XIU XIU and EMPEROR X
AJJ frontman Sean Bonnette can summarize the band’s new album, Good Luck Everybody, in a single sentence: “Sonically, it’s our least punk record, and lyrically, it’s our most punk record.” And indeed, Good Luck Everybody (released January 17, 2020), the Arizona band’s seventh album, stands out in their already diverse catalog.
While still rooted in the folk-punk sound AJJ has become known for, the album is unafraid to delve into new territories that test the limits of what the band is capable of. “I think it explores some of the weirder sides of AJJ, the more experimental leanings that we’ve had in the past,” says bassist Ben Gallaty. Good Luck Everybody draws from a wealth of sonic inspirations, from Laurel Canyon folk-rock of the ’60s and ’70s to avant-garde artists like Suicide, as well as some orchestral pop. There is even a piano ballad, the tragic “No Justice, No Peace, No Hope.”
Lyrically, Good Luck Everybody is a change of pace from the idiosyncratic songwriting style Bonnette has honed over more than 15 years fronting AJJ. It still features his wonderfully weird turns of phrase and oddball word pairings, but this time, his thematic lens is more directly focused on the inescapable atrocities of the world around him. Longtime fans will recognize the album’s social commentary as a return to their 2011 release, Knife Man, but this time it’s fueled by a more radical urgency.
“I usually try for a timeless effect in songwriting, so that you can hear a song and generally not think about the context under which it was written,” says Bonnette. “But for this one, I was trying to write, and all the bad political shit just kept invading my brain and preventing me from writing that way. So I decided to fully embrace it and exorcise that demon.” Much like Woody Guthrie and Phil Ochs pulled their songs straight from newspaper headlines, Good Luck Everybody feels like a long scroll through social media feeds on a particularly volatile day.
The song “Mega Guillotine 2020,” for example, came directly from Twitter. It was influenced by Twitter funnyperson @leyawn’s popular tweet depicting a mockup of a French Revolution-style guillotine with one blade and enough headrests for 15 Congress members. Bonnette says the idea inspired him to press record and start playing, and when he did, the entire song came out of his brain fully formed. The final version also features backing vocals by Kimya Dawson.
“There’s something that comes along with scrolling through your phone on Twitter or Instagram and seeing a puppy, and then a joke from a comedian, and then a young black person being shot by police, and then another puppy, and then your friends announcing a tour, and then children in cages,” says Bonnette. “There’s something in that that fucks your brain up. I don’t know if it’s made me more of a passionate arguer or just made me confused and numb.”
On “Normalization Blues,” Bonnette laments what this never ending deluge of atrocities has done to our humanity: “I can feel my brain a’changin’, acclimating to the madness / I can feel my outrage shift into a dull, despondent sadness / I can feel a crust growing over my eyes like a falcon hood / I’ve got the normalization blues, this isn’t normal, this isn’t good.” Later, on “Psychic Warfare,” Bonnette takes out some aggression on the man at the root of it all, albeit through his trademark polite aggression: “For all the pussies you grab and the children you lock up in prison, for all the rights you roll back and your constant stream of racism / For all the poison you drip in my ear, for all your ugly American fear, I wrote you this beautiful song called ‘Psychic Warfare.’”
After years of partnering with Asian Man Records and SideOneDummy Records, AJJ is releasing Good Luck Everybody on their own, via their new label AJJ unlimited LTD, with Specialist Subject Records handling the European release. Bonnette and Gallaty also produced the record themselves and, in addition to their usual cast of collaborators (Preston Bryant, Dylan Cook, Mark Glick, Owen Evans), it features guest appearances from Thor Harris, Jeff Rosenstock, and Laura Stevenson.
“One thing that makes me rather giddy is that without a label or a producer, our listeners will have no one to blame besides us for the way our sound has changed,” laughs Bonnette. For all of its dark leanings and its pessimistic reflections on modern culture, AJJ hopes that fans will ultimately come out of the album in a hopeful place. By its final track, “A Big Day for Grimley,” it feels like AJJ is holding the listener’s hand, staring at the looming apocalypse ahead, and whispering a message into their ear: Good luck, everybody.
