The Andrew Jackson Jihad show on July 24th at Beat Kitchen might have been the biggest tight-knit party I've ever been to. Maybe it's a mark of what an indie kid I am that I've never been to a show where stage diving wasn't frowned upon and the entire room became a bit of a pit, but that's exactly what happened when Sean Bonette and Ben Gallaty took the stage.
A folk-punk duo from Phoenix, Arizona, Andrew Jackson Jihad have been recording tirelessly since 2005 and have just put out their 10th studio release, Can't Maintain. Singing lyrics about murdering, drug abuse, religion and human morals (or lack thereof) in a darkly comical way, I took a shine to Andrew Jackson Jihad more than a year ago after the release of People Who Can Eat People Are The Luckiest People, and it was apparent at the Beat Kitchen that I'm not the only person in Chicago that has. Whether the band was playing relatively older songs such as "Brave As A Noun" or songs off their latest release, the entire crowd not only knew every song but they also screamed the taken-to-heart lyrics as loud as they could. Mid-set, Sean said that not only was the Beat Kitchen gig the biggest show they'd played on their tour, but might be the biggest crowd they've played to in their career.
Speeding through their half hour set with minimum banter, Sean and Ben transitioned from one funny, angry song into another. With a crowd full of die hard Andrew Jackson Jihad fans, no matter what they played, the set wouldn't have disappointed but excitement was highest at the end of the show upon the opening chords of Growing Up, a song a good portion of the audience had been shouting to hear for most of the set. When the guys closed out with fan favorite "People II: The Reckoning," Sean's spastic voice was barely audible as the audience screamed "There's a bad man in everyone no matter who we are, there's a rapist and a nazi living in our tiny hearts." along with Sean's four chord melody and Ben's upright bass.
Before the show, Sean, Ben, and I retired to a table outside where I got to ask them a few questions on their cover of Neutral Milk Hotel, morality, and their band name.
So through our brief correspondences and now meeting, what's struck me most about you guys is that you're nice. When I approached you about an interview, I was a little nervous given the content of your songs. What inspires you to cover material such as murder, religion and drug addiction in the way that you cover it?
Sean Bonette: Just livin' on the streets, man. I don't know, it seems like that's most of the things I experience, whether they be through the media or through literature or life. It's kind of just the things I gravitate towards because I think the macabre appeals more to humanity than other things.
Ben Gallaty: Hey, you wrote the songs, man. I got your back, whatever you say, whatever works.
On the same note, your songs have a good balance of being social commentary and being darkly funny. With your past couple releases, namely the Only God Can Judge Me EP, they have gotten a lot more serious. Is this something that's been deliberate or is it just a part of getting older and dealing with the more serious aspects of life?
Sean: I think it's growing older. Like I said, I can't deliberately write songs. They just kind of come and then I write them down. I don't sit down and think "I'm gonna write a really serious song this time." They just kind of come as they come and I have to accept them.
Ben: Something that is kind of interesting is that on the first couple tours and at some of our shows when we first started out, all the songs have stuff that's kind of on the darker side and people will respond to that by laughing and stuff. It's kind of weird singing this awful song with horrible content matter and a bunch of people in the room starting to laugh. And also getting pigeon holed into that where people are expecting it. I think there's like a song on Only God Can Judge Me about a man seizing on the sidewalk which is an experience Sean actually had. I remember one time we were playing it live and one person in the crowd started laughing really hard.
Sean: I thought that was really cool actually. I think the change in the songs might be a subconscious thing where I'm kind of getting sick of hearing people laugh at songs that I'm serious about so it might not be deliberate.
Something else I really enjoy about your lyrics is when you cover the subject of morality. "People II: The Reckoning" does this really well and that's an awesome song title by the way. The whole EP is very relatable for anyone who struggles with their own morality. I found every track very on that very applicable to my life. Growing up does fucking suck! Once you get into your mid to late twenties and you have to juggle wanting to be a creative person and the whole following your dream thing with living paycheck to paycheck and trying to make rent, you start to become disillusioned and it's hard to not be complacent. Obviously you deal with this by writing songs about it. How do you stay creative when dealing with the doldrums of daily life?
