It goes without saying that when 2020 began, everyone was looking ahead to the future with a sense of cautious optimism. While the US election loomed large on the global calendar, and issues related to climate change seemed to be taking a front seat, 2020 seemed like it would be pretty much business as usual for most folks. However, for Arizona folk-punk outfit AJJ, the year was beginning with a bit of increased positivity thanks to the release of their seventh studio album – Good Luck Everybody – in the first few weeks of January.
“[We were feeling] pretty optimistic,” explains frontman Sean Bonnette during a Zoom call from his home in Arizona. “We were really excited to go out and tour for sure, and try to register more people to vote. We saw that as a cool project to work on while on tour and while we were supporting the record.”
While the group’s hopes for a Bernie Sanders presidency didn’t quite come to fruition, the year did however begin as planned, with an album tour kicking off in mid-January alongside fellow artists Tacocat and Emperor X. Further dates were set to see Xiu Xiu replace Tacocat on the bill, while dates for the UK were also planned for July of 2020 as well.
“That was one of the funnest tours I have ever been on,” Bonnette remembers. “All the personalities clicked, we had a really good time with Tacocat, and then we had Chad [R. Matheny] – Emperor X – riding in our van, kind of like a fifth band member. The set was really good, we did karaoke on the final show – that was great – and yeah, we really didn’t expect for the virus to happen; to reach America, but it did.”
Notably, the band’s latest studio album arrived as something of an elegy for the coming year, with tracks like “Mega Guillotine 2020” and its accompanying video serving as a statement on Bonnette’s lack of faith in the US political system. Even its title seemed to be a message of support as we entered into a year that would be considered one of the most tumultuous on record.
However, it was in late March that 2020 truly began to show its teeth, with AJJ forced to announce that the remaining dates of their tour had been rescheduled.
“The shows started getting postponed incrementally,” Bonnette explains. “We just started crossing off dates until we were like, ‘Oh, we see the writing on the wall. Let’s just not go on this tour.’ Then I felt lost for a while.”
Bonnette was not alone in feeling lost though, with fans and artists the world over suddenly realising a need to adapt to the changing world. As many would recall, it was in these brief few weeks after the advent of global lockdowns that artists flocked to social media platforms to offer livestreams. Events such as Music from The Home Front, the Global Citizen livestream series, and the ongoing Isol-Aid festival all sprung up in the wake of COVID-19, with countless artists realising a need to not only engage with their fanbase, but also to provide people with a means of escape during a tumultuous time.
For Bonnette, he turned to Instagram to share a series of live performances in mid-March after he realised that many of the goals he had previously set would not be coming to fruition. Introducing himself as an “out-of-work indie rocker” in the debut set on March 15th, his uncertainty and general sadness was almost palpable. Though it was not initially referred to as such, these performances kept coming and soon bore the Live from Quarantine name, providing him with a way to – to clumsily paraphrase a famous AJJ song – continue to make art in a year that’s fucking depressing.
“I initially did it because I felt lost and because I wanted to play a little bit of music to comfort myself,” he explains. “So the night of the first show that got cancelled, I went on [Instagram], and the next night, and then I kept doing it and I figured I would do the tour, playing music every night until the end of that run that was postponed.
“But after that, it just kept going, and it gave me a real sense of purpose at the time. Just something to do, people seemed to enjoy it, and just personality-wise, I really enjoy doing shit like that. [Laughs] I’m a show-off, an extrovert. I just kind of gave myself a job since I felt like I was out of work at the time.”
“I just kind of gave myself a job since I felt like I was out of work at the time.”
Bonnette soon found himself performing these livestreamed sets daily, sharing fan favourites, deep cuts, and covers, usually in a wholly acoustic manner.
“It doesn’t feel like work because I’m playing songs I would usually play around the house anyway, just broadcasting it on the internet and using it as an opportunity to get better at recording and filming and stuff,” he notes.
