Three decades in, and AFI are more fearless, bold and evolved than ever before.
Words: Steven Loftin.
There’s something hauntingly organic about AFI’s eleventh album ‘Bodies’. Maybe it’s the artwork featuring syncopating naked outlines stacked neatly around each other. Or it could be the natural, albeit seemingly vampiric evolution the band have undertaken across their three active decades. But most likely, it’s the devotion that shimmers throughout everything AFI touch, a guiding beacon for these dark days.
The band have always explored yearning, harnessing its unfiltered feelings, that deep sensibility of seeking something grand. It’s seeped into ‘Bodies’ like the underwater tentacles of a mythical Kraken, and for good reason.
“To me, art is life,” vocalist Davey Havok declares, his fondness for making grand statements shining through. “The elevation, and the reflection, and the beauty of art, be it literature, poetry, design, film, fine art – that’s what makes life worth living. That is the human connection.”
AFI want to be a part of that majesty; it’s what they’ve striven for over the years and look set to take to the next level on ‘Bodies’.
“That’s a really strong way of looking at the core elements of what’s driving the songs,” he continues. “Because we do look for that connection and we do long to have faith in something or someone. But conversely, we recognise that everything is changing; everything is fluid, so to find faith in inconsistency is a difficult thing. To find comfort in a constant is a dangerous thing. Nothing is constant.”
What ‘Bodies’ offers is a dissection of those values. Featuring declarations of “Love! Show me how it’s done!” hollered by Davey on ‘On Your Back’, or “I’d give my heart to you if I could” on ‘Far Too Near’, even the touches of lust fall commanding on ‘Bodies’ with ‘Dulceria’ (“I love you more, here on the floor”).
“If you’re noting a point of devotion, it’s to honesty, and for hope, for connection. You hear the sentiment of connection and disconnection,” Davey considers. “That yearning that runs through so much of the music, and the lyrics thematically – I think that’s a good perspective.”
One thing not present is fear. Three decades in – with no line-up changes for two of them – and not only are AFI sounding fresher than the day they kicked their way out of their practice room, they’re embracing the challenges that come with being a band in 2021.
“Fear doesn’t come into play,” the enigmatic frontman confirms after chewing on the question. It would be understandable if it did, but this is someone who flourishes in wanting to understand the world. The sun pours into his room at home in LA, a direct – if metaphorical – contrast to everything AFI have encompassed in the darkness. Being able to move from the shadows is a crucial part of growing. Nothing is forever, after all.
“I would strongly agree,” Davey affirms. He’s a keen endorser of meditation and shedding unnecessary distractions. “It’s a very healthy way to live if you can manage to step away from all of the stimulus and all the input; to be able to live day by day and in the moment, if you will. That’s all there is. The past is gone. To savour the moment is very helpful, but it’s not easy to do because we’re always thinking of the past or looking forward. There’s a hedonism to that sentiment that is often derided or diminished. If it’s conscientious and respectful, that awareness of being in the present can also be very elevating.”
It’s AFI’s understanding of this that has ensured their longevity. Since first forming in the early 90s, they’ve evolved from snarling, snot-nosed punks into the kind of band every other wants to grow into. One that accepts their ageing, deftly finding the right moves to form new sounds, but never leaving it all behind in the name of relevancy. It’s something that those who’ve followed from the early days have never failed to notice.
“The people who have stuck with us over the past 30 years have stuck with us for a reason,” Davey considers. “If you look at a decade before, or 20 years before, 30 years before. People longing for those times long gone, generally, if they’re stuck in those moments, they’ve stayed in those moments, and they haven’t come with us.”
Being frozen in time isn’t a fear for AFI, given they continuously strive to move forward. “We’re ever-evolving, ever-changing artistically,” Davey affirms. “Very early on, from our second record, our fans began to recognise that. People would fall off, people would come onboard, and the people who come onboard stay because they recognise and appreciate that evolution. They know that we are ever-changing. That’s really wonderful for us that we don’t feel that tug.”
