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…
“I’m not saying this to be dismissive, but it doesn’t mean shit to me,” says Andy Biersack of his impending 30th birthday this coming Boxing Day. It’s a milestone that gives some reason for reflection, but for Andy – who started touring before he was 18, had a record deal at 19, saw most of the world by his early 20s and counts time in album cycles – it’s of little importance. Plus, he’s long since processed the prospect in writing his forthcoming memoir, They Don’t Need To Understand, and is focusing his attention on the new Black Veil Brides album, The Phantom Tomorrow.
“All I’ve been doing in my 29th year is making music,” admits Andy in the deep baritone that’s always made him seem older than his years. “I’m not consciously aware of my age in a dark booth singing.”
In truth, Andy has been doing more than just music, with clues to these activities dotted around this upstairs room in his Los Angeles home. Over his leather-jacket-clad right shoulder is a blue sign with white lettering for his podcast, The Andy Show Podcast, on which Andy, his cousin Joe Flanders, and his best friend Patrick Fogarty discuss whatever topics spring to mind, no matter how ridiculous. The show used to be recorded in a studio space, but this was made impractical by Andy’s constant touring, so this room has now been requisitioned.
Mounted on an opposing wall, a replica cowl from 1992’s Batman Returns reveals another hobby, this one more recent. “I’ve become intensely interested in taking shitty Batman masks from the ’90s that I’ve bought on eBay, revamping them, and putting them onto mannequin heads to turn them into something interesting.” (We’re assuming he’s keeping the wilder examples elsewhere, as the one on display looks pretty normal to us.)
On a nearby table, meanwhile, there are stacks of papers covered with drawings in various stages of completion. Among these are the sketches Andy began in January of this year, of figures whose backstories came to him as his pen moved across the page. Crafting vast narratives is nothing new to Andy and Black Veil Brides, of course, but this time the frontman wanted to do things differently.
“One of the issues I’ve had with projects that were concept orientated is that I never really had the opportunity to fully build out the world I wanted [the narrative] to live in, as a lot of it was working on the fly,” he explains. “Something like [BVB’s third album, 2013’s] Wretched And Divine [The Story Of The Wild Ones] was this complex world, but it was also a collaboration amongst three different artists on the story side, and the collaboration with [producer] John Feldmann when it came to the record side. We were trying to figure out the world as we went along.
“When I did [solo project Andy Black’s second album, 2019’s] The Ghost Of Ohio, it was a record that was entirely separate from a comic book,” Andy continues, picking up speed. “Then we tried to build the connective tissue backwards. I always felt that if I could have the time to do it, I would love to write an original story, with original characters and character design, and then determine if that’s something I’d like to write music about.”
Spoiler: it was. And with the outbreak of COVID-19 shelving all touring plans, Andy had the time he’d sorely missed in the past, so went to work “drawing, writing and scheming”.
“I was always interested in sin and definitions of what is wrong,” says Andy by way of explanation of what The Phantom Tomorrow – an album he says is currently “about 75 per cent, soon to be 80 per cent” complete – is all about. It’s a focal point that makes sense given his youthful experiences of Catholicism, when his incessant questioning of the Good Book put him in the bad books of impatient priests. Given BVB’s get-up for this new era, you can safely assume Andy’s disillusionment with religion hasn’t impacted upon his fondness for its iconography and pageantry.
“There are so many reasons why the truth is malleable in a social sense,” he continues. “But now we’ve got to the point where the truth is malleable in a political sense. What would the world be like if the decisions we made were the ones that could condemn us for a lifetime?
“I wanted to build this comic book scenario where the worst thing that could happen is that you lie, or you’re perceived as a liar. How do you extrapolate that? Who would be the decision makers? Who would be the saviour of those people?
“Within the story there’s a group of people who have been branded as disreputable in society, who build their own counterculture. Their design of dress, faith and religious beliefs are centred around the idea that they believe themselves to be innately good, but they have been cast out. They are The Phantom Tomorrow, who believe that there’s something coming, a way to get out of this, but they don’t know what it is yet.”
This is where the main character, The Blackbird, will come in.
“The Blackbird is heavily based on my love of vigilante heroes, whether it’s Batman or Spawn or The Crow,” says Andy. “That is combined with my fascination with the love of the arguments between the existence of the historical Christ, the arguments for existence of the religious Christ, and the arguments for there not being a Christ. Within this story, The Blackbird is all those things: he’s a belief system for the people in the counterculture; he’s a Christ-like figure that people believe in; he’s a vigilante that people claim they’ve seen; and he’s a real guy that we, as the audience, know exists and takes care of the bad guys.”
