-punk in specific. And I was there at the show in Wilkes-Barre not just as a music journalist but as a fan of Andrew Jackson Jihad, an individual intent on celebrating and applauding their great contributions to the underground art community.

More and more people filed into Café Metropolis's dim, stuffy interior as Bonnette and Gallaty began their set. Before long, it was almost difficult to move. All one could do was watch the show from one's claustrophobic spot on the floor, wiping the occasional beads of sweat from one's face, singing along, and clapping enthusiastically after each song. One thing is for sure: Bonnette and Gallaty are humble individuals with a genuine and heartfelt awareness of humanity; its beauty and ugliness, its sanity and madness, its triumphs and failures, its genius and folly, its many points of complexity and simplicity, its strengths and weaknesses, and everything else that makes the human animal...well, human. And for all those reasons, including the negative end of the listed contraries, they love people...which is something they even sing out in one of their more popular songs: "People are the greatest thing to happen." It is presumably because of those feelings that they have little trouble connecting with the crowds for which they play.

Between bits of country-like twang and occasional note progressions, Sean Bonnette, bespectacled, slightly disheveled, and bearded, offered up what I can only describe now as frenzies of strumming on his acoustic guitar and lines of peculiar vocal delivery which fluctuated from gentle as a lamb to full-throttled. As always, Bonnette was accompanied by the tall, lean, and heavily bearded Ben Gallaty, whose bass playing was somewhere between old saloon country and acoustibilly punk, and one can easily watch him for hours pulling and plucking the thick strings and pinning down notes along the neck of his monstrous upright.

Sometimes there is a group of auxiliary musicians, who bring to the table a variety of instrumentation, such as: mandolin, violin, glockenspiel, trumpet, accordion, banjo, drums, and extra vocals. All of those ingredients only serve to make Bonnette and Gallaty’s music into a punk band gone terribly wrong…or perfectly right, depending on one’s perspective. It was just Bonnette and Gallaty playing that night, however, and the songs were just as enjoyable stripped of the auxiliary instrumentation as with it. Being that Andrew Jackson Jihad is one of my favorite bands these days, I was more than a little excited to interview them. And so I am equally excited to be passing along the contents of that interview to you, their fans, my readers, and especially those of you who haven’t discovered their music yet.

Being that I know very little about Andrew Jackson Jihad other than the fact that you two have diverted somewhat from the current folk-punk standard to create something wholly unique -- a frenzy of sound consisting of upright bass, acoustic guitar, and some of the most inimitable vocal stylings I have come across in my experience -- I would like to use this first question as an introductory piece, with which to ask: Who are the Andrew Jackson Jihad, not just as musicians and singer/songwriters, but as human beings of this mad, mad world in which we live?

Bonnette: Well, my name is Sean, and I go to school for Social Work. I just got a dog named Sassy with my girlfriend Toni. I work on-call for a homeless shelter about 30 hours a week. I love my friends. I enjoy reading, drinking, meeting people, people named Ben, playing in this band, listening to Paul Simon, and buying VHS tapes from pawn shops, among other things.

Gallaty: Hell, I’m a good ol’ boy from a small town in northern Arizona. Chino Valley is pretty much summed up by guns, 4x4 vehicles, and domestic beer. Currently, I live with my lovely fiancé, two sweet mutts, and a cat that Sean is deathly allergic to. I typically work coffee in between tours, and I love making shelves out of wood. I cook a lot and try to spend as much time as possible with my close friends and family, eating and drinking on the wonderful porches of Arizona.

Your music is utterly exceptional, and your songs tend to be a combination of humorous social commentary, irony, and personal thoughts, feelings, and experiences on a variety of subjects. And your music seems to compliment that subject matter very well. How did your sound come to be what it is? In other words, was that the exact sound you were aiming for when you began AJJ, or did it sort of take on a mind of its own, forming around your combined musical skills and individual ideas and purely by accident?

Bonnette: Thank you for being so nice to us!! Our band started when Ben got an upright bass and we started playing songs together. Justin White, the drummer we played with at the time, talked us all into being in a band together, and Ben and I have been playing together ever since, about five years now! As far as the sound…I don’t think there was any particular sound we were aiming for, although I think our choice in instrumentation definitely influences the way we sound.

Gallaty: Yeah, when Sean and I first met, we had wildly different musical tastes but a similar sense of humor and thought process. Fortunately, we each gave the other’s music a chance and made a band out of the instruments we had. The whole thing was pretty unintentional, and it has led to us being able to play whatever suits us at the time. Our band name is a great example of us not really thinking this thing through. This band has gotten a lot bigger than we ever imagined it would.

