A look back on AJJ’s ‘People Who Can Eat People…’ for its 15th anniversary

Alexander Rudenshiold plays in Infant Island and Mattachine, the former of whom have a tour with Liturgy this December. Here, he reflects on AJJ's classic 2007 album 'People Who Can Eat People Are the Luckiest People in the World' for its 15th anniversary.

Folk punk has made an unintentional re-entry into my life recently. I recently moved to the city of Irvine in Orange County, California from the ever-less rural Virginia exurbs of Washington D.C. Living in subsidized housing for graduate student workers, which still costs double my rent back east, whenever I venture beyond the campus of the University of California it becomes painfully obvious just how expensive this place is to live. The meticulously planned outdoor malls and Mediterranean-inspired suburban dwellings, managed by the wealth hoard of the Irvine Company, are starkly different from the rest of this county. No strip malls, no hole-in-the-wall working class eateries, no art spaces. It’s a sort of technocratic capitalist utopian project realized: free of affordable culture and making invisible nearly all class conflict – this is likely why it ranks highly on lists of the most desirable cities to live in the United States. So, when I walked into a local upscale coffee roastery, of which there are many in OC, to pick up a computer monitor from a Facebook Marketplace listing, I was startled to hear “People II: the Reckoning,” the first song from AJJ, née Andrew Jackson Jihad’s, 2007 album People Who Can Eat People Are the Luckiest People In the World. After my initial surprise, I had to laugh.

Just a few weeks earlier, I think I would have just left the interaction at that. In preparation for driving across the country, however, I synced all of the mp3s from my high school iTunes library onto my phone with the intention of shuffling the whole thing and having a laugh at my past-self. The strange thing which happened though, was that the little equation which governs Apple’s long standing shuffle feature favored all the folk punk I hadn’t thought about in almost a decade now. Along with AJJ – Pat the Bunny (multiple projects of his are listed here), Ramshackle Glory, Wingnut Dishwashers Union, Defiance Ohio, Emperor X, and others seemed to dominate the queue. Sure, some of it is hard to listen to in 2022, be it the low fidelity aesthetic (or reality) of some recordings, the immature or dated lyrics which my adult-self cringes at, or the political naivete that (I feel) undergirds much of the folk punk from the '00s. Despite all this, I couldn’t help but feel emotional about the whole experience. These songs were partially responsible for my own political awakening, as well as that for many others, and many of the more venerated names among them, like those listed above, continue to be genuinely good. So, when I heard “People II” in the coffee shop, freshly moved to a place which so epitomizes the opposite of what folk punk then stood for, I was primed for it. I couldn’t get the image out of my head. I couldn’t help but think about the contradiction of the whole thing. That these heartfelt, cynical, and vulgar songs about class struggle and anarchism had been subsumed into the specialty coffee-shop playlist zeitgeist, curated for maximizing productivity and bohemian aesthetics.

Of course if it were to happen to any of these groups, it would happen to AJJ. Started in Arizona in 2004, they are likely the most well known of this crop of folk-punk bands. People Who Can Eat People… in particular remains a touchstone piece of that time in folk-punk, yes, but in ‘DIY culture’ at large. Released on September 11th, 2007 – a sort of joke in itself – People is characteristic of the kind of anger which was bubbling under the surface of American youth culture right before the 2008 financial collapse. As the war in the Middle East dragged on, and the contradictions of capitalism and imperialism which weren’t yet quite as acceptable to talk about openly or in such plain terms became clearer, AJJ and their contemporaries spoke at the time in broad strokes to the issues which would soon permanently scar the development of an entire generation. The timing of People was important too, growing from the late years of the Dubya presidency, but not pacified yet by the “hopey changey” (in case you thought Trump stood alone in the sphere of political entertainment) mainstream optimism of Obama’s early years. Folk-punk spoke to a youth which didn’t see things getting better at the time, and for whom things to this day largely still haven’t. People’s often-confessional and mostly-sardonic approach to left-anarchist politics (see: the title taken from Vonnegut’s Hocus Pocus) and society-at-large was angry, but brimming with empathy. It validated the feelings of the young and lower-class, while offering them a sort of philosophical hope for, again, survival.

