It only took Northern California's AFI (short for "A Fire Inside") 12 years, multiple lineup changes and a constantly evolving sound to become an overnight sensation.
Growing up and out of the Hardcore scene in San Francisco, the band — which includes singer Davey Havok, bassist Hunter, guitarist Jade Puget and drummer Adam Carson — released a string of records on Offspring frontman Dexter Holland's Nitro Records and toured, toured, toured. All those shows developed a Phish/Grateful Dead-type grassroots/freakily-dedicated following, including the band's fan club, the eerily named "Despair Faction." Boys and girls follow the band, shouting back Havok's words at him, and there's a lot of crying when fans meet them. Wildly cathartic, AFI's blazing Punk rhythms and Havok's high-pitched falsetto mix with a sense of community in the doom and gloom of the lyrics. The straight-edge-living, vegan-food-eating Havok might favor makeup and black vinyl pants, but don't call them Goth; they just like the dark side.
For the band's seventh disc, Sing the Sorrow, the quartet jumped to a major label and had a minor hit with its first single "Girl's Not Grey." They also expanded their sound to encompass grandiose and expansive song structure, thanks, in part to a bigger budget and co-producers Jerry Finn and Butch Vig. Sing the Sorrow debuted at No. 5 on the album charts and has been selling briskly since. The band is performing as part of the Vans Warped Tour this summer.
Here's hoping all the kids dressed in black don't get heat stroke.
CityBeat: You have a deep, emotional connection with your fans.
Davey Havok: There's definitely a huge connection with our fans, and it's something we like to nurture. Our fans are very, very important to us. They're so loyal and dedicated, and we know how important they are. I can't remember the last time we played a show and I didn't have fans show me AFI tattoos. I have people come up to me all the time, crying, telling me how we changed their lives in a positive way, whether it be actually saving their lives or affecting them so much that they wanted to better themselves. It's so extremely flattering and so extremely surreal that something we do naturally, that's just an expression of who we are, could have such a positive impact on people.
CB: How have you gone about building that relationship?
DH: If you look at the music, we're constantly changing; we're always pushing ourselves. So with each release, we offer something new that still has the core elements of who we are. It's that dynamic that allows people to be interested, coupled with the honesty of our music. There's a very emotional aspect of our music, and that appeals to a certain type of person — and it appeals to them in a very strong manner. We really like to go out of our way to maintain the contact we have with our fans.
CB: With this legion of fans at your disposal, do you ever think about using that power for evil? Maybe start a cult or perhaps running for office?
DH: I would never run for office — that would be evil. As far as starting a cult, we might already have one. But it's not an evil cult. One of the themes we touch on is the misconception of what is evil and what is good.
CB: Are you better equipped to handle success now or is there some sense of "We could have done this five years ago?"
DH: Well, we're very comfortable with where we are. We've been doing this for so long, and it's all we've ever done. We know who we are, and we're not going to change.
CB: Was there a sign or a moment when you knew that Sing the Sorrow was going to be huge?
DH: No. No way. (Laughs) We had no idea. We were hoping it would do well and we knew that it should, but we never guessed No. 5. That was breathtaking. I felt like I was going to cry and throw up at the same time. Then I was speechless. We never knew.
CB: You hate being called a Goth band?
DH: Oh yeah, sure do.
CB: Do you find it offensive? Do you hate Goth?
DH: No, no. (Laughs) Don't get me wrong. I just find it inaccurate. If I decided to have a pompadour, then all of the sudden would we be Rockabilly? I don't really think the term has anything to do with music.
CB: What's your preferred brand of eyeliner?
DH: MAC. Definitely.
CB: Is it hard to get vegan food at truck stops when you're on the road?
DH: Virtually impossible. You have to stick with peanuts and other assorted nuts, the occasional granola bar, the horrors of chips and bean dip, and the occasional un-frosted Pop-Tart.
AFI plays on the North stage on the Vans Warped Tour at Riverbend on Thursday.