Andrew Jackson Jihad’s darkly funny anthems have gained a cult following, one text at a time
In 2010, a friend sent me a text that just said “Andrew Jackson Jihad.” Not many bands can inspire this kind of text, because it reveals the ultimate confidence the sender has in his or her recommendation. It had no context, no description; in fact, no relevant information whatsoever. And yet, I instinctively knew not to wait for another, more explanatory text. I also knew not to text back “This is a band, right?” or “What about them?” or any response at all. I didn’t feel the need to seek out their music, or even Google them.
Deep down, I guess I knew this was a sleeper-cell text. It required no action at that moment. Everything, this text promised, would become clear in due time.
That time finally came when I saw Andrew Jackson Jihad open for Against Me! at the Catalyst a couple of years ago. Right away, there was something about them that reminded me of what I love about the Mountain Goats: punk energy channeled into a mostly acoustic fury; smart lyrics that begged for repeat listens, just to allow me to wrap my mind around them; and a constantly off-kilter delivery from lead singer Sean Bonnette that doesn’t always allow the listener to be sure if he’s being dead serious, completely sarcastic or somewhere in-between.
This was especially true on fan favorite “Survival Song,” which in the course of explaining the many ways Bonnette supposedly learned how to survive, contains the lines “and I fed false information to the audience” and “we just handed you a giant load of gibberish”—theoretically negating his own song entirely. (Or does it? See? Brain go ouch.) Even more unexpectedly, it breaks momentarily into Woody Guthrie’s “Do-Re-Mi.” For some reason, that was the moment my friend’s text popped back into my head.
“Oh, right,” I thought. “Andrew Jackson Jihad.”
With AJJ returning to Santa Cruz to play the Rio on Tuesday, July 29 (they also played a great show at Crepe Place last fall), I asked Bonnette about what inspired the Guthrie interpolation that messed with my brain.
“That’s a thing I would largely credit to hip-hop,” he says. “It’s kind of like a sample.”
Andrew Jackson Jihad’s music is often labeled folk-punk, and some influences on the Phoenix-based band—primarily the duo of Bonnette on guitar and Ben Gallaty on upright bass—are more obviously apparent, like Neutral Milk Hotel, Silver Jews and most of all the aforementioned Mountain Goats (AJJ did the stand-out cover on the 2012 tribute to the Mountain Goats’ Tallahassee album). But Bonnette says that hip-hop has actually been a model for his songwriting in many ways, not the least of which is the sheer number of jokes he tries to pack into his songs. (This starts with the titles, which include “The Michael Jordan of “Drunk Driving,” “Love in the Time of Human Papillomavirus,” “People,” “People II: The Reckoning,” and “People II 2: Still Peoplin.’”) But he thinks that “I kind of overdo it.”
“Rappers get it right,” he says of the humor balance. “I’m trying to get it right.”
Then, conversely, there’s the dark subject matter of their songs, many of which take at least a peek, and sometimes a long stare, into the dark side of human existence. (“Do, Re and Me” on AJJ’s new record Christmas Island, for instance, is not another Guthrie shout-out, but rather a song about the Heaven’s Gate suicide cult.) The songs “Murderer” and “Lady Killer,” both from the point of view of the titular protagonists, seemed to have forever linked Andrew Jackson Jihad to “songs about serial killers” on the Internet, but Bonnette doesn’t seem to mind, or attach too much importance to the subject matter he takes on at any given time. If he writes a song about a vampire, he says, it may be because he really wants to get inside the state of mind of a monster.
“Or,” he says, “I could have just watched a vampire movie, and want to entertain myself by writing a song about vampires.”
Andrew Jackson Jihad perform Tuesday, July 29 at the Rio Theater in Santa Cruz. Tickets are $12 advance, $15 at the door