Andy has long been a fan of KISS, who inspired far more in him than a fondness for face paint. As a child he would repeatedly watch their many VHS tapes, with one of them, 1992’s X-treme Close-Up, leaving a particularly indelible mark. It wasn’t because it made his heroes look cool, though. At the start of the ’90s, with Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley in their early 40s and trying to navigate the jarring transition between hair metal’s death rattle and grunge’s bloodied roar, KISS were decidedly uncool and conscious of the fact.
“This was before the late ’90s happened and they went back up,” Andy qualifies. “This was the days of half-empty arenas and records barely squeaking their way to gold [certification], which to a big band would be a failure. [X-treme Close-Up] captures the band in this weird place where they’re extremely honest and self-deprecating about what’s happening. As a kid, it was how I thought rock stars were. Not to toot my own horn, but if you look back at my history of interviews and how I conduct myself, I can attribute it to watching KISS obsessively.”
Andy’s articulate and erudite manner has indeed been a trademark since day one. And while it continues to make the job of interviewing him an easy experience, over the years that slickness has given snippier critics reason to consider Andy too polished to be the real deal. Thankfully, KISS’ influence gave him the ability to deal with those charges, too. “In that video KISS were appealing to their fans, saying, ‘If you love KISS and people tell you that you’re stupid for it, it doesn’t matter,’” explains Andy. “‘They don’t get it and they don't know what you know, but they don’t need to know what you know. They don’t need to believe in the thing you believe in.’ I carried that thought with me every day through school, walking in the halls listening to the bands I loved but no-one else had heard of, while my peers listened to *NSYNC.”
This idea morphed into a mantra, ‘They Don’t Need To Understand’, as a way of articulating the idea that people not getting Andy’s tastes and ideas was inconsequential to him, eventually becoming the title of an early Andy Black song, and now his forthcoming memoir, due for release on December 8. Did writing the book, framed as a hero’s origin story in the same way many of his beloved comics are, give the author cause to reevaluate Black Veil Brides’ role in his life?
“I want to be in a band,” Andy replies, though not necessarily to the question that’s been asked. “Towards the end of the [Andy Black] Ghost Of Ohio tour, we were playing on the farewell Warped Tour dates, one of which was in Atlantic City. There was a huge turn-out with people on the beach as far as the eye can see, but I was backstage, standing there with Juliet [Simms, Andy’s wife], clearly not happy. There was a part of me emotionally that was sad I couldn’t be in a band at the time and I thought it was done.”
Andy’s certainty came from the fact that he fully intended BVB’s fifth album, 2018’s Vale – a conceptual prequel to Wretched And Divine – to be their last. Meanwhile, the departure of Ashley Purdy in 2019 after a decade of service certainly confirmed there being an air of disharmony within BVB’s ranks, particularly when the bassist went on record to clarify that he “technically” hadn’t left.
Looking back now, how difficult was it to deal with those headlines, none of which were about the band’s music?
“Anytime there’s a big change, people are going to talk about it,” reasons Andy. “For us it didn’t feel like a change that needed to be talked about to the degree that it was, but you can’t deny that any shift in a band that has a presence is going to be dissected. The frustration only comes from the fact you’re excited about what you’re doing but [interviewers] don’t want to talk about that. Having to do countless interviews when I’m not really talking about anything because there’s only so much people can say… We’re grown-ups and we don’t think it’s anybody’s fault that if something interesting happens people note that it’s interesting.”
Thankfully the release of this year’s Re-Stitch These Wounds put the attention firmly back on what BVB make together rather than the matters that drive them apart. This re-recording of their debut album We Stitch These Wounds not only commemorated the album’s 10th anniversary, its title symbolised a renewal of relationships in the band today completed by longstanding guitarists Jake Pitts and Jinxx, and drummer Christian “CC” Coma, joined now by new bassist Lonny Eagleton.
“It’s been unparalleled when it comes to creativity, fun and excitement,” says Andy of their renaissance, despite the impediments the world continues to throw at their livelihood. “It sounds so cliched, but it feels like we’re starting over. Every time we have a photoshoot, [the band] text each other afterwards that it was the best we’ve ever done. The same is true of songs and videos. That’s the sort of excitement you lose over the course of a 10-year career. You become detached from the little things, the appreciation. We now have a greater respect and understanding than we ever have, and I hope that translates to the music.”
