My Chemical Romance: Our band was saved by comic books

Nov. 22, 2010 | 6:21 a.m.

Here’s a lengthy excerpt from my Sunday Calendar story on My Chemical Romance and their new career direction…

my chemical romance My Chemical Romance: Our band was saved by comic books

Ray Toro, Mikey Way, Gerard Way and Frank Iero of My Chemical Romance (Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)

High in his ridgeline home, sitting on a porch that feels like a ledge, Gerard Way peered through cigarette smoke and the late-afternoon Pasadena haze as he searched his memory for the moment when his band, My Chemical Romance, shed its skin. “I think,” he said with a world-weary chuckle, “the liberating moment is when we decided that we were allowed to make a dance record.”

These are strange seasons for Way and his band, who deliver their fourth studio album, “Danger Days: The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys,” on Nov. 22 and have just announced a world tour that finds them back from the brink of despair and bitter breakup. What was their salvation? Comic books, old sci-fi films and drum machines, it turns out, as well as the healing exercise of recording an entire “safe” rock album, scrapping it and starting from scratch.

danger days My Chemical Romance: Our band was saved by comic books

"Danger Days: The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys" (Warner Bros)

“It’s strange how we got to this place, but I think there was no other way to do it,” said Way, who spent nearly a year with his band mates recording a straightforward proto-punk album with producer Brendan O’Brien (known for earnest-searcher sessions with Pearl Jam and Bruce Springsteen) only to jettison it all and starting over with Rob Cavallo (best known for his Green Day work and as the newly minted chairman of Warner Bros. Records) to create a wild-eyed concept album that feels like “Mad Max” reimagined with guitars and the trickster wink of OutKast.

“Danger Days” is getting some strong early reviews (Dan Martin in NME gushed that it’s the “best rock record of the year by such a margin that you actually feel rather embarrassed for everybody else”) but much of the reaction is pure surprise — this is not where My Chemical Romance was supposed to end up, not after all those years of marching through the pop-punk scene in eyeliner and delivering glammed-up melodrama for smart kids.

Way, an art-school soul with real-world bruises and a croaky New Jersey voice, actually dares to hope that the shout-along choruses and pop-epic aspirations of “Danger Days” could be genre-saving. “I don’t say it in arrogance, but it might reposition rock, because rock is getting slaughtered out there …” That savior language is startling for people close to Way because, over the last few years, his band looked it like was the one that was sinking down into the murky depths.

grant morrison mcr My Chemical Romance: Our band was saved by comic books

Grant Morrison on set of "Sing" video (Greg Watermann/Warner Bros)

A few days earlier, on a slate-gray Saturday morning in downtown Los Angeles, the band members gathered to shoot a music video for the “Danger Days” track “Sing” and, instead of guitars, they were hefting laser guns. The video is part of the unfolding saga of the Killjoys, the future-world personas played by the band that are battling against the Draculoids and an insidious corporate behemoth called Better Living Industries.

umbrella academy salute My Chemical Romance: Our band was saved by comic books

"Umbrella Academy" (Dark Horse)

The weapons, characters, logos, back story, vehicles — all of it sprang from the mind of Way, who attended the School of Visual Arts in New York and interned at DC Comics’ Vertigo imprint before he took a detour into rock stardom.

It was during his time at the Vertigo that Way met Grant Morrison, now one of the most celebrated comic-book writers in the world and the man who recently killed off (temporarily) Batman’s alter ego, Bruce Wayne.

On this morning, Morrison has a different target — he’s playing Korse (whom he describes as “a human bloodhound, a hunter who dresses like an undead, post-apocalyptic Doc Holliday“) and is eager for the moment when the script calls for him to put a gun beneath Way’s chin and pull the trigger.

There’s hardly anything new about rock bands finding a common ground with comics or illustrated imagery of the fantastic, whether it was KISS and Alice Cooper rocking out in the pages of vintage Marvel comics, Spider-Man getting the cover of Creem in 1973 or Bono and The Edge writing music for the web-slinger’s Broadway show. There are hundreds of examples of crossovers, but My Chemical Romance and “Danger Days” is most likely the very first time that comic books saved the career of a band. And fittingly, it happened just in the nick of time.

