“Warn your warmth to turn away. Here, it’s December every day.”
For alternative rock band, AFI, it is December every day, at least when you’re listening to their seventh studio album Decemberunderground. For me, there’s no better album to close out the end of the year with than Decemberunderground. While the album was released on June 6, 2006, its title and winter vibes make it perfect to spin in December, especially on the winter solstice, December 21st. Come along with me as I dive into the history of Decemberunderground including some insight into every song.
My Personal Experience
Before we jump into the album history, I want to provide context for readers. AFI is my all-time favorite band, and I have been a fan of theirs since I was 13. Because of this, I have a lot of passion for the band, which is why I want to take a moment to express how much this album means to me. If this is not something you’re interested in, feel free to jump ahead!
Without Decemberunderground (abbreviated as DU going forward), I would not be the music lover I am today. When I discovered “Miss Murder” through the video game Guitar Hero 3, I was in awe. My friend and I became obsessed with everything AFI which eventually led to me finding a lot of the music I listen to today. They were my gateway into the punk, emo, metalcore, and alternative scenes, among other genres. Before AFI, all I listened to was my dad’s 80s hits CDs and the pop hits off the radio. AFI opened a whole new world for me, and DU especially made me look at music in a deeper way than I ever had before.
I have small memories attached to every single one of the songs off DU. I love that Jade Puget sings along with Davey Havok in “The Interview.” I love that I can visualize the music videos for “Prelude 12/21-Miss Murder” and “Love Like Winter” down to being able to call out when certain moments happen in the videos. Most of all, I love that lyrically, this album astonishes me even years and years after discovering it. There is so much to talk about when discussing this album, so let’s get into it.
Coming off the success of their sixth studio album Sing the Sorrow, an album that was certified gold by the time they began work on Decemberunderground (abbreviated as DU going forward), the band has admitted there was a lot of pressure on them to follow up with something just as good or better. At the time of writing DU, AFI was signed to Dreamworks, a label part of Interscope Records. Despite Interscope being a major label, Dreamworks was more of the indie offshoot part of the label, giving the band more freedom to explore different ideas for the album until they felt they’d got it right. Yet despite that freedom, they also knew they needed to deliver an impressive follow-up if they wanted to stay in the good graces with Interscope. There was pressure to write a hit, but that can be difficult to plan for, so the band worked really hard to make a record that lived up to expectations.
The writing, done by vocalist Davey Havok and guitarist Jade Puget, happened all over the place including their A&R guy’s basement in Silverlake, California, and Green Day vocalist Billie Joe Armstrong’s basement. According to Puget, the duo would sit and write for days on end. Havok and Puget said in the early days of writing, they presented the first batch of songs to the A&R Luke Wood, thinking they were pretty good, only to be told they weren’t and sent back to their writing desks. After being told the first batch of songs weren’t great, the duo buckled down and tried again. Over the weeks of writing, the duo wrote 120 songs before deciding which 12 songs made the cut. After many late-night sessions, another batch of songs included tracks that made it onto the final album. Jade Puget said, “We wrote ‘Miss Murder’, ‘Summer Shudder’, ‘The Missing Frame.’ We wrote a lot of songs that ended up being some of the better songs on that record. So, it was helpful even though it was painful for us, and it took a long time to do that...it ended up being a better record” (Source). Puget has also been quoted saying, “There's a lot more attention to detail on this record," Jade recalls. "We spent a long time writing it. We refused to rush ourselves. We took our time not just on every song but on each guitar part, each vocal, each bass line. We definitely didn't rush into the studio” (Source).
The difficulties of trying to put out the best possible album they couldn’t stop there. Their record producer Jerry Finn insisted on the band working out pre-production out on a farm in Northern California. There was a period where older rock bands were sent somewhere else isolated to work on an album like a chateau in France or an island in Jamaica, and Havok said Finn had this fantasy of them getting away like that to hunker down and hash everything out for DU. The problem was that the band were not the kind of people with a desire to do that, especially not rough it in a “shabby farm in Cotati” Their respect for Finn had them agreeing to the arrangement anyway (although the band would sneak back to the Bay Area to sleep and drive back early in the morning, refusing to stay overnight). While at the farm, the band honed the songs with Finn until they took shape and became the record it is today. “[That was when] it started being fun instead of just painful.”
When it came to the band getting together to learn and play the songs, some were harder than others. Bassist Hunter Burgan said about the song, “Love Like Winter” that they “couldn’t play it as a band...It ended up being the most challenging song to record out of all the songs” (Source). This was because according to Burgan, the demo created by Puget and Havok was so striking, that it was difficult to match that for a full recording, to bring to life the vision. Everyone knew it was going to be a hit, but getting it to the best it could be was a difficult road to climb.
