To acquire wisdom, one must observe

A conversation with Sean Bonnette of AJJ

Sean Bonnette, a founder and leading member of AJJ, spoke to me earlier this month from his home in Arizona. Throughout our conversation, it became clear that he was happier talking about many topics that were not himself, like the people he works with and his music taste right now, but for the purposes of this profile, he will be the focus. 

Bonnette has only ever really played in the one band, and he started writing for them when he was 17. AJJ formed in 2004, out of a coffee shop in Arizona. In the 20 years since, the band has released eight studio albums. The most recent, “Disposable Everything,” was released in May 2023. 

Bonnette sings lead vocals for AJJ and plays many instruments in the band, “… guitar, keyboards, bass, and whatever else the song needs. Unless there’s someone more capable in the room, I’m willing to give it a shot …” He has been musical his whole life, playing bass and “pounding along” to songs on piano since childhood. Additionally, he mentioned singing in a children’s choir, but that, “… even before that, my mom and I were both big car singers.”

When discussing whether becoming a musician was a lifelong aspiration for Bonnette, he said it wasn’t. However, he brought up a high school aptitude test that predicted he would be well suited for music or social work. He ended up doing both. “… on the back of [the test], I drew myself out a little plan and it’s creepy how close to the plan everything’s come.”

AJJ is, as Bonnette described, “… to a very small subsection of society … quite popular.” With the group’s moderately sized and very dedicated fan base, Bonnette has been able to support his life through touring for the last ten years. Before then, he worked, among other things, as a barista, an outreach worker for a homeless shelter and a suicide prevention specialist at a hotline. 

Since AJJ’s beginnings, the band has consistently released an album every two to four years and gone on tour about as frequently. Bonnette has always been the primary songwriter for the group. He mentioned a directive the band has is to approach every album differently. This has led to clear variety between albums, and makes the group difficult to categorize under one music genre. Bonnette described AJJ as an indie rock band that has dabbled in other sub-genres, while also noting, “… you’re better off asking anyone besides the people that play in the band what kind of music the band plays.”

While AJJ has music anyone could enjoy, particularly on earlier albums, songs often delve into topics that could be dubbed offensive or vulgar. Bonnette and I discussed the violent imagery so commonly displayed in his music. He really is not sure why it pops up so much. He assured that he is far from a violent person and abhors violence, but theorized it may connect to his longtime desire to be a filmmaker—“gore has entertainment value.” Or perhaps an unresolved fear.

In speaking about his earlier music, he described the experience of playing songs he wrote nearly 20 years ago as “very strange, but a lot better than if I were playing the songs that I wrote when I was in my late teens.” This is a reference to AJJ’s first album, “Candy Cigarettes and Cap Guns,” which he wrote as a 17-year-old (“… before my brain was formed enough to really back it.”) and no longer performs. AJJ’s second album, “People Who Can Eat People Are the Luckiest People in the World,” remains one of the band’s most popular albums, and it still brings in many new listeners, despite sounding quite distinct from successive albums. Bonnette described listening back to this album; “As someone who has made a lot more records than I did at the time that we made that one, it sounds crazy to me. It sounds just absurd. But I guess there must be something there.”

We talked a bit about songwriting, including why AJJ’s recent music has been more blatantly political than earlier albums. Bonnette said that “Good Luck Everybody,” AJJ’s second most recent album, was purposefully political, “… a way to, hopefully, be able to move on from writing about politics for a little while.” He spoke about how songwriting is often going to reflect what’s in your head or what you can pull out of the air, and for the past years, that has been political topics. Bonnette noted, “I would generally much rather write about beauty and truth, or use [songwriting] as more of a personal therapy.”

When it came to writing new songs, Bonnette spoke about how he needs to find a new groove. “For every batch of songs comes a new approach or a new process … I think the new thing I’m going to try is I want to wake up earlier and write in the morning again, that’s a really nice time to write.” He expanded further on his songwriting process. “You can always fill a page with any text. And it’s generally better to try to do that than to wait for something to come … a big part of it is shutting down your internal sensor and … you want to let the pipes clear out a little bit … I’ve been trying to get better at that, at being able to sit down and just turn it on.”

The albums Sean Bonnette recommends new listeners to listen to are “whatever the newest one is,” “Disposable Everything” as well as “People Who Eat People Are the Luckiest People” and “Christmas Island.” I would also specifically recommend the songs “Big Bird” and “A Big Day for Grimley.” AJJ is currently on tour with Say Anything, and you can catch them here in Boston on May 12.

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