Maneuvers In The Dark AFI Veers From a Shadowy Electronic Course and Back to a Fiery Rock Realm

Before modern rock sparkled like a flinty gleam in some mad radio programmer’s eye, AFI were instigating their ever-changing sound out of Ukiah, California. A real case for persistence and perseverance, the band started out playing and recording hardcore punk back in the early ’90s. But too bored to remain simple punkers for long, AFI’s style ran rampant from hard rock to goth to electronica, continuing to shape-shift all the way up to 2009 with their eighth album, Crash Love (DGC/Interscope).
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Before modern rock sparkled like a flinty gleam in some mad radio programmer’s eye, AFI were instigating their ever-changing sound out of Ukiah, California. A real case for persistence and perseverance, the band started out playing and recording hardcore punk back in the early ’90s. But too bored to remain simple punkers for long, AFI’s style ran rampant from hard rock to goth to electronica, continuing to shape-shift all the way up to 2009 with their eighth album, Crash Love (DGC/Interscope).

With the established lineup of Davey Havok (vocals) Jade Puget (guitar, keyboards, programming, vocals), Hunter Burgan (bass, vocals), and Adam Carson (drums, vocals), AFI went from strength to strength. Early signs were not so promising of a mainstream breakthrough, but after a handful of certified duds (The Art of Drowning hit the Billboard Hot 200 in 2000—barely), 2003’s Sing the Sorrow (featuring mega alterna-radio hit, “Girl’s Not Grey”) and 2006’s Decemberunderground (ditto for “Miss Murder”) went platinum, cementing the band’s popularity with fans. But where Decemberunderground offered a serious slice of electronic style (matching Havok and Puget’s side project, Blaqk Audio), Crash Love is a full-on modern rock classic. Referencing everyone from The Police and Flock of Seagulls to any number of post-punk-painted pretty boys, AFI prove they are no one-trick pony.

Produced by Joe McGrath (Ryan Adams, B.B. King, Morrissey) and Garret “Jacknife” Lee (U2, R.E.M., Bloc Party), and two years in the making, Crash Love was recorded at Conway Recording Studios, Steakhouse Studio, Sunset Sound, and Henson Recording Studios in Los Angeles.

After tracking drums in Conway Studio C on a Neve 88R console, guitar, bass, keyboard, and vocal overdubs proceeded all over town. Never ones to primarily rely on live recording, the band stacked and layered to their black hearts’ content, tweaking and effecting songs as the dark mood hit them. As usual, Puget couldn’t resist tinkering with sounds after the fact, resulting in the surreally tinted intros and breakdowns of a number of songs, tempering modern rock with elastic electronica.

Radio ready numbers abound on Crash Love, including the grandiose “Torch Song” (complete with stunning cathedral-worthy harmonies), the ghostly intimate “Beautiful Thieves,” Flock of Seagulls tribute “End Transmission,” retro robo punk rockers such as “Veronica Sawyer Smokes,” “Cold Hands,” and “I Am Trying Very Hard to Be Here,” and the album’s atmospheric tour de force, “It Was Mine.”

Hang on to your mascara and hair gel: Here’s AFI!

JADE PUGET: ON SONGWRITING & GREAT GUITAR SOUNDS

Your previous record was more electronic, and this one is more rocking. Why the changeup?

Davey Havok and I have an electronic project, Blaqk Audio, where we do a lot of electronic programming. So we are increasingly adding electronic elements to AFI. After Blaqk Audio’s Cexcells, I think everyone thought AFI would record this straight up Depeche Mode record. But I wanted to do the opposite, do something more about four guys playing rock. The process of songwriting was the same: Davey and me in a room banging out the songs. It’s only later that I added the electronics; this time we just focused on music that was more driving and visceral.

What are the basics of your homerecording setup?

A lot of cool software is not supported by Mac, so I write on PC. I’ll use Reason, Pro Tools, Fruity Loops, Sound Forge, Acid; it depends how I feel that day. I have hundreds of plugins, including all the Native Instruments stuff.

When writing, do you program full demos for AFI or write out charts?

It goes both ways. For Decemberunderground, I demoed entire songs, then recorded Davey’s vocals, then handed it to the band. But this time, because I wanted to do more of an organic thing, I came up with stuff on the spot, and we banged out the melodies as a band.

What is your basic recording philosophy?

For us, it’s not so much about capturing a live performance, it’s about layering and building and constructing a track. I’ve always been a proponent of the technician vibe. We’re not going to try to get one take per song and go mix it. We are going to really try to layer our instruments and create the best sonic bed we can, whether that means playing one note at a time or my doing one complete guitar pass of the song. We never write anything in the studio; we have our game plan mapped out long in advance.

For a musician adept at creating electronic music, can you give a couple tips on layering instruments while still achieving a live-performance vibe?

When creating the music, make sure that it’s something you can faithfully recreate onstage. You don’t want the fans to be expecting all these parts; then all of a sudden it’s one thin guitar. Having a great tone helps. If I am playing a lead, I always play two or three strings rather than one string, little things like that. That makes a big difference live.