That enthusiasm can certainly be heard on Scarlet Cross, a bombastic rock anthem with a Danny Elfman-esque orchestral intro, and the first taste of The Phantom Tomorrow. So how indicative is it of the album in progress? “Very,” suggests Andy of the musical elements. “Over the years we got away from the heavy-riff-big-chorus dynamic, which is what makes Black Veil Brides. Our previous full-length record was very soft, with a lot of shine to it, so the goal [this time] was to find a way to make it grand, with a lot of string elements and everything, but still feel like there’s an edge built from the riff.”
Scarlet Cross is just one part of “the ride”, though, according to Andy. “I don’t love the term ‘concept record’, but [The Phantom Tomorrow] is a concept record. There are themes and ideas and moments that are hugely different from one moment to the next, but the goal at the end of the day, the heart of everything, is to write a heavy rock record and build out everything from there, as opposed to writing a pop record and putting riffs over it.”
Many writers have suggested we’re now living in an age of post-satire, where figures and events are too ridiculous to lampoon (a Donald Trump press conference taking place in a garden centre, anyone?). With that in mind, when Andy is ‘building’ a world as he is on The Phantom Tomorrow, has the increasingly surreal nature of the real one changed his approach, or is it even more important to create an escape from reality?
“Everything is so big now,” he begins. “There are more people, on any given day, who are dealing with strife and difficulties than I think we’ve ever had, just as there are more people with money, fame and popularity than we’ve ever had. I was talking to somebody the other day about the fact that 10 years ago there were about 20 ubiquitously famous people who everyone knew about, with several rungs beneath that. Now, there are people that most of us have never heard of who, statistically, are among the most famous people in the world.
“When you think of how many people are achieving massive success, and inversely, how many are dealing with tremendous poverty, it’s chaotic and heartbreaking. One of the things we wanted to do [on the album] was quieten the world down that we have built. There are very few people on the streets, they’re inside trying to find a way to fit, though not necessarily connecting via social media. It’s an alternative timeline: if you didn’t have these crazy disparities in terms of significance, what would the world be like? Would it feel calmer despite the Orwellian, Big Brother element being there? It’s a world with a quieter chaos.”
And what if responses to The Phantom Tomorrow end up being similarly restrained? Admittedly, the evidence suggests this is unlikely. Shortly before K! sat down with Andy, the band’s social media profiles ‘went dark’ in preparation for the introduction of this new era, resulting in immediate hysteria and speculation – or, as Andy puts it, “people still giving a shit”. But while it’s heartening to see him so grateful for what he has, savouring every soundbite and fanboying over every photoshoot, Andy’s experiences will have taught him that in the age of streaming, the prospect of a band releasing a quasi-religious dystopian concept album with an accompanying comic book will be making some people a little nervous.
Andy, however, is not among that number and claims his own satisfaction with the project would mitigate any shortfall in terms of its success upon release. “Having the opportunity to fully realise this story and have people be excited about it would be the ultimate success,” he says. “I want to dig in deep and actualise every element of what I believe this world can be.”
It’s clearly not so much a question for Andy of taking creative risks on a big stage, but of continuing the path he set out on as a teenager, more accomplished in his abilities and ambitious in his vision than ever before, but still governed by that same unadulterated impulse. “I have the ability to do this incredibly fun and exciting thing for a living for as long as I would like to do it,” he smiles, before remembering that’s only half of the equation. “And to have an audience continue to want me to do that until it’s time to wrap it up. A lot of my contemporaries and people I grew up with in the scene have not been able to continue that way. Success, then, is people feeling excited by what we do and wanting more. If people respond, we’ll have the ability to make shit on a larger scale.”
If Andy is talking like a guy with a DIY attitude, that’s not entirely inaccurate. Making the promotional video for Scarlet Cross, which introduces the aesthetic of The Phantom Tomorrow and The Blackbird to viewers, he wore several hats. As well as occupying his role as frontman, Andy hand-stitched the band’s costumes and art directed a shoot that took cues from the aforementioned Batman Returns, plus The Shadow (1994), Darkman (1990), and V For Vendetta (2006) – the latter a film Andy, controversially, considers superior to Alan Moore’s graphic novel.
“The Phantom Tomorrow is the thing I’ve been most invested in,” says Andy proudly. He has every reason to be so. He almost lost his band in the past, and like most musicians is unsure of the future, but for now he’s channelling his efforts into this most comprehensive labour of love. With their sleeves rolled up, and their hearts and minds fully engaged, Andy Biersack and Black Veil Brides are ready for whatever comes tomorrow.
Black Veil Brides' Scarlet Cross is out this Friday; The Phantom Tomorrow will be released in 2021 via Sumerian Records.
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The Cover Story
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