Interview: Andrew Jackson Jihad discuss “Knife Man,” kazoos, being the Tom Waits of STD’s

Interview: Andrew Jackson Jihad discuss “Knife Man,” kazoos, being the Tom Waits of STD’s

Arizona folk punk duo Andrew Jackson Jihad finished 2011 with a bang: They released their 4th studio album “Knife Man” on Asian Man Records in September and proceeded on a national tour with Frank Turner and Into It. Over It. Near the end of it all, Sean (guitar, vocals) and Ben (bass, drums) stood in an alley with me for an hour on a freezing cold Wisconsin night to discuss their latest release, touring with Frank Turner, and much more.

Read it all here.

Connor (Dying Scene): You guys have been on tour with Frank Turner for a few weeks now, for the first time. How’s that going, and what do you think of his music compared to yours?

Sean: I like him as a tourmate and I admire how articulate he is as a songwriter, he’s very prolific and articulate and that’s something that I’d like to work on.

How does the Phoenix folk/punk/DIY scene compare to different scenes around the country?

S: I’d say that Phoenix doesn’t have any kind of limited scene, we’re just kinda one big glob of different kinds of bands. It’s incredibly diverse and people are really supportive.

Not too clique-y or anything?

S: No, not really. We’re all rooting for each other.

There aren’t a lot of bands around who seem as honest as you guys, as far as your lyrics and your songwriting go. Does that honesty ever translate into anything that’s uncomfortable or awkward or any bad situation? Is it hard to put your inner-most thoughts out there for the world to hear?

S: As far as writing songs, different songwriters have different goals when it comes to what they want to achieve, and mine is to be able to express myself to the absolute best of my abilities. I don’t think I will ever be fully content as a songwriter in expressing myself but I think with every new song and new record I get better at it. Looking at it that way, when things get weird or uncomfortable, which they do, and that’s kinda the point, because being honest with yourself and with others is being uncomfortable and weird…I guess I’m only that honest in songwriting, that’s my outlet for that.

Not just talking to people like this?

S: Well, I guess that’s part of it too. I would really just have to say it’s the latter, a no-brainer. I just don’t care. The only time I’ll care is when I sing a song that I don’t really believe in anymore, that I’m not excited about, or don’t think gets me to that next level I want to be at as a songwriter.

Do you have particular songs in mind that you don’t sing anymore for that reason?

S: Uh, yeah, Ladykiller, The Love Song, a lot of stuff off the first record, a lot of songs that I kinda feel are, well, not those two, but songs that I feel are pretty judgmental, sometimes unfairly so, and I don’t really care for singing those too much anymore, or else I’ll change the lyrics to make them more honest with myself right now. So it gets weird and uncomfortable but like, on an internal level. And Ben is incredibly patient with the fucking egomaniac that I am, in terms of not playing stuff anymore. And I need to remember that this is a two-person band.

It’s obvious a lot of heart and soul goes into your music and Knife Man is no exception. Since a lot of your albums seem to be pretty conceptual, was the decision to do an album that was a lot more electric a conceptual/idealistic decision or just a change of sound?

S: I feel like it was a conscious decision to serve the songs the best. We don’t want any limits on our sound, so wanted to experiment and make those songs sound the coolest they could be, without caring about how we’re going to pull it off live. What do you think, Ben?

Ben: Well, there are songs we recorded different versions of, you know? Some songs it was pretty obvious what they should end up like, and others we didn’t really know what to do with, so we just recorded different ways, and then it became obvious what we liked the most. The hardest part of that whole album was figuring out what was and wasn’t going to go on it. I like the way it came out…maybe we could have cut a few songs, because it’s so long, but I’m really happy with everything.

S: I think it’s really well sequenced. I think it flows well and we were kinda going for epic, and I’d like to think we touched on epic, at least a couple times.

Did you guys play the extra instruments like mandolin, drums, etc, or did you bring in other musicians?

S: For Knife Man, we put together an all-star band of Arizona musicians. Ben and I can kind of play other instruments, better or worse, but this time we found a lot of great multi-instrumentalists.

B: We did play some of the instruments, or tried to.

S: You did the guitar solos on most of the songs. And some drums.

B: Yeah, we had a clear vision for what we wanted, like “We want mandolin on this song!” or “We want honky-tonk piano! But we don’t know how to do any of those things.”

S: [proudly] I handled all the kazoos.

I came across a little controversy about your song “I Love You” that some local music zines were writing about when the song came out a few years ago. Is that some sort of stain on your career?

S: For that thing it wasn’t so much a press issue rather than an issue between me and the person who wrote that article and I wish they had talked to us before writing that. I wish it hadn’t gotten to that but it’s not a huge stain on us. I don’t like that song anymore anyway. I was singing that from a character perspective…like I don’t actually smoke crystal meth and throw rocks at dogs.

Good to know. Sean, in previous interviews you’ve mentioned your work with a suicide prevention group, Teen Lifeline. How does that experience relate to your music?

S: I started volunteering there when I was fifteen and I ended up being involved for a really long time. When I got my degree I ended up working there, I’m still technically an employee. I think it’s an important job to have in society, and one that’s pretty easy to do. I think it’s better than working in a bank, and I was going to say better than being a musician, but being a musician’s pretty fucking sweet. [laughs] No, it’s a great job, and it feels good to try to be part of the solution.

What does your work there consist of nowadays?

S: I train people and I supervise the hotline, so if there’s no volunteers in, I’ll also take the calls.

What’s it like transitioning from humorous songs into songs with a darker meaning that still have a bit of a humorous undertone?

S: I think it’s important to maintain a sense of humor even when you’re talking about heavy shit. I don’t want the songs to only make people laugh. I want them to be able to take something else out of it and not to just think “Man, that’s a hilarious band.” But I don’t think you need to sacrifice a sense of humor to do that, and I think that some of the best philosophers in the world are comedians, like Louie C.K. or the late Bill Hicks.

Knife Man had some departures from your trad sound, specifically the closing track Big Bird. Ever write in any other genres that interest you?

S: I’m working on my classical album right now. All kazoos. [Laughs] But Ben and I are both in other projects. The name Andrew Jackson Jihad doesn’t limit us, and to be frank, we don’t owe music or our fans anything. To misquote Thom Yorke, in five years Andrew Jackson Jihad won’t sound like Andrew Jackson Jihad. We’re not a folk punk band, we’re a band with no constraints…in the studio that is, we’re up for anything, rap, hip-hop, fuck it.

B: You should have heard the song that didn’t make the album, it’s called “My Lifestyle Determines My Death Style” and it might be on Youtube somewhere, it’s our first and possibly last heavy metal song. We have seventeen minutes of that song…we can do whatever we want and that’s awesome.

S: I wouldn’t mind actually making some metal stuff on our next record, something that sounds way more threatening than what we’ve been doing.

Preferred band drink?

S: Gin and Mountain Dew.

Sounds about right. You guys have been labeled, and I quote, “The Tom Waits of DIY folk punk.” What does that title mean to you?

S: [laughing] DIY folk punk is a comically unnecessary name. It’s way too niche.

B: I like to think we’re the Ace of Bass of DIY folk punk. [laughs]

S: Being compared to Tom Waits is kickass in any capacity, though. That’s a huge compliment. If we were like, the Tom Waits of sexually transmitted diseases, I would still be like, “Fuck yeah, I’m the Tom Waits of something!”

I’m pretty sure Tom Waits is the Tom Waits of sexually transmitted diseases.

B: I don’t even want to know.

To read the Dying Scene review of “Knife Man,” head over here. Be sure to check out photos from this show right here.

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