Something In The Way: A Q&A With My Chemical Romance

As the frontman of My Chemical Romance and the author of the comic series The Umbrella Academy, Gerard Way is a busy man. He certainly knows what it’s like to have too much on his plate. Following their 2006 rock opera album The Black Parade, the alt-rockers toured relentlessly, leading to well-publicized fatigue problems. Overworked, the band–Way, his bassist brother Mikey, and guitarists Ray Toro and Frank Iero–recorded 28 songs for their follow-up, only to discard them and completely restart the process.

It may have taken four years, but My Chemical Romance are reinvigorated physically and musically on their fourth LP, Danger Days: The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys. The titular characters are a gang of outsiders in an imagined future society ruled by a conformist regime. The songs loosely tell their story, while simultaneously confronting the trials of fame. “Vampire Money” follows the band’s rejection of a request to contribute a song to one of the Twilight films and reacts to being pigeonholed into the teen goth market–a label they are clearly defying with their vibrant new sound.

To accompany the album, Way is releasing a series of music videos featuring the Killjoys, portrayed by the band. The colorful costumes worn in the first installment, “Na Na Na,” directly contrast with My Chemical Romance’s previously established taste for the funereal, but Way and his bandmates have lightened up considerably for this next phase of their career. The second video, for “Sing,” shows the rebels in their ongoing struggle with a malevolent secret police force. The conflict continues to unfold over the span of Danger Days.

Tell us about your new album The concept seems pretty interesting, with this dystopian society that you’ve created.

Because we made a second attempt at this record, it’s really a reaction to–not The Black Parade–but stripping everything special away, and stripping the art away, and being assimilated into this very safe kind of thirty-something rock culture. That was the first attempt. It was really a reaction to that attempt.

To metaphorically represent that on the album, being a high concept album, not a concept album with a story, there’s a city named Battery City that is a kind of a clean utopian city where your emotions are handed to you via pill form. It’s easy and it’s very safe, but there’s no art, there’s no life, there’s no danger. Outside of it, there’s this desert, broken into six zones, that these–not even like rebels, they’re just free thinkers, just people living. It’s more dangerous, and you can get killed out there, but you’re free. It’s a complete metaphor for what we went through to make this album.

Did you take any inspiration from other dystopian stories?

It was actually more about dystopian albums. Partway through the project, I realized that there were a lot of parallels between this album and [David Bowie’s] Diamond Dogs. That obviously started as an album that was based on 1984, he originally wanted to secure the rights to do it on Broadway. Bowie, I believe, couldn’t obtain the rights, but he had written all this material, so instead of scrapping it, he made Diamond Dogs. So that was an inspiration.

A lot of it was real life experience turned into metaphor, a lot of it was cinema, like A Clockwork Orange, actually the book as well, Blade Runner, The Warriors, Vanishing Point, The Empire Strikes Back. There’s all these cinematic influences.

What was it like when you decided to scrap the 28 songs you had already written?

Luckily, it happened so organically. We didn’t realize it was happening until it happened, and then we were thrilled, because we’d reclaimed the band. We were on fire. We were full of creative energy. We were making something very real and dangerous. We just met with Rob [Cavallo] and started tracking after recording those 28 songs. We were four songs in and went, “Oh, we’re recording this whole album.” We knew we had to start over, because we already had. So it was organic, and financially stressful for a hot minute, but we were kind of like, “Well, we can’t think about that. We’re onto something great, we have to chase it. Damn the money, let’s chase the art.”

Are you ever going to release the songs that you didn’t use?

I think so. I don’t know when, but I think that once Danger Days has been out for a long time, then it’d be interesting to me, as a fan, to hear the road that got us here.

What is it about these new songs that feels better?

Lyrically, sonically, musically, it just felt very real. It’s what I wanted to say. It felt like how we should sound at this moment. It challenges what modern rock is, as opposed to something that says, “We’re going to be a part of you.” I think doing that will pump a little life into modern rock. It has all these elements that you wouldn’t normally find, and it challenges what a modern rock record is. So, anytime that happens, it invigorates rock and gives it a little longer of a life. That’s what I love about Danger Days as opposed to the first attempt.

How was the song “Na Na Na (Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na)” a turning point in your writing of this new album?

It was the first song written, and it was the most direct, colorful, dumbest thing I had written in a long time. That’s why I loved it, it was like coming up with a theme song for a really violent Saturday morning cartoon played by the Ramones in the future. That’s what it felt like to me. Coming up with that was just a full moment of honesty with myself, saying, “I’m not happy with what I’ve done, I’m inspired, so let me write this song.” I tracked it with the band, realized it was amazing, and then we all held onto that song, and its momentum carried us through the rest of the album.

How about the anti-Twilight song, “Vampire Money”?

