Interview: Davey Havok of AFI

words by Avir Mitra | photo by Jason Odell
| Tuesday, September 29th, 2009

AFII’m interested in longevity, especially in harsh environments. Things that somehow survive long beyond their expected timeline. And AFI has been around for a serious minute.

Think about all the bands you know – all the chart-topping acts, all the next big things, all the bands forming as we speak. I’d wager that 95 percent of them will not be around in seven years. AFI has managed to start from the bottom and work their way up to the pinnacle of success over 18 and a half years. In speaking with singer Davey Havok I heard the voice of a survivor who still managed to retain his idealism and positivity. He’s seen it all and is still smiling, and I can’t help but be in awe.

AFI’s newest album, Crash Love, hits stores September 29th. I spoke with Davey about the process, the inspiration, and the past two years of AFI.

I know you’ve been doing a bunch of interviews lately — and I’m in a band too, and our debut album comes out on Epic on the same day as yours — so I know how the interviews go, and if you want to add anything or change the direction of the interview at any time, feel free to go ahead, okay?

Okay, cool, that sounds good to me — let’s start [by asking] what’s your band?

The band is Bamboo Shoots.

Bamboo Shoots?

I like eating bamboo shoots.

Yeah, exactly. You can eat them, you can kill people with them…
They’re multi-functional. You can use them to create a natural barrier around your house.

Exactly. For very cheap.

So what kind of stuff do you play?

It’s sort of like if you imagine Prince, mixed with Hall & Oates, and maybe some Depeche Mode in there? Kind of like that.
So kind of disco-y, falsetto vocals?

Not totally — we embrace pop stuff, but we do it from a different angle — the other things is, we’re also all Indian, so we have an Indian influence too. I don’t know how to describe it. It’s very weird.

Interesting, I’m going to check it out.

Cool, we actually recorded out in Sausalito. I think I had the same vocal coach as you, Raz Kennedy.
Ah, you had Raz? (laughter) Nice! Isn’t he awesome?

Man, he’s like the sweetest guy I’ve ever known.
He is such a good guy, I run into him still sometimes at the burrito place in Oakland that I go to. That’s great. Oh, and you recorded in Sausalito, that’s nice!

Yeah, we recorded with Jerry Harrison; I don’t know if you know him–
Oh yeah, he did your record? That’s fucking cool, man. That’s exciting, congratulations — I’ll be checking it out.

Thank man, we’re just starting out, so we’re trying to get on the road — and actually, that leads me into my first question. I don’t know if you remember it, but you did an interview with this same magazine back in 2000 [Verbicide issue #3]. I was just reading [the interview], and it was incredible for me to see, because you started basically where we are right now: going around the country, playing to 15 or 50 kids, opening for bigger bands. And it just really blew my mind to see just how far you’ve come — and yet, it’s been in such a slow, deliberate way. I can’t think of any point in time when AFI just suddenly “blew up.”
It’s been a very slow climb, very slow, starting with our first seven-inch. Every step of the way, from our first seven-inch, to our first record, to our second record, all along — we’d write a record, we’d release it, and then we’d tour as much as we could. In most places, we’d go from having been there for the first time and playing to five, 10 people, to the next time and [playing to] 20 — and sometimes not, sometimes five or 10 people again — and we kept going and going and going. Slowly it would build.

The mainstream first became aware of us in 2003 when we put out Sing the Sorrow on Dreamworks. But even that was not a huge, huge jump from where we were before. It was as far as record sales went — I mean, we sold 10 times as many records — but it wasn’t one of those mass “world domination,” total saturation situations that a lot of bands have. And you know, I think about it at times, and I feel really lucky for a few reasons when contemplating that slow build that we had.

First of all, the obvious being that the band has been around for 18 years and we’ve experienced our biggest level of success 15 years into the band! That is something most bands don’t get to enjoy – usually they break up before then, and if they didn’t they’re slowly petering out…

And secondly, I look at a lot of bands who put out their first record, or put out their second record, and are immediately super, super huge — and I don’t envy that situation, because when I think of myself, I don’t think I would have enjoyed that, if only for [the fact] that I wouldn’t that to be the defining moment in our career! (laughter) To have everyone look to those early records and say, “Oh yeah, remember when that came out, and it sold 10 million [copies], that’s the record!”

