Usually, when a college student has an interview, it’s for an internship, or for a job. And this time, I was asking the questions, and yet I was the nervous one. The interview that day this past January was with two men who were more rock and roll as opposed to a law firm. Of the musicians and industry people that I’ve interviewed before, none have intrigued me as A Fire Inside have. AFI are hometown legends who have inspired and influenced beyond the realm of the NorCal punk scene. I grew up with their music, as did many of the kids that I knew.
Like a good rock and roll story, the story of AFI began in Ukiah in 1991, when frontman Davey Havok and his best friend Adam Carson (drummer), founded an inchoate hardcore punk band with Mark Stopholese (guitar) and bassist, Vic Chalker during their high school days. After putting out a few EPs, their first full album came out in 1995, called Answer That and Stay Fashionable. AFI was signed to Offspring frontman Dexter Holland’s indie record label, Nitro Records and Very Proud of Ya followed in 1996. Shut Your Mouth and Open Your Eyes was released in ’97, with Hunter Burgan now on bass. The lineup of AFI as we know it now came in 1998 with Jade Puget joining on guitar, solidifying their distinguishable sound. Screw 32, Tiger Army, Green Day, Rancid, and The Distillers were a handful of the friends that AFI played with. Their passionate shows at 924 Gilman and other intimate venues easily won them an equally passionate fan base.
After more than a decade since the band first came together, 2003 was their well deserved watershed moment with Sing the Sorrow, their major label debut and a platinum album whose “Leaving Song Pt. II” music video (Marc Webb) won them an MTV2 award, not to mention a Grammy nomination for Best Box Set/Limited Edition. Sold out shows and three years later, Decemberunderground, now double platinum, opened at #1 on the Billboard’s Top 200. From that came their instantly recognizable summer hit, “Miss Murder,” which bagged them the MTV award for Best Rock Video, presented by Lou Reed no less. I vividly remember AFI’s last date that tour in October of ’07, as they headlined with The Cure at Download Festival in a homecoming show in Mountain View, CA. It was a dream come true for both fan and band. 2009 brought Crash Love, more changes for the AFI sound, and a tour with their Gilman friends, Green Day. Twenty-two years of poetic lyrics and beautiful music have been a lattice of emotions and a steady, incendiary rise up. Burials, the ninth and latest album released in late October ‘13, has been long-awaited. It is heavy in emotion and honesty, yet different from any of the albums before it, making it a part of AFI’s own continuity.
I was in Nashville, Tennessee where the temperature was 21 °F. It was much warmer on the tour bus. Smith Puget, AFI’s tour manager kindly greeted me and I walked down the aisle to interview them in their small lounge, where I could see Havok’s face peeking out and smiling. I wondered if he was smiling because I looked out of place in Nashville, and so perhaps not who he was expecting. I couldn’t help but smile back. The walk down the bus aisle felt prolonged and yet each anxious step was bringing me closer to them too soon. This was a band I had waited almost eight years to meet, and now my dream of interviewing them was going to be realized in approximately 15 seconds.
We were all Northern Californians in Nashville, which added to the surreality. Somehow, our paths had crossed so that we had eventually been led to this same place at the same time. Havok’s dark hair was slicked back into a headband and was wearing a black zip-up jacket with an asymmetrical collar. He did casual the edgy way. With high cheekbones and a cut glass jaw line, he was handsome in a feline-esque way congruent to the natural grace and charisma he disseminated onstage. Puget was in one of the Joy Division shirts that he was perpetually fond of. The bleach in his famous mullet hawk was gone, but his razor cut was still cool. Hands folded on his lap and looking relaxed and observant, Puget’s placid nature was apparent and helped me relax because those 14 year-old crushes were coming back really fast.
“Hello,” was the first thing I said, returned with (multiple) “Hello” back. I had looked for flowers earlier, but instead had come across something better: vegan cupcakes, knowing their affinity for the treats. We were already off on good footing, judging by their happy, “Oh wow, thank yous!” Vegan cupcakes are always a good way to start an interview.
1. You’ve all relocated from Oakland to LA with the exception of Adam who remains in the Bay Area. What are your likes and dislikes of the two and what do you miss about the Bay?
Davey Havok: I personally didn’t relocate, so you go ahead Jade.
Jade Puget: I miss the weather in Berkeley. LA is just never ending sunshine, and if you like that sort of thing it’s cool. But I need some cloud and fog sometimes. [whispers dramatically] Gotta have the fog. The fog.
Yeah I don’t like the heat too much either. Fog and clouds are pretty conducive to writing, I think.
JP: It is, I agree! You can’t write when it’s fun and sunny and happy outside!
No, you wanna go outside and play.
