The name change is not the only thing that’s evolved over the band’s 12-year existence. Founder, frontman and ace lyricist Sean Bonnette originally teamed up with bassist Ben Gallaty in Phoenix to create an acoustic-driven Folk Punk sound that was as visceral as it was minimalist. Think a desert-based version of Neutral Milk Hotel brought up on equal parts Nine Inch Nails and Simon and Garfunkel.
Flash forward a dozen years and AJJ is now a five-piece Indie Rock outfit with members living in different cities (after a stint in Chicago, Bonnette currently lives in Lansing, Mich., where his wife is in graduate school). The band’s sixth full-length album, last summer’s John Congleton-produced The Bible 2, is its most sonically diverse effort to date, moving from the rousing guitar-addled opener “Cody’s Theme” to the keyboard-infused New Wave Pop of “American Garbage” to the piano balladry of “No More Shame, No More Fear, No More Dread” with equal dexterity.
Yet some things remain the same: Bonnette’s dense, wit-infused lyrics and the urgent delivery of his increasingly nuanced singing voice. CityBeat recently connected with Bonnette to discuss his band’s evolution.
CityBeat: You started the band when you were 18. You’re now 30. How has your approach changed over that time?
Sean Bonnette: Oh, so much. From a songwriting standpoint, when I first starting writing songs around like 16 or 17 — the songs that were on the first Andrew Jackson Jihad record Candy Cigarettes & Cap Guns — the idea for the songs was to write in all lies. I maybe wanted the emotional resonance to try to ring true, but mostly just lies and novelty songs and humor — a lot of humor, so much so that it kind of overpowered anything else that I was trying to say. Over the years I think there’s been a big shift towards honesty — definitely emotional honesty but also trying to sing songs truthfully. Some songs are still total lies, but they are true to me.
From a musical standpoint, the older you get, the more music you take in, the more your tastes change and your music reflects that change. You also get better technically at playing music. This is an over-the-phone interview, so you didn’t see my air quotes, but I used air quotes for the word “better.” There’s definitely something you lose when you start to think you know how to do something and you lose the wonder of naivety.
CB: Along those lines, a lot of fans of your early records have been critical about the band’s evolution in recent years. Do you ever take into account the audience when you’re writing?
SB: I think you do your best work when you’re not thinking about what other people are going to think. I’ve always gotten joy out of the band and writing songs outside of anyone else’s reaction. It’s kind of therapeutic. It’s hard to complete songs when you think about how people are going to react to them. I think when you try to tell yourself to write for someone else’s enjoyment that they will see through that quickly and won’t enjoy it. I try really, really hard not to pander. So when stuff changes, that backlash is inevitable. Some listeners are just not in for the ride, and that’s OK.
CB: How has moving out of Arizona in recent years impacted your songwriting?
SB: The environment you make music in can’t help but inform what you end up creating. I think I kind of fetishized Phoenix and being in the desert a little bit, because I’m a little homesick for that. But if I had to say there is a theme of the (most recent) album, it’s overcoming adolescence. There was a pretty shitty part of my childhood where I lived in Minnesota with not the healthiest family unit, and I listened to a lot of Nine Inch Nails and other stuff, like Depeche Mode and Pantera’s The Great Southern Trendkill. A lot of angry-kid music. And, finding myself 15 years later living in the Midwest again where the basements smell musty, I found myself exploring that mental state again, listening to Pretty Hate Machine and Downward Spiral and Violator. It unlocked a lot of memories and helped me find some closure about that period in my life.
CB: Your singing voice, which is urgent and kind of uniquely penetrating, is one of the band’s calling cards. How did you find your approach to singing and how has it changed over the years?
SB: It’s a saga. I don’t listen to the old records very much, but whenever I do I cringe at the singing style from back then. I think that’s a natural thing. Hopefully by the next record when someone puts on The Bible 2, I’ll cringe at that as well. I first started singing in the Hillcrest Children’s Choir as a kid in San Diego. That’s where I learned how to project and get my intonation. Then my voice, when I starting writing songs, got really inspired by John Darnielle from The Mountain Goats, of course, and Laura Jane Grace from Against Me! I definitely spent a couple years singing like her.
And now doing a lot of lower-register stuff and falsettos, I like to sing like Jamie (Stewart) from Xiu Xiu, who actually sang on (2014’s) Christmas Island. That was an honor. I think my vocal range has changed a lot since I quit smoking about a year and a half ago. Even before then I was doing vocal warm-ups, but now I think I have a lot more freedom when it comes to my voice. I’m now in my melodic years. (Laughs.) My range has expanded outside of two octaves.
AJJ performs with Joyce Manor at Taft Theatre’s Ballroom on Monday. Tickets/more info: tafttheatre.org.