AFI frontman Davey Havok opens up about the band's new album Bodies and throwing away his novel during Covid-19...
The description 'Cult Band' is hurled around a great deal to all manner of different acts, some of whom fill arenas, some who struggle to fill the top rooms of pubs, when, of course, you're legally allowed to do so.
What it should mean is a band who command feverish loyalty and devotion from their fanbase over a long period of time, but are unlikely to be seen on the sofas of The One Show anytime soon. Size isn't an issue, it's a case of having a legion of listeners who devour every B-Side, album off-cut and live album. And it certainly applies to AFI.
Now in their 30th year, the Californian punks have made a career of blending the grandeur and splendour of darkwave and gothic rock with the frenzy and fury of hardcore punk. It's a formula they've stuck to, with dalliances here and there, for 11 albums, the latest of which arrives this week.
Bodies is the band's first album since their self-titled 2017 LP, which they refer to as The Blood Album, and is their first with guitarist Jade Puget acting as producer.
A combination of the band's power punk rock and dark grandeur, it's a classic AFI record, and we spoke to frontman Davey Havok about how they made it, working with Smashing Pumpkins' Bill Corgan and why he threw his novel in the bin over lockdown...
When was this record completed? Did you come up against the pandemic?
“Covid has given us the time to do plenty of things, but we didn’t use it to make a record. This record was written, recorded, mastered and mixed before Covid. It was all done and it was booked to come out in 2020. We were pretty much ready to go internally and a tour was scheduled then the lockdown stopped everything. Then we just had to sit and watch.”
Was there any talk that you might keep the original release date?
“Not once the pandemic hit. It was so close to the real swell of the pandemic and we knew we wouldn’t be able to tour on it. We do that with every record, it’s the way we build a campaign and we couldn’t, so we had to pause. We waited until things felt a little under control in America and it’s only now we’re trying to plan again.”
How do you look back on the making of the record? Was it a fun record to make?
“The process was pretty similar to the way it has been for the past few years. We had a great time writing the record. It was a long writing experience, but that’s pretty common for us. We wrote for about a year, but it’s a little fragmented and it bleeds a little bit into the era of the Blood record. We wrote and released that record and we went out and toured. Then, normally we come back and we start a new one, but we got offered a tour with Rise Against and we went out with them. We wanted to do new music so we put out The Missing Man EP, which came out after the tour. After we got back, we were really set to go write again and then the Smashing Pumpkins offered us a tour and we went out. When we finished that tour we finally commenced with writing what would become Bodies.”
Did it suffer from the delays?
“No, it was a nice process. It was a lot of Jade sitting in front of each other and coming up with a lot of stuff. We always come up with a lot more than we need. And then, when we feel like we have enough, we bring in the rest of the boys and see what we can add to that.”
If you tend to write more than you need, how does the process of slimming down go? Do you discard a lot?
“An awful lot. People have different relationships with that experience, but I find it tough. I’ve got a very strong bond with the songs, especially being the lyricist and trying to be truthful in what I write. There were a large group of songs for Bodies that got thrown away and I always have to come to terms with that."
"I’m better at doing it now. You get perspective on those songs. Either you come to realise that you’ve got a good connection to those songs, but you also care deeply about what you’re creating now, or, ideally, you realise that they weren’t as good as you thought they were and you’re pleased you made the call. Inevitably, the four of us like about 15 to 20 songs and that’s too much for a record. Then it becomes a question of what kind of record do you want to put out?”
How do you decide? Is it a case of voting?
“We’re a democracy. That’s how it goes. We bring in management and we sit down and vote. Sometimes people speak up for something they feel really strongly about and sometimes you get grey areas where there are even numbers, but it’s a pretty solid process. We’ve done it that way for a long time.”
Jade produced this album, which is the first time you’ve kept it totally in-house, why did you decide to do that?
“It was a great process with him. Jade understands AFI better than anyone. He and I are the ones who began writing the songs and it gives him a unique relationship with the songs. It’s so much work and he works so hard on these records. He can only produce while we’re still writing and comes up with these beautiful arrangements. He makes AFI what it is and we’re lucky he wants to take on that responsibility too.”
You’ve worked with some big producers in the past, Gil Norton, Jerry Finn, Butch Vig, can you see their ways of working in the way Jade does things?
