Although AFI, or A Fire Inside, formed while singer Davey Havok and long-departed members Mark Stopholese and Vic Chalker were still in high school, and although the first two albums that the band recorded (1995’s Answer That and Stay Fashionable and the following year’s Very Proud of Ya) are certainly efforts to be proud of, the sound of AFI that we know today really started to take shape in ’97, with the Shut Your Mouth and Open Your Eyes record.
That happens to coincide with the time when bassist Hunter Burgan joined the band, which might be partly coincidental, but it’s still key. Havok has long professed his love for gothic bands like Bauhaus, and that obviously had a big impact when shaping the dark AFI goth-punk noise. But Burgan’s desire to keep pushing the boundaries, to soak in as many influences as possible, including ’80s R&B, has been huge.
“I feel like when I joined the band, we were just kids,” Burgan says. “They had two albums and had done a bunch of touring, but we were still trying to define what our sound was, what we were trying to do. It was still a little bit in flux. It took a while for us to unify, I guess. From that point, it’s been us trying to create music that we like. That, of course, changes from year to year and album to album. It’s weird to look back and think that twenty years has gone by. It’s surreal. We’ve accomplished so much and yet still want to do so much more.”
AFI is a band that famously likes to keep looking forward. In January this year, the band released its tenth studio album, called simply AFI. True to form, the bandmembers are delighted to have some new material to pull from when on tour. That said, unless a band plays songs exclusively from the new album, it is forced to at least play the nostalgia game a little bit by dipping into the back catalogue. For AFI, this can be challenging, but Burgan is pragmatic, and the band gets inventive.
“On this album cycle in particular, we started doing something we’ve never really done before, which is going back to play rare songs that we’ve never played before, or songs that we didn’t really play too much,” he says. “In doing so, we were able to play songs that we haven’t played to death. It’s actually been a lot of fun. I mean, there are songs that we’ve played hundreds of times, that it’s hard to get excited about when we’re playing them. We do our best. If we’re playing in front of a great crowd, it doesn’t matter what we’re playing — we’re having fun. But when we pull out these rare old songs, to me they’re just as much fun as playing the new songs that we’ve only played a handful of times. It’s sort of like playing a set of all new songs, and it’s been so much fun.”
Oftentimes, when a band self-titles an album deep into its career, it’s because there’s a level of reinvention going on — perhaps a new start. Burgan says that in this case, the members were simply taking stock with their tenth album and allowing themselves to look back a little more than they normally do. The fact that people seem to be enjoying the record doesn’t hurt, but then, after two decades working together, these guys know what they’re doing.
“We know what we need to do,” Burgan says. “It’s not like we have an AFI standard template, but we’ve been playing together for so long that we know what needs to happen. But then there are definitely some challenges. I remember being in the studio toward the end of my bass parts and having to come up with a brand-new bass line for a song, and I just wasn’t happy with what I had been doing up to that point. It just wasn’t as exciting as it could have been. Song-to-song, it’s all over the place.”
Burgan was in a band called the Force prior to joining AFI. Later, he played with projects and groups as diverse as Tegan & Sara, the R&B side project Hunter’s Revenge, and Matt Skiba & the Sekrets. Inevitably, those different styles find their way into Burgan’s playing when he's with AFI.
“Everything that I listen to finds its way into what I play in one way or another,” he says. “I think my sense of rhythm and my sense of movement is largely created by a lot of earlier soul and R&B that I listen to. Not just the ’80s stuff, but even going back to Motown, Stax — I get a lot of inspiration from that. It’s not conscious — I don’t try to put that kind of a thing into a song. It’s just my mental approach to a song. What I think sounds good happens to be stuff that has a little bit of added funk in there.”
The bassist says that he has always had a good time when playing in Colorado, whether that be in Denver or anywhere else. Still, Red Rocks holds a special place in his heart.
“Strangely, my very first time playing in Colorado was a show at Red Rocks,” he says. “It was my first tour with AFI. We were on tour with the Offspring and L7, and they were playing a radio show there, and somehow we were lucky enough to get thrown onto the bill. It’s a big full-circle for me. I think we’re going to try to do something special with the set list. I’m not sure exactly what just yet, but we’ve been pulling a lot of older and rarer songs out of the bag for this tour, so I think that show will be no exception.”
After the touring is done, Burgan says, the band will be sitting down to start on a new record. And when they finish it, they’re likely to be slightly bored with the material they consider fresh right now. That’s just how they are — real artists focusing on what they’re doing in the moment. It’s what makes their work so exciting.
AFI,with Circa Survive, 7 p.m., Thursday, July 27, Red Rocks Amphitheatre, 18300 West Alameda Parkway, Morrison, 720-865-2494.
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