Well over 118 million views and counting, the Black Veil Brides 2009 debut video “Knives And Pens” is a bona fide document of the then-burgeoning emo/screamo/metalcore movement. It’s all there: the swooped hair, the guitar shredding, the emotional vocal downshifting into the “unclean” Cookie Monster roar, culminating in a splash of blood to drive home frontman Andy Biersack’s story of being an outcast in an incredibly boring world.
The video is the original calling card of Biersack’s vision for Black Veil Brides and holds a lot of “firsts” for Black Veil Brides. It’s the first song Biersack wrote that he felt defined his artistic direction. The video documents the first iteration of the L.A.-based BVB lineup starring drummer Sandra Alvarenga, guitarist Chris Hollywood and a bass player who pulled out the night before the shoot (more on that in a bit). The most important first? It was the initial project that Biersack and producer/director/writer Patrick Fogarty collaborated on after their fateful meeting on an Atlanta film set.
In celebration of the video’s 10-year anniversary, we chatted up Biersack and Fogarty about how they made a legendary video for $1,000 in spite of not having a ton of industry favors to cash in and the bottom-line advice they’ll always impart to artists who are currently in the same position they were.
Gentlemen! The video for “Knives And Pens” is now well over 18 million views.
ANDY BIERSACK: Does that include the one that Neil [Sheehan, Standby Records owner] put up with some other company that we have nothing to do with?
PATRICK FOGARTY: BlankTV! [Laughs.] That was another 15 or 20…
BIERSACK: [Interrupting.] Million. I think BlankTV was the company who interviewed me when I said the Street Dogs were mean to me when I was a kid, starting my whole accidental battle with the Street Dogs which lasted for years. [Laughs.]
So the legend goes that you two met on the set of an indie movie that Andy’s then-girlfriend was starring in and Patrick was a tech guy.
FOGARTY: It was Rob Zombie’s Halloween 2 that we were filming in Atlanta. I worked on the first one in Pasadena, California, then I met the girl that Andy was dating on that one, and she was in the second one, as well. Andy was stranded in Atlanta: His wallet or his passport—whatever he was using to get on a plane—was missing, and he was stuck hanging around on set.
BIERSACK: This was right after I officially moved to L.A., and she asked me if I wanted to visit her on the set…I went down there, and I left my wallet and my Ohio ID on the plane. I knew I forgot my wallet as I left the plane, and [the flight attendants] wouldn’t let me back on the plane to try and retrieve it. They said if they found it, they would mail to the address that was on the ID. I realized I had no way of leaving: I contacted the Ohio DMV or whatever, and they told me it would take another six to eight weeks to get a new ID printed. I then realized I was going to be outside Atlanta for the duration of the thing.
FOGARTY: I had a pseduo-job. I was supposed to be filming a documentary. I had no real schedule or places that I had to be. I was just wandering around seeing what was going on all day. And found myself waiting around for things to happen much like Andy was. So we started talking to each other. We became regular buddies on set, and then he was telling me about his band and how he was moving to L.A. At the time, I had done nine or 10 music videos for a couple of friends. I showed him a few things that I made. When everything was done and he was back in L.A., he said he’d give me a call. I didn’t expect to hear anything. And then he called me to tell me “I have some money to make a video,” and I didn’t realize we were going to spend every dime of a thousand bucks making a video.
BIERSACK: I had written this song with Chris Stewart, my best friend and my main collaborator in the earlier iteration of Black Veil. He was unfortunately not able to move to L.A. with me. I had written the song with him in the basement of his parents’ house, eating Totino’s pizza rolls. I had this song, and we recorded it locally. It didn’t even have real drums on it: It was recorded in Logic on an old Apple computer.
There was something about the song that I just felt like, “This is really representative of what I’m doing right now.” I was really proud of it. In those days—at least for me—it’s trial and error every time. When you’re 15 to 17 years old with limited life experiences, every song you’re writing is usually pretty heavily influenced by something you’ve heard or experienced previously. It was one of the first times that I had really thought of a lyric and an idea that was about the things I had experienced, this concept about this person who doesn’t fit in.
I was excited about the song, and then I moved to L.A., and then there was nothing to be done with it. I needed a calling card: If I’m going to reform the band out here, I’m going to need something that people can see and get involved in. It was never really about anything other than wanting to make sure that what we were doing was something that was representative of the song. I was sitting in the apartment I was staying in one day and thought, “Well, let’s see if I can get some money together and do a music video.”
I realized that I would need to have a band. I knew two people in L.A. outside of the girl that I was dating. The first was a drummer named Sandra…another one was a guy who went by the name of Chris Hollywood and was a guitar player in the Riverside area. He had connections to L.A.: He said he was back and forth from Dayton, Ohio, to L.A. pretty often. So I gave him a call and asked if he was visiting L.A. soon. He said, “Yeah. Actually, I’m moving out there.” And then we went about the business of trying to find a bass player through Myspace wanted ads. I figured, “OK, we’ve got these people in place. Let’s give Pat a call, and between my parents and Sandra and myself, we came up with the money. It was the first time I ever had debt that I had to pay back, so there was that pressure. [Laughs.] I had to make sure it was good.
