For the past 12 years, Phoenix punk band AJJ has spoken in the language of chaos, gotten creative with kazoos, and delighted in clowning Christianity. But these days, their irreverence comes with a side of tenderness.
Their 2014 record, Christmas Island, first signaled this shift. Frontman Sean Bonnette translated grief from his grandfather’s passing into songs that, among other things, detailed an unexpected breakdown at a Linda Ronstadt museum exhibit. In The Bible 2, released last month via SideOneDummy Records, the fuzzy guitars, warm double-bass lines, and punchy lyrics sound familiar—yet many things feel new. There’s the New Wave synth touches and ambitious string arrangements, the moments of crisp production in between the fuzz, and the examination of Midwestern boyhood through a new lens. It’s the lens that comes with more than a decade’s worth of personal growth catalogued through song.
For AJJ, growing up means changing their name, experimenting with new sounds, and testing different writing methods. And where many bands’ sonic changes upset fans, AJJ’s listeners have flocked to The Bible 2 with an outpouring of sweet internet comments. Perhaps they find themselves growing up, too.
I’ve certainly grown up with AJJ. Their particular brand of chaos has seen me through my own times of upheaval, including college, a move across the country, and my new uncertain life in Brooklyn. But there’s one comforting message that rings through every AJJ song: Weird feelings are fine. And on The Bible 2, there’s a comforting mantra that builds upon that: No more shame, no more fear, no more dread.
Bonnette answered the phone from a skate park he visits every day while at home in Lansing, Michigan (speaking of: AJJ has some sick limited edition skateboard decks). We talked about reverb, why his wife is his best editor, and his sincere love of OK Go—despite what some internet headlines might suggest.
I was super stoked to see that you guys were staggering the album’s release over Bandcamp track by track, so people could give it a listen there first. And I loved the cheeky price point of $6.66—it just seemed like a perfect fit for you guys.
It’s a nice price.
How did the idea for that release strategy come about, and how did it end up working out for you guys?
I have to give all credit to Jamie Coletta [at SideOneDummy Records] for the idea to release all the songs that way. Another thing I noticed was that this is the first album of ours that hasn’t leaked before its release. I mean, the first two or three records, no one really cared enough to leak them [laughs]. But Knife Man and Can’t Maintain and Christmas Island all leaked before their release date. This one did too, but we leaked it ourselves and we monetized it. I’m happy, so happy with how it worked out.
I’m curious about the recording and production process for The Bible 2, because there are some really distinct moments on the record in terms of sound—that New Wave-y synth on “American Garbage,” the fun string arrangements on “Goodbye, Oh Goodbye,” and I really liked the dramatic reverb on the vocals on “Small Red Boy.” You guys stuck with your producer from Christmas Island, right?
Yeah, John Congleton. This time I would say the main factor is time constraints, actually. When you work under a strained amount of time, then you have to commit to all of your ideas going in, and you don’t have a lot of time for overthinking or nitpicking.
We did most of the arrangements for the record during soundchecks on a three-week tour about a month before we recorded. We would just take extra long doing our soundchecks, and then record them and then listen to them in the van later. We bought two tiny guitars from a music store in Florida so that we could practice and work stuff out in the van as well.
By the end of that tour, we had a good enough idea of how most of the songs were gonna go, and then we left a couple up in the air to work out with John for fun. Those ended up being [“American Garbage”], “My Brain Is A Human Body,” and a couple that are gonna show up later on that we didn’t put on The Bible 2.
A note on that reverb on “Small Red Boy”—our big point of reference on that song was Leonard Cohen, on the song Avalanche.
There’s quite an emotional shift between Christmas Island and The Bible 2, because in your last record you were grieving the loss of your grandfather. Where you were emotionally with The Bible 2, compared to where you were for Christmas Island?
With The Bible 2, I was a lot happier writing it. I feel like writing Christmas Island, I got a lot of valuable work out of the way as a songwriter, learning how hard it can be in order to learn how easy it can be to write songs, and feel good about what I’m writing.
The way that I wrote these songs is, I worked in the morning, just doing a lot of freewriting and letting my mind wander into songs, rather than waiting around for songs to pop into my head. In doing so, it felt like more valuable work. And it was a lot more healing than it’s been in the past, which is cool because that’s what I mostly write songs for—that therapeutic value.
Speaking of writing for healing and therapy—boyhood is a strong theme on this album, looking backward and revisiting things. What compelled you to look back on childhood?
