Davey Havok gets pissed when you call him punk. Or hardcore. But go with goth, and you'll really offend. "Just because I wear eyeliner?" he asks before launching into a lecture on how his band's dark, aggressive music defies classification. Call the AFI frontman a Madonna impersonator, though, and he's goddamn thrilled: "Oh, please! I wish I had her body!" He's right. He isn't hardcore.
With his dyed-black hair twisted up in chopsticks, Havok is a dead ringer for the Material Girl's Asian-earth-mother incarnation – you wait for the flock of doves to fly out of his belly. But it takes a disapproving Madonna fan at a Dean and Deluca gourmet food store in New York to point out the similarity. "I'm relieved that's all she wanted," he says. "Usually, old ladies tell me to find Jesus. Look, I'm just trying to find some chai and a good vegan muffin." And that's, decidedly, not punk rock.
Spend enough time with the four members of A Fire Inside – Havok, 27; drummer Adam Carson and guitarist Jade Puget, both 28; and bassist Hunter ("just Hunter," like the TV show), 26 – and you begin to believe the hype. Post-punk vegetarians with impeccable manners and an overdeveloped sense of empathy, they really are nicer than most rock stars. Hell, they're nicer than most soccer moms. Halfway through their second sold-out show at New York's Irving Plaza, Havok hands a liter of Poland Spring to a kid in the front row. "But you have to share it with everyone," he insists. A few minutes later, after a comically botched stage dive leaves twenty fans (and one somewhat disoriented lead singer) in a tangle on the floor, he pauses the fiercely frenetic set to make sure everyone gets up before being stampeded by the overzealous fatties in the mosh pit.
No wonder AFI's cultlike following of teenage fans (known as the Despair Faction) feel so much at home: They've finally found a safe space to act out their middle-class alienation. "AFI brought me into this community, this family," says fifteen-year-old Faction member Steve Ciccarelli. "They're the most talented band to come out of the punk scene in the last ten years." High praise, even if you doubt that this fella began monitoring punk music back in kindergarten.
Despite AFI's admitted fascination with suffering, their fans' vibe tends to be peaceful and love-thy-black-clad-neighbor. Sure, the band's anthems of alienation and aggression are overrun with references to self-mutilation, suicide and the impending apocalypse – but that's only half of AFI's catalog of metaphors. And rest assured, it's all metaphorical. AFI are well aware that an actual apocalypse would be bad for record sales. Throughout its twelve-year progression from pure punk to something more lyrical, the Bay Area band has always been equal parts misery and hope, like cheerleaders at a game of Russian roulette. And now, with their major-label debut, Sing the Sorrow, AFI's bizarre signature sound – by turns melancholy and menacing – is ready for the mainstream.
Even with the current rock renaissance, it's hard to imagine AFI ruling the TRL countdown. There's just something too charmingly clueless about them. When the band finds out that its radio-friendly first single, "Girl's Not Grey," might make it onto a episode of ER, the members are in a tizzy – for all the wrong reasons. Carson thinks that the band, not the song, will be making a cameo. Havok is convinced that the show was canceled way back in the Eighties. "No, man, ER is, like, huge," Puget patiently explains. It's evident that AFI have spent the better part of a decade on the road. And that's the way they like it. "The larger world has ignored us for the entire lifetime of our band, and if it continues to, that's OK," Carson says. "If new folks want to peek inside, we welcome them." Especially if they bring vegan muffins.
This story is from the April 17th, 2003 issue of Rolling Stone.