In We’re No. 1, The A.V. Club examines an album that went to No. 1 on the Billboard charts to get to the heart of what it means to be popular in pop music, and how that concept has changed over the years. In this installment, we cover AFI’s Decemberunderground, which went to No. 1 on June 18, 2006, where it stayed for one week.
Here’s a mostly complete list of the artists who have played on the Vans Warped Tour who have also scored at least one Billboard No. 1 album: Blink 182, No Doubt, and Green Day—California bands that leaned to the middle from various strains of punk and ska; Godsmack, Staind, and Incubus—harder rock bands looped into the nü-metal label, two of which played some form of Ozzfest; Eminem and D12—rap artists who appeared on the tour only once; and Katy Perry and the Black Eyed Peas—purely pop artists who also made only once appearance.
Then there’s AFI, the gothic poets from Ukiah, California, incubated by the East Bay hardcore scene, who never sounded comfortable alongside everyone else. Over the course of 20 years, the band has ridden the transition from hardcore punk to goth rock to emo—always with a bit of industrial rock and a healthy dose of The Cure’s Pornography—buoyed by the seemingly boundless stage charisma of frontman Davey Havok. But A Fire Inside didn’t burst out of the gate like Eminem, reach a mainstream peak within a few albums like Green Day or No Doubt, or thrive in a dominant subgenre like Godsmack and Staind. Instead, AFI simmered for more than a decade, swapping musicians, slowly growing outside the scene it was weaned on, and incorporating influences from other genres until it broke out as major-label rock, first on 2003’s Sing The Sorrow, and then hitting No. 1 with 2006’s Decemberunderground.
AFI’s early albums are tight and punchy, residing well within the parameters of hardcore and punk. (Though, like many bands that span several genres over the course of a career, challenging fan loyalty in the process, the band hates such simplifying distinctions.) But after 1996’s Very Proud Of Ya, co-songwriter and bassist Geoff Kresge (later of psychobilly group Tiger Army) left the band and was replaced by The Force’s Hunter Burgan. After Shut Your Mouth And Open Your Eyes in 1997, founding guitarist Mark Stopholese mysteriously departed. (Nobody talks about the split, and Stopholese ended up as a competitive road cyclist.) Jade Puget—who released a joint 7-inch with AFI as a member of Loose Change and contributed backing vocals to early AFI albums—joined as lead guitarist, cementing a four-man lineup that has been together for more than 15 years.
The first album for the new and everlasting AFI lineup was the significantly undervalued Black Sails In The Sunset in 1999. Prior to that fourth record, the band had recorded precisely one song longer than three minutes: a cover of The Cure’s “The Hanging Garden.” Black Sails had plenty of connections to the previous incarnations of the band (“Porphyria Cuntanea Tarda,” “No Poetic Device”). It also contained some longer, slower-paced songs that deviated from the standard rhythmic pattern of the previous three records, like “Malleus Maleficarum” and “Clove Smoke Catharsis.” But the song that truly unveiled a new path was the album closer, “God Called In Sick Today.” Unlike anything AFI had written before, it’s ostensibly a punk power ballad with a booming chorus—lyrics shouted by Havok and supported by a chorus of “Whoa-ohs.” Immediately popular with fans despite the shift, it became the de facto live set closer, with Havok frequently walking atop the crowd during the song.
The slow-molting process from hardcore to mainstream rock continued on 2000’s The Art Of Drowning, the first minor breakthrough album that started to get airplay outside of an insular scene, mostly due to the popularity of single “Days Of The Phoenix.” But the album also contains AFI’s first use of electronic tinges, in the intro of “The Despair Factor” that begins with a drum machine roll. Between The Art Of Drowning and Sing The Sorrow, the band jumped from Nitro Records—founded and formerly operated by The Offspring frontman Dexter Holland, whose cover of AFI’s “Totalimmortal” became a minor hit off the Me, Myself & Irene soundtrack—to major label DreamWorks. The band also picked up producers Jerry Finn (Blink 182, Green Day) and Butch Vig (Garbage, Nirvana) along the way. A big change was brewing.
In 2003, Sing The Sorrow was an immediate departure to a more atmospheric and densely produced gloom. Puget programmed the beginning of album prologue, “Miseria Cantare,” with electronic orchestral arrangements transitioning into echoing, thunderous drum machine parts that sound like giant bells, rising through the song to a shout-along chorus ending with “You / Are now / One / Of us.” And the electronic touches continued on “Death Of Seasons,” which shifts from more traditional punk in the first verse to a synth-heavy interlude. The band’s style continued expanding to include stripped-down arrangements (“The Leaving Song”) and even spoken-word sequences (the hidden track “The Spoken Word,” with stanzas of a poem read by Havok, Hans Wold, and Gibson Casian). Sing The Sorrow was AFI’s paradigm shift—an announcement that the band was deliberately moving up to the major leagues and acquiring the sound to match both the roots behind it and the arenas and festivals in front. And it succeeded both commercially and critically, going platinum and remaining AFI’s best-reviewed record by the mainstream music press.
