You could say Andrew Jackson Jihad — once an acoustic folk punk duo now a five-piece rock 'n' roll machine — is going places. After five studio albums, two tours with Frank Turner (including a stint in Europe), sharing stages with Against Me! and Future of the Left, plus an upcoming Noisey-sponsored excursion with Cheap Girls, Hard Girls, and Dogbreth, it seems the band is just getting started.
May 6 marks the release of Christmas Island, the Phoenix stars' fifth — and, perhaps, best — album. Comical, yet poignant songs like "Children of God" and "Kokopelli Face Tattoo" (a ballad typifying the struggle to resist detesting people who really fucking suck) prove Andrew Jackson Jihad hasn't lost its sardonic touch.
The new record stands as testament to the band's maturity over the past decade and shows a robust strength in character for Bonnette and AJJ co-founder/bassist Ben Gallaty.
We called guitarist/singer Sean Bonnette at his current home in Lansing, Michigan, to ask him about the band's exciting new direction. Bonnette had just returned from a video shoot in L.A. for "Temple Grandin," a song named for the famed autistic activist. The Joe Stakun-directed video, highlighted by '90s-style 3D graphics and psychedelic disgorgement, refers to local freakshow Treasure MammaL, which started the "Stevie Wonder to the Bullshit" meme.
When asked about the album's title, Bonnette simply says, "It's worth a Google." So, either it refers to an exotic Australian territory overrun by coconut crabs or the Kiritimati coral atoll blitzed by U.S. nukes in the '60s. Knowing AJJ, it's probably the latter.
For this release, the band signed to SideOneDummy Records, but Bonnette assures us there was no bad blood between the band and its former label, Asian Man Records.
"It's not really a split from Asian Man, because we still have a really good relationship with [founder] Mike Park," Bonnette says, calling Park a mentor. "He's someone that when we have a big idea that we need to run by somebody, he's one of those people that we confide in. In fact, it was upon his recommendation that we go to SideOneDummy because it seemed to him the best thing our band can do right now. He wants to see all the bands that he puts out do well."
Coming off a second tour with Turner (this one in Germany and Hungary), it's obvious AJJ is doing just swell. Turner, whom Bonnette describes as "really goofy and really smart," even played drums for AJJ on the last half of the tour.
"Frank's awesome to tour with," Bonnette says, adding, "He's a better drummer than you'd imagine most lead singers to be."
Christmas Island was produced by John Congleton, known for his work with David Byrne and St. Vincent on Love This Giant, as well as Angel Olsen, The Mountain Goats, and the Octopus Project.
"He is someone that I can't wait to work with again," Bonnette says. "Every time you would do a take that you liked, you could go into his room and he would've already started mixing it. It would already sound 10 times fuller and cooler than it sounded when [we were] playing the stuff. And he works really quickly. He doesn't really allow anyone much time to agonize over stupid decisions or really small things."
Bonnette's favorite track off the new album is "Linda Ronstadt." On a visit to the Musical Instrument Museum in summer 2012, Bonnette viewed a video showcase for the former Stone Poneys frontwoman singing a mariachi tune. The experience, Bonnette says, temporarily cured his homesickness, helped him deal with some repressed emotion, and "released his tears from eye jail," a nod to a Mr. Show joke.
The icing on the cake is the eclectic album art, a diorama of porcelain puppies, bloody extracted molars, and a preserved scorpion (among other trinkets) was painted by Phoenix artist Suzanne Falk, known for her detailed, dreamy children's book scenes of tchotckes and Happy Meal toys.
"We've known Suzanne for a little longer than the band has been around, since we used to serve her coffee at [now-defunct] Willow House . . . This seems like the first project we did that really called for her special touch," Bonnette says, adding that the diorama was a collaborative effort. "She did most of the work, but I was like, oh, you should put this object in. She has a bunch of cool knickknacks around her house that she uses to make still lifes."
One of the most humbling and respectful aspects of Andrew Jackson Jihad is its passion for the band's roots. Unlike a lot groups that "make it," then ditch the Valley, Bonnette feels a strong attachment to his hometown, saying he doesn't think his attitude toward our sprawling metropolis has changed one bit and he still "loves the shit out of Phoenix."
Part of the love was poured into last year's live recording at Crescent Ballroom, a venue chosen for its exceptional sound system.
"It was a whole lot easier to actually make a live recording of it. We just brought in another [soundboard] and split it," Bonnette says. "We knew it was going to sound nice, and we wanted to document that live show of that particular tour, because it's never going to be the same again.
"I can't wait to move back. Now I just feel sad that I can't participate in what's going on more," Bonnette says, adding that whenever he does visit, he heads straight to Jobot to run into old friends and scenesters. "I like the fact that [Phoenix is] constantly changing. . . That's kind of the nature of Phoenix. That it burns down, then it comes back to life. I've always enjoyed kind of seeing that happen in Phoenix . . . I like that if you want to do something interesting or cool, there's not really a whole lot stopping you."
Bonnette is right. Even if you only have an acoustic guitar and a standup bass, you can take your passion pretty friggin' far.