AFI have gone through a groundswell of stylistic shifts since first forming in Ukiah, CA some 30 years ago. But whether pivoting from melodically charged East Bay hardcore, to Misfits-worshipping horror punk, to the high-sheen post-punk anthems of their just-released 11th album, Bodies, the group have managed to sound completely in their element.
Part of the cohesion naturally rests on the identifiable – if evolved – powerhouse crooning of founding vocalist Davey Havok. On Bodies, in particular, part of this may also come down to guitarist/producer Jade Puget’s paradoxical penchant for subtly maximalist guitar arrangements.
Take, for instance, the dense yet distant layering of tremolo picking and interstellar delays affixed to Twisted Tongues – at least ahead of its distortion-crushed chorus – or how Tied to a Tree expertly rises from a brooding acoustic melody towards a spaciously paced but defences-wrecking surge of guitars and synth.
“I’m an inveterate stacker. I love to stack stuff until it just becomes unrecognizable...[but] then I have to pull everything off,” Puget explains from his home in Los Angeles.
“Usually I’m able to stop myself from doing all that, but I let myself run free with [Tied to a Tree]. I got to build this epic, glorious, layered sound.”
Speaking with Guitar World, Puget further got into the strategic texturing of Bodies, “Frankenstein-ing” dark pop hits with Billy Corgan, and how he tends to think outside of the box by creating guitar tones inside of it.
Bodies may have just come out recently, but the band had been hanging onto the record since the spring of 2020. Had you left the recordings completely alone since then, or were you tempted to keep touching it up over the past year?
“I have to stop myself from fiddling with things; I could eternally tweak a song. Once it’s mixed and mastered, though, it’s hands-off. 'Let’s move on!'”
Being both guitarist and album producer, are there different instinctual tendencies towards how those roles might want the guitars to sit within the broader context of Bodies?
“As I’ve become the producer of the band, it’s interesting how my guitar work and approach have changed. When I was just the guitar player, a lot of times I would go in there and build a giant wall of rhythm guitar. Guitars everywhere! Now I’m finding it can be more effective with fewer guitars, to not necessarily hit you over the head with this giant, thick, dirty tone. Being more strategic with it can have a greater effect on the song.”
How would that work on a song like Bodies’ Twisted Tongues, then? It’s not necessarily light on guitar, but....
“Twisted Tongues is more in the traditional vein of AFI: dirty guitars throughout. I just used some distant riffs in the verse, these call-and-response riffs with a lot of reverb and delays on them. And then there’s a heavy riff. For that song, I went back to the usual AFI playbook.”
The Dulcería single was co-written with Billy Corgan. Since AFI had spent some time on the road with the Smashing Pumpkins [in 2019], was that written while you were out on tour?
“Billy and I had gotten together on an unrelated project, and I found writing with him to be really fun. I usually don’t find that to be the case with other people.
“We’d never really done that before. AFI [music] had always been written [by] the band. [Billy and I] didn’t write Dulcería – we wrote a bunch of parts that I [then] took and shifted the tempo and key, creating this song out of all the things Billy and I had done.”
How did you go about remodeling those riffs?
“It was mainly the arranging – I would take a verse form here, a chorus from here, a bridge from there. I basically built the song from scratch using Billy’s melodies, and then built out my chord sequences. Usually when you Frankenstein something together like that, it doesn’t work – you can tell it’s been Frankenesteined – but for some reason there’s cohesion to what we were doing.”
There’s a surfy, spring reverb kind of a punch to some of those lead licks on Dulcería, as well as on other parts on the album. Was there a consistency to the gear list across the album?
“Every song was a little different. I do very detailed demos in my home studio, and I just grab whatever guitar is inspiring me at the moment. For the tremolo part on that song, I used this [Schecter] Robert Smith signature model UltraCure guitar that has a Bigsby. I’d never played that on a song before, and it turned out great.”
Anything else in the arsenal you were excited to use?
“I’ve got this Yamaha BB Broad Bass that I used a lot while writing the basic parts. It’s cool sounding, like a Peter Hook bass. Then there’s a Fender VI I love, the six-string bass; the Cure used that a lot on their early stuff.
“I do a lot of effects in-the-box, because there are infinite things you can do. Putting effects on the guitar that weren’t made for guitar, chaining together weird sounds. You can create tons of unique tones that have never been done before.
“There are a lot of the delays and reverbs in Dulcería, and you can also hear those in the middle eight of Twisted Tongues – the guitars are swirling around with a ton of different effects.”
Since we’re on the topic, Death of a Party comes across as a bass-forward piece, with Hunter [Burgan] taking the lead through some of those high runs. What can you say about his presence across Bodies?
“He’s a great bass player! I write the demos completely, so it’s a fully realized song [by the time it gets to] Adam [Carson, drums] and Hunter. I’ll go, ‘Here’s what I wrote – you don’t have to play it, but if you like something that I did, by all means. Or recreate it!’ Those guys are just really good at what they do, so I let them do their magic.
“Death of a Party sounds like it’s that kind of a Peter Hook thing, where there’s a high, melodic bass layer, but that’s actually a guitar. I wanted it to sound like a New Order bassline, though.”
At 36 minutes, Bodies is the shortest record the band has done since the late-‘90s. Was keeping things this compact by design?
“Definitely; I like the idea of albums from the ‘70s and ‘80s that had nine songs. That was the album, and that’s OK. But every time we put together a record we’re like, 'Well, we can’t leave that song off,' and it gets to be 14 to 15 songs. That happens all the time.”
What did it give to the spirit of the project, to have that kind of limitation placed on it? That enforced brevity?
“I like listening to short albums, myself. There’s so much competing for your attention [and] I don’t want to sit through 17 songs. Do your 10 or 11 best songs, because chances are you don’t have 17 great songs.”
On that point, though, are there more songs from these sessions that could eventually see the light of day?
“There is one really cool song that we did that we decided to leave off, but I’ve also been writing songs since the pandemic [started]. I have a ton of new material that I’m super-excited about [that will] take the band in a new direction. I’m looking forward to whatever the next record is going to be.”
Any hints on that new direction?
“I’ve been listening to a lot of death rock and post-punk. I’m a child of the ‘80s, so I love all that stuff. I love the sound and feeling of Killing Joke, Bauhaus, and the Cure. I don’t want to copy that, or do a pastiche or fake homage to it, but I love the feel of it. I’m trying to capture how [post-punk] made me feel when I heard it for the first time.”
From a textural perspective, a lot of that sound arguably comes down to those vintage delays and chorus effects. Do you collect those kinds of era-specific pedals?
“I’ve never been a huge collector. I would love to have, say, Peter Hook’s bass chain – all that outboard gear – but when I think about collecting that kind of stuff, it gets tiresome. I’m just not that guy.
“So, I can recreate that stuff... actually, that’s the thing: I don’t want to recreate it. I want to create my own version of it. There’s so much moulding you can do in the box. That’s what I am now – I’m an in-the-box guy.”
- Bodies is out now via Rise Records.