The Big Review: Download Festival 2022
Download Festival is back at full-scale for the first time since 2019! Here’s all the action from Donington Park…
Andy Biersack loves a good story. Unsurprisingly for a man who grew up on a diet of epic movies and densely-plotted comic books, he’s long been obsessed with the mythologies that go into helping us to understand why characters are the way they are. We’re fairly cognisant with how Andrew Dennis Biersack, an ambitious kid who was a pariah at school, eventually transformed into the confident rock star of today. What’s less known, however, is what strikes fear into his heart. What has informed his capacity for darkness? It turns out all roads lead back to a particular place.
Between the ages of four and 12, Andy went to a summer camp because his parents both worked full-time jobs that meant they were busy until 6pm each day. The place, Dunham Recreation Center, presented ample opportunities for their son to be distracted. Located on a 115-acre site in the western part of Cincinnati, Dunham offers a variety of programmes and activities for young people, including sports, ceramics and photography. But whether he was inside drawing or outside playing baseball, the young Andy had an uneasy feeling about the place. “I was terrified of the whole building and everything in it,” he recalls now of its clinical exterior and ominous corridors. “I knew it was extraordinarily scary but I had no context for why.”
Cut to 2012, and Andy is in the midst of making Black Veil Brides’ third album, Wretched And Divine: The Story Of The Wild Ones. One evening, he and producer John Feldmann, a fellow horror obsessive, ended up going down the rabbit hole of looking up the most haunted sites in America. After some time spent scouring California’s spookiest sites, of which there are many, Andy decided to look a little closer to home. One place, The Dent School House, was where the janitor had supposedly gone on a murderous rampage, killing several children and stuffing their bodies into lockers.
Andy is quick to admit that this should be filed firmly under fiction as there’s absolutely no evidence this ever took place. But still, the singer admits his curiosity got the better of him and he decided to see if Dunham had a dark past. Unfortunately for him, it did.
“I’d spent an inordinate amount of time in this converted old creepy hospital,” says Andy. Dunham had indeed been a hospital, dating back to the 1800s, specialising in the treatment of people with tuberculosis. What’s more, the facility sat upon a network of tunnels where the bodies of the patients who died were wheeled out to be buried in mass graves beneath the field where Andy and his fellow summer campers played baseball many years later.
“Every subsequent scare that inspired terror in me as a kid stemmed from that place,” he admits. “That place was an amalgamation of all my fears. It was like an urban myth to me, except for many years the myth was that the place wasn’t some haunted hell house.”
Thankfully Andy is in less hellish conditions today, a brightly lit boutique hotel in the Minneapolis-Saint Paul area that’s more delightful than despicable. Dressed in a black sweatshirt accessorised with a padlock necklace, he and his bandmates guitarists Jake Pitts and Jinxx, bassist Lonny Eagleton and drummer Christian 'CC' Coma are enjoying some downtime. Later they’ll head off to an in-store appearance at a Hot Topic attended by a small number of lucky fans, before the band’s sixth studio album, The Phantom Tomorrow, is streamed across the music and pop culture-inspired clothing store’s 600-plus locations across America. It is, without question, the most ambitious record Black Veil Brides have ever made. What’s more, thanks to the delays caused by COVID-19, it has arrived festooned with a variety of supplementary material – a four-video story arc, podcasts, comic books and more – that serve to deepen listeners’ understanding of its conceptual world and the characters in it.
The album’s release also provides an opportunity to check in with Andy, who’s in suitably convivial form, to chronicle how he’s evolved over the years. “The pandemic alone has changed so much for so many people,” he says. “How can anyone not have changed?”
There are some things that are impossible to avoid in life. Death and taxes are the widely cited examples, haemorrhoids less so, but you can add having a conversation with Andy Biersack without Batman raising his pointy ears to that list. We've heard how he’d wear the iconic costume as a kid, patrolling his local neighbourhood with every intention of vanquishing any wrongdoers he might come across; we’ve learned that Michael Keaton is his favourite iteration of the character; we’ve heard how much Batman influenced Andy’s debut solo album as Andy Black, 2016’s The Shadow Side. But wait, there’s more…
This time, the subject has come up in relation to the recent trailer for The Batman, the Matt Reeves-directed blockbuster starring Robert Pattinson as a more DIY version of The Caped Crusader. (Or, more specifically, the overlapping areas between this iteration of the character and the world of The Phantom Tomorrow.)
In the final moments of the trailer, the vigilante walks towards the screen as it’s gradually overlaid with the film’s title, the black and scarlet lettering startlingly similar to the colour palette adopted for The Phantom Tomorrow. Andy cracks a smile as K! reels off the other similarities – his album having a song called The Vengeance vs. Batman’s “I am vengeance” catchphrase among them – because they’ve already occurred to him. This is part of a kind of kismet that over the years has seen Andy’s interests, however disparate, eventually converge. “When you see parallel thinking like that it’s really exciting because you think: ‘I’m right on point with the things I’m doing.’”
