The indie rock group AJJ has certainly made a name for themselves over the years, and even as that name has changed — they shed the moniker Andrew Jackson Jihad in 2016, and retained its punchy abbreviation — their creative output has remained solid and singular.
Known for their clever lyricism, which balances ironic gallows humour with earnest sensitivity, the band has just put out their eighth studio album, ‘Disposable Everything’.
Prior to the album’s release, AJJ frontman Sean Bonnette got through the COVID quarantine with a weekly series of livestreamed solo shows, entitled Live From Quarantine. With the world now somewhat back on its axis, Clash spoke to Bonnette about returning to touring, the new album, his experiences with grief, and the evolution of AJJ.
CLASH: ‘Disposable Everything’ is your first AJJ album from the other side of quarantine. We talked a few years ago on the other side of your Live From Quarantine series. I’m curious what your experience of getting back into the studio has been.
SEAN BONNETTE: The bottom line is, we were all just so excited to get to play together, and to get to make decisions without using email. Making decisions without using any technology other than a synthesizer. It was really something that I won’t take for granted again. Other than that, COVID–the specter still followed us, even up until we went to Texas to record, because it was during that holiday season that Omicron dropped on us. We were going to try to get together before recording to rehearse, but it was that holiday season and everyone was exposed. So we decided to cancel that and try to preserve ourselves until we got to Texas, and then we got to have a real wild time. It was pretty handy actually, because along with Omicron, the other thing that infected our band was that Get Back documentary. We all watched that. Even the non-Beatles fans in the band were interested. With their unique challenge that they had, having to finish the next Beatles album before Ringo had to go film The Magic Christian, that made us feel like the stakes weren’t as high. We didn’t have a Magic Christian we had to get to.
CLASH: What did you learn from doing the Live From Quarantine series?
BONNETTE: It made me realize I’m definitely, in some way, extroverted. And I love to perform. That helped me realize that I like doing that. Or helped me become conscious of it. It’s still ongoing. There’s that. I’d like to play shows like that live. Like just kinda wing it. Usually, when I play solo, alone, that’s usually what I’m doing. I’ll let people write down requests on a list, I’ll take that list on stage, cross off the ones I’m definitely not going to play, and then just skate through the set going off requests and whatever comes into my head. I would like to do a live solo tour one of these days. It saves me the pain of planning.
CLASH: The new album is called ‘Disposable Everything’. There’s a song on the new album called ‘Death Machine’ where you say, “This is no exaggeration, we’re living in a death machine.” Which made me think of something David Wojnarowicz said, “I wake up every morning in this killing machine called Amerikkka.” I hesitate to ask, but where are you finding your hope these days?
BONNETTE: (Laughs) Well, I’m finding my hope in the fact that machines can break, and often do, a lot. Especially when people are doing their best effort to sabotage it and slow it down. So I find a great source of hope in that, even though it’s kind of a narrow shot. With regard to the title, ‘Disposable Everything’, I did mean for it to hint at some possible hope. During this time when so many things are disposable, in the song I talk about packaging and TVs being disposable now, which is fucking crazy. If everything is disposable, then capitalism is disposable, essentially. Old archaic ways of thought are disposable. Entire governments are disposable. ‘Disposable Everything’, a part of it that I was trying to knit into the fabric was that if you have a clean slate, you can start over. If you throw everything away, you can build new stuff on top of it. Maybe that comes from being a kid from Phoenix, where buildings never last for more than fifty years before someone buys the land and puts something else there. I find hope in disposable stuff. Disposable things make wonderful art. You can turn garbage into art. I do it all the time.
CLASH: I want to ask you about ‘A Thought of You’. It reminds me a lot of Neutral Milk Hotel, and it also reminds me of your early stuff. I think it’s my favorite song on the album. First of all, I really like when you guys work with strings, there was that one live album you guys did where there was a quartet with you some years back… ‘Decade of Regression’.
BONNETTE: Oh, I think we were playing as a quartet. Yeah, that was a live show that we did, that we played at an old record label office. Ben played his upright bass, and then Preston played a keyboard with some string patches on it.