“I don’t sit with him while he produces. I don’t know his process and I’m not a technical person when it comes to production. I don’t think Jade’s records sound like a Gil Norton record or a Jerry Finn record. If you spoke to Jade, he might break it down and tell you that he learned some things from Gil or Butch or Jerry, but I couldn’t put my finger on that.”
One of the things younger bands lean on producers for is discipline, just having somebody to say ‘do it again’, does that ebb away as you get older?
“Recording vocals with Jade was a great experience. Producers in the past have made me do things over and over. Jade made things easy, he knows my voice so well. He’s also not afraid to comp (the process of comping vocals is when the producer will record several vocal takes of the same part and cut together the best pieces of each into a single take).”
“The thought of doing that, of sitting down and do it. It looks like the most tedious, mind-numbing and annoying process. Jade actually enjoys it. I do a few passes. I sing relatively well and he comes back with a great take.”
Did you have a goal of how you wanted this to move on? Or do you just write and see where you go?
“We write and we write and when we find what moves us, we focus on that. We take those moments and try to grow them. If something isn’t working, we stop. If something begins to feel underwhelming, we stop. Sometimes we get all the way and finish something and think it’s great, then we listen back to it and it’s not. We do that until we get a large group of songs that we’re happy with it. Then you choose what best represents you. We’ve been doing this for 30 years so it always gets harder to impress ourselves and surprise ourselves. We’re digging for moments that we find unique.”
11 records is a lot of trial and error. Do songs ever come out that sound too similar to what you’ve done before?
“It’s more of a subconscious feeling. If it feels dull, it’s probably because we’ve gotten close to it in the past. We’ve got a large range of influences and we come from the same places, so sometimes we do end up where we’ve been before. It doesn’t get articulated that it sounds like a particular song, it just feels too familiar. A lot of bands sit down and agree on a concept and an idea of where they want to go sonically with a record. We’ve never done that.”
Would you like to?
“I think it would be fun. I’d be interested if we were able to do that, I think we’d diverge, I think we’d happen to start on something else and not stop. When Jade is writing by himself, he doesn’t sit down with a defined idea either. He lets the moment move him and that’s what we do when we work together.”
You’ve got a bit of distance on the record given it was completed before the pandemic, can you trace a lyrical theme through the album?
“There are a lot of things that bind the songs. The concept of the mind and body connection, mending your emotions to physicality and then severing that connection. Is that a process of empowerment or diminishment? The mind-body connection runs through all of it.”
How is the lyrical process for you now? Are you always scribbling?
“The biggest change in how I write lyrics came very early on in AFI’s career. I’d always been under the impression that you wrote lyrics entirely separately from a song and the singer presented lyrics to the band. That is not the case for AFI. I’m constantly taking notes, but I don’t write entire songs. I write lines and concepts that I can look back on when the music is being together. Mostly the notes, which are now in my phone, not pieces of paper anymore, get left behind."
"The music will move me and I’ll sing a stream of consciousness vocals and that’ll give me something to work from. Or I’ll sing gibberish over it and I’ll understand what the tone of the song needs from the lyrics. The mood of the song will take over, rather than my notes. Very occasionally I’ve already had an idea that will strike a chord with a song.”
How’s the relationship with lyrics with the rest of the band? Do they ever ask questions about them or basically take no notice?
“I’m very lucky that they let me do whatever I want and have done for years. It’s important to me and I’m grateful to be so free. I can’t say that they pay much attention to them anymore. It’s been years since they’ve asked me about them. They used to sometimes pay me compliments, but, truthfully, I don’t know if they like them or not. They clearly don’t hate them enough to make me stop.”
How easy was it to decide what the record was going to be called?
“I had the concept of Bodies, I knew that was the overriding theme and I had a real vision for the record and a concept. I presented it to the band after we'd finalised that tracklisting and they were happy with it, which was great because I felt very strongly about that."
Have you had records that were difficult to name?
"In modern times, it's been easy, in the past, there was a lot of deliberation, some took a long time to get right."
'Dulceria' was co-written by Billy Corgan, how did that collaboration come about? Did you write it on tour?
"No, oddly enough. I'd known Billy for a while through a mutual friend and he's great. And, before we went on tour with him, he invited Jade to write with him. Just for fun, with nothing in mind, but it went really well and it was suggested he write for AFI. We've never collaborated with anybody in the past, but Jade presented the idea to the band and we were game right away. He's one of the best songwriters of our generation. I was thrilled at the prospect."