“My interest in Batman has always to do with the people who needed that character to exist,” he explains. “As a kid, I needed the facade, the Andy Sixx character [his original stage name until 2011], to get through growing up in a small town and being made fun of. That’s why I’ve always gravitated towards the Michael Keaton version, because he’s kind of nuts and needs the suit because he’s not some stacked MMA fighter.”
Given this preference, Andy is thrilled by the prospect of The Flash, the forthcoming standalone outing for the lightning fast DC hero, which, thanks to its time travel storyline, will see Michael Keaton reprise his role as The Caped Crusader for the first time since 1992. “Pump that nostalgia into my veins,” begs Andy. “I’m so curious to see what a 70-year-old Batman is like.”
There is definitely something compelling about checking in with a character in later life who’s been defined by piss, vinegar and an unquenchable desire to put themselves on the line for others. Do they still hold onto those desires? Do they resent having lived a life defined by anger? There was a time when Andy would publicly declare he’d never make old bones himself. He’d talk about not making it to 40, of chain smoking and guzzling whisky and leaving a good-looking corpse. But if it seemed like he was courting the clichés of rock’n’roll bravado then, today Andy – who’s now 31 and presumably has a portrait in his attic doing the ageing for him – is quick to clarify he was sending up those tropes.
“My dry wit didn’t translate in print,” he says now of some of his more grandiose utterances over the years. “There’s a quote that’s on my Wikipedia, where I talk about smoking millions of cigarettes. In my mind I was being facetious, but here we are, 10 years later, and people are still asking me if I want to smoke millions of cigarettes.
“I was being flippant when I said things about not making it to 40,” he continues. “You don’t consider your own mortality when you’re 20 years old. My health has deteriorated because of not taking care of myself, which created a fear of my own mortality and the reality that I’m not this eternal being. But my spirit, and how I feel about this band, hasn’t changed. I still believe, and will defend, that I give way more of a shit about every record we’ve ever made than anything Led Zeppelin has ever made.”
Ah, Andy Biersack and the subject of Led Zeppelin. The singer has covered this ground before, not because he specifically has an issue with Robert Plant, Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones, but because they represent a level of unimpeachable fame and quality he uses to illustrate how deep his loyalty to Black Veil Brides runs. “They’re not standing on ceremony for me,” he says of the Stairway To Heaven legends, “so why should I be so deferential to them when they don’t give a shit about what I’m doing?”
This is, of course, a preposterous way to go about making a fairly straightforward point. But there’s also something delicious knowing that Andy’s passion for his own band hasn’t dimmed one bit over the years. Whether as the gobby whippersnapper of his 20s or this refined renaissance man in his 30s, Andy remembers what it was like to be doubted by everyone. “No-one I grew up around gave a fuck about anything I was doing or creating,” he recalls. “To the point they were ardently against it. And that continued even when we found success.”
And it continues even now. At a festival recently, after Black Veil Brides had finished their set and were making their way offstage, something caught Andy’s eye. Nearby, a musician described only as being in an “a well-known alternative pop-rock artist”, was with some friends, watching footage they’d just filmed of BVB’s performance and laughing uproariously. Andy wasn’t about to be ridiculed without retaliation and made a beeline for the group. “My abiding belief in what we’re doing meant I had to say to them, ‘I see what you’re doing – cut that shit out!’”
Andy was vengeance that day. His detractors were mortified.
Andy is considering what costume he’ll wear for the Halloween show Black Veil Brides will be playing with In This Moment in Pittsburgh a few days after we speak. Traditionally, the band would don the old school make-up they’d wear when they first burst onto the scene with their 2010 debut We Stitch These Wounds. This year, however, Andy is leaning towards the 1997 iteration of wrestler Sting from WCW, a look not dissimilar to another of the frontman’s key points of reference, The Crow.
But while garish clothing and facepaint can easily be removed, if you’re a verbose musician who tosses out opinions like confetti your words tend to be more difficult to expunge. There’s one last thing Andy has said in the past to scrutinise. Not the distant past, mind, but the heady days of 2019 when during a conversation with K! writer James MacKinnon, between mentions of pre-sobriety regrets (“There were times where I was just blacked-out drunk and I hate that”) and how he’s changed (“I felt like I was a character then and I’m not now”), Andy made a particularly startling declaration: “I hate the idea of idol worship.” And while, admittedly, this was followed up with the words: “Anyone can do what I do”, something about it still felt a little… off.
