Andrew Jackson Jihad are folk-punk’s second wave heroes. Following in the footsteps of groups like the Violent Femmes, but with social commentary more in line with the likes of the Dead Kennedys and other hardcore groups, the band’s lyrics deal with death, loss, mental illness, and every facet of the human condition, sung over jangling, almost deceptively happy guitar chords. It’s a marriage of two worlds that is as macabre as it is beautiful.
The band’s latest album, Christmas Island, isn’t so much as an album as it is a 30-odd minute elegy to the grandfather of lead singer Sean Bonnette, who passed away two weeks before the album’s recording. Almost every track deals with death, whether it be a literal death by gunfire (“Getting Naked, Playing with Guns”), or a track where Bonnette seems to try to embody death (“Angel of Death”). Sonically, the album is probably the most expensive thing the band has attempted as of late. The jangling chords and folk-punk formula of earlier efforts are aggravated and polished until they erupt like a bottle of Cola and Mentos. Christmas Island is a louder, fiercer record than Andrew Jackson Jihad has ever produced, and while it’s not as socially poignant as earlier efforts, its tales of isolation, mental illness, and introspection more than make up for it.
On the album’s final track, its namesake is revealed as Bonnette sings “I’m the nuclear test, called Operation Dominic, that gave my grandfather cancer”. Christmas Island, the site of the Dominic tests and the root of the death of Bonnette’s grandfather, is the name of the album mourning him. It’s morbid enough to be the punchline in a Kurt Vonnegut novel, but shows that the album is both about mourning Bonnette’s grandfather and celebrating his legacy.
I meet with Bonnette outside the Biltmore Cabaret on a cloudy afternoon. Bonnette, contrary to the sometimes tormented figure we hear on record, is just about the nicest guy you could meet. His band’s van has broken down and the entire setup is behind schedule, but he’s smiling the whole time we speak. Dressed in a red plaid shirt and wearing simple rimmed glasses, the only things counterculture about him to the naked eye are the tattoos he partially conceals on his sleeves and the cigarettes he smokes. I’m armed with a microphone, a record, a lot of questions and some condoms that a mysterious elderly lady had thrown at me earlier. We find a staircase in front of an apartment complex, and my afternoon with Andrew Jackson Jihad begins.
What’s going on with Andrew Jackson Jihad right now?
SB: At this very moment, we are about to play a show at the Biltmore Cabaret in Vancouver, BC, which is actually where we played our first Canadian show ever in 2011. We took a rental van here because our van broke down in Kamloops, so we’re going to be going back to Kamloops tomorrow to hopefully get it in time to drive 5 more hours to Seattle.
You guys just released your fifth album, Christmas Island. What’s the reaction to the record been like so far?
It’s been pretty amazing, actually. We’re really happy how people have responded to the record. I had a feeling people were going to connect to it, because we really like it– we’re very proud of it. In one word to answer how the response has been, I guess it’s been great [laughter].
You guys formed the band in 2004, which would make it right about the group’s 10th birthday. So I got you a present…
Oh no way!
…from your favourite rapper.
Oh my gosh, thank you so much! This is Return to the 36 Chambers…and it says right here that it’s “the Dirty Version”.
Wanna explain your history with Ol Dirty Bastard?
I think the first time I remember hearing about Ol Dirty Bastard was on MTV, and I watched a lot of MTV as a kid. And it was either the stunt that he pulled on Sean Colvin where he interrupted her to tell her that “Wu Tang is for the children” and that Wu Tang is the best. Or it was the time on MTV news that he went to go cash his food stamp cheque with all his kids in a limo, telling everyone that the government wants to give you money and that you need to take advantage of it. Both things are just really cool examples of his acting out, and that kinda alludes to the secret spontaneity that is his genius. That’s how I first heard of him, and then I got the album “N-word Please” when I was half way through highschool, about, and it really carried me through. Songs like “You Don’t Wanna Fuck with Me”, “ Got You Money”, and…I’m missing another track. [Begins humming] da da…dadadadad da da… I think that’s track two on that album.* It’s really good. He gives a really long shoutout to a lot of various places and people and things.
*Track was found to be “I Can’t Wait”.