2. Thoughts about the Bay Area music scene now? I don’t know if you listen to White Fence – fronted by Tim Presley, who was in Nerve Agents, you guys used to play with them. Him and I kinda talked about the change from hardcore and punk to garage and psych going on right now.
JP: Oh I like White Fence. I’ve been listening to them quite a bit lately actually. It’s cool. Very cool shit. We’ve known Tim so long…
JP: Since he was in Model American. But you probably know more about the Bay Area music scene than I would. [turns to Havok] DH: I really don’t know anything about the Bay Area music scene [chuckles]. I mean there’s Soft Moon and Ceremony and … Jade, is there anyone that’s come out of the Bay?
JP: I mean I haven’t lived in the Bay in 10 years almost…
Thee Oh Sees?
DH: Yeah! I know Thee Oh Sees. What’s his name? He has like 70 bands.
DH: Yeah, what did John do before Thee Oh Sees?
Ooh, I forgot the name of it.
DH: I used to play Aaron’s (Soundcheck on Live105) at night … Yeah, I don’t really know what’s going on in the Bay Area.
JP: Good plays though.
DH: I’m sure it is, usually is!
3. What authors and books have you loved over the years? It seems like the tone of your songs can sometimes be literary or influenced by literature.
JP: Around the Sing the Sorrow era, I really loved the 20s and 30s expatriate American writers that lived in Paris around that time. Like the whole Henry Miller crowd and then now I just kinda read a whole variety of stuff.
DH: Yeah, I read fiction and nonfiction – I’m reading Eating Animals right now for the first time. I mean that’s typically the type of nonfiction I read for the most part or I’ll read… . You know, I read John Taylor’s book recently which was really great. As far as fiction goes, as far as everything from Dr. Suess to Oscar Wilde to Bret Easton Ellis. Ray Bradbury. There’s just tons of stuff that I love. Neil Gaiman!
JP: Did you read The Ocean at the End of the Lane?
DH: No … it’s out??
JP: Yeah it’s been out for a while. It’s good.
DH: Yeah he’s such, he’s such an amazing writer.
JP: I recommend the newest one. And American Gods, obviously.
4. Alan Forbes, longtime artistic collaborator with AFI, was attacked last year in the Lower Haight which is shocking, I’ve walked there alone at night. … You guys are selling figurines he designed to raise funds. How did you discover his work in the first place and what about his art has suited the AFI albums they appear in?
DH: Alan and I met because he was a concert poster artist in San Francisco. I was familiar with his work because he did posters for Bauhaus and the Damned. I saw his poster in ’99 for the Bauhaus reunion tour, and then the Damned poster was much earlier. I really liked his work and we became acquainted through that and he said he would be interested in doing art work for us. At that point we started collaborating. The next record that AFI released after our meeting was Black Sails in the Sunset and he started working with us on that, which was great. Alan was always great to work with.
5. Do you collect art, you guys? Who are your favorite artists?
DH: I do.
JP: He does, I don’t.
DH: [laughs softly] Well, I’m really into [Malcolm T.] Liepke, [Jeremy] Lipking, and Aaron Nagle. Of those I only have a Nagle. I also like Patrick Nagel quite a bit, and I don’t have a Patrick Nagel but I’d love to have one. I love them, I love Gottfried Helnwein. I would like one of his pieces. Some of the artists I actually do collect are James Jean … he doesn’t do much lately though, he’s not in the country anymore. A Martin Wittfooth, and Aaron Nagel as I’ve said before.
6. The last time you released a DVD was in 2006 for I Heard a Voice – stunning, by the way – beautifully mixed and filmed. Can we expect in the future for past footage to be released or future shows to be filmed? Years ago we heard that stuff like Sing the Sorrow footage was going to be put out on DVD.
DH: We don’t have any of that, do we?
JP: That would be all kind of, amateur footage.
DH: Yeah like found footage.
JP: The only thing that was filmed professionally was – we were just talking about this today – was the MTV2 special that we did at House of Blues on Sing the Sorrow. Other than that, I think that would just be all like, amateur footage.
DH: Yeah, there’s not really much use of a DVD these days anymore with YouTube.
JP: My wife’s father did the coloring on I Heard a Voice, he colored that video.
Wow. That’s brilliant. I really liked everything about it. It’s still one of my favorite concert films.
JP + DH: Thank you. Thank you.
7. Speaking of which, AFI has made several fantastic music videos; your collaborations with Marc Webb exceptionally stand out – twice having won an MTV award. Your top three favorite AFI music videos, and why?
JP: I would say “Leaving Song Part II” would be my first just because it’s a cool, simple idea. Dave and I came up with it so I like it for that reason too because it’s something that came from the band, which a lot of them did. I’d say uh, shit, what other videos do we have?
