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Porter McKnight of Atreyu on design, photography, and directing his first music video

by Finn McKenty
art & design

Atreyu2015

Art and music have always gone hand in hand, and some of my favorite memories are listening to a new album while poring over the artwork at the same time. With that in mind, it’s no surprise that most bands seem to have at least one graphic designer/photographer in their ranks, who usually ends up being their defacto art director. In the case of Orange County metalcore legends Atreyu, that person is their bassist Porter McKnight. On the heels of their new album “Long Live,” I chatted with Porter about his background in graphic design, photography, and his first foray into the world of video directing.

How did you get into music and design? Give us the cliff notes version of your life story.

I was born and raised in southern Alabama. It’s a wonderful little pocket of artist communities. When I was 17 I went to college at Chapman University in Southern California. I went there for graphic design, and to play soccer. So I went, and the soccer team were a bunch of dicks, the coach was a jerk, and it was just a completely negative environment, and so I quit. I hate quitting, but I had to, and that pushed me back into music. I played shows at Chain Reaction and all the local venues, met the Atreyu guys, and after my other band fell apart Atreyu asked me to play with them and the rest is history!

As far as design goes, I started doing graphic design back in middle school. We had some sort of early, early HTML class or something like that. I would build websites, and I got more into the graphic side of that. Then in 8th grade, my father gave me an old Minolta film camera. The poor bastard— the first day I shot like 8 rolls of film and you can imagine how expensive that got. I was just shooting anything and everything I could. Since then, I’ve loved photography. I took all the art classes I could in high school, did graphic design, and just learned as much as I possibly could on my own.

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Photo of Edinburgh, Scotland by Porter

From looking at your Instagram, it seems like when it comes to photography you are a big fan of architecture. 

I’ve always loved architecture as a photography subject, the shapes and lines that the buildings create, and I just really love the combination of those things with natural light. I literally love nothing more than that, that’s me out in the wild just giddy with all the photos I’m shooting.

My favorite part about being in a band is being able to travel so much. Don’t get me wrong, making music and playing shows is awesome, but what I love is being able to go to all these amazing cities and just wander around and document everything I see. That’s what I look forward to— I go out in the city and try to find the coolest spots, and sometimes I’ll stay around for a while after a tour just for that. Like the last one we did, Reading Festival, I stayed around in Scotland for another week. That’s probably my favorite place to shoot, and Edinburgh, Scotland is maybe my favorite place on earth.

porter beach

I also really like your approach to lighting– a lot of really natural, low-contrast light. I feel like a lot of photographers go overboard playing with their toys and do things with lighting that (at least in my opinion) are overdone and contrived.

That’s the thing: I don’t like lighting. I don’t enjoy working with lights, I don’t like setting them up. I think the first time I ever really used lighting was on the Veet shoot that I did last year. When I did a photo shoot for the band recently it was all natural light, except for one we did in the studio because that’s what the label wanted. I love the golden hour and finding that perfect time.

Underminded

Underminded “Eleven:Eleven” cover art

So getting back to design, I know you’ve done a lot of stuff for Atreyu and some other bands, but have you ever done design as a full time job?

Before I was in the band, I did design for a living. When I was in school I worked in the publications department at Chapman, and that’s where I truly learned how to be a designer— especially a lot of the technical aspects. I really didn’t learn a ton in my classes, to be perfectly frank, but I learned a lot through that job. I started out as a photographer, then they realized I was good at graphics and let me do both, and it was damn fun.

Around then I met Charlie Adams, who is now one of my best friends and ran a label called We The People, who signed The Starting Line, and I worked for him for a long time doing stuff for the label and the publishing company that he also owned. I started making t-shirts for a lot bands while we were touring, did some CD artwork, and then when the band stopped at the end of 2010, that’s what I did full time.

CotD ep RGB web

Blessthefall / Chiodos / Endless Hallway / Architects “Covers Of The Damned” EP cover art

I worked as lead designer at Firebrand, which is a merch company, and also worked on some extremely corporate stuff. That was weird to me— working on the website for Depends, product shoots for MegaRed Vitamins and Veet. I’d never done anything like that before, but I got paid really well to do it and got to work with my best friend, and I got to learn a whole other side of the industry that I never thought I would or would want to learn. But it was actually really exciting, shockingly enough. I don’t think I’d want to do it forever, but it was a great experience at the time and it definitely made me a better designer.

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Brandon getting burned at the stake, from the “Long Live” CD booklet

The whole album release feels really cohesive in terms of the visual presentation. Was there any kind of underlying concept behind it?

I literally did everything. I did the album artwork, I did the photo shoots, directed the video, every single aspect of all the visuals for the album release. It all started out with the CD booklet. I wanted to do photos of each of us in these different death scenarios.

It was sparked by this photo of Alfred Hitchcock where he’s sitting on a funeral pyre lighting a cigarette like he just doesn’t give a fuck. He’s prepared for death; it’s his choice and he doesn’t care. There was this wonderful cockiness in that photo that was aligned with how we were feeling about this album and our “resurgance” or whatever. So I thought out all these different scenarios, and I was like “These are pretty cool ideas, why don’t I try to write a script and find a way to make it a narrative video?” No performance, just a little short film basically.

Video for Atreyu’s new single “Long Live,” written & directed by Porter. Cinematographer: John Rutland / Producer: Matthew Vaughn

I wrote the video treatment, but I didn’t go to film school and I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing, so my best friend Sean who shot a lot of our other videos helped me with the basic structure of a storyline, pulling together all my ideas and how I wanted the plot to roll up. I’d never directed a video before, but I think it turned out phenomenal, everyone had a great time, and I think it looks really fuckin good.

It was my first time directing, but I’ve learned a lot from our video shoots over the years. I wasn’t just like sitting around idly waiting until someone told me what to do, I was absorbing everything I could.

long live bts

Behind the scenes of the “Long Live” video shoot. Photo: Tim Cayem

What were the biggest things you learned from your first time as a director?

The main thing is that I was shocked by how much I can actually do, by how much weight I can carry on my shoulders and how many problems I was able to solve on the fly. And also, how much REALLY goes into it. I’d experienced a video shoot many times from the artist side, but I wasn’t the guy who everyone went to when there was a problem. My nature is just like, I wanna sit back and make cool shit, and I’ve never really had to be that guy before, but I pulled it off really well.

Follow Porter on Instagram and Twitter // Follow Atreyu on Facebook and Twitter // Buy “Long Live” on iTunes

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Finn McKenty

Finn is the producer of CreativeLive’s audio channel.

You can email him at finn [dot] mckenty [at] creativelive [dot] com

@finn_mckenty