Music News

Joking Off

Guitarist Sean Bonnette is playing his acoustic ax like a troubadour on crank.

The 21-year-old scruffy-haired musician is a supernova of manic energy, ripping vicious riffs onstage at the Trunk Space in downtown Phoenix as the frontman for folk-punk trio Andrew Jackson Jihad. His right hand is a furious blur over an Olympia acoustic — not so much strumming its strings as punishing them — while his nasally singing voice caterwauls deranged, profanity-laced lyrics about self-immolation and child murder.

A mob of about 30 Jihad fans gather in front of the band as it thunders through a half-hour set of frenzied folk-core. Fellow musician Daryl Scariot is front and center in the crowd, and makes an observation about Bonnette after a song.

"You're like the Raffi that says 'fuck,'" notes Scariot, referencing the folky children's singer. The jibe cracks up not only Bonnette, but also the band's upright bassist, Ben Gallaty, and lead guitarist, Stephen Steinbrink.

"Well, let's all huddle together like Raffi then," Bonnette says, before launching into "People," a cockeyed feel-good song that's one of the band's trademarks. Obediently, the crowd members respond by wrapping their arms around each other, swaying back and forth, and — as Jihad crowds frequently do — singing and laughing along in unison as if they're around some countercultural campfire.

The Jihad, which creates songs laced with a humorously macabre lyrical style, has built a rabid local fan base and a modest Internet buzz for lively gigs like this. But the band asserts its music isn't really meant to be funny. As a result, tonight's set has a more sober feel to it, with fewer silly songs from its repertoire performed. It's indicative of how the band has charted a more serious course in recent months, moving away from its jokier beginnings in the summer of 2004. This shift is exemplified on its new CD, People Who Can Eat People Are the Luckiest People in the World (which is being released by NoCal punk/ska label Asian Man Records, run by former Skankin' Pickle ace Mike Park.)

"In the old days, you'd go to a show and we'd play our songs and everybody's laughing. They'd go berserk," Bonnette says. "But I found a better way to translate my feelings into songs that was less guarded, and a little more honest and candid."

Even if the songs are "a little more honest" now, a bullshit detector is almost a necessity whenever interviewing Bonnette and Gallaty, as comical answers and sarcastic stories are de rigueur, like their somewhat serious dreams of channeling Bonnette's love of hip-hop culture into the creation of a musical version of New Jack City.

"Oh, fuck yeah, that's gonna be so awesome," Bonnette says. "We're gonna have to get so self-inflated, so full of ourselves, before we do that, and then we can devote all of our time and money to it. It's gonna be our Trapped in the Closet."

R. Kelly, watch your back.

Quitting with the quips for the moment, the pair get serious in describing how their distinctively demented songs aren't easily quantifiable in distinct genres, running the gamut from manically up-tempo ditties to darkly melancholic quasi-ballads.

When asked what inspires AJJ's lyrics and music, Bonnette describes a surreal stream-of-consciousness situation where he hums random musical bits to himself while at work, driving, or attending classes at Phoenix College (where he's studying to be a social worker). "I'll start to hum and an idea will pop in, and then I'll start singing along within the melody," he says. "It's just kind of a manifestation of what I've got on my mind at the time . . . I shake up the soda can and see what pops."

Beyond Bonnette's affable nature lies the heart of a haunted lyricist; he lays himself bare in each song. The frontman notes how "there's a story behind every song," influenced by his varied experiences, such as his absent father ("Daddy Didn't Love Me"), working at Valley crisis shelters and suicide hotlines ("Freedom Tickler"), or dealing with backbiting hipsters ("Scenesters"). Bonnette credits some of the more violent and horrid situations in his songs to his lifelong love of hardcore gangster rap like N.W.A. and early Ice Cube.

The Jihad's twisted discography is littered with bleak and paradoxical yarns in which heartfelt emotion are tempered with morbid situations, violent imagery, and absurdly existential observations. In "Love Song," a romantic ode is laced with cruelty. ("I love you like the moon and stars/When little kids get hit by cars/Girl, you know it's true/Darling, I love you").

Their music could almost be the perfect soundtrack to the black humor of a Kurt Vonnegut novel (an apt comparison, considering the title of AJJ's new album is a reference to the late author's 1990 novel Hocus Pocus).

"I'm kinda a macabre dude, drawn to pretty crappy things. But at the same time, I like a lot of good stuff, too," Bonnette says. "That's my favorite leitmotif in art: the duality of human nature."

Whatever wordplay tumbles out of Bonnette's brain frequently involves fascinating combinations of words and phrases, as in "Brave as a Noun." ("But I've got an angry heart/Filled with cancer and poppy tarts/If this is how you folks make art/It's fucking depressing.") It's the same method he and Gallaty used when they coined their alliterative band name. Both musicians were fans of the ornery president's "badass nature" and "just put 'jihad' on the end to give it a bang and to make it funny."

Whether coining wack band names or cooperating on musical arrangements, the Jihad has always had a collaborative spirit. While Bonnette and Gallaty have been the "core" of the band over the past three years, they've been joined by a varied host of local musicians, such as drummer Justin James White and keyboardist Ryan Stevenson soon after the band's inception (when they played with more of a country sound and created far sillier songs such as "Ladykiller" and "Cigarettes"). Currently, a cadre of more than a dozen musicians from the downtown scene — including Treasure Mammal's Abe Gil on washboards, Fatigo's John De La Cruz on drums, and Dylan Cook on mandolin — sit in at shows. Steinbrink, the pudgy guitarist behind local acoustic act French Quarter, became the "permanent" third member in January.

While Gallaty prefers performing unplugged with a natural acoustic sound ("It sounds dirtier . . . Plus the fact [that] we don't have to do sound checks"), he likes the diverse soundscape their guest stars help create. The band basically becomes a punk rock Prairie Home Companion or an Americana-like jam band, influenced by a slew of artists, including the Dead Milkmen, Kind of Like Spitting, and even Woody Guthrie.

"It makes things really full and fleshes out our sounds," Gallaty says. "They add really great, well-written chord changes, melodies, and a lot of different vocal harmonies. It's just a plate that you can put layers upon layers of instrumentation on. It also brings a lot of potential for rocking out."

And "rocking out" is what Jihad does, especially at smaller, more intimate venues, which they prefer. YouTube is choked with dozens of video clips of the band performing at smaller shows, illustrating the online buzz the band has gotten over the past year.

"Even when we go on tour, like in other states, people sing along," Gallaty says. "I like to imagine that everybody's involved when we play, instead of the audience and band being separated by this wall. It's more meaningful, like hanging out, singing out together."

With the new album coming out on Asian Man, more fans will have the opportunity to sing along to the Jihad's tunes, "as long as they ain't laughing as much."

Bonnette has something of an issue with the laughter. He doesn't want to stop people from chuckling at some of their lyrical frivolity, but claims the songs aren't intentionally meant to be funny.

So, should fans look forward to relatively humorless Jihad shows?

"No, because you can't be too serious. Then it's not fun for anybody," Bonnette says.

And that's no joke.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Benjamin Leatherman is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times. He covers local nightlife, music, culture, geekery, and fringe pursuits.