DH: [laughs] I would pick that one. I would also go with “Beautiful Thieves” and “Medicate.”
JP: I haven’t seen any of our videos.
DH: I like “Beautiful Thieves” and “Medicate” and really, the most recent two, “I Hope You Suffer” and “17 Crimes.” I’m really happy with those two.
8. Any pranks during tour or tours before? I’m suspecting that Smith [Jade’s brother and AFI’s tour manager] has done a fun share.
DH: No, we don’t. We’re not really a pranky band.
JP: Smith’s a jokester but he’s not a pranker. That’s like a different thing within those two and people that like to do pranks. No one that we toured with was a prank person which was nice because pranks can get tiresome.
JP: When you’re on the road with the same people, you know, living on a bus together. Actually, there was like a whack prank that was done years ago. I think that was on Sing the Sorrow. I don’t even remember what it was! I think it was some item that kept getting put in MY bunk. First it was getting put in someone else’s bunk under the pillows. Every night when you had to sleep there’d be a stupid thing under your pillow and it was like the worst… .
Was it the same thing?
JP: Yeah, some stupid item! I don’t even remember what it was. I think it was Mikey [Rhino, AFI’s soundman] that was doing it.
DH: Probably, oh yeah … but I don’t remember what it was..
JP: That was the most basic prank, but we don’t really … have we ever done any?
DH: No, no, we never.
JP: But you know, when you’re touring, like when you’re the support band – a lot of the times, on the last night of the tour, they’ll prank you. And wasn’t there one like that?
DH: Green Day came out – they came out dressed as plushies during our set one night in 2010.
JP: And then we came out dressed as Santas and threw out presents during their set.
DH: Oh yeah! I forgot about that!
JP: You can probably find it online. But then there’s the one – the one where you put a bunch of baby powder in the snare so when the drummer hits it, it goes everywhere. It’s a pretty classic “last night prank.”
9. You played the Phoenix theatre in Petaluma in 2010 [sold out in 15 minutes], almost a decade since your last show there. What was it like to take the stage again where it was where you decided to stay AFI onwards?
DH: I don’t remember that.
JP: I barely remember that show.
DH: I didn’t even know we did that [laughs] … we played there so many times.
JP: I remember playing there but I can’t specifically… . When I think of the Phoenix I think of going there as a kid. That’s memories I have of that place. I went there so many times as a kid seeing important shows that those are the ones that are really important in my mind.
JP: I have such fond memories of shows there.
That’s really cool that you guys decided to come back there after such a long time.
DH: Tom’s [Phoenix Theatre owner] a great guy.
JP: Yeah, Tom Whalley’s just fun and awesome.
DH: Except his name is not Tom Whalley. [smiling] That’s Tom Gaffey.
JP: Tom Gaffey. [whispers dramatically] DP: Tom Whalley [founding exec at Interscope Records] is also awesome by the way. [laughs] JP: Tom Whalley in a different way.
DH: Tom Whalley is a totally different.
JP: Tom GAFFEY. Yes.
DH: Human being, and also totally awesome but totally different person.
JP: Tom Whalley and Tom Gaffey should totally get together and …
DH: They probably are together right now, having dinner. [laughing]
Puget me at ease right away. I wondered if my nervousness was perceptible at first. I appreciated his friendly humor, his open body language and the way he looked me in the eyes directly when we talked. Watching interviews over the years, he seemed to have an air of mystery about him, being the quieter one that sometimes stood there awkwardly while Havok talked. Now, he came across as articulate, engaged and quite open. Havok was surprisingly soft spoken and would look to Puget very often as he talked. He was still charming and his eyes had lit up on the topic of art, but I was struck seeing a shyer side of him that I could not recall years ago. Later that night I would learn that he we was ill yet was able to deliver an outstanding performance. Smith snapped a photo on a disposable camera, of the three of us at the end. Puget had unexpectedly perched the vegan cupcake atop his head for the photo. I was really happy to see the playful, humorous side of them that I had hoped to see.
I wasn’t sure what to expect sitting with Davey Havok and Jade Puget. It was like being part of a close-up in a cinematic scene, in a movie I’ve never seen but always heard about. I had just hoped to find a small aspect that would differentiate our interaction from typical interviews. It became more comfortable for everyone as the interview went on; it was too bad that our conversation was becoming more fun as it was ending. We said our thanks and parted. I left the tour bus to step through the doors of the venue, to again experience AFI in the intimate familiarity that I’ve always known them, in their music.
AFI are soon to embark on the Australian and South American portion of their tour promoting Burials before heading to the Polo Fields of Coachella in April, along with the likes of the Replacements, Superchunk and Outkast. Witnessing their performance would be quite the occasion. Let’s hope they make a stop in NorCal along the way.