Hunter Burgan Goes the Distance

May 23, 2014
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As an avid long-distance runner, Hunter Burgan knows a thing or two about the importance of endurance. And given his 16-year run with gothic-punk outfit AFI, it’s clear that Hunter understands how keeping pace and evolving your stride yields results. Growing up as a multi-instrumentalist who eventually found a calling in bass, Burgan’s early days as a hardcore player were fueled by a “speed-first” mentality where note density took precedence over melodic choices. Now a seasoned pro, Hunter focuses on the song as a whole and his relationship to the other instruments around him. On his band’s ninth release, Burials, Burgan has lost none of the fire of youth, but this time around there’s much more than speed fueling the movement of his bass lines. And thanks to doubling up lines with synth bass and using a three-amp setup in the studio, Burgan’s tone is louder and lower than ever.

In his downtime prior to tracking Burials, Burgan kept busy with The Color of Summer, a solo album he recorded under the name Las Gatas Beach Club. The tracks showcase Hunter’s multi-instrumental acumen and love for melodic, laid-back beach music. Sporting a warm, clean bass tone with a resemblance to dub and putting the spotlight on vocals and ukulele, Las Gatas Beach Club couldn’t be further from AFI’s sound. But don’t let the chill vibe of his solo work deceive you—Burgan and his AFI bandmates are thrashing as hard as ever. Even after years of constant touring, Hunter still relishes the excitement of the stage, and judging from his high-flying leaps and roundhouse jump kicks, he’s as fit as when he was just a young punk picking up the bass. With a lot of road behind him, much awaiting him, and the knowledge that pace is everything, Hunter is now hitting full stride.

How do you view your role in AFI?

I like to think that even from the earliest years when we were playing hardcore music, instead of just following the guitar riffs, I would try to squeeze other genres of music into what we were doing. That’s kind of my mission statement in this band. Whether that is by trying to put a jazz movement into a fast hardcore song or putting some punk into a pop song, that’s just me trying to be the rebel. At the same time, I understand the fundamental role of a bass player, and I try to give each song movement and counterpoint where it needs it. I also try to play off the vocals more than the other instruments, because I feel like the bass is a highly melodic instrument.

What were your goals for bass on Burials?

When you’re presented with a song that already has a set mood, you have to find the most tasteful thing to play—what will serve the song best, and what won’t take away from what’s already there. I love that challenge. It’s often what I do best—solving that puzzle.

Can you give an example?

On “The Face Beneath the Waves,” there is a middle section that I tried a hundred different things on. I didn’t love any of them, and then I realized that the best thing I could do was not play. Most bass players reach that thought process or level of maturity at some point in their career, but it was a real eyeopener for me.

You get some gritty tones on the new album. How did you dial in your sound?

For most of the songs I used three different amps that we blended together; I didn’t use a direct signal at all this time around. I used an Ampeg SVT Classic with an 8x10 cab for warmth and body, a 100-watt Fender Bassman and 4x10 cabinet for my midrange, and a Marshall JCM800 and 4x12 for my top-end gain. We mixed those three amps differently for each song to get different tones. It was all about getting crazy, aggressive sounds that were in some cases deeper than anything I’d gotten in the past.

You also play synth bass.

On “The Embrace,” I used two additional synth basses on top of the three amps, and it made the song so thick on bass. I used a Moog Minotaur that sounded great blended in. When you’re double-tracking bass and synths, you risk frequency cancellation, but if you experiment with it, you can make it work.

How would you describe your picking technique?

Live shows are such a circus that my technique varies a bit between the stage and the studio. Depending on the nature of the song or how much I’m moving around, I often do a thing where I’ll fret with one left-hand finger and use the other three fingers to mute the other strings. That way I can go crazy with my right hand. It’s a bit sloppy; I only do that if I’m jumping off the kick drum or something. Because I do a lot of crazy moves onstage, I use my right-hand ring and pinkie fingers to lock my hand in and keep my bass in place. It keeps it steady and allows me to do my ninja kicks. I feel like I have a pretty large toolbox of techniques because I’ve worked on them for so long.

In your opinion, what makes for a great bass tone?

I always feel safe plugging into an Ampeg SVT Classic with an 8x10 cab. You can dial the knobs straight up and you’ll get a great tone. I like to turn down the treble and roll up the bass a little; it all depends on the room and how it reacts to low end. I shape a lot of my tone with my picking hand—just the angle of the pick and how hard I’m playing dictates a lot. I usually play really hard, but I can dial it back to change my dynamics. I feel like I can get almost any sound that I want just from altering my picking attack.

Your solo work is quite different from your AFI style.

I’m into a lot of different genres of music that are way out of the realm of AFI, and it’s a great thing to have outlets to convey the other sides of my playing. Getting to work with other artists is really exciting; it’s a great opportunity to work on new songs and new puzzles in studio situations that call for a lot of improvisation. There’s not a lot of that in AFI, because we like to know everything we’re doing before we go into the studio. So it was refreshing to come up with an idea on the fly and not know if it works or not.

What excites you most about playing live?

We have an audience in front of us who came to see a show. If they’ve seen us live before, they know what to expect—we can’t let them down. If they’ve never seen us before, this is our first opportunity to blow them away. That’s the first thing I think about when I get out onstage. I get excited before we even play a note. From there, it’s mostly a matter of pacing energy.

How do you manage that?

I think about how I’m going to carry my energy through a long performance. You want to come out strong, of course, so I run around the stage and jump off things. As the show warms up, we get into a groove. I’m having so much fun nowadays that I’m finding myself singing to all the songs and loving every minute of each set.

AFI, left to right: Davey Havok, Burgan, Jade Puget, and Adam Carson
How do you prepare for AFI shows?

I don’t do a ton before the shows anymore. I think being in good shape in the first place is the best way to be prepared. I’m a runner, I’m a vegan—I watch what I eat, and I try to get enough sleep and generally take care of my body. The act of putting on my stage clothes before a show—which aren’t too different from my regular clothes—gets me into a mind space that I’m about to put on a performance. It’s like when I put on my running outfit before a run; it mentally prepares me. I switch into that mode, and that makes me excited from the time I put the clothes on to the time I get onstage.

How has your playing matured over the years?

When I first started playing, it was in a hardcore band. We couldn’t find a bass player—I was on drums—so I picked it up. My initial goal was to set myself apart from other bass players by playing faster and tighter than they could. That carried over to AFI for me, but then I realized that I needed other things in my palette. So over the years I’ve added a lot of different things to what I do. I definitely feel like songs are a puzzle, and as I get older and have more experience, the puzzle is easier to solve. I find that a lot of the time, a simple solution can be the best solution.

INFO

LISTEN

AFI, Burials [Universal Republic, 2013]; Las Gatas Beach Club, The Color of Summer [postwarscience.com, 2013]

EQUIP

Bass Fender American Standard Precision Bass
Rig Ampeg SVT Classic heads, Ampeg 8x10 cabinets (live); Fender Bassman & Marshall JCM heads (studio)
Effects Electro-Harmonix Bass Microsynth, Electro-Harmonix Big Muff
Strings Dunlop Nickel Wound (.045–.105)
Picks Custom Dunlop Tortex, .73mm
Synth Moog Minotaur

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