Sean: Well I think the doldrums of every day life are kind of necessary for me for creativity to be possible. I use song writing as kind of an artistic release from every day life so I think they feed into each other really well. And I actually like having a job. I like working. I don't want to work as much as I do but I like it and I think that my way of being creative is having a job.
What do you do, out of curiosity?
Sean: Right now I work at a homeless shelter.
Oh, that's a lot more interesting than being a waitress... I lose.
Sean: Before I started working in the social work field, I worked for 4 years as a Barista too, which is some of the funnest work I've ever found. I imagine that waiting tables and doing Barista work are sort of similar. You have a little bit more control as a Barista as far as latte art and shit like that which is really fun.
Ben: I don't know what kind of restaurant you work in but the dynamic between the Barista and the customer is a lot less fucked up and lame than a waitress who has to go to the table and you kind of have to kiss ass a lot more. I pretty much work coffee when we're not on tour and stuff and it's okay.
Sean: On the morality note, I really liked what you said. I think morality is something that everyone really should struggle with everyday because everyone has a different set of moral fibers. What's right for you might not be right for me. I really like and hate the fact that morality is such an important thing. There's no set of rules, it's all about dharma as the Buddhists called it so cool question.
Oh, thank you! Yeah, I had this like existential crisis about my own morality recently and I was talking about it with the lead singer of a band from New York and he was like 'Well, the fact that you are struggling with your own morality means that you are a moral person.' And I liked the way that sounded so I'll run with that so even if I'm not that good of a person, at least I can live under that delusion for a little longer.
Sean: That's a great way to handle it. To be worried about it is to have it.
You guys release a crazy amount of material for still being a very underground band. Including split EPs and everything, I think the running tally appears to be 10. Is that right? Do you know? I wikipedia-ed that and wikipedia says it's 10 since 2005.
Sean: 10 sounds good. Our full list is on our website and 10 sounds about right.
Ben: I think if you add up all the 7 inches and demos and weird shit like that, it'd probably be 15 or something. It's a lot. Most of the stuff we don't even have anymore, it's out of print.
That's crazy. How do you manage to write that many songs?
Sean: Lower your standards. We lower our standards for what we release. Just kidding! We just write a lot of songs and we save up the best ones for full lengths and stuff like that and more high profile releases but whenever we go on tour we like to have something nice and new for people to get that's hand numbered and hand made and shit. We like doing that.
Ben: It's fortunate for us as far as different people being willing to put out our stuff. There are a lot of songs we've written a long time ago that we like to revisit and work out to a way that's actually passable and put out on random releases but we don't like to turn people down if they're willing to take a risk and put stuff out for us. We put out some of our own stuff but mainly other people do it for us, a lot of really cool people.
So you do all this recording and barely any touring. Do you have any plans to do more national tours in support of your work?
Sean: Well, we're on one right now. I like touring a lot and I'm in my last year of school right now for a bachelor's degree in social work so I'm hoping after this year to go on more touring adventures. Ben's engaged now to a beautiful woman named Sylvia.
Ben: I like to tour maybe two and a half months a year. I was also in another band and we toured a little bit too. I think two and a half months a year is a good amount. I like touring but I also like being at home too. If you're touring constantly, every time you get back from touring you kind of have to reorganize and get your shit back together at home. It takes a little while to actually get back into a groove. I like to have a little time to get the wanderlust again. Sean's done a couple tours by himself, I might not be on all the tours. I've been on about 90% of the tours so far.
When you look at most indie acts that are trying to get their names out there, they're releasing one album then touring two years behind it.
Sean: I'm not into that. That sounds like hell. I don't know how people do that. I'll probably go on a few more solo tours but that'll be billed as "Sean Bonette, the shit dick from Andrew Jackson Jihad", not as "Andrew Jackson Jihad" because it's not the band without Ben.
You've always just been a guitar and bass combo. You're actually the second two-piece act I've interviewed, the first was Bad Veins and they're basically a full indie rock orchestra despite it being two people. Do you have any plans to expand your sound on future releases?
