Music by VICE

AJJ’s Sean Bonnette Ranks the Band’s Six Albums

The frontman looks back at AJJ's constantly evolving career, from scrappy folk-punk duo to full blown rock band.

by Dan Ozzi
Jan 31 2019, 4:00pm

In Rank Your Records, we talk to artists who have amassed substantial discographies over the years and ask them to rate their releases in order of personal preference.

AJJ is a band that has never done themselves any favors. They’ve never had a congruous aesthetic connecting their six albums together. They’ve never stuck with a recognizable logo. They changed their band’s name a decade into their career (from Andrew Jackson Jihad). They’ve got some rough early material hiding in the closet which frontman Sean Bonnette will readily admit is full of cringeworthy lines. And, in general, they’re intent on scrapping everything people love about them with each release.

And yet, the scrappy folk-punk duo turned uncategorizable rock band has maintained a passionately loyal fanbase due largely to the radical empathy found in Bonnette’s lyrics. Bonnette, a former social worker, injects AJJ’s songs with themes of self-reliance, kindness, and humanism. But whenever it seems like he’s leaning too heavily on the soapbox moralizing, he lightens the mood with a hilariously weird turn of phrase or oddball cultural reference.

Now 15 years in, AJJ has amassed a catalog packed with EPs, splits, live records, and six studio albums. But once each release is out in the world, Bonnette is content to move on to the next one.

“My favorite time with our records is the time before it comes out. That’s when I listen to it the most and bump it hard,” says Bonnette. “Then once it’s released, I don’t own it anymore.”

As AJJ works on a follow-up to 2016’s The Bible 2, we had Bonnette play favorites with the band’s albums. Here's the order he came up with.

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Noisey: How old were you when you made this?
Sean Bonnette: I was 18. I wrote most of those songs when I was 16 and 17, so it’s pretty bad. [Laughs]

Is it hard to have something that you wrote when you were that young exist out in the world?
Yes. Well, it was hard but I’ve grown up and I’m distanced enough from the teenager who wrote that. I cringe, but I’ve made my peace. It’s fine. But every song has something reprehensible to offer.

Certainly “Darling, I Love You” is one I’ve seen take the wrong way.
Is there a right way to take that? [Laughs]

What’s the intent behind that song?
Man, I couldn’t tell you anymore. Definitely trying to be funny. Trying to get a rise and reaction the way a 17-year-old would.

And then there’s “Fuck White People.”
Oh, “Fuck White People” rocks. I love that song. [Laughs]

Is there anything from the early stuff that you think is a hidden gem?
Yeah, the second “Love Song,” I thought, was pretty good. Not a big fan of the way I sing on that record. That was my first time in front of a microphone, and didn’t really know what stuff to ask for to play back in my headphones, and was definitely aping Laura Jane Grace and Frank Black really hard.

At what point did you start to have misgivings about your early work?
Pretty shortly after it came out, honestly. As soon as I started writing songs for The People Who Eat People, I realized that we didn’t want to be doing those songs anymore. I got closer to finding my own voice, so those songs were retired pretty early on.

And did that cause you to be more cautious in how you wrote songs going forward?
I don’t know if “cautious” is the right word, but I definitely tried my very best not to write misogynistic garbage.

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This album seemed to be a bump up in production from what you’d done. Was that a concerted effort you made?
Yeah, it’s always a concerted effort to make something different and change. I honestly don’t think the production is as adventurous as it is on, like, Can’t Maintain. With Knife Man, we wanted to make something really different, kind of like The White Album.

How so?
Jumping around in genres, doing primitive, simple songs, like “If You Have Love in Your Heart,” and working with a different group of sounds.

What do you remember about making this album?
Well, the thing I think is the best is that song “Big Bird,” because that song really redefined us at the time. We stopped being totally a folk-punk band. That song is more like art-rock or something.