Read more: Andy Biersack (Black Veil Brides), Benji Madden (Good Charlotte), more on the songs that saved their lives
FOGARTY: A lot of times when you meet somebody and you’re going to work together, it’s not such a personal thing. He immediately started telling me about his life and growing up and why he wanted to do what he wanted to do.
Despite never having heard of Black Veil Brides before, I could tell that he was wired a little bit differently than most of the younger people I knew at the time. I’m about 10 years older than Andy, and I had been through that time where the people I knew in my life were in bands and trying to make it and do things. To me, it was like, “Well, at least this kid has his head screwed on straight, and he knows what’s important and what he needs to do to make this a reality for himself.”
BIERSACK: The song is about the abiding belief that there is something that you like and enjoy that other people just can’t understand. Ultimately at the end of the day, that’s what resonated with people. It’s a story that I think—especially in 2009—so many people felt attached to.
FOGARTY: I came from the Midwest as well, and I knew what the feeling was to have people take time out of their day to make an effort to find you and let you know that something that you are trying to do for yourself is a waste of your time. It’s not that Andy was trying to tell other people how to live their lives: It was his expression of what he wanted to do with his own life.
BIERSACK: This [debut video] is even before Black Veil Brides was fleshed out. The band in the video is myself, Sandra and Chris—that was the whole representation of the band. To Sandra and Chris Hollywood’s credit, they did not know the song, and they had to smash, crash and learn it the night before essentially to try to play it in the video—it was more about the performance
Now if you look in the video, it’s a three-piece band. The fourth member of the band—the bass player—was replaced by a giant light box we found in the back of the place that we shot at. We felt like it was awkward not to have something on that side of the stage. [Laughs.]
That’s the story of “Where’s Alan?” We had asked a guy from Myspace who answered a classified ad, and we met up with him at Starbucks, and we were all about it. We had done a rehearsal the night before [the filming], and it was like, “OK, we’re going to come back here at 7 a.m. tomorrow and shoot the video.” Midway through the rehearsal, Alan gets a phone call from his girlfriend who lived in San Jose or somewhere like that, and her dog was sick. And Alan said, “You know what? I really have to go. I’m sorry,” and he left. And I never heard from Alan again.
He was not in the video, and he was not the bass player of Black Veil Brides. I often wonder: What happened to Alan? Or the dog? It was completely understandable given the situation. He was asked to be in a random video for some random band: He didn’t realize what it would turn into. If your animal is sick, I completely understand leaving and going to be with that animal.
FOGARTY: The other aspect of this being an anomaly of a project is that when I moved to L.A., I knew nobody and needed to ride the Craigslist bus for two or three years to meet anybody who actually did what they said they could do. It happens over and over and over again when people are trying to find their lives in a new town. And I don’t honestly blame them for leaving. Because it was me and Andy as the crew. I had some buddies to help me wave the fog machine and put up some lights…there was no appearance of a professional production at all.
BIERSACK: We just started taking out props we found at the back of the space. All those mannequins you see onstage, that was a last-minute decision. All of the shit that was on the set of the video was already there: We were like, “Well, let’s just put this over here.”
FOGARTY: All we knew was that we had the key to the building for 12 hours, and that was it. The other stuff that we shot was a free house, a cemetery and a free school that had an outdoor hallway that we could walk up to.
How do you make a video in Los Angeles for a thousand bucks? You don’t know a lot of people, so you can’t call in favors.
BIERSACK: We paid for the soundstage. That was the rate for the day. Pat handled everything else.
FOGARTY: My crew were high school friends of my now-wife who were kind enough to show up for the day and be warm bodies and help with moving and doing stuff. A friend of mine had a camera he was nice enough to let me borrow. The stage itself was exactly $1,000 for 12 hours and happened to have a jib and a dolly and the props and things around there. That studio is not really there anymore…
BIERSACK: We shot the video for “Perfect Weapon” there.
FOGARTY: Since then, I probably shot maybe 10 other videos in that location.
BIERSACK: Sandra and her girlfriend at the time let us use their house for exterior shots. The car being driven—the Mustang—is Sandra’s car. The bedroom for the kid in the video was the bedroom in the apartment that I had lived in. I think I bought a bunch of rock magazines and cut them out, and I did a bunch of random drawings and put them all over the place to make it look like a kid’s punk-rock bedroom. The T-shirt was a children’s shirt that I bought for $5 at Target. We didn’t pay for the school: We just walked in it on a weekend. [Laughs.] Everything else was done for free, on the fly. In L.A., there is no shortage of people who want to be in front of a camera…
FOGARTY: We did a rather thorough casting though, probably the most professional thing we did out of the whole operation. We had 15, 20 people come by and audition for the main character role, and then we grabbed people that were good for the other character roles.
