Of all the Halloween-themed tattoos that adorn Davey Havok’s arms—ghosts, witches, jack-o’-lanterns, bats, a black cat—the one that represents him best is the image of The Nightmare Before Christmas’ Jack Skellington. Like that character, Havok has a somewhat macabre exterior that belies his goodhearted nature. As the singer for the alternative rock band AFI, he spins darkly poetic tales of death, despair and betrayal, but offstage, he’s a polite, approachable guy who doesn’t consume animal products, drugs or booze.
Oct. 22 marked the release of AFI’s ninth full-length album, Burials. Recorded at the same studio where the band created its breakout album, Sing the Sorrow, more than a decade ago (EastWest Studios, the site of The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds sessions), Burials is far more sonically lush than its predecessor, 2009’s Crash Love. Havok’s lyrics, however, are at their starkest, as the singles “I Hope You Suffer” and “17 Crimes” indicate.
In honor of the sold-out show that AFI will play at The Catalyst a few days before All Hallows’ Eve, Havok recently had a friendly chat with GT. Throughout the interview, he displayed all the insightfulness and eloquence you’d expect from a former UC Berkeley student whose music career interrupted his plans to pursue a double major in English and psychology.
GOOD TIMES: Your novel “Pop Kids” [released this past April] deals with the shallowness of fame, which is a subject that came up a lot on the last AFI album. Why has that been on your mind over the past several years?
Davey Havok: It just becomes more and more prevalent in modern culture, and I think the cult of celebrity is continuously being elevated and aggrandized by way of modern media, which is becoming such a powerful force as it spreads. Social media is such a strong force in culture today. With the inception of reality television, fame has been able to be garnered by way of negative actions rather than positive ones, and it has been able to be garnered by those who either do nothing or do something destructive. By way of social media, that fame has been more and more easily achieved, whether it be on a small level or a worldwide level, and if it is on the small level, it is achieved with the hope and possibility of having that fame on a worldwide level. It has really replaced substance over and over again, more so than it has in the past, by way of this media, and it really informs youth culture that is raised on this media, because this media was not there in generations before. As you grow up with this as a part of your reality, it is, in fact, that: reality.
Do you see fame as inherently negative?
Fame for having achieved something positive and having created something, having done something [is not negative]. Charles Darwin is famous, you know? [Laughs] And he deserves the laud and the attention on a worldwide scale for what he’s done. Anjelica Huston: She’s famous, and she’s wildly talented. It’s not fame itself that I find to be negative. Fame for the sake of fame is, in fact, a negative.
Seeing the upside-down crosses that you’re wearing in the video for “I Hope You Suffer,” I was reminded of a story I once heard: When you were a Catholic school student, a nun accused you of worshipping the Devil.
Yeah. When I was in eighth grade, during a parent-teacher conference, [the nun] said to my mother and father, “Your son is an exemplary student; he’s getting straight As; he works well with other students; he gets along with everyone, but I’m very, very concerned about him. He draws these things on his notebook covers, and he listens to this dark music. I think he is a Satanist,” causing my parents to panic and come home and tell me this, which caused me to laugh. And then [my mother] handed me a video that the sister wanted me to see. She said, “It has Ozzy Osbourne and The Circle Jerks and The Dead Kennedys in it.” I said, “Ah, that’s great! I want to watch that!” But it was one of those incendiary propaganda videos from the ’80s, though it wasn’t the ’80s at the time [I was watching it]. There was the PMRC coming down on music, saying it was the Devil’s music. It was funny.
What scares you?
Things in the mundane. It scares me when I wake up and my voice is hoarse, like it is now. [Laughs] It scares me when my friends are hurting themselves. The thought of not being able to do what I love—something infringing on that—scares me, and it scares me when my friends and family are not being able to do what they love.
Do you have any recurring nightmares?
Yes, I have recurring themes in my nightmares. If there’s ever a plane in my nightmares, it goes down, whether I’m on it or not. This does not exclude dreams that I have of being in a plane whilst on a plane [in real life], which I experienced just the other day somewhere over the Atlantic on the way back from London. I dreamt that I was in the plane, sitting next to Hunter [Burgan, AFI’s bassist], which I was, and that the plane was going down. Very unpleasant.
Along with the obvious literal interpretation, that dream seems related to what you were talking about a second ago: having things go wrong. The plane going down might be symbolic of a more figurative kind of crashing and burning.
Yeah! Yeah, I guess you’re right. And now that you reference that, which I’ve never thought of it in that way—I figured it was just the fear of flying—that seemingly might be a control thing: a sort of deep-seated fear of the lack of control, which I suppose everyone has to some extent, although I think it’s healthy to let go of the need to control everything. Certainly I don’t feel myself to be a control freak, as one would say, ’cause you can’t control everything, and if you live your life trying to do so, it’s living your life in fear, which is wildly oppressive.
When did you first understand what death was?
Oh, wow. My biological father died when I was 5. I don’t know if his death really brought a true understanding of what that meant. I suppose it did—I suppose it helped me along the way, but even understanding that your father dies, and that he goes away, and that he’s never coming back, doesn’t really infuse you with a sense of your own mortality. Just growth does. I started to really become aware of that more so as a preteen. How and why, I couldn’t say. It wasn’t an immediate moment, I don’t think. There wasn’t an event that caused it in particular, but I feel in my early teenage years was when I started to recognize what that truly meant.
What are some of the most dramatic changes you’ve seen in the music industry in the time that you’ve been with AFI?
Oh, my gosh. Endless, endless changes. The industry has streamlined so much since [the advent of] downloading and since free music has happened, and so has film and television in that same way, where only a very, very few very, very palatable forms of art or—back to music—artists get the support from record labels. It’s now so much more difficult for music to get made in that respect, whereas it’s very, very easy for it to get made on another small level and spread worldwide in ways that it hasn’t gone before. The effects have been both positive and negative—I think mostly negative, but there are some positive aspects to it, where artists you would have never heard of before actually broke through the white noise without the support of a record label, radio or MTV. I think more often than not, you get tons and tons of artists having a voice that are really just adding to the noise. It’s a wild time.
When AFI started to go national, was there ever a point when you had to check your ego?
Gosh, I don’t think so, but I suppose you’d have to ask my friends if I became out of control at any point. [Laughs] I hope not. I never checked it, so if I needed to, it still needs to be checked!
AFI plays a sold-out show at 7 p.m. Monday, Oct. 28 at The Catalyst, 1011 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. For more information, call 423-1338. Photo: Chris Anthony