LOS ANGELES — 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 Monday 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.
“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 like it was the one that was sinking down into the murky depths.
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.
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 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. The 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 Ba, 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.”
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.”
With 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 “The Joshua Tree” and looking for strobe and leather 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.”
The response is strong (Spin called “Na Na Na” an “in-your-face punk anthem with blistering guitar leads, an epic breakdown, and Gerard Way’s sneering delivery”), but the band has gone so deep into this new mode that there is considerable downside if it fails to connect in the popular imagination.
“Any time you create something that’s really near and dear to your heart and you unleash it on the world, it’s like opening up your chest and standing there,” Iero said. “You’re very vulnerable. Nobody can love it as much as you do, but when the kids take it and run with it, it can be amazing. But you do worry.”
Back at the top of the mountain, Way doesn’t seem worried at all. He is pulsing with excitement about the idea of creating action figures and merchandise based on his “Danger Days” future, which he views as a loving spoof of the George Lucas retail items that he grew up with, and has found his spirit revived by going to the vintage, fluorescent fantasies of midnight movies such as “Zardoz” and “Barbarella” and creating an art project disguised as a rock album and tour.
“We have made this record now that no one expected and that we never expected,” Way said. “We could have given the world this rock record, and that would have been perfectly acceptable, but instead we went and made a pop-art record. Look, I had all this armor on before and I was separated from myself. Now I’m me. I’ve connected all of art; I don’t think of things as being separate. Now the only armor I have left is the lack of caring about the aftermath of everything that we’ve done. The reaction to what we’ve done is something that I don’t worry about. This is purely me right now, and that’s really refreshing.”
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