What guitars, amps, and pedals did you play on the record?

I used a Gibson Les Paul Cloud 9 Reissue; it’s my favorite guitar ever. We recorded most of the songs using my [Bob Bradshaw]–modified Marshall Plexi 100 watt head. We usually mix it with something else, this time a Bogner Shiva head [60 watts, 6L6 power amp tubes] and a little Mesa/Boogie Dual Rectifier. That’s the sound on early AFI records. We usually use a customized Marshall 4x12 cabinet [with Celestion Vintage 30s].

What’s your approach to getting a good guitar sound?

It’s about figuring out the amps and getting the right blend. We don’t do a lot of EQ or compression or mess with the sound. We like a pristine sound, the way it’s coming out of the cabinet. But we wanted a different tone this time, and the Bogner and Plexi sounded best together. The blend is more of the Bogner. The Plexi sounded slightly thin, and the Bogner had more meat to it. And I used a Custom Audio OD-100, too.

And sometimes during tracking I will get a stem of the rhythm guitar and listen to it in my car, on my homestudio monitors, and on headphones to hear what it sounds like in different environments. When you’re fiddling with guitars for weeks, you lose objectivity. What you think sounds good can drift from what you were originally going for. Taking a break and listening to the guitars by themselves can help you maintain your original idea.

Once you got the right tones from the guitars and amps, how did you treat the parts with effects?

Even though this is more of a rock record, I can never forget the electronics. Sometimes a chorus doesn’t crescendo enough, so hitting a guitar chord, like the root chord of the chorus, and then flipping it around and putting some reverse reverb on it, creating a volume envelope so it swells up, and then putting that in the mix— that does wonders for effecting a part in an epic way. When we were doing Sing the Sorrow, I’d get guitar stems and just sit in the lounge with my laptop and experiment and create intros, sometimes chopping guitars and flipping pieces around and putting them through effects to create sound beds or as a backup for middle eights.

Your guitar parts recall Andy Summers or even Flock of Seagulls. Do you usually achieve those styles with pedals?

Some of that is adding tons of delay and reverb and getting a really chime-y sound on the guitar. Sometimes I would play the strings with a pencil or a knife to get harmonics. It doesn’t sound like a guitar or a synth; it sounds unique and different. Or I would play a set of wine glasses, getting certain notes I could add to the mix. If you put different amounts of water in wine glasses and run your finger around the edge of the glass, it will create a harmonic tone. Depending on the amount of water, you can create a scale. Then I played them to some of the songs [as on “Ok, I Feel Better Now”], and it sounded like an EBow.

Did you use many outboard effects?

I did use some vintage pedals, particularly the Klon Centaur Overdrive. Often you try different pedals and they don’t work, but the Klon always worked. And we used Joe’s 1968 Echoplex. Those old tape delays sound so wild. [Other pedals used, confirmed by McGrath: Maxon AD-999 analog delay, Keeley Compressor, Dunlop Crybaby Wah, Dunlop Uni-Vibe, and Electro- Harmonix Flanger Hoax.]

HUNTER BURGAN: ON AUDITIONING BASSES AND TONES

What is your process for getting a great bass sound in the studio?

I work during the writing process to realize exactly how I want to sound, based on the notes I’m playing and the position on the bass. I always start with the Ampeg SVT Classic head and Ampeg 8x10 cabinet. I usually try a couple dozen basses; it’s a trial and error thing that I get out of the way in preproduction, so I’m not wasting time and money. I like to rely on my fingers to shape the dynamic of the song. So when I start out, I will turn all the knobs straight up and open all the knobs on the bass. If I can make it sound good playing with those settings, then great. But usually it takes some shaping. Depending on the song, I may need additional midrange, around 500Hz maybe. But I don’t like to add too much overdrive; if I am not playing hard, that sounds weird.

What is “trial and error” for you?

One day I would play a Fender Jaguar bass with flatwound strings; I’m getting a sense of how that bass would sound with those songs, and how it sounds in general. I do that for each bass and each EQ setting until I really have a sense of how things will sound within the song. I ended up using two basses on the record, a new Fender Precision Bass, and a 1962 Precision Bass, always played with a pick. The main differences between the basses were the EQ settings on the amp. I also used a Marshall combo amp with a 2x10 to get a little extra edge.

Do you prefer amp or DI sound?

The DI certainly goes further as far as articulation, but the amp sound is what I’m hearing as my fundamental role in the song. I usually record pretty loud. I don’t use a lot of effects. I use some chorus and compression, but most of the pedals I used—[including the Ibanez Tube Screamer and Tech 21 SansAmp Bass Driver]—were in the chain that went into the Marshall combo amp. The Tube Screamer adds a little extra gain in the midrange; the SansAmp is a variation on that same sound.

JOE MCGRATH: PRODUCER ON THE WHOLE PICTURE

What gear did you bring to Conway from your personal arsenal?

