Fire in the Hole
The glamorous if shortsighted image of substance-fueled musicians in the throes of debauchery, burning out long before their time, will probably never be fully extinguished. The corpse of Layne Staley and the doddering figure of Ozzy Osbourne bleating out a helpless "Shaa-ron!" notwithstanding, there's something almost comforting in that notion. As you're bashing the snooze button for the third time, dreading another day of work, you imagine that an artist you admire is still awake somewhere, swilling Cristal and snorting coke off a thousand-dollar-a-night hooker's breasts.
That's not the way it works for the SoCal goth punks in AFI, however. In fact, it's quite the opposite in the case of bassist Hunter.
"I don't call myself 'straight-edge,'" Hunter says from a hotel in London following the drive back from Paris on the band's first headlining tour of the Continent. "Although I technically qualify for the straight-edge label, I don't personally claim it, just in case. If, for some reason later on, I want to shoot myself full of heroin, I won't be a hypocrite," he says, laughing. "No, it was never part of my culture growing up to claim straight-edge; it was just the way that I was.
"To a degree, we've sort of lived outside of that," he adds. "As much as people want to draw those associations, it doesn't necessarily have to go hand in hand."
On the wind that blows in from the Bermuda Triangle demarcated by the likes of Hüsker Dü, Bauhaus and Fugazi comes the black hurricane known as AFI (short for A Fire Inside). For their ilk, they of the sleeve tattoos and eyeliner, the stringy black goth hair and the doom-filled lyrics, one could easily assume that heavy drug use would be the norm. Instead, the act's members -- Hunter, singer Davey Havok, guitarist Jade Puget and drummer Adam Carson -- channel their energy into a form of music that sprang from the straightforward SoCal punk sound but lately has taken on a more ambitious feel bordering on anthemic art rock.
The Ukiah, California-based four-piece began humbly, with early straightahead hardcore records like the 1996 debut Very Proud of Ya and 1997's Answer That and Stay Fashionable, which contains such fan favorites as "I Wanna Get a Mohawk (But Mom Won't Let Me)." In 1997, after a reconfiguration that saw the group's original guitarist and bass player depart in favor of the current lineup, AFI went to work on Black Sails in the Sunset, which showcased the potential for stepping further outside of the confines of hardcore. Following its fifth record on Dexter Holland's [Offspring] Nitro label, 2000's Art of Drowning, the act signed with DreamWorks. Though its musical heredity is firmly rooted in the broken asphalt and bloody noses of Cali punk, AFI has carved out a genre all its own by yanking a tried-and-true genre out of the rut that bands like Offspring, Bad Religion and Sum 41 have found so exploitable, safe...and lucrative. With its first major-label release, Sing the Sorrow, released this past March, AFI is churning the waters once again, succeeding in taking its sound to another place.
"I think with each album, at the time that we write and record the songs, it's sort of a snapshot of where we are with our influences and what we're into," Hunter says. "Each of the four of us are influenced by completely different things; it's not like we're four guys that just listen to NOFX and so we play that kind of music. We're all completely coming from different places, and each time we write and record an album, it just shows where we are at that specific moment in time. Hopefully, from album to album, our songwriting matures and our ability to work better with each other progresses."
Indeed, Sing shows maturity in the act's songwriting, fearlessness in crafting actual tunes, and even -- God forbid -- attaching melody onto the comet of the AFI sound. Havok's lyrics and screeching vocals are counterbalanced with smooth breaks in time signatures and tuneful bridges that allow the songs to develop more organically, to grow out of themselves rather than being ripped out of the womb in two-minute fragments. The record's first single, "Girl's Not Grey," borders on pop rock, with the anthemic hook "What follows..." presented like a call to arms. The radio-ready track immediately segues into the hardest song on the disc, "Death of Seasons," so as not to alienate the fan base. Havok delivers his shriek of old over a thumping bass line and rapid-fire drums, but this song, too, quickly emerges into a hook-driven chorus that nicely blends the disparate sounds. While the lyrics are a little overwrought at times (for instance, "Writhing with sickness/Thrown into banality/I decay," from "Death of Seasons"), the words work with the music, especially when Havok tears them from his throat at the expense of his vocal cords.
"I think overall what we came up with was sort of a deeper, larger, more dynamic album than in the past," Hunter says. "Perhaps slightly more cohesive, a little more mature, more accessible, but not in a compromising way. That was really important to us. We had other songs that could have just as easily gone on the album, but it was really important to us that there was a flow to the whole thing, [although] it's not a concept album. A lot of people think it is, and one of the reasons is that we made sure it had a sort of narrative to it."
That cohesiveness may be largely a result of the steady hands involved in the making of the record. One of the advantages of signing with the majors is major-league money - not for the bandmembers themselves, but for making albums that fit AFI's vision as much as possible. With the backing of DreamWorks, AFI was able to spend a luxurious five months recording Sing the Sorrow; according to Hunter, each of the group's previous efforts took about an average of a month to record. But perhaps as important as the extended time the players had to work on recording the songs was the personnel they had on board -- and on the board -- for the session. Legendary producer and Garbage drummer Butch Vig, best known for producing Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins and Sonic Youth throughout the '90s, signed on to work alongside another behind-the-scenes legend: Jerry Finn, of Green Day and Rancid fame.
"That's one of the differences, that they were able to come up with the money to pay these producers," Hunter says. "Of course, we have to pay them back, which is never going to happen -- ever. But it's really only ever a dream [to work with producers of that caliber] on a smaller label. A dream on a smaller label equals a mountain of debt on a major label."
Another difference between working with a big-time label is the marketing muscle a player like DreamWorks can provide. While signing with a major label inevitably draws out hoary cries of "sellout" from certain quarters, there's no way a humble indie label can touch the big guns the major-leaguers have in place for publicity - and for getting a record into as many hands as possible.
"There are many differences, but the most important one to us is distribution," Hunter says. "For the first time, we're actually getting records into foreign markets. I just got off the phone with several Mexican interviewers. They're saying -- in really cool accents, of course -- 'AFI is a new band to us.' Sing the Sorrow is the first album they were able to get. That's how it is in a lot of countries, Europe as well. It's like starting over, but it's really cool, because there's people there who are into us. They know the lyrics, and they're having a really good time. That's what it's all about."
Consequently, an outfit as passionate as AFI is going to draw fans equally as passionate, which is a double-edged sword. The Web is rife with fan sites and bulletin boards overflowing with minutiae on the act. A group that expands and twists its sound as much as AFI does will bring along many rabid fans. However, change is scary, and the band surely turns away many with each subsequent release. To Hunter, it's more important to be true to the sound the musicians hear in their heads than it is to stick with some safe formula.
"Even before I was in AFI, I was in probably a dozen other bands, and I probably wrote a hundred songs with those other bands," he says. "You get to the point where you've written so many songs in a specific style that you have to move on. I don't want to write the same song twice. There's no point to that. As you keep moving on and keep reaching for new places to go, and there's four people doing that, you're going to evolve and change.
"Fortunately for us, the majority of our fans, who have been with us for any number of years, expect that change. If we came up with the same album twice, they would really get on our cases. They embrace that, and I think that's sort of become what the AFI sound is, is an ever-changing sound."
In this case at least, change is indeed good.
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