When the band formerly known as Andrew Jackson Jihad shortened its moniker to AJJ, it just made sense. For one, it was the right thing to do. As stated in their Facebook post back in February, “We are not Muslims, and as such, it is disrespectful and irresponsible for us to use the word jihad in our band’s name,” ?and, “We no longer wish to be a living reminder of president Andrew Jackson. Interesting historical figure as he was, he was an odious person and our fascination with him has grown stale.”
This decision was announced in February, but the four-piece—comprised of singer Sean Bonnette, bassist Ben Gallaty, cellist Mark Glick, and guitarist Preston Bryant—came to terms with transitioning into AJJ when they were recording their forthcoming album, The Bible 2, in January. Because you can’t have the word “Jihad” and the word “Bible” on the same cover. That would be way too much.
More than that though, The Bible 2 is a record of self-empowerment through and through. The Bible 2 is the band’s sixth studio album, following on the heels of 2014’s Christmas Island, which dealt with Bonnette’s grieving process over his late grandfather.
This album seeks closure and understanding—but Bonnette didn’t know that when he was in the songwriting process.
“I don’t write songs with goals,” he says. “I’m more of a discoverer than a creator.”
As always, AJJ is real. Real fucking real. That scuzzy, punk attitude. Those angst-ridden cries. The ever-present penchant for bawdy witticisms—you know, like “This heart beats baby piss”—while still maintaining a graceful narrative. It’s all there, despite the name change.
From the angle of Bonnette, now 30—a self-proclaimed “beginning old dude”—The Bible 2 examines boyhood with a unique combination of distance and intimacy but not the cynicism you may expect.
“When you get over the mid-20s hump, you stop caring about a lot of things, and it gives you a really fresh perspective on being an old dude, or a beginning old dude,” he says.
Appropriately, the record gets a roaring start with the thunderous “Cody’s Theme,” sung in the first person and featuring a wicked fretless guitar solo. Cody has popped up in AJJ’s music before. But who is he?
“Cody is a designation of a certain kind of kid—he’s the kid that has a lot of destructive energy and nowhere productive to put it all,” Bonnette explains. “Usually poorer, has a dirty face, with Kool-Aid stains on the side of his lips and eats macaroni and cheese off a paper plate and found a broom handle in the trash and is, like, hitting a tree with it, pounding a piece of rebar in the ground with a baseball bat. Just one of those rowdy kids that you see wandering around, even in 2016 when everyone has video games and stays inside, this kid is outside fucking shit up. I was that kid for sure, but yeah, you see little Codys—I point him out every time. I empathize with Cody a whole lot. I sympathize with Cody a whole lot.”
Bonnette has always focused on the idea of childhood throughout his writing, so this is nowhere near a new topic for AJJ—there’s the progression of children “playing and crying” to teenagers “smoking and fucking” in “A Song Dedicated to the Memory of Stormy the Rabbit” in 2007’s People Who Can Eat People are the Luckiest People in the World, or the recounting of Bonnette’s own birth in “Evil” from 2009’s Can’t Maintain.
“But my perspective continues to change on it,” he says. “It’s always a pretty fresh topic for me. I’m definitely not as angry about it as I used to be.”
Yes, some of that comes with age. Talking it out, breaking it down has also assisted with lessening the anger.
“Allow yourself to empathize with the people of your past—when you become the age that they were, it helps let go of a lot,” he says. “If you look at art as therapy, people approach therapy with a lot of stuff that happened when they were young and that’s how they try to figure out their behaviors now. I don’t think I had a particularly super, super awful childhood. When I’m trying to figure out the things holding me back in my life these days, looking back is a good place to start.”
Bonnette considers the songs of AJJ to be nonfiction, though the nonfiction component of their work is the emotion behind and within it. Bonnette exaggerates certain metaphors (like setting a baby on fire in “Cody’s Theme”) to describe a very concrete emotion.
He’s also always approached songwriting solo, which is partially due to the fact that the members live in different cities across the nation—restricting their practice time of the new record to soundchecks before shows—and just because that’s what he’s done since AJJ formed as a duo over a decade ago.
However, The Bible 2 was almost exclusively written during his morning writing routine inspired by Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, a book that details methods to unblock creativity. This eased the writing process for Bonnette while simultaneously allowing him to explore his subconscious more than he normally would.
“By far, the best habit in there is writing three pages of whatever the hell you want to in the morning as a way to silence your internal censor, your editor that wants everything to be perfect immediately,” he says.
Sure, some of what he wrote was trash. That’s to be expected. But then there’s the second song on The Bible 2.
