One of the best things about high school is the surprise you feel years later when the most unlikely to succeed actually does. Your burnout buddy became a software tycoon, the quiet mousy girl you ignored is now a Hollywood actress, and that pedestrian punk band you hated turned into AFI. Twenty-years removed from their high school days in northern California, the quartet seeks to sustain their mid-aughts gothic punk success with their ninth album, Burials.
Late bloomers, AFI — which stands for A Fire Inside — released three albums in as many years before the departure of guitarist Mark Stopholese and bassist Geoff Kresge in 1998. Frontman Davey Havok's best friend Jade Puget stepped in, and their partnership took the band in a new direction. Dark sonics dovetailed with grave lyrical matter as tempos slowed and the band's old hardcore punk origins gave way to epic atmospheric rock thrum. It wasn't even something Havok and Puget planned. It was something that emerged collectively.
"We were on the same page and interested in making this music that neither one of us had made before. It was this synergy when we came together," Puget says from his Los Angeles home, not far from Havok's. "One of the biggest problems with people in bands is that they butt heads over the creative side of it. That causes a lot of bands to break up and for people to not be happy with each other, so it's kind of a dream to have a writing partner who you work so well together."
Havok and Puget recorded two albums together, 1999's Black Sails at Sunset and 2000's Art of Drowning, the latter of which scraped the bottom of the Billboard album charts, before signing to DreamWorks for their 2003 multi-platinum breakthrough, Sing the Sorrow. Decemberunderground followed three years later and proved to be an even bigger hit, driven by the catchy chart-topping punk shuffle "Miss Murder."
Success engenders a certain restlessness. Or maybe just a solid decade of non-stop touring. Regardless of the cause, AFI switched things up with 2009's stripped down, more straight-ahead Crash Love. It wasn't as successful commercially, but these's days the band has returned to a more heavily layered and keenly textured sound.
"I'm a programmer, and I like to program, and I like to experiment with all these different sounds. So I just feel like it's limiting yourself to limit the number of instruments you can put on a song," Puget says. "It works for some people, but for us I feel the layers are an integral part of our sound."
Havok and Puget didn't start working on Burials for an entire year after their final 2010 show. When they did start working, it was six days a week for months at a time. Typically Puget works up entire compositions, which he and Havok then work from.
"We're able to work on melody and write lyrics to a completed song idea. It's easier for him because he really gets an idea of what I'm trying to do," Puget says. Occasionally, a song comes out of the blue. Case in point: the first single from the new album, "17 Crimes." "We were packing up for the day and talking about something, and I just had my guitar out idly strumming, and I started playing the verse riff and his ears perked up."
"He immediately started singing it, and I was making it up as I went," Puget adds. "We wrote the entire song off the cuff. It's pretty rare, but it's great when it happens like that because it's so easy and so natural. One of our biggest songs 'Miss Murder' was written like that. A lot of times those end up being singles."
Friends since their teenage years, the duo is tight as family, and Puget was well aware that Havok was struggling with personal issues. He wasn't in a good place, and the writing sessions for Burials were clearly a tool for Havok to exorcise his demons.
"I knew he was in a dark place, and he was writing dark, melancholy, and angry lyrics. So I knew what I had to do right away is write a dark record," he says. "It didn't turn out so raw as I had initially imagined it being — the demos were pretty raw — but we are a rock band, and we like to write big rock songs, so it got a little bigger in the studio."
The experience was one of the best they'd had since they first began collaborating. They had at least 40 finished tracks before culling that down to the 13 they recorded for the album. Havok liked the demos so much he wanted to release them as is rather than go into the studio with a producer.
"We had enough material for a record way before a year, but we were just having fun making this record," says Puget. "The last couple of records there's been some sturm und drang in the writing process. We never argue, but sometimes it can be hard, and this one was just right from the get-go, even though he was going through a pretty emotional time. It was so creative, and we didn't have a single argument in a year."