Being a band for so long means AFI know that trends come and go, and with that, so do fans. “Because of the huge shift in the music industry,” Davey muses, “what we do has gone back to essentially becoming underground.”
Despite the recent success of bands like You Me At Six and Architects scoring Number 1 albums and pioneers like Poppy, Willow and Rina Sawayama experimenting with heavier sounds, rock’s impact on the mainstream has often struggled in recent years. “With AFI or really anything that’s alternative – if it’s guitar-based, and it isn’t traditional, straightforward rock and roll – it’s now underground,” Davey continues. “It’s a niche. To find that music, one has to really search for it. There’s no effort as far as the industry goes because it’s not Dua Lipa, or it’s not The Weeknd – both of whom are great – but it’s just not what they care about. It’s not what’s pop.”
AFI have been through their process of finding, thriving and surviving the mainstream. After barreling through their furious punk 90s, they found success calling at the turn of the millennium with their fifth album, ‘The Art of Drowning’. From here, it was a steady climb, with 2006’s ‘Decemerbunderground’ being the introduction point for many during the heady ‘scene’. Since then, AFI have existed in that sweet spot of consciousness in those that need it, finding their status as a cult favourite more befitting.
“That’s really how it’s always been for us,” Davey suggests. “When I was getting a lot of attention, don’t get me wrong, there was pressure, but that’s always wonderful to have. You know, radio and MTV and press and lots and lots of people interested in what we were doing. Before that, that pressure wasn’t there. And after that, the pressure isn’t there,” he says with a chuckle that’s as defiant as it is at ease.
The generation AFI first spoke to two or three decades ago, when compared to the current one, is completely different. If you were a fan of AFI, those were your stripes. You would be deemed a scene kid or a punk. But now, the field is wide open, and the world is too.
“It’s curious to think of like a 15-year-old kid in 2021 hearing AFI for the first time because whatever their reference points are, they’re so different than mine,” guitarist Jade Puget ruminates. “I just wonder what it would sound like to them and what the images in their head would be?”
Noting that “ten eras of music have come and gone” in their time, Jade doesn’t look one way or another for inspiration for what direction AFI should be heading. “Davey is definitely one to never want to look back and become a legacy band,” he states, mentioning another pitfall AFI have managed to avoid. “Luckily, the four of us have are cohesive about what we like to do. Hunter [Burgan, bassist, backing vocalist and keyboardist] and Adam [Carson, drummer and backing vocalist] have been very accepting of the directions we might go in, so it’s been a blessing.”
Knowing that it’s nigh on impossible to avoid treading old ground, instead Jade tries to keep as close to his truth as possible. After all, there’s a fine line between inspiration and tacitly copying something. “I envied The Beatles,” he explains. “Rock and roll had only been around for 10 years, so there wasn’t much that had been done yet. They had such an amazing canvas to work on, to create stuff that had never been heard before. At this point, it’s like every melody has been done. Unless you’re doing something wildly chaotic or experimental, you’re working with variations of things that people have already created. It’s depressing when you think about it, but you really can’t think about it.”
Creating something exciting is “what’s always driven us,” Davey says. “We love music, and to create a piece of music that moves us in some way is our hope. The music that brought me up means so much to me. It is life.”
No one could accuse AFI of succumbing to the weight of nostalgic expectation. The key strength to ‘Bodies’ lies in its sound – each track constantly evolving, morphing, a hurried representation of everything AFI have been, are, and ever could be.
“The whole thing is weird, but in a good way,” Jade marvels. “I was a little bit trepidatious because I wonder how people are going to receive this record; because if it’s weird to me, it’s gonna be very weird to someone listening to it!”
For every sloping, hook-filled bassline ready for a Bacchanalian dance floor (‘Dulceria’), there’s some forlorn frantic punk energy (‘Far Too Near’). With Jade helming production duties, he and Davey have been writing together for decades now. It’s been a dizzying period, considering many of their peers have succumbed to cliche tropes – and proves AFI are fervently stood against all that.