Right, then you could never top that. And it’s interesting, in that interview [from Verbicide issue #3] you were, at the time, opening for Rancid and The Offspring, and they blew up, and now I’m not sure what those bands are doing.
We spent a lot of time opening for many, many bands. The band that I think we toured with most was Sick Of It All. They were — and are — one of the greatest bands that ever existed. That was a pleasure. And we had the privilege of having them join us for part of the leg [touring for] Decemberunderground.

Let’s talk about the recording process. I know you were working on this album for two years — were you writing in the studio? How did it go?
No, we wrote for about nine months. We never write in the studio — we never have and we never will. When we go into the studio we’re totally prepared and we know exactly what the songs are, and we know how we want them to come out. That was the same process that was involved in making this record. We wrote for nine months, and then after writing, rehearsing, and amassing a group of songs that we felt happy with, that we felt could contribute to a good, solid album, we decided to start recording.

That recording process took another nine months…it seems to have come to take that long, of late, to record. Since we recorded Sing the Sorrow, we spend a lot of time in the studio just getting the songs sonically to the place that we want them to be. That’s what went on this time; it just takes that long. We write a lot of songs! We write a lot of songs, and we throw a lot of songs away. Jade [Puget, guitarist] and I probably wrote something like 60 songs for this record, half of which the rest of the band never even heard. There are books filled with all the lyrics, with all the songs — and if I looked at the lyrics I could probably sing you the songs!

That does make me wonder, how is your songwriting process? I know every band is different. Do you guys make demos and then present it to the rest of the band?
That was happening a bit [when writing for] Decemberunderground, but this time Jade and I would sit down together, which is how it always starts. He plays parts, and I come up with melodies, and we create a song structure. Then, that night, I will listen to the melodies that are written during the day and put lyrics over them. The next day, we go over the songs that were written the day before, see if we like them, and we keep the songs that we like. We do this for a few days until we’ve got a group of songs — about five, or seven — and then we get together as a band, work [those songs] out as a band, and everybody adds their part. From those, we decide to keep a few, and then we go back and write some more and continue that process over and over again until we’ve got enough songs for the record that we all like…Sometimes there will only be two songs out of every five [that Jade and I write] that we’ll be happy with enough to bother the rest of the guys with working them out.

Do you always write lyrics to the melody, or do you ever have lyrics that you’ve already written that you fit into the melody?
Both. I learned very early on that there’s no future for me in writing entire songs and trying to fit them in. When I spend time writing an entire song it’s very painstaking, and I focus, and I craft every word, and I want it to sound the way I want it to sound. If I do something like that and try to fit it into a song, it’s just…basically I’ll end in tears because I’ll have to change everything and make it fit the melody, and it might not work. So I stopped doing that years ago.

I either work from the melody, or I work from notes that I write throughout my life. Sometimes I’ll get lyrical inspiration for a line or a concept, and I write little notes. When I’m working on a melody that’s created, I’ll say, oh, that actually would fit with this concept, or this line that I wrote last night, or two weeks ago, or two years ago. Or, it inspires new words.

How did everything go with your producers? I read that you started working with Dave Bottrill, who produced a bunch of Tool records that I love–
Us too! (laughter) We worked with David — and we did love the Tool records — and we worked and worked, and it just wasn’t sounding right. We’d never really worked with any producers other than Jerry [Finn] and Butch [Vig] before. All the records we’d done before Sing the Sorrow we had, in essence, produced ourselves. It’s still kind of a new experience for us to work with producers, and when things weren’t sounding right we just thought, well, maybe things will work out, or maybe we just don’t understand. (laughter) So we kept going, and then finally we realized, okay, this doesn’t sound good.

