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Burning With Passion 

Fans follow the fire

If there's a better sign that people everywhere are gobbling up the goth/punk/hardcore amalgam that is A Fire Inside (AFI), I've yet to see it. On the photo area of their website, the band has a subsection called "tattoo gallery." Mind you, many of the members of the band sport tats -- in particular lead singer Davey Havok, who has multiple images from the film A Nightmare Before Christmas tattooed about his person -- but this section is something different. This section is all about the fans. In particular, it's about the fans' tattoos. Said tattoos cover all things AFI (the band's various logos, lyrics, and album art). Perhaps more interestingly, there's close to 150 posts to the section. Good advertising? Sure. But it's also a look at how hard touring, universal yet literate songwriting, and being cool to your fans can help develop a following so rabid that major labels and magazines from Cat Fancy to Entertainment Weekly want to run stories on you."Luckily, we have a lot of people who just focus on the music and appreciate us for what we are," Davey Havok says on the band's website. "So we get fans from all different genres of music -- the jocks, the spooky kids, skaters, college kids, punk rockers, hardcore kids, metal kids, all that."

It's a fan base that some fly-by-night, nameless collection of shiny shirts would kill to have, but it's based on hard work -- over 10 years of it, in fact.

It's a familiar enough story -- four lads start a band in their quiet little hometown (Ukiah, California, in this case), work hard, and get a major label deal. The unfamiliar part of the story lies in the fact that it took AFI until a year or so ago to finally nab that major label deal, and only two original members, drummer Adam Carson and Havok, remain. Like a sports team, the band has worked hard in the past few years, excising the parts that didn't work as well as they'd like in an effort to field the best starting lineup possible. When you're on the cusp of the major leagues, after all, you want to play like the professionals you are. To AFI, doing something else isn't an option. And perhaps it never was.

If AFI's new disc, Sing The Sorrow, is any indication, the band won't have to worry about doing anything else for a long time. Already profitable due to a grueling touring schedule, the biggest problem the band has dealt with in the past is finding time to write and record in the midst of traveling town to town. After leaving their former label Nitro (which was started by The Offspring's Dexter Holland) for DreamWorks, the band suddenly had the financial clout to take a little time off and write. Co-produced by Jerry Finn (Rancid, Jawbreaker) and Butch Vig (Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins), the record still contains the requisite aggression and Smiths-like lamentation the band is famous for. What's new is industrial-style sheet-metal breaks, intro and outro soloing, and a sort of gothic psychedelia that hasn't been done worth a damn since the late 1980s. It manages to stay true to the band's previous albums, but simultaneously becomes a sort of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland done up in black T-shirts and mascara, a surreal take on losing one's bearings and the subsequent efforts we make to hold it all together. Like the best of Joy Division or the Smiths, the darkness in the music has an undeniable purity to it, a beauty that our day-glo world of flash and circumstance would rather not admit exists.

However, as any psychotherapist can tell you, catharsis and change -- even of the musical variety -- doesn't happen overnight. Although AFI first began with a split 7" with fellow Ukiah High School students Loose Change (featuring future AFI guitarist Jade Puget), it wasn't until the band's third full-length, 1997's Shut Your Mouth And Open Your Eyes, that the current line-up gelled, with the addition of singularly-named bass player Hunter. With the addition of old friend Puget on the band's fourth album, Black Sails In The Sunset, the lineup was set. Puget, who immediately became the band's lead songwriter, says the transition was easy, despite his newcomer status.

"I was familiar with their work already, having grown up with everybody. I was familiar with the lyrical content and the way Davey liked to sing. All I had to do was be creative and true to the spirit of the band while at the same time trying to advance it (the music) if we could."

Advancement of the band's name is ongoing. Much like a Dashboard Confessional show, audience members are a big part of the AFI experience. With the current media blitz, those audiences are now larger than ever. In fact, the band must often play songs without hearing their monitors, thanks to the din of voices singing along with every word to every song. It's the sort of word of mouth that you can't buy, and it's squeezed some AFI fans out of shows, unable to afford the exorbitant prices secondhand ticket brokers are asking. Puget says he's noticed the crowds getting a bit younger thanks to MTV exposure, but for the most part, the audience is comprised of the same motley crew AFI has always attracted.

"We were selling out shows well before we ever got signed to a major label," says Puget. "Our music really is as much for the fans as ourselves. I believe they know that too, and that's part of why they keep showing up."

AFI will perform at Tremont Music Hall on Friday, May 23. Tickets cost $13 in advance and $15 the day of the show. For more info, call the club at 704-343-9494.

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