“Everything ends. And my endings tend to be eternal”: Inside the heart of Davey Havok and AFI’s new chapter
Los Angeles is a wild place. It’s everything you want it to be and more, as well as plenty you don’t. When you see it on TV, there’s an element of reality there that can suck you in without ever having been there. Davey Havok remembers it from watching metal videos on MTV, years before discovering for himself that they basically really did yell ‘Welcome to the jungle!’ at you as you got off the bus, wide eyed at what you’ve just stepped into. It’s a city that’s a mess of contradictions that somehow works in a vague sort of harmony; glitz and wealth and obscene luxury occupying the same streets as desperate poverty and violence and drugs and sin, two sides of the same coin divided by who has and who has not.
As Davey tells it, LA is also “a city of bad writing”. Though in its embrace of culture and art and fame and money and madness it can, the AFI singer reckons, be compared to London or Berlin or New York, it’s this bad writing, this particular language of odd human behaviour, that’s one of the key elements to the City Of Angels’ character.
“It’s the bad dream sequence,” Davey says. “It’s the movie where some character says some outrageous thing nobody would ever say in real life because it’s too absurd, it’s too obvious, it’s too tell-tale of their character. That happens all the time in Los Angeles. You cannot believe people are actually saying these things that show their cards and show their true selves. It’s so transparent, and it sheds a terrible light on them, but they are completely unaware. That’s LA.”
As a resident in the city for a decade now, and having been drawn to the place since he first visited family there as a kid, Davey loves LA. He loves what he calls “the art scene”, the energy of the place, the sky’s‑the-limit thinking, the fashion, the music, the weather, the pace, the people, the palm trees. Beneath this, though, is a pull based on what he calls “the duality” of the place; the opposites, the paradoxes, the extremes. And in his adopted home’s personality, he sees something of himself.
“It’s an all-or-nothing place,” he says. “I haven’t actually articulated that in that way before, but recognising that aspect of the all-or-nothing tells me, knowing myself, another reason why I like it so much here and what I enjoy about it, because dualities seem to be ingrained in my being. I am a dichotomist in many ways, in that specifically I am attracted to extremes. I am attracted to very pure elements and pure people. And I’m talking about extreme arts, my eating habits are extreme, my workout habits are extreme – but they go to both ends.”
Listen to Davey discuss his relationship with Los Angeles – and what it reflects in himself
It is this sense of extremes and dichotomies, opposites and attractions, that provide much of the inspiration for Davey’s lyrics on AFI’s 11th album, Bodies. Most obviously, one can point to lead single Escape From Los Angeles, about a person feeling the pinch and having to leave the city, but it’s an idea that can be found across the record, as pitch dark meets blinding light, often revealing themselves to be similar ideas simply dressed in different clothes.
Thirty years since he started performing in high school bands, and 26 since AFI’s Answer That And Stay Fashionable debut album, Bodies is a record that finds AFI once again poking at punk’s dark corners to see what’s in the shadows, moving into somewhere slightly new while remaining very much them. Where songs like Twisted Tongues and Far Too New recall how 2017’s self-titled ‘Blood’ album had elements of ’80s British indie and post-punk in the mix, elsewhere Dulceria has a slinking groove almost like something Muse would do. Back From The Flesh, meanwhile, is a dark, atmospheric song played out mostly on ethereal keyboards, and Death Of The Party has a new-wave stomp. Throughout, even during the more familiar-sounding songs, keyboards and electronic beats pop up, leaving the whole thing with a feeling of gutter-glitter that underlines Davey’s intent with the soul of it.
He also says that the lyrics on Bodies are his most straightforward to date. When it’s put to him that, actually, it’s often still difficult to unlock what he’s talking about, this opposing view is met with an enthusiastic smile and a sense of intrigue.
“Oh, you think they’re cryptic?” he responds, before digesting and considering, and spotting how this underlines his whole point – dualities exist for him, even if he’s trying to avoid them. “I felt like I was being direct! But then, when I’m writing so directly, part of me feels like I’m doing a disservice to the listener, perhaps limiting their ability to apply their own interpretation and meaning to the songs.
“As I say, there’s a lot of duality.”