What is the history of Andrew Jackson Jihad? Or, to break it down into a multiple part question: What other bands have you shared the stage with at your shows? What have been your experiences recording and touring? And, lastly, what have been some of the more memorable moments of being in AJJ?

Bonnette: Hmmm… We’ve gotten to play with some amazing bands and people over the years, almost too many to mention without forgetting someone and feeling bad. So, I will list the bands and people we thank in the liner notes of our new record for the first part of this question. It’s the most comprehensive list I can think of, and there are also some restaurants, record labels, and venues: Bomb the Music Industry!, Kepi Ghoulie and Dino, Lemuria, Ghost Mice, Vision of a Dying World, Off With Their Heads, Golden Boots, The Gunshy, O Pioneers!!!, Shinobu, Hard Girls, Pteradon, Phat N Phunky Crew, Classics of Love, Brian Hanover, Dan Janisch, Apple Miner Colony, Cobra Skulls, Apocalypse Meow, Partners in 818, Mischief Brew, Kevin Seconds, Porches, G.U.A.C., French Quarter, Foot Ox, Rumspringer, Bhodisattva (RIP), Asleep in the Sea (PND), Alliaceous, Treasure Mammal, Run with the Hunted, Drunk Armstrong, Delay, Great Job, Glass and Ashes, The Lawrence Arms, Good Luck, Paul Baribeau, No Effort Productions, Dry River, Trunk Space, Hickey Underworld, The Che Café, The Lost Leaf, Will Anderson, Asian Man, Plan-It-X, No Idea, Traffic Street, Art of the Underground, Silver Sprocket, Nightpass, Folktale, Pirates Press, Barros on Power Road, and the cities of Phoenix and Prescott.

Recording…that’s another story. Goddamn, recording is a terrifying and rewarding experience. The new one was played by us as well as twelve other amazing people: Deacon, Preston, Dave, Owen, Kepi, Jalipaz, David, Matt, Tobie, Jaspen, Jeff, and Allyson. Typically, we will brainstorm what instrumentation we want in the song before we go into the studio, and whatever happens after that is a happy accident. Our band believes in happy accidents…in fact, we love happy accidents.

When we tour, it’s usually Ben and I, and then usually a friend of ours to sell merch and hang out with us. We call them road dogs, and I would also like to individually list and thank them for their service and friendship: Dan Trovillan, Carlos Villegas, Julie Ortegon, Mark Glick, Matt “Fluke” Thompson, Nick Afflitto, Ryan Piscitelli, and, of course, our good friends Dylan and Brent in Partners in 818.

Rather than ramble on for even longer, I will tell one cool story about touring: I fell down the stairs of the mayor of Kansas City’s third floor bedroom. Mayor Funkhouser, father to Andrew (nicest dude, ever). I almost broke my neck. It was tight!

Gallaty: Without the fine people who have played with us, talked to us, and generally inspired us, this band would be much shittier than it currently is.

I have been in the studio with other bands and engineers, and we are thoroughly smitten with Jalipaz at audioconfusion. His recording philosophy, skills, and studio environment make recording a very natural, fulfilling experience. We go into the studio with a handful of songs and a general concept of what instruments we want for each song. Since Phoenix is teeming with musical talent, it becomes a matter of inviting friends to come in and fill out the mix. It’s great to hear the songs build, piece by piece, throughout the whole process.

Touring is similarly great. I have always enjoyed traveling and it gives me the opportunity to get a lot out of the cities we visit. You roll into town and immediately get hooked up with the cool, likeminded people that want to show you a good time. It is a very great way to check out check out cities and the communities therein.

We did a 1080 spinout in Wolfenstein 3D the Van in winter of ‘07/’08. The van was fine. Dan Trovillan was driving. Nobody was hurt. Shit was too real! He landed it first try! Ben Horowitz has a tuft of white hair on his inner left thigh as a result.

From what I’ve gathered, you guys are based out of the Phoenix, Arizona area. Geographically, what impact has your location had on your lives and your music?

Bonnette: I think geography has a huge influence on the music people make, and I would like to think that our band sounds like Phoenix. Where one lives permeates everything about one’s life; so it’s a natural progression that it would impact the way one expresses oneself.

