There was a deep progression of songwriting between Black Veil Brides’ debut, We Stick These Woundsthrough their fifth release, Vale, in 2018 and the band’s most recent The Phantom Tomorrow. In a span of more than 12 years, Black Veil Brides have shifted the way songs come together, moving from a mostly riff-dependent, music-first, “Frankenstein” process to one structured around songs written closer to real-time with more importance around the lyrical content and the stories being told.
Throughout the 12 tracks of The Phantom Tomorrowwhich was accompanied by a six-issue comic series written by singer and songwriter Andy Biersack, is a storyline of heroes, anti-heroes and the notion that the “fear of being bad overcomes the interest and the joy of being good.”
Biersack spoke to American Songwriter about the making of The Phantom Tomorrow and why this phase of songwriting for Black Veil Brides has produced one of the best albums they’ve ever made.
American Songwriter: How did The Phantom Veil start piecing together from the time of Vale (2018) The Night EP in 2019? Were some of these songs older or an entirely new concept?
Andy Biersack: Since the first few albums, we had this well of riffs that we would reshape and reform into songs. On our first record, we were essentially taking a fully fleshed-out song, musically, and just writing lyrics over it. In some cases, I was literally taking songs that I had already written separate from them [the band], then going, “maybe this melody and lyric would actually fit directly over that.” It was kind of this Frankenstein process. Then when we made the second record, we had all these riffs and said “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 record [Wretched and Divine: The Story of the Wild Ones, 2013] and that was the first time somebody came in and said, “throw that out and write songs from scratch.” We didn’t really have any experience with that, but then it became a 50-50 thing. Then I realized after Vale was done that the well was empty. There were no more extra riffs lying around, and it was kind of exciting.
AS: In a sense, you were basically relearning how to make a song from that point on. How was it moving beyond that riff-dependent stage?
AB: “The Vengeance” [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 couldn’t figure out what to write over it, so it never went anywhere. In a symbolic way, that was the 10-year anniversary of the band at the time. We were ending this 10-year cycle of “what riff do we have” to making a record entirely where every day either a song needed to be written, or a part or tone or tonality or styling on the record had to come from within the room, or guys going home and writing independently and then coming back with something. “Scarlett Cross” [of The Phantom Tomorrow] was a song where I had written out lyrics to a song with no structure or anything, then Jake [guitarist Jake Pitts] came in the first day with a riff, and that became the first song of the record.
AS: Do you feel like the idea for a song still comes to you in the same way?
AB: It depends on the circumstance. I’ve always said that on our fourth record [Black Veil Brides, 2014], I really didn’t have anything to say. We were just kind of rolling and succeeded to a level where there was an expectation that we would just 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 around the world and sing songs—eat, drink, go to sleep all the time. So I was really coming from a place of like, “I don’t know what else to write about,” and I started finding myself doing what I call self Mad Libs where I was just reading things I had written before. If I read the lyrics from that record, I was just saying the same thing… slightly different. A lot of times people criticize later-era music from iconic artists, and I think a lot of people don’t necessarily realize that sometimes people run out of space. And the truth of the matter is, the really great artists are the ones who can find new places.
AS: What kinds of stories, songs, do you think you’re gravitating towards now, and how is that reflected on The Phantom Tomorrow?
AB: I’m 31 years old. My life is not predicated on the angst of youth, but I still feel an innate rebellion. I still feel like somebody who has a kind of an 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 are coming to you, it’s a really exciting proposition. For me, on this whole record, there was never really a day where I wasn’t sitting around writing lyrics. I think this record is better than the seven we put out, for sure.
AS: As an artist, you do have to dig a little deeper over time, and maybe you have to look on the outside or look at what is happening in other people’s lives. It’s fascinating how you do dig deeper into that well as time goes on.
AB: They always say it takes a lifetime to make the first record and however long to make your second, but that’s not entirely true. When I was 18, I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing. I had quite a lot of ideas and some of them made sense, and then there were other times I read what I wrote and it was just awful. It’s a bit of an old adage that gets overused, but the reality and the sentimentality behind it are true, which is your life and who you are as an artist are often at their peak when everything is coming at you. You want to find a way to filter it as a songwriter. As you get older, you can take those things and be in a place where the thing you’re saying is carrying more weight. Sometimes you find out that a lot of artists you love never really had anything to say because as they got older it turned out there really wasn’t anything there, and they’re just writing the same song about riding in their car on the freeway , and it’s just the same shit over and over again.
AS: Do you find more songs are resonating differently or changing in meaning as you get older, like “okay, now I know what that song means”?
AB: When you’re really young and in a band and just making music for the first time it can be oriented around the more superficial level—the sound, the aesthetic. Sometimes as you get older, the reality behind what the person was speaking about in the song is more direct on a different level. That’s one of the coolest tricks that songwriters can do, where over time it blossoms into something that is a direct connection. I think that is very special.
AS: Is there a common thread for you throughout the 12 songs of The Phantom Tomorrow?
AB: I was just interested in the idea of creating a story or backstory to a hero, and the things that are so culturally relevant, and things that as a kid I loved and was seeing 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 then there’s penance in the afterlife. Maybe it’s growing up Catholic and having this Catholic guilt follow you around. There’s a certain level of an afterlife, the fear of being bad overcomes the interest and the joy of being good, and what if you can tell a story in perspective of that. I was trying to write songs that were based around this kind of self-shame and hatred, but now I’ve got to do something about it. Into making this record, 2020 happens, and the political landscape becomes what it comes, and the social landscape becomes what it comes, and the reality of personalities changing drastically where everything is centered around this idea that you’re stuck at home so all of Your emotions are going to be centered around this politician you’ve never met. It was interesting, this idea about being heroic… where is the lineup of heroes? It changed into this different shape throughout the course of the record, but at the end of the day, it’s a rock and roll record. I’m telling big ideas in three-and-a-half minute songs.
AS: It sounds like every song is a short story.
AB: 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’re doing a song [live]you can change the phrasing of the song, the melody, and structure, and then the next night you can do another thing 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 tell it, and I believe that is the art form of songwriting.
Photo: Joshua Schultz