Today, one would be hard pressed to find much of the dark side of Davey Havok, even when he’s dissecting the idea at what is, by his own admission, great and winding length. In a comfortable warmth of 66 degrees in his Hollywood home, he’s buoyant, chipper and friendly. At one point, he suddenly and theatrically produces a carrot, seemingly out of thin air, and takes a satisfied munch on it by way of putting a full-stop on a point, somewhere between Groucho Marx and Bugs Bunny.
A year of lockdown and isolation has, he says, “fried my brain”, while releasing Bodies – an album that was all in the bag at the start of last year – without being able to tour is “emotionally difficult for me right now”.
“I create music with the intention of performing it; it’s a means to the performance to me,” he says. “A record released without the performance to realise it is, in essence, a written speech that never gets spoken. It’s a musical where you just have the book and you don’t actually get to see the show.”
There are no shows, though. Instead, Davey has spent much of the past year in his home, reading, watching movies, thinking, although not really doing much creative. He also hasn’t really seen the other members of AFI in months, partly because of social distancing, largely because of actual distance between himself in the city, and the others having, in their own way, escaped from LA. So here he is, not far from The Zen Room, the secret rehearsal space hidden James Bond-style behind a wall in their management’s offices, in which Bodies was written. (“We didn’t pay for The Zen Room,” he laughs, “Other, much bigger bands have paid for that, and we use it!”)
It’s also not too far from where Davey first experienced LA as a child. Growing up in Sacramento, 400 miles to the north, the main musical talking point was that the city was home to the first Tower Records. On a visit to family in LA, however, he found things were much different. Firstly, they had MTV, where the glitter of the city featured prominently. Secondly, this stuff was real, and it was on these people’s doorstep.
“When my family caught on to really what I was into in LA, they were like, ‘Oh, we have to take him to Melrose,’” he remembers. “Back then it was all new-wave and punk, and there was a store called Retail Slut, and you went in there and they had punk couture and jewellery and it was right there in real life. Which sounds so ridiculous now, where now you can go on Amazon and order a studded belt, but that was impossible in the ’80s! The streets in LA were covered in these punks and alternative people, and I remember being driven around by my family, and the radio being on, and The Go-Gos being on the radio, and even as a child I felt like I was really immersed in it. I was in it, I was around it, I was almost part of something that I could really relate to, even in a very non-specific way. Simply by being here and being around it is elevating, in some sort of emotional way.”
Stirred, Davey always felt that, at some point, he’d move to LA. As he grew older and became involved in the East Bay punk scene, however, the cultural divide between Northern California, which traditionally looks down on the excess of its southern neighbour (“It’s the difference between Metallica in San Francisco and Mötley Crüe in LA”) saw this idea go on the back burner. But something of a draw remained. When he finally moved in properly a decade ago, he found that while some of the scenery may have changed, the city itself hadn’t, in both its glory and its darkness.
“It doesn’t take long or much interest in the arts to recognise the darker side of Los Angeles,” he says. “The entertainment industry that drives Los Angeles, that side of it can be very ravenous and very unapologetic and very cruel. It’s very evident when you’re here and you’re part of it. But there is a great allure to the city and that dichotomy adds to the allure. It creates a balance and it creates a sort of non-duality within the duality.”
Davey says that as much as he loves his home, on reflection he’s glad that he moved to the city later in life, rather than actually growing up there. He suggests it would have been “a dangerous thing for me”, and imagines that he “would have been very concerned for myself if I’d grown up here”. Not from the obvious physical or criminal dangers one might associate with sketchy sides of any city, you understand, but from the heart of LA itself – its LA-ness.
“Every city has its violent side, but really what I’m talking about is what drives the essence of a city,” he says. “You’ll find that not on the lower side of life, if you will, where I hang about more comfortably, but as you get into the higher echelons of the community. I’m talking about Beverley Hills and big house parties and the strange places where you may accidentally end up where you shouldn’t really be allowed. You see the inner workings of those places and how those communities sustain themselves and support each other, and what is perceived as acceptable behaviour and interactions, and how that’s normalised. It’s very unique to Los Angeles, and very unique to that part of society. It’s part of what actually creates the city and allows the city to continue to do what it does. So it’s a strange balance. A scary balance.”
Listen to Davey discuss one of Bodies’ central themes: endings
On Escape From Los Angeles, Davey points out this balance in the way that this money, this power that makes those with it “feel that they can do whatever they want because time and time again they’re shown they can do whatever they want, without repercussions” has actually come from art culture. Or, at least, exploiting art culture. As he sees it, the root of this darkness is “coming from a very genuine, positive place”.
