AFI: Rock of Love

Originally published in Guitar World, January 2010

Jade Puget tells how goth-punkers AFI discovered the power of pure rock on their new album, Crash Love.

A straight-up rock record is probably the last thing anyone would expect from post-hardcore goth-punk icons like AFI, but it’s exactly what the group has produced with Crash Love, their new full-length studio album. The disc certainly lives up to its title. You feel the crash in slash-and-burn rockers like the lead single, “Medicate,” but you also feel the love in songs like the anthemic, stadium-levitating closing track, “It Was Mine.” Crash Love is AFI’s most hard-hitting and direct album, but it’s also their most infectiously tuneful and hooky release, with just the right ratio of muscle to heart.

AFI guitarist Jade Puget says, “Early on, I came up with the idea of doing a rock record, ’cause we had never done just a straight-up rock record before. It went against what everyone was expecting us to do. But doing what everyone wants us to has no attraction for me. I don’t ever want to do what’s predictable.”

Stylistic upheavals are integral to the AFI aesthetic. Although the band was spawned in the hardcore thrash of the early Nineties Northern California punk scene, it shed those sonic trappings and developed the doomy, elegiac sound heard on massively successful albums like 2003’s Sing the Sorrow and 2006’s decemberunderground. Puget became a master at building dense, evocative guitar textures that curl like an autumn fog around singer Davey Havok’s introspective lyrics and haunted vocals.

But by the conclusion of decemberunderground, Puget felt like he’d ventured as far into the realm of electronics and plug-in manipulations as he wanted to go. In addition, the songs weren’t coming as easily as they once did for Puget and Havok, who share responsibility for all the writing in AFI. It was clearly time for a new way forward.

An important stepping-stone in that new direction arrived in the unlikely form of Cex Cells, the 2007 album of Eighties-inflected electronica by Havok and Puget’s side project, Blaqk Audio. “It’s possible that there are fewer electronic layers on Crash Love because there are so many of them on the Blaqk Audio record,” Puget says. “But I don’t think that’s really it. It’s just that Blaqk Audio was so casual and easy to do. There was no pressure involved in writing and putting out that record. It was all fun. That’s why Davey and I were in a relaxed and creative state when we started writing Crash Love.”

This relaxed mood enabled Puget and Havok to give AFI bassist Hunter Burgan and drummer Adam Carson more of a share in shaping the arrangements on Crash Love. “Everything was very extensively demoed in the past,” Puget says. “This time, Davey and I still wrote the songs, but we wanted to work them out together as a band. So there’s more of a vibe of the four us playing together on this album.”

But to call Crash Love “stripped-down” is to speak in very relative terms. Puget remains an obsessive studio craftsman. His guitar tracks on Crash Love are as precise as they are passionate, and meticulously layered, but he relies less on electronics and digital manipulations and more on organic, if bizarre, sources of beautiful guitar noise. He was aided in this by producer Jacknife Lee (U2, R.E.M., Snow Patrol, Block Party), a newcomer to the AFI camp, who worked on roughly half of the album’s tracks. Puget says, “Jacknife has a great ability to know what a song needs sonically.”

The producer’s introduction to the band came about through misfortune. In the interim between decemberunderground and Crash Love, longtime AFI producer Jerry Finn passed away. Finn, who had produced records by Green Day, Blink-182 and Sum 41, among others, died August 21, 2008, from the effects of a cerebral hemorrhage. The bulk of Crash Love was produced by Joe McGrath, who had worked with Finn as the engineer of previous AFI discs, but the band brought Jacknife in to record an additional four tracks. The presence of both producers imbues the new record with continuity as well as freshness. AFI’s unique sensibility comes through loud and clear, but it’s put across with a new sense of urgency and rock and roll panache.

As the band prepared to hit the road in support of Crash Love, Jade Puget sat down with Guitar World to talk about the album’s creation and how AFI took their music in yet another direction.

GUITAR WORLD The initial concept for Crash Love was to get away from concepts or anything too grandiose or convoluted?

JADE PUGET Well, I don’t ever want to get away from “grandiose,” necessarily! [laughs] I guess no one shoots for “convoluted,” but sometimes it happens. It was more that our last record had a lot of electronic layers, and I didn’t want to go farther in that direction. I always want to push us to change.

GW How did the songwriting process work for this record?

