Interview: AFI’s Davey Havok on new band XTRMST, newfound aggression, and battling fan expectations
I’m guessing Davey Havok and Jade Puget understand this better than most. With AFI, the goth/punk institution Havok co-founded in 1991, they haven’t made every listener happy all the time. The melancholy yet accessible fare of 2006’s Decemberunderground riled the punk purist peanut gallery who just wanted to hear more of the theatrical, anguished hardcore present on 1999’s The Art of Drowning and 2000’s Black Sails in the Sunset. The efforts that followed — 2009’s glammy Crash Love and last year’s bombastically morose Burials — while relatively distinctive, play out like the wares of a well-established band who more-or-less knows how to keep their audience happy without appearing stagnant or bored.
Strictly speaking as an unapologetic AFI fan, I prefer Crash Love and Burials to December, but I have more vivid memories of hearing December, because it made me say, “Whoa… this isn’t what I was expecting.”
Ironically, that means the self-titled debut from Havok and Puget’s new outfit XTRMST — out November 18 and out easily the most confrontational and aggressive offering of their venerable songwriting partnership, and I absolutely mean to include AFI’s Nitro Records-era in that statement — has at least one thing in common with their most pop-oriented, commercially successful album.
With Xtrmst, Puget’s guitar work is at its most sinewy, staccato, and menacing. Meanwhile, Havok’s trademark lyrical ambiguity is mostly absent, as is his oft-lauded falsetto. Delivered with blood-curdling, barely-relenting, bestial screams, his denouncement of self-medication in all its forms can hardly be mis- or re-interpreted.
Pausing from a journey to obtain a protein shake somewhere in West Hollywood, Havok spends a bit of this phone chat trying to distinguish Xtrmst as its own entity, as opposed to an AFI side-project. While the two acts share primary members, AFI spent some of the summer opening for Linkin Park and 30 Seconds to Mars, and everything worked out just fine.
Xtrmst could not have done the same, because Xtrmst would have left Jared Leto’s faithful curled up in fetal positions, weeping, and gently whispering “…They were so angry, and played so fast… so very, very fast…”
So, yeah, Xtrmst may be a wee bit closer to pure personal expression than something specifically designed for other people to enjoy. Which doesn’t mean the other people won’t — it’s a pretty cool album!. But if Xtrmst is too heavy, or listeners don’t like being told to put down the bottle and/or the rolled-up hundred dollar bill, or if anyone thinks “Xtrmst” is a silly name for a band, well, Davey Havok gives no fucks at all.
Barry Thompson: I felt like Blaqk Audio [Havok and Puget’s other other band] was cool, but mostly sounded like AFI with a lot more synths. Xtrmst sounds nothing like AFI. So did you deliberately try to make a bigger departure, or…?
Davey Havok: No. Um, we don’t really relate either of those projects to each other. I understand why some people do, because we’re the same members, but artistically, we’re in different places with all of the different projects. With Blaqk Audio, we are expressing our love of electronica, which has really been a part of Jade and I’s upbringing, musically speaking, from a very young age. There’s a similar intention with Xtrmst. Xtrmst is a vehicle for expressing the straight edge philosophy. Not being in a straight edge band until Xtrmst, we didn’t have that opportunity. Perhaps that’s why it’s so distinctive.
I wondered if maybe 10 or 15 years ago, you might’ve thought, “Hm, I really wanna do an anti-drug song, except that might alienate people,” and now you’re at a point in your career where you know you can say whatever the hell you want?
I always do whatever the hell I want. I’m not really concerned about alienating people or not. I alienate people just from the way I live, so to worry about that with my art would be hypocritical. I don’t want to alienate my fanbase or be disrespectful them, or to be so blatant in my beliefs — as you illustrate right now, people presume I speak for the rest of the band. So it would’ve been inappropriate to do so for those reasons to [do an overtly straight edge song] but not for the reason of alienating anyone.
As a big AFI fan and a borderline alcoholic, I listened to Xrtmst and thought, “This must be what meat-eating Morrissey fans feel like all the time…”
Yeah. But, I mean, if you’re listening to Morrissey you’re listening to Morrissey. If you’re listening to the Smiths, you’re listening to the Smiths. If you’re listening to AFI, you’re listening to AFI. If you’re listening to Xtrmst, you’re listening to Xtrmst.
I think I see what you mean. I caught on to a lot of atheistic sentiments explored on the Xrtmst record. What brought you around to that outlook?
Education. Observation. I mean, if you just look at the wildly destructive and dangerous effects of organized religion throughout history, whether you’re looking at the present or the beginning of organized religion when it was formed based on pagan practices, it’s undeniable and irrefutable how destructive it is and how poisonous it is.
The present situation in Iraq seems to indicate we’d all be a lot better off without organized religion.
You can look at the western culture as well. Y’know, organized religions are based in greed and pride and are just laden with really, really frightening directives. That’s not to say there aren’t aspects of each of the religions that are positives, but those are natural inclinations for human beings to live. It is our natural inclination as a tribal species to help one another, despite what some would have you believe. Fear informs a lot of that sentiment, but I don’t want to go on and on about that. I could go on for a half hour.
It’s weird, because feel like we tend to assume straight edgers are more likely to be religious and vice versa… although religious people can drink like fishes…
I think you just answered your own question. What people think of as drugs in the western world is informed by organized religion, because there’s a lack of division between church and state right now. People say, “Oh, you don’t do drugs, but you drink and you smoke?” Well, alcohol is a drug. Most of the people with drug addictions in the western world are addicted to nicotine. It’s one of the most highly addictive drugs that’s abused. Religion decrees some of these drugs okay, and some of these drugs not okay, depending on which religion you’re adhering to, whereas I point to religion as a drug itself.
Much like people turn to drugs to shirk responsibility, people turn to religion that way, to displace themselves completely of their moral options. They point to a fictitious text as an excuse, or a means to displace themselves from the responsibly that they could be taking for their actions. This can be seen throughout all organized religion, whether the actions are in essence violent, misogynistic, homophobic, prideful, greedy. It’s wild. Within the straight edge scene, which is based on clarity and responsibility, and self respect and respect for others, and being responsible for your actions, pointing to a fictitious creature in the sky or underground as a reason or excuse for doing or not doing something,whether it’s doing or not doing drugs, is unacceptable.
I can’t wait to type all that…
You and Jade do AFI, you do Blaqk Audio, now this band — why do you keep wanting to work together?
We come from a very similar place, we know each other so well, and we’ve worked together for so many years at this point, it’s very natural for us to write together. In the case of Xtrmst, this band is something we talked about since we were very, very young, so it’s something that’s really been in the works for years. We’ve wanted to do an extreme straight edge band, and now was just the time.
I don’t mean any disrespect — and of course coming up with new band names is always a pain — but was Xtrmst really the best you could do?
I’m not shocked that you wouldn’t like it, but I think it speaks perfectly to who we are, what the band is, what the sound is, and what the sentiment is.