We stopped, and we moved on, and we got Joe McGrath, who was the engineer on Sing the Sorrow and Decemberunderground and is Jerry’s really close friend and right-hand man. Once we got together with Joe, things really started sounding the way we wanted it to. And by “things” I mean actual sonic tones.

And you brought on Jacknife Lee also?

Absolutely. We thought that he might be able to add another perspective, another quality, artistic insertion that could take the songs into an even stranger place than we had them already. There were a couple songs that we wanted to try something entirely different with, and we thought that he would be able to add to that. We worked on, I think, four songs with him.

As far as the sound of the record — at least, what I’ve heard off of your Myspace page — it seems a lot more direct, stripped-down to guitars. I’m not hearing that many synths or beats or things like that. Was that a conscious decision by you, or was it due to the influence of the producers, or did it just happen?
It just happened in the songwriting process. Jade and I had done [side project] Blaqk Audio. [After] touring on and releasing the Blaqk Audio record, when we started playing rock we were really inspired, and really excited to be playing rock again! I think Blaqk Audio polarized our interests, whereas with Decemberunderground we were inspired to insert a lot of electronics into AFI. This time, that inclination just wasn’t there. Simultaneously, the inclination was to go even further in the “rock”direction, which we haven’t really ever done in the way that we have on Crash Love. That was fun for us too, because though writing a straightforward rock record isn’t new ground for most people, it is, in a way, for us.

Is there going to be another Blaqk Audio album?

Yes, absolutely. In fact, it’s finished! (laughter) We have enough songs recorded for the second Blaqk Audio record, and I really like it. It’s been done for over a year now, and we actually have songs that aren’t recorded — but we have enough songs written for a third record. Unfortunately, we can’t release it until we finish touring on Crash Love.

I’m curious, what artists — and perhaps even books or films — inspired you while you were writing this record? I know that when Bamboo Shoots were recording, we would listen to random records, or I’d be reading a book to and from the studio, and somehow you can “feel” that in the record afterwards.
It doesn’t really work that way for us. We all listen to so much, so many different types of music, and we have for years. I am into many different forms of art, film, and literature — we really all are. But there’s nothing that we can say — someone else might be able to point to something that directly influences what we do — but we don’t know, we’re never really conscious of that. All the art that goes into inspiring what we do, and all the experiences, are really more of a subconscious inspiration.

Usually people who listen to the record end up pointing to them, and either it’s something that is accurate, that we haven’t thought of, or it’s something that’s way off, but we never really know. Like, yesterday I was in the gym. This guy who enjoys AFI was talking to me, and he was talking about the break in the middle of “Medicate,” and he said that it reminded him of a sort of Pink Floyd/Kate Bush-type moment. I thought, wow! I mean, yeah, we totally got the stony, psychedelic vibe from that moment, but he’s right, I hear the Kate Bush thing, and Kate Bush is awesome — but that’s not something we were going for!

It seems like, from talking to you and from your interviews I’ve seen online, that you’re pretty easy-going and accommodating. But I feel that your public persona has a certain inaccessibility to it, considering the amount of records you’ve sold — you’re not “out there” the way other [public figures] are. I’m wondering, how do you balance that? You’re a nice guy, but I’m sure people are asking you to do things — like PR people, or your label — that you ultimately have to say “no” to.
Well, luckily we work with people who really understand my limits. (laughter) It’s a rare occasion that someone is begging me to do something that I don’t feel comfortable with. When that happens, I just listen to their argument, I think about my reasons for not wanting to do it, and make a decision based on that.

As far as what people do and don’t know about me…I just like to keep my private life private. That’s pretty much it. I’m in music because I love making music. For me it’s about creating music, and performing music, and that’s it. Any sort of self-promotion, or any sort of pursuit of fame for the sake of fame doesn’t appeal to me. I’m really hesitant to get involved in that in any way.

Unfortunately, we’re at a time when that is focused on more than the music, which is really sad. So you’re right — there are occasions where the “powers that be,” if you will, encourage, and definitely wish that I would be more involved in letting people know about what’s happening with me every second of the day, but I find it [to be] crass.

