The Black Parade nearly killed them with its success. But My Chemical Romance found changing directions almost as fatal when it came to making their latest, Danger Days: The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys.
"Sometimes you have to let go of something in order to hold on to it,” says Ray Toro, My Chemical Romance’s lead guitarist. “I’ve heard that expression before, but I never thought I’d have to apply its meaning to our band. Of course, I didn’t think that things would get as rough as they did for us recently.”
For Toro, fellow guitarist Frank Iero and the rest of the New Jersey–based group, which also includes lead singer Gerard Way and his bassist brother Mikey (drummer Bob Bryar left the outfit in early 2010), the road to multi-Platinum success has been relatively smooth since My Chemical Romance formed in 2001. Rising from the East Coast underground goth-emo/punk-pop scene, MCR moved from the indie Eyeball Records to major-label Reprise just two years after they first jammed together. Their 2004 major-label release, Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge, a Cuisinart of emo, alt-rock and punk with a metallic guitar bite, hit the mark. Videos for songs such as “Helena” and “I’m Not Okay (I Promise)” and “The Ghost of You” received as much exposure on MTV as the network would provide for just about any rock act.
But it was their next release, 2006’s The Black Parade—helmed by Rob Cavallo, Green Day’s longtime knob turner, and now chairman of the WBR Label Group—that made MCR arena fillers. While the record might have been bombastic and bleak, it was the right album for the right time. “Downtrodden times, actually,” Iero says. “Which might bewhy people responded, because they were feeling depressed.” Befitting any good concept package, the band donned monochromatic uniforms, and frontman Way played the part of the album’s protagonist, the whacked-out “Patient.”
Once again, My Chemical Romance scored a hit, but the success became too much for them. “We were spent, burnt, totally out of it,” Toro says. “Being this costume band in black night after night, country after country, it was a grind. We started to see The Black Parade as the enemy, one we wanted to kill on our next record.”
Enlisting superstar producer Brendan O’Brien (Pearl Jam, Rage Against the Machine, Bruce Springsteen) seemed like the sure-shot move to take things to the next level. O’Brien is known for his no-nonsense approach, which was just what the band wanted. Gerard set down a strict mandate, to which the band readily agreed, that the new album would involve neither concepts nor costumes. “It was time for us to stop being so elaborate and just make music,” Iero says. “We had everything plotted out, everything was in order. Things were going to be great.”
Only they weren’t. The band slogged its way through recording sessions through much of 2009, making slow and steady progress, but nothing seemed to light anybody’s fire. “We hit a wall,” Toro says. “We were trying way too hard to be perfect and be this other ‘thing.’ Not that you shouldn’t try to grow and develop, but we were just killing ourselves with trying. It wasn’t fun.”
Listening back to what they’d recorded with O’Brien, MCR made the painful (and expensive) decision to bag the sessions and go back to the drawing board with Cavallo. “It was a hard decision to scrap the record we made with Brendan, but in the end, it was the right decision,” Toro says. Once ensconced with Cavallo last spring, the band tore through the new album, which now sported a title: Danger Days: The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys. Full of whim and vigor, Toro and Iero apply guitar sounds both au currant and vaguely nostalgic to insanely catchy, fast-paced tracks such as “Na Na Na (Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na),” “Bulletproof Heart,” “The Only Hope for Me Is You” and “Planetary (GO!).” While there is a subtle storyline linking the songs (something about a post-apocalyptic California in the year 2019), the music is neither depressing nor weighted down by overt narrative. This is an album built for speed.
As for the band members, who grumbled their way through the last months of the Black Parade tour, they’re ready to get their act together and take it on the road once more. “Only this time we’re going to try to work a lot smarter,” Iero says. “Everybody has families now, so we’re not going to grind ourselves down. We need to have lives just like anybody else. That said, we’re feeling recharged and ready to play again.”
GUITAR WORLD When the band decided to scrap the album it had made with Brendan O’Brien and start working again with Rob Cavallo—even though Rob is a Warner Bros. company man—I have to imagine that didn’t go down very well with the accountants.
RAY TORO You’d think that, but they were very supportive.
FRANK IERO Actually, the way it happened was so organic that it sort of turned out all right. Basically, we set out to make one kind of record. I think we defined it before we wrote the songs. Big mistake. Anytime you put yourself in a creative box, it’s going to stifle you; it’s not conducive to the writing or recording process. I think we went with the album already mapped out in our heads out of fear. We were thinking about what we had done before on The Black Parade and the toll it took on us. So we kind of said, Okay, we’re not doing that this time; in fact, we’re going to do something totally different.
