“I have no interest in screaming, except in this context.”—Davey Havok on XTRMST
In the summer of 2007, AP interviewed AFI mainstays DAVEY HAVOK and JADE PUGET about their electronic side project, Blaqk Audio. Prior to the interview, Havok had made an impromptu trip to a high-end grocery in a city shopping mall in San Francisco. He passed up the wide array of pastries and sandwiches that were made from animal-based products in search of some tea. When Havok, a strict vegan, was asked if he ever had cravings for such food, he cheerily said no, but admitted to sometimes feeling like “the last man standing” when it came to maintaining his personal straight-edge ethos.
It’s that will and determination that helped the duo create the self-titled debut from XTRMST (due out November 18 on Dim Mak), the closest thing to a set of sonic defibrillator paddles this scene has witnessed in a long time. Havok and Puget convened up in Puget’s home studio and the LA facility the Treehouse to create 14 tracks of punishing, cochlea-burning, straight-edge hardcore that articulates the duo’s belief systems quite succinctly, thanks. Jason Pettigrew talked with Havok about the roots of the project, straight edge as defined as both an aesthetic and a lifestyle choice and how taking the project on the road is going to require a few good “edge men.”
How do you navigate the poles of straight edge as an aesthetic and straight edge as an ethos?
DAVEY HAVOK: It’s very interesting to deconstruct n that way. Because those distinctions are relative to an era and what sect of the community within the community you are confronted with. Really, to me, what distinguishes someone as being part of the movement of straight edge is the active stance against recreational drug use. It’s not a passive sentiment; it is oppositional. It’s not simply abstinence; it’s aversion. The aesthetic that surrounds it can come in different forms. A lot of people come into the movement for different reasons. Sometimes, shockingly enough, it’s a matter of sometimes being trendy or fashionable within the subculture. The subculture grows in waves and then it falls. Only in the subculture has there been times when it’s been “popular” [Laughs.] which is bizarre, because it’s the most unpopular thing you can do. Especially in mainstream culture. I don’t think I answered your question: I think we would have to get into specific years and decades to go any further.
For me, the music behind it is very nightmarish, very technical and very modern. I think [the music] really supports the sentiment. We always wanted to do a straight-edge band, but that is a message. That message could come in the form of power pop. It could come in the form of Dada art. But having been raised the way I am, having come from hardcore and punk rock, that seems to be the most appropriate avenue to deliver that message. Hardcore is the sound that we would turn toward to deliver that message. Because of all the projects Jade and I have been involved in, we haven’t really had the time to assemble a straight-edge band to make straight-edge hardcore. As far as culture has fallen further into the cesspool in which it wallows, it became more and more pressing upon me to express myself in that way. Concurrently, technology has enabled us to make records far more easily than we had in the past. When Jade and I were writing Burials, we were in a position that we could make this music. Also with those advances in technology, [we experienced] growth as writers, Jade’s growth as a musician, the years of hardcore behind us and [felt] the innate desire to always push and create a music form that really represents the mood of what is going on socially now. We are living in extreme times; simultaneously, our message is extreme in opposition to those times. I really feel XTRMST is a reaction to what is happening now, musically and politically.
Who are you talking to in the song “Coward, Bow Your Head”?
Anyone who has claimed the movement—no one specifically—but was untrue, people who claimed the movement for whatever reason and weakened the rest of us who believe in this and are this and gave us a terrible name. It weakens us anytime someone claims the movement and then falls off for whatever reason. It makes the rest of us look laughable. And there is nothing to laugh about.
If you take a cursory look at the titles on the album—“Merciless,” “Exterminate,” “Sharper,” “The Breed,” “Humanity” and so on—it looks very oppressive. The glyph you’re using on the cover implies a certain type of…I don’t necessarily want to say “church,” but it does seem like there’s a secret society vibe to the project.
It is a relentless record and it is very brutal. I’ve found out that when people listen to it, it makes them very uncomfortable.
But isn’t that what it’s designed to do?
Exactly. It is in some ways. Some of the people find discomfort in the force and the relentlessness of the record. What you’re feeling is really a reaction. That sort of energy that we are receiving, we are reacting to with the same kind of energy. That is what comes out of us in these times and in this society where mandatory drug use is part of recreation. It’s shocking to see the impression of a mindset who strive for healthful living and healthful relationships.
Let me ask you straight up: What’s really pissing you off right now? Because this music is centered in a great sense of anger and repulsion.
