By Mikael Wood
LOS ANGELES (Billboard) - When the members of AFI began work on their 2006 album, "Decemberunderground," they "tried really hard not to think about it as the follow-up to a big successful record," guitarist Jade Puget says.
Of course, that's precisely what it was: "Decemberunderground" came three years after "Sing the Sorrow," the band's major-label debut and the album that introduced AFI to a mainstream audience 12 years after it formed in Ukiah, California. Driven by the rock-radio hit "Girl's Not Grey," "Sorrow" became the band's first platinum set; it has sold 1.2 million copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
Despite (or perhaps because of) the band's low-pressure mind-set, "Decemberunderground" went on to sell 993,000 copies, and it produced AFI's biggest single, "Miss Murder," which peaked at No. 24 on the Billboard Hot 100. So when Puget and his bandmates set out to make a follow-up to their second "big successful record," they figured it made sense to take the same approach.
The result, "Crash Love" (due September 29 from DGC/Interscope), is a more straightforward rock album than the synth-heavy "Decemberunderground."
"Strategizing to write hits is such a downfall for bands," Puget says. "Try too hard and often it doesn't happen. We didn't want to follow the template and write 'Miss Murder 2' in order to maintain our popularity and sales. We just wanted to make a good document of where we are."
Singer Davey Havok attributes the shift in sound on this album to the release in 2007 of "CexCells" by his and Puget's electronic duo Blaqk Audio. "When Jade and I started writing 'Crash Love' we'd just come off the tour for 'CexCells,' so sitting down and starting to create music with guitars was unexpectedly refreshing. It was exciting to play rock music again."
"I got the feeling, especially with Blaqk Audio, that people were expecting us to head more in that electronic direction," Puget says. "They thought we might be Depeche Mode on this record. But that's not where we wanted to go."
Joe McGrath, who shares production credit on "Crash Love" with Jacknife Lee, says the new album channels the guys-in-a-room vibe of older AFI records like "Black Sails in the Sunset" and "The Art of Drowning," "back when they were coming out of their two-minute, hardcore, Mom-hates-my-haircut phase."
But it's not a retrenchment, McGrath says. "The writing has evolved. Now they're writing rock songs with memorable, accessible melodies that have a poppy edge to them. Depending on which side of the chat board you're on, that's either a good thing or a bad thing. But they're not going to be confused with Daughtry."
Interscope marketing vice president Steve Sherr acknowledges that fans of Daughtry and Nickelback may be out of reach for AFI. But he says the label is determined to broaden the band's appeal to the Middle American rock audience, citing the Foo Fighters as an example of an act that moved from the margins to the mainstream. "AFI could have that same appeal," Sherr says. "I'm sure there are Foo Fighters fans who didn't accept the first Nirvana record."
Sherr points to videogames as one way to reach those listeners. The lead single, "Medicate," is available now for "Guitar Hero 5," and Sherr says a three-pack of AFI songs (including an additional track from "Crash Love") arrives September 17. The band will release five songs for "Rock Band" in October as well.
Core fans haven't been left out of "Crash Love," Puget says. Earlier this year AFI invited its audience to submit videos of themselves "talking about whatever." The band selected six entrants and flew them to Los Angeles, where they contributed backing vocals to the new album.
"Your relationship with your fans only changes over the years as much as you want it to," Puget says. "Some bands need to play the part of the big rock star. When we hang out with our fans, it's the same as it was 10 years ago."
(Editing by SheriLinden at Reuters)