A lot of stuff, but the thing that strikes me right now about it is that a lot of [it] is about how I was living in the Midwest as a kid, which was a pretty rough time for me and my family. I think I’ve gotten a second look at it, living in the Midwest now. I’ve returned to some of the music I listened to when I was in middle school and living there, and the climate is very similar. Part of that might have put me into that mindset—getting to think about it again and let a lot of stuff go. Which is enlightening. It feels very good.
What made you move back to the Midwest?
My wife is going to school here. She’s going to Michigan State University, and she’s getting her PhD in clinical psychology.
Do you show her what you’re working on before you go to record? Is she involved in your creative process?
Oh, totally. I consider her my editor in a lot of ways.
That is super sweet—I kinda want to interview her now.
She’s pretty busy [laughs], but I’ll give her your number and she’ll call you up. It’s really badass, actually, having a psychologist to discuss emotions with.
For sure, especially since that’s a huge narrative thread in your work—mental health and emotional chaos. It must be cool to have an expert available whenever you need her.
Totally. I mean, I have a background in mental health as well, but nothing compared to the level of accomplishment she’s risen to. It’s cool that we can speak the same language, as far as mental health is concerned. We’re very good at discussing our emotions with one another.
So there’s this AJJ phenomenon that you guys have talked about before—your fans’ tendency to hate whatever new album comes out, and then when another comes out, they double back and love the other one. For starters, that doesn’t seem like it’s happened with The Bible 2. But would you say now that Christmas Island is finally getting its due?
Oh, um. [laughs] I want to clarify a thing real quick, which doesn’t nullify anything you just said, but I think that phenomenon is kinda common for most bands and most listeners—myself included.
I’ve definitely listened to a new album and been made uncomfortable by bands I like changing. And I’ve been able to get used to whatever their previous record was and see its worth. But i think Christmas Island will continue to get its due. And I think it did reach an effect that it needed to. People get that it’s a super emotional record… except for some people who think it’s not, which gets under my skin a little bit. But the lyrics are very guarded and very cloaked, because they were written by someone who was afraid.
That kinda gets into my next question—Your songs are so nuanced and rich with meaning, and that seems to lead fans to start immediately analyzing lyrics when new [AJJ] stuff comes out. How does it feel to have your work scrutinized so closely, and how do you reckon with things like incorrect interpretations or baseless criticism?
Generally, I don’t think any interpretation is necessarily wrong—unless it’s mean. And then it’s really wrong.
One funny criticism: on Christmas Island, the reviewer said that on one of the songs, it sounded like I was doing a bad impression of Jamie Stewart from Xiu Xiu. But in fact, it was Jamie Stewart of Xiu Xiu singing on that song, doing a bad impersonation of himself. It was actually a really good impersonation of himself! On the song “Coffin Dance” he sings the second verse.
That’s the one aggravating moment I can think of. Otherwise, it’s kinda par for the course. If you put something out, you should feel flattered that people talk about it, but also try very hard not to read what they say. Or, if you do, try not to really care. If you get something that’s overly flattering, that can be just as damaging, I think, as something that’s really mean. In general, it doesn’t have anything to do with the art that you make.
I went to the show you guys did in Gainesville a couple years ago, and one moment that really stood out among the fun and the great tunes was when you gently called out [a guy] for getting too crazy in the pit. Do you find yourself doing that a lot? Generally, what kind of crowds are you playing to?
It depends on the part of the country we’re playing to; it goes from show to show. Sometimes we have to ask people to mellow out a little bit. Other times, we don’t. Like, we’ll play in Phoenix and it’ll be just right. People will be bopping up and down, but not hurting each other.
I’ll give you examples from the last couple shows we played: Phoenix was great, because we’ve played there forever and people know what we expect. When we played in Tucson, everyone was very still, listening and contemplative. That was pretty cool. We played in Camarillo, California, and in the first song, someone stage dived. The move that I do when people stage dive, if we’re playing a song where I have a little bit where I can think between words and say stuff, I’ll go, “Hey put that kid down! What did that kid ever do to you! Shame on you guys, you shouldn’t be picking up kids like that!” [laughs]
And that’s a subtle, good hint, because you’re not really calling anyone out. It puts the responsibility on the audience to make sure people stay on the ground. I also say, “Quit cyberbullying those people! Quit cyberbullying that kid, leave him on the ground!” [laughs]
Yes, you were.
That guy got so pissed. [laughs]
Yes! You remember the guy who screamed at you and then stormed out?
He called me the F word. Then he, like, ripped his shirt off and was waiting outside, trying to fight us. Erin from Dogbreth went out and told him to step off, and he called her a bitch. And then Ben Graham from Cheap Girls whispered something in his ear and scared him off.
