Fifteen years is a long time for a band to not only exist but to thrive in today’s streaming and single-fueled music industry. In the case of indie folk punks AJJ, that span of time also means enduring three and a half presidential terms with three different people standing at the U.S.’s most powerful helm of government. Yet, it’s only now in AJJ’s nonconforming career that choosing to expressly examine the country’s over arching socio-political metamorphosis through Good Luck Everybody, feels not only understandable but profoundly necessary.
While songwriter and lead vocalist, Sean Bonnette, says AJJ’s seventh LP is – from a lyrical standpoint – its “most punk record,” the inverse deference of stereotypically punk song form, tonality, and-or production throughout Good Luck Everybody serves an interesting dual purpose: 1) providing an aural palate cleanse to off-set the album’s detail-specific, often painfully true subject matter and 2), reinforcing the idea that things may not be what they initially seem and that the subsequent unexpectedness can be for the better.
What begins with a cynical but ultimately innocuous, macro declaration of apathy toward creatives in “A Poem,” immediately launches into far more situationally nuanced and emotionally jarring territory, talking about “some stupid sh–t [Trump’s] tweeting” and “melt[ing] down human beings into money” in “Normalization Blues.” It’s there, less than five minutes into the titularly bold track list that contains the likes of “Mega Guillotine 2020,” “Body Terror Song,” and “No Justice, No Peace, No Hope,” that AJJ begins the rapid descent into Good Luck Everybody. Everything – from the album’s tonal disposition, to its visceral narrative settings, to the almost uncanny valley-level of discomfort in the lyrics’ colloquialism – comes, goes, and impresses with the swiftness of a roller coaster that leaves its riders nervous, excited, terrified, confident, breathless, full of life, and cautiously grateful, both throughout and maybe even after the fact.
Taking the opportunity to rest up between the release of Good Luck Everybody and AJJ’s departure for a massive tour across the U.S. with Tacocat, Emperor X, Xiu Xiu, and special guest Jonathan Meiburg, lead vocalist and songwriter, Sean Bonnette, spoke about the album’s profound subject matter, thoughts ahead of this tour, and the impact of world events on the band’s songwriting process.
Kira: It’s amazing how you can lay out such normal and real descriptions of the human mental and physical state but cut to someone’s core with such very straight forward verses. It’s almost like the very non-exaggeratory nature of AJJ in general, and now this album in particular, is like an antidote for the distorting and disorienting psychological onslaught to which we’ve all been subjected in recent times.
That said, it’s not uncommon for musicians to say that writing and recording songs can be like an outlet or release valve for difficult experiences. Given the intense atmosphere we’re living in today however, what would you say your threshold was for the writing Good Luck Everybody, as far as it being a source of relief for you, versus becoming a stressor unto itself?
Sean Bonnette: I spent a lot time distressed but I can’t remember how much writing helped versus hurt the distress, you know, the post-2016 crisis feeling. It definitely came from watching and reading a lot of news and in particular, looking at and refreshing the Twitter feed for people that I was following.
A side note: when the record was finished and we started to promote it, I downloaded Twitter on my phone again and Mark Glick, the cello player in our band, gave me some great advice. He’s a very adept Twitter person and he told me to unfollow everybody and then just re-follow people you remember as it goes. I try to keep my follows around seven accounts now and I don’t follow anything political. When I want to read the news or I want to learn about something, I can actively go and seek it out but I don’t leave it in front of me all the time. I don’t think human brains are supposed to take in information that way. It was really hurting me artistically and spiritually.
As far as [the song] “Normalization Blues” [is concerned], I remember writing the first parts of it and thinking it was too on-the-nose and too political and not poetic enough, and, what’s the term those assholes use––virtue-signaling. I think with “Normalization Blues” it did ultimately serve to ameliorate some of my distress. I wrote [the song] in between using the ResistBot app to write to my congressman, and to Senator Jeff Flake who, at the time, was acting like he was part of the resistance inside the Republican party but was really not doing anything. When I eventually did decide to get right down to it and address political issues and to stop fighting it, then it became a really great help to me.
Also, deleting Twitter from my phone really helped me to focus on turning it into a song because it’s, to make an analogy, really hard to hit a moving target. With the way things are these days, particularly with the Trump administration, there’s a new sh–tty thing to rage against everyday. It’s really hard to…you know, one day it’s been brought to your attention that immigrant children are being separated from their parents and put into detention centers…and the next there’s a travel ban. Or there’s a––see, I’m even doing it now, where you talk until you’re blue in the face and so many different f–ked up things happen that you can’t really focus on one thing.
I needed to control the way I received news so that I could take a minute to process it enough to turn it into a song.
Kira: Knowing that everyone makes and-or listens to music for different individual reasons and also that AJJ exists in a position of significant emotional influence, where does the line of responsibility vs. recreation fall for you when thinking about everyone else experiencing this record? Some will undoubtedly use it for comic relief, others might use it to evaluate themselves, and so on.
Bonnette: One of the basic tenants of our band – even down to what our original official name was – was that our band was to be experienced subjectively. So I think with this album, some people will find comic relief in it; some people will not take it seriously; some people will take it very seriously, and that is completely subjective to the listener’s experience – not just with the record but with their life and with their world view. [As a songwriter,] you can’t really get valuable work done if you’re thinking about how your fans are going to enjoy it compared to the rest of your catalog. But it does eventually come to a time when you put it out into the world and then you want people to enjoy it or you want people to listen to and hope that they like it.
