Darkness fuels AFI’s finest
Tough out the inevitable dark periods of life and you just might be rewarded with something positive, as has certainly proven true for Southern California’s AFI. The anthemic alt-punks have never been accused of walking on the sunny side during their near-quarter-century run, which is to be expected when records have had titles like Black Sails in the Sunset, Sing the Sorrow, and Decemberunderground. Judging by the back story of AFI’s just-released Burials, however, things hit new levels of despair.
While he’s been reluctant to reveal actual details, singer Davey Havok has stated that bleak times definitely fuelled the band’s songwriting this time out, the frontman having waged an extended war with some personal and very persistent demons. His official statement on the matter goes something like this: “This record is of silence, and the burials that result from that silence. It’s of betrayal, cruelty, weakness, anxiety, panic—deep and slow—despair, injury, and loss.”
Despite all the misery and anguish that went into the process, AFI is seeing early benefits from Burials. Guitarist Jade Puget—Havok’s long-time writing partner in the band—started noticing something at the shows leading up to the album’s release last week. He argues that AFI (which includes drummer Adam Carson and bassist Hunter Burgan) has been playing some of the best gigs of its career.
“Things have been awesome compared to the shows for the last album we put out [2009’s Crash Love],” the guitarist says, speaking from his Los Angeles home the day after a San Diego show. “From my perspective, things have been amazing, way better than last time. At this point, you kind of think the shows are going to be the same as past tours, but for whatever reason the response really has been incredible, which is totally gratifying.”
While he has no definitive explanation for what AFI is doing differently, he’s willing to take a stab at one.
“It wasn’t like the shows were bad,” he offers. “It’s more that they weren’t as good as these ones. Maybe that had something to do with the tone of that last record being a little less dark—Burials is definitely a more intense record.”
That statement is reinforced right off the top of AFI’s ninth studio album, which gets off to a heavier-than-Danzig start with “The Sinking Night”. The group subsequently proves nothing but ambitious, loading the tribal rocker “I Hope You Suffer” with walls of synths and a children-of-the-damned choir, and proving postpunk can be weirdly uplifting with the delicate “A Deep Slow Panic”. If the Pixies had grown up next to a graveyard they might have written “Heart Stops”, while an industrial telltale heart beats at the core of “The Conductor”.
Ultimately, Burials is an epic addition to AFI’s impressive canon, the album reinforcing the adage that angst is good for something other than sales of liquor, shotguns, and razorblades. Puget confirms that Havok was indeed in a cancerous place. As one of the singer’s closest friends, the guitarist realized all he could do was help channel the troubles into something good, ensuring that something positive came out of the ordeal.
“The cliché is that pain and suffering in life lends itself to art,” Puget says. “We’ve never really had that cliché actually lead to us writing a record. This was the first time, which is kind of interesting considering that we’ve always sort of written dark music.”
The relationship between the two, he suggests, long ago transcended simply being in a band together.
“We’ve been friends for over 20 years now,” he says. “And we’ve been a songwriting duo for 15 years. At this point, we are friends above all. I was probably the person that he saw the most during that whole period of his life. I think this whole record was really cathartic for him. To be able to have an outlet for things was really valuable.”
Burials would strengthen the connection between AFI’s creative team. Puget notes that it’s gratifying to be in a band that isn’t content to stay in one place. Right from when the guitarist joined the group in the late ’90s, the mission has been to evolve, to the point where Burials bears no resemblance to the songs of the hardcore-punk crew responsible for early thrashy three-chord jokes like “Cereal Wars”. If one thing has remained constant, it’s that AFI doesn’t have time for living in the past, making it easy to agree on moving forward.
“In 15 years of working together, we’ve never really argued,” Puget says. “We’ll spend a year writing a record together, and not have a single argument, which is crazy when you are working on music. Music really brings out the very competitive, bitter, and petty side of a lot of people, which is why a lot of bands break up. For us, it’s almost harmonious.”
Even, evidently, during the darkest of times.