Rest assured they still love the Misfits and splatter films. But with a new album and a new outlook, AIDEN are setting their sights higher.
Story: Kyle Ryan
Photos: James Sharrock
Let’s rewind a bit: It’s the next-to-last day of the 2006 Vans Warped Tour in Toronto. Both band members and crew wearily shuffle through their routines, each of them eagerly awaiting the moment they can jump on the bus and go home. Everyone, that is, but Aiden singer wiL Francis.
Sitting in the catering tent with members of Rise Against, Francis was bummed. “I don’t want to go home,” he protested. “I want to keep going!” The Rise Against dudes looked at him with amusement: Warped is a backbreaking, arduous trek that sucks the life out of the most seasoned road warriors-especially if you’re not a mainstage band. Despite all this, Francis-selected “nicest guy” in the Warped staff’s end-of-tour acknowledgments-seems positively energized. Has he discovered some kind of rock alchemy that transforms drudgery into fuel?
Fast-forward to right now, take a cursory look at the press materials for Aiden’s third album, Conviction, and it all makes sense. Francis says Conviction is about “loving the darkness that will destroy you.” For a guy whose band embrace a dark, quasi-gothic style, he has a knack for taking the bad and making it good. There’s an amazing freedom that comes with letting go-and that’s exactly how the Seattle five-piece-Francis, guitarist Angel Ibarra, bassist Nick Wiggins, guitarist Jake Wambold and drummer Jake Davison-made Conviction.
“Well, I think I just stopped giving a fuck,” Francis says. “The feeling that I had where, ‘People aren’t gonna think you’re punk’ or ‘People aren’t gonna think you’re hard or tough,’ I just stopped caring about that. Before it was like, ‘I gotta appear a certain way.’ I’ve always done that my whole life-with school, work, certain sections of people I hung out with. I just stopped giving a fuck, man. I just don’t care about what people think about me.”
It wasn’t a personal epiphany that enabled Francis’ newfound perspective. Fittingly, it was something decidedly negative.
“What really helped me do that was all the people that talk shit about our band,” Francis says. “It really helped me get to a place of like, ‘Wow, I really don’t care what people think about me.’ I know who I am, and I know what I want this band to become, and I just love playing music.”
The kind of music has changed as well. Where Aiden’s previous albums-2004’s Our Gangs Dark Oath and 2005’s Nightmare Anatomy-trafficked almost exclusively in blistering, melodic punk, Conviction offers something more contemplative and stylistically varied-you know, slower. The band spell it out in big letters right away with “The Opening Departure,” a subdued, piano-and-vocals intro that subliminally asserts, “This is not Nightmare Anatomy II.”
The old Francis would worry about his punk-rock credentials with a song like that, but Francis 2K7 listens to music that would negate any cool-kid cred he once had. Before Aiden went into Seattle’s Robert Lang Studios in May with producer John Goodmanson (Death Cab For Cutie, The Blood Brothers), Francis avoided listening to anything that came out after 1990 (aside from Nirvana). Among the unlikely stuff inhabiting his playlist: Big-band jazzbo Benny Goodman, ’70s soft-rockers Fleetwood Mac and the Beatles.
“I tried to go back and discover musicians from the past 20 years,” says Francis. “Like what inspired those guys. I just wanted to try and make a record that wasn’t a regurgitation of something that happened in the past 10 years.”
To do that, Francis made himself uncomfortable-really uncomfortable. He rented a loft apartment in Seattle’s downtown Pioneer Square area, right across the street from what residents call “‘Crack Park.’ I wanted to step outside the box of what was comfortable in all aspects of the writing process this time-even my own safety. I regularly took walks in the middle of the night around town when all the bars were closed for the evening and the only people out are drug addicts, pimps and prostitutes. There’s a level of danger and excitement that was really inspiring.” Francis wrote the lyrics for “Bliss” and “Moment” a mile from his apartment, on the park bench next to the house where Kurt Cobain (one of the singer’s personal musical heroes) lived his last days. (“I’d walk up there in the middle of the night and sit on the bench with all the graffiti and dead flowers and just put pen to paper.”)
As a result, the band explored more subdued atmospheres, particularly in verses that quietly build to explosive choruses (“Hurt Me,” “One Love,” “Believe”), as opposed to going all-out harder-faster-louder on every song. It’s not necessarily a 180-degree turn for Aiden, but on Conviction, you can hear them stretching out.
