Back in 2004, Andrew Jackson Jihad played local Phoenix venues for tiny audiences.
But over the past 12 years, they’ve made six acclaimed studio albums, headlined international tours, and risen to the forefront of folk punk before starting fresh with a new sound. If you’re in any way involved in the Phoenix music scene, you’ve probably heard the name Andrew Jackson Jihad, and if you’ve heard it, you probably remember it.
Except that’s not their name anymore. Earlier this year, the band announced their decision to officially change their band name to the less-provocative abbreviation AJJ. But as singer Sean Bonnette tells us, they’re grateful to finally be rid of the problematic title.
“Do you stand by all the stuff you did when you were 17 or 18?” he says, the age when the band chose that name. “I don’t think anyone does.”
“A lot of times when you tell people the band name, they’re like ‘Aw, that’s really good,’” elaborates bassist Ben Gallaty. “Or you get asked by a fuckin’ border patrol agent, or any number of authority figures. Like, we’ve had the TSA open up a box of records to make sure there’s nothing weird in there, and be like ‘Andrew Jackson Jihad? What’s that all about?’ ‘Uh, I dunno, we were really young, and we named our band that, and now it’s written on everything we’ve ever made.’”
Bonnette breaks down the decision in detail:
“One, if you look at the news, there are enough non-Muslim people that are just dying to use the word ‘jihad,’ and we’re not doing that. We have no business using that word. Two, I think we finally developed the confidence enough to actually do something about it. Like, rather than being kind of resigned to ‘Oh well, you’re stuck with your shitty band name,’ we can claim our identity as AJJ and move on.
“And three, the idea that all the people who were going to call us out for being super PC a few months down the line would look online and see we have a Bible 2 coming out. So the idea that we can defy that categorization. I don’t have a problem with being offensive, obviously, but I do have a problem with old shit overstaying its welcome.”
That’s right: Just as the band changed their name in an effort to move away from stirring controversy and mocking religion, they also decided to call their next album The Bible 2.
“All of us in the band are much more familiar with Christianity than we are with Islam and Muslim culture,” explains Gallaty, “so in that sense it comes across a little more honest that we’re writing about something that we have some understanding of.”
That new album comes out August 19, and Bonnette calls the development process a “speed trial.” While they’d initially planned to record the album over the summer, producer John Congleton’s demanding schedule moved that date way up. The band wrote the songs in the van together while on tour last fall, and they recorded and mixed the album over the first nine days of 2016.
“We didn’t dwell on anything,” Gallaty says. “The songs were finally just coming together when we went into the studio. I think that’s really the best time to capture them too, like, the first time you actually get it right, ideally that’s when the tape’s rolling. And some of those songs, it wasn’t until we were in the studio that we actually played them through the first time completely.”
“Congleton’s been training us since the last record to actively try not to be precious about shit and to not be a perfectionist, because perfection is ultimately boring,” Bonnette adds. “So to embrace the happy accidents, and to let them reveal themselves as insight — that’s what I took away from the recording process that time around.”
The album, judging by the singles released so far, follows the precedent set by 2014’s Christmas Island — abandoning the grungy lo-fi acoustic feel of the early records in favor of a cleaner rock sound. For this reason, AJJ no longer think of themselves as a “folk punk” band.
“I haven’t really identified with that for quite a while, but I don’t particularly mind that people call us that,” Bonnette says. “Categorization is kind of necessary when you’re trying to explain a band to someone. But nowadays we’ve been referring to the music as ‘garbage pop.’”
AJJ have earned the right to invent their own genre, largely because Bonnette’s strange, grotesque, and hilarious lyrical style maintains its unparalleled charm after all these years. When we asked him about his greatest inspirations, he listed off dozens of names ranging from Modest Mouse and the Dead Milkmen to Snoop Dogg, David Bowie, and C.S. Lewis.
But ultimately, nothing has had as great of an influence on his music as his hometown.
“I think Phoenix is the greatest inspiration of all, because for us who value change, Phoenix is constantly changing,” Bonnette says. “It can be a little overwhelming when you come back. Like, I’ve never seen Phoenix really sit still. It’s always in a state of flux. It can be kind of hard when I go away for a while and see there’s so much I can’t really recognize at first, and that can be kind of isolating or alienating.”
Gallaty feels the city transforming around him, too.
“The thing is, with Phoenix, the whole history is just things existing, then dissipating, then you forget they were ever there, eventually once they level the lot,” he says.
He reminisces about the venues AJJ used to play in the early years and how each of them disappeared, including the Willow House, Emerald Lounge, the Paisley Violin, and most recently, the Trunk Space.
“I refuse to be sad about Trunk Space, because to me the Trunk Space is still open,” argues Bonnette. “Not 1506 the physical space, but Steph’s still doing shows and she’s working on getting a new spot to open up. And you know, that could just be unwavering denial on my part or me being out of touch with Phoenix at the moment, but I’m not mourning for Trunk Space and I don’t think our band has played our last Trunk Space show by a long shot.”
Bonnette lives in Michigan now, but he’ll return to Phoenix this month so he and the band can kick off their tour at the Rebel Lounge on August 18 and 19. Before that, he’s getting married in Phoenix on the 6th.
“We’ve been together for like 13 years,” he explains. “In my heart and soul, we’ve been married for a long time, probably like five years.”
They met volunteering for the local suicide hotline Teen Lifeline, and that work remains deeply important to Bonnette. When we ask him what he’d be doing if he weren’t in AJJ, he doesn’t hesitate before answering “social work.”
“If you think about life in terms of good deeds and bad, it’s a good deed,” he says. “But if you think about things in terms of neutrality and bad deeds, it’s an even better thing. Through working at Teen Lifeline, you are not causing any harm to the world. You’re not lying to anybody or selling them shit. It’s not exploitative.”
He pauses before saying, “Those are all kind of negative reasons. It’s a good thing, and I’m good at it.”
AJJ is scheduled to perform at Rebel Lounge on Thursday, August 18, and Friday, August 19. Click here to win tickets to the August 18 show.