Interview: Andrew Jackson Jihad (9.20.11)
Andrew Jackson Jihad kicked off their North American tour opening for Frank Turner with supporting act Into It. Over It. last night at Danbury, CT’s Heirloom Arts Theater. The Phoenix-based duo was kind enough to catch up with me before the show and record an interview for the blog. I asked them questions about the tour, the new album, and various other interesting things, and also asked them some of your questions. Feel free to stream a recording of the interview, embedded directly below, at the new Lewis and his blog soundcloud page. Here’s what they had to say.
Chris Cappello: I’m here with Andrew Jackson Jihad, a band from Phoenix, Arizona, here at the Heirloom Arts Theater in Danbury, Connecticut. I could go into detail about what style of music this band plays but I think that they can probably describe it better for themselves. So, how would you guys describe the sound of your band?
Ben Gallaty: I think that the most accurate description of our band would be “acoustic rock”, but I think that that’s also probably the lamest kind of music you could ever come up with. But I think that that’s probably pretty accurate.
Sean Bonnette: I’m incredibly bad at deciding that. The genre that I think I like the most and that I think would be the best genre name for our band would be indie rock, I guess. ‘Cause that’s a pretty broad term and I think we’re a pretty broad band. Broadband! High-speed broadband indie rock!
BG: Something I was just thinking about the other day is like — modern music definitely originally started with the blues, and then it got changed to rock & roll, but then like, rock & roll wasn’t really that much different from the blues, it was just like blues with electric guitars. And I think people haven’t been really creative, and a lot of people seem to think that music hasn’t changed recently, but I think it’s changed wildly, especially since the term “rock & roll” came around. I don’t know, I think it’s kind of strange that music has been changing and developing constantly ever since it was created, and it’s always being developed on the older stuff. I think that nowadays people get so hung up on coming up with a different name and coming up with a genre that explains one singular band. I just thought it was strange that Rock & Roll was like this milestone in music, but it really wasn’t that much different when rock & roll music came around. It was just like blues with electric guitars, and I think it’s changed wildly since then but people don’t see that.
CC: Would you guys like to introduce yourselves?
BG: Sure. My name is Benjamin Gallaty. I am from Arizona, born and raised, and I play in Andrew Jackson Jihad. I play upright bass typically in the live shows.
SB: My name is Sean Bonnette, and I am also from Arizona, and I play guitar and sing in Andrew Jackson Jihad.
CC: So where did the name Andrew Jackson Jihad come from? Is there a story behind it?
SB: Not really. Ben and I were at work one day, and we were discussing the presidency of Andrew Jackson, and from that conversation, talking about how he was a very interesting historical figure… I’m gonna blame it on Ben. He said, “Let’s call our band Andrew Jackson Jihad.” And at the time that seemed like a decent idea. We didn’t think our band was going to do very much, and so now we’re stuck with just a ridiculous name.
BG: Nobody else has our name, and we never have to worry about anyone accidentally choosing our name for their band. It was really just a quick decision that we made that didn’t really have much though behind it, and now here we are closing in on like eight years later and we’re stuck with a name which I thought had an interesting ring to it, and I’m still happy enough with it, but if anyone’s looking for a really super deep premeditated reason behind it then they’re going to have to come up with some lie, because there is not a really clever story behind it. It just happened. We had to put our name on a flier for a show that we booked, and that was the one.
SB: It’s an interesting word mash-up.
CC: Alright, so this date marks the first show on your tour with Frank Turner and Into It. Over It. What are some of your favorite bands that you’ve had the pleasure of playing with over your past eight year career?
SB: Oh man, Xiu Xiu definitely was a highlight. Jason Anderson… we’ve played festival shows with Dead Prez, Kool Keith, and Billy Bragg. Those were all pretty huge highlights. How about you, Benno?
BG: Well there’s been a lot of really wonderful Phoenix bands. Asleep In The Sea used to be a band that played in Phoenix. We played a few shows with them. Foot Ox from Phoenix, Partners in 818, our friends from Prescott. We’ve done tours with wonderful bands such as Delay, Bomb The Music Industry!, Lemuria, The Wild… So many… I’m not gonna go any further just because there are a million wonderful bands and I don’t want to leave anyone out. I’m trying to think of some of the recent shows. Recently we got to play with Titus Andronicus, which is a band that we’re not in the same direct community with. We don’t really know them, but we’re huge fans of them, so that was a really great experience. And all the bands in our little community, whether it’s the Asian Man Community, Plan-It-X community, Phoenix community… Whatever we have a connection to. We played this really random show in Aken, Germany with this band Big Kids — really great guys that we hadn’t even met before but we knew we had mutual friends and we ended up playing a show with them. Amazing band, super sweet people. There’s just so many wonderful bands. I’m really happy about the current state of music and all the bands that are out there doing it.
