It’s not easy to be a band from Phoenix. No disrespect to the Arizona capital, but the city hasn’t exactly been a hotbed of cultural exports. Its most famous musical acts include Gin Blossoms, Jimmy Eat World, and Meat Puppets, as well as an early version of Alice Cooper, who didn’t find success until he relocated to Los Angeles. Even the city’s namesake act, Phoenix, isn’t from the Southwest—they’re French. So the guys from folk-punk act Andrew Jackson Jihad had their work cut out for themselves from the get-go.
Formed in 2004 and inspired by punk rock as well as by indie-folk acts like Mountain Goats (which the band is frequently compared to) and Neutral Milk Hotel, Andrew Jihad Jackson has slowly and steadily grown its following beyond the Valley of the Sun, thanks to a do-it-yourself ethos and lots of hard work. Ben Gallaty, the band’s bassist and one of its two founding members, said the initial goal was simply to tour, which the group did via the help of an online directory of bands, venues, and punk houses called Book Your Own Fuckin’ Life (byofl.org), a pre–social media resource for enterprising bands. Through that, AJJ booked a five-week tour with maybe 15 shows actually happening, Gallaty remembers. “It was mostly a vacation,” he says.
But things got better. The group eventually recorded Candy Cigarettes and Cap Guns in 2005, an urgent, lo-fi manifesto about smoking, hipsters, and God that laid the template for what AJJ would become. Amid surreal and absurdist imagery were songs rooted in social issues. As the band evolved, so did its message, with subsequent albums tackling mental health, the rights of the homeless, feminism, and race. “I am white and I’ve got everything I need,” Sean Bonnette sings on “American Tune” from 2011’s Knife Man. “No one clutches their purse when they’re in a room alone with me.”
AJJ kept touring and making records, building things slowly but steadily, and pretty soon could sustain a life on the road. “As we went back to places,” Gallaty says, “there were more and more people each time, which made it easy to keep doing it.” The bassist estimates that his band has toured the West Coast alone about a dozen times—in the process finding fans like Frank Turner and Laura Jane Grace of Against Me!, who have taken AJJ on tour, which in turn helped build its following.
Photo by “Me” via Wikipedia.org
The band’s fifth LP, Christmas Island, released in May, was its first for Los Angeles indie imprint SideOneDummy (after it outgrew former label Asian Man), and was paid for with money earned on the road. But don’t let the title fool you; not a holiday album, it’s named for the Australian territory that’s become a popular destination for asylum-seekers. Christmas Island was produced by St. Vincent’s longtime producer John Congleton, who suggested AJJ make a brutal acoustic record—like the debut of Violent Femmes—using as few non-acoustic instruments as possible.
The resulting dozen songs are the band’s most enjoyable to date, an eclectic patchwork that comforts and confuses, soothes and enflames. After all, not too many bands can namedrop Linda Ronstadt and Man Is the Bastard in the same set. The album’s cover evidences a similar eclecticism: a multimedia collage featuring pulled teeth and marbles, puppies and scorpions.
But therein lies AJJ’s beating heart—what makes the band such an intriguing act, both on record and live. Just as you’re feeling all warm and cuddly, it throws a blanket over your head and kicks you in the shins, which somehow leaves you wanting more—which is why the next time the band is in town, you’ll bring a few friends, and so on and so on, until it’s outgrown El Corazon as well. Andrew Jackson Jihad. With Hard Girls, Dogbreth. El Corazon, 109 Eastlake Ave. E., 262-0482, elcorazon.com. $15 adv./$17 DOS. 8 p.m. Friday, July 25.