Gallaty: Phoenix is a very spread out city that requires you to work for your fun. It is not established in the same way that towns like Portland, Austin and Chicago are. It’s great, though. We don’t have a musical history to compete with or adhere to. Some of my favorite bands are from Phoenix and Arizona, and I think that people there are much more accepting of divergence and musical variety.

Lastly, Phoenix is hot as Satan’s asshole! It keeps the posers out.

What are some of your favorite bands and singer/songwriters?

Bonnette: Here’s the shit right now: Todd Snider, Johnny Flynn, Comadre, Cobra Skulls, Cryptacize. There are many more, but that’s what I got right now.

Gallaty: This band Dr. Dog has been hitting my speakers pretty hard and frequent. The following bands kick my ass and are from Arizona: Partners in 818, Asleep in the Sea (RIP), Life in Pictures (RIP), Businessman’s Lunch, Foot Ox, Porches, Sweetbleeders, and Golden Boots.

Do you two write the songs together, take turns with it, or does one of you do most of the songwriting?

Bonnette: I write the words and a lot of the music, and then Ben takes the song and makes it catchier and more interesting musically. He plays a bunch of instruments in the studio and polishes up the songs real nice.

Gallaty: Our system works thusly: Sean writes a dope jam, I hear said dope jam once, we play it live and I fuck it up the first two times, and then we have a new song that’s ready to be recorded!

I’ve noticed that you’ve been releasing splits and albums on Plan-It-X Records -- a wonderful indie label, in my opinion -- including your split with Ghost Mice, Only God Can Judge Me. Have you always worked with them, or is it a new partnership of sorts? Moreover, what was it like doing a split with the great Ghost Mice?!

Bonnette: We’ve now put out two releases on Plan-It-X, and it’s a wonderful thing. Chris from Ghost Mice currently runs the label out of Cairo, Illinois, and has always been a warm, supportive and entertaining individual to know and rock with. We recorded the split in Mesa with our boy Jalipaz; so, the recording process for the split was more or less the same. I really enjoyed holding the disc in my hands when it was finished!

Gallaty: It was really flattering to have Ghost Mice want to do a split with us on Plan-It-X. Hannah, Chris, and everyone else we’ve met from that community is great. By the way, buy the Carrie Nations CD from Plan-It-X now! It is one of my favorite pop-punk records, ever. There are no plans at present to do anything with Ghost Mice or Plan-It-X, but we will definitely do something with them in the future. They treat us very well.

I couldn't help noticing that a lot of the artwork on your records, as well as some of the work that I have seen online, is the work of the same artist? Who is that artist? And why did you pick him or her to do the artwork, aside from the reason that it's pretty good stuff?

Bonnette: Nepotism! We get our friends to do artwork for us because it tends to be cheaper and better than doing it with someone we don't know. It also benefits them with a greater level of exposure for their art. Our awesome stable of artists now includes: Ryan Piscitelli, Elise Topinka, Julia Wertz, and Just Francis.

Gallaty: We love the art too! It is great to see an idea come to life at the hands of a good artist. Alex Votichenko (djentrification) has also supplied us with sweet images.

Although I think I already know the answer to this question, I am compelled to ask it anyway, as when I do ask it in my interviews it tends to reveal a lot about those bands and singer/songwriters. Evidently, you are more of a live band than a studio band or anything else. But what do you personally prefer when touring: mid-level venues and dive bars and punk clubs or house shows? And why?

Bonnette: I don't have any preference based on those things, which I think are more aesthetic choices than anything else. Here are my criteria for a show I'd like to play:

  1. Access to clean, cold, drinkable water.
  2. Enough room for a person to breathe.
  3. A sound system that affords every audience member the right to hear music.
  4. Everyone who chooses to attend feels welcome.

Whether it's a house or club doesn't matter at all as long as these things are made available to the people that attend the shows.

Gallaty: I was thinking of starting a grassroots marketing campaign to promote ginger ale consumption. It is a great drink that refuses to sink to the despicable, garish promotional techniques of the mainstream soft drinks. Ginger ale is being pushed off the shelves of America's fine convenience stores by five kinds of Coca-Cola and fucking sugar-free mountain berry water. While Canada Dry may have too much integrity to sink to their level, I, being a man of loose morals, am not. Fuck Mountain Dew and their extreme imagery. Drink Ginger Ale -- SKULLFUCK YOUR THIRST!

Thanks a lot, guys. I appreciate you making the time to do this interview with me.

Both: Thank you for your thoughtful questions. It was an immense pleasure.