CLASH: ‘A Thought of You’, the production on that song is crazy and it ends up in a very unexpected place. Could you just tell me about how that song was born? How did it get built?
BONNETTE: I’d love to tell you. Well, it’s a song about my mother. Half of it was written before she passed, and then half of it was written after. The kind of freak-out at the end is a musical love letter to her because one of the things that she liked a lot was prog rock music and stuff that had weird polyrhythms. We used to listen to ’21st Century Schizoid Man’ by King Crimson, and she would count out the time signature to me. I’m not too much of an egghead as far as being – I could not count out a time signature, um, to anything. I also have to give a lot of credit to the album ‘Tarkus’ by Emerson Lake and Palmer. ‘Tarkus’ is this concept album about the military industrial complex. And, uh, it’s personified in the form of this big armadillo tank that’s on the record cover.
When I was a kid, I went to the record store and I told the guys that I liked Radiohead, uh, and they said, oh, you should listen to this. Eventually I figured I could draw the throughline from ‘Tarkus’ to Radiohead, but at the time it was just like the craziest shit I’d ever heard. So ‘Tarkus’ and King Crimson were big inspirations for the end of that song. And the effect that we wanted to achieve was lunacy. I wanted it to completely leave reality behind. Coming out of, you know, just a pretty simple acoustic song, um, where I’m trying to sing my best George Jones impression.
CLASH: I was listening to the album this morning, and you mentioned “mudlarking,” digging through the trash, and how that used to be something you did with your mom. Phil Elverum actually talked about that too in one of his songs, going to the dump with his kid. I was thinking about this Agnès Varda movie called The Gleaners and I. Have you seen that movie?
BONNETTE: I haven’t.
CLASH: It’s this documentary about people in France who basically live off of food waste or, you know, like food that’s been discarded, thrown out. I just think there’s this really beautiful arc to your songwriting and the stories that AJJ tells, it’s kind of crude to say digging through the trash, but, you know, like kind of digging through bullshit and finding something nice to hold onto in there.
BONNETTE: Thank you. That’s a really nice thing to take from that. Actually “mudlarking” was from…my mom read me a book, The Whipping Boy, I think it might have been by the same author as The Secret Garden. I can’t remember exactly though. One specific detail is this prince and his whipping boy, this boy who gets punished in the prince’s palace, run away together. There’s a part in the book where the whipping boy teaches the prince how to mudlark, dumpster dive. It feels like a super modern concept in certain contexts, you know, because society has created so much waste at this point that you could, like, you know, you can find really incredible, decadent, strange things in the trash, depending on where you look. You know, a full working Xbox. A friend was talking about finding that in the trash the other day. But it’s also something very timeless because it’s talked about in the fantasy of a medieval story.
CLASH: The last time we spoke, we talked about your song going viral on TikTok, ‘Body Terror Song’. But you don’t see money from going viral on TikTok. I know Spotify is not great with how much they pay their artists. So how do you get by as an artist?
BONNETTE: Well, TikTok virality does actually translate to Spotify streams, which, you know, if, if multiplied by a viral amount of plays, does translate into a little bit of money. It’s definitely not nothing. I know a couple people that have, have truly been coasting the last couple years off of songs on TikTok that turn into Spotify plays. The song ‘I Can’t Handle Change’ by Roar is a big fucking hit. If we still had a monoculture, it would probably be at number one or be like, you know, the Beatles. But in spite of that, it still got so, so many fucking plays. But to answer your question a little more classy, uh, we tour. We have, uh, some other publishing income. Just having eight albums means that you have a catalog of music that gets collected by performance rights organizations, when it gets played in spots. I guess at this point you could argue that for bands that it’s a numbers game. Like the more stuff you have out, the more it’s all just gonna bounce around out there.
CLASH: And as a group, you know, this is your eighth studio album…do you kind of feel with each album that you get a more coherent picture of how the group works and what it wants to do?