You guys fell in with the folk-punk scene, which can be very purist in a lot of ways. As you grew and started incorporated more weird musical elements, did people turn their backs on that?
Some people definitely did turn their backs on it, and we kind of aspire to lose fans with every record. If you don’t lose a couple fans, that’s a sign that you’re not growing or doing anything different. That’s not the kind of band we want to be.

Were there any bands who had career trajectories you admired?
Yeah, around that time, Titus Andronicus. That record, The Monitor, had come out, and that shit was fire. Also, I remember around that time we were listening to Neil Young’s Tonight’s the Night.

The song “American Tune” is this sort of anti-white privilege anthem. Do you ever think about how songs like this will shape the worldviews of young listeners?
Yeah. When people were interviewing us around that time, I would encourage people to consider becoming social workers. I went to school for social work around that time. I still see it as a very viable option to live a cool, neutral life where you’re doing more good than harm. I think that really reflects on Knife Man a lot, although some of the moralizing gets pretty insufferable, particularly on that song “Zombie by the Cranberries by Andrew Jackson Jihad.” I definitely thought I knew what I was talking about, and did not!

Is that a common critique of the band? That you’re too moralizing and heavy handed?
We don’t get that criticism too much. I try my best these days to… you know, don’t be a finger-pointer. [Laughs]

But at the same time you want to say something with your music. So how do you balance that line?
There’s a way to do it, and I think it requires introspection and empathy—trying to really search for those things when you’re trying to say something political.

Also, a couple more criticisms of Knife Man: The reason it’s lower on this list, even though it has some of my fave songs, is: I’d have made it shorter. I’d have trimmed a couple songs. We also used a few too many punk tropes, like palm muting.

What would you cut?
I’d cut “No One,” because it’s a bummer. I’d cut “Zombie by the Cranberries,” I’d cut “Hate, Rain on Me” or the “Distance,” and one of the pop punky songs. You don’t need that many of them. Also, the way I sing on it is annoying to me. It’s a transitional record. I sing on it the way I sing now, but without any lower registers. There’s no bass in my voice, because I don’t think I had any at that point.

Your voice seems to be divisive among listeners. Have you heard that from people?
Yeah, totally. And I’m fine with it. I like singing the way I sing.

Since it came out of this album, I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask: How have sales of the salad glove been?
They’ve been great! That’s something I’m so stoked on. The mention of the salad glove on that one song, we got some grassroots word of mouth spreading on that before the product was even dropped. We had people asking us what a salad glove is, and then we had an answer for them with that badass infomercial. They sell like hotcakes. [Laughs]

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It’s interesting to see your newest release this far down. What do you think are this one’s shortcomings?
It was a fast process. We were tracking in two studios at the same time across the street from one another. We had it tracked and mixed in nine days. Listening to the mixes was cool. It was like Christmas morning. For a lot of the songs, it was the first time hearing them as full arrangements.

But I think it’s low on the list, mostly because it’s the most recent one and it’s not as much of a trip down memory lane to listen to it. It’s the one I’ve listened to the most in recent times. It’s not sentimental yet. Whenever people ask me what our favorite record we’ve done is, by default I tell them it’s the newest one. But then I add that I won’t know the final answer to that until we stop making records. So this list that I’m giving you today came from two afternoons of listening to the records.

This album was around the time you changed the name to AJJ. I’m wondering if there are any logistical setbacks to changing the name of a band that had been around for a decade.
There are. People don’t put the two and two together often. A lot of people don’t read blogs, and just pay attention to what’s coming to their town via weeklies. I noticed in the couple of years since changing the name, people will still be like, “Oh, whoa! You guys! I didn’t know you guys were still around.” It’s cool, I understand it. In retrospect, we could’ve changed our name to anything, and probably would’ve had the same result.

I remember you did an interview with The AV Club about the reasoning, so we don’t have to rehash the whole thing, but were you getting specific feedback that prompted you to change your mind?
I remember getting a couple emails from confused Muslims. I mean, they weren’t confused, we were the ones who were confused. Those efforts to set us straight were duly noted. After we changed our name, we got a completely different kind of feedback. We got an email from a Canadian attorney who defends racists and racist activists, calling us cowards. It was a great decision, just to bum out so many edgelords.