PUGET The last record was a little...taxing, I guess. But this one was fun. It was refreshing that we didn’t have all the stress that we had when we made decemberunderground. Davey and I lived in the same city on the last record, and we wrote it in his living room. But now I live in Los Angeles and he lives in Northern California, so he had to fly down here a lot, and we wrote a good deal of the record at this hotel on the Sunset Strip. It was kind of a weird vibe. The place where we did our writing overlooked the pool area, where all these typical Hollywood types were lounging. That’s what we were looking at as we were writing. It was very much the opposite of what we grew up with and what we’re into as people. We felt at home at the hotel, because we’ve stayed there a lot in the past. But the place also felt a little foreign. So I think the Sunset Strip environment gave us some negative inspiration, lyrically at least.

GW Also, it was neutral territory: you weren’t in his living space, and he wasn’t in yours.

PUGET I think neutral territory is good for writing records. On [2003’s] Sing the Sorrow, I was always trying to get Davey to go somewhere else to write. Like I’d say, “Let’s go rent a house on the coast in the middle of nowhere.” I always had these romantic notions of going to some cabin somewhere off the beaten path, to write music someplace where you’re far away from your comfort zone. But no one else in the band ever had any interest in that. I think everyone else wants to be near their comfort zone.

GW What’s the division of labor like when you and Davey write?

PUGET I do all of the music, we work on the [vocal] melody together, and then he writes all the lyrics. It’s a pretty nice arrangement we have. We’ve worked like that since I joined the group 10 years ago, and it’s been harmonious. In all that time, we’ve never had a fight or an argument about a song. And we’ve written hundreds of them.

GW Do you come in with some ideas prepared, or do you go totally cold in the room with a guitar?

PUGET We work both ways. Traditionally, I’ve written a lot of stuff on my own and brought it in. But this time I got into this vibe of doing things more off the cuff. The pressure of doing that causes you to write music that you wouldn’t normally write, whereas when you’re writing songs by yourself, you often fall into routines that you’ve established over the years, such as working with certain chord progressions and arrangement ideas.

GW How did Joe McGrath and Jacknife Lee get chosen as producers for Crash Love?

PUGET Joe engineered our last two records with Jerry Finn. So we know him and have a good working relationship. Joe’s a great guitar guy and a great rock guy. He’s got an amazing ear for sound. So we did most of the record with him, and then we did four songs with Jacknife Lee, whose approach is really 180 degrees from Joe’s. It was cool to bring those two different approaches to the record.

GW What were your main guitars on this record?

PUGET With Joe, I used a lot of Les Pauls for the heavy parts and Fenders for the clean parts—that’s my tried-and-true recipe. Luckily, we had access to all of Jerry Finn’s gear, which was sort of bittersweet and sad. But he had an amazing collection of vintage guitars, amps and pedals. So when we were working with Joe, I used Jerry’s oxblood Les Paul; he also had a tobacco burst Les Paul. The thing about using Jerry’s gear is every guitar I’d pick up would be some $20,000 collectors’ item. It would sound amazing, but I’d be stressed out that I was going to drop it or ding it. I was also using one of Jerry’s Fifties Strats and some of his Teles, and also a Tele Jr. of Joe’s that sounded really great. That was the one we probably used the most, again mainly for cleaner sounds. But they were great all-purpose guitars. Any time you put one of them up, it sounded great.

GW So the Les Pauls were all vintage?

PUGET No. I asked Gibson to send me over a guitar just to use in preproduction, and they sent me this Cloud 9 Les Paul, which I’d never played before. It has a chambered body, so it’s really light. It weighs half as much as a Les Paul Studio. When I picked it up I thought, “This thing is going to sound like crap.” But it just sounded amazing. I ended up buying it, and I played it a lot on the album.

GW What about amps for the album?

PUGET When we recorded with Joe, I used my modified Marshall “Plexi” mixed with a Marshall 800, a Custom Audio OD -100 and a Bogner Shiva, which is a big part of my sound on this album. I’d never used that amp before, and it sounded great with a Les Paul.

GW What does the Bogner Shiva do that Marshalls don’t?

PUGET I like the sound of the Plexi, but it needs something to complement it in the low end. That’s something that the Plexi is missing, and I’d never found an amp to fill that gap. But that Bogner is the one that finally did it, and really gave the Marshall a bit of heft.

GW Your solo on the song “Medicate” is probably the flashiest solo on the album.

PUGET For sure. I love to shred for fun, but I’ve never made it a big part of my guitar playing for AFI, because I think you have to be tasteful with that stuff. Some bands solo on every song, and that’s cool for what they are. But in AFI, I want the solos to be few and far between, so that they have more impact. But I wanted to do at least one real solo on the record, and “Medicate” is the one.