Universal selfishness, universal lack of respect for one’s self and others. Consumption without respect or responsibility. There’s such a lack of responsibility for one’s actions and people will turn to substance or to religion as an excuse for completely unforgivable actions. I just wish for a better world, and I feel if people would take responsibility for their actions and have awareness that the negative effects of their simple daily actions spread universally. More often than not, people will not even recognize it, let alone make moves to change that. If people considered what type of behavior results in growth and what kind of behavior results in destruction, they might change their lifestyles.
Do you see XTRMST as a way to get a greater discussion started?
That’s exactly what I’m saying. I think it’s a point where people should question standards, to question tradition. Tradition is a very dangerous thing: A lot of what is very negative and dangerous about society is based in tradition. If you look further and deeper into what has started those traditions, who has started them and why are these traditions perpetuated you’ll learn: Is it greed? Money? Power? Is it ego-based or positive?
Not only is the record to spark that discussion, but it’s also to support those few who are alone in their beliefs and let them know there are others out there who share those beliefs. It is a lonely movement. It’s heartbreaking: What’s happening is you have a relationship with someone—and it may not even be someone that you know—but you have a relationship with someone and you find out they lied about who they are, entirely. And that is a shocking and upsetting experience to have, just on a human level whether you’re speaking of straight edge or an amorous relationship. To discover that someone you had a very strong connection with was in fact untrue, and the connection you felt was the product of a lie and posturing. It’s devastating. And a lot of [people in straight-edge culture] experience that over and over again, and it’s heartbreaking.
What was the record that made the biggest change in your life?
The Minor Threat singles collection. When I heard it, I couldn’t believe it. I came of age in an alternative/punk/hardcore scene with people who were putting themselves out there as forward-thinking people. They were putting themselves out there in a way that they were detached from the mainstream and had greater ideals and morals and aspirations and weren’t going to settle for being ordinary. But I saw a disconnect between their alleged ideals and the self-destructiveness and nihilism in the punk scene. Then I heard “In My Eyes” and I found people who shared my affinities and my aversions and were not okay with self-destruction. That really changed my life and led me to explore vegetarianism and veganism. It’s been a positive choice in my life and feel it would be a positive choice in anyone’s life.
After the record’s release, what are XTRMST’s intentions? Touring?
We are planning to play shows in December. We’re trying to do it. We’re hopefully going to play before the turn of the year in California. We’re trying to play New York; we don’t know if we can, but that is the hope. We’re assembling the band right now. I’m talking to a bunch of our friends to see if they’re interested. We have to put together a total of five edge men, myself and Jade included. [Laughs.] We need to find three very advanced players who are also edge men. As there are so few of us relative to the rest of the musicians in the world, it’s slightly difficult. [Laughs.]
If there’s a demand for it, could you see XTRMST taking up much of your 2015?
I can’t foresee us going on a proper tour, just a few one-offs here and there. Jade and I have been writing the third Blaqk Audio record for a long time and we want to have the record written, recorded and be touring behind it next year. We’d love to be in the studio as long as possible for Blaqk Audio, which at this point, would put us at a second quarter release, if we’re lucky. We didn’t get to tour behind Bright Black Heaven very much, so in addition to the new songs, I’d like to go out and play more of that record.
Honestly, I don’t think XTRMST would’ve happened if we had to assemble a band. Because it would’ve been too much work: Assembling the band after we made the record, allowed it to be what it is. I think it allowed the record to be better than it would have if we had been in a practice space hashing it out with a punch of different people. It was such an organic thing.
Given the extremity of the vocals on XTRMST, I don’t think you could physically hold up on a long tour.
When I was recording the tracks, I would deliver the vocals three times in a row. And it would really drain me. When I was done, I had to take my shirt off because I would immediately start sweating and then I’d had to go outside because I felt very strange—just spent. Emotionally drained and physically weak just from the force of delivering the vocals. Every time we recorded, Jade would have to open up all the doors and the windows, because the room would [get hot] from all the body heat that I was emanating.
That says a lot about the nature of the project.
I know exactly where you’re coming from. I was extremely reticent to scream like that at all—ever. In fact, I’m not ever inspired to do it at all, except with XTRMST. Writing this record, it felt that [screaming] was the natural way to deliver those messages and those words. I imagine some people will think, “They want to play hardcore, he misses screaming.” Not at all. I have no interest in screaming except in this context. It was the message that made me want to do that. And as you were saying about my voice, that aspect is very scary to me. Yet, I didn’t hurt myself at all doing it. I sang properly during the recording, but I was very concerned that I would [hurt myself]. This was while we were writing Burials songs, as well. So the risk of playing live obviously concerns me, because the environment is completely different than the recording environment. It would be a risky endeavor. alt