Xiu Xiu was born on a dance floor, arriving alone at the club and going home alone from the club.
That night the first Xiu Xiu song, Jennifer Lopez, was recorded. Its line, “is it tough to watch, Friday after Friday!?,” began what Xiu Xiu was going to try to say. The songs would always be about specific events in the personal lives of the band, the people close to them, and about the social and economic politics that effect and deform subjugated life from everywhere in this wobbling, wreck of a solar system.
Over the course of 15 7"s, five EPs, six collaboration albums, and ten full lengths, Xiu Xiu has never shied away from any topic that is honest and meaningful to them. Their songs are about gender dysphoria, suicide, loneliness, going insane, child soldiers, the tsunami in Indonesia, hideous sex, the Sanrio character Pandapple, abortion politics, incest, cats, queer life, being raped by the police and the individual responsibility of U.S. military personnel for the families they murder. Somehow within all of this, cuteness attempts to find a way to embrace death and horrible emotion.
The music is drawn from British post punk and synth pop, modern Western classical, noise and experimental musics, Asian percussion musics, American folk, torch singers, house, techno and 1950s rock n roll.
Starting in isolation in San Jose, California in 2002, Xiu Xiu has relentlessly toured all over the world since. San Jose is a rotten place to be, so relentless touring was a way to get AWAY!
Xiu Xiu have been called “self flagellating”, “harsh”, “brutal”, “shocking” and “perverse” but also “genius”, “brilliant”, “unique”, “imaginative” and “luminous.”
The band is Angela Seo and Jamie Stewart.
Chad Matheny, who Alternative Press described as "a spastic, legally blind, nomadic songwriter whose performances transform venues/living rooms/arts spaces into punk rock micro-raves," has been releasing music under the Emperor X moniker since 1998. His recordings and live shows fuse the punk songwriter tradition of Billy Bragg with the experimental tape loop minimalism of William Basinski, and reveal incurable obsessions with transportation infrastructure, modernist literature, and lo-fi Chicago house tracks. Consequence of Sound called the resulting twelve critically-acclaimed albums and EPs "a radical, challenging, and sometimes baffling discography."
A former chemistry teacher, math tutor, and physics graduate student, Matheny left the academic world and spent the past decade traveling on buses and bullet trains across North America and Europe to perform several hundred concerts in venues ranging from a symphony hall in Portugal to the basement of a garden supply shop in Pittsburgh to a record shop/venue in the shadow of the Old City in Jerusalem. He's shared the stage with luminaries like Laura Stevenson, Sebadoh, Nada Surf, Thurston Moore, Sun Kil Moon, Casiotone for the Painfully Alone, The Hotelier, The Hold Steady, Jeffrey Lewis, and John Vanderslice.
Matheny lives in Berlin, where he helps operate Donau115, a small venue central to the Neukölln neighborhood's booming experimental jazz scene, and volunteers as a music technology instructor for a German NGO focused on supporting young refugees. His reputation as a producer, composer, and sound artist is also growing: an Emperor X song was featured prominently in the 2014 Warner Bros. film Veronica Mars. In 2011 and 2012, a collaborative sound installation work with art photographer Joel Sternfeld appeared throughout Europe in a traveling retrospective exhibition sponsored by Museum Folkswang. He co-produced the Sub Pop album Bits by jangle punk mainstays Oxford Collapse alongside Eric Topalski of Don Caballero. He has also been commissioned to compose video soundtrack music for labor unions and non-profit organizations including Planned Parenthood and SEIU. In addition to his label home of Tiny Engines, he has worked with several American and international labels including Bar/None Records, Burnt Toast Vinyl, Plan-It-X Records, the German/American label The Bomber Jacket and the Portuguese/German/Lithuanian multimedia collective Mouca.