There was a profound progression in songwriting between the debut of Black Veil Brides, We suture these woundsthrough their fifth release, Valley, in 2018 and the most recent of the group The Phantom Tomorrow. Over 12 years, Black Veil Brides has changed the way songs come together, moving from a mostly riff-dependent, music-driven “Frankenstein” process to one structured around songs written closer to real time. with more emphasis around lyrical content and storytelling.
Throughout the 12 titles of The Phantom Tomorrowwhich was accompanied by a six-issue comic book series written by singer and songwriter Andy Biersack, is a story of heroes, anti-heroes and the idea that “the fear of being evil trumps the interest and the joy of being good”.
Biersack spoke to the American songwriter about creating The Phantom Tomorrow and why this phase of songwriting for Black Veil Brides produced one of the best albums they’ve ever made.
American songwriter: how The Phantom Veil start assembling from the moment of Valley (2018) and The night EP in 2019? Were any of these songs older or an entirely new concept?
Andy Biersak: Since the first albums, we had this well of riffs that we reshaped and reformed into songs. On our first album, we basically took a fully fleshed out song, musically, and just wrote lyrics over it. In some cases, I was literally taking songs that I had already written separately from them. [the band], then saying, “maybe this melody and lyrics would fit right into that.” It was a bit like this Frankenstein process. Then when we did the second album, we had all these riffs and we were like “let’s just write all this lyrical content”. So we did that for a while and then we worked with John Feldmann on the third album [Wretched and Divine: The Story of the Wild Ones, 2013] and that was the first time someone came up and said, ‘Throw this away and write songs from scratch.’ We didn’t really have experience with that, but then it became a 50-50 thing. Then I realized afterwards Valley was done that the well was empty. There were no more extra riffs hanging around, and that was pretty exciting.
AS: In a way, you were relearning how to make a song from then on. How did he get past that riff-dependent stage?
A B: “Revenge” [off 2019 EP The Night] was a song where we had five different iterations for the record. We were constantly trying to make it work, and I didn’t know what to write about it, so it never went anywhere. Symbolically, it was the group’s 10th anniversary at the time. We were finishing this 10 year cycle of “what riff do we have” to make a record entirely where every day either a song had to be written or a part or a tone or a key or a style on the record had to come from the inside the bedroom, or guys going home and writing independently, then coming back with something. “Scarlett Cross” [of The Phantom Tomorrow] was a song where I wrote the lyrics to a song with no structure or anything, then Jake [guitarist Jake Pitts] came day one with a riff, and it became the first song on the record.
AS: Do you feel like the idea for a song always comes to you the same way?
A B: It depends on the circumstances. I always said that on our fourth album [Black Veil Brides, 2014], I really had nothing to say. We were just rolling and succeeding at a level where we were expected to keep making records. The only life experience we had was touring. I was dealing with alcoholism so I was drunk all the time and all I do is travel the world and sing songs – eat, drink, go to sleep all the time. So I was really coming from a place like, “I don’t know what else to write about”, and I started to find myself doing what I call myself Mad Libs where I was just reading stuff that I had written before. If I read the lyrics on that record, I was just saying the same thing…slightly different. Often people criticize music from a later era of iconic artists, and I think a lot of people don’t necessarily realize that sometimes people run out of space. And the truth is, the really great artists are the ones who can find new places.
AS: What kinds of stories, songs do you think you’re heading towards now, and how does that reflect on The Phantom Tomorrow?
A B: I’m 31 years old. My life is not based on the angst of youth, but I still feel an innate rebellion. I still feel like someone who has some sort of outside perspective, and I want to take those similar feelings and channel them into the reality that I see now. When you find yourself in a position where ideas come to you, it’s a really exciting proposition. For me, on this whole album, there was never really a day when I wasn’t sitting down writing lyrics. I think this record is better than the seven we’ve released, that’s for sure.
AS: As an artist, you have to dig a little deeper over time, and maybe you have to look outside or look at what’s going on in other people’s lives. It’s fascinating how you dig deeper into that well over time.
A B: They always say it takes a lifetime to make the first record and how long to make the second, but that’s not entirely true. When I was 18, I didn’t know what I was doing. I had quite a few ideas and some of them made sense, and then there were other times I read what I was writing and it was just awful. It’s a bit of an old adage that gets overused, but the reality and sentimentality behind it is true, what your life is and who you are as an artist is often at its peak when it all comes down to you. Want to find a way to filter him as a songwriter. As you get older, you can take on these things and be in a place where what you say carries more weight. Sometimes you find out that a lot of the artists you love never really had anything to say because as they got older it turned out there was really nothing there, and they just write the same song about driving their car down the freeway, and it’s still the same shit.
AS: Do you find that more songs sound different or change in meaning as you get older, like “okay, now I know what this song means”?
A B: When you’re really young and you’re in a band and making music for the first time, it can be geared towards the most superficial level – sound, aesthetics. Sometimes, as you get older, the reality behind what the person was talking about in the song is more direct on a different level. It’s one of the coolest things songwriters can do, where over time it blossoms into something that’s a direct connection. I think it’s very special.
AS: Is there a common thread for you through the 12 songs of The Phantom Tomorrow?
A B: I was just interested in the idea of creating a story or a backstory for a hero, and the things that are so culturally relevant, and the things that as a kid I loved and saw in nerd culture . It’s all kind of centered around this idea of these virtuous people and the idea that if you’re bad in life, there’s penance in the afterlife. Maybe it’s growing up Catholic and having that Catholic guilt that follows you everywhere. There is a certain level of beyond, the fear of being bad outweighs the interest and joy of being good, and if you could tell a story from that perspective. I was trying to write songs based on that kind of shame and hate, but now I have to do something about it. By making this record, 2020 is coming, and the political landscape becomes what it comes from, and the social landscape becomes what it comes from, and the reality of personalities changes drastically where it’s all centered around this idea that you’re stuck at home so all of your emotions are going to be centered around this politician that you’ve never met. It was interesting, this idea of being heroic… where is the list of heroes? It took this different form throughout the record, but at the end of the day, it’s a rock and roll record. I tell big ideas in three and a half minute songs.
AS: It seems like every song is a short story.
A B: It’s a snapshot. If you do a painting you can add to that painting but with music you change it on a cellular level every night. If you make a song [live]you can change the phrasing of the song and the melody and the structure and then the next night you can do something else and it’s still a song, but it’s this much more fluid opportunity to be able to tell a story and change the way you say it, and I believe it’s the art form of songwriting.
Photo: Joshua Schultz