Quintessential California hardcore quartet AFI recorded one of the most anticipated rock records of 2002, and are hotly tipped to release 2003’s crucial guitar-rock disc. Problem is, they’re both the same album. See, AFI sat on their much-discussed major label debut, Sing the Sorrow, so long that last year came and went (it’s now set for release through DreamWorks on March 11). In fact they’ve been squatting on the thing so hard that they’ve become too retentive to even discuss the record in any detail and, as we chat on the sun-dappled patio of Hollywood’s Highland Grounds coffeehouse, gleaning a progress report from AFI is a little bit like primitive dentistry.

“It’s actually pretty ambitious,” confides affable drummer Adam Carson over a late breakfast. “We went in and recorded 18 songs, and we only see 12, maybe 13, on the album. So there’s a lot of different ways we could sequence it and, as we’re so attached to all the songs, we still don’t really know which ones are going to be on it . . . we could make three different records that are in a different mood.”

Formed as a high school straight-ahead hardcore outfit in Ukiah, California, in 1991, AFI have slowly morphed, through time and lineup changes (Carson and front man Davey Havok are the only original members), into a mutant goth/punk outfit with a stage show heavy with metal’s high-kicking theatrics. After five albums for the Offspring’s Nitro imprint, they’re now poised to make their major-label splash and — with a huge cult following and underground credibility in place — they’re primed to reap fat rewards in 2003. Yet, for a band with AFI’s experience, batting with the big boys has had limited impact on their day-to-day existence.

“People think that, because we’re on a major label now, our lives are completely different,” sighs Carson, “but, in reality, we approach it the same way — which is the only way we know how to. We still make sure we’re 100 percent ready before we go into the studio.”

Yep, all those years of limited-budget indie releases have left their mark on AFI (who’re completed by guitarist Jade Puget and bassist Hunter); with so few studio hours at their disposal in the past, they made sure to be well-rehearsed before the recording light went on, forgoing the luxury of writing or arranging in the studio. This discipline, combined with the support that DreamWorks is now offering the band, should snowball into a creative crescendo for AFI. “It’s going to be the best-sounding record we’ve ever made,” enthuses Carson. “The resources at our disposal this time were amazing.”

“This would have been a very similar record if it wasn’t on a major label,” says Havok with a grin. “There would have been similar songs, but we wouldn’t have perfected them in the way we have on this record. For me the recording budget has been very significant because vocals are always recorded last, and I never had the time to get my vocals to the place that I wanted them to be. This time I’ve had more time to work on my vocals and get them where I wanted them, so, performance-wise, I’ve been more relaxed.”

With all these unfamiliar luxuries at their command, and the production dream team of Butch Vig (Nirvana/Smashing Pumpkins/Garbage) and Jerry Finn (Green Day/Blink-182) at the helm, are AFI about to unleash an unfamiliar side of themselves? “Probably no more than we usually do,” deadpans Carson. “I mean that, if you’re a consistent listener to AFI, each record has been a little shocking, because we allow ourselves to grow between each record, and this album is no exception. It’s a big step forward in many different directions for us, but I think it maintains the color that’s important to people who like the band.”

Certainly AFI have blossomed from learning-on-the-job, ham-fisted punkers into something altogether more ornate and glamorous. And their endearingly anthemic embrace and cinematic vision have earned them a growing legion of scarily devoted fans. When they dropped in at the L.A. stop of last summer’s Warped Tour for an “unannounced” appearance, they were easily the buzz band (and most popular T-shirt) of the day, performing to an outstretched forest of Hot Topic teens. They’ve captured the imagination through a crafty caramelization of hardcore’s rapid-fire beats, posturing ’80s melodramatics/atmospherics and the mock-horror imagery of the Misfits. Yet, far from being a conscious grab for attention, Havok claims these facets of the band are but organic reflections of the influences they’ve collectively and individually absorbed: “Everything from my childhood has left a lasting mark on who I am today, be it The Lost Boys, cartoons I used to watch, or Culture Club, or Duran Duran, or Dead or Alive.”

Being able to honestly reflect and express this broad range of inspirations in their own act has been a gradual process for AFI. “It comes from comfort,” says Havok. “In the same way that I slowly became comfortable with expressing myself in words, I became more comfortable with expressing myself onstage. We like to go up there and create something that people will be able to hold on to, something that people will be able to experience both sonically and visually.”

No small part of AFI’s appeal — and the current industry chatter about them — is down to Davey Havok’s perceived star quality, something that’s thin on the ground in a corporate KROQ landscape. The charming, quietly spoken and effeminate Havok bears some resemblance to Southern Death Cult–era Ian Astbury in shoulder-length black hair, smudged eyeliner and arms a tapestry of tattoos. Predictably, the media fawns over him, and much of AFI’s reluctant “goth” tag (they’ve taken to performing dressed all in white in a bid to counter this) in fact only applies to Havok’s appearance. He’s suitably pained by the misrepresentation: “I couldn’t do any of this without these guys, I mean not even close. Everybody in the band is their own individual person, and together we make AFI. To judge the band on the color of lipstick that I wear is insane!”

It’s been a long road for AFI: 11 years, five independent albums, endless road miles and repeated personnel convulsions. But, having been in this band since their mid-teens, Havok and Carson can’t even contemplate a life without or beyond AFI. “I really don’t think about it, because this is all we have and this is all we know, and this is all we want to know,” says Havok. “When we decided to really dedicate ourselves to this band, to quit school and quit our jobs and just do AFI because this was what we wanted to do for the rest of our lives, it was at that point that I said, ‘Okay, I realize that I’m always going to be poor, I’m never going to have a place to live, and I’m going to travel in a van for the rest of my life.’ There was no thought that more than a thousand people in the world were ever going to listen to our band. I realized what the repercussions would be and what satisfaction I would get from it . . . and we’ve gotten so much more from it than we ever expected, it’s amazing.”

2003 will see AFI’s Sing the Sorrow under the critical and public microscope, and DreamWorks will be pressuring the band to turn a profit on its investment. Then there’s a retrospective box set on the way (on Nitro) and an exhaustive bout of global touring. Don’t expect AFI to reinvent the wheel with their new disc, but do expect this experienced and self-assured outfit to unleash their most coherent collection to date. In a musical climate where the big-budget albums we’re force-fed are often debut efforts by novice acts, count on AFI’s maturity, breadth of influences and curious cross-pollination of styles to separate the men from the boys. With so many crucial pieces in place, it’ll be harder for AFI to fail than to succeed.

AFI play at the Henry Fonda Theater on Tuesday, March 11.

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