Love them or hate them, there’s no denying Black Veil Brides, and that’s exactly how vocalist Andy Biersack wants it.
The band — Biersack, guitarists Jinxx and Jake Pitts, bassist Ashley Purdy, drummer Christian Coma — released their latest album and label debut, Set the World on Fire, in June 2011. Like its independent predecessor, 2010’s We Stitch These Wounds, it’s been a tremendous success, thanks to a loyal fan base that immediately embraced BVB’s music and image, which both lend themselves to 1980s rock. To some, it’s an era long gone and greatly missed; to others, not so much. But as Biersack explains, BVB will never be all things to all people. Nor does he want them to be.
You’re a very young band with what some might deem a “retro” sound and look, for lack of a better term. Has that been a challenge, especially dealing with the media, who tend to be jaded and cynical about everything?
The people who are writing about the record are not the people we’re making the record for. Anytime we make music, there are definitely elements that hearken back to things we’re influenced by, but everybody has that. Some people are just afraid and they don’t want to wear it on their sleeves. Plus, we try to spell it out a little bit more. We’re influenced by bands that are potentially seen as retro, but to us, that music never really went away.
Where do you see Black Veil Brides bridging that gap?
As a kid that grew up in the ’90s, the music that I liked was the music that existed prior to my adolescence and that we wanted to hear. A band like ours didn’t exist when we got together. There were a lot of retro bands that we liked, but there wasn’t a band that was influenced by the rock and roll rebellion of past decades without it being almost tongue-in-cheek. We wanted to take it seriously. Inasmuch as a lot of the music of that time period was sort of, I guess, campy, a lot of bands did a lot of great stuff for rock and roll music. We’re influenced just as much by the ’70s punk bands as we are by Motley Crue or other bands. If you look at, say, The Misfits into Motley Crue into Metallica, there’s a similar thread, and I feel that’s what Black Veil Brides is. It’s a culmination of all of those things. So it’s a bit of an uphill challenge when you first start to try to get people to hear it, but by the same token, it was never really our concern.
What enabled you to establish yourselves and build a following? There’s obviously a huge audience for what you’re doing.
We sort of had a built-in fan base from day one. To the fans’ credit, they’ve been there since we started, so we made it impossible to ignore us in that regard. Eventually, whether people liked us or not, they had to start writing about us and paying attention because we were there. As long as we maintained a sense of doing it for the right reasons, for ourselves and for our audience, then we weren’t concerned with how others would view it, because once something’s successful, everybody wants to say that they agreed with it; nobody’s going to fight that it’s doing well. People may not like it, but no one ever writes about us and says, “This band has no fans.” They’ll say, “This band is the biggest pile of s--t in the world, but wow, they’ve got a big army.”
Set the World on Fire was released fairly quickly after We Stitch These Wounds. Was that deliberate? If so, why was that important?
It was deliberate because we felt we were ready to make another record, and we constantly feel that way. We like to write and make music. From a personal standpoint it’s always nice to have something new to present to your fans, something you created. This was our first opportunity to record with a real budget, a real studio and a real producer. Not to discredit the people that helped us on our first album, but it was made with almost no money in a jingle studio. Everyone who worked on the record worked very hard, but it was limited means, and as a band we’d only been together for a couple of months. The first record was more like a reflection of everything we’d done over the first 20-something years of our lives. The second record was definitely a different experience. If you listen to the two, you can see the evolution of the band from the first record to the second record. I think it’s pretty obvious. In doing so, we were able to find a more comfortable means of writing and find our footing as a band and as artists.
What did you take away from working with [producer] Josh Abraham? How did he make you a better singer and songwriter?
From top to bottom, I improved. Anyone who listens to our previous work can tell that lyrically, I improved, and musically, we all improved. Vocally, it was about testing myself more. That’s something I want to continue to do with our third record. There are certain things that I enjoy about making music and other things I’m not as keen on. I’m there to write the lyrics, make the songs what they are and contribute my part to one piece of the five of us when a song is written. Being in that environment to sing and record definitely improved me. It was always different and that’s another thing I enjoyed. I’ve heard stories about producers that make you work an agonizing number of takes until they get it right. You can always tell when something’s right, and that’s a mutual understanding that we had in the studio. We wanted to keep things as real as possible, so nothing was a 45th take. I like being left to my own devices, not because it’s beaten out of me or has to be fixed in Pro Tools. That’s how the record was written, too. All lyrics and melodies were written within a day or two of tracking. When you write a song, typically you have your first and second draft, and you beat yourself up about it to fix this or change that. But when you put your thoughts down on paper and then you sing it, you’re getting that initial communication, and that’s what we wanted to do.