BIERSACK: The main kid who got the part, his audition was singing Alice Cooper’s “Poison.” It wasn’t part of the audition for people to sing a song. But he did that, and it was great. He was in the “Perfect Weapon” video, and then years later, he was in the “Goodbye Agony” video.
What were the biggest mistakes you made?
FOGARTY: Honestly, I don’t think we made any. We executed very efficiently. Once we got things in place, everything worked.
BIERSACK: I can see that the band doesn’t necessarily know the song. So when I watch the video, it’s amazing to me that in our career, we’re hyper-focused on making sure we know the material. And in that video, we didn’t! [Laughter.]
FOGARTY: Yes, but we didn’t have two guitars, bass and drums. We knew we didn’t have that, so it’s obvious we wouldn’t lean on it. Everything else we attempted to do seemed to work out.
BIERSACK: To watch the video and see how entertaining Sandra and Chris are is a lot of fun for me. And to see these actors that did such a fantastic job. I think one of the things that appeals to people is that anybody can look at anything and find criticism with it. To me, I never saw it as cheesy or hokey: It just seemed like a very genuine story, and I think that’s a credit to the actors in the video.
One aspect that appealed to a lot of people was us wearing white clothes against the white wall and then black clothes against the black wall. As far as I can recall, that [idea] was pretty much a last-minute decision. Then we could use that quote from the Memphis Three trial, and we can reference that [quote] that “we wear black all the time.” And now it’s become one of those things where some people will come to Black Veil or Andy Black shows dressed in [an] all-white costume from that video. I think I’m wearing a $3 Hanes T-shirt from a bag of 20. [Laughs.] For the black-on-black part, I didn’t have any cool clothes, so I contacted MickDeth (RIP) from Eighteen Visions. He was the first “famous band dude” I had ever met, and he came to my apartment with a bunch of clothes.
Were there any life lessons to be gleaned from the making of the video?
BIERSACK: I think the life lesson for me is that my entire adult life occurred after the release of that video. From that point forward, I had a semblance of a career in those early days, and it translated into something professional. And that video was the jumping-off point for all of it.
From a professional standpoint, it was the first thing I had ever done where it was really going to be released to the world. From a personal standpoint, it was the first thing I had ever done [where someone] actually believed in me. Having Pat believe in me and having the confidence that he showed in me that it wasn’t just a stupid idea that was going nowhere. I always felt like he believed in what we were doing. I think that gave me a lot more confidence than I ever had before. I was used to people telling me my ideas were dumb. It’s been 10 years, and Pat and I see each other once a week. We do a podcast together, and we’re involved in each other’s lives constantly. The truth of the video is that I gained a best friend and a creative partner and a lot of confidence in myself.
FOGARTY: What “Knives And Pens” meant to me has changed. Originally, when I saw how quickly the video was doing well, it reinforced my belief that things are worth giving a chance, and it is worth your effort to try something with no immediate reward guaranteed just because you think it would be a good thing to do…if you take a chance on everything, you will waste a lot of time. But if you are able to recognize that somebody means what they are doing in writing and performance, that’s the real secret to what’s worth investing your time and effort into. As much credit as I might be given or want to take for the video, I could’ve filmed an empty room, and it wouldn’t have done anything. But the fact that Andy was there with his song and his performance made it what it is.
What advice would you give hungry musicians toward getting their vision translated into pixels and onto YouTube?
BIERSACK: I don’t think there’s a way that you can replicate the random elements of something succeeding. You couldn’t determine what was going to succeed, and at the time, that’s how it really felt to me. Like, “Oh, my God, we’ve done this thing that we believed in, but why do so many people want to see it?” Now that I’ve had time to look back on it, if I could take anything from it, it’s that you [can] make something that is truly genuine to the feelings that you have presented [to] who you are intrinsically and emotionally as a person. You have a better chance of connecting with people than if you do something that panders to what you think they might like.
I’ve told you a million times: One of my biggest pet peeves that’s really common nowadays [is] to prey upon people’s emotional status. To sell loneliness to lonely people, try to make people feel more like the way they could be than giving people something that is representative to what you are. I’m not really interested in making things that I think are going to be what you are. My advice to people would be to be the exact band or artist that you are and own it. You will grow up and evolve over time: If you’re going to make a music video on a shoestring budget, make sure it’s saying what you want it to say.
FOGARTY: When it comes to the advantages people have these days, people have on their cellphones what it used to take a handful of people to manage to [create] anything. The playing field is completely even: There is no advantage to coming from money or corporate backing when it comes to getting your hands on the mechanical items necessary to actually create a video. Because it means that a good idea will rise to the top. There are no rules to what you can do to make that happen.
Thanks. And a message for Alan, the almost-bass player for Black Veil Brides: Please phone in.
BIERSACK: I don’t want to come off kidding or teasing or anything. To this day, I wonder whatever happened to him and the dog and everything. I give him 24 hours of credit. I genuinely hope he sees this.