After 15 years, AFI suddenly finds itself at the summit of rock
If you want to understand the worldview of AFI, consider the name of the band’s official fan club: Despair Faction. For the uninitiated, that’s the first hint that this veteran Bay Area punk band isn’t peddling escapist fun (escapist gloom, maybe). Frontman Davey Havok, an androgynous presence sporting a long mop of brown hair slung over his left ear and arms covered in elaborate tattoos that look like panels from a graphic novel, revels in his own melancholia. On the group’s recently released seventh album, Decemberunderground, Havok contemplates suicide the way some people contemplate espresso with dessert. “Can I make beauty stay if I take my life?” he sings on the hooky hit “Miss Murder,” and he follows it with warm sentiments such as “All my friends and I toast health and suicide,” and “Were you holding hands when my palms bled?”
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The entire album feels like a meditation on death, and if the relentlessly grim imagery makes you want to buy Havok a Wham CD and a sense of humor, it suits the group’s shift from the raw hardcore punk of its early days to the brawny, spit-and-polish, goth-rock of December-underground.
“We wanted to expand our palette of instrumentation,” says Hunter Burgan, AFI’s soft-spoken bassist. “Obviously, we’re going to keep things AFI. We’re not going to let things drift beyond what we represent as a band, but we wanted to see how far we could go in different areas, different arrangements, and different instrumentation.”
Burgan says the band locked itself into the recording studio for nearly nine months while working on the album, and adds, “I’m pretty sure that if you add up all the other times we’ve been in the studio, it would be about nine months.”
The sonic makeover has disturbed some longtime fans who recall the group’s breakneck performances in East Bay punk clubs, but it has resonated with a legion of later converts. Two weeks ago, December-underground debuted at the top of the Billboard album chart with nearly 200,000 copies sold, dethroning the Dixie Chicks in the process. Impressive as the numbers are, it’s the loyalty of the group’s fan base that currently makes them the envy of the rock world. The group’s connection with Despair Faction is so tight that fan-club members contributed backing chants to the recording of “Miss Murder.” And the networking website MySpace.com recently presented AFI with an award in honor of a record-setting 500,000 plays in a single day.
“I think MySpace is one of those things that’s come out of nowhere, and it’s really great for bands of any size because it makes thousands of bands readily available to anybody and it’s sort of the same format,” Burgan says. “So it’s flattering that even in a context like that, that we still have as many people interested in us as we do.”
AFI’s career arc is unique because they’ve achieved stardom a full 15 years after Havok and a high-school soccer teammate, drummer Adam Carson, formed an early incarnation of the band in Ukiah, California. After college commitments forced them to disband in 1993, they played a rapturously received reunion show that convinced them to reform the group.
Even in their early DIY days, AFI stood apart from their irreverent skate-punk brethren. Havok’s literary pretensions and moody streak manifested themselves on tracks such as “Clove Smoke Catharsis,” and for years they vacillated between gothic artsiness and callow hardcore. The gradual buildup of the group’s fan base culminated with their major-label leap, 2003’s Sing The Sorrow, and you sense that even the members of AFI wonder how they reached the elite zone they now occupy.
“I don’t know if there’s any one specific factor,” Burgan says. “We have a work ethic that we’ve built over 15 years of just doing what we do, definitely in contrast to flash-in-the-pan bands that come out of nowhere, shoot to the top of the charts, and then disappear. We’re definitely more of a slow-moving, slow-evolving band, and our success has been gradual in that respect.”
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Burgan recalls seeing an early version of the band, featuring Geoff Kresge on bass, in a small Bay Area club in 1994, and says he was so taken with the band that he bought a T-shirt after the gig. “I know that 95 percent of the people in the room had never heard AFI before, but everybody was into it,” he says.
The group’s commercial coronation is being cemented this summer with headlining status on the Vans Warped Tour, a punk mainstay that’s been the most consistently successful traveling festival on the concert circuit over the last decade.
“We’ve been a part of it five times, in some respect,” Burgan says. “I want to guess that probably the reason that it’s been so successful is that they always bring the bands that people want to see. In abundance.”
The summer tour is just the beginning of a long string of dates promoting Decemberunderground. “I don’t anticipate being home more than a couple of days between now and a year from now,” Burgan says. “It can be hard at times, but it’s what we love to do, so it’s a trade-off. Between recording and writing, I’ve been home for the better part of a couple of years. So I’ve been aching to get on the road and play shows. But I’m sure if I talked to you a year from now, it’d be the opposite.”