When did you know that you could sing?
At a young age. My father was a singer, and on his side of the family they all sing in church and whatnot. My dad was in bands and I was always interested in it. The first thing I performed was Phantom of the Opera, which is a weird thing, but Michael Crawford has a high voice and so does a 6-year-old. I would get in costume and perform for my family. I discovered KISS, Motley Crue and WASP, and I sang those songs and belted things out in the back seat of the car. Even in my car seat, I was being overly dramatic. At other points in my life I wanted to be the consummate musician who could play and do all things, but nothing interested me as much as singing. It’s how I felt I could convey my emotions, as could writing, so I started writing at a young age as well.
You describe yourself as “an outcast kid who was the weirdo.” Where did you get the courage to front a band?
It was different. Typically, the way kids are described in the Hollywood version of the outcast is quiet and in the corner with their notebook, but I was weird for other reasons. I was outgoing and wanted to be the class clown, but I happened to wear all black and liked punk rock music, so I was rejected in that respect. The way I skated by in terms of social connections was that I had the ability to be funny or witty, I suppose. I was never a sad kid in the corner. I was definitely a loner, I didn’t have many friends, or any, but that was because most kids never knew what to make of me. I was always performing in some regard and that wasn’t really welcomed where I grew up. By the same token, I think I utilized the notion that other people didn’t understand. I never felt weird. I just felt like I was cool and they didn’t get it. Having this in my heart, I was able to do this for that reason, especially when I was really young. When we started the band, I wanted to show other kids who were introverted and socially awkward that just because you’re not considered cool doesn’t mean you can’t do something substantial and make a mark on the world.
Based on your music and image, are interviewers surprised by your intelligence?
Sometimes, but I think more than anything it seems almost a bit of an old played-out convention, the idea that someone who drinks whiskey and plays loud music in a rock band wouldn’t have the ability to be intelligent or introspective or understand their place in the world or what’s around them. I was told in school that I wasn’t intelligent and I was tested several times for mental retardation. I achieved the highest test scores in the history of the state board on that test, to which I explained to them, “It’s not because I’m retarded. It’s because I don’t want to do any of the assignments that I was given, because none of them were anything that would ever be applicable to my life. I don’t need to know about the Magna Carta. It’s never going to work for me.” So I think I’ve always had people surprised by my intelligence, or whatever you want to call it. Maybe I don’t pick up on it when people are surprised, but I think you’re right — sometimes I do an interview and people are surprised that I have something more to say than “I like to f--k chicks and drink whiskey.” I think every red-blooded American male likes to do those things, but I also like to read and find out about the world around me. Pop culture was a big friend of mine as a kid, and maybe that’s why I was so in tune with the idea of performance. Finding out about the world through the news media and comic books and movies — that’s something a lot of artists share, and “only child” kids. There was an understanding of the importance of learning that was taught to me by my parents, but the notion of education is something you find within yourself, and the term intelligence is almost fleeting because it’s relative. If I can see something and understand it and know what it is, then I’m intelligent to that subject, but if you were to give me a detailed math equation, I would sound like a bumbling fool. There are certain things that I don’t know, but that’s OK because it’s not applicable to my life. At the end of the day, probably what was most important to my advancement as a child was hugely influenced by pop culture, news media, books and movies, and definitely a visual stimulant along with the mental stimulant.
You are from Cincinnati and started the band when you were 14. How did you get from Point A, Cincinnati, to Point B, Los Angeles?
In reality, what you have is me starting the band as a child, thinking of the name and creating this world I wanted to live in. I was persuasive and able to convince people that my delusions of grandeur were reality, when in actuality the band itself didn’t start until 2008 or 2009. I was performing with a revolving door of members in local clubs and getting shows whenever I could, but the actual band Black Veil Brides didn’t exist until I came to Los Angeles. Around 14 or 15, I came to L.A. because a modeling and talent scout came to the school I attended and put on a thing where they had to have people do performances. I was not interested in doing it, but I was coaxed. Then I was persuaded to come to Los Angeles, where they thought I would be successful as a model and an actor, which is sort of a funny notion considering that two or three years prior I was the guy that girls only spoke to because he was funny. My mom had some vacation time, so we came to L.A., I got an agent and a manager, and immediately started booking modeling things, commercials and pilots. I was doing very well, but it wasn’t what I wanted to do. I wanted to play rock and roll. We went home and I was miserable because I knew the world outside of Cincinnati. I knew that there was something else that I could achieve. Before I turned 18, I packed up my car and moved on my own.
How did your parents respond to this?