For this album, you had “Goodbye, Oh Goodbye,” with that music video that was a take off of the OK Go stunt videos. That got quite a bit of attention and I’m wondering if you had any dealings with the band after it happened.
I wish we had. I heard down the grapevine that one of them saw it and thought it was cool, but we haven’t had any run-ins with OK Go since then.

I know you were spoofing their over-the-top productions for music videos, but in making that, did you have any sort of new appreciation for the process of putting it together?
Oh, obviously, yeah. The work we did on that video was hard as fuck! I can only imagine what those guys, with their actual talent, had to go through to make one of those videos. They’re amazing. [Laughs]

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This was the only record thus far where we knew the sequence going into it. I haven’t had my shit that together since. It’s got some really great experiments on there, like the kazoo sonata where Jal [Nelson] hits himself in the face 106 times for that popping sound. And at the end of “We Didn’t Come Here to Rock,” Jal has this really beautiful noise piece that I think is fucking awesome. Jal is the engineer who records a lot of our stuff. So those things, I’m really into. We had a lot of good players on that record.

What would you do differently if you could redo it?
Not too much, honestly. That’s one of my faves, and might end up being my favorite one after the dust settles. Probably would’ve changed the “cunt” word to something else in “We Didn’t Come Here to Rock,” though.

You changed it on the live record.
Yeah, now I say “deep down in your ballsack.”

“Ballsack” is objectively funnier than “cunt.”
I concur. [Laughs]

You’ve done that a few times—mess around with your lyrics. Do you see your work as a malleable thing you can change?
Yeah, I wrote ’em, I can do what the fuck I want with ’em.

Does that frustrate people when they’re trying to sing along?
Kinda, yeah, I’ve heard it does, but I don’t care. [Laughs] I will say that we played “We Didn’t Come Here to Rock” once with Classics of Love, which was my first time meeting Jesse Michaels. And he came up to me, eating Skittles, and said, “Hey, I like your shit, man. Came right out the gate with ‘cunt.’”

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How did you get hooked up with Asian Man Records?
We played a show at Mama Buzz Café in Oakland, California, in probably 2006. We had two awesome cameos from people in the area that night. Jamie and Caralee from Xiu Xiu wandered in to get coffee and peeked their heads in, and I was so starstruck, but then also Skylar Suorez from Asian Man Records was at the show. I think he was there to see another band called Readyville. But he liked our band and tried to get some free shit by namedropping Asian Man. He saw in our record box that we had Toys That Kill record. And he was like, “Oh, we put out one of their seven-inches.” So we just exchanged contact info and became friends with him. He schemed to get us on Asian Man and pitched us to Mike [Park]. And all Mike cared about was that we were cool guys. I don’t think he particularly liked our songs or the record. [Laughs]

This one seems like it has the most crowd-pleasers.
Yeah, for sure.

Do you have a good gauge of your fans’ favorites?
Yeah, this is the fan-favorite. I think I wrote it during a really fertile time. There was enough novice power in the songs where I wasn’t so concerned with how they’d come off. We weren’t touring very much, no one had ever reviewed us before. It was just very free. We had a great cast of characters playing on the record. We had Teague Cullen playing a bunch of weird instruments, like the pianolin, the singing saw. We’d transitioned by that point from Pixies/Violent Femmes/Against Me! worship to Neutral Milk Hotel worship. And it’s hard to go wrong with Neutral Milk Hotel worship.

Radical kindness seems like a theme on this record. Is that right?
Definitely. Super inspired by Kurt Vonnegut and his humanism, as well as social work stuff. It’s a really organic-sounding record. We never played to a click track, but that record, all those drums were recorded after we recorded the bass and the guitar. Poor John de la Cruz had to listen to our shit and figure out how to play drums to this really off-tempo, fast acoustic music. There’s parts of it that sound like a trainwreck.

