AJJ does not make music that you can hear and dismiss. After just a few lines, it demands your opinion. People That Can Eat People Are the Luckiest People in the World, one of the band’s most renowned albums, makes for a perfect Exhibit A. Not many folk musicians would claim that there are Nazis and cannibals living within all of us on one track and declare, “People are the greatest thing to happen!” with complete sincerity on another—but that’s what AJJ does, and unabashedly so. It’s been three years since the band’s last album, but frontman Sean Bonnette is still entrenched in his cause—he has a new album in the works, and he just toured the U.S., playing old and new AJJ songs.
On March 2nd, we had the chance to attend a stop of “A Fun and Cool Evening with Sean Bonnette of AJJ” at Hamden’s Space Ballroom. The evening was fun and cool indeed—lighters were raised; arms were draped over friends’ shoulders—but there was also a sense of grittiness to it all. Bonnette sang about pondering Kitty Genovese’s death and being afraid to leave the house; yet he also sang about keeping one’s faith in humanity and saying goodbye to shame, fear, and dread. This duality is exactly what AJJ’s fans have come to expect from the band—and exactly why they’ve fallen in love with it.
After the show, Bonnette, casual in glasses and a sweatshirt, took the time to meet everyone who wanted to speak to him. Then he chatted with The Young Folks about touring, AJJ, his artwork, and more. Read on to learn about his childhood pursuits, his Discovery Zone zine, his favorite Greek myths, and his buddy John’s encounter with “meat bees.”
The Young Folks: First of all, how’s Connecticut? When did you come in, and what have you been doing to enjoy yourself here?
Sean Bonnette: Well, we just got into Connecticut this afternoon. One of the downsides to touring, or one of the neutral sides, is that you get to go to all these places, but you generally only get to see the inside of the club and nearby. Luckily, my buddy Mo was in town and he dragged me to go eat at that pizza place that everyone’s excited about. It was really good. So that’s what I did this time around.
When I was a kid, I lived in Connecticut for about six months. I went to Gallows Hill Elementary. I remember hanging out in the woods a lot. There was a rumor that there was a hermit that lived in the woods. I never saw that hermit, but I spent a lot of time imagining in those woods.
TYF: Childhood rumors and lore are always fun.
Bonnette: So good.
TYF: You’ve got your new album coming up; you mentioned it onstage. What can you tell us about it so far?
Bonnette: Um, that it’s not done. (Laughs) We’ve started recording for it, but we have a lot of work to do before I say can even say too much about it. I will say that momentum is starting to build, as far as the writing is concerned. Songs haven’t been coming for the past couple of years—at least, not easily. And now they’re starting to again, which is great.
TYF: That is great. And the song you just played, “Mega Guillotine 2020,” that’s one of the songs you’re planning on including?
Bonnette: Yeah, totally. That’s the hit. (Laughs)
TYF: I was not the person who started screaming “People Ii” [during the show], but “People Ii” does happen to be my favorite AJJ song, so I’m going to ask you about the interpolation of “Mrs. Robinson” at the end. How did you decide to incorporate that? That’s my favorite moment in an AJJ song, probably.
Bonnette: Thank you. Thank you very much. I think that that part is effective because it takes you from something that’s kind of sad and uncomfortable and brings you right into something that is comfortable to your ears—you know, something you’ve heard before, something familiar. It’s a great trick to play on somebody: giving them something familiar and recontextualizing it. I read about that verse that Simon wrote, the Joe DiMaggio line in that Simon and Garfunkel song. He had been kicking that line around for years before he found a home for it in that song. “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?/A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.” He knew that that was going to show up in some song somewhere, but he didn’t have anything else attached to it when he decided to just drop that in at the end.
TYF: And it’s a fantastic turning point.
Bonnette: Yeah, it’s great.
TYF: Have you heard anything from Simon and Garfunkel about the song, or do you have any concept of what they would think about it?
Bonnette: No, I haven’t heard a thing from Paul Simon. I’m a gnat to him. (Laughs)
TYF: Also on that album is “A Song Dedicated to the Memory of Stormy the Rabbit.” Who’s Stormy the Rabbit?
Bonnette: My buddy John Martin’s rabbit that he had when he was a kid that got eaten by meat bees.
TYF: Oh, boy. Meat bees?
TYF: Are those just regular bees that eat meat?
Bonnette: Yeah. (Laughs) They’re real!
TYF: I think I might have had an encounter with those. I was eating my lunch outside one day, and then a bee swooped down and starting gnawing on my meat. It was very terrifying.
Bonnette: People don’t think that these bees are carnivorous, but they really are.
TYF: They really are. You also have “Zombie by the Cranberries by AJJ.” What made you decide on “Zombie by the Cranberries”?
Bonnette: For the title?
TYF: For the title, yeah.
Bonnette: We were drunk in Scotland doing karaoke, and this guy did “Zombie” and we were just like, “Yeah, that’ll be the title of the song.” We didn’t put much thought into it.
TYF: That’s great. In “Angel of Death,” you have a series of really lurid images. What are some of your favorites?
Bonnette: The one about the kid. The one about Cody. That’s probably my favorite bit in that song.
TYF: Was there a specific inspiration behind that anecdote?
Bonnette: It was just a childhood thing. You know, the Kool-Aid stains… I was that kid. Yeah.
TYF: We all know a kid like Cody.