Some of the other 108 songs haven’t been left to waste away on a hard drive. A few were included as bonus tracks on their next album Crash Love and a few others were released as singles. Puget also says he keeps a few of the recordings that never made it on DU on his iPod. “I listen to my 256 GB iPod on shuffle a lot and every once in a while, one of those songs pops up. There are some songs that Hunter and Adam have never even heard, stuff that never went beyond Davey and I” (Source).
When it came to naming the album, it’s been said in interviews by Davey Havok that Decemberunderground is “a time and a place. It is where the cold can huddle together in darkness and isolation. It is a community of those detached and disillusioned who flee to love, like winter, in the recesses below the rest of the world” (Source).
To promote the album, AFI crafted a mystery for fans to solve in late March 2006 that included cryptic hints on message boards, phone numbers leading to mysterious recordings, and concert venue addresses. If you were able to solve the puzzle, you uncovered an invite to private shows in Los Angeles, New York City, and San Francisco that took place in April 2006.
This became known as the “Charlotte Mystery,” a mystery that continued to include clues hidden in songs on DU. On the album, songs such as “Affliction” feature a final minute and 45 seconds (approximately) of a woman that sounds like she’s on a phone arguing with someone. “Summer Shudder” has dialing tones as numbers are punched into a phone. These were hints leading further down the rabbit (fitting given the album art) hole of the album’s surrounding mystery. The mystery itself leading up to the album promotion is too intricate to get into all the details and website leads, but luckily, if you’re curious or a long-time fan like me and want to take a trip down memory lane, a Despair Faction member (for those unfamiliar, this is the name of AFI’s fan club) broke down the mystery here, including how the number 337 links back to the previous album Sing the Sorrow. I wanted to give one out-of-context clue just to give readers an idea of how intricate and detailed this mystery leading to passes was back in 2006.
In the background of the video, there are weird noises (something myself and other kids recognized as reversed music/words). When you use the audio ONLY and reverse it, we got this message:
It was october 1971. Everything was hunkey dorey, and I was listening, when at eight, 2:04 end, I found what I was looking for." The message was hard to decipher simply for its outright absurdity. But lo and behold, the amazing AFI board figured it that it wasn't as obscure as we though[t]. This message, like all the others, was to lead us to the next clue. What we gathered was this: October 1971, David Bowie released an album called Hunkey Dorey. The eighth track was called, "Andy Warhol." So we go to that track, listen to the words said at 2:04 and get a next website. (Really.) The lyrics were, "Tie him up when he's fast asleep." Enter that into a website and you got our next clue. www.tiehimupwhenhesfastasleep.com (Source)
Some of the cryptic videos that die-hard fans had to hunt down in the weeks before the album drop were later released on their I Heard a Voice DVD. If you toyed around with the DVD menu, you’d find you could click on a hidden submenu that featured cryptic videos of each band member, including a video of Davey Havok with his head covered in bandages except for his lips which mouth, “Tell Charlotte nothing.”
It’s so fascinating looking back on this mystery because there have been very few bands to have successfully crafted mysteries surrounding their albums as intricately as AFI (at least not many I’m aware of. Let me know of any great ones in the comments). One of the only other modern artists I can think of is Twenty-One Pilots.
Even more fascinating is how little there is to be found of the band talking about the album's promotional mystery. One of the only things I could track down was this quote from Jade Puget when he was asked if they’d continue the mystery with their next album Crash Love. “[the mystery] didn’t really end. It was a cool thing but I kind of felt a lot of people started doing that; not that we invented that necessarily but it kind of became the in-thing. Like an online mystery treasure hunt thing, so for us to keep doing that… I don’t know, it got a little played out” (Source). While I personally disagree that it felt played out, it’s clear that AFI is a band that is always looking to try something new. Each album is completely different from its predecessor.
Singles and Further Promotion
The album's lead single, "Miss Murder", began circulation on the radio on April 24, 2006, with the artwork and track listing going up online the next day. Following up the single was the “Miss Murder” music video which premiered on MTV's Overdrive program on May 9, 2006. Just a few weeks later, on May 24, 2006, a 10-inch picture disc vinyl with “Miss Murder” and a B-side “Rabbits are Roadkill on Rt. 37" was released, and the announcement that the iTunes album would include two exclusive bonus tracks "On the Arrow" and a cover of the Morrissey song "Jack the Ripper." To build anticipation for the album's release, the band performed at music festivals The Bamboozle and HFStival on top of organizing listening parties all over the US and Canada. Fans who pre-ordered the album at special pre-listening events received a special treat of a CD featuring the “Miss Murder” single on top of a cover of INXS's song "Don't Change". Decemberunderground was officially available to stream on May 30, 2006, but the first pressing of the CD came out on June 6, 2006. Those first editions of the album made in the US contained a limited edition insert with one of four band member portraits (I got Jade in case you were wondering).