"They wrote together after the tour and I got invited in for two days. A lot of pieces of songs were written, but nothing solid and Jade took it all home. Months went by and I'd presumed it had all been abandoned. Then Jade presented 'Dulceria', he'd brought together a lot of the parts into the track. We all loved it and I put the lyrics together and we're so happy with the final result. It's one of my favourite AFI songs now."
What's he like to work with? The outside perception is of this kind of one-man machine with such a singular vision, how was he to work with?
"He's so talented. He did have a very specific idea of what he wanted to do with us. He wanted a song with real space and he wanted my voice in a particular place. We have a lot of the same influences, Ministry, Gang Of Four, Echo & The Bunnymen and a shared ground. My writing input was pretty limited. I think they invited me to the sessions just so I would feel like I was participating and wouldn't feel left out. He had a specific vision, but I think we hit it with 'Dulceria'."
It's interesting to have opened yourselves up to a co-writer at this point in your career, having never done it before...
"Before we went to a major label, (the band signed to Dreamworks in 2003, leaving indie label Nitro Records, which was owned by The Offspring's Dexter Holland) it was something we would never have thought about. Then, when we did sign to a major label, we heard so many horror stories, we went in with a real mentality that nobody was going to f**k with us. They never tried. Dreamworks never suggested getting in songwriters and we wouldn't have considered it."
"We knew that at that point in time that a lot of new people would be hearing our music, more than ever we needed it to be our music, not someone else's. If we were going to have commercial success, we wanted it to be our songs. When Dreamworks got sold to Interscope, there was a little bit of pressure to work with other people and we just didn't want to do it. Years have gone by now and we are so old. We know the mainstream has turned away and we're very confident in what we do. We're interested in working with people that we like and there aren't a lot of them. The opportunity for collaboration is pretty small, but Billy is someone we've taken so much inspiration from. To be honest, if we'd been approached with the idea of working with him back then, we'd have considered it then too."
Rock bands working with co-writers is far less of a big deal now. You look at the tracklisting of a lot of young bands and you'll see writers on there...
"It's been that way for a while now. It's not that it's a social taboo. It's a personal thing. It's always been how we felt, not what anybody else. We were lucky in the position we were in. I think we were ready for a major label to try and change us, but everybody sat us down and just said 'We don't want you to change anything, we just want you to do what you do with us'. I don't have a horror story. The indie labels we've been on have been far more disingenuous and far more canniving and far more greedy."
You must be itching to get out and tour these songs, how are plans coming along?
"I really would love that. Every song we write is to play live. It's why I write songs. We're working on it and the world is opening up. Soon we'll have a schedule put together."
Are you back practising?
"God no. Getting this band to rehearse is like pulling teeth. When there's a tour to go on, we will rehearse for the tour, not until then. We're not a rehearse for the fun band."
11 records to pick from, that set has got to be slimmed down. You play fast, so you can't play Bruce Springsteen sets...
"It is a vast, vast catalogue and it takes time to figure out. The band could probably play for three hours, I can't, it's too demanding on my voice. We come from punk rock and hardcore, we grew up playing 18-minute sets, the shorter sets appeal to us, both to play and to see. Even if I could sing for three hours, we wouldn't want to do it. There are a handful of acts I'd want to see play for more than an hour, Nick Cave, Depeche Mode, The Cure. I hadn't figure out how Robert Smith does it, he goes out and plays for three hours straight with lots of very high songs. I wish I had his voice. We play an energetic rock show, nobody needs that to last more than an hour."
Given the record was wrapped before everything slammed shut, have you used the time to work on new material?
"Not on my end. Jade has probably written five or six albums. I thought I was going to finish my novel. I'd finished the manuscript before the pandemic, but I knew it needed an edit and during the pandemic, I decided the edit it needed was to be thrown away. I've done a collaboration with a deep house artist and we've been working with some other artists. I actually spent most of the lockdown enjoying no responsibilities. I read a lot. I thought I might write a new novel, but I think I've become better-versed in that world. I didn't have a TV, but my buddy got me a projector and I invested in some movies."
"We released Beneath the Black Palms, the fifth Blaqk Audio record (Havok's electronic project with Jade Puget) during the lockdown. At some point, I twigged that this record was coming out and I said to Jade 'Hey, have you written a new Blaqk Audio record?'. He has and he's sent me about 15 or 20 songs and there are quite a few more. I need to get on top of those and then there'll be a new Blaqk Audio record soon."