What about something like Twitter?
As a band, I understand — you are putting out information about your band, and what’s going on, and that makes sense. If you want to tell people about your new stuff, that makes sense. As far as putting personal stuff on there every second…it’s just not for me. I don’t feel comfortable with it…I don’t have one! (laughter)

Lyrically, where is your new record coming from? That’s a tough question, but is it coming from a similar place as previous records? Is there a theme?
Actually, it’s very different from records in the recent past — this record is more of a social commentary than it is an introspective record. The records in the past were very brooding and very despondent — and very dark — but this record looks outward. In essence, if you tie a lot of the themes together it points to the crash in culture that we’re experiencing right now, and the decimation of art culture, which actually has a lot to do with what we were talking about earlier, in my opinion.

I think what’s going on with that has really affected me lately. I’m very passionate about music and art; it means a lot to me, and it seems that the shift in culture right now is helping to elevate and to deem people, circumstances, situations, and things as forms of art that are really bereft of substance. [The record] really comments a lot about that; [there are] themes of entitlement, the concept of the sense of self and the loss of the sense of self, and the struggle to not lose yourself or the desire to lose yourself; it touches on themes of people’s desires to do that which they love torn down and torn apart; it discusses themes of having affinities toward circumstances and situations and people that are completely destructive — not necessarily despite their destructive nature, but sometimes because of it. So in that respect it’s quite different, lyrically, than what we’ve done — or what I’ve written in the recent past. I’d say, to equate it to another AFI record, it’s closest to Shut Your Mouth and Open Your Eyes in ethos than it is to anything we’ve done since.

I hear what you’re saying about the cultural decline. From an artist’s perspective, what do you think got us there, and how do we get out of it?
I think it’s recognition. I think it’s realizing that there are different options, and that there are valid art forms out there, and there are inspired, honest, genuine people creating art. I think it’s actually having people recognize that, because we’ve reached a time where there isn’t even an interest in that recognition. So, I think the answer is awareness…first and foremost. I think. I hope! (laughter) Because I feel that a lot of the problem is that people aren’t aware of good options. Or different lifestyle choices, or different cultures, or the concept of culture as opposed to very fleeting moments — to look to an experience, rather than to a fleeting moment, if you will. That’s very vague and esoteric, I know, but–

No, I feel like that’s just America. America’s such a young country; do we even have a culture that is deep enough to overcome fads? When I go to India, there are fads, but ultimately they have this culture that goes back many years.
I agree with you…[but] we have had very strong cultures in the very recent past, but I feel that they are being deconstructed now, through cooption and dilution. Spreading it through the mass media [has created] diluted versions of what was once great, and what was once very poignant. We’ve gotten so far away from those cultural explosions — and the meaning and essence of them — that the concept of having art based on substance and community and perspective is just lost; the concept itself is lost because we’ve gotten so far away from it within just a few generations.

It’s very sad; like if you wanted to look at music, for example, as one of many forms of art that is experiencing this, just look at the record stores — just the notion of a record store, because record stores don’t really exist anymore. There was a time when you’d go to the record store and you’d interact with human beings, and you’d learn about music through talking to different people and looking through records, sharing that experience, and, you know, meeting someone next to you in the “industrial” section who says, “Oh, you like that? Well, check this out!” Those types of things don’t exist anymore. You have, instead, “If you like this song, you might like this song.”

You have Pandora, that’s basically a robot doing that for you.
Right! And that’s not experience. That removes the experience, and without the experience, where’s the value? The concept of their being value…that is what I think is starting to disappear…[As though] the value is what someone pays for it. Well, no. The value is what someone takes from it. Not whether or not it sells.

On a political note, with Obama winning, and with the political landscape sort of changing, does that signal some type of change on all of these fronts, or not really?
You mean on the artistic front? Here’s what I think is the most powerful thing about that — it changed people’s outlook, and I think that’s a very important thing. In that respect, and that respect alone, that is a positive thing. Because the attitude and the fear and helplessness of the majority of Americans shifted with the election, I feel, to some extent, with the election of Obama. And that can result in positive change.

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