Upon release, AFI began promoting the album by performing all over. Just two days after the album released, the band performed “Miss Murder” at the MTV Movie Awards. From there, they played some headline shows and made several stops on the 2006 Vans Warped Tour. In September, they did a brief West Coast tour with Tiger Army and played the Bumbershoot Festival. One of those September shows was the earlier-mentioned I Heard a Voice show that was filmed at Long Beach Arena. From there, touring expanded beyond the US to the UK, New Zealand, and Australia. I Heard a Voice, the Long Beach recording, was released as a DVD video album on December 12, 2006, with the CD version released on November 13, 2007.
Decemberunderground debuted at #1 on the Billboard 200 and it sold 182,000 copies in its first week of being released (Source). Not a bad follow-up to their successful album Sing the Sorrow. The album unseated the Dixie Chicks from their multiple-week perch atop the charts (Source). In the next three years, AFI sold over 1 million copies of the album, making them eligible for platinum certification in 2007. They received the certification formally in 2013. Piling onto the success, the band also had sold-out shows at the Long Beach Arena and Bill Graham Civic Center. As previously mentioned, the concert at Long Beach Arena was filmed and released later as a concert DVD (and a live CD) called I Heard a Voice. AFI also appeared on Saturday Night Live and Live Earth in the wake of the album’s success.
When it comes to critical reception, DU received relatively positive reviews. Entertainment Weekly gave DU a grade of B+, commending it for its further developmental shift to "an eerie, metal-edged Cure sound", with DU representing "the most melodically acute distillation of that style yet” (Source). When it comes to fans, it depends on who you talk to. Some people (me), see this as one of AFI’s best albums. Others who weren’t a fan of the direction the band took with Sing the Sorrow were not happy with the continuation down the path away from goth punk into more of an emo alternative sound. Every fan’s ranking is a little different for where this album falls, but at the time of release, it was met with a lot of commercial success.
Follow along with the YouTube playlist below!
The track list for the album was as follows...
"Love Like Winter"
"The Missing Frame"
"Kiss and Control"
"The Killing Lights"
"Endlessly, She Said"
I pulled together what I could find about the making and behind-the-scenes of these songs, but for those whose info was minimal, I just included the song’s content and theories on meanings.
This is the introduction to the album and is also included in the extended version of the “Miss Murder” music video. In the “Prelude 12/21” part of the music video, viewers see a woman at a vanity writing and folding up a note while Davey Havok sings with his eyes closed before opening them. The other band members come together, getting ready to play. At the end of the song, the woman writing the note places it in her mouth and then Havok opens his mouth which now holds the note. As Havok reads the note (which we do not see the contents of yet), “Miss Murder” begins to play. If you rewind the CD back about 20 seconds before the first track starts, you can hear the extended beginning of the song featured in the music video. The title stems from 12/21 being the winter solstice, which fits with the wintry theme of the album. This track may be under 2 minutes, but it packs a punch and sets the tone for the whole album.
Despite the pairing of “Prelude 12/21” and “Miss Murder” in music video format, the second track on Decemberunderground is “Kill Caustic” a track that is a strain of Havok’s vocal cords with the method he uses to sing this track. The song is about paying the price for what someone else has done, and it’s one of the harsher tracks on the album. Havok called the hardcore song a tie back to their past and the community they came from.
This is the most popular song from the album, “Miss Murder” reached number 24 on the Billboard Hot 100 and topped the Alternative Songs chart. Internationally, the song was a moderate success, charting within the United Kingdom, Australia, and Germany. It won in the category Best Rock Song at the 2006 MTV Video Music Awards and was nominated for the Kerrang! Award for Best Single (Source).
The music video was directed by Marc Webb and follows where “Prelude 12/21” left off with Davey Havok finding a note of three black rabbits in a circle (the album cover symbol), possibly written by Miss Murder. While the band plays the song, Havok appears on a balcony, rallying a chanting crowd below, and unfolds large posters of each band member. As the video continues, Miss Murder is drawing near, with the video ending with her placing a hand on Havok’s shoulder.
Havok has said that “Miss Murder” was written backward in a way. The bass line came first, and he tossed out a throwaway phrase of “miss murder” thinking he would plug in the real lyric later, but Puget encouraged him to keep it. From there, he was tasked with making the lyric, “miss murder” into a song instead of having a concept ahead of time. Today, the band claims that they almost left “Miss Murder” off the record. Source
When it comes to the song’s meaning, the band has said they don’t like to talk about song meanings and let people take whatever meaning they want from songs, but it’s been speculated by fans that it could be about Jesus abandoning humanity or a reference to the classic story The Picture of Dorian Gray (about selling one’s soul for beauty).