CC: That’s great. Titus Andronicus is actually one of my favorite bands and a lot of the bands you mentioned as well are some of my favorites, and some that I’ve actually seen recently. Anyway, tonight, are you going to be playing as a full band or what? It just going to be a duo show, or what is going to happen?
SB: We’re going to play as a two-piece tonight.
BG: This is something that’s been kind of change of heart for me. When I was younger, I always thought that if a band recorded something, that they needed to be able to represent that accurately live, and this band has not really done that. We’ve even been further removed from that recently. On our records, we try to serve the song to the best of our ability, including any musicians that we know, have them contribute to it. We add extra stuff ourselves a lot of times. Typically when we play live, it’s just the two of us. Sometimes it’s a larger group, and hopefully in the future we’ll do a tour that’ll have more people involved on the actual stage performance, but for the most part it’s a lot easier. With two people, it’s easy to clear up the schedule, and we both have a similar level of dedication to the band, so the expectation’s already set. Typically two people when we play live.
CC: I was going to ask what the dynamics of playing in a full band as opposed to doing a duo show or a solo is like, but I think that you covered it pretty nicely. Moving on, I guess, you guys have a new record out today on Asian Man Records called Knife Man. Can you tell us a little about the record in terms of what the creative vision behind this album was, musically and lyrically?
BG: I couldn’t speak too much to lyrically. Sean wrote the lyrics for the album. He showed up around December. He had about twelve songs on a demo, and I started listening to them and learning them and thinking about them. Those recordings consisted of Sean and an acoustic guitar for the most part. We just kind of sat on the record and listened to it a lot for about two or three months, had some other people listen to it and just tried to come up with a really clear idea of what would be the best way to serve that song. Just make that song be the funnest or the best-sounding it could sound. We also added some songs on the interim between when we got the demo and when we actually recorded. So we just kind of worked with the songs for about three months, and when we finally got to the studio we had a pretty clear idea of what we were actually going to do. But then, in the studio we had situations where we recorded a version of a song and we just weren’t really that happy with it, and we just tried something on the fly and it ended up being really great, and we went with it, and that is now what’s on the final version of the album. We tried to be pretty intentional, but then also recognize, listening back to the mixes, what was working and what wasn’t working and tried to not have it set in stone in our minds, but have at least a good idea so that we wouldn’t be wasting our time when we got to the studio.
SB: I think we also left ourselves some room for spontaneity, which I liked. Lyrically speaking, it’s a summation of what my life’s been like and what I’ve been thinking about for the past couple years since the last record. I work a job at a homeless shelter sometimes when I’m in Phoenix, and that became a good source of inspiration just thinking about how those systems are working right now and how they could maybe be improved, and acknowledging right now that they could be working better, but that it’s really hard to get everybody to work together. That, along with being in a long distance relationship, living in Phoenix, Arizona.. I think every song has a different story and meaning behind it but I think they all kind of tie together to relate to Phoenix.
CC: That’s very interesting. So Ben, you were talking about the recording process for the album. What was recording Knife Man like in comparison to recording your past albums. Was it any different?
BG: Yeah, the main difference is that we booked the recording time. We kind of showed up and we just spent about a week of just really focusing on the album, rather than what we usually do. It was just very focused when we did do the album, rather than just living our lives and doing the album when we had time. We actually wanted to go in. We knew we wanted to make a full length. We had a whole lot of songs, and we just made it happen in about a week. We did some overdubs after that, but the bulk of the album was pretty much done in about a week.
CC: Your past couple albums have shown a pretty dramatic trend of sonic evolution. Was this intentional, I wonder, and how did you go from making songs like the ones on your first full length, for instance, to songs like “Big Bird” or “Hate, Rain On Me”?
SB: I think I definitely got a lot better at expressing myself. I believe that for every song you write, you hopefully get better at trying to explain what you’ve been trying to explain, yet never will. So the first album is my first attempt at getting to explain to listeners what my condition is, and with this record and subsequent records after the first one, I think I’m still getting better and better at explaining and expressing. I wouldn’t say it’s exactly an intentional move to make weirder and weirder or more expansive records. I mean, when we recorded our first one we weren’t saying like, “Oh cool, for the fourth one let’s get real wild!” But it just gets funner and funner to record music, and I think we’re getting better at it.
