An Interview with Sean Bonnette of AJJ
By Andrew Daly
If stirring lyrical themes, and daring yet quirky instrumentation seem appealing, then the odds are the AJJ are for you.
Formed back in 2004 as Andrew Jackson Jihad, founding members Sean Bonnette (vocals/guitars) and Ben Gallaty (bass) went into things with simple intent: to make music that meant something. Now 19 years older and all the wiser, the duo, who are flanked by Preston Bryant (guitars/keys), Mark Glick (cello/baritone guitar), and Kevin Higuchi (drums) are still doing just that.
“It’s been a long and fulfilling journey,” Bonnette tells me. “But whether I’ve improved or not is certainly up for debate! In songwriting I teeter back and forth between playfulness and rigorous obsession; between trying too hard and barely trying at all. Most of the time the low-effort stuff turns out better. I think the thing that makes anyone improve at a craft is doing it a lot and not getting stuck in any be-all, end-all method.”
Indeed, Bonnette’s modesty is telling, as is the music strewn across AJJ’s latest LP, Disposable Everything. And in case you’re wondering – yes, this is a hyper-political affair, with all the opinions, and lament on what Bonnette perceives as a society being brought to its knees.
But it’s not all bad, as the record is as full-on as AJJ has sounded in years. Bonnette’s unique delivery and simplistic yet pointed guitar stylings are spot on from a folk-punk perspective. Moreover, if you’re the sort that gets your rocks off via challenging conformity via laconic stoicism via song, you might just get a few warm and fuzzy vibes, too.
Ultimately, it’s par for the course. Ever restless, and intensely yet pleasantly disgruntled, Bonnette scoffs as the idea of ever staying in one musical place for too long: “If we have one principle or philosophy in the band, it’s to switch up our approach as much as possible from album to album. Hell, even within the same album. And to embrace different styles and genres. We view ourselves as a mixtape band and take a lot of pride in our range.”
One listen to Disposable Everything tells you all you need to know, and yet, it also opens a proverbial Pandora’s Box. The effortlessness by which Bonnette opens his heart and leaves it on his sleeve is endearing to be sure. But there are no gimmicks, only honestly, mixed with a not-so-subtle shot of indignancy, for good measure, of course.
“That’s the kind of art I cherish. I have no other choice but to make it that way,” Bonnette says. “This album is more subjective; I’d like to think that it asks questions. I hope listeners emotionally connect with it and, I hope that they can hear all the fun we had making it.”
In support of Disposable Everything, Sean Bonnette checked in with ClassicRockHistory.com to dig into the making of the album, going “hog wild” in the studio, and his love for “cheapo guitars,” for which he “doesn’t respect, and never will.”
What can you tell me about your latest record, Disposable Everything?
What’s to say? We checked into the Sonic Ranch the first week of 2022 with producer David Jerkovich and went hog wild. There was no practice leading up to the sessions. We’d planned on practicing, but the Omicron scares were thick that holiday season, so we just jazzed it. We recorded in a frenzy, at all hours of the night, so excited to finally be playing in the same room together again.
That week there were times I swear we were listening to a radio from another dimension and just playing back what we heard. It was a blast. Lots of ambition and joy went into it. The songs were just ripe enough in their infancy that the band could really leave their mark. After that feverish week we took the tracks home and spent the rest of the year finishing the album.
The first two singles are great. How did they come to be?
That’s a tough question because a lot of the time, figuring out the meaning is what happens after you put the song out into the world. Most of (the song) Disposable Everything was written on a long walk.
I think it’s about trying to reconcile intergenerational trauma in the face of looming catastrophe. And I think Death Machine is about how the status quo requires constant violence to function, and about the personal tug-of-war between feeling powerless to stop it and the moral obligation to sabotage it.
Singles aside, which tracks mean the most to you, and why?
I like the weird, personal ones: Moon Valley High and A Thought of You. They have some very fun and uncharacteristic prog-rock moments that remind me of my mother and of the soundtrack to the film Heavy Metal. And Candles of Love is a really sweet song, plucked out of my personal life as a little song I sing to my partner.
What gear did you use to record this album? Is there one or two guitars that played the biggest role?
As stated before, we went hog wild on this thing: mellotrons, Junos, Wurlitzers, Rhodes, obscenely expensive microphones and compressors, innumerable beautiful ancient guitars from the ranch’s guitar locker, and the most cutting-edge synthesizers that I’m not even allowed to talk about. We threw everything at this album and the sickest vintage kitchen sink we could find on Reverb.
My personal guitar MVP was my live show guitar, a Yamaha FG Red Label. My most coveted piece of gear was either the new model mellotron that Preston [Bryant] used to record overdubs at the same time that I was tracking vocals or this gorgeous vintage blackguard Telecaster that someone had filed the bridge down on to make it easier to palm mute.
Do you prefer new or vintage gear? Is there one guitar that you have which means the most?
I have a lot of new gear and vintage gear, but I think I have the most fun playing cheap gear. Creatively speaking, I tend to get the best results out of equipment that I don’t expect to sound particularly good. I have a $50 pawn shop guitar that I call ‘Tiny Guitar.’ It’s a mass produced, cheapo, mini-classical guitar, with pixelated butterflies printed around the sound hole.
For some reason forever ago, I borrowed $50 from Ben [Gallaty] to buy this thing, and I’ve probably written more songs on it than any other instrument. The finish is worn off around where my thumb usually goes, revealing the plywood or whatever it’s made of. It’s covered in stickers, tape, and grime. I love that guitar, but I don’t respect it, and I never will. That’s probably why songs travel so freely from it.
Is the guitar where your songs begin, or a vehicle later?
Most of the songs begin by humming to myself, though that’s not always the case. A lot of the songs on Disposable Everything were written initially as recording experiments; little tunes just to have something to record while learning how to use new equipment. The guitar (and lately) the piano serve as wonderful doorstops for inspiration.
Learning covers, noodling around, and playing scales are all fantastic things to do, not just because they sharpen your craft but also because they increase the likelihood that there will be an instrument in your hands whenever inspiration comes around. I think it’s important to not get glued to one single process, because above all else: Whatever works works.
What are the challenges of making new music for a world with such a short collective attention span? What’s next?
Given how short our songs tend to be, I think we’re built for this new world. If we do pay attention to trends, it’s as a way to scan the horizon for what we should be doing against the trend. Maybe that means our next recordings will be loooooong and booooooring. Who knows?
Aside from that, we’re gonna play a bunch of shows and make more art that excites us. I feel really grateful for my bandmates and our listeners.
Sean Bonnette of AJJ: The ClassicRockHistory.com Interview article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2023
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