Summer Shudder almost wasn’t recorded at all. Havok and Puget had created a demo for the song, but when it came down to voting which songs would be recorded for the record, “Summer Shudder” hadn’t made the cut. It was thanks to their A&R guy Luke Wood who insisted they needed to record this song, that it became more than a demo in the end.
It is through this song that we get the album title through the lyric, “I flee to decemberunderground as you exhale.” Havok has said that this is the band’s favorite song on the album (Source). While this track didn’t get a formal music video, much like “Prelude 12/21” there was an extended version of the “Love Like Winter” music video that includes the final section of “The Interview” where the above lyric is said. In this part of the music video, there are cuts to each of the band members as they wander the winter setting.
In between these shots are flashes of the frames from videos AFI made during their "Five Flowers" (previously mentioned) mystery that ended with fans receiving secret passes to shows in April 2006. There is also a fifth frame of the word 'ÞrírÞrírSjö' over the cover of "The Leaving Song Pt. II" 7" (a song from their previous album Sing the Sorrow). The word is Icelandic for "three three seven" further playing into the 337-mystery surrounding the album cycle (Source).
“Love Like Winter”
This was the second single for the album, and it was released as a single on September 26, 2006, a couple of months after the album dropped. When it came to recording, “Love Like Winter” the band was constantly trying out different mixings to see what felt right. Up until the very end when the album was at its complete date, the band was testing out different ideas for the songs. Hunter Burgen mentioned that on the last day, Wood suggested he try a different bass line, so he wrote up three different kinds. One was super busy, one was sparse, and the third was an octave, disco-like approach. Jade Puget took the three bass lines, chopped them, and cut them together, and that was what wound up becoming the final version.
The music video for “Love Like Winter” has become a staple of the aesthetic of this era of the band. In it, we see the band in a wintry white forest as they die one by one until it’s just Davey Havok left. Havok chases after a mysterious woman (who is revealed to be evil and after him) played by Christina Petrovic. After Havok collapses through the ice and attempts to rescue himself, she appears behind him and the two share a kiss. Havok dies and is shown sinking into the water at the end of the music video. The video has been said to be inspired by the Quentin Tarantino film, Kill Bill and Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow.
Another aggressive track on the album has lyrics that could be about a man contemplating suicide. I say “could” as every song on this album is open to interpretation, but with lyrics such as “the future is bright without me”, it’s a fair assessment. “Affliction” is one of two songs from Decemberunderground that has never been played live.
“The Missing Frame”
The third single from the album, “The Missing Frame” was released on February 27, 2007. It has a protopunk vibe that is well-loved by fans. “In an interview with Kerrang! magazine, Davey Havok noted that this was the only song on the album that has 'whoa's on it (seeming to forget the 'whoa's on ‘Prelude 12/21’ and ‘Miss Murder’)” (Source).
“Kiss and Control”
“Kiss and Control” is the other track from this album that has never been played live in the 17 years since its release. It’s possible that due to the method Havok screams in this song are difficult for him to replicate since it wasn’t a safe method of screaming to begin with. Fans have described the lyrics of this song as a stream of consciousness, but Havok has said that the words were “pointed” in his mind. He has said he was very happy this song made the record (Source).
“The Killing Lights”
The killing lights mentioned in this song could be a euphemism for clubbing, staying out all night drinking, and doing drugs. AFI is a straight-edge band, so it could be a commentary on the norm and how they don’t agree with it. I couldn’t find much from the band about this song, but Havok did say that he really liked the piano outro they chose to end the song with.
This synthpop track is what made the transition for Havok and Puget into their electronic band Blaqk Audio make a lot of sense to me. This experimentation led to further experimentation intro synth outside of the band. The meaning of “37mm” has had many debated meanings from crucified Jesus, guns, or a man who wants to be a martyr. Everyone makes their own interpretation.
“Endlessly, She Said”
The final track of Decemberunderground is a somber one, but impactful. Havok has cited this track as another favorite of the band. This song is about heartbreak and the futility of love, that at least misery will wait for him if no one else. While the band played it live many times in the 2000s, it has only been played 11 times in the last 5 years.
The history of Decemberunderground turned out to be a lot longer than I originally planned, but once you get started on the history of this album, it’s difficult to decide where to stop. I hope this long post was interesting and if you’re an AFI fan, I hope you learned something new about this album. If this type of post is interesting to you, there may be more to come on album histories because I find it so fascinating to do a deep dive into them. Thank you for reading!
Thanks to the cited sources in this blog along with the links below that helped me write this article.
Written by Kristen Petronio