Sisters of Mercy

B-Sides intercepts a Ryan Adams IM, gets ghoulish with AFI and downloads pop gems with Little Hits

Surveying the view from a portable stage at the Riverport Amphitheatre (now the UMB Bank Pavilion), AFI's Hunter Burgan wondered, "How did I get here?" The year was 1997, and Burgan, who officially joined AFI earlier that year, was playing something other than a punk club for the first time in a career that included nearly a dozen previous stints in other Bay Area bands. This St. Louis appearance, which seemed so intimidating at the time, foreshadowed a future that even the most optimistic AFI enthusiasts — and there weren't many, given that this has always been a gloomy group — never envisioned. These days, AFI would command the main stage, on the other side of the venue's verdant hill.

AFI's musical metamorphosis from somewhat generic, galloping-steed pop-punk to progressive, genre-spanning melancholia began in 1998, when guitarist Jade Puget replaced founding member Mark Stopholese and immediately became the quartet's primary songwriter. It's an awkward-sounding scenario, a newcomer commandeering a relatively successful group's sound, but Burgan says there was no resentment.

"We were on course to be an entirely new band anyway, with Jade and I joining, so we decided to move forward," he says. "You grow up playing punk because it has all this youthful energy that is consistent with what you're feeling — but as you get older, your tastes become more sophisticated, and you become better at playing your instrument.

AFI: Ebony and ivory — not just for Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder anymore.
James Minchin
AFI: Ebony and ivory — not just for Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder anymore.
Ryan Adams: Wordy rappinghood.
Ryan Adams: Wordy rappinghood.

"With the old songs," Burgan continues, "I was playing this identical rhythm in every song, jumping from chord to chord. At the time it was challenging, but now it seems like the simplest thing in the world. I'm playing less now, but the specific rhythms and notes are quite complex. It's much more fulfilling as an artist to play at the peak of my interest and my ability, trying to be the best at what I do."

For years, Burgan was the best at flinging his bass with seemingly suicidal abandon. Playing even rudimentary bass lines while his instrument remained in constant violent motion upped the degree of difficulty to a level even virtuosic opening act Dillinger Escape Plan couldn't approach. But there were real risks to this reckless approach.

"I've burned all the skin off my forearm," Burgan says. "I've fractured my leg, chipped a tooth, cut myself in the head several times, cut [singer] Davey [Havok] in the head several times, fallen off the stage. Once I landed in a hole, scraping the entire back side of my leg on the way down, that tender area behind my knee."

Burgan remained relatively sane during AFI's July 5 gig in Kansas City, one of the band's first headlining shows since its latest album, Decemberunderground, debuted atop the Billboard charts. Most of the material came from 2003's Sing the Sorrow and Underground, uptempo albums with downbeat lyrics, new-wave guitar lines and group-hug choruses. Known for a grating, kicked-in-the-crotch delivery during AFI's early years, Havok has harnessed his voice, bringing it down a few octaves and ditching the squealy aftertaste. He also took Warped Tour mate NOFX's advice and called "whoa on the whoas": Newer anthems "Miss Murder" and "Girl's Not Grey" earned singalong participation from the crowd instead of pandering.

"We think about crowd interaction when we're writing, because when we're playing shows, it's so inspiring," Burgan says. "It gives us energy when we're weary."

Fatigue hits hardest on Warped Tour, but owing to scheduling fortune (AFI plays Warped immediately before and two days after its St. Louis show), local fans get to see the group play a full-size set indoors. Not only does the ostensibly goth-identified group now don all-white outfits, but the drum kit, microphone stands and even cables flash with pearly-white polish.

"We hate being stereotyped," he explains. "We don't want people to get comfortable expecting one thing or the other from us."

Burgan once boasted that he owned "so many black T-shirts that Fruit of the Loom bought me a private jet," and his closets have yet to undergo a complete ebony-to-ivory transfusion. However, he won't wear favorites like his threadbare Clash design because they fill him with existential dread: "I start to see that they could die soon, and I don't want to wear them into the grave." — Andrew Miller 7 p.m. Sunday, July 30. The Pageant, 6161 Delmar Boulevard. $21. 314-726-6161.

Cuts Like a Knife
There are few things in life B-Sides enjoys more than obsessing over prolific alt-country troubadour Ryan Adams. In honor of his return to St. Louis, we hacked into his instant-message account and discovered this gem of a recent conversation.

summer69: Ryan, this is Bryan Adams. I got your screen name from our mutual, uh, friend LL. The perceived animosity between us has bugged me for a few years now. This rivalry, it cuts like a knife, but it feels so...wrong.

bedhead: oh slag off you canadian dickball busy writing new album in its entirety

summer69: Hey, don't get your flannel in a bind. I just thought it'd be nice to clear the air, don'cha know? How's the album coming, by the way?

bedhead: wrote two instant classics in the 30 seconds your pockmarked nose has been in my business now lemme alone

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