My parents have always been supportive of me and been my closest friends. I didn’t come from a wealthy home. They offered me any help that they could, but I was left to my own devices, so I literally lived in my car for about a year and half, crashing on couches when I could. It seemed like the right thing to do. I knew that I was going to be successful and that within a couple of years I was going to be considered a rock star. It’s sort of funny for a 17-year-old who has no money and is living in the back of a 1998 Cadillac El Dorado in a parking lot. It didn’t seem like a great setting for it, but I always believed in something that nobody else understood. Lo and behold, it’s seemingly gone the way that I anticipated.
Did you have a specific vision in mind for this band from the beginning?
Certainly. I’ve shown my girlfriend drawings I did when I was 8 years old of what I wanted the band to look like one day. It’s something I planned since I was very young. It goes back to taking something that is nothing more than a dream and turning it into reality. It’s pretty cohesive in terms of what the band’s message is or what we’ve done. Something inside me told me that this is what I was going to do. I had a clear vision, and that’s why the success we had has come. If everyone had that sort of drive, a lot more people would not give up on their dreams. I took a gamble. I left before finishing high school, I had no formal education or skills set that I honed. I’m a rock and roll musician, but for better or worse, if I crash and burn tomorrow, at least I’ve done something substantial toward the dream that I had.
Was it difficult to find musicians who understood your vision?
I was pretty lucky in that regard. Because I started at such a young age, to this day, people I never met claim they were in this band, and that’s the nature of the beast. After living in a car and being a homeless child, maybe something smiled on me and gave me people that were able to understand what I’d dreamed up. There’s never been any struggle; no one tried to say that it’s wrong. Everyone in the band had the understanding that we have our jobs to do. We all respect each other and understand what our roles are. Yes, this band started as the dream of a weird kid. Now it’s the reality of four other men apart from myself and it is their lives as much as it is mine. We live this, it’s our livelihood, and it’s no longer the notion that it’s one person’s dream. Without them, the band wouldn’t exist. I’d just be some guy standing on my own leather-and-studded pedestal and ranting to the world.
A year and a half in your car — what kept you focused and prevented you from becoming a statistic?
I live in a nice house now and have nice things and that’s a byproduct of having that drive. I certainly didn’t enjoy that period of my life. The easiest thing to do was focus on my dream. When you have to choose between getting something to eat and something to drink that day, you’re not like, “Wow, this is great. I’m going to keep this going.” Especially when you’re a child. As much as I like to carry myself and always felt older than I am, I was still a child and didn’t know much about the world around me, so I had a crash course in adulthood. That became the reason why I needed to succeed, if anything — to live the way I wanted to and do the things that I had dreamed of. You can never be distracted from something you love so much. If it’s the most important thing in the world to you, there’s nothing that can come between you and that — no amount of distraction or failure or sadness you feel toward achieving your ultimate goal. If you’re not there yet, you’re not going to be happy. I don’t know how to get into that headspace. I don’t know how to be a f--kup. I don’t know how to sympathize with someone who ruined their dreams, because to me it seems a slap in the face to anyone that’s working hard and doesn’t get a chance to achieve it. That’s why I’m not a drug user. I don’t do things that are going to jeopardize the one thing that I worked so hard for.
You’ve received more than a few comparisons to KISS.
I learned so much as a child from Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley, their business model, so to speak, and we take some heat for it in that bleeding-heart music writers want to pigeonhole the things I talk about being about business and not music. The distinction is that I would do this for free; I just know how to make money with it. We don’t lie to our audience. Every band in the world sells merchandise. There’s no difference between us having eighteen different kinds of wristbands and T-shirts, and our own nail polish and makeup, and selling it, and some band that screen-prints their own T-shirts and sells them. It’s commerce. They’re making money off the audience wanting something from them. We just do it better. It could be worse than being compared to the most successful American rock band of all time. Thank you. Thank you for using that as an insult. Some of the wealthiest and most successful musicians in the history of American rock music — you’re right, I want to be compared to Radiohead more often. That’s what I need. I don’t care at all about credibility. I know who I am. I love making music, and I just happen to understand the business side of it. If sitting in a coffee shop and playing a bunch of songs I wrote to five people makes me credible, then I don’t want to be. I’d rather be the biggest sellout in the world and get to play in front of 20,000 people and wear my smile and know that I’m proud of who I am and that I’m doing it for the right reasons than appease some music journalist or someone who thinks I’m selling out. More power to those who have credibility, but I’m just fine on this side.
You do a great job of beating the hell out of your body. How do you take care of your voice?