BONNETTE: We purposely try to shake it up each album. We just kinda, you know, not shuffle the deck members wise, but we try to approach it differently. As far as what individual members bring to the table, I don’t know, we’re just getting better at playing together and like listening to each other. That’s the way it’s coming into focus more, is we’re hearing what each other is doing and being able to react to it better. Having developed a friendly shorthand over the course of like, you know, decades. Yeah. For me and Ben, it’s two decades. And the other guys, it’s getting there soon. I don’t know. Do you think the new album sounds clearer?
CLASH: Well, there’s so much that you write about feeling hopeless, but you also put so much care into what you do, and into other people. I think this album balances that in a pretty solid way, where nothing is too overbearing.
BONNETTE: I’m kind of worried that the songs in general are too hopeless, but I also don’t want to be disingenuous about what I’m singing. I don’t think they’re hopeless, but people keep telling me that they’re hopeless and asking me like, where, where do I get hope from?
CLASH: Like I keep asking you.
BONNETTE: But you ask it in one of the better ways. And it’s not just you that asks that. So yeah, it’s painful. I don’t know!
CLASH: I wanted to ask you about your mom, if that’s okay. You dedicated this album to her, literally singing your dedication to her onto the album. When did she pass away?
BONNETTE: She passed away after the Thanksgiving before Covid.
CLASH: She’s mentioned on this album a lot, and not in a super direct way, like you’re making an album about grief or something, but these just kind of memories of your mom that pop up and it feels really true to kind of how someone’s memory lives on, you know, in these kinds of unexpected waves. I really appreciated that because it just felt like a nice articulation of someone’s memory.
BONNETTE: Have you seen the movie – I think it’s called Other People?
CLASH: Yes. There’s so many specific things about that movie. Like the way the ‘Drops of Jupiter’ song by Train just keeps popping up. Being haunted by it. It’s the only song I ever hear when I’m listening to the radio on Long Island.
BONNETTE: Yeah, that ‘Drops of Jupiter’ thing is such a perfect summation of one’s relationship to public music, and loss. I was haunted by that shitty ass Mumford and Sons song, the one that goes, “I will wait, I will wait for you!” (Laughs) That’s my ‘Drops of Jupiter’.
CLASH: The way you end ‘A Thought of You’, you say, “Easier to forgive when nothing is new with my box on top of the shelf.” Death robs us of resolution. When I was listening to the album on my record player, it skipped out and I didn’t – because I’ve listened to that song so many times already–I didn’t get to the end of the song. And so I was robbed of the resolution of the chord ringing out at the end. Also, I realised that you have talked about your parents and your mom in a lot of your music already. Like ‘Who Are You?’ I remember listening to that song in high school, and now hearing this album and piecing together these sketches of biography from you is really interesting.
BONNETTE: My perspective on it has totally changed as I’ve gotten older. I remember being the age, I might even sing about it in ‘Who Are You?’ – but being as old as my biological father was at the time that he left, and then at the time, at the age that he was when he reached out to me for his ninth step of sobriety. And since then I’ve also talked to him more on the phone. My perspective on having a dad has changed dramatically since learning new details about my birth and all that. So fucking wild. Hearing his take on how I came to be. As you have a relationship with a person, your relationship with them changes sometimes over the course of a lifetime. As far as my perspective on my mom, it shifted a lot when she was alive and it’s kind of still constantly like… I think about my mom a lot. I love her very much. Very complicated person.
CLASH: Well, your relationship to a person doesn’t end after they die.
BONNETTE: No, it doesn’t.
CLASH: Are you still doing social work as well?
BONNETTE: No, I’m just a music hustler and a part-time, stay-at-home dad. I had to break down my identity to accept being an artist.
CLASH: I think being able to live as an artist is really important.
BONNETTE: Me too.
CLASH: Can you tell me about Sad Park?
BONNETTE: Sad Park is this really good punk band from the San Fernando Valley of California. And they reached out to me and asked me if I wanted to help them help produce their album and write some songs with them. And I was like, yeah, sure. So I got to take a couple trips to California and record at David J’s studio, the guy who produced ‘Disposable Everything’. I got to kind of dip my toes into producing a band in not a home studio. It was very cool and fun opportunity.
WILLIAMS: What does that input look like from you?