Ben: On recordings we do. We tour in an Astro Van which kicks ass, it's a pretty good vehicle and it gets pretty good gas mileage and we can fit three people in it pretty comfortably and sometimes for lengths of the tour we'll have 4 people but it's kind of hard. We like playing electric sometimes, we've played shows like that and we've released some stuff that way but it's such a bigger operation to get another person involved full time and to get all the gear in the vehicle. It's easier to tour this way now. And nobody else has been really forthcoming like "Hey, I wanna go on tour with you guys, I'll be your multi-instrumentalist!" or something so I don't know. It could happen. We want to do it. We've done shows with other people and we really enjoy it but nobody seems to stick around. We've had really good people play with us in the past but then they want to go pursue their own stuff. Maybe we're just really crappy people when you get to know us or something.
Sean: I think that's probably it.
Ben: If you spent a couple days with us, you'd realize we are pretty crappy people. We have horrible senses of humor.
So fairly recently you did a cover of Neutral Milk Hotel's "Two Headed Boy" which was awesome. I've been a fan of Neutral Milk Hotel literally since In The Aeroplane Over the Sea came out more than ten years ago it never occurred to me that Neutral Milk Hotel might be one of your influences.
Sean: Oh man, that's my favorite album.
That's great! It's mine too!
Sean: It's so good. Nothing can top it.
Could you guys tell me a little bit about the artists that have inspired you to make music?
Sean: The Clash. Against Me! Definitely had a very large influence, especially on our earlier songs.
Ben: We're all over the place. Paul Simon is really good. I kind of came from more punk rock bands. I really liked Swinging Udders when I was growing up, the Clash of course. Sean sort of came from more of like an indie rock scene. We listen to all kinds of music in the van. I used to be really close minded when I was in the punk scene. The punk rock community in the late '90's was very specific, you can't go outside of this little group of bands but now that I'm older I listen to everything. I like jazz a lot, metal music, everything.
Sean: The genre of music I've actually liked the most and the longest has actually been rap music. Mainly gangster rap from the early '90's. That's probably the answer as to why the songs are so full of murder and drug abuse. The first songs I really, really enjoyed listening to were by Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre and Ice Cube. That's one thing I always forget to mention in interviews. I love Notorious B.I.G. I think all these gangster rappers are amazing entertainers and great songwriters.
Ben: We had a thing going for the first three bands we were a band. For Halloween, we'd cover a band. We did Neutral Milk Hotel the first year, we did the entire In The Aeroplane Over The Sea album.
Nuh-uh! That's awesome!
Ben: Actually, there was this huge fan of Neutral Milk Hotel that came to our show and he did not think it was awesome at all. He thought we butchered it. But it was a lot of fun and a lot of kids there had a really good time. We did Against Me! the year after that and then we did the Pixies the year after that.
Your band name always seems to attract attention. Whenever I mention you to people who haven't heard of you, there's an overwhelming response of "Holy shit, what an awesome band name!" How did you settle on Andrew Jackson Jihad?
Sean: Take it away, Ben.
Ben: Basically we started the band as an accident sort of. Sean came over and he played a couple songs on acoustic guitar and I booked a show for him at the coffee shop we both worked at and he asked me if I could play. I told him I would only play if I could play my upright bass because I needed to learn how to use it so we played a show and this drummer showed up and was like "Hey, we should be a band!" And we were like "Okay, I guess we'll do that." We had another show lined up where we actually had to have a band name and we were on a kick covering the history of Andrew Jackson. We were basically just talking about how gangster he was. Not that he was a cool guy or a bad guy, just check out this story. This guy tried to assassinate Andrew Jackson and the gun didn't go off correctly so Andrew Jackson came up and started beating him with a stick. There's all these really weird anecdotes about Andrew Jackson so that was in our thoughts during that whole time period and any punk band adds something offensive and topical to (their name), so there you go. I never anticipated, and I doubt Sean did either, that this band would release albums or we'd ever go on tour. I was in another band and I'd been in that band for a long time and didn't really have much success. This was kind of a side project thing and then we just kind of started doing it and never changed the band name and it works. I can't think of anything that would be better.