A great album title can get you some mileage. A great title for an album with raw, poignant songs about finding slivers of hope in the many ways life can break your back that has a massive crowd of fans waiting to celebrate its 10th anniversary? Well, that’s a different story. Especially here in Phoenix.
Ten years ago, AJJ released People Who Can Eat People Are the Luckiest People in the World, the Phoenix-born folk-punk band’s second recording. The band formed in 2004 with core members Sean Bonnette (vocals, guitar) and Ben Gallaty (bass, vocals). Different members have contributed since then, and the lineup currently includes Preston Bryant (guitar, keyboards, and vocals), Mark Glick (cello), and touring drummer Owen Evans.
When they kick off a fall 2017 tour in what Bonnette describes as “old-school style, with just Ben and I,” all those supporters will be out in full force. So far, four of the five shows at The Trunk Space, where the tour begins, are completely sold out. The pair will revisit music from that release and more. It’s as meaningful for Trunk Space owner Steph Carrico to have them celebrate People at the DIY venue as it is for the band, their friends, and fans.
“In the early days, AJJ played to a room of less than 10 people more times than I can count, but they stuck with it and didn’t give up,” Carrico says. “They’ve put in their 10,000 hours, and I’m proud to see my friends experience such success. We are honored to get to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of People with Sean and Ben.”
“We were heavily into Kurt Vonnegut Jr. at the time of the recording,” Bonnette recalls when asked about the record’s name. “The name is a reference to a line from his book Hocus Pocus.” Beyond settling on a name that paid tribute to a favorite writer, Bonnette says that one of the exciting things about the album was recording it in a proper studio, which was kind of a new experience for the band at that time.
“Most of what we’d done before that was just home recordings, things like that, so seeing what we could do in the studio was great,” he says. Other locals contributed to recording People, including Dylan Cook on mandolin and Teague Cullen, who played singing saw, pianolin, and “a bunch of rad shit.” There was also Andrew Lane on trumpet, Evans on a three-string banjo, and Toby Milford on violin. And they loved working with producer Jalipaz Nelson at his Mesa studio, Audioconfusion. The feeling is mutual.
Nelson says one of his favorite memories of recording People was that it snowed one of the days. “It actually stuck to the ground,” he says. “We took a break and went outside and had a snowball fight.” The shanty-esque “A Song Dedicated to the Memory of Stormy Rabbit” is probably his favorite track on the recording. Initially, he says, there was a little part at the beginning that drove him nuts as an engineer. “We wanted to take the instruments out of the beginning and just have it be Sean and a glockenspiel, but after it was done, you could still hear the instruments — or I could, at least — but I grew to like it. It made the experience more endearing to me.”
The haphazard nature of the whole process is another thing Nelson looks back on with humor. “Extras came in to play music, like a trumpet player, with no set plan; it was great.”
The band has since teamed up with Grammy-award winner John Congleton, who has worked with the likes of St. Vincent, Mountain Goats, and Xiu Xiu, to name just a few. Nelson even went with AJJ to Texas to watch Congleton work. “It was interesting to see how someone else runs their studio and what their recording process is like,” he says. “Plus, it was also a fun bonding experience for me and the band.” (Speaking of Xiu Xiu, Bonnette is working on a project with Jamie Stewart, whom he cites as someone he greatly respects.)
People was released by Asian Man Records, the California label known for a variety of punk and ska releases from acts like Kepi Ghoulie, Murderburgers, and Unsteady. AJJ’s touring schedule started ramping up in 2008 and 2009, when they covered a lot of U.S. ground. European tours happened in 2010 and 2011.
“That connection with Asian Man has definitely been one of the great things that has happened to us,” says Gallaty, who likes the nostalgic air of this anniversary. “Early on, we certainly didn’t think we would be playing this long, let alone have all of this.”
Gallaty says he and Bonnette are excited to return to The Trunk Space. “Especially since at one point in time having a crowded show there was a challenge.”
One of the things Gallaty notices as he listens to People these days is “how really fucking fast we played everything then.” He adds, “Back then, we rarely had a spare moment in a song — we never let any space go by without some kind of extra sound happening, and I think that’s a bit different now.”
Connor Descheemaker, outreach coordinator for Local First AZ and Trunk Space volunteer, has been an active participant in the local music scene since 2005. He calls AJJ “my Arizona band, as it is with so many of my friends. I’ve seen them more times than I can count.”
When Descheemaker was 13, lived 20 miles from The Trunk Space, and was finding some challenges getting to the venue, he took to the internet and started downloading the band’s songs. “The music was fun, prurient, yet empathetic,” he says. “They wrote wacky songs with fast acoustic guitars and shrieked vocals, and I loved to sing along to my iPod.”
By the time he got to see AJJ live, around 2007, he noticed a change. “Shit was more serious. It was still quirky and fun, the lyrics could still raise eyebrows, but there was more meaning and more empathy. Then People came out and everything took off from there — it was the first sound of a band becoming something more than a novelty listen. It’s something serious, meaningful, and connected to Phoenix in a powerful way.”
For him, it was a gateway to becoming part of a unique community. “Ten years later,” he says, “you bet your ass it still matters.”
In 2001, local musician Donald Martinez founded The Shizz, a website dedicated to covering the local scene. Martinez feels that in addition to being a great band, AJJ’s collective inherent goodness has helped make them successful. “Ben and Sean were so embedded in the local music scene, as well as huge supporters of it, that it was hard to go places without always seeing them around. Wherever I went, they were around with their good natures and laid-back attitudes,” he recalls. “They would play anywhere, anytime, whether it was on the light rail, at a coffee shop, or at any other random places, parties, or special events. They’re such good guys that watching them be so supportive of the things going on, it made you want to support them back in return.”
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It’s not just Phoenix folks who are rooting for AJJ. Robert Johnson of New York’s Scenic Promotions has worked with them a few times. “I love working with AJJ because besides being incredibly talented musicians, they are all the nicest and most down-to-earth individuals you’ll ever encounter,” he says.
That integrity is still a beacon. Ten years later, People’s frankness still inspires chills, tears, and smiles — the first two from the universal anxieties and fears that we wade through on the daily, and the latter from the way the band is able to pepper in some sprinkles of hope via Bonnette’s growly, stick-with-ya voice, heart-gripping words, and the pushy, punchy guitars. Songs like “Rejoice” come to mind.
“Rejoice despite the fact this world will hurt you / Rejoice despite the fact this world will kill you / Rejoice despite the fact this world will tear you to shreds / Rejoice because you’re trying your best.” Might not be the gentlest battle cry, but like a lot of AJJ’s songs, that’s why it hits so goddamned hard.
AJJ are scheduled to perform at various times from Wednesday, August 16, through Sunday, August 20, at The Trunk Space, 1124 North Third Street. Visit The Trunk Space website for details.