AFI fares surprisingly well after drastically altering its signature sound.

Asking For It 

AFI fares surprisingly well after drastically altering its signature sound.

Roughly one year ago, singer Davey Havok of AFI (A Fire Inside), who was on the road in support of his group's appealingly bleak Black Sails in the Sunset, told the Pitch about his ideal tourmates. "We'd love to play with Green Day, but their fans would hate us," he said. "And I'd love to play with Danzig, but their fans would really, really hate us."

Since then, AFI covered Danzig's old group, the Misfits, on its All Hallows EP, then opened for the diminutive demon, with better-than-expected results. "I was really relieved," Havok says. "I just figured that (Danzig's) crowd would be a little bit less open-minded to the type of music we were playing, being that we're not metal really. I'm not very tough-looking, so I probably got called 'faggot' at least once a night, but overall it was really good."

And AFI spent months sharing an audience with Green Day on this year's Warped Tour, the first time that Havok's veteran ensemble was invited to that punk-rock summer camp. In addition to fulfilling his dream of playing with the Dookie boys, Warped offered Havok the opportunity to see a crowd enjoying extreme music without being subjected to extreme violence. "I didn't see much negativity at all," he reports. "There were a couple of meatheads, but there was a really good ratio of people having fun to idiots."

Havok's dream tours might have become a reality, but AFI still has plenty left to achieve. Formed in Ukiah, California, the quartet released its first EP in 1993, briefly disbanded, then reformed in Berkeley, where Havok was attending college. At the time, the group blended galloping punk drumbeats with the pummeling breakdowns and shout-along choruses of hardcore. AFI coined its own term for this hybrid, calling its music "East Bay Hardcore."

By labeling its own sound, AFI gave itself the freedom to alter the definition of East Bay Hardcore as it underwent a substantial creative evolution. In 1996, Very Proud of Ya took the group's initial sound as far as it could go, with sharp, quick chord progressions, a thunderous rhythm section, and Havok's emotionally driven screeches melded into potent two-minute-long bursts. After treading similar water with 1997's Shut Your Mouth and Open Your Eyes, AFI startled fans with 1999's Black Sails, which, for the first time, paired Havok's often dark words with similarly downbeat backdrops. Some of the choruses still delivered fist-pumping slogans, but others were slow-paced and melodic, hammering home their hooks with classic-rock-style bombast instead of frenzied punk brevity. Havok, whose quivering high-pitched yelp provides the band's most distinctive element, tempered his intensity and dropped an octave or two on such subtle, gradually building numbers as "God Called In Sick Today."

"I had to actually sing, which scared the hell out of me," Havok recalls. "I had to sing very quietly sometimes, which is something I'd never done before. When you've been screaming for years, it's hard to control yourself."

Black Sails was a bold gambit, especially in a scene full of fans who would rather look back fondly at 1977's acts and encourage the "old-school" bands that emulate them. The immediate feedback wasn't all positive. "Some people said that it took them a few listens to get used to, but after that they really liked it," Havok says. "There have been some people who completely hated it -- one review said it sounded like the Backstreet Boys. I really don't see the resemblance. But for the most part, we've been really lucky. People are growing with us, and we're gaining new fans who can appreciate the way that we're going."

AFI's latest, The Art of Drowning, continues to push Havoc's vocal threshold while providing the most convincing showcase to date for skillful drummer Adam Carson and hyperactive bassist Hunter Burgan. Like Black Sails, Drowning opens with a brief, dramatic introduction and ends with a contemplative closer, suggesting that the album was carefully crafted as a whole, with attention paid to sequencing, cohesion, and flow. However, Drowning sports a clear single, "The Days of the Phoenix," which has made its way onto rock radio stations in Sacramento, San Francisco, and Cincinnati.

Attaining commercial airplay is a breakthrough for a band that seems as if it should be much more popular than it is. From a marketing standpoint, part of the problem is the group's image, or rather, its lack of interest in cultivating one. With his pale, boyish face accented by dark makeup, and tattoos and a lip-piercing for added rebellious appeal, Havok has become a heartthrob -- a quick perusal of the female profiles at Web sites such as makeoutclub.com suggests plenty of punk teens have "Davey is dreamy" doodled throughout their journals. But instead of using pictures of its members, the band has chosen intricate artwork for its past two album covers -- AFI could easily pack larger venues by going costume-shopping and filling punk's horror-core void, but Havok says he'd prefer to let his music and performances open doors for the group.

"Image is something that you strive for and try to push," Havok says. "I just dress the way I like to dress, and so does everyone in the band. It just so happens that we like to dress similarly. That's really about it."

Not that Havok doesn't appreciate a theatrical live show. In fact, now that he's shared bills with Danzig and Green Day and is touring with Rancid, a complete, light-show-enhanced multimedia stage set has become Havok's latest concert-related fantasy. "I would love to do something on the scale of Nine Inch Nails," he says. "Something really striking, both visually and sonically. It would be so breathtaking and beautiful to do something that extravagant. Of course, to do something like that, we'd need to sell six or seven million more records."

Admittedly, it's an uphill climb, but given Havok's recent track record at making wishes come true, it might not be an unreachable goal.

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