“Personal Space Invader” has this pretty harsh anti-coke message and I’m wondering if you’ve ever heard from anyone on either side of that stance.
Not really. I used to be a lot more of a dick to people doing coke than I am now, even though I’ve still never done it. People that are on coke are not particularly fun to hang out with. But this is one of those finger-pointing things where I need to look in a mirror before I judge anyone else’s shit. One of of the funniest things is that I heard from a guy who came to our show who was just like, “Dude, I just love doing lines and listening to People Who Eat People.” [Laughs]

Right after that line in that same song, you have a line that seems like it’s become the band’s mantra, about being respectful and kind because we’re all one soul.
It’s funny that that verse comes after such after such a judgy verse.

Yeah, there are three very separate stanzas in that song that have seemingly nothing to do with each other. How did you piece those together?
I wrote them all in the same chord progression, and the first verse was stressing out about college stuff, which is like, waahhh. The second verse is about being sick of going to the bar and everyone being on blow. And then the third one is just kind of paraphrasing, I guess I’d call it a sermon, from the book God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater by Kurt Vonnegut, and I just wanted to share that message, because it resonated hard.

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This seems like your most fully realized album. Can you tell me about making it?
That one was hard, and well earned. That was the longest break between records. I was going through some stuff in my life, like moving around. I’d moved from Phoenix to Chicago for a year, then from Chicago to Michigan, where I was for six years. There was a lot of homesickness coming through on that record. I was away when my grandfather died, so there’s death songs on there. A lot of self-doubt that I was wrestling through, and reinventing the way I write songs. At the end of it all, I was very happy with how it turned out. We had a very unified vision of what we wanted it to sound like. We wanted to make a really blown out, fucked up-sounding record using only acoustic instruments, which we did with the exception of an electric guitar on “Kokopelli Face Tattoo.” We had a good, fucked up chemistry with [producer] John Congleton.

It was your first one on SideOneDummy.
Yeah, we had the record finished for like a year before it got released. We knew we really wanted to do it justice in how we put it out. We shopped it around a bunch and got back a whole lot of no’s. I think a lot of record labels don’t know what to do with us, and I understand. [Laughs] But SideOne was about it, and we had the immense pleasure of working with Christina Johns and Jamie Coletta. They worked that record really well, and it brought us to another level. And that record lost us some really good fans. [Laughs] It lost us and it gained us fans. It was an artistic and commercial success.

It seemed like a good period for SideOne where, within a year or so, they had this record and the PUP record and Jeff Rosenstock’s first solo record. It seemed like a scene you were part of.
Yeah, it was kind of like a couple of Asian Man bands who moved up to the big leagues. It was a cool scene. It’s a shame that it was brief and it had to be… well, I don’t want to talk too much shit. [Laughs]

I remember reading an interview where you said you were encouraging people to google Christmas Island, and consciously not saying what it’s about. So, Christmas Island is an Australian territory that was the site of a lot of bombings in World War II between the Japanese and the British. So what about that influenced the record?
There are actually two Christmas Islands. There’s the Australian territory where they’re keeping refugees from entering Australia, which is fucked up. But the Christmas Island I was referring to is the one in the South Pacific that was home to a bunch of United States and British bomb testings. There’s one called Operation Fishbowl. The one that my grandfather was present for was Operation Dominic, where they had all these soldiers sit on the beach and put their backs to where the bomb was gonna detonate, and I think it was about a hundred detonations he was present for, and he said he could feel the shockwaves roll through his body. And then he later got cancer and was paid off by the US government. He’s what’s called an atomic veteran. So when people asked about the title, I didn’t really feel like talking about it at the time. So that was my easiest way to deal with that, which is funny because it ended up creating more confusion.

The first song on this album is called “Temple Grandin.” I saw a photo floating around online that, if I’m not mistaken, is real, where she is holding a copy of the album.
I have seen that. One of our fans from the south, I can’t remember what he does for a living, but Temple Grandin came to his work. He got her to pose with it. I was fucking tickled.