“Y’know, it’s hard to keep a band together. Creative differences are one of the key factors in breaking apart. I’m incredibly lucky to be in this band,” he nods. “And for Davey and I to write together, because it’s such a rare fit that we have; we’ve been writing songs together for over two decades, and we never argue. I can’t imagine that I could have found someone that I would have had a better writing relationship with.”
“We just do what we love and what inspires us and hope other people like it,” Jade continues. “And, you know, even if no one liked it, if no one wanted to listen, I know that we would still be doing the same thing. We wouldn’t try to change and pander to what was popular. We would be failures in our art, but we’d still be doing the art.”
This time around, though, there’s also someone else helping out. Getting together for a writing session with Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan, it’s the first step someone else has taken into the sacred Davey-Jade realm.
“We’ve never written with anyone outside of the band before,” Jade explains, but after a previous session with the Pumpkins icon “was so fun and creative, I was like, let’s get together with Billy to see what happens.” What happened was ‘Dulceria’, an apparent Frankenstein amalgamation of that session. “I just took everything we’d done, grabbed a part here and part there, and sort of created this song,” Jade explains. “I love it, and it does sound like AFI, but I feel like you can hear a little bit of Billy in there too.”
Indeed, across its sleazy, sordid stickiness, you can hear the flourishes of Billy’s mind. “We just got along,” Jade shrugs. “It’s a weird thing because there’s this creative process that comes from you and one that’s coming from him. You have to meld them together, and for me, it usually doesn’t work. It’s trying to put two puzzle pieces together that don’t fit. But when you find that right person, I can just pick up a guitar or a bass and start playing something, and he starts writing an amazing melody over it. We could just do that all day. That’s how I knew that we had a special songwriting connection.
“I’ve done lots of songwriting sessions before with people, and it’s just so disheartening usually. A lot of the time, if you’re in those sessions, you’re forcing it. You want to have a song by the end of the day. It’s not really about whether the song is amazing. It’s just like ‘let’s bang out some music’, and that’s not my process. It’s rare for me to write with someone where I feel like we’re on the same page.”
Another bold move, and the rounding off of this ‘Bodies’ chapter, is the rapture-filled ‘Tied To A Tree’. A hauntingly grandiose statement building upon its aggressively barren landscape, it crashes in, tugging at every repressed emotion. Its impact is so powerful that on a recent video shoot for the track, Jade recalls: “It was super atmospheric. People were becoming emotional in the crew. People that are not AFI fans had to leave the soundstage to cry. I’ve never experienced that. It was just something about that song and the sinister nature of it. It was affecting people in this way that I’ve never seen before.”
Part of what keeps the heart of AFI beating comes from keeping their finger on the pulse of what’s going on, what’s connecting. While not directly searching for inspiration in younger artists, Davey lists the names of bands straight from a Spotify Fresh Finds playlist, as well as his stone-cold favourites. “Yeah, I do spend a lot of time listening to music that I’ve listened to for the majority of my life,” he smiles, a nostalgic twinkle in his eye. “Whether it be Echo and the Bunnymen, or Nick Cave, or The Cure or Joy Division, New Order, or The Gun Club – I’m just listing a bunch of artists that I’ve been listening to lately!” he laughs. “I do go back to them because those artists have such worth and such value to me. In a way, I feel like I have a connection to them. It’s like sitting down with an old friend, and it does bring me that sense of comfort and connection, especially at a time when there’s been such a cultural shift. To know that many of them are still out there creating. It’s very comforting,”
On this point, AFI understand that, yes, for some, they’ll be a nostalgic act to be forever Blu-tacked upon a bedroom wall. But for others who are only just digging into the expansive world AFI have to offer, they have even more to provide. ‘Bodies’ is the next flag in the ground for those people to migrate to, especially now culture is shifting into that familiar dark and gothic setting once more.
“Man, we’re old!” Jade laughs at the world coming back round to where AFI originally were twenty years ago. “But, y’know, everything’s cyclical, and I kind of hoped at some point that rock and guitars would come back in some form. Hopefully, someday in the near future, what we do will dovetail with what people want to hear again. Maybe we’ll stick around long enough to be that band again, who knows?”
AFI’s album ‘Bodies’ is out now.