Instead of turning around and capitalizing on that unparalleled success, AFI spent nearly two years in the studio crafting a follow-up with Finn. Decemberunderground, the product of all that obsessive production work, is the culmination of all the previous steps before it. Power ballads “Kiss And Control” and “Endlessly, She Said” share DNA with “God Called In Sick Today.” “Summer Shudder,” “The Missing Frame,” and “The Killing Lights” owe their gigantic hooks to the first inklings of alt-rock sensibility in “Days Of The Phoenix.” Lead single “Miss Murder” now seems reverse-engineered to land in a Guitar Hero game. (The Marc Webb-directed video features Havok posing at a makeup table while the rest of the band performs.) And all the years of flirting with Depeche Mode-influenced electronic touches finally bloomed into full songs to go with the bits and pieces sprinkled throughout the record: “37mm” and the end of “Affliction,” a two-minute interlude mixing acoustic guitar, electronic beats, and vocal samples.
If there’s one chief influence to credit with advancing AFI’s transformation, it’s the late Finn, who produced Blink-182, Green Day, Alkaline Trio, and many others crossing the border from punk tide pools into the ocean. Decemberunderground is an album full of dark alternative rock, luckily (or calculated purposely, according to the more cynical) containing the de rigueur elements of 2006’s emo wave, drenched in maximum theatricality. It played like the soundtrack to every Hot Topic in every mall across America—with the circle of rabbits cover design, the kind of black-tinted reading of Alice In Wonderland that appealed to every kid who owned a Jack Skellington hoodie.
The single took off. A 30-second clip of “Miss Murder” that debuted on Bay Area radio station Live 105 in April was so popular Interscope gave the go-ahead to play the track in full on the air earlier than planned. Two months later, after it was released on June 6 (“coincidentally” debuting on 6/6/06), the album sold better than any AFI record before it. In 2003, a few months after the release of Sing The Sorrow, AFI played the main stage at Live 105’s summer festival BFD—held at Shoreline Amphitheatre, the same large outdoor venue as Neil Young’s Bridge School Concert—for the first time, opening for Deftones and the Foo Fighters. By the 2006 festival, which coincided with Decemberunderground’s release week, the band headlined the main stage as hometown heroes.
Some of the fan reaction was virulent, viewing further deviation from the band’s original sound as a betrayal of core values—the limply shouted “Scream with me!” in the beginning of “The Interview” remains a particularly cringe-worthy offender. But, connecting all the dots back through the previous albums to “God Called In Sick Today,” it’s a fool’s errand to lay claims of selling out at AFI’s feet. Taste gatekeepers far too often view wide-ranging ambition as presumptive. And Havok, who has talked at length about childhood musical theater roots and his penchant for putting up posters of vocalists—from Robert Smith, Morrissey, and Ian MacKaye to David Bowie and Freddie Mercury—in his recording booth for inspiration, clearly had his eyes on growth and expansion even as his lyrics reiterated death and decay. Havok always had intentions of performing on a larger stage—this is a guy who took over for Billie Joe Armstrong in a limited run as St. Jimmy in American Idiot on Broadway. And that song, the first full stylistic departure on what was effectively a debut album for a new lineup, met with ravenous approval. That acceptance encouraged smaller steps on successive albums and EPs, and once the giant leap to Sing The Sorrow connected, more gargantuan changes didn’t feel foreign.
In the years since Decemberunderground, Havok and Puget have twice taken time for electronic side project Blaqk Audio (which fully channeled the duo’s NIN and Depeche Mode influences), Burgan reunited briefly with The Forces, and producer Finn died of a heart attack in 2008. AFI sought out different producers for the band’s next album, eventually landing on Jacknife Lee and Joe McGrath. Crash Love swung the pendulum too far to the mainstream rock side, so bright and shimmery on “Veronica Sawyer Smokes” and “End Transmission” that the band was unrecognizable not just to fans of the Nitro albums from the ’90s, but also to Sing The Sorrow devotees.
The band enlisted Pixies producer Gil Norton to partially reverse course for 2013’s Burials, which strip-mined AFI’s metamorphosis for synthesized gloom and industrial rock elements. And to go full ouroboros, Havok and Puget released an EP as XTRMST, which went all the way back to the straight-edge hardcore from AFI’s origins. Those two moves highlight at least some small recognition that there’s a limit to the amount AFI can stretch beyond the scope of punk, goth, and rock influences into something saccharine. But all those who declared the band couldn’t stylistically go home again after Crash Love were forced to, at least in part, eat their words. In that light, Decemberunderground was just the first time that the allure of achieving the full production vision with electronic influences became possible. Strengthened by devoted fan support behind previous minor jumps, AFI simply swung big and hit the demographic bull’s-eye at exactly the right moment.