Your Fire Makes it All Worth While
25 Years of AFI
June 6, 2016 at 11:39 am
I can’t believe AFI has been in my life for over a decade now, let alone that they have been active for 25 years. Because today is the 10 year anniversary of one of the band’s biggest albums, Decemberunderground (2006), it seems appropriate to reflect on the music and band that continues to capture imaginations, foster friendships, and inspire new art. Let me invite you to my memory of discovering A Fire Inside, the summer of Decemberunderground, and the band’s lasting impact after all of these years.
I Remember When…
I might never have even heard of AFI had I not seen their logo on a too-cool girl’s jacket in middle school. Curiosity (and an enticing promo photo of some sexy goths) drove 13-year-old me—an artsy outcast with artsy outcast friends—to buy that first CD, compelled to hear what a band that looked like that would sound like.
I felt a little apprehension when the spooky drum beats of “Misarea Cantare: The Beginning” first played through my stereo. Static. Chanting. A faraway noise morphing into melody. Then the bleak words “Nothing from nowhere, I’m no one at all. Radiate. Recognize one silent call.” And finally a guitar chord I can only describe as a flame engulfing my very soul. I think I love this.
Sing the Sorrow (2003) would become one of AFI’s most successful records, frequently cited as a turning point in the band’s career and sound. It’s no surprise this epic album captured my imagination like nothing else I had ever experienced: guitarist Jade Puget’s ability to weave melody among layers of distortion, laced by accents of piano and strings; the urgent heartbeat of bassist Hunter Burgan’s driving pulse and drummer Adam Carson’s anthemic rhythms; evocative ambient sounds in concert with Davey Havok’s poetry in despair and effortless transitions from violent screams to gentle whispers to soulful belting. Somewhere in all of that complexity lay multiple pop hooks punctuated by the band’s signature “ohs!” and “woahs” that even the uninitiated listener could enjoy.
For young Laura this video hit all the right anime notes at the right anime time. Also: those shoujo flower petals, tho.
Sing the Sorrow became my lullaby and muse. This album served as a source of inspiration for many art projects and drawings during my early teenage days. It was the soundtrack for my walks around school before class and it was with me on many road trips. My family frequently traveled from my border hometown to visit my brother at college in Austin, giving me time to let my imagination run wild as I stared into the South Texas monte with this album on repeat in my CD player.
During one of those trips, I realized there was more to the last track of the album than the song “…But Home Is Nowhere”: a secret track with a three-part spoken word poem and an entire other song that looped in on itself by the end, reinforcing the circular, seasonal imagery of the rest of the album. Encountering this little mystery compelled me to go deeper into the band’s history.
I spent many high school days during those three years of waiting for the next album discovering some of their earlier work, watching music videos from previous eras, and dissecting song lyrics. Each album was a totally different, yet totally logical progression informed by the previous era. They went from hardcore punk to experimental glam-influenced rock in just over a decade. Following the evolution of their sound and style definitely helped me cope with the general anxiety around growing up and change. Their continuous experimentation inspired me, and likely many other young adults, to find power in creating new identities informed by the old, ashes falling as we rise up anew.
Similarly, I was fascinated by the evolution of Havok’s aesthetic over the years, going from typical punk bro to spooky goth and through several other looks as AFI’s career progressed. Though all of the members went through various changes, too, Havok’s phases were distinctly dramatic. Around the time I found the band, he sported a somewhat androgynous look with his long hair, thick eyeliner (sometimes shadow and lipstick, too), and luscious lashes. Young Laura was utterly entranced by this fashion few men dare. That he was unafraid of appearing feminine while screaming his heart out spoke to me as a girl figuring out how to approach my gender through the awkward stages of puberty and in a society that continually devalues women. While many famous frontmen in rock and roll play to some aspect of androgyny, Havok’s celebration of traditionally feminine traits during the early aughts felt authentically radical juxtaposed against his conservative contemporaries. The fact that he looked both beautiful and handsome as fuck doing it definitely played into my sexual awakening, as I’m sure it did for many other teens.
This discovery period also coincided with the early days of the internet, so I got my fix for all things AFI through silly websites like DaveyOnAStick and the tight-knit communities found in The Despair Faction (the band’s official fan club message board) and AFISeries. It was a wonderful time to fall in love with the band, studying theories about the symbolism of their music and lyrics like it was a mythology. Those deep in the fandom will remember the Five Flowers mystery, wherein several clues in the form of videos, websites, dial tones, and even a physical videotape lead to secret shows in California as promotion to their 2006 power pop-rock masterpiece.
Love Like Winter / Summer Shudder
Which brings us to back to June 6, 2006, AKA 6/6/06, AKA 666. After months of mystery and weeks watching the promotional “Miss Murder” video on repeat, the summer before my senior year of high school finally arrived. With it came the first new AFI album release I got to anticipate, Decemberunderground. Though the change of direction upset some fans missing their old hardcore sound, the record debuted at number one on the Billboard 200 and garnered as much enthusiasm as its predecessor. The ambitious world of fame and fury wrapped in shimmering guitars and the occasional synth would win many of us over as a new favorite to love por siempre.
In July of that same year I experienced AFI live for the first time at the Warped Tour show in San Antonio. While Warped kind of has a sexist reputation that doesn’t sit well with me today, it was paradise in 2006. That first show would be a sweet release of energy and passion after a brutal day under the Texas summer rain, but my favorite memory from this trip happened the day before.