”’Golden Eagle’ is a really cool example or how much I enjoyed doing the free form writing in the mornings,” Bonnette says. “Ending page one of three, I wrote, ‘I really want to write a song really quickly right now,’ and I turned the page, and that whole song came out in its final form because I was just connected and in the zone. I don’t think I’ve ever written a song as intentionally or as quickly as that.”
The inspiration for “Golden Eagle,” a raucous tune that plunges forward with discordant guitar and drumming, is glaringly apparent, but I’ll let you figure it out. That truly is the joy of listening to AJJ. Even after listening to a certain song an infinite number of times, there are still new witty lines or sly references to be discovered.
Speaking of references, Bonnette has always been one to borrow or perhaps steal, with all due respect of course, (see “People Ii: The Reckoning” from the 2007 record for just one example), and another instance from The Bible 2 is within the cinematic swelling track “Small Red Boy.” The chorus is composed of the repetition of “I am, I am, I am / I am the truth.” Now, while some may think this is an allusion to Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, Bonnette took a very, very different direction with it. It’s actually a line taken from Rick Ross. “Small Red Boy” is a delicate song lifted by the string undercurrent, while Ross’ “The Devil is a Lie” is driven by a hooking horn section and contains many more expletives than even AJJ.
Along with Rick Ross, Bonnette’s art was also a powerful force behind “Small Red Boy” and a number of other songs on The Bible 2.
“The imagery in the song is the devil coming out of yourself—that song is based on a picture I drew,” Bonnette says.
Bonnette has always had a love of drawing, especially growing up. However, he exchanged that creative outlet to move forward with AJJ instead. While the band was raising money for a new van, Bonnette promised 50 fans who donated drawings, which rekindled his interest in the art.
“Creative energy isn’t money,” he says. “You don’t run out of it if you spend it in one place or multiple places. So, I realized that drawing and any kind of creative endeavor informs every other creative endeavor, which is fucking awesome.”
The whole idea of being an artist further influenced Bonnette’s approach to The Bible 2.
“I used to be, like, really kind of perturbed by identifying with that term,” he says. “Maybe it’s the not caring anymore, when you turn 30, the return of Saturn that they talk about in astrology. I started to really embrace that; use the band as an excuse to do lots of kinds of art.”
Bonnette drew the droopy-eyed and drooling angel on the front of the new record. At the base of the angel is the mantra binding together The Bible 2: No More Shame, No More Fear, No More Dread. This sort-of incantation repeatedly appeared in Bonnette’s drawings as a reminder, something he needed to tell himself and to hear. The mantra emerges explicitly in a song of the same name and in “Small Red Boy,” but the message colors the entire record.
“More than [certain life experiences], it [No More Shame, No More Fear, No More Dread] grew, that song, that mantra, that chorus, grew to represent more than just that,” he says. “It’s the thesis for the generally pretty positive tone of this record. It’s really angry, but it’s really positive.”
Bonnette gathered inspiration from a variety of art forms, including Stephen King’s novels, self-help books including Cameron’s The Artist’s Way and Allen Carr’s Easyway to Stop Smoking, and Mad Max: Fury Road. (Bonnette saw that film four times in theaters.)
AJJ went into John Congleton’s Dallas studio wanting “the whole record to have fury.” The band also had specific sounds and vibes in mind for particular songs, such as weird overdubbing on the tender, Silver Jews-esque Junkie Church” and a Leonard Cohen imprint on “Small Red Boy.”
Additionally, Nine Inch Nails and Sounds of Silence by Simon and Garfunkel were Bonnette’s “spiritual guides through a lot of this.” And, as always, Xiu Xiu is “part of [Bonnette’s] songwriting DNA.”
The Bible 2 is Congleton’s second record with the four-piece. Described by Bonnette as “intuition-based,” the producer has also worked with Xiu Xiu, St. Vincent, Angel Olsen, and a slew of others. For Christmas Island and The Bible 2, Bonnette sent Congleton the initial songs to help discern which ones should be tracked and included on the records. This go-round, the process was more direct because the band and Congleton pinpointed which songs would fit The Bible 2 almost instantly. Over the course of nine days (take that, 10-day-produced Christmas Island, you sucker), AJJ tracked the 11 songs live, giving the record that irreplaceable live performance energy, and rerecorded other parts as necessary.
Yes, The Bible 2 is perhaps the most ambitious and refined AJJ record to date. There’s a versatility to it that is nuanced and concentrated in its message, all the while being beautifully vulnerable like an ache or a wound that is still healing but is undoubtedly on its way to recovery. It’s assuring in the face of a lack of self-assurance.
But what’s more is that now people will actually like Christmas Island. AJJ strives to be the band whose listeners always hate the last album that was released until the next one debuts—now, they can hate the new record instead.
“Finally, Christmas Island will get the respect it deserves now that we jumped the shark,” Bonnette jokes.