That’s maybe the most bananas thing I’ve ever seen happen at a show anywhere. I mean, Gainesville is its own brand of weird, but that was crazy.
That was incredibly uncalled for and super rare for one of our shows, for someone to get that fuckin’ weird… that’s like, a once-in-a-tour occasion. [laughs]
How has your attitude toward touring changed over the years? You guys have been together for more than a decade, and it seems like, at this stage, artists start to get especially weary of the road.
Oh man, that is a shame. [laughs] I feel like I get better at touring every time I do it. The more you do it—as long as you continue enjoying it—you learn little tricks and hacks that make it go easier.
For our band especially, that’s somewhat of a hobby. We’re always bouncing around different ways that we pack, for example. Mark, the cellist, is really into packing cubes these days. I use these little compression sacks that i put in my duffel bag, so I can keep my socks and underwear divided. I bring a sleeping pad now, just in case, especially for touring Europe. Or, actually more like the UK. In Europe you can generally sleep in a bed if you play.
And we drink less. We’re just kinda partying less. I think mostly the people that get weary of touring—that’s just an indicator that they’re maybe tired of the people they’re with. Or they haven’t adapted to take care of themselves well on the road. I enjoy it as much, if not more, than ever.
That is so cool to hear. I might be biased because I saw The Decline of Western Civilization Part 2 last weekend—
[laughs] I’ve seen clips of that, that shit’s hilarious.
Yeah, those guys—it’s so funny, but deeply sad! Those guys ran themselves into the ground. So that makes touring look like a horror story.
But when you got your compression sacks and you’re with your buds, I can see how that would be genuinely enjoyable.
Yeah, it’s great. Another thing that I would say is different is that we tour way less than most bands do—or at least did. We have a general rule that we never tour for more than three weeks at a time. If we have six weeks of touring, we’ll do three weeks on, two weeks off, and then three more weeks. That’s drastically different from friends of mine, who will tour for six weeks to three months.
I really want to talk about the hilarious video for Goodbye, Oh Goodbye. Are you feeling genuinely fatigued of the ‘viral music video’ gimmick, or is it something you just find amusing?
Oh man, I mean, I just got into the game! [laughs] I’m just getting warmed up. Nah, I’m just kidding. It felt really good to poke fun at it, but not because I think it’s a bad thing. We heard the idea from Joe, the director—like the idea of doing a bad OK Go video in a world that we create where we’re completely oblivious to OK Go, and include all the same tricks and make it look just as good. It just tickled me on a very fundamental level.
It’s a very ticklish music video. How are you handling your sudden viral fame?
Oh, I think it’s all but passed at this point. Which is good. It was kinda hard. Gizmodo wrote a really mean article about OK Go, linking to our video. Noisey’s headline said Stuff This Up Your Butts, OK Go. It kinda went into this weird, mean place where we didn’t intend to go.
It does not seem in the spirit of your music and what you guys are about. I hope to set the record straight here: It’s silly and not a pointed jab at OK Go.
Totally. I think those guys are geniuses. Our friends at SideOne reached out to them to make sure that they knew that, and they’re totally cool. They were nice about it.
We did have one big goal with the video that I’m proud to say we accomplished: for moms who love OK Go to watch it and not get it. I saw some Twitter comments and compiled some pictures of comments from this one mom who was like, talking about how OK Go does this way better, including pictures of her with the band OK Go. I sent that pic over to the director.
Does OK Go have a strong mom following? I had no idea.
They do, yeah. Not to stereotype, but Midwestern moms love them some OK Go.
Speaking of viral fame, but how do you think the internet has come to affect DIY music? Because on one hand it’s democratized things and leveled the playing field, but you could also argue that it isolates people or puts pressure on creating things that are shareable rather than just good.
I think both of your criticisms are perfectly valid. In the year 2016, gosh, that’s a really big question. Our band is lucky that we never felt the burn of filesharing. We were never making money off music before all music became, essentially, free. Which I feel very fortunate for; i have friends who are older whose checks stopped coming.
But that doesn’t really mean anything for DIY music. DIY music is generally about putting the music out first, and not caring about reaping the rewards.
As far as what the internet’s doing with music, I have no beef with that at all. I do worry about what the internet and what the culture of checking in and stuff does to our behavior as humans. But with music, I think it does nothing but good. The fact that music is completely democratized and there’s no real gatekeeping anymore for what you can release, is just fucking fantastic for music as, if nothing else, self expression.