After 12 years together the Phoenix punk outfit Andrew Jackson Jihad is dead. Well, sort of. On February 24 the band announced on its Facebook page that, “We are officially changing our name from Andrew Jackson Jihad to the simple, familiar abbreviation that most of you already call us: AJJ.” The two reasons the band listed for wanting to change its name were as follows: “1.) We are not Muslims, and as such, it is disrespectful and irresponsible for us to use the word jihad in our band’s name. 2.) We no longer wish to be a living reminder of president Andrew Jackson. Interesting historical figure as he was, he was an odious person and our fascination with him has grown stale.”
For a band as outspoken and progressive as AJJ it’s a move that shouldn’t have shocked fans to the degree it did. Especially when coupled with the release of a new song that proved AJJ is still as delightfully odd as it ever was. In speaking to The A.V. Club, AJJ vocalist-guitarist Sean Bonnette went into great detail about the decision making process behind the name change, and just how surprising it is to see its fans now wish death upon the band for taking this proactive measure.
The A.V. Club: So let’s start by addressing the elephant in the room: When did you decide you were going to change the band’s name from Andrew Jackson Jihad to AJJ? Was there hesitation from anyone in the band to do it?
Sean Bonnette: I wouldn’t say there was hesitation. I know the moment of decision came when we all unanimously were like, “Yeah, let’s do that,” came from somewhere in between day one and day three of recording this forthcoming album. That was just us hanging out in the lobby of John [Congleton]’s studio and we—Ben [Gallaty, founding AJJ bassist] and I—had been discussing it for a long time.
I guess to give a little background: It got a lot harder to provide a reason that felt good for why our band was called Andrew Jackson Jihad. As the world changed, and as we changed as people, it just got more difficult to give a convincing answer for exactly why our band was called that. In reality, we’d been thinking about it for a while, along with exploring our brains and exploring our feelings as to why we continued to call our band that. But yeah, the final decision came on that day in January.
AVC: Do you remember the first time someone asked why you named the band that and you weren’t able to give a reasonable answer back?
SB: I remember the first email we got from a bona fide Muslim person and my answer to them was basically the Wikipedia definition of the word “Jihad.” Since the act of striving and trying to do better is a constant theme in our work, that’s where the name was coming from. And that felt a little flimsy talking to someone that was raised in that religion.
Our band uses a lot of Christian themes and imagery. I come from a Catholic background and have a lot of thoughts and feelings about that. I feel confident that I can hold my own in a discussion about Christian theology. With Islam, on the other hand, I know very little. I have Christian friends who give me shit for casual blasphemies and putting pentagrams on everything, whereas I actually know very few Muslims and always felt like a dick talking to them about the band name.
There was a lot of input from a lot of different sources that eventually helped us come to the conclusion to change the name. But it’s important to mention that the decision was completely our own. We aren’t really succumbing to any outside pressure from booking agents or the media. No one was including us in think-pieces about cultural appropriation, and no one was canceling our shows because of our offensive name. It’s actually more controversial that we chose to change it, which is baffling.
AVC: Was it weird to see people surprised that you and the rest of the band were at all socially conscious? That’s been an underlying theme basically as long as the band’s been around.
SB: They’re calling us, “Pussy social justice warriors” on Facebook. And it’s like, duh. I have a degree in social work, and I think it’s really important to be open to new ideas and to change with the times. It’s a constantly shifting cultural climate. People are offended and baffled that we did something out of respect for another’s culture, and it’s surprising. Honestly, the bulk of the people that are telling us to kill ourselves, I’m pretty happy to purge them from our listenership.
There are some people in that group of outraged listeners that I can relate to in a sense. If I were a 15-year-old kid and I was to see that a band I liked was changing their name because it’s offensive, I would immediately call bullshit on that. So I can relate to that to some extent, and all I can really do is assure those people is that it’s a decision that came from us because we felt it was the right thing to do. And it’s more artistically liberating. I don’t think we’re sacrificing anything by changing our name.
AVC: This isn’t the first time the band has distanced itself from parts of its past. You’ve been very vocal about not playing any songs from your first record, Candy Cigarettes & Cap Guns, any more. Do you feel like the name change is a way to shed that baggage entirely?