As an outsider who came in to the city, Davey’s perspective here is different than those who grew up there and have never known much else. Coming of age in a punk community “that is very genuine, and is very straightforward”, a lot of people close to him “didn’t grow into having fame harm them.” That is, these bands split when they became unviable. He only knows of one person to whom this happened, who he won’t name or even give the profession of, but who got swallowed into a higher echelon. “I didn’t know them very well, but I met them when they were young, and they achieved super, super stardom in the course of a few years,” he says. “I thought they were a very wonderful person, and very kind, and we had a friendship, and then they stopped talking to me!”
This ties in with two other elements found on Bodies: the notion that for good and bad, everything ends, and the idea of betrayal. The latter is the subject of Twisted Tongues, in which Davey deals with unexpectedly and definitively splintering off from a person with whom he had a very deep bond. As is his wont, he doesn’t name names, nor does he mention specifics other than that it’s not about straight-edge, but he explains the depths to which this incident affected him.
“When you have a very strong belief system and those beliefs are unpopular and rare, and in a tiny minority, and your outlook on life is separate from the norm – and when I say ‘the norm’ I mean, like, the vast majority of human beings – when you find people who you get along with and who share those beliefs, you create a very unique bond with them,” he says. “There is a bond there and there is a friendship there that cannot be recreated and is rarely found. And as time goes on, some people who you believe are taking the same path as you veer from that path. Whichever direction they veer in, it can be heartbreaking, and in a very unique way, because you felt a connection with this person. When that’s severed, it can be a difficult thing to reconcile. Twisted Tongues speaks of that tumult.”
Endings can be found in many places on Bodies. It’s something reflected in Davey by the fact that most of the tattoos on his arms are solidly and definitively blacked out. But endings can be both negative and positive. The end of a friendship, of love, of a life can be devastating, just as the end of Donald Trump’s presidency or COVID are for the good. But all are part of time or a person or a world moving forward, like it or not.
“There’s a lot of endings in the songs, asking questions about whether they are positive or negative endings, coping with the endings, what led to the endings, post ending how to deal with it,” he explains. “Endings are something that are very common for me. In my extreme behaviour my endings tend to be definitive and eternal, for lack of a better word, because what truly is eternal? Nothing, as everything begins and ends. It really does deal with that concept that everything does end. Everything ends.”
After three decades, though, AFI have not ended. And though some members may now be family men, Davey says he remains pretty much the same. Now aged 45, he says that in many ways he still feels like a kid (“Which is a harrowing thing for me to recognise, because it’s this uncanny existence that we have where I’m watching my face fall apart, I’m watching myself grow old,” he laughs). That is to say, he’s grown, but also hasn’t.
“I have a hard time understanding how you can go through your life and end up on your death bed and not think, ‘But I still feel like I did when I started the band – now I’m dying!’” he ponders. “In many ways, I feel no different than I did when I was a kid. And then, of course, in many ways I feel very, very different. I can look back at those times and feel very much like I did then and like I have so many of the same beliefs and values. And then I can also look back at those times and go, ‘Man, you were dumb. What a laughable child you were.’ But most of the ways that I’ve changed I would refer to as growth rather than degeneration…
Hear Davey look back on a 30-year career and his growth as a person and artist
“But, I think I really relate to that person, that kid who started the band,” he continues. “There are a lot of those times that I miss that can never come back. There’s so much of that era that’s just gone, and with the shocking, horrifying generational gap that has occurred – because I’m on the other side of it – that is traumatic for me. Because I still feel like a kid. And I’m not.”
Both are true. And this is partly why Bodies sounds like it does. A little less obviously punk than AFI have been in the past, a touch less raucous, but unequivocally them. And for Davey Havok, for whatever growth or change or endings or dichotomy there has or hasn’t been, something fundamental remains. And, as he finishes his carrot and heads off to jog on the streets of Hollywood, for all the occasional enigmatic vagueness that one finds when speaking to him, he says something that, in simple, direct terms, that explains it all.
“Everything I take joy from, none of that has really changed,” he smiles. “It’s what life is about. Where you find joy and where you find happiness is the most important thing in life. Accessing those things is what makes life liveable.
“Those joys haven’t changed for me.”
AFI’s Bodies is released on June 11 via Rise Records.
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