Interview with AFI bassist Hunter Burgan | By Kelley O’Death | Photo by Lori Gutman
For diehard fans of Ukiah, California-born band, AFI—or A Fire Inside if you’re nasty—each new forthcoming album is a mystery. Though their roots are planted firmly in the California punk scene, the band have always been shape-shifters. Their sound and personal styles have gradually transmuted with each new record without ever losing that instantly recognizable AFI fingerprint.
In 1995, their debut full-length, Answer That and Stay Fashionable, showcased a fast-as-fuck hardcore band with a penchant for funny, flippant lyrics, and 1996 follow-up, Very Proud of Ya, refined that established sound. Shut Your Mouth and Open Your Eyes from 1997 took a decidedly darker turn without sacrificing speed or intensity, while the game-changing Black Sails in the Sunset from 1999 finally bore the fruit of their earlier spooky machinations. In 2000, The Art of Drowning finally balanced the scales, revealing an AFI settled comfortably between the fast aggression of their punk contemporaries and the gloomy brooding of their ‘80s proto-goth inspirations.
The shadowy pop sensibilities of 2003’s Sing the Sorrow produced the band’s first real mainstream success. Though AFI had long been a staple of many punks’ record collections, their fan base began to shift. The front row was no longer dominated by sweaty, screaming 20- and 30-somethings, but instead, by armies of black-clad teenagers. AFI became synonymous with “emo,” around the time emo ceased to be a genre and became a pejorative.
Many old-school fans abandoned ship, missing out on the epoch that would produce some of the band’s most mature, experimental, and intriguing musical output: 2006’s Decemberunderground, which introduced the synth element that would one day come to define vocalist Davey Havok and guitarist Jade Puget’s dark wave side project, Blaqk Audio; 2009’s Crash Love, a straight up pop rock record that shrugged off the darkness to embrace massive hooks; and 2013’s outstanding Burials, a welcome return to bleak void-gazing, but as filtered through a craft that had been honed and perfected for over two decades.
All of this rich history has been leading up to Jan. 20, on which AFI released their tenth studio effort, AFI (The Blood Album), via Concord Records. The choice to create a self-titled album after almost 25 years is beautifully supported by the record’s 14 tracks, the sum of which displays every strand of musical DNA that has ever characterized the band over the course of their storied career: the driving punk assault, the opaque black themes, the dreamy dark wave tones, and the shiny pop hooks. Bolstered by the introspective, impressionistic lyrics fans have come to expect from these rock ‘n’ roll changelings, AFI (The Blood Album) feels like a greatest hits record featuring all new material.
According to bassist Hunter Burgan—who wonder-twins with drummer and founder Adam Carson to form AFI’s rhythm section—the band began rehearsing for the new record in January 2016. “The songs on this album were already written before they were presented to me,” he explains. “I had Jade send me demos without bass so I could develop bass parts that tastefully augmented what he and Davey had written.” They entered the studio in June and finished tracking by July. Puget stepped into a production role for the first time, co-helming the boards with producer Matt Hyde. When asked if having Puget in the captain’s chair shook up the process, Burgan replies, “I don’t think it ‘shook up’ the experience so much as streamlined it. Jade worked very hard to develop and arrange the songs during the writing process, so it made sense to give him the freedom to take that vision to fruition.”
Now that the vision has been realized, the band are pleased with the final product. While Havok has stated in interviews that Burials was darker than intended, AFI (The Blood Album) seems to strike a happy balance. “The new album is certainly not as dark as Burials, but it does reach into dark places,” Burgan confirms. “Speaking only for myself, I found it easier to express ideas in a simpler, purer way. I don’t know if there’s a sweet spot between darkness and melodic expression, but perhaps that is what we are searching for in these new songs.” Those new songs include “Aurelia” and “Feed from the Floor,” which Burgan was immediately drawn to “because of their melodic structure and how dynamic and open they are. They reminded me of some of my favorite songs without referencing anything specific.”