In May 2008, My Chemical Romance was running on fumes by the time it hit the stage at Madison Square Garden. The core of the band — the lead singer and his brother, bassist Mikey Way, with Ray Toro on lead guitar and Frank Iero on rhythm guitar and backup vocals — were road-weary and more than a bit emotionally battered.

umbrella academy apocalypse suite My Chemical Romance: Our band was saved by comic booksThe lead singer was especially heartsick and confused after the Daily Mail of London used the band’s somewhat ominous name (which is a reference, by the way, to the work of author Irvine Welsh) to shoehorn the group into controversy after the hanging suicide of a 13-year-old Kent girl. One headline — “Why no child is safe from the sinister cult of emo” — would have been laughable if it wasn’t so exploitative and shrill.

“Gerard was really taking it hard, and we were all ground down from the tour cycle,” Toro said. “Being from Jersey, that show should have been a celebratory moment for us, and it wasn’t. We had all these songs from [our biggest commercial success] ‘The Black Parade,’ but the songs had lost their meaning for us. When we left the stage I think people thought it might be our last show, and I think maybe Gerard made it sound that way too.”

The band went off in different directions. Way immersed himself in comics with the subversive superhero series Umbrella Academy, a collaboration with Brazilian artist Gabriel Bá, and quickly proved he wasn’t one of the many Hollywood names dropping in on the suddenly fashionable Comic-Con scene. “Gerard is the real deal,” Morrison said, “and certainly not a tourist in comics.” The series won an Eisner Award, the highest honor in the industry and a strong indication of peer acceptance.

After months of soul-searching, the band gathered last year and went in the studio with O’Brien. The plan was to strip away the glam and get back to basics with a proto-punk sound that would channel their inner Iggy. Way said there was a lot of pressure to make an album for grown-ups.

“There are a lot of rewards, like you get coverage in men’s magazines and you find yourself dieting and cutting your hair,” Way said. “There are people around you that want you to make ‘the American rock record’ for the fans who are in their 30s now. When we finished it, we realized what we had done: We had become acceptable and sterile.”

my chemical romance black parade My Chemical Romance: Our band was saved by comic books

My Chemical Romance in "Black Parade" days (Warner Bros)

Toro said the band was essentially lost and didn’t jibe well with O’Brien’s fast-paced approach. “The sounds weren’t there, and the production value wasn’t there, and a lot of that had to do with us because we didn’t go all in on that record, we held back on some level,” he said. “We had put up a lot of walls. We were very much against doing the same thing we did on ‘Black Parade.’ We actually saw that album as the enemy.”

umbrella academy finale1 My Chemical Romance: Our band was saved by comic booksWith that album being mixed, the old friends from Jersey began experimenting with different sounds and instruments. But, according to Toro, the impetus and structure that led to the new sound was all in Way’s iPad — his sketches, logos, characters and descriptions of a world that was somewhere between the visual ethos of “The Empire Strikes Back” and the scabby consumer-culture commentary of Frank Miller’s Give Me Liberty” comics.

“That gave us a place to go, a place to fill with new sounds and a whole different set of rules,” Toro said. “We made music for that world, and we didn’t feel boxed in by our past or any expectations from anyone else.”

Iero said the band often felt constricted by rock-world scrutiny and expectations, and with the total abandon of their first “Danger Days” single, the brash and blistering “Na Na Na (Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na),” they hope to have pushed their amps into the dance floor, just as U2 did after leaving the deserts of “Joshua Tree” and looking for strobe release and leather swagger with “Achtung Baby.”

“We’ve always wanted to do it, something you could dance to, and deep down we always thought we could bring something to the table if we could do it, but the live shows always made us pull back and be ‘a rock band,'” Iero said. He added that fans are already embracing the other-world premises of Way’s creation.