SB: I like that you used the word “baggage,” because I’ve been using that word a lot as well when talking it over with my friends and stuff. It is definitely a shedding of baggage.
And that’s an argument that a lot of people have been kind of using against the name change, “Well you wrote this song.” And I think a lot of the guys that are making this argument aren’t aware that we don’t play those songs anymore. They aren’t aware of the history. They didn’t buy the vinyl re-issue that lays it all out why we don’t play those songs anymore.
It’s good to change. It’s good to put some things to bed so that we can keep going as a band. I don’t think if we had to keep playing those particular songs that we’d have made it 12 years as a band. If I decided to slap a fake a smile on and plow through “Lady Killer” and “Fuck White People,” I would hate that. It would be a disservice to the people that like our band. So yeah, the name change is an extension of that. I don’t really feel like playing in the band that I started when I was 18. I’d rather preserve the stuff that I like about it, change it to my liking, and then I can keep moving forward.
AVC: Did it feel like the old name was always a talking point? Like there was no way to discuss your music without having to go on a long preamble about the band name?
SB: I would love to say that people are going to stop asking us about our name but I don’t think they will. Almost every interview—and this isn’t just for bands with a controversial name—is going to have the question about your band name and influences and all that very Google-able information. But it’ll definitely bother me a little less. I won’t feel a weird little knot in my stomach when I have to explain that we’re called Andrew Jackson Jihad.
Toward the end of our career as Andrew Jackson Jihad my definition of the band was this striving, war-against-yourself to be better kind of thing. With Andrew Jackson in there I was also able to apply it to that sense of American shame. But in my actual striving to be better, and to be a better person and a cooler member of the world, we eventually had to put an end to using that word. And that name, just in general.
AVC: Was there ever a desire to change it to something completely different, something that didn’t have the attachment to the old name at all?
SB: That temptation was there for a little while. Then we remembered how hard it was for Ben and I to pick a name, and I couldn’t imagine how hard it would be for all five of us to pick a new name that we’d all be happy with. The music that we make identifies our band much better than a name ever possibly could. The music a band makes—if you’re lucky, and if you’re a good band—will be your identity. The name AJJ was easy, and it was already one of our band’s nicknames. That was one of the things I liked about the Andrew Jackson Jihad name originally, that it was pretty open to interpretation. The other nickname that people had for us was “Jihad,” and we certainly weren’t going to use that.
AVC: Does it feel like a new era for the band now?
SB: I think, if anything, I don’t know if I could point out a particular end to Andrew Jackson Jihad. I think AJJ certainly began with the solidification of the new lineup and with Christmas Island. But I don’t know, all those guys played on Knife Man too, just not for the entirety of it. When you look at our band there’s a very gradual change that occurs throughout. Especially in the size of the rooms that we’ve been playing and the popularity of the band, it’s all been slow and steady. And when I think of the development of the band, and all the changes, it’s all very gradual. I think maybe the reason that some people are freaking out over the name change is that this was kind of a less gradual move than usual.
AVC: Do you think once the new record is out there, and once people start hearing that it’s still the same band they’ve liked for so long, do you think that will silence the detractors?
SB: Possibly, but I really don’t expect much. I know that this record is awesome, and I’m really proud of it, but I’ve been saying for a long time that our band isn’t for everyone. It would be great if the people that are emailing us telling us that they are boycotting our band because of our name change, it’d be great if they gave it a listen. But they don’t have to if they don’t want to.
AVC: Is it at all flattering to see that people care this much about your band to actively boycott it?
SB: I’m totally flattered. And I have to give credit to the majority of people that support the decision to change the name or don’t give a shit at all. They are certainly the majority here. The other reactions to it are incredibly flattering. That our band is so meaningful to them—even the name of the band—that they hold it in such regard, it’s flattering that this is now controversial.
I also need to point out that people think we’re buckling under pressure from Muslim extremists and that’s certainly not true. We’ve received maybe two or three emails from Muslim people in the past 12 years, and they’ve all been gracious and courteous to us even though the name upset them. These right-wing weirdos on the other hand, we’ve received more threatening emails from them in the days since we announced the name change than we ever have before. And it’s immensely satisfying to me to bum those people out.