A Chandler Limited TG2 Pre, a Chandler/EMI TG Channel EQ/Mic Pre, Chandler Germanium Tone Control EQ, and the Chandler/EMI TG12413 Zener Limiter. I also brought my dbx 160, Universal Audio SPL Transient Designer, and two UA 2-610 tube mic pres. I like how the Chandler pieces color the sound. If you put something through the TG2, which is just a mic pre, it sounds like a Neve 1073 but with more low end. It has an output feature, so you can crank up the input and get a little grit and change the tone. The TG Channel, which has EQ, is modeled after a channel strip from the first solid-state console at Abbey Road. It’s a nice musical-sounding EQ. The TG Channel was used on the kick drum and the snare drum, with a Germanium Tone Control on the snare. The Zener Limiter is my go-to for a drum submix; it sounds magical.

Davey’s vocals sound heavily processed in places. Did you use certain plug-ins?

I am not a big plug-in user. We got a distorted effect in “Darling, I Want to Destroy You” by running the signal, heavily overloaded, through my [Maestro] Tube Echoplex. But the main vocal EQ and compression was done on the way in. I was brought up in the age of tape where you got the sound right going in. The whole point was to put up your faders and that sounded like the record. Plug-ins give you the ability to not make decisions on the spot. You can run a plug-in and say, “We can fix this later,” whereas I prefer to get the sound right and print it that way. That’s the sound you created. With a plug-in, somebody can change the sound you spent time dialing in. It’s about committing to a sound.

What was the vocal signal chain for Davey?

A Blue Bottle mic [with B6 capsule], the Chandler/EMI TG Channel into an Avalon AD2044 compressor. Davey is a very dynamic singer, and with the Avalon, you can grab those transients quickly. The late Jerry Finn [producer who worked with blink-182, Morrissey, Green Day, and AFI] and I did shootouts with the Blue Bottle at every studio we’d go in—I’m talking Ocean Way and Conway—and it won every time. It has a nice top end; it’s full sounding, not too pinched or nasally. We didn’t EQ much, just notched out a little high mids so Davey didn’t sound nasally.

And for drums?

For the kick drum, an Audio-Technica ATM25 about four inches from the front head pointed at the outside of the beater through the hole; the ATM has a nice low end with a little bump around 3kHz. And a Neumann U 47 fet also in front of the bass drum, same distance away. You have to make sure the two mics are in phase. The TG Channel was the mic pre there; I like the sound of its EQ for bass drum.

On snare drum we used a Heil Sound PR 20 on top pointing toward the middle of the head. The Heil was punchier and had a tad more low end than my usual Beyerdynamic M 201. We went with the TG2 there, into the Germanium Tone Control EQ. We put a Shure SM7 on the snare bottom with the Germanium preamp; it really colors the sound. The Germanium has a Thick switch which makes everything sound better.

For the toms, we used the older AKG C 414s with the C 12 capsules two to three inches off the shell, aiming toward where the stick hits the head. The 414 is nice and clear. And we used the TG2 mic pres, again. The EQ was the GML 8200, which is very precise; you can really carve out what you don’t want and enhance what you want.

For the ride cymbal, an AKG C 452 pointed where the stick lands—the 452 has that nice crispy top—with API 512 pres. The APIs are very fast, very responsive. Overheads were AKG C 12s, again with TG2 mic pres. And [Manley] Pultec EQP1As for EQ. I put the overhead mics right over the top pointed at the bell of the cymbals to avoid that swishiness you can get sometimes. Room mics in Conway Studio C are Royer R-121s, which are usually about 25 feet out from the kit at a 45-degree angle; the 121s give you more snare drum than cymbal sound.

And for bass? Hunter gets a great, wire-y, coiled sound.

The basic setup for his Ampeg SVT Classic head and 8x10 cabinet was an omni-directional DPA 4041. I used that for proximity to get the real sub-y low end, and a Royer R-122V tube mic. I’d have the Royer just off axis and the DPA on-axis and I would bus those together and hit record. The Royer is super responsive and fast—you really get the punch of the bass. The DPA captures the sound of the cabinet, the thickness of the sound that is coming at you. And again, we used the TG2 mic pre. We used a Little Labs DI; we always had the DI signal, but Hunter and I are both more about the sound of the amp. We ran the amp sound through Empirical Labs EL8X Distressors and played with the attack and the release depending on the song we were working on.

How did you record Jade’s guitar rig?

With me, Jade used Bogner Shiva and Custom Audio OD-100 heads. The Custom Audio is a super low growl-y amp. The Shiva gives you more midrange bite. Signal chain on the Marshall 4x12 cabinet was a Royer R- 121 and a Neumann U 47 fet. The Royer was on-axis and the 47 fet pointed off-axis where the cone starts, about four inches from the cabinet. We used a Microtech Gefell UMT70S too, for sparkle and top end. The fet was for different tonal qualities for guitar parts. We’d mix all of the amps down to one track and print them as one sound.

That goes back to the conversation about plug-ins: I don’t print separate tracks for mics or cabinets, and I certainly don’t print guitar DI tracks. Get the sound you like and print it!