It’s not really an anti-Twilight song as much as it’s anti-anything you don’t want to be a part of anymore that people keep asking you to be a part of that you’ve grown out of. It’s about any kind of cool cultural thing that eventually just becomes processed to the point where it just turns into selling sex to children, just selling whatever to children. It’s about anything like that. It’s directly about my experience living in a world with being asked to be a part of that, but it’s not so directly about that film.

Even though it’s not necessarily about that, do you think there will still be backlash from your fans who also like Twilight? Some of those people can get pretty intense.

I don’t think so. I don’t really mind, I don’t really care about the backlash. I think that anybody who reads into it like it’s personally attacking the franchise, which is really all it is, is really reading into the song in the wrong way. In fact, if you listen to the lyrics, I’m actually sympathizing with the actors and actresses in the film. That’s kind of what the chorus is about, because I feel like I’ve already physically been where they’re at with having people dissect you and your personal life and treating you like something that they own. I know what that feels like, it’s actually sympathetic, if anything.

What are your plans for touring for this album, since the last cycle was so stressful for you?

We’re going to tour on it, because of what we’ve gone through to get here, to put this record out. We did some shows in Europe, and honestly, getting onstage, it felt like how it was supposed to feel. It felt like a reward, it felt like a party. We felt lucky to be up there. It didn’t feel like a job or something we had to do, and that was a nice feeling. I don’t see that feeling going away. We’re strategically touring on this one instead of overworking. We’re never going to overdo it now. If a big opportunity comes up and we’re too tired, we’re just not going to do it. It doesn’t matter 20 years from now if we did this TV spot or that one. What matters is that we have fun.

Do you think that this album will help expose you to a new audience?

Absolutely, yeah. What’s kind of funny is that there’s a new audience already out there, a whole new generation of listeners. Half of the crowd is already made up of those listeners. It’s interesting. We played these shows and I would ask, “Who’s here for their first time at a My Chemical Romance show?” and it would be half the crowd. I don’t know what we’ve plugged into, but it’s plugged into the old audience, and it’s plugged into a new audience. So that already seems to be working, but I think it will get broader, because the album’s broader, so it’s going to have a broader scope.

How do you as a band write songs, and how has that process evolved over your time together?

It used to be very traditional, where it’s like, “Cool, let’s get in a practice space, you’re all playing your instruments, I’m singing, and let’s just work on songs.” It completely changed over the years, and now it doesn’t matter what you normally play in the band, you can be playing anything, you can be writing on any instrument, be it the keyboard or Kaoss pad or guitar, piano, it doesn’t matter. If you’ve got a melody, let’s build it from the ground up. It’s not like a bunch of guys standing around in a room anymore with instruments on, it’s everybody sitting in a control room at a board starting with a beat or melody or something and building off that and all creating something together. That’s how it’s evolved. Even the process is no longer traditional.

Do you feel like your songwriting process and comic writing process have anything in common?

They do now. I think that was really being able to come full circle with being an artist and taking ownership over that and saying, “Art needs to be circular if it’s going to survive. You love drawing and writing and creating and separating that from your music is going to kill it for you, so you have to join the two.” They each inform one another, and I’m really happy with that. If it was just us making music and that’s all we did, I would grow very bored of that. It has evolved into a circular kind of art form.

Do you feel like you’ve tapped more into your Britpop influences with this new album?

Yes, completely. It feels like that stuff’s been waiting in the wings for a long time for me and Mikey to bring to the table. This time, especially with everything from Kiss to Planetary to “Sing” sounding like the Chemical Brothers, we really got to do that. I feel like that was a big part that was also missing from me and from The Black Parade. [Sophomore album Three Cheers for Sweet] Revenge had some moments, but Parade didn’t have very many Britpop moments.

What else do you want people to know about your new album?

I just want them to listen to it. This time, I think that everything I really wanted to say about it, I’m saying it with the album and with the art that goes along with the album. I want the art to do the talking this time. Hopefully that’ll get to happen. I just want them to hear it and look at it.

Would you ever do a longer form music video like Kanye did with “Runaway”?

I would, yeah. That stuff definitely interests me. At the same time, I almost didn’t want to do “Na Na Na” as a full video, I actually liked it as a trailer. It was like, “That’s cool, because that’s all I had in my head for that video.” That’s all I wanted to show. My experiment was, “Let me do short short form.” That, actually, is what made the song into a single. There were no videos in the trailer. At the same time, I would like to do longer form stuff, like maybe the third part of the sequence [following “Na Na Na” and “Sing”] will be long form. But what we’re doing involves such a high budget that it’s hard to do anything past five minutes.

So it’s a three-part story?

Hopefully it will be, maybe it’ll be more. Right now, it’s three. We’re making it up as we go along, which is really exciting. The second part is nothing like it was originally intended, it’s grown into something else. So when you see it, you’ll see it evolving.