“It’s not a concept as much as it is a high concept,” Iero said. “We want to present the world and the characters in that world, and there are certain situations. It’s a place you can live. And the idea is that radio broadcasts from that future are the music on this album, and the music videos will tell this story that takes place there…”


— Geoff Boucher


gerard My Chemical Romance: Our band was saved by comic books

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9 Responses to My Chemical Romance: Our band was saved by comic books

  1. Amanda Wu says:

    I cannot put into words how happy I am to own a copy of the CD and be able to enjoy the new spin to My Chemical Romance's Danger Days album. It never disappoints me and I hope it will pave the way for future rock n' roll albums. It surprised me to have Japanese in one of the songs. I was thinking the same thing about a week ago about how music should be mixed with different languages to begin a different style of music in the US. Last night's LA performance was one of the best, but it felt rushed. I miss Gerard's speeches and his comic book series. I'm looking forward to the next set of comics coming out for the Umbrella Academy. Back to the album…it's awesome. Since I don't believe anything can be perfect and everything has flaws, I rate it with 4.5 stars…maybe even 4.9999…. You get the picture. Thanks for putting a smile on my face, your true fan and killjoy, Silhouette.

  2. Mia says:

    I am so happy and proud of the guys. i mean this is so exciting and such an amazing album, and honestly when i first heard it i was in shock. But it was a good shock. It definitely transfers me into their world every time i turn the music on. So clever and and amusing. And honestly this album just like the rest of them made me feel alive, they literally saved my life. When i first heard their music i was really affected, it helped me feel again, it made me feel like i can do something, like i wasn't a waste of space, It made me feel like i had something to live for. And this album just added to that. I really fell in love with this album. I hope there are many more to come. Love forever. <3

  3. Wendy says:

    I love this band!
    At age 48, with TBP they brought music alive for me again, set me free to roll around in whatever, musically, took my fancy. But I worried and waited for their next move with such anticipation.
    It won't disappoint. Next week I turn 54 and for my birthday I'm getting Danger Days.
    Thanks guys!

  4. kylee says:

    Ok… my opinion. This album is GREAT. fabulous. I LOVE IT. However, I do not think it beats The Black Parade. That album was just…. AMAZING… soo… just… breathtakingly awesome… Words cant describe what a true masterpiece that was. this one is too but damn black parade trumps any album on the face of the earth with how greatly planned out and spectacular they made itt.

  5. Pidge says:

    Black Parade is already a piece of Music Legend History. It is probably unbeatable even by MCR! This new album is fun and I love that they went concept again! MCR is the only band I care about! I am 39 this week. I haven't had anything to be excited about since Guns and Roses and Aerosmith! My 9 year old will attend this concert in May! MCR you are affecting and infecting the next generation! You don't even comprehend the magnitude of what you create. You are the only quality well with a little Eminem perhaps. You rescue us from Gagme, K$a, and the like. Just when I thought music was lost I heard a song called Dead! Ironically (what you do best) that signaled a whole new world for me and my girls! Soon enough we knew ever word to every album! It never gets old! Please continue to lead the industry and all of those who love to rock!

  6. Wendy says:

    Just a follow-up comment:

    Been listening to Danger Days for three days now and am falling in love all over again. I know the concept is post-apocalyptic and all but listening to it what I hear is happiness. Got me dancing around my kitchen to Bulletproof Heart, The Only Hope for Me is You and the sheer, fizzy, Cure-like joy of Summertime.

    Thank you! Best birthday present!

  7. Kat says:

    I LOVE their new album. their music has only gotten better with each album. their music SAVES lives. i knw it saved mine

    #1 fan since bullets <3

  8. alexia says:

    danger days is amazing! i most definitely love all thier albums! and ppl are right The Black Parade was the best. i love all the songs and the hiddeen track blood. im getting my best friend into My Chemical Romance now. she loves the songs Teenagers and Welcome to the Black Parade!!
    long live MCR and the MCRmy!!!
    love u guys!!

  9. katie says:

    its hard NOT to love MCR…litterally impossible…my friend actually got me into My Chem, and before, i used to think she was crazy and that they werent as amazing as she claimed….then i heard NaNaNa, and the killjoys were part of me…..the band just has their own way of expressing emotion and feeling so beautifully, like in the the song "I Don't Love You"………its impossible for the killjoys to be any less than amazing

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