AFI are always being reborn. They were hardcore kids rubbing shoulders with Green Day and Rancid in the grimy early Nineties Bay Area punk scene. Then they were princes of the dark, aestheticized wave of emo that swept the major labels early in the millennium, where they ruled for a time alongside the likes of My Chemical Romance and the Used. More recently, they're mature new wavers, harkening back to 80s icons like Depeche Mode or the Cure.
They've worn a lot of different faces over the span of their 30-year career. But the one constant has been their drive towards evolution; their determination never to bore. It's won them a continued relevance that a lot of bands would kill for — four out of five albums hit the Billboard Top 10 between 2003's Sing the Sorrow and 2017's AFI, and their passionate fanbase never seems to shrink.
Their 11th album, Bodies, arrives at — hopefully — the twilight of the darkest time many of us have seen. Vaccinations are building; tours are beginning to be announced. Yet still, we've seen, and continue to see, suffering and loss on an enormous scale. It's a queasy combination of light and dark that sets a fitting backdrop for AFI, a band that sit comfortably in duality. Bodies is no exception. Vocalist/lyricist Davey Havok sings of devotion and of betrayal, of inevitable death and passionate life. Musically, it can be pulsing and brooding ("Dulcería," "Back From the Flesh") or spirited and stirring ("Escape From Los Angeles," "Looking Tragic"). Havok's voice is like a snake, coiling around each track and engulfing it.
The band — Havok, guitarist Jade Puget, bassist Hunter Burgan and drummer Adam Carson — have delivered some of their best work here: intriguing, engaging and always possessing their inimitable sense of identity. It's little wonder that their cult of fans is unceasingly willing to follow them from one stop on their journey to the next. Framed by a Zoom window in his Hollywood home, Davey Havok is a very convincing leader of that cult — he's charismatic and articulate, with just a hint of mystery to him. Speaking to Revolver, he delves into his creative process and the band's rich history.
HOW DID THE WRITING PROCESS FOR BODIES BEGIN?
DAVEY HAVOK I believe we began writing for Bodies before AFI embarked upon the Smashing Pumpkins tour in 2019. We wrote for a long while and amassed probably about 60 songs, and culled those down into what we wanted to represent us at the time.
60 SONGS — WHAT MAKES YOU SO PROLIFIC?
We just let inspiration take us. We pursue that direction, and if we're creating something that is underwhelming we stop. That's the process, and we continue to do that on and on and on until at some point we decide to stop. We never really know when that is, but it's usually well after the amount of songs that would fit on a regular length LP.
IT FEELS LIKE EACH NEW AFI ALBUM IS A COMPLETE PROGRESSION. DO YOU TRY TO PUSH YOURSELVES EVERY TIME YOU WRITE AN ALBUM OR IS IT ORGANIC AND NATURAL?
It's both. I think the songs really represent where we are as people at certain points in our life, and where we are emotionally or what we have been listening to for the past two years may or may not affect what comes out of us. But also, we're bored if we create something that is too similar to something we've created in the past. It's not a conscious effort to do something different, but it's an inclination to do something that excites us. In order to create something that we feel is interesting, it has to be new for us.
YOU REALLY TAKE YOUR FANS ALONG ON A JOURNEY WITH YOU. WHAT IS IT THAT HAS KEPT THEM STICKING AROUND, IN SOME CASES FOR 25 OR 30 YEARS?
I've been asked this question a lot over the decades, and what I've come to decide is that it's the honesty in the music. I think they're reacting to what we're reacting to, which is the music. We're putting ourselves into the music, and we're creating something that we're truly passionate about. I think a lot of people, whether it be consciously or subconsciously, recognize that, and can find connection to those elements.
I GET THE FEELING AFI IS A BAND THAT THRIVES PLAYING IN FRONT OF THOSE FANS. HOW HAS IT FELT TO BE IN THIS LIMBO WHERE YOU DON'T KNOW WHEN YOU'RE GONNA GET BACK ONSTAGE AGAIN?
The way we decided to release Bodies, in trickling out this record, was a means of allowing for there to be that connection with the fans, to have that presence there. What was difficult was the decision to do that at a time where the possibility of playing live was unknown; whether or not we would be able to do that, when we would be able to do that. That was emotionally hard for me, being that as you suspected, the creation of the music is a means to perform for me. That's why I started making music, was to have something to perform, and it was a template for the people to know how to act at the show, and what to expect to an extent. So being unable to perform the music as it's released is tough, but I of course knew shows were coming back, and at some point these songs would have their moments onstage.
WHERE WERE YOU DRAWING FROM LYRICALLY ON BODIES?
Any record that we create is a look into my sentiments and my feelings at the time. And that is impacted by culture, and by my relations with individuals or groups of people or the world. That sounds very vague, but it's true.
So Bodies is a representation of where I was as a person when we were writing that, which for me hasn't changed much, because shortly after the record was written life stopped. I take inspiration from living and from experience, and there wasn't much living or experience [during the pandemic]. So it's certainly very poignant at this moment because it was a representation of my last moments in the former world.
HAS YOUR LYRICAL PROCESS CHANGED AS YOU'VE GOTTEN OLDER?
I know that in modern times, I've attempted to be more direct, and to be more singular conceptually. I'm not good at that. I think it's because I so naturally hope that people are allowed to take what they need from the song, and I oftentimes have multiple intentions with one song. But I have in modern times attempted to be more direct in hopes that people maybe understand some of what I'm saying, as opposed to nothing. [Laughs] People still say that it's quite arcane and subtle, and that's still satisfying. But that's the only conscious shift that I've ever made, and I started making that shift a few records back.
