Oct. 5 2011 03:25 PM

Phoenix folk duo is dark, honest and funny, usually all at once

Ben Gallaty and Sean Bonnette expand on their sound in their latest album, Knife Man.
Photo by Morgan Bellinger

A typical Andrew Jackson Jihad show draws big crowds of college-age, bearded, tattooed punks who passionately sing along to the songs, usually out-singing the acoustic folk duo.

“I think the people that really, really like our band find something special in how direct the lyrics are,” says Sean Bonnette, the Phoenix duo’s singer and guitarist.

Their lyrics are not for everyone—people tend to either love them or hate them. They’re dark, uncomfortable, honest and funny—usually all at once. Take, for example, the characteristically raw folk song “People II: The Reckoning”: “There’s a bad man in everyone / No matter who you are / There’s a rapist and a Nazi / Living in our tiny hearts.”

Even the more personal songs evoke a complex range of emotions. In “Who Are You?,” as Ben Gallaty plucks the upright bass, Bonnette bangs on his acoustic guitar and in his unvarnished voice, sings about his father abandoning him as a kid: “Thank you so much for not raising me / You spent your life on better things / You would have been an awful dad / Thank you though for those genes you had.”

In contrast to the lyrical darkness and pessimism, the music is quite fun and catchy—it’s “sad in the key of happy,” as Bonnette puts it. On stage, Bonnette and Gallaty deliver a heartfelt, passionate performance, sprinkling a lot of jokes in between songs. With the band’s stripped-down acoustic anthems and cutting lyrics, fans feel they’re being spoken to directly; they can relate.

“Kids will email us that they were really upset that day and then listened to some of our music and they felt better,” Bonnette says. “Hearing those feelings verbalized, then being able to verbalize it yourself, can be really cathartic.”

After touring and playing primarily as a folk band for six years, the duo switched gears for their fourth album, Knife Man, which came out in September on Asian Man Records. The album’s lyrics are still full of dark, blunt humor, but the band expands greatly on its straightforward folk sound, incorporating elements of punk, roots-rock, blues, country and mellow indie-rock.

“There wasn’t too much thought that went into that stuff other than our growing resentment of being pigeonholed as a folk-punk band,” Bonnette says. “That’s always something we’ve been told. We stopped agreeing with that after a while.”

To record the material, they brought the blueprints of songs into the studio and collaborated with musician friends—members of such Phoenix bands as ROAR, Doth, French Quarter and Malakai—to form the structures of the songs.

“We got to experiment a lot,” Bonnette says. “We got to change a lot of songs from how they sounded originally to turn them into something completely different. That’s always been a big dream of mine, go into the studio with a skeleton of a song and then fucking tweak it.”

Their live show is the same as usual—they’ve been playing even their new songs as a folky two-piece band on their current tour of the U.S. and Canada with English singer-songwriter Frank turner. But that might change.

“We’re hoping to do a live band tour and realize those songs as they were played on the record,” Bonnette says.

Andrew Jackson Jihad has always been known as a folk band, though they came across as over-the-top and silly on their debut album, 2005’s Candy Cigarettes and Cap Guns, a set of songs that Bonnette now finds embarrassing. But by the time they recorded 2006’s Issue Problems EP, they’d stopped hiding behind goofy extreme statements and started to be more direct.

“I was sick of being called hilarious all the time,” Bonnette says. “I was like, ‘You don’t understand. I’m trying to sing these songs that are complete exaggerations, but they’re serious songs.’ But listening back on them, they weren’t serious songs.”

He adds: “I think every time 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.”

Bonnette says he’s happy with the musical variety on Knife Man and hopes to continue to make unusual and unexpected albums.

“We’d like to be Ween, but with less camp,” he says. “They do whatever they want.”

Andrew Jackson Jihad play with Frank turner & The Sleeping Souls and Into It Over It at SOMA on Wednesday, Oct. 12. andrewjacksonjihad.com