“What we’ve done for so long has been good, and what we’ve done so far with traveling around and selling the amount of records that we sold is really good for a shitty punk band from Seattle,” Francis says. “We went with a different producer. We wrote songs that are totally different from what we’ve done in the past. That’s who we really are. It just took us a few records to figure out who we are, and now I’ve found it.”
Fans typically see the progression of a band in reverse: It’s those first few albums that truly capture a band’s essence, especially if they get famous later. Stray too far up your own ass, and the next thing you know, you’re recording a double-disc concept album with an orchestra. Unsurprisingly, some Aiden fans have been skeptical, but Francis estimates a majority of them are “fucking stoked” by the new material.
“There are a few fans that aren’t going to be able to change with the sound,” he resigns. “But I can’t physically write a record that’s going to please our fans. I can only write music that I’m in love with. If people get it, awesome; if not, whatever. Because I could definitely write Nightmare Anatomy Part II and sell the same amount of records, do the same tours and go to the same places. But fuck, man, that’s boring.”
Francis’ drive amounts to more than just avoiding boredom-it’s his lifeline. As a recovering drug addict, the singer seems to crave forward momentum to, if nothing else, keep him occupied. Followers of 12-step programs live by the mantra “one day at a time,” in order to cope. Francis, however, isn’t looking for a safety net; he’s embracing the unknown with relish.
“I’ve just kind of come to a place of peace,” he says. “I know that, on one hand, I could start drinking and end up in jail or dead; I know where that life leads. But I don’t know where the life goes [where] I continue this band, travel the world, meet amazing people, live out the rest of my life and have a lot of fun. I’m not willing to trade something that I’m really curious about and I’m really excited to have happen for something I know is a dead end.” He pauses a moment. “Does that make sense?”
It does as much as it can for someone who hasn’t lived that life. Francis racked up quite a rap sheet (burglary, drug possession, theft) during his teen years, which not only led to his expulsion from his school district, but also to cops eagerly anticipating his 18th birthday so they could bust him as an adult. Before that could happen, Francis got straight. But his past still affects his present. It practically guarantees a grilling by customs whenever he travels to a different country; Canada barely lets him in, and while others are more forgiving, it’s always a hassle.
“It’s my mistakes and my past that I have to continue to clean up the wreckage for,” he says. “Yeah, it gets old, but fuck, man, at least I get to explain to them this is what I did and get to go play a show in their country. Better than waking up and digging a ditch for a living.”
That may sound cynical, but it’s not. Francis is keenly aware of how good his life is right now. That kind of perspective comes from having to claw your way up from rock bottom. At 25, wiL Francis is healthy, happy and ready for Aiden’s next step, no matter how people respond to it.
“What I’ve done with my band is something I never even dreamed we’d do,” he resigns. “Just getting to travel around to other countries in the world is something I never even dreamed of doing. I’m content with that and with who I am as a person. I’m just old enough to where that shit doesn’t affect me anymore like it used to.” ALT
UN-SCENE AND HEARD
Wil Francis was bored with the state of contemporary punk and wasn’t looking forward to rewriting Aiden’s previous records. In an effort to further pole-vault himself out of his comfort zone, the singer significantly changed his personal listening habits. Here are just a few of the artists the singer was rocking when he was gaining his Conviction.
Francis was impressed by the soundtrack to The Fountain, which was created by Clint Mansell, frontman of respected British indie-turned-electro unit Pop Will Eat Itself. “A friend of mine made me a comp CD with some of the tracks on it and I liked it so much, I went and bought it,” says Francis. “It’s not really songs with verses and choruses. Picture if Mozart was a big fan of H.R. Giger and ate paint chips instead of regular food.”
“Tango In The Night was the Fleetwood album I put on a lot. It’s a record that my mom really liked when I was a kid. I don’t really remember listening to it all that much back then, but going back and rediscovering it was huge for me. I love this band. It’s definitely not their best album-Rumours is-but it’s one I like a lot. The songs ‘Big Love’ and ‘Everywhere’… Amazing.”
“Revolver was another album that was played at home when I was young and although I couldn’t appreciate it back then, it’s become one of my favorite albums. ‘For No One’ is definitely one of the most beautifully written songs ever in the history of the world. This was one of the records I would listen to while walking around downtown late at night. Watching crack heads run around to a Beatles soundtrack playing in my headphones is quite a hilarious thing to witness.”
“I had Benny Goodman swing music playing a lot on the car rides to and from the studio. I discovered Goodman years ago when I saw the movie Swing Kids. I’m really drawn to the fact that his music was made illegal in Germany during World War II because Benny was Jewish and kids were into him.” -Jason Pettigrew