It's hard to picture Sean Bonnette in Big Ten country. The Andrew Jackson Jihad frontman belongs back in Phoenix, gazing out on smoggy sunsets, working at a suicide hotline, skating at Encanto Park, eating breakfast burros.
But when Bonnette's girlfriend—his "pardner," he calls her in a faux-cowboy accent from a tour van whose radio is too loud to accommodate an interview—started a doctoral program in Michigan, he moved north to Lansing, where he's been for two years.
His band's new record, Christmas Island, has at least one brilliant moment that wouldn't exist without the move, a song called "Linda Ronstadt." The setting is Phoenix's Musical Instrument Museum, the largest such museum in the world, built by a former Target executive. The scene involves Bonnette watching an old TV special featuring the Tucson-born "Blue Bayou" singer, now muted by Parkinson's disease, as she performs with a mariachi band. "Today, I lost my shit in a museum/ It was a video installation of Linda Ronstadt," he sings. "And I really miss my friends, but I don't see them/ All I see is this video of Linda Ronstadt."
An autobiographical song about crying in a museum isn't out of the ordinary for the decade-old band, which began as a folk-punk duo featuring Bonnette and bassist Ben Gallaty, but recently expanded into a tempo-shifting, sometimes-acoustic quintet with literary lyrics. Think Neutral Milk Hotel meets the Meat Puppets.
Christmas Island—a Pacific atoll bombed in 1962 by Kennedy, and identified in Bonnette's lyrics as the nuclear test that gave his grandfather cancer—begins with a song named for autism researcher and activist Temple Grandin (no connection to Nickelodeon's Legends of the Hidden Temple) and continues with a song that appears to be about the Heaven's Gate religious cult (and includes a shout-out to powerviolence punk band Man Is the Bastard). There's also a downtempo track called "Coffin Dancer," which Bonnette told Vice came from an episode of Tosh.0, and "Kokopelli Face Tattoo," which picks up where "Sorry Bro," from 2011's Knife Man, left off.
"Hey dude, I hate everything you do/ But I'm trying really hard to not hate you," he sings this time. ("I would hate to be like you but I'm still rooting for you," he sang last time.)
Bonnette says he plans to move back to Phoenix when his pardner is done with her schoolin', at which point he says he'll resume his job at a mental-health crisis hotline where, he says, he doesn't get as much inspiration as you might think. "I don't straight-up steal sad stories that I hear from people," he says. "That would be very vampiric."
Some sun and JFA Records might make a difference, though. The most immediate difference is Christmas Island's lack of straight-up punk numbers—a cathartic burst of power chords to break up all the empathy, self-reflection and talk of kids named Cody who hang out in abandoned houses to escape their parents' fighting.
"We approach every record with a fresh perspective and serve the songs the best we can," Bonnette says. "The songs weren't really there for some super-punk stuff. I don't know if I'm getting soft or if I just don't like punk as much anymore."
SEE IT: Andrew Jackson Jihad plays Alhambra Theatre, 4811 SE Hawthorne Blvd., with Hard Girls and Dogbreth, on Saturday, July 26. 7 pm. $15 advance, $17 day of show. All ages.