GW It’s pretty cool. Are you actually tapping those arpeggios?

PUGET It’s actually a few different styles of tapping, involving different techniques for tapping notes and harmonics. I’m sure there’s an actual name for it, but I don’t know it, ’cause I’m self-taught and I just kind of make up my own techniques. So I’m not sure if they already exist or if I’m doing something that’s just unique to me.

GW The way you apply some of those techniques in that solo, it sounds almost like an analog synth filter sweep at points, which is pretty unique.

PUGET Yeah, it’s funny. I just stumbled upon that. And I’m doing the same sort of thing on the intro to “Beautiful Thieves.” I was so excited to stumble upon it that I had to use it in two songs.

GW Which guitar did you use for that solo in “Medicate”?

PUGET I think I used that Cloud 9, because it has such a clean, biting sound that was perfect for that solo. And I put it through a Klon Centaur [overdrive] pedal that Joe had. Whenever I wanted a gain boost on a lead, the pedal seemed to be exactly what I needed.

GW Which songs did you record with Jacknife Lee?

PUGET He did “End Transmission,” “Too Shy to Scream,” “OK I Feel Better Now” and “Veronica Sawyer Smokes.” The guitar sounds we were getting with Jacknife were sounds that we had never really explored as a band before. We’ve always been into big, heavy rock sounds, but with Jacknife we did a lot of grungy, grimy sounds. I refer to it as “shabby chic” production, where you have a lot of dirty and almost lo-fi sounds, but when you put them together you get something that’s very cohesive and lush sounding.

GW How did you create those lo-fi sounds?

PUGET Jacknife told everyone to bring in any kind of noisy amp they had. We ended up with a crazy-looking wall of combo amps. Some of them didn’t even have names. For some of the clean tones, we used a Mesa/Boogie Studio Caliber 1x12 combo, an Engl 1x12 combo and a Seventies silverface Fender Twin combo. Some of the other amps included a Diezel, which obviously has a very heavy sound, and my Plexi. We also used Diamond Spitfire and Phantom heads. I’m using Diamond heads live now, as well. They have sort of a modern heavy sound to them. And we had a ton of pedals, too. Jacknife would spend hours throwing together different pedal combinations. We had an MXR delay pedal and a bunch of Boss and Electro-Harmonix pedals, including a Memory Man.

GW You’ve always done a lot of very good ambient and textural guitar work. Are you influenced by the great textural guitarists of the Eighties, like [U2’s] the Edge, [the Cure’s] Robert Smith or [Cocteau Twins’] Robin Guthrie?

PUGET Well, there are certain things a guitarist can do that immediately bring those people to mind. Like on the song “OK I Feel Better Now,” I wanted to play some atmospheric guitar, but once you throw some triplet delay on a clean, chimey guitar, it immediately sounds like the Edge. So it’s a tricky thing.

GW AFI has frequently said, “We don’t jam.” Can you elaborate on that?

PUGET It’s just that we don’t jam as part of our songwriting process—although, ironically, “Darling I Want to Destroy You” is the first AFI song ever written from a jam. But as far as actually jamming for the heck of it, yeah, we do it all the time. Just ask any of our sound guys. They hate us because when we get up to do a soundcheck, we just start jamming and go on forever and ever.

GW So this is your 10th anniversary with AFI.

PUGET Yes, I joined in November 1999.

GW How does that feel?

PUGET Pretty crazy. It sure doesn’t feel like I’ve been in this band 10 years. But, you know, you’re not living in the real world when you’re in a band; you’re in kind of this fantasy world, so it’s easy for it not to seem like reality and for time to pass very quickly.

GW You experience time differently.

PUGET My girlfriend always makes fun of me because I often don’t know what day of the week it is. It’s like I’m not tied to any kind of schedule.

GW Like the nine-to-five working week. I think every musician aspires to escape that.

PUGET Certainly I don’t take what I have for granted. It’s an amazing lifestyle to have.

GW After 10 years, is there anything new to discover?

PUGET I would hope so. That’s one of the reasons why we push ourselves to do different things and not release the same record over and over again. Sing the Sorrow came out in 2003, and it was a very successful record for us. We could very well have said, “This is our sound. We’ve found a successful formula. Let’s repeat it on our next record.” But we didn’t. Our last record was very successful too. But rather than sticking with one of these formulas that have worked, we keep changing what we’re doing and searching for new things. As long as we’re doing that, then there are always new things to discover and experience.

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