Flame Still Burns
“I was surprised to realize that it’s fall. It’s fall, right? Mid-September is fall, right?” AFI frontman Davey Havok asks. It’s true we’re in L.A., where the only way to know summer has ended is by post-awards shows chatter and the number of gifting suites. But even if AFI were being pelted with snowballs thrown by Frosty himself, Havok would have no clue what time of year it was. “You get very involved in writing and recording a record, and it really makes you lose track of everything,” he says.
Havok’s confusion is understandable. The entire band has been in the midst of a time vacuum for more than a year, writing and recording Crash Love, the album faced with the ominous prospect of following their breakthrough effort, Decemberunderground. Though the Ukiah, CA, band formed back in 1991, and released their first album in 1995, it wasn’t until 2006 that they released the hit single “Miss Murder,” which propelled Decemberunderground to a number one debut on the Billboard Top 200.
So 15 years after forming, AFI finally hit the top of the charts. Now they just have to do it again. No pressure. “We do what we’ve always done, and we’ve made music for ourselves first,” drummer Adam Carson says as he and Havok sit in the restaurant of a trendy Sunset Strip hotel. “That’s really the litmus test. If it does something for us, if it excites us, if it moves us, if it makes us feel something, then we can present it to the world. And hopefully it gets the reaction. And if it doesn’t, fuck it—at least we like it.”
Crash Love is getting the desired response from critics, earning them some of the best reviews of their career. And it’s easy to see why. Whether it’s the heavy rock of the anthem-like “Beautiful Thieves,” the catchy-as-hell infectious pop of “Veronica Sawyer Smokes,” the fast-paced no-bullshit rock of the first single, “Medicate,” the Adam and the Ants meets garage pop of “Too Shy to Scream,” or the tension-filled midtempo ballad “Okay, I Feel Better Now”—a song that explodes into its pulsating chorus—Crash Love finds the group showing off its growing versatility and maturity.
After a year-plus of writing and recording, the band entered the studio with a huge catalog of songs to choose from. “As we’re working the songs out, some of them we kind of explore and we like where they go, but then eventually they don’t really get there and we sort of drop them,” Carson says. “But sometimes—and usually they’re my favorite songs—they sound great immediately and it’s almost as if everybody in the band already knew what they were supposed to do, and the first time through it just gels.”
So out of the songs on the album, how many fell into the latter category? “I guess you look at those 50 or something songs that we wrote, or 60—generally those 12. A lot of the songs [on the album] have that reaction. Those are the ones, just because they demand attention.”
Havok claims it all began with “Beautiful Thieves.” “[It] was the first song we wrote where Jade and I sat down and it was very clear, with that one, it was the best song for us,” he says. “We had the same experience with ‘Veronica Sawyer Smokes.’ When Jade started playing that jangly guitar part, that melody came to me immediately and it was so natural and it was very different for us, which was very exciting for me. Adam and I definitely had a moment when we were playing ‘Cold Hands’ last night, where we were both looking at each other and thinking, Yeah.”
Glowing reviews are nice, but critics don’t buy records. And for AFI, the relationship with those who pay the band’s bills is something they take very seriously. “There are a lot of tattoos. I’ve seen more AFI tattoos than I’ve seen of any other band tattoo,” Havok says. “Certainly that’s due in part because I’m the singer of said band,” he adds, laughing, “but also because there are so many AFI tattoos. If I was Greg Ginn I might’ve seen more Black Flag tattoos—’cause I’ve seen a lot of Black Flag—but people don’t come up and show me their Black Flag tattoos, they show me their AFI tattoos.”
“I’ve seen so many good ones,” bassist Hunter Burgan adds about AFI-related ink. What are some of his favorites? “I’ve seen a lot of people with full sleeves with different album art,” he says of some of the more creative ones.
Burgan can definitely relate to that fan devotion, as his own ink is a walking tour through his musical history. There’s his favorite, “a twist on a traditional ship on waves—a sea monster taking down a ship,” which honors his childhood band, the Sea Monsters. There are also tattoos for Marvin Gaye, Prince, Minor Threat, and, yes, Black Flag. “It’s stuff that influenced me,” he says, describing the Prince one as a purple rose with the title of the song “I Would Die 4 U” in its original album font. Likewise, he has the name of Gaye’s seminal What’s Going On in that album’s font.
