Interview: Hunter Burgan of AFI

August 30, 2006 02:32 PM
by Christina Fuoco
LiveDaily Contributor

Despite charting at No. 1 with his outfit's latest album, "Decemberunderground," AFI bassist Hunter Burgan doesn't see his band as a mainstream act.

"I'll always consider us kind of an underground band," Burgan said."We have an amazingly dedicated fan base and all the credit goes to them. I would imagine it generated some interest in new listeners this time around, but the core of that is all our fans who stuck with us for years."

Cleverly released on June 6 (6/6/06), AFI's "Decemberunderground" features the hook-riddled single "Miss Murder," a song that the band performed during the MTV Movie Awards on June 8. The performance came amid a wave of some very mainstream buzz about AFI, which stands for A Fire Inside.

Burgan--who is joined in the band by singer/guitarist Davey Havok, guitarist Jade Puget and drummer Adam Carson-- talked to LiveDaily earlier this month in Phoenix about the band's increased visibility, working with renowned producer Jerry Finn and keeping his cool in the studio.

LiveDaily: How did your summer tour go?

Hunter Burgan: It's hard for me to think of it as a single tour because we did some of our own headlining shows, Warped shows and a couple festivals. It seemed like we were playing a bunch of shows rather than a tour. But the tour part of it, to me--which we played with Nightmare of You and Dillinger Escape Plan; that was the most tour-like and most consistent--when that ended, it was a little bittersweet because it was a lot of fun to hang out with those guys.

Were you surprised to hit No. 1 with "Decemberunderground"?

Very surprised. We knew we kind of had a shot at it. Our last record debuted at No. 5. But we knew it was going to be tough competition with other releases that came out at the same time, and albums like the Dixie Chicks and "High School Musical" ... I didn't want to get my hopes up. Then we got a call when we were in the airport in Chicago--when we were about to fly to Montreal, I believe--and, sure enough, all of our jaws dropped.

You're fortunate that you're able to evolve and change your musical direction and still maintain your fan base.

We've consistently done that throughout the years from album to album: change in different ways. I like to think our hardcore fans, fans who been with us the longest, sort of expect change, [and want us to] evolve in some way and take them to a new place. There are bands, they have a formula, they do their thing and rarely do they deviate from that. Fans expect them to do the same thing, and they do it and they're successful. In that respect, I don't think we're one of those kinds of band.

Tell me about the name of your album, "Decemberunderground."

In a way, we are part of the Decemberunderground. It's not a reference to being an underground band but more of a metaphorical place where people can really go to seek refuge.

This album has more of a rock and goth sound to it. Was that a conscious decision?

No, it's never conscious as much as it is really us reacting to our interests and our influences, and also just trying to do something different than we have done before. We don't want to do something the same. There are a lot of roads to go down. We also wrote more than 100 songs, and, within those 100 songs, there could have been an infinite number of albums, different permutations. The songs that ended up on the albums were the ones we all liked the best. Often, that's because it's something that we really haven't done before, songs that touch us in a certain way, and it just so happened to be the ones that were on the album.

Are we going to see the other 80 to 90 songs?

We didn't record that many. That's the number of songs we wrote. Some of the ones that we recorded that didn't go on the album will appear in some place soon-ish. As for the rest, there will be times when we will revisit [them] when writing material in the future. Then there are some that will never ever see the light of day.

What is the songwriting process with AFI?

It varies. Usually, Jade will come up with a type of riff or guitar thing or a chord progression; Dave will come up with lead and lyrics. We'll bring it to rehearsal, deconstruct it and put new chords behind them. Dave's pretty loose up until the final phases of doing the song. Then, even in the preproduction recording phase of a song, we sometimes change things--put a different chorus on the song, for example. There's no one specific way the song are written, [but] that's pretty typical.

What was it like to work with producer Jerry Finn?

We worked with him on the last record, forged a friendship and he's just a great guy and a really great producer. It's like working with somebody who's a really cool friend. It's not intimidating at all. At the same time, he knows how to get a really get sound out of us. He really knows how to push us in the studio and makes sure we are performing at our best.

What kinds of recommendations did he give you to perform at your best?

Really, he just wouldn't let us perform at our worst [Laughs]. We would do things over and over again until he felt like it's our best performance. [There have been] times when one of us has had to perform just a small, little part of a song over 90 times because it wasn't at the top of our ability. As you can imagine, that would be kind of frustrating. It's just, he really drives us.

How do you keep your cool when you have to play a part repetitively that many times?

It's hard. It gets to the point where you've done something a certain amount of times and you wonder, "How is the result going to be any different?" You have to start turning to voodoo and weird superstition, or, like, take a coffee break. Stand different. [Laughs]

Have you started working on a new album?

No, we don't write until we're off the road. I know that all of us have little ideas and things. We'll come up with things while we're out there performing live--maybe you're just about to fall asleep and it pops in your head. We put all those things together closer to actually working on the next record.

As AFI rode onto mainstream radio playlists with their gleaming major label debut, Sing the Sorrow, the rumble of disenchanted fans nearly drowned out that of their dark-hued music. But the heavily-tattooed San Francisco band aren't looking back on Decemberunderground, a slickly-produced, MTV-friendly disc brimming with sinister pop charms. The opening "Prelude 12/21" sets the upbeat tone with handclaps, strings, and a cheeky glam-rock stomp. AFI might still operate in that distinct area where punk, goth, and frightening stadium rock come together, only now they seem intent on crashing the retro '80s party attended by the likes of Franz Ferdinand and the Killers, with flashy tracks such as "Miss Muder" and the synth-heavy "Love Like Winter." "The Interview," meanwhile, is the closest Davey Havok has ever come to crooning a lighter-waving epic. Despite the odd lapse into the Cookie Monster metal territory of their early days ("Kill Caustic," "Affliction"), Decemberunderground is even more ambitious than its predecessor. First comes the backlash, then comes the platinum.

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