“It’s like David Lynch says; ‘The work I do, I would do for free.’ I don’t know, that’s kind of how I feel about it. I get a kick out of it, and the fact that other people like it makes it even more fulfilling for me.”
Indeed people do like it, and these performances quickly spawned a community even more fervent than the already-active AJJ fanbase, with viewers tuning in daily to not only watch Bonnette’s sets, but to also come together in much the same way they would have at a regular gig.
Notably though, the sets do lack the typical energy seen at regular shows, meaning that when new songs (including “I Wanna Be Your Dog 2” or “Schadenfreude Song”) are played, Bonnette is unable to gauge how well a new song has been received like he would at a normal show.
Despite this, the popularity of these shows remain. Even now, more than a year on from the first broadcast, hundreds of fans still come together daily in the Instagram Live chat section to catch up with friends, discuss the new performances, and share enduring slogans such as “Trans Rights”, “ACAB”, or even to just refer to Bonnette as “Daddy”. Of course, he takes the latter with good humour.
“It’s been so long since I’ve played in front of actual people that we’ll see if this one is a feeble replacement that I’ve tricked myself into enjoying.”
“I kind of assumed that more people would be doing [livestreamed performances] regularly, just as a way to… I mean, identify the fact that people are bored and want something to check in with regularly to help pass the time,” he explains, noting there’s an added benefit of the performances helping maintain his own sanity as well.
“I love connecting with an audience, whether I can see it or not, I get off on it,” he admits. “It’s been so long since I’ve played in front of actual people that we’ll see if this one is a feeble replacement that I’ve tricked myself into enjoying.”
While fans often tune in to hear classic AJJ songs (especially given the recent rise in popularity of “Body Terror Song” due to TikTok), one of the staples of the Live from Quarantine sets are Bonnette’s covers, which see him frequently take on tracks by the likes of Silver Jews, Neil Young, Mount Eerie, Jeff Rosenstock, Kimya Dawson, and Novi Split, who in a small way helped to inform Bonnette’s decision to perform covers so frequently.
“One of my favourite people to watch perform plays mostly covers when he plays; Novi Split, David J’s nom de plume,” he explains. “He’ll do one or two originals and then the rest is just covers that he’s into. A lot of the same ones. I’ve learnt a lot of wonderful songs from him.
“Learning how to play a song is great because you get to take it apart and see how it works, see the mechanics of it, and you end up learning a whole lot of cool tricks you can put in your own work.”
One of the most popular artists that Bonnette has found himself covering during these sessions has been Roger Miller, the late American country musician and actor. While Miller’s “Reincarnation” became a staple of the shows, it’s “Oo-De-Lally” – the track Miller performed for the 1973 Disney rendition of Robin Hood – that has become the surprising standout.
“To me, it’s the most elegant song in the world, because it has such an economy and it’s so short, but it takes you on such a very wonderful musical journey in like, 30 seconds,” Bonnette explains. “It does so much.
“The original recording of it is just perfect. Y’know, it’s not perfect, it’s beyond perfect because of how casually Roger Miller just throws that fucking song out there. He does some little guitar flubs, and yeah, it’s delightful. So trying to figure out how that song works is still an enigma.”
Its inexplicable popularity soon saw the track become something of a meme within the AJJ community, with every performance featuring numerous requests from fans – often during a performance of the song. As a result, Bonnette himself has performed the track repeatedly in individual sessions, with the May 21st, 2020 performance featuring the track four times.
“Playing the same song over again, that’s something we’ve done for a couple of years as a band because it’s just funny,” he says with a laugh. “One time in San Diego, we played ‘We Didn’t Come Here to Rock’ as our first song, and our second song was ‘We Didn’t Come Here to Rock’, and then I think our third song was ‘Where Is My Mind?’ by the Pixies. [We were] just breaking all the rules.”
Hearing the same song numerous times is a surprisingly common experience for fans of AJJ. At a 2017 show in Norman, Oklahoma for their People Who Can Eat People Are the Luckiest People in The World anniversary tour, the group finished up a full performance of the album for the first half of the show, kicking off the second with a rendition of “American Body Rentals”. Later, they closed the set with the same song.