My family went shopping like we usually do when we’re in San Antonio and we noticed a Whole Foods Market opened in the area. I’d never been, but as a vegetarian from South Texas I had to see what this store was all about. As I started towards the door, a very attractive man in sunglasses exited. Foolishly hormonal, I kind of smiled because I thought he was cute.
And then he said “hi.” at me.
It was Davey Havok himself, recognizing his own, and oh how right he was. After a few moments of freaking out, I walked up to offer a drawing I had done of the band and he graciously accepted. I will always feel SO embarrassed looking back on how, as a bundle of nerves, I picked up the spoon he dropped and handed it back to him. It just seemed like the right thing to do??
Anyway, I love this embarrassing story because it’s relevant in my life as a grown-up: a couple of years ago I started working for Whole Foods Global! I always smile remembering that my first encounter with the company involved AFI. I think of it as a moment of kismet.
We are the ones only we can recognize
Given all of the cheerful memories I have around AFI, it’s almost ironic how deeply their music is seeped in disappointment and isolation. And yet, perhaps identifying with these dark themes helps form new friendships? Something about AFI’s specifically dark appeal unites us outcasts, as often only music can.
In these years between my teenage days through today, many more memories would come as a result of my love of AFI: time discovering other bands with friends I met through AFI; anticipating and obsessing over the albums they have released since, Crash Love (2009) and Burials (2013), both beautiful distractions from adult life (and the latter an instant favorite of passionate rage); the hours of waiting in line for shows then singing loudly together as Davey God-Walks over adoring fans in the circle of rage. Even our awkward encounters with the band would turn into funny stories for our future selves to reminisce on.
Thanks to AFI, I’ve had the pleasure of getting closer to friends I originally met online, too. In 2014, I found myself traveling with a group of ladies from Austin to see AFI play Baton Rouge, and it was an incredible experience, road tripping for over 8 hours with these new friends, learning about their lives and sharing my own. I also met one of my very best friends and concert buddies thanks to learning we were both students at the University of Texas and liked to post on the message boards. These days, she and I even play together in Iris Noir, continuing the cycle of music love that perhaps Davey and Adam began in the 90s.
If there’s anything I know about being a fan of AFI, it’s the sense of family and community that has never faded, even as we mark 25 years since their first incarnation. Some friendships began at shows, others through the message boards, and many continue to thrive thanks to social media (with the fabulous folks from AFI News HQ keeping everyone in the loop). One utterly sweet fan even organized a project collecting fan memories to commemorate the impact this band has had on our lives and celebrate their quarter century of music.
After coming off of touring for their electronic project Blaqk Audio, Davey and Jade have promised that a new AFI album is coming soon, and a recent Instagram post from Hunter seems to confirm they are indeed working on album ten. Given how much I loved their last album, Burials, there is plenty to look forward to.
While I can’t wait to hear what’s next from AFI, today I can cherish the joy this dark band has brought me so far. Between the music, creative inspiration, and memories, I will forever keep a special place in my heart for A Fire Inside.
Through our bleeding, we are one.
If You Listen…
Dive into AFI with some tracks from across their discography. In this playlist you’ll find some of my favorite songs from each AFI album, a few from their side projects, as well as music by artists they are friendly with and have been inspired by. If you aren’t already a fan, I hope you discover something new from this list and maybe find a favorite to love.
File 13 (AKA Misc notes and trivia):
1: Marc Webb, famous for films like 500 Days of Summer (2009) and The Amazing Spiderman 1 and 2 (2012, 2014), directed many music videos prior to his feature film days. His filmography includes some of the best AFI videos: Days of the Phoenix(2001), The Leaving Song Pt. II (2003), Miss Murder (2006), and Love Like Winter (2006). I included a couple above, but watch some of these and more on the AFI Youtube Channel.
2: If you like what you’ve heard so far, be sure to grab a copy of I Heard A Voice (2006), AFI’s live DVD filmed during the Decemberunderground tour. The glittery performance gives a taste of what the band was like during that era.
3: If you are at all familiar with Mark Oshiro of “Mark Does Stuff”, fellow AFI fans will be forever grateful that some of that “stuff” includes documenting the Five Flowers mystery that lead up to the reveal of Decemberunderground. (thank you Wayback Machine and eff you Buzznet for taking this down!)
4: My first foray into using Amazon was getting a copy of the highly coveted Sing the Sorrow book. This beautiful extension of the album artwork and notes also included a DVD of their experimental film, Clandestine. This short was the first art film I remember watching, years before I would be exposed to the genre in film school. It features the band members protecting a mysterious black box and revolves around the symbolism reflected throughout the album’s music. The band’s clever choice to create multiple soundtracks allows for two fairly different viewing experiences based on which audio the user selects: the spooky, ambient track by Jade or the jazzy experiment of Hunter. Watch Clandestine with Hunter’s track or watch it with Jade’s track. Either way, you’ll and start seeing the number 37 everywhere.
5: When not playing bass with AFI, Hunter Burgan keeps busy with creative and comedic efforts. His latest project is Cat With Matches, a weekly comic strip about exactly what the title describes.
6: Keep up with all things AFI by following AFI News HQ! The small volunteer team does an insanely great job of posting news as it happens. They also share setlists from shows by the band and their related projects as well as hold periodic giveaway contests.
The Answer is 7: PS If you ever want to talk about AFI, feel free to hit me up (@ladysubrosa on twitter or IG)! I’m always up for meeting new AFI friends and helping guide further music discovery 😀