To casual fans and observers, Andrew Jackson Jihad is known as a folk-punk act with sharply funny lyrics. But singer and guitarist Sean Bonnette finds this description distasteful. He has been working to correct it.
On the acoustic duo's 2005 debut, Candy Cigarettes and Cap Guns, there is a song called "Cigarette." The lyrics go: Smoking makes you cool/And smoking makes you rule/So just light up a smoke and you'll never go broke/And you'll be the most popular kid in school/But only if you smoke Parliament. Another song, "I Love You," goes: I like telling dirty jokes/And I like smoking crystal meth/But darling I love you/And I like laughing at retards/And I like throwing rocks at dogs/But darling I love you. The record contains many other cynical and outrageous statements that aim to shock listeners into laughter. And it succeeds. But Bonnette didn't like the lines that he felt were being drawn around Andrew Jackson Jihad afterward.
"I was sick of being called 'hilarious' all the time," Bonnette says. "I was like, 'You don't understand. These songs are complete exaggerations, but they're serious songs.' "
"But looking back on those songs now, they weren't serious songs," he continues. "I think now when I write a new song, I feel like I've become a lot more articulate about how I'm expressing myself. Listening to my first attempts, I made the entire songs jokes."
Each album since — right up to this year's Knife Man — has drifted away from the overt silliness of the debut. There are still shocking lyrical elements, but they are deployed as tools to express more real, more personal ideas. The humor is dark, uncomfortable, blunt: There's a bad man in everyone/No matter who you are/There's a rapist and a Nazi/Living in our tiny hearts.
The lyrical content of the songs are a stark contrast to the duo's music, which has an upbeat, campfire-sing-along feel. (The dissonance between the different tones creates what Bonnette calls "sad in the key of happy.") But the band also bristles at the folk-punk label with which it is often tagged. As a result, Knife Man is a bit of a departure musically. After six years of primarily touring and recording as an acoustic folk band, Bonnette and his bandmate, Ben Gallaty, have incorporated roots rock, blues, country, and hints of indie-rock into Knife Man. There are very few straightforward folk songs.
"There wasn't too much thought that went into it other than our growing resentment of being pigeonholed as a folk-punk band," Bonnette says of the new record. "That's always something we've been told. We stopped agreeing with it after a while."
They also sought to approach the recording process differently. Rather than bring several already-written songs into the studio, they treated their songs as blueprints and collaborated with several musician friends to form the structures of the songs while in the studio. "We got to experiment a lot," Bonnette says. "We got to change a lot of songs from how they sounded originally and turn them into something completely different. That's always been a big dream of mine, to go into the studio with a skeleton of a song and then fucking tweak it."
Andrew Jackson Jihad is currently in the midst of a U.S. and Canadian tour, opening for English singer-songwriter Frank Turner. For now, and for their Kansas City show at RecordBar, they're performing in their traditional two-piece style, but that might change in the future. "We're hoping to do a live band tour and realize those songs as they were played on the record," Bonnette says.
That they're performing as a duo on this tour should be no disappointment to those in attendance. Andrew Jackson Jihad shows reflect an enthusiastic fanbase — audiences arrive fired up and ready to sing along. "I think the people that really, really like our band find something special in how direct the lyrics are," Bonnette says.
The band seems pleased with its newfound aesthetic variety and hopes to continue making unusual, unexpected albums. "We'd like to be like Ween but with less camp," Bonnette says. "They do whatever they want."