We had no concepts, no characters, no costumes, and no extra instrumentation—just stripped-down songs. That’s what we wanted the band to be…or so we thought. We listened back to what we had done, and we definitely accomplished the goal, but it didn’t feel right; it felt like we’d tied our arms behind our backs. We hadn’t pushed things to the next level. So while we were mixing we thought we had something more to say—a lot more to say, actually. Thank god Rob Cavallo was available to come onboard and help us figure everything out, ’cause we were kind of lost.
TORO We spent so long writing and recording and trying to make a real stripped-down record. I remember distinctly, whereas in the past I would have laid down a bunch of different guitar tracks, harmonies and stuff, this time I said, “No, I can’t do that.” After a while, it started to feel like I was going against my nature. Things just didn’t feel like they should.
GW Did Brendan notice that things weren’t working? Did he ever say to you guys, “This is good, but it’s not great”?
TORO He was really trying. He did the best he could with us. He knew things weren’t clicking, and he’d try to rally us. I remember he said, “Hey, on some songs, I’d love to hear you do what you did on The Black Parade.” Because there wasn’t any of the harmonized guitar parts or the stacking that I usually do. He was trying to get us to make one record, and we wanted to make something totally different.
GW Which was, as you said, more stripped-down and direct.
TORO That’s right. Musically, we wanted to go back to our basement. But just because we wanted to do something different didn’t make it easy. In many ways, we felt as though we were holding ourselves back creatively. We were just going through the motions. The creative spark of the band wasn’t there. It’s a difficult balancing act, knowing you have to change and then actually changing. Some of the songs were good, but we weren’t happy with all of them.
GW What was the defining moment, though, when the band sat down and decided it wasn’t working?
IERO There wasn’t so much one defining moment; it was more like a gradual malaise was coming over us. We all knew that something was wrong and that people weren’t acting all excited about what they were hearing us do.
GW Did any songs from the original sessions make the finished album?
TORO Yeah, but we recut them. There’s “Bulletproof Heart,” “Party Poison” and a song called “The Only Hope for Me Is You.” Those songs always excited us, so we weren’t going to lose them.
IERO I think the moment we realized we were back on track was when we starting writing songs like “Na Na Na” and “Planetary (GO!)” and a couple of other ones. At that point, we went, Whoa! Something’s happening here—we’re not trying to write an album, but that’s what’s happening. The creativity was happening, but we weren’t imposing any rules on ourselves. Things felt very free. The more we listened to the new batch of tunes, we were flying.
GWDanger Days is much more upbeat than The Black Parade.
TORO It’s weird. That wasn’t the goal at any point. I think it was just how we were feeling in the studio once we got back with Rob.
IERO See, I do think it was the goal, at least to me it was. It’s very real. It’s a celebratory record. You’re hearing a band that’s having fun and being creative. So it’s a lighthearted album in that way. It was so difficult at first and we were just beating ourselves up wondering, Why isn’t this working? So by the time we were on a roll, we were just in love with what we were doing. All in all, it turned out to be a great experience.
GW My Chemical Romance are from New Jersey, but you guys don’t seem to share anything musically with Bruce Springsteen or Bon Jovi, or even a punk band like the Gaslight Anthem.
TORO No, we don’t. I think our connection with those bands comesmore from our attitudes. We’re blue-collar guys. It’s a work-ethic thing that comes from East Coast bands. We’re not afraid to get our hands dirty and do the job, you know? Our actual sound—that’s hard to describe. We probably have more things in common musically with the Misfits, who are another Jersey band. We come from more of a punk aesthetic.
GW As guitarists, who are your influences?
TORO Really, my biggest influence was my older brother, Louie. That’s how I first got into the guitar, from hearing and watching him. He was into Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Hendrix, Metallica, Mötley Crüe—a lot of classic rock with some metal thrown in. So I got into all that stuff, as well. He helped me out a lot. He had a stack of Guitar World magazines and stuff—I’d go through them and look at all the tabs. Then I got more into guys like Jeff Beck and David Gilmour.
IERO For me, it started off with my dad and my grandfather, both of whom are drummers. My dad was very influential with the music he exposed me to. He was really into blues and folk, so he’d play me guys like Muddy Waters and T-Bone Walker and Richie Havens—a lot of very emotional players.