“Any form of government, not just Capitalism, is whatever people who have all our money, drunk or sober, sane or insane, decide to do today.” – Eugene Debs Hartke in Kurt Vonnegut, Hocus Pocus

The inclusion of broad philosophical prescriptives is a running theme for AJJ, even titling their 2016 album The Bible 2. Though the non-specific direction People offers I think shares more in common with religious text than the band’s other work. At times structured like a sort of stand up special, tracks like “Survival Song” and “People II” offer a bleak outlook on the realities of living in society as it was, and is:

“And I gave my money to the bank for safe keeping
And I gave my money to my landlord, he was needing it[…]
And that's how I learned how to survive” – “Survival Song”

These are quickly followed up by songs which offer concrete actions that individuals should take to improve the wellbeing of themselves, and others. “Personal Space Invader” chronicles the reasons not to do coke, and then begs the listener to be kind to their fellow man, echoing the sort of language you’d expect from libertarian-socialist political philosophy texts…with ‘fucking’ thrown in for good measure. “No More Tears,” too, is a short song which offers the grand utopian vision of “No more tears; no more cryin,' no more sighin', lyin', or dyin.'” – among other things. It’s a perfect example of why this album, and the folk-punk movement at the time, stuck. On People, AJJ simplifies the goals of left-anarchism into unpretentious, bite-sized chunks which are broadly applicable, easily digested, and make common sense. There’s no arguing with “No More Tears.” How could you?

That lack of pretense which makes most of this era of folk-punk so different from other notable folk, punk, and left media coming out at the time, is clear here too. The DIT ethos of the time resulted in lo-fi aesthetics, but frequently high quality output. Despite the band’s core membership of four, People has no fewer than 10 musicians playing on it, all of whom have their moment in the sun on the record. AJJ at this time continued in the tradition of older leftist folk artists like The Weavers and Woody Guthrie (who is explicitly referenced on “Survival Song”), frequently injecting catchy sing-along refrains in their songs. These moments, combined with the imperfection of performances make People feel intimate and participatory – not gatekept.

What differentiated this species of punk too, in retrospect, was its compassion. Not to say that opining over revolutionary violence in lyrics is wrong or in poor taste; I’m a fan (and so now it seems is AJJ), but it does grow tiresome. AJJ and others at this time were willing to care for people, past faults and all. A relic of a time before the 2010s’ resurgence of explicit neo-fascist violence, but also a powerful manifesto for restorative justice and rehabilitation. “People,” the final track on People Who Can Eat People, conspicuously coming after “People II,” is the emotional climax of the album for me. Vocalist Sean Bonette lists the sins of people, but reiterates his love of humanity and the humanity of people:

“People are my religion because I believe in them
People are my enemies and people are my friends
I have faith in my fellow man
And I only hope that he has faith in me.” – “People”

Through all the cynicism and all the jokes, that fundamental belief in humanity shines through. This philosophy of 21st century left-optimism and irreverence, albeit less anarchist, is continued today in most of the popular “dirtbag” left culture galvanized years later in other media formats: podcasts, video content, etc. Folk-punk in its rough-and-tumble '00s form feels like a distant memory though. The lulling effect of liberalism in the Obama-era combined with the failure of actions like Occupy Wall Street seemed to take the wind out of the movement’s sails. Artists understandably pivoted to more sustainable sounds. And after the 2017 cancellation of prominent folk-punk musician and label-owner Chris Calvin, Plan-It-X records -- which had housed much of the scene at one point or another -- closed up shop. In all this, AJJ had maintained a lot of their political bonafides, but put more production polish on the operation – releasing 2014’s Christmas Island and 2016’s The Bible 2 to a wider, more indie-rock audience and touring alongside Against Me! and other larger groups.

These sort of top-level shifts led to what can only be described as a listener-level “emo-ing” of folk-punk, the disavowal of the genre by many listeners as juvenile and silly. And while maybe there was a veneer of these characteristics on the top of People and its contemporaries, these aren’t works which were made for the meme. The glibness of AJJ then was an indictment of what was becoming clear at the time, and has only become clearer since, that the callousness and exploitation wrought upon the earth and its people by global capitalism is unsustainable.

On listening today, People feels even more essential than it did when I first heard it. For those of us who live in environments and communities in which change seems totally impossible (probably most people reading this), People is a reminder that people themselves are cause for hope. Hearing “People II” at the coffee shop isn’t cringe, it’s a sign that someone working there wants a better world too. Through the jokes and side-eyes, People Who Can Eat People Are the Luckiest People In the World asks us all to relish our humanity, and to treat others with kindness – and, however subversive and trendy it is to say so, there’s nothing childish about that.