BG: I kind of mentioned this earlier, but when we used to into the recording studio it was like, “Okay, let’s just capture what we do live.” Before this record too, I watched some documentaries on different artists that I love, especially like recording documentaries about how they recorded different albums, and there’s just like a million different ways to do it. I think that we’re just getting better. We’ve been doing it for years and years and we’ve realized that the song can sound any way we want it to sound, and we are only really limited to the creativity. We have a great engineer that we work with and he is really good at taking the really small, incoherent things that we say and making them what we hear. We’re good at communicating with him, and I feel like if we have an idea, that we can get it across. It’s really exciting to know that if I have an idea, we can make it happen. We weren’t having that many ideas when we first started playing. The idea was like, let’s get this recorded so that we can get this out to people and people can listen to it, and they can hear what we sound like live. And now it’s about like, “hey, let’s make an album!” I’m a fan, because I particularly like albums. I listen to albums all the way through. That’s just something that I do. I’m glad that we’ve been doing that lately. I think Can’t Maintain was an album like that, People was like that, and I think that we’re getting better at that. I’m really happy with the way that we’re progressing.
CC: And this album is a lot longer, actually, than any of your other records. Is that sort of a biproduct of what you were just talking about?
BG: We just had a lot more material, and we played some songs a little bit slower too. Sometimes when you’re recording you just play things faster because you’re nervous or excited or whatever… I think Sean would have preferred if it was a little bit shorter of an album, but I’m a big fan of, like, London Calling, and I kind of like the idea of doing that. I know that it’s been a while since we put out an album, and I figured that people that really like our music would be happy to sit down and listen to 45 minutes of Andrew Jackson Jihad, and the people that are just hearing us for the first time I figured there’s a lot of different music styles and recording styles represented in it, and there’s something that everyone can enjoy on the album. Not to say that we catered it to those people, but I figured that we can do all these different things, we put them all on the album, and they kind of reflect a certain feeling that we had at that point in time. We had a lot of discussion about how long we wanted the album, and it was not just obvious. We talked about it, and I think I convinced Sean to make it longer than he would have had it otherwise.
CC: You mentioned that you had a lot of material for this record, and now you must be realizing that the number of songs in your discography is starting to pile up. What is it like playing shows and putting together setlists with this larger number of songs now? Do you have fun with it or what?
SB: We don’t actually make setlists. We just kind of do it off the cuff. Generally, there’s songs that we know we want to play, and then songs we know that people would probably like to hear. Beyond that, we’ll just kind of go, “Well, what do you want to play next?” Then we’ll discuss it while we’re strumming the final chords of whatever the last song we played. Sometimes that train wrecks… But I saw the Fugazi documentary a long time ago and found out that they never used setlists, and I thought that was pretty cool. Sometimes we do make setlists if we have a time limitation, but it’s a lot funner just to have band meetings on stage and figure it out.
BG: Yeah, there is a lot of material. It’s really nice, and it keeps it exciting when we play live shows and because of the fact that we don’t have a setlist, we’re not playing the same song every night. We also sometimes play songs that we don’t really know that well ‘cause we haven’t played them in two years, you know? But it keeps it fun and exciting for us, and I hope for the audience too. I think even when we’re playing a song that’s really old and maybe obscure, I’ve noticed that the audience is very understanding and they don’t really get upset about that. I really appreciate that our audience is not super critical, because if they were then they’d definitely be let down. (Laughs) If they had expectations of some kind of perfect show and they showed up to an Andrew Jackson Jihad show, they would be bummed out. That has happened, but I’m really grateful for our audience and how they’re willing to work with us.
CC: You were talking about some of the personal things that were going on that basically influenced you when you were in the songwriting process for this record. In particular, one of the things that has come up in your music over the past eight years and really all of your records is your childhood and your relationship, or lack thereof with your father. I would understand if you didn’t want to talk about this, but a lot of my readers and myself are interested in this. What was your relationship with your father actually like, and how much do songs like “Who Are You?” from Can’t Maintain reflect the true nature of that relationship?
SB: “Who Are You?” is probably the most accurate portrayal of my relationship with my father. To this day I’m not 100% certain who he is, but one time when I was in high school someone called me out of the blue to let me know that they think they’re my father, and they were in AA, Alcoholics Anonymous. He was calling, I believe, as part of his ninth step: Making amends with people he’s wronged. And I think I just told him that he didn’t exactly wrong me considering that he had spent the past however many years being an alcoholic, and how it kind of ruined his life for a while. I’m really glad he wasn’t raising me when he was doing all that. (Laughs) So I kind of dodged that. And also, the guy’s a musician, which is funny. My mom’s a singer, and the people she was dating around… well, I probably shouldn’t get into that, but yeah, that guy’s also a musician.
