Sean Bonnette has a theory concerning time, space, and the area of Phoenix that city planners officially refer to as the "Central Business District."
"I have this idea — I've had it for six months now — that 'Central Phoenix' and 'Downtown Phoenix' are two totally different places, but they exist on top of each other," he says. "Like Conspire and ReBAR exist right next to each other but they're in totally different places."
Chatting with Bonnette, the singing half of local folk-punk duo Andrew Jackson Jihad, at a booth around the corner from the "Salad Wagon" at the Original Hamburger Works on 15th Avenue, it's not difficult to understand why he sees a coffee shop/art gallery/anarchist library on Roosevelt Row and a hip new bar down the street selling $9 cucumber martinis on separate planes of existence.
Folks from the 'burbs don't always and immediately see the distinctions as clearly as a resident like Bonnette, a bespectacled, thickly bearded 25-year-old who grew up skateboarding in the west-side parks around Cortez High and who has made a living working a suicide hotline since graduating from ASU. But they're definitely there.
"CenPho" is for self-proclaimed social media gurus who bitch about how far they have to ride that fixie from their house near SideBar to the nearest Whole Foods. Then there's "DTP" (Bonnette's acronym), a place for urban bohemians who hang out in the grubby galleries along Grand Avenue, buy groceries at Ranch Market, and try to chat up homeless people wandering down their street when they've got a minute. Geographic neighbors, cultural strangers.
Bonnette's upright-bass-playing bandmate, Ben Gallaty, likes the theory, too. The 27-year-old Gallaty — tall and thin like the piñon in his native Chino Valley, though far too graceful to rightly be called gangly — strongly prefers his bubble of the multiverse.
"It's a little rough around the edges, but that's what I like about it," says Gallaty. "Let's put it this way: There was a lot of gunfire on my street on New Year's Eve. Of course, we were setting off Roman candles in the street, so it goes both ways."
Ben may have best encapsulated his viewpoint on the city, and life in general, in a letter to the editor of this publication — both Gallaty and Bonnette are vociferous readers of local media, a habit they probably picked up working together in the coffee house where they met — responding to a 2008 cover story about downtown hipsters and their fancy fixed-gear bikes.
"I feel that the 'Pedalphiles' article (Benjamin Leatherman, July 24) failed to cover two aspects prevalent in the Valley's fixed-gear culture: Fixed-gears are stupid, and their riders are elitists," his screed began. "Riding bicycles is fun. Many of the people riding fixed-gears are good people. Fanaticism and elitism are grotesque. Please don't let your diet or vehicle identify you."
That's the same impassioned spirit that led Bonnette to respond to a column I wrote about Modified Arts re-imagining itself as a gallery by screaming "Fuck Martin Cizmar and fuck New Times!" on stage at a local music festival.
I wasn't offended, and fixie riders shouldn't be, either. Bonnette and Gallaty are proud and steadfast defenders of their Phoenix. That same passion is probably a big part of the reason their acoustic but aggressive band, Andrew Jackson Jihad, has become the quintessential downtown act in their six years together. And why they're poised to take the next step.
AJJ sounds a little like a stripped-down version of Against Me! Their most recent record, 2009's Can't Maintain, has a dozen raw, powerful songs that aptly convey the vibe of their Phoenix. Listening, it's like you're right there in DTP — even if you're sitting in CityScape, the heart of CenPho. It's a record every bit as definitive of a time and a place as anything the Valley has ever produced. AJJ has toured the country and Europe on those songs, playing venues as large as The Troubadour in L.A. and recently signing with a well-connected booking agent. Now, they're deciding among labels to release the album they're currently recording.
Can't Maintain is a feisty record, to be sure, with songs confronting absentee fathers, alcoholism, and mental illness. And critics. Take "We Didn't Come Here to Rock," a sarcastic response to a bad review (and one of the few tracks amped up with electric guitar and drums). The heart of the song is a minute-long burst of melodic fury, with another minute of artful noise (Gallaty enjoys making noise music at home but considers it too indulgent for official release) tacked onto the end.
"We didn't come here to rock / We only came to disappoint you / Because deep down in your cunt / That's exactly what you wanted us to do," Bonnette sings. "You wanted to lead you on / You wanted us to bum you out / So you can build us up / And you can knock us down / If that's what gets your dick hard / Telling people they're bad at making art."
Just like the multiverse in CenDownPho, though, the band's work has layers. Righteous anger and generous use of profanity give way to wrenching love for fellow man on tracks like "Guilt: The Song," in which Bonnette sings shamefully about his own lack of benevolence: "I was driving on vacation/ And I saw something I hadn't seen in years / The man was seizing / On the pavement flailing / And I did nothing / A white dressed woman carried him off / I didn't lift a finger / I didn't stop my car / I just kept on driving / I didn't help that man at all / And I hope he forgives me."
You see that gracious and introspective streak in the disarming exuberance Bonnette directs at everyone he chats with, from the waitress bringing a plate of chicken wings to the table ("Oh, wow, thanks!" he says, as though he's never been served such grand vittles in his life) to a sound engineer running the boards inside a flophouse studio where AJJ is performing live on a weekly punk show broadcast over the airwaves of a low-power FM station ("Oh, cool!" he says in response to an invitation to do a benefit show, as though he was just offered a headlining slot at Coachella). Watching that relentless positivity, it's easy to believe Bonnette has successfully talked a few people off bridges in his day job.
On that radio show, Bonnette and Gallaty play a few songs from their as-yet-untitled new record. It's great stuff — even if Gallaty hasn't yet learned one of the songs Bonnette is singing. The most amazing part? The way a song tentatively called "American Tune" is received by the show's co-host, a black guy named Tyrone who knows the main host, a punk dude named Wes, from the bar where Wes works. The song is about the advantages of whiteness in our country, with a refrain of "I'm a straight, white male in America / I've got all the luck I need" and Tyrone loves it, giving it the best compliment he can, calling it "the truth."
Bonnette hopes everything on the record is received as warmly.
"In the hindsight, after the songs are all written, there are four different themes: loneliness, social justice, personal integrity, and freedom," he says.
"And luck," says Gallaty, something Bonnette agrees with.
"Our band is different from other bands in that it's kind of magic. We've been really lucky. We haven't needed to work real jobs if we didn't want to for three years. We're making money on tour," says Gallaty. "I didn't have to take out student loans for my last semester of college."
That's an old cliche in these pages — seemingly every local band New Times talks to tells us their big dream is to give up their day jobs and make their living off music. Very few manage to do it. I tell Gallaty and Bonnette this.
"See, that's stupid. I want to work another job. I like working," Gallaty says.
You get the strong feeling he means it, too. Meaningful work seems to be a badge of honor for Bonnette and Gallaty. Perhaps that's one more giant difference between the people who scrabble up a life in "DPT" and the freelance consultant types trying to scam up some dough for designer cocktails in "CenPho."
Like he says, they live in very different worlds. Geographic neighbors, cultural strangers.