It’s an admission that would make sense coming from, say, Tool frontman Maynard James Keenan, who’s gone to great lengths to articulate his discomfort and downright hostility towards people being sycophantic because they connect with his art. Coming from Andy, however, the notion stretches credulity for one key reason: for a guy who claims to dislike idol worship, he sure does a lot to invite it by portraying so many romantic figures. This is, after all, the man who embodies Blackbird, the mysterious antihero at the heart of The Phantom Tomorrow, who even has his own titular theme tune on the album. The guy whose move into acting, in the film American Satan and Amazon Prime TV series Paradise City, has seen him play a beloved rock star named Johnny Faust. So what gives?
Andy is unfazed by this. He’s grown used to being challenged. In fact, he actively encourages it, because he believes it’s his job to face the slings, arrows – and in the case of several Download Festival appearances – bottles of piss launched his way. “The role of the hero tends to be the person in the front taking the bullets,” he reasons. “That idea that you can throw everything you’ve got at me, whether that’s literally or figuratively. I’ll go talk to those who’ve said bad stuff about this band.”
Just when you sense Andy might be overdoing the polish on his halo, he adds some small-print to his mindset. “What I have difficulty coming to terms with is the idea that the person who wants to stand in front is somehow more virtuous because of the fact they want to stand at the front. To me it’s a personality trait, rather than a virtue.”
The question of whether Andy considers himself to be a hero isn’t one he readily answers. Not so much out of a sense of modesty as an uncertainty about what constitutes a hero in the context of what he does for a living. “Medical professionals and first responders are legitimate heroes. What we’re talking about here are musicians or celebrities who have provided the zeitgeist with entertainment,” is his definition.
“I believe that heroes are real, but it’s more of a mindset than a specific person,” he continues. “It’s a faulty premise that I’m somehow ‘better’ because I’m in leather pants on a stage. I have a certain type of mind that I’m blessed to have and have worked towards furthering. There are many things that I’m very bad at, but the things I excel at happen to provide a good skillset for this career. I’ve got to do this because I’ve worked hard and had a little bit of luck, but that doesn’t make me a hero. If something that I have said or written has an impact on you, and you can become your own version of a hero the way I did with Bruce Springsteen lyrics or listening to Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley [from KISS] interviews, then I see that as having value.”
Meanwhile, The Phantom Tomorrow’s value to Black Veil Brides shouldn’t be underestimated. Even before the album’s release it has been hugely beneficial to its creators, not least in getting them back to what they do best after some fairly well publicised travails, including the departure of bassist Ashley Purdy. Meanwhile, in a practical sense it’s given them highly charting tracks and heavy radio airplay. Its greatest effect, however, is the one that comes last.
“The thing that hasn’t happened yet is someone sitting down with this record that we intended to be a grandiose rock opera and listening to it from front to back,” smiles Andy, as if he’s just pulled an ace card from his black sleeve. He has every reason to be proud; it’s at the ‘back’ of the record you’ll find the closing track Fall Eternal, one of the most interesting songs Andy has ever written. In the lyrics ‘Some days I can’t save – the villain I became has taken hold’ and ‘Praise the Knight who falls alone’, it starkly illustrates the ease with which good people stumble, and the importance of trying to regain your footing as soon as possible.
Andy has been there and done that, of course. “I’ve always been interested in talking about falling from grace, whether disappointing yourself or disappointing others, as a viable scenario for growth. It’s saying that it’s okay to feel like shit, but don’t wallow – use it. When it comes to the band and my personal life, I’ve had to make decisions that weren’t easy, but they had to happen. And I am and we are here now, ready to move forward.”
The equilibrium he’s achieved since embracing sobriety has helped. “Getting older and not being drunk all the time has taught me certain lessons. I drank the way I did because my anxiety and OCD would drive me crazy so my brain was constantly trying to process things, which stopped me having any fun. Then I stopped drinking and the fun part came all the way down so I had a difficult couple of years, but I like to think that in the last three-to-four years I’ve found a balance that I’m comfortable with, between over-specificity and freaking out over little detail, and being able to have fun and go see Metallica with my bandmates.”
That onward journey includes part two to The Phantom Tomorrow saga – “a supplementary piece rather than a complete record” – that affords the band the opportunity to live in that world a little longer. Beyond that, though, Andy suggests there being two possible paths for where BVB go next, based on the pattern of their releases to date. On the one hand, the natural reaction to making an expansive, world-building album is to make a more stripped-back affair in the mould of their self-titled 2014 album, produced by Bob Rock. Andy has his reservations about this, though, given that he’s less fond of it than many entries in their discography.
“My heart lies in the dramatic and the theatrical but you never know,” suggests Andy, excited by the wealth of possibilities in and out of Black Veil Brides and imbued by that absolutely bulletproof self-belief. “If you speak to me in a year, I might be trying to tell you about the greatest stripped-down hard rock record you’ve ever heard.”
The Phantom Tomorrow is out now via Sumerian Records
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