"I flee to decemberunderground. As you exhale, I breathe in the water underground and I'll grow pale without you"-"The Interview," AFI
"DECEMBERUNDERGROUND is a time and a place. It is where the cold can huddle together in darkness and isolation. It is a community of those detached and disillusioned who flee to love, like winter, in the recesses below the rest of the world."-Davey Havok
DECEMBERUNDERGROUND is also the title of AFI's seventh album. And like much of the record's lyrical and visual imagery, it seems to stand in stark contrast to the name behind the band's world-renowned moniker: A Fire Inside. Then again, the brightest flames burn white-they just don't burn bright for long·
The documented origins of AFI stretch back to 1991 when Ukiah, California, teens Davey Havok and Adam Carson formed the band and released a debut split 7" the following year with fellow Ukiah High students Loose Change (whose lineup at the time featured future AFI guitarist Jade Puget) titled· um· Dork (hey, they were in high school). A handful of singles, EPs, compilation tracks and the early albums Answer That and Stay Fashionable (Wingnut, 1995) and Very Proud of Ya (Nitro, 1996) followed in that youthfully exuberant, sometime sophomoric East bay hardcore/punk mode, as early incarnations of AFI hit the road and began to cultivate a worldwide following.
The earliest hints of AFI's move in a more diverse, mature direction appeared on their third album and first to feature current bassist Hunter (ex-the Force), Shut Your Mouth and Open Your Eyes (Nitro, 1997) and the subsequent A Fire Inside EP (Adeline, 1998). It would be one more year, however, before the present AFI lineup would click with the addition of Jade Puget (ex-Redemption 87) and the release of fourth album Black Sails in the Sunset and the All Hallows EP (both Nitro, 1999). Another year later, The Art of Drowning (Nitro, 2000) would find that AFI signature sound received by a rabid audience by then numbering in the hundreds of thousands. Yet more new AFI disciples would come into the fold as that record's "Days of the Phoenix" somehow found its way onto modern rock radio playlists.
AFI would make the decision to brave major label waters soon thereafter, releasing sixth album Sing the Sorrow on Dreamworks in 2003. Another ambitious leap forward for the Ukiah foursome, Sing the Sorrow was co-produced by Jerry Finn (Green Day, Blink 182) and Butch Vig (Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins), and expanded the AFI palette in all directions: "Girl's Not Grey" would be the band's single most infectious "pop" moment to date, while "Death of Seasons" incorporated lockstep industrial rhythms and mournful choruses before dissolving into a cacophony of screaming anguish. Elsewhere on the record, "The Leaving Song Pt. II" and "Dancing Through Sunday" showed that the familiar AFI chant-along choruses were as fierce and frantic as ever, even if they were couched in increasingly virtuosic musicianship.
As with AFI's previous forward strides, their fans made the leap of faith with them-and then some. Sing the Sorrow sold over one million copies U.S. and the bands burgeoning live draw continued to grow exponentially. Sing the Sorrow's success would also provide AFI its first truly mainstream recognition, in the form of the 2003 MTV2 Viewers Choice Award, as well as best of 2003 accolades from the NEW YORK TIMES, GUITAR WORLD, SPIN, ALTERNATIVE PRESS, REVOLVER and USA TODAY, which named "Girl's Not Grey" one of the top singles of 2003.
"I was completely in awe then and still am now," says Hunter. "It all seemed to have come naturally from our efforts and honestly that's really hard for me to comprehend."
As the members of AFI readily acknowledge, their atypical success story owes no small debt to possibly the most passionate and unlikeliest assemblage of fans to coalesce around any artist: The Despair Faction. "They're not really a fan club per se," says Jade. "The Despair Faction was conceived to be more interactive than that, to have more of a direct connection with us and with each other." As such, in addition to more conventional fan club perks such as exclusive merch and ticket pre-sales, DF members regularly attend AFI's soundchecks, where they come bearing gifts ranging from vegan baked goods for Davey and Hunter to homemade AFI merchandise, clothing, artwork and other keepsakes.
Now with the new DECEMBERUNDERGROUND, AFI invite The Despair Faction and other fans new and old (and yet to be made) to experience their most accomplished and labor-intensive work to date. The product of some two years worth of painstaking songcraft and performance, DECEMBERUNDERGROUND finds producer Jerry Finn returning to provide an evolutionary continuity between Sing the Sorrow and the new record. With their team in place, AFI set about the process of writing and perfecting DECEMBERUNDERGROUND.
"There's a lot more attention to detail on this record," Jade recalls. "We spent a long time writing it. We refused to rush ourselves. We took our time not just on every song but on each guitar part, each vocal, each bass line. We definitely didn't rush into the studio."
"Plus we had such a huge amount of material written," Adam adds. "Condensing that sheer volume and magnitude down to an album's worth of songs was very difficult. We could have made five different records."
The fruit of this labor is a record that Davey Havok is confident "should break us out of any preconceived genres." And even on a cursory listen, the wealth and diversity of material backs him up from the first note: "Prelude 12/21" is a rhythm/vocal-oriented curveball that differs radically from the customary calls to arms that have opened all AFI albums since Black Sails. From there, DECEMBERUNDERGROUND veers from AFI's first straight-up vintage glam style shuffle on first single "Miss Murder" (complete with backing chants from The Despair Faction) to the stark and stunning soundscape of "Love Like Winter" and the epic suite "The Interview." The longtime AFI faithful need not worry, as DECEMBERUNDERGROUND features more than a fair share of familiar AFI hallmarks, from the slash and burn of "Kill Caustic" and "Affliction" to the balladic finale' "Endlessly, She Said."
Of AFI fans' reaction to the new record, Davey says, "Our fans always come with us every step of the way. I think they recognize honesty in our music, that this is the only way we can express ourselves, to make music that we love. Nothing else. That's what allowed us to make the jump way back when and what continues to keep us going now."
"Some artists fear change and their fans' reaction to it," Jade says. "A big part of our relationship with our fans is that we do change with every record. It's expected and embraced."
"That's true," Davey agrees. "Our fans would probably be devastated if we ever released a record that was too similar to the previous one."
"Whenever we start covering territory we've covered before," Adam adds, "we just get bored."
Jade condludes: "As long as you make the record you want, sales don't matter. We have our music and our fans. Everything else is subject to the whims of the marketplace."
DECEMBERUNDERGROUND out 6/6/6 (June 6, 2006) on Interscope.