It’s amazing that you’re into hip hop, but you’re no stranger to shoutouts. In “Do, Re, and Me”, you sing “Man the Bastard is a brutal fucking band/and they really do not like Andrew Lenz”. Man the Bastard is a hardcore group that wrote a song called “Putting a Screwdriver in Thomas Lenz’s Urethra”, correct?
Yes! And they have another song called “Semen in the Eyesocket of Thomas Lenz”.
Any explanation for all this Thomas Lenz hate?
I heard it was a record deal gone sour. Maybe Mr. Lenz was going to put out a 7-inch by Man the Bastard…I heard it was more a business deal. That’s all i really know, besides that they have a deep hatred for him. That song also has a shoutout to Q Lazzarus.
Who’s music is featured in Silence of the Lambs.
Yeah, that’s how I first heard him.
So you like giving shoutouts?
That’s definitely something i take from hip hop is being referential, or at least joyfully referential. I like the way rappers make lyrics that way.
One thing that interested me about the album was that it’s very cathartic, like a lot of your work, and I understand that you worked at a crisis centre in Phoenix. Are any of the experiences on the album from people who you encountered at the centre?
I don’t really take experiences from that job and put them in songs, because that’s confidential information, not to mention illegal– it’d be illegal for me to do so. What I try to do is use my experience as a human being to empathize with people, and then all of that goes into the big pot where teh songs are, and it all kinda gets blended up. I think working at the crisis hotline has definetly expanded my potential for empahy and being able to imagine what it’s like to go through certain things.
I also understand that your grandfather died before the album’s recording, and you say on “Angel of Death” that Operation Dominic gave your grandfather cancer. Was he working on the nuclear Dominic tests?
Yes, he’s atomic veteran.
Any stories to share?
It was something that, for as long as I knew him, he was proud of. He was proud of his time on Christmas Island. The security clearances that he required to get there…it was somehting he was proud of. Even after he was diagnosed with cancer, he still didn’t really regret getting to see all that he saw in the world, including some really scary shit in the South Pacific.
You dedicate two songs on the album to Temple Grandin, who was the autism activist who invented the Hug Box.
May I ask why you dedicated those songs to her in particular?
Growing up in my household, we were all kinda big fans of her. I have a loved one who has autism and reading her [Grandin’s] books really helped us get a grasp on what was going on. Mostly, I thought it would be clever to take the Stevie Wonder and Hellen Keller trope that other artists had pioneered and add my own contribution to it.
“Stevie Wonder to the bullshit”
Treasure Mammal and Lil Wayne have both done that too, the whole “disabled person to the bullshit” thing. But mostly about Temple Grandin what I love is that she managed to soothe herself and then ended up helping countless parents of autistic children. With her empathy she was also able to find a humane way to move cows from the pen to the killing floor so that they could at least die at peace. Her ability to communicate her condition and the way she sees the outside world is all just really great, and it’s something that I admire.
The record was produced by John Connington, who also produced the Violent Femme’s first record, and that was a band you both mentioned as inspiration. Was that the blueprint for what you wanted Christmas Island to sound like?
Sonically, yes. Songwriting-wise, not so much. Sonically, that was kinda the idea that we had in mind, but I think it went above and beyond that because it sounds a lot fuller than that first Violent Femmes record, but still very grating and aggressive. We do have one song that didn’t make it onto the record that is very Violent Femmes-y. It has this great bass guitar and the acoustic bass strum that is so tied to the Violent Femmes. That’ll eventually come out, I’m sure.
A fun question now. A lot of bands and musicians go through a lot of bad names before they find one they like…
What is the worst name you’ve ever performed under?
Andrew Jackson Jihad.
You don’t think it’s a good name?
Well, it was our first name and one we got big under. I’ve performed under worst names, for sure, but that’s the one that stuck in the end.
What’s next? Going back to Kamloop and picking up our van, then on to Seattle and finishing the tour. After this tour we’re taking a couple months off and then going to Europe. All the while, I’ve been writing songs and I’ll keep doing that.
Any shoutouts to give?
Yeah, listen to Hard Girls and Dog Breath. Two awesome bands.