BONNETTE: They scheduled like four practices in a row at their, uh, at their garage in North Ridge. I went to California and I just went there every day and listened to them practice and took little notes as I was listening to ’em. And then would just give them feedback to what, to what my ear likes. Okay, could you play that part twice? Maybe don’t play that part as much on the drums. Could you try to play it doing this beat, or don’t play this one specific thing. Just trying to take the stuff that I liked about the way that the band sounded and like trying to turn those up. But also like, try not to touch them too much because you’ve gotta leave enough room for the band to do some special things that you won’t necessarily understand on the spot. It was like getting to join their band.
CLASH: So some of it is about taste in a way. Your personal taste.
BONNETTE: I think that’s a big part of what producing is, for a lot of people. Myself included. Within the context of Sad Park, at least. John Congleton says that producing is doing whatever the band needs. So if it’s songwriting, do it, or if it’s just shut the fuck up and hit record, do it. Whatever the band wants or maybe even whatever you think the band needs. When it came to lyrics, that was a lot of, like me and Graham just doing wordplay at each other. That was more of a partnership where one of us, usually him, would throw out a kernel or an idea and we’d spit it back and forth at each other. It was really fun.
CLASH: I also wanted to ask you about your Live at Third Man Records album. I think that’s one of the best performances I’ve heard from you guys. How did that come to be?
BONNETTE: This guy Josh, who’s from Michigan, we’ve known him for a long time. He ended up working at Third Man Records in Nashville. He probably got fired bringing us in there, actually. (Laughs) No, just kidding. I have a good opinion of Third Man Records. Not just Mr. Jack, but the other people that work there are pretty, pretty legit. We did that while we were on tour with the ‘People Who Can Eat People’ album. Do we play that album on the record in its entirety?
BONNETTE: Wow. Shit. Um, yeah, it was, it was cool for Ben and I to get to tape as a two piece. Although a part of me wishes that we got to do a full band on tape instead, cuz that’s the only time we’ve ever gotten to perform something on that much-fetishized magnetic tape. Do we play American Body Rentals twice?
CLASH: I know you play it… I don’t think you play it twice.
BONNETTE: That used to be our thing. We would like to play it and then either, like, just play it right again right away or play it as an encore. I like repetition.
CLASH: Like the Jonathan Richman ‘Ice Cream Man’ performance where he just does it like eight times in a row. He just doesn’t end the song and you can hear the band laughing. It’s a good time. What else did I want to ask you? Okay, this question is from my sister, about the song ‘Baby Panda’. She wants to know what the baby panda is.
BONNETTE: It was originally a baby panther. But I didn’t want to use a panther. I’m not sure, but I know that when it comes into the second person verse, you know, when I’m singing to you, “you” is The Man. Obviously. (Laughs) I guess the Baby Panda is kind of the environmental rubicon. I wish it was something a little more elegant than that, so I’m just gonna plead the fifth.
CLASH: This isn’t a question, but I wanted to use whatever attention this interview could attract to try to manifest some sort of collaboration with you and Raffi and Kimya Dawson to make some kind of beautiful thing together.
BONNETTE: Yes. I’m also going to manifest a collaboration between Raffi and Kimya Dawson, and myself that will be a transcendent song for the youth of tomorrow and the youth of today. We are going to make that happen. I’m friends with Kevin McDonald from Kids in the Hall. I gotta brag about this because he told me the most incredible story about one time the Kids in the Hall were in Los Angeles in Hollywood at a hotel. They all got into a hot tub together. And guess who was in there? Raffi. Drunk, drunk Raffi in a hot tub, drinking margaritas. Kevin told me that Raffi was kinda self-conscious. He was like, “I don’t usually, uh, party like this, but I just signed a big record deal tonight.” (Laughs)
CLASH: Oh, Raffi.
BONNETTE: Celebrating in a hot tub, drinking margaritas with the Kids in the Hall.
CLASH: That’s a fucking song lyric right there. (Laughs)
BONNETTE: I wanna get that painting commissioned. That’s something I could ask artificial intelligence to do.
CLASH: That can be the album cover.
AJJ’s new album ‘Disposable Everything’ is out now.
Words: Conor Williams
Photography: Kyle Dehn