CC: Sort of moving away from the personal side of things, there are clearly a lot of allusions to pop culture and other bands and stuff in your lyrics and music. Aside from those personal influences, what were you listening to, watching, et cetera that influenced you during the process of making this record?
SB: The Monitor by Titus Andronicus. I listened to that shit a lot. When it came out, the guys in Bomb The Music Industry! turned me onto it, and that’s been in pretty heavy rotation ever since I first heard it. So I definitely have to give them credit for being what I was listening to when I was writing songs and when we were recording. I think the most Monitor influence you can hear is at the end of “People II 2”, when it goes from acoustic right into really fast punk sounding stuff. That and, as usual, Phil Ochs. He’s one of the only folk singers I listen to currently. What else? Roky Erikson and the Aliens came after we finished Knife Man, but it’s definitely going to inform the next album.
BG: I liked a couple records that came out last year, most notably the new Johnny Flynn album and the new Arrivals album. Those are just things that I was very excited about that came out right before we recorded the record.
CC: Alright, so now I’ve got some time for a couple questions that some of the readers of my blog suggested. This is one of them. This guy 24thoughtspersecond asked: A few of your songs seem to have anti-smoking messages from you two sort of as smokers. And obviously you guys still smoke, because you just did five minutes ago (laughs). But what is your relationship with smoking? What is it now and how has it changed over your career?
SB: Well, I’m addicted to cigarettes and I really want to stop smoking cigarettes. But I still haven’t found the strength within me to quit and actually leave it alone and not smoke anymore. It’s great that I’m not addicted to other stronger weirder drugs, but I have to acknowledge to myself that I really like it and that it’s currently a part of my life, so it’ll naturally pop up in songs. I wish I had never started though, and I hope that our music has never gotten anyone into smoking because it’s a horrible waste of money.
BG: Yeah, smoking is not a good thing. I would not suggest that anyone goes and does it. I am at a current stage in my life where I haven’t tried to quit in a long time. I do really enjoy smoking. It’s not painful when I do it. When I do smoke, I’m happy to smoke, but I know that it is very bad for me healthwise. I would like to quit at some point, and I hope that it becomes evident, and I hope that it’s not too incredibly difficult when I do.
CC: On a lighter note, this is also from one of my readers, and I guess this is directed to both of you — Mikehein asked: At what age could you grow a beard for the first time?
SB: I think like 19.
CC: Not bad.
BG: When I was about 17 I just stopped shaving in an attempt to buy beer when I was underage. That was the real impetus behind me growing a beard, and it actually worked a few times. I had some facial hair, and it made me look older than I actually was, and a few times it did the job. I bought beer underage, so that’s my story.
CC: And finally, this is another from a reader. This is a blog called itsgoodforconnecticut, which is a Connecticut-focused blog that is pretty self-explanatory. It just posts things that are good for the state in its author’s opinion. They want to know what you thought of your time spent in Connecticut so far, and I’m sort of more curious… generally, what’s your relationship with this state? I remember you, Sean, you played a show in Connecticut a few years ago that was just a solo show.
SB: Yeah, that was with Bomb The Music Industry!, it was super fun. I’ve always pretty much been a fan of Connecticut. When I was a kid I lived in Ledyard, Connecticut for like six months, which is kinda near Groton, near the coast. I’ve always had a really good time here. We have a friend… do you know Flood by any chance? He runs Asbestos Records. We met him the first time we played in Connecticut and he’s been a really tight friend ever since. We’ve got a couple tight friends here. Now you… Yeah, it’s super fun, and we’ve never had a bad show in Connecticut. Connecticut folks seem to really like our band, which I’m grateful for.
CC: Well, I certainly like your band. Do you guys have any plans to come back to Connecticut any time soon, or are you not thinking that far ahead necessarily?
BG: Well, I’m sure that we will be back. We don’t have any plans in the future. We really don’t have any plans after this tour. We’ve been talking about different things. If we were in the area we would definitely stop by Connecticut. Once again, we do enjoy Connecticut. We’ve had wonderful shows here, but it is also pretty much the furthest away you can get from Arizona and still be in the continental United States. But yeah, it’s great and any time we are up on the east coast, we will definitely be stopping by Connecticut because everyone’s been really great to us here.
SB: We should go on tour again probably this year.
CC: Alright so until then I guess we’ll have the new Andrew Jackson Jihad record Knife Man to tide us over. You guys, Sean, Ben, thank you so much for speaking with me. I really appreciated this interview.
BG: Thank you Chris.
SB: Thank you very much, Chris.
Knife Man is available to buy on CD and vinyl at Asian Man Records.