Havok, who got his first tattoo on his 18th birthday in San Francisco, has everything from sleeves with Halloween and Nightmare Before Christmas themes to black wings on his back and a 9 Lives tribute he got with fellow AFI guitarist Jade Puget and Tiger Army’s Nick 13. These days, Havok isn’t crazy about discussing his tattoos; site guidelines for Despair Faction, the group’s official fan club, forbid inquiring about band members’ tattoos, along with discussion of “the group’s names, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, marital status, or family information.”
It’s part of the begrudging relationship the group has with technology. Type “Crash Love” into any search engine and you’ll find a thousand sites with complete lyrics to the new album. It’s a convenience that Havok doesn’t believe in. “It makes you lazier, and I feel that laziness also detracts from the value of what you find. Also, I think the accessibility detracts from the value of what you find,” he says. “When you’ve had to sit down and listen to lyrics and you had to write them down, you’re memorizing them as you’re writing them down. You’re learning those lyrics, you’re paying attention to those lyrics.”
AFI fans are instead spending time learning the band’s songs on Rock Band and Guitar Hero. Havok agrees with Jimmy Page’s contention that the games are not actually teaching kids to play instruments, but he does see some good in them. “I understand and I completely appreciate what Jimmy was saying. Yes, it’s a shame that kids, rather than picking up a guitar and learning to play guitar for eight hours a day, are playing a video game,” he says. “However, if that same kid weren’t playing that same game he wouldn’t be listening to rock ‘n’ roll at all. The youth that’s playing those games don’t listen to rock ‘n’ roll, and they’re not buying the Guitar Hero video game ’cause AC/DC is on it. They heard of AC/DC because it was on the guitar video game that they were playing.”
“It’ll be interesting to see if, in the future, kids who grow up playing Rock Band go on to form their own bands and actually play real guitar. All their songs would obviously be the five notes and a lot of whammy bar, ’cause that’s how they learned to play guitar—like, no chords or anything, just five individual notes and lots of whammy,” Carson says.
For Havok, the switch from music to video games is symptomatic of greater issues. “Unfortunately there are a lot of awful things that are sad right now that are not going to change, and they’re not going back to the way things were,” he says. “I wish people couldn’t contact me 24 hours a day on my cell phone, but that’s not gonna change, and I would have to be a recluse and step out of modern life to not take part in it. To simply do something like, ‘Guess what, fuck computers, fuck this, fuck my phone, I am not gonna be available via e-mail or cell phone just like I wasn’t when I started this band’—everything would stop. Because life has changed, we’re faster now. When I started this band I didn’t have a cell phone. There weren’t cell phones and there wasn’t Internet.”
“So are you apologizing right now for not having a cell phone for five years after everything started? Because that fucking sucked, man,” Carson says as this Oprah moment unfolds.
“I’m not apologizing ’cause I tried—I put up a good fight,” Havok replies.
“I apologize to you and you only.”
The era before mass communication isn’t the only time period that Havok seems to long for. His over-glammed presence is an homage to the age of the mega rock star, an era dominated by rock gods, from Robert Plant and David Bowie to Mick Jagger and Steven Tyler. As music has become secondary to video games and the Internet, Havok questions whether the possibility of true rock stardom still exists. “Rock stardom is a thing of the past. It’s over, it’s sad,” he says.
What is a rock star to Havok? “It’s someone who plays rock,” he says, laughing. “First of all, if you’re going to be a rock star, you play rock. You may be a pop star, you may be a country star, but you’re not a rock star. And that doesn’t mean you don’t do something valuable. I think both Gwen Stefani and Pink are great artists, but they’re not rock stars. They are pop stars, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But there won’t be the bigwig worldwide takeover of a rock ‘n’ roll star like that because there isn’t an interest in rock anymore, in that way.”
Despite his devotion, Havok has no plans to start a campaign for saving rock ‘n’ roll. “We’ve never, ever been interested in convincing people to respond to our music. We’ve always been interested in making music that is honest, that we’re inspired by, that we enjoy, and we hope it touches people. We’re very lucky that we’ve come this far and we’ve had such a positive reaction of people appreciating what we do throughout all our artistic growth and changes,” Havok says. “I feel on some perhaps primal level, at the very least they’re responding to the truth in what we do. Whether or not it’s a conscious or subconscious thing—whether it’s ‘I really like that melody,’ or ‘I really like those words,’ or ‘Those guys fucking mean it’—somewhere in there, I think there’s something that’s allowed us to touch people continuously. So to answer your question, we don’t try—we just hope.”