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August 18-31
VOL.14 ISSUE. 26

Acoustic Andrew

Chris Morin
Published Thursday July 10, 06:36 pm
Phoenix folk-punks cut down the electricity and cue up the kick-ass

Sunday 20

Sean Bonnette, frontman of long-running Phoenix-based folk-punk band Andrew Jackson Jihad, admits he wasn’t entirely sure about the process of making their fifth full-length album, Christmas Island. On it, they worked with former The Paper Chase frontman and Grammy-nominated producer John Congleton — who told them he wanted to make an entirely acoustic album. Cue the concern.

But wow, did it work.

“[Congleton] was a fan of our band before we recorded together,” says Bonnette, “and he wanted to make his ideal Andrew Jackson Jihad record, which is one that has a lot of energy and oomph but is rooted in folk sounds. We went in with the framework to use as few electric instruments and rock band elements as possible.

“He tried to take us back to basics, and so we tried to write some songs that were different than those that we had written over the past decade — and it created some pretty wild and different results.”

On Christmas Island, Andrew Jackson Jihad (comprised of core members Bonnette on vocals and guitar and Ben Gallaty on upright bass) has fully embraced the raw charm of twisted folk, sounding even more frenetic, urgent and charming than they did before. Many of the songs are stripped down to bare-bones instrumentation, as fuzzy guitars clang amidst string arrangements and raw piano.

But the centerpiece of any Andrew Jackson Jihad song has always been the wonderfully delirious lyrical conceits. Bonnette’s strength as a songwriter is to take absurd lines and grotesque jokes and combine them all into a catchy chorus.

“As far as the lyrics go, I never really know how I actually write them,” he says. “I actually get most of my songwriting done when I stop worrying about achieving any sort of philosophy — that’s when I bleed out whatever I need to say. I try to make my songwriting entertaining to myself, and sometimes that includes things that are violent and funny.

“For a considerable amount of time I actually thought this record was going to be apocalypse-themed. I scrapped the idea after a while, but there are definitely still remnants of that left — some of the songs are still really apocalyptic. But eventually I didn’t think there was enough there to make an apocalypse album, and I’m glad I didn’t because I think it turned into something that is much more [reflective of] myself.”

Their revamped sound has won them new fans and a spot on a bigger record label, but Bonnette is most happy about the positive reactions the new songs are getting when they play them live.

“There’s definitely a lot more singing along than I thought we would get,” he says with a laugh, “which is the coolest feeling in the world you can get when you’re on stage — especially when it’s something that you recently shared with the world. With some of the songs, we’re still trying to figure out what they are going to sound like live — we don’t want the songs to necessarily be true to the recorded versions.

“We’re mostly just excited to finally be playing these songs live, since the record has been done for over a year.”

Thursday 17

The Strumbellas are having a banner year. They released their second full-length, We Still Move On Dance Floors, in 2013 — and since then it’s picked up a Juno Award for Roots and Traditional Album of the Year and a SiriusXM Indie award for Top Folk Group. Most recently, the record was voted onto the 2014 Polaris Music Prize longlist.

Frontman Simon Ward is honoured, if a bit shocked by all the attention.

“[The accolades] are all amazing, but they all have different meanings to us,” he says. “It’s getting recognition from different sets of people. The people who are coming out to our shows have been really receptive, and it’s been better than we could have hoped. As a songwriter, you have no idea what people will think about your music. And this has all been growing so fast and it’s fun to be a part of, especially because the audience does seem to actually like the album.

“We have nothing to complain about.”

The Strumbellas combine folk instrumentation with a healthy dose of energy and pomp. On We Still Move On Dance Floors, the group crafts catchy songs that are both clever and easy to sing along to.

“After you make an album you get sick of those songs, because you listened to them a hundred times over in the studio — and you never want to hear them again,” he says. “But when you play them live it completely rejuvenates it, because people are singing along, and it reinvents those songs for you as a musician.

“The fans have brought those songs alive for us, which is important because there are times when I think that I could never go and jam on these with a band ever again. It takes the people listening to make us want to go out and play.”

Thursday 10

It’s been one year since Surrey-based indie math-rock group Tommy Alto got in a car crash that nearly ended their career. The four-piece was heading from their last show of a summer tour when their van went off the road and crashed into a boulder, seriously injuring many of the members. Singer and guitarist Thor Vanderkam says the band is looking to move on from the incident — but that hasn’t been easy.

“Because of his injuries, our old bass player wasn’t able to continue with us, which was obviously a sad transition,” he says. “But our new bassist has been doing a wonderful job, and he’s added a lot of depth to our sound. He also has a lot of production knowledge, which helps in the studio.

“[And] when our drummer woke up from the medically induced coma, he wanted to get right back to touring,” says Vanderkam.

On their latest release, the full-length Atlas \\ Patterson, Tommy Alto hones in on complex math-rock, complete with off-kilter time signatures and an almost prog-like attention to arrangements. But many of the songs favour accessibility over avant-garde, with melodic vocals adding a pop element.

“It’s a lot more focused in terms of the sound,” says Vanderkam. “On the first EP we didn’t really know what we wanted to go for, and on this album we really locked in. The album was written before, during and after our last Canadian tour.

“A couple of the more upbeat songs were written before we left on tour. And then we got into the bad crash, and were all pretty banged up terribly. That stirred up a lot of emotions with us, which produced the somber and introspective songs; that came from the events and experiences of the crash we went through.” 

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