THE WORD BODIES HAS SUCH A RANGE OF MEANINGS. IT CAN IMPLY SEXUALITY AND OBJECTIFICATION, IT CAN REFER TO DEATH, OR IT CAN BE SOMETHING NURTURING, THE THING THAT KEEPS US ALIVE. WERE YOU INTERESTED IN THAT AMBIGUITY AND DIVERSITY OF MEANING AS THE TITLE OF THE RECORD?
Absolutely. If you absorb the sentiments that are going on there, there are multi-faceted themes within each of the songs and carrying through the record. And of course, that perspective, when you think of bodies, it is evocative. The questions that are asked and the answers that are sought after throughout Bodies really involved the concepts that you've just illustrated.
YOU TEND TO EXPLORE DARKNESS IN YOUR WORK. HAVE YOU FOUND A LOT OF DARKNESS TO PULL FROM IN THE PANDEMIC?
No. I created very little music during the pandemic. As I said, my inspiration comes from interaction and life and participation, and because there was a lack of that, I wasn't really inclined to create. In a world that's struggling to survive, when triage and survival are the focal points, I felt really uninspired to create art. But of course, if we do exist I understand we need something to exist for, which to me is art. Thereby, I slowly grew into feeling the desire to create a little bit more [and] consuming more current art.
But the time that I was in quarantine was spent throwing away a novel that I wrote, doing a little bit of music collaboration, but nothing from a really personal standpoint. Until maybe a month ago, when we started working on [Havok and Puget's side project] Blaqk Audio. It's interesting, as I'm writing these lyrics for Blaqk Audio it seems I've picked up exactly where I left off, being that that was the last point of existence that I had, plus fragments of the existential dilemma that a lot of people were confronted with during the pandemic.
THIS YEAR IS YOUR 30TH ANNIVERSARY AS A BAND. 30 YEARS AGO, IF SOMEONE SHOWED YOU A CRYSTAL BALL OF YOU RELEASING THIS ALBUM, HOW WOULD YOU FEEL?
There's so many things that would be so striking to me. 30 years ago, I would be shocked on all levels. I would be shocked that I was still in a band. 29 years ago, after we decided we were gonna dedicate our lives to being in the band, I wouldn't be surprised that we were still making music and that we had an 11th record — I would just be surprised that so many people cared about it. And I would certainly be surprised that I at some point years ago was able to not only feed myself, but then buy records when I wanted — and we're not gonna get into the record stores disappearing. [Laughs] I mean, the cavernous, vast gaps of generation would be terrifying. But I would be certainly thrilled that I managed to hang on, and that I did what I said I was going to do, which was make music for the rest of my life.
YOU HAD ALREADY BEEN AROUND FOR 12 YEARS WHEN YOU PUT OUT YOUR MAJOR-LABEL DEBUT, SING THE SORROW. DID THAT GIVE YOU MORE PERSPECTIVE THAN YOU THINK YOU WOULD HAVE HAD IF YOU WERE A YOUNGER BAND?
Oh, certainly, yeah. Certainly from what we understood, having huge mainstream success as a young person causes a lot of problems, emotionally. And then the commercial side of it, we did come in knowing this usually doesn't last for everyone, and we got two records of mainstream attention [2003's Sing the Sorrow and 2006's Decemberunderground], which was one more than most people. So we did have that foundation. What was really beneficial to us was that we were really comfortable with who we were, musically speaking, and we really knew who we were as a band and what we wanted to do.
Because of that generation thing, we never really had peers. All of our friends that were part of the community that we came from and we musically and culturally related to, by the time we had had mainstream success 12 years in, had broken up. At that point, I think there were a lot of young people who were having mainstream success, but we didn't know them really.
DID YOU HAVE ANY NEGATIVE FAN BACKLASH, GOING FROM THE PUNK AND HARDCORE SCENE TO A MAJOR LABEL?
No, barely. Because at that point it was so late in history. We signed in 2002. We weren't confronted with any backlash from the fans, 'cause at that point no one cared about that anymore. Once Green Day in '93 had broken punk again to the mainstream, there was that wave of bands, with Samiam and Jawbreaker — I'm naming bands from our neighborhood, from the Bay — people just became used to it, and people really started to recognize, 'I don't really care what label this band is on, I just care if they make music that I like.'
When AFI moved from the local indie to an indie from Southern California that was bigger [Dexter Holland's Nitro Records], that's when we got flak. That's when we suddenly had posters to advertise our record, which we never had. The label made the mistake of sending it to Gilman Street, which was the punk club that we came out of, and some kids there took them and made them into a big dollar sign.
Of course, musically at the time too, the AFI fans were already listening to a band that didn't fit anywhere, that really didn't have a home or a specific genre. They were very open-minded people. I think if we'd been playing hardcore like we were when we were kids, then the hardcore kids would have thought it a little strange. But still, in 2003, I don't think so. Culture just changed.
DO YOU THINK THAT IF YOU WERE STARTING OUT TODAY, YOU STILL WOULD HAVE BEEN ABLE TO HAVE THE CAREER AND THE LEGACY THAT YOU HAVE HAD?
I have no fucking idea how music works now. At this point, I don't know if anyone can answer that question. I think about this a lot, that technological divide, and how it applies to art and music and youth culture, and how it informs people's sense of worth and creativity and direction.
If I were 15 years old when I started AFI today, I have no idea what type of music I would make. I can't imagine it would be punk or hardcore, 'cause I just don't know how a 15-year-old gets exposed to that or what relevance it would have to a 15-year-old in 2021. I mean, guitars are a very foreign element, and most music today is electronic based, by way of how easy it is to make that at home. And the way that music is consumed and the way that it's filtered or not filtered, as far as it reaching people, is so undefined and so varied. I just don't know. I don't know if any artist will have that long a career. So, no idea. I would hope so.