From there, it was a natural part of the evolution for me to go out and find my own music, which turned out to be punk rock. When you break it all down, my punk rock is my dad’s blues. It’s music from the underground, and it’s real, and it’s written for the downtrodden in uncertain times. I discovered a lot of Jersey bands, plus groups like Sonic Youth and art-rock bands. I love players like Thurston Moore. I mean, you can put notes down on a sheet of paper, and if you practice and get your chops up, you can play like an Eddie Van Halen or a Steve Vai. But nobody can do what Thurston Moore does; he’s his own guy. He talks through his instrument in a language that’s all his own. Same with Jack White: the emotion with which he plays, the tones that he gets…it’s not sterile by any means.
TORO What I try to do is throw everything together, classic rock and metal bands: Megadeth, Metallica, Pantera, Iron Maiden… I think I’ve always had more of a faster-riffing, minor-key thing going on. As I got older, I got more into punk bands. So I mix it up: I love the attitude of punk, but I love the precision of a lot of metal players.
GW What kind of practice schedule do the two of you adhere to?
IERO I’m kind of a feel player. I’ll stretch out before a show a bit and do some playing, but that’s about it. I’m not one of these 10-hour-a-day playing guys.
TORO I definitely used to practice more. I think I found that the best middle ground is one where you’re hitting your notes and you feel comfortable on the fretboard, but you still want to leave room for attitude and freshness. Listen to a guy like Stevie Ray Vaughan, who’s one of my favorites. He’s a flawless player, but you hear the heart and soul there—he’s reaching for the moment. That’s what I try to achieve, in my own humble way. [laughs]
GW Even though you guys don’t showboat, you’re not anti-guitar solos…
IERO We’re not, but we don’t like overdoing it. A guitar solo in the same part of every tune—that’s been done so much. I think solos shine more when you have them in specific and unexpected places. It’s no secret that Ray is a genius when it comes to writing solos. Watching and hearing him play, I’m just so inspired. I’ve learned more from playing with him than I have from any lessons I ever took. And really, that’s part of what being in a band is all about: teaching one another, rubbing off on one another, helping the other guys do their best—all of that.
TORO I’m constantly trying to come up with new lines and parts. Every song is a challenge. That’s what keeps me excited. For instance, on “Planetary (GO!),” I had to figure out how to make the guitar sound like a synthesizer. What I ended up doing was using an Electro-Harmonix POG, which is one of my favorite pedals. It’s sick—you have all of these octaves to play with. I found some great sounds to use there.
But on a song like “Save Yourself,” the playing is more precise, with heavy palm muting on the verses. The solo is more of a pentatonic thing, like what Kirk Hammett might play. So exploring all of those aspects but trying to keep it fresh and with a bit of a punk spirit is what keeps me going.
GW Two-guitar bands are funny animals: one guy can’t do what the other guy does, because it just doesn’t work. Do the two of you have to hold back or change your styles to play with each other?
IERO I think the reason why we’ve gone on for so long and have had such success is because there are no egos between the band members. Ray and I trade off on leads, but when it comes to solos, that’s his thing. I have no want or desire to solo. I’d rather create melodies and accompanying parts.
TORO And I love playing with Frank. Our styles are very distinct. He’s much more melodic than I am. If you listen to him, he’s always harmonizing with or backing up the lead vocal melody. I might be the “lead guitarist” per se, but we’re always swapping roles. Sometimes he does little leads on the choruses. He has an energy that I find very inspiring.
GW What kind of guitars are you two playing these days?
TORO I’m still a Les Paul player, but recently I had the chance to play one of Jimi Hendrix’s Strats. Totally mind blowing! This guy, Jimmy from Mates Rehearsal Studios in California, had one. I had shown up at the studio, and I didn’t have a guitar to play, so Jimmy let me play this Hendrix Strat that he got from Jimi’s old guitar tech. The thing was beat to shit, but it was the best-playing guitar ever. I played it for a year—Jimmy let me use it in the studio, Man, I loved that. Live, I’m still a Les Paul guy, but playing Jimi Hendrix’s Strat really got me interested in Strats and other guitars. In fact, I’m in desperate search for the ultimate Tele to play. If I can find one, I’m there.
IERO I’ve been playing Epiphone Les Pauls for years, but lately I’ve been working with the company to come up with a new model based on the Wilshire guitar. It’s a guitar they made in the Sixties; the junior model to it would be the Coronet. The Wilshire is the one with two pickups. It’s tentatively going to be called the Phantom-Matic. It’s going to be a fun guitar. It’ll have the balls of a Les Paul, but it’ll be a much lighter instrument. I’m playing a prototype of it now.
GW What’s your drummer situation? Have you found a replacement for Bob Bryar?
IERO Actually, on the album, we had a few different drummers. There was one guy, John Miceli, who plays with Meat Loaf, and he was just amazing. What a wonderful musician. But as an actual band, My Chem is going to stay a four-piece to the end.