As Bonnette explains, it’s just simply keeping in line with Mark E. Smith’s adage regarding the three R’s of rock and roll: repetition, repetition, repetition.
“There’s also the story of Neil Young, when he was workshopping Tonight’s the Night material, he would go and play shows and people would want to hear all of the stuff he had released before; all of his hits,” Bonnette explains.
“And he wouldn’t play that, he would play the song ‘Tonight’s the Night’ at the beginning, and then at the end, he would say, ‘Here’s one you’ve heard before.’ Everyone would cheer and they’d be like, ‘Oh, he’s gonna play his old stuff’, and then he played ‘Tonight’s the Night’ again. That’s where we stole that from, probably.”
Funnily enough, there’s a little bit of a ‘full-circle’ element to Bonnette’s story, given that the artwork for the band’s most recent album – Good Luck Everybody – heavily references that of Young’s On the Beach album.
“The context of those two albums are similar, so we aped the cover,” he admits, before turning to the somewhat prescient nature of calling an album Good Luck Everybody in a year such as 2020. “We’re just pessimistic. That’s the sad truth. You can definitely predict the future if you’re a pessimist.”
However, despite the pessimism, it was the presence of tracks like “Oo-De-Lally” that helped serve as something of an inadvertent soundtrack to Bonnette’s 2020, and thus influencing the then-unthought-of Live from Quarantine series.
“I think one of the reasons it’s so simply ingrained within this series is that, right as our tour got cancelled and the world closed up around March 15th, that was when I heard Roger Miller for the first time and realised that that was the ‘Oo-De-Lally’ guy because of a playlist that Eric [Randall] and Lelah [Maupin] from Tacocat shared with me which had a bunch of Roger Miller on it,” he remembers.
“[It also had] the other song, which I think I like more than ‘Oo-De-Lally’, it’s called ‘Reincarnation’. So listening to those two songs right at the moment – the traumatic moment – probably caused some sort of… it got me stuck on that.”
While the original performances saw Bonnette performing on a regular, almost daily basis, recent months have seen the Live from Quarantine sessions become a little more sporadic, with around two or three performances taking place across the week.
However, even with the world slowly returning to normal thanks to a unexpectedly-positive vaccine rollout in the US, these Live from Quarantine sessions might not ever fully become a thing of the past, with Bonnette happy to keep things going into the foreseeable future.
“I’d like to keep them going, because there’s no an audience, which is really cool,” he notes. “I’d like to think that I’d still get something out of it personally, even if we did have live shows again, and I got to resume more of the activities I did before the pandemic. So yeah, it’s probably going to keep going. Why not?”
While most fans of AJJ have almost paradoxically seen more of the band’s frontman than they would have expected to in a year such as 2020, Bonnette also gives something of a brief insight into what’s happening with the rest of the band as well.
“We have a group chat where we text about stuff every day, and we launched our Patreon and we record a podcast once a month together where we just talk about whatever,” he explains.
While guitarist Preston Bryant finds himself gardening and working on music in his studio (including mixing a lot of AJJ recordings), drummer Owen Evans and bassist Ben Gallaty have found themselves learning how to navigate life with their respective children during the pandemic era. Meanwhile, Mark Glick has spent his time alongside his two dogs and partner, helping edit the Live from Quarantine series in addition to working on his Anxiety Machine side project.
Though it remains unclear when the band will be able to record together again soon, and then later, tour once more, it’s a positive notion to know that fans won’t be lacking any AJJ content in the near future. Whether that content comes by way of a new album, a new tour, or simply just a performance shared via Instagram, well, that’s the beauty of it all.
Sean Bonnette performs his Live from Quarantine sessions on the official AJJ Instagram page on Monday and Thursday evenings (US MST time), with occasional performances taking place on Wednesday evenings. A full archive of past performances is available for download via the band’s Patreon account, and for viewing via their YouTube channel.