Maybe the reason my voice sounds the way it does is because I don’t take care of it. Every one of these tours we do, I get so sick of hearing these grown men do warm-down exercises after they get off stage. Warm-down. This is a man in his mid-20s who is wearing every cliché of a scream-core band and then he has to warm down. At some point, these extraneous things that people have to do to show themselves that they’re real musicians seem almost unnecessary. That being said, because I’ve been losing my voice too often, there are helpful things that I will start implementing in my life, but I don’t ever want to go overboard and make myself into a caricature of a singer. All I do is sing in a band. I’m not the best singer in the world, but I’m the right singer for this band. The abilities I have are based on things I didn’t create. I didn’t make my singing voice. I was given it by a series of circumstances beyond my control, mainly that I was created. I can sit in a backstage room and annoy everyone around me, or I can have a nice life, be in a band, smoke cigarettes and have a good time. I live life to enjoy it. I don’t think about the negativity of the things that are inevitable and the reasons why I’m going to falter or die or ruin things. I know that what we do is fun, but rock and roll is a disposable art form. It’s lights and loud sounds and loud music and rebellion. The most important thing is the message.
You’re a dedicated reader and you love words. Do you write outside of the band? Does it frustrate you, as a word lover, to see things reduced to text messaging, 140 characters and soundbites?
I love words. They are great, aren’t they? I used to write a lot more. It’s hard, given the constraints of the touring schedule, to find time to write. But we’re going to make another record soon and I try to bottle up most of the words that will come with making an album. I enjoy writing, and inasmuch as I’m well spoken, I feel that I can convey my emotions better within the written word. That’s maybe what attracted me to writing lyrics in the first place — the notion of going for broke and having exactly what you feel conveyed in the written word. When you have a conversation with somebody, and this is the tendency that I’m guilty of … interviews are different because there are questions being asked by one person, but if you’re having a conversation with someone at dinner, if you’re a more dominant person, then you have this innate thing where you want to establish your dominance in the conversation and most topics are switched back to things that involve you. When you write, it is just your thoughts and you can be as selfish as you want to be. You don’t have to sit and wait for someone to finish talking so that you can talk again. You’re literally just writing how you feel. With interviews, it’s a forum set up for that. This is one thing I didn’t know as a child — that I would get to sit in my house on a rainy afternoon, smoke a cigarette and talk about myself for hours and hours. That’s a real perk of the job!
I also run the risk of being an old curmudgeon at this age. I understand that we live in a world of small bits of phrases, and people have reduced words that don’t need to be reduced. I recently got called “And” by someone on a tour. Someone needed to make my name shorter. They needed to take off one letter. It was too much to say “Andy.” That’s the society we live in. You’re taught from a young age, especially in the faltering United States school system, that you learn basic things that you don’t ever need to use and everyone is right all the time. Everyone gets a trophy. Everybody’s just as smart. I think that contributes to why everybody needs to shorten things, because if you were to actually take the time to understand the reality of how beautiful it is to truly write and convey your emotions to someone, it would just take too much time and then you wouldn’t be able to get your Starbucks. So you have to be able to live with today’s society. I guess I could rant forever about “kids these days,” but let’s face it: I am a “kids these days.” I’m in that world, I exist, I have an iPhone and an iPad and all these things. Maybe it would be nice if Twitter allowed me to write a little bit more, but at what point do I stop complaining? That’s why I have a girlfriend — she just listens to me complain. I should clarify — that’s not why I have a girlfriend! But again, perk of the job! It’s a shame that the standard American relationship doesn’t consist of a series of interviews every day, because that would be just great, wouldn’t it? This is why I’m not a great first-date kind of guy, because I have difficulty with the question “Tell me about you.”
And what does your girlfriend do besides, you know, listen to you complain?
She’s a songwriter and a very similar person to me, so we can talk openly on that level and it’s enjoyable. I don’t think I could ever be with anyone who doesn’t have that ability. I tried it and I hated it, so I’m happy to be with someone who understands me and understands what I do. A lot of people share the sentiments we’ve talked about, but I believe that people are good and that people have the ability to think, create, have conversations and learn things. I think sometimes people get distracted and forget to, and that’s why we need things like rock and roll music — because it makes people feel good, and that’s something we have a great loss of in modern society. People don’t get to feel good a lot. We go through a lot in this life. We’re only here for 90-something years and then we die. The experiences we have during that time — life isn’t about how popular you are, or what girl or boy you’re dating, or what cool experiences you’ve had. Life is a culmination of s--t, really, and then it’s all about you being able to be stronger than that and finding something you enjoy. If knowledge is something you enjoy, pursue that. If it’s music or sports or whatever else, that should be what people pursue. I believe in people and I believe that people are good, but sometimes they stray from the path.