Bonnette: Yeah. Imagine a kid running around in the woods, waving around a big stick that he found, just fucking shit up.
TYF: In “Small Red Boy,” why is the boy small and red?
Bonnette: ’Cause he’s your inner child. He’s, in nature, inherently evil—or at least, chaotic. So he’s of the earth rather than the heavens.
TYF: Got it. In that one, you talk about Madeleine L’Engle and D’Aulaire’s [Mythology]. On that note, what’s your favorite Greek myth, or myth in general?
Bonnette: The myth of Persephone is really good, from what I remember. And Medusa is probably my favorite monster in Greek mythology.
TYF: If someone told you, “I’m going to make a movie and I want the soundtrack to be solely AJJ songs,” what kind of movie would you hope it would be?
Bonnette: (Laughs) Oh, that’s a great question. Hmm… I don’t know if it’d be a good fit, but probably a horror movie.
TYF: That’d be fun. Like, maybe a folksy horror movie, out in a cabin in the woods…
Bonnette: Yeah. (Laughs) Like a slasher? I would want it to be a possession film, something that involves the supernatural or the occult.
TYF: I can see that. If you were to have a cameo, what kind of role…
TYF: Fantastic. The Discovery Zone zine that you had on your merch table was very cool; do you want to talk about that a little?
Bonnette: Sure. Yeah. I framed all those pictures and put them in an art gallery—my friend’s art gallery, Tiny Town in Tucson. Along with those framed pictures, I also did an installation on all the walls where I drew these large black and white images. I did a hippo… I think I might have pictures of it… [He searches for photos on his phone] Aha! Here’s a picture of the show. A lot of the pictures are inspired by my dog, Grimly. There’s a hippopotamus… Heh-heh. That’s my dog. So yeah, there we go. That’s the big picture.
TYF: That’s super cool. How’d you come up with the title?
Bonnette: Discovery Zone was, like, a failed child play-place…
TYF: Yes! I was wondering if that’s what it was named after. I loved Discovery Zone.
Bonnette: Yeah, yeah! Every time I think of the term “Discovery Zone,” I first think of that, and then I think of the place that I go when I get to create something, and my mind focuses and my eyes cross a little bit, and then I can focus on a picture, or I’ll write a song or write a verse that I’m really proud of. It’s all in this little, kind of delayed space that I would describe as the Discovery Zone.
TYF: That’s so great. I instantly saw Discovery Zone and was flashed back to my childhood; it’s great to know that’s where it came from. Shellshag was a great opening act; how did you meet them?
Bonnette: I met them in Austin, Texas. Our merch guy at the time, this guy Matt, was a big fan of theirs and he wanted to go see him. So we drove Matt over to go check them out—it was his birthday—and then we were just floored, blown away. I had seen them, I had seen Shellshag before, but I hadn’t… it hadn’t clicked or something until I met ’em in Austin. And then we became really fast friends. And since then, I think they’re the band we’ve probably played the most shows with, at this point. We toured for two months with them when we toured with Kimya Dawson, and we took ’em out for a bunch of the People Who Can Eat People shows… Yeah. We’ve been all around the country and Canada with them.
TYF: That’s awesome.
Bonnette: Yeah. They’re fantastic. True, true artists.
TYF: Yup. What are some of your favorite destinations that you’ve been to? I know it’s really hard to narrow it down.
Bonnette: Yeah, it is. (Laughs) I like going to New York and skating. I like going to go skate the Lower East Side Park and Brooklyn Banks. I’m a big skate tourist, so when I go somewhere, that’s usually what I’m looking for—a place to go roll around for a while. And New York and San Francisco are [perfect], because the clubs are in such close proximity to skate parks.
TYF: On that note, if you were going to give one tip to amateur skaters, what would it be?
Bonnette: Skate a lot. That’s all. Just go skating all the time and lose yourself in it.
TYF: Got it. And in your songs, you talk about a lot of themes of turmoil—politically, culturally, in the world in general—but you also have a lot of songs with messages of hope, like “Rejoice” and “People.” So what do you do when you look around and you see everything sort of going to hell? Like, what’s your way of dealing with that immediately?
Bonnette: That’s a great question. ’Cause I don’t know. (Laughs)I’m not sure if I can handle it much longer.
TYF: Yeah. Everyone kind of feels that way right now—or at least, a lot of people.
Bonnette: What I usually do when I feel like that is, I’ll try to write a song to provide myself a message of hope. And if it’s good enough, then I’ll play it for people. (Laughs)
TYF: What are some of your favorite childhood memories?
Bonnette: Imagining. Getting to zone out and daydream. Backyard time and hanging out in the woods. I liked being alone. Setting small fires.
TYF: What were your favorite things to imagine?
Bonnette: I can’t remember anymore.
TYF: Final question: Is there anything else that you’d like to say to the fans and readers?
Bonnette: Yeah. These days, it’s really easy to turn a blind eye to someone that you disagree with. And it can be really emotionally taxing to train and engage with those people, but it’s really important that we try to connect with one another. That’s how we’ll find our way out of this hell world that we’re living in. And I do it, too—I hit the mute button on my friends and family that I disagree with all the time. And I need to really prepare myself one day to make a concerted effort to stop doing that. I need to try to engage with people that I disagree with head-on, in a compassionate way. But it’s not going to be easy. It’s gonna suck. It’s gonna suck ass.