Burgan says fans will have to ask Havok for insight into the album’s themes, but he can verify one thing: “I believe there is a lyrical theme that surfaces in many of the songs: blood,” he quips. Specifics aside, Burgan hopes their longtime fans will “find something in these songs that reminds them why they were drawn to us in the first place. I also hope they find something new—that we can take them to new places.”
Fans are sure to be transported to new places by The Blood Album, including the venues where AFI have been delivering characteristically high-energy live shows while on tour in support of the record. “It’s always tough getting back into the swing of things, especially after two years,” Burgan says of their return to the stage. “I expected us to be out of shape and out of practice, but we rode that old bicycle like we never fell off—is that a saying?” The band also chose to include a free digital download of the album with each ticket purchased—even before its official release. Burgan explains their reasoning, saying, “It’s exciting to play new songs for the first time and have the audience sing along—to see them react to the music, because they already know it. So, why not give the showgoers the album in advance?”
Perhaps it’s that commitment to their fans—who are affectionately known as The Despair Faction—and the shared joy of experiencing music that has kept AFI vital for the last 25 years. “Twenty years ago, we didn’t know what the future held,” Burgan—who joined as the band’s temp bassist in 1996 and never left—recalls. “We all lived together in a dumpy house and toured in a van, playing shows for anyone who would come to check us out. We just loved playing music and were excited to share it with new people. Now, we’re just as excited to play music for new people—and fortunate enough to have been doing it for 20-plus years!” Has anything else changed since their genesis? “Also, my hair is gone,” Burgan jokes.
This quick wit and propensity for humor has led many to view Burgan as the “fun everyman” of AFI. Does he agree with this assessment? In a word: no. “But if I am, it’s because of these two principles,” he offers. “One, I try to stay grounded and be as objective about my career as I can. I try to remember that this is a dream job—the kind of job people would kill to have. That’s why I’m taking self-defense classes… But seriously, I feel very fortunate to be able to play music for a living.” And number two? “I like to keep things fun. If we’re not having fun, then what’s the point?”
Hunter Burgan’s Extracurricular Activities
What ever happened to his clothing label, Post War Science?
“After four years of business—and probably 15 years of planning—[partner] Ted [Veralrud] and I decided to move on from PWS. Both of us loved the design and printing aspects, but grew wary of some of the business aspects. It’s OK. Nothing lasts forever. We both channel our creative energy into different endeavors now.”
Any plans for a follow-up to his 2013 book, “Success!?”
“Yes. My follow up to ‘Success!?,’ which is called, ‘Overnight Success!?,’ will be out in 2017.”
What inspired his webcomic, “Cat with Matches”?
“My comic, ‘Cat with Matches,’ was developed from an angry cat design I created for Post War Science. Cat’s disgruntled personality is inspired by a cat I had as a teenager, and probably a bit of the angst I had as a teenager too.”
Does he have cats of his own and, if so, how adorable are they?
“I don’t have a cat at the moment, but they sure are adorable, aren’t they?”
Any new musical collaborations in the works?
“I would love to work with Tegan And Sara again if the opportunity arose. Recently, I’ve been working on a new wave project with London May, Jessie Nelson, and Dennis Lyxzen called Personelle that will hopefully see the light of day before too long.”
Any new solo projects—à la Hunter Revenge—on the horizon?
“No, but you never know what the future holds.”
Are there other artistic outlets he’d like to try?
“I just took part in an art show where I showcased some new painted ceramic pieces. Painting on ceramics is a fun challenge, because you don’t really know exactly how it’s going to look until it comes out of the kiln. I like to spend hours focusing on the tiny details of a painting, attempting to master and perfect them, and then just let it all go. Let the fates decide how it will turn out. It’s quite therapeutic.”
What fills his free time these days?
“I’ve been trying to get into yoga, but every time I show up, the door is locked.”
Would he like to take a moment to talk about Prince?
“It’s such a sad loss, I don’t even want to think about it. (But I do every day.)”
Any encouraging words for the Despair Faction as we move toward a tenuous future?
“In trying times, it’s important for people to come together: to not focus on our differences, but rather the ways in which we are alike.”