Then again, I know that no matter what you put out, not everyone’s going to like it. Every album we’ve put out since the first one has gained and lost us fans. As far as [Good Luck Everybody] being the least punk record sonically, we made it pretty easy to listen to. Ben and I are both really big fans of like, 70s folk rock and the Beatles and stuff. Musically, I think that’s what influenced this record. Whereas in the past, we’ve taken inspiration from a lot of punk music like Against Me, and heavy metal. We [also] like stoner metal a lot. But yeah, for this one, this is our 70s, Laurel Canyon, punk record.
Kira: There’s an emphasis on the idea of a return to the deserts of the U.S. in, “A Big Day for Grimley,” from your time in the midwest. For those who don’t have the chance to experience the country’s vastly different cultural regions like yourself, how and why do you see the differences between them – particularly when considering the past seven or eight years and the state of global affairs therein? Do you think this is something valuable to touring musicians that gets overlooked?
Bonnette: We have the benefit, being touring musicians, we get to see a whole lot of fly-over country and it’s pretty great. We’re pretty fortunate that [AJJ] has an audience in the fly-over country. You know, if we play a show in Montana, 300 people will come and watch us play. And with that it’s great because, people are – and I still believe this – people are inherently good. I think people have, and adopt, a lot of sh–tty ideas. And a lot of ideas will, I don’t know, not turn you into a bad person but, good people do bad things for bad ideas.
I guess you could say I live in two places. I live on tour, which is a place in and of itself. The locale changes every day but the place is the same because you have your van to go back to and your crew that you roll with, and you all live in the same place: the road. And then I live in my home. My home was in Michigan and now it’s in Tuscon, Arizona. But [“A Big Day for Grimley”] in particular, is kind of about the weird feeling of missing a place but also not missing it and feeling like a part of you is still there. I feel like that little kid [Will Byers] in “Stranger Things” – [the character] who got sucked into the upside down. Then in the second season he came back but he was all f–ked up and it turns out he was still kind of [part] of the upside down. I don’t wear a coat when it’s cold in Arizona because it’s not really cold to me anymore. And I’m a lot more stoic than I used to be; I don’t keep up with people as much [or] rely on my friends as much as I used to when I lived here before.
I’m sure a huge part of that is just [from] getting older but I think a lot of that has had to do with living in a cold place with a different kind of mentality for so long. That’s one thing I like about touring: Seeing the way people are in different places and how that’s informed by the weather and the culture. In the midwest, people make less plans but they stick to more of them. And then in places like California or Arizona, people make lots of plans but then break them. I think in my case though, [the difference] doesn’t have to be qualified too much; it just is. Because I’m still living my life and I’m still happy.
Kira: Speaking of touring, how have you been feeling about the upcoming tour, given the album’s topical core and the ever erratically changing status of our socio-political landscape?
Bonnette: Even in a socio-political landscape, touring makes you bi-polar. And you have to ride the waves during just constant travel. It is an emotional rollercoaster for sure. And I’ve experienced that to degree because I was on tour in November of 2016 and we played a show in Ohio the day after Election Day. You could cut the atmosphere with a knife it was so thick and so despairing. So I don’t expect to experience anything worse than that. That I hope can remain the worst.
One thing I’m optimistic about [however]: when we’re on our tour, we plan on having voter registration booths at the shows. We have to register as many people to vote as we can for the upcoming election. And with the power of our music and the positivity of our shows, I sincerely hope and sincerely believe that we can change some hearts and minds.
Kira: Much the same way deeply emotional events in our lives can forever tint the lens through which we see, experience, and react to the world, how much would you say you foresee future AJJ albums being tinted with a fragment of the realism similar to what inspired this record?
“[P]eople are – and I still believe this – people are inherently good. I think people have, and adopt, a lot of sh–tty ideas. And a lot of ideas will, I don’t know, not turn you into a bad person but, good people do bad things for bad ideas.”
– Sean Bonnette
Bonnette: Now that [the album] has been done, I could see ourselves maybe doing or taking a similar approach in the future, as far as being bold and direct. I don’t know, we’re kind of known for being pretty direct, even before this record. The lyrics are “straightforward.” There could be more of the same. I think musically, I’d like to take a new approach. I don’t like the approach things the same way twice – at least not in succession. I think we’ll keep on being political as long as the emotional resonance is there for me. You know, for a long time I kind of shied away from thinking of this band as political, even though it was pretty apparent that it was because I write from a very emotional place. If I’m writing about something it’s because it’s for me, more of a personal or emotional issue. So as long as I feel strongly about it, there’s a good chance it’ll end up in the music.
I miss arguing with conservative loved ones where it didn’t feel like it was such a life or death issue and where their political beliefs weren’t so at odds with other loved ones I have. I miss watching Parks and Recreation and I miss wanting to hang out with Ron Swanson. But I don’t think these days Ron Swanson would be a very fun f–cking guy to hang out with because he’s probably trying to kill brown people and he probably would have voted for Trump in 2016.
[That said], I like writing songs that are pretty or like, that are sad outside of politics. Honestly that’s how I would prefer to write. In the future, I don’t think the next record should be as bold of a political statement as this one is. I think the next [AJJ album] should aspire to be more artful.
Look for AJJ and its voter registration tables, on tour all across the U.S. in the coming months, starting with a batch of in-store performances with Zia Records that kick off tonight.
Information for those shows can be found HERE.
The full tour list with links to tickets is available HERE.
AJJ on Tour: Good Luck Everybody
(with Tacocat, Emperor X, Xiu Xiu, and special guest Jonathan Meiburg)
Keep up with AJJ through its official website and these social media platforms: