“We’ve always been a polarizing band,” AFI frontman Davey Havok admits, as he and his bandmates Jade Puget (guitar), Adam Carson (drums), and Hunter Burgan (bass) sit down with Yahoo Music to reflect on AFI’s wide-ranging discography. But Havok recalls a time, right around the release of 2000’s Art of Drowning, when there was a “shift in the male-female ratio” of AFI’s audience. And AFI — who formed in 1991 amid NoCal’s testosterone-soaked punk scene, and issued their early albums on Offspring singer Dexter Holland’s Nitro Records — were absolutely thrilled about that.
“It’s cool when it’s weighted towards the female, because from what I’ve known growing up, ladies always have the best taste in music,” Havok asserts with a grin.
“We used to only play to men,” the famously androgynous Havok continues. “Up until [1997’s] Shut Your Mouth…, we were playing to, like, seven people a night. Two people a night. No people a night. Twenty people a night. Fifty people a night. … Up until Jade and Hunter joined the band, really, the crowds were mostly male. And then more women started showing up, and I would say it remained half and half at least from there out, if not weighted towards the female.”
“If you’re only playing to guys, you’ll only be this size,” adds Puget. “You have to appeal to everyone.”
Of course, as Havok notes, AFI, whose sound has riskily and wildly fluctuated from hardcore punk to synthy darkwave to stomping glam-pop, haven’t always appealed to everyone. And they’re totally OK with that too.
“We’ve been polarizing for different reasons. For one thing, my voice is very polarizing. It sits in this place that either appeals to people or really puts people off. I can understand that,” says Havok, who reveals that he used to hold a rag while recording his vocals to prevent his hands from bleeding. (“I clench when I’m screaming, and for a long period of my life, I had very long nails that were far more fabulous than they are now. Having long nails and clenching that hard will dig holes in your hands.”)
“In addition to that, our sound [in the early days], and what we were inspired by, wasn’t really en vogue in the community we were playing in,” Havok continues. “There were all sorts of different types of alternative music, and punk and hardcore, but not really what we were doing was happening. So we were asking a lot of people to come and enjoy this, because it really wasn’t what was going on.”
Havok recalls with a chuckle when AFI made their first music video, for “He Who Laughs Last” off 1996’s Very Proud of Ya. “We did a free show at Berkeley Square, and it was known that it was a video shoot, and to flier it we offered free pizza and soda. … There were probably 250 people who showed up, with 150 hardcore kids in the front, as can be seen in the video. And in the back were a hundred crust-punks eating free pizza, who hated our band and loved free food.” (“I was one of those,” jokes Puget, who was in a rival Bay Area band at the time.) Havok also remembers when a batch of Very Proud of Ya promo posters was shipped to Berkeley’s fabled punk club Gilman St. “Because we had signed to a larger indie [Nitro] … someone had made a big dollar sign out of it, up on the wall of our posters, because we had ‘sold out.’”
But with their ambition and vision, AFI were always destined for big things beyond Berkeley, even if they started off cohabitating in a squalid squat, with Puget, who officially joined the band in 1998, living in a “clayvit” in Havok’s bedroom. “We called it a clayvit because it was a combination of a closet and a cave,” Puget explains. “I had just graduated college, and I didn’t know what I was going to do. I had no real plans … I didn’t have any money because I was obviously broke. And [the band was] like, ‘If you’re going to be a band member full time, like, you can’t have a job,’ so they got Dexter Holland to send me a thousand dollars. So I got this $1,000 check, and I’d never gotten a check that had like four digits on it. I was like, ‘Oh, my God! This is the rock star life? Thousand-dollar checks just arriving in the mail?’ So I felt like, ‘This is it, a life of leisure! I got this thousand dollars in the bank, I’ll just live indefinitely on that.’ And we really could, because our rent was like $150 a month or something.”
AFI eventually “sold out” even more when they signed to DreamWorks; released their landmark album, the Butch Vig-co-produced Sing the Sorrow; and finally moved out of their squat. (“I moved to a shabby apartment down the street, but it was still my own place. I had my own bathroom, there wasn’t mold, or like rats or cockroaches or anything like that,” says Puget.) But this was a natural, gradual, dues-paying progression, not some overnight success story. “That’s pretty rare — how many bands have their mainstream breakout after 12 years?” says Puget.
Adds Carson: “The scene that we came from, and just our mentalities in general, there was never a fixation on success. We were successful every step of the way, [whether] we were making 500 copies of a 7-inch record, which was wildly exciting, or playing the smallest show in the world, which seemed exciting as well, going on tour. We had this sense of accomplishment and success every step of the way. So when finally some sort of mainstream attention was being directed towards us, it was exciting, but it never really was what we were actively seeking.”
Whether they’d sought it out or not, AFI were in the big leagues now, and that came with its pros and cons. “Up until Sing the Sorrow, we didn’t really have success, so it was easy — there were no expectations on us, and writing all that stuff was very simple and very organic,” says Puget. “And after Sing the Sorrow, it’s like, we gotta follow up this record that went gold — and went platinum later. And we were on Interscope [which had recently purchased DreamWorks] now. Interscope was the biggest label in the world, and we had to deliver something. While we didn’t want to sit there and try to write a hit, because that never works, we felt like, ‘We have to do something great, and we have to do something better than the last record.’”
The recording process for Sing the Sorrow’s follow-up, Decemberunderground, was further proof that AFI were a long way from the humble Nitro days when they’d rehearse in Havok’s parents’ living room and record their albums in less than a week. “We went with [producer] Jerry Finn up to this farm in Northern California to do preproduction. They wanted us to go stay on this shabby farm; it was such a bummer,” laughs Puget.
“Our A&R guy had this fantasy from all the old rock records, of people going to the South of France or going to Jamaica and immersing, just getting away. And we’re not those people,” says Havok.
“Like when [the Rolling Stones] made Exile on Main Street in a chateau in France — that was his idea,” says Puget. “You know, if you were going to put us in a chateau, maybe that would have worked…”
“There was cat hair everywhere,” recalls Carson of the farm.
“And chickens! And spiders,” adds Havok. “I remember when we pulled up, and none of us wanted to do it in the first place. I got lost, and I pulled into a gas station, and there was a chicken at the gas station. Just walking through the gas station. I wanted to turn around and go back home.”
“But we really dug in on that and started honing this off with Jerry. And that’s part of what the songs really started to take shape and actually become a record. And it started being fun instead of just painful,” says Puget.
The result was 2006’s lush and ambitious Decemberunderground. The album spawned the massive alt-rock smash “Miss Murder” (which, incredibly, almost didn’t make the tracklisting; the band still doesn’t think it’s a great song), debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard chart, and eventually went platinum. But it solidified AFI’s reputation as a “Goth punk” band, a tag that had stuck with them since their 1999 release, Black Sails in the Sunset, and that never sat well with the guys.
“I think it was kind of a backhanded insult. Like, ‘Look at these guys, they’re all Gothy, trying to play punk,’” gripes Puget. “So it was an almost derogatory thing. … [That tag] kind of dogged us for, like, 10 years.”
The band’s next release, the more straightforwardly rocking and guitar-centric Crash Love, was a bit of a reaction to Decemberunderground and the whole “Goth punk” thing, but unfortunately, the album was a commercial letdown. “Our goal is always to make records we’re proud of, and as long as we like it, it doesn’t matter how they perform,” says Carson. “But it is kind of disheartening when the week of the album’s release, people come up and wonder, ‘Are you guys making a new record anytime soon?’”
“When Crash Love came out, the single didn’t perform, and MTV was playing even less videos than ever before, with us not included in that,” says Havok. “And so it was great because the fans that did hear it went way out of their way to get it and were really excited about it, but there were far fewer people exposed to Crash Love than the previous album. On the tour, people would come to the record signing and ask why we were in town. We even had two girls in fan club shirts do that.”
“On a larger perspective, I think, though, the band had been on an upward trajectory for 15 straight years, which is something probably very few bands get to experience,” says Puget. “And so, you can’t expect to do that for your entire career.”
Now signed to the Concord Music Group, AFI are on a new career upswing and still making music very much on their own terms, with Puget officially taking over production duties for the first time on the emotive and atmospheric AFI (The Blood Album). “On our last record, Burials, I had started doing a lot of the production ideas before we even hit the studio or hired a producer,” explains Puget. “And so after Burials, it’s kind of like, let’s just cut out the middleman … rather than paying someone 30 grand to come in and do it. I think at this point we’re all capable enough at what we do to go in there and make a record.”
Check out AFI’s full Backspin interview here. For more details and behind-the-scenes anecdotes about the making of each of their 10 albums, from 1995’s Answer That and Stay Fashionable through the just-released AFI (The Blood Album).