There are plenty of rock stars who can talk the talk, but there are actually very few who can also walk the walk. And there are even fewer who can strut down the street with that knowing snotty rock ’n’ roll swagger that it takes to truly make it in this business. It’s a heady combination – part balls, part bravado, part fucking insanity – but whatever it is, New Jersey’s My Chemical Romance have it, and they have it in abundance.
Like a modern day re-enactment of Anthony Burgess’ cult classic A Clockwork Orange, My Chemical Romance are all sharp suits and flick knives. Both dapper and dangerous in equal measure, they’ve captured the hearts and minds of the dysfunctional and downtrodden. They are to this decade (the noughties) what Nirvana and Manic Street Preachers were to the 90s. And, like the aforementioned bands, MCR frontman Gerard Way doesn’t accept the ascribed monlker of ‘real rock star’ lightly.
“I don’t think people are looking for a real rock star or rock stars,” he explains, taking a long pull on his cigarette before stunning it out in the overflowing ashtray in front of him. “I think people are looking for a rock star to kill.”
MCR are clearly gunning for A Clockwork Orange strength-in-numbers approach They do everything as a gang, and each of them individually has something valid to say as much as the next band member [be that in the form of guitarist ray Toro’s heartfelt passion for music, the quick and belligerent wit of guitarist Frank Iero, the dark humour of drummer Bob Bryar or bassist Mikey Way’s unashamed love of shlock horror flicks). But it’s not because the band are afraid of Gerard becoming the Anti-Hero Superstar of the 21st Century’s Generation X – or, as they aptly put it, “This ain’t the Gerard Way show by any means”.
It turns out that the gang mentality really is real. “It’s not an ego thing or because everyone wants equal time,” continues Gerard. “It’s because we ARE a gang. But the weird thing about this gang is that there’s no leader. We don’t want it to become anyone’s ‘show’, because ultimately that detracts from our music. Without naming names, probably in the last year-and-a-half/two years, certain individuals were pushed to the front of their bands. Maybe it will sell them for a few more records, or maybe they don’t think of the consequences of doing so, but that kind of thing is basically a poison in your band.
“Anything the band does , even down to merch, is collaborative. We’re the kind of guys that, when something comes back to bite us in the ass, as we know, it’s all OUR fault. And that’s how stuff ends up not being done. I don’ t think we’ve been unhappy with anything we’ve done so far – a T-shirt, a video, a record – I think the kids who are into this band are interested in finding someone to lead them. This band is what we’d rather have lead them than just me. It’s really rare that onstage these other guys will talk. But offstage in interviews, or if the kids approach one of the guys, you will find that they have a lot to say that’s very relevant.”
“I don’t know how anyone else feels about this,” interjects Frank. “But whatever happened to bands? Why does it have to be this star or that star? If you’ve been in a band you’ll know exactly what it’s like. I’ve always been a fan of music made by bands. The whole rock star’ thing has never seemed real to me, and it seldom feels like art, y’know? It’s as if most bands have this model, and he sings and there’s four ugly guys at the back [laughs]. And to top it off, their producer probably writes all their songs. In our band, it’s five of us against the world. That’s what we’ve chosen for our music, and that’s how I think we should be portrayed if you want to do things in an honest way. If you want to show the fake side of music, and just sell a magazine or a record then by all means go ahead!”
Indeed, you only have to look at such metal icons as Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Motley Crue, and even more latter day stars like Nightwish and Funeral For A Friend to realize that, even though the frontperson might be the focal point, he or she is not the be all and end all of the band. And while Frank makes a sound argument for this case – one which Hammer wholeheartedly agrees with – the 21st Century’s Generation X still have a hard time accepting such subtle details, when they have already decided to dub Gerard their new rock messiah. That said, since their inception five or so years ago My Chemical Romance have concentrated their energies on changing their perception. You only have to stand outside one of their shows before the doors open to see girls screaming for autographs, when Mkey or Bob walk past, or budding guitarists mobbing Frank and Ray to talk about “strings and pedals and pick-ups”.
However, it hasn’t been an easy ride by any means for the New Jersey alt. rockers and , ultimately, it nearly cost the band their frontman’s life by pushing him to the brink of oblivion. Unfortunately, Gerard’s “people are looking for a rock star to kill” line is closer to the truth than you can possibly imagine. “There was a point for me about eight month ago, when I felt really weirded out by the whole ‘rock star’ thing,” he confesses. “It was like, ‘Shit, I didn’t think this was gonna happen’. Well, maybe I did, but I didn’t fuly appreciate the impact of it all. Someone said to me in an interview recently that a lot of kids are looking up to me as their saviour, and I really didn’t know how to answer that. It was really bizarre. When we started this band we set out to help people. And I don’t want to contradict myself, but I guess we didn’t realize that there were that may people out there who needed our help.”
You only have to listen to the lyrics on the album Three Cheers For Sweet Revenge, to discover that, figurative speaking, Gerard Way is one sick puppy. He will openly admit to having “psychotic tendencies” with a shrug, and lists ‘liver damage’ as one of the ailments from which he suffers.
“Basically, when we were on the road there would be liquor before water, and sometimes no water at all. And like anything else sometimes it would get out of hand. I’d wake up in the morning and aim to be drink by noon. I can’t really remember the last three years because of it. It was a normal thing for me to get wasted. I knew deep down that I had a problem, but I was something I was very defensive about too.
“Now I go to meetings and stuff, and they always say you need to know the date. And everyone I’ve met at those sort of places knows the date when they stopped doing whatever. But I don’t know the date when I stopped, because it was just so urgent for me to stop. I came to the other guys in the band the day we got back from Japan and said, ‘Look, I have a problem, and think it’s going to affect the band’. And that was five or six months ago. So a decision was made to avoid me contributing to a complete breakdown of this band. It was to avid any kind of drama. That’s really it.
“The fact of the matter is that I was extremely depressed. I was suicidal and the booze wasn’t helping. It kept me there. I don’t necessarily think it helped me to get there in the first place, but it kept me there. And kept me there for months! It’s a symptom of being on the road having nothing to do for 23 hours a day but drink. But I think you have to have it in you to start with. Before the band I was a pretty good drinker too.”
Contrary to the likes of other angst-ridden Anti-Heroes like Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain Korn’s Jonathan Davis, Gerard and his younger brother Mikey had a pretty normal upbringing, albeit in a bad neighbourhood.
“Everyone says their family is crazy, so I won’t say that,” explains Gerard. “Our parents were really supportive about everything we wanted to do, and we had a really pleasant environment to grow up in. They encouraged us to do the things we excelled at and we were interested in. They wouldn’t push anything on us, and that was he raddest thing.”
What, what, what? A normal upbringing with a mum ’n’ dad who loved you? Surely there must be some mistake, young Gerard?
“I guess like anyone else I guess we’re a product of the environment we grew up in,” he continues. “Northern New Jersey isn’t the safest place to grow up. I think we’re really fucked up, because we were forced to live in our heads so much. And when you have to live in your head like that, you have a hard time dealing with the real world. I guess me more so than Mikey because I was the older brother, and I experienced things firsthand, as older brothers do. I am three years older, and I had a really hard time accepting death. I think that’s where my whole fucked upness comes from.
“And before you ask, no there was no kind of traumatic event, nothing like that. I was just a kid and I realized one day that your parents, your friends, your family, everyone you care about is going to die one day. It just occurred to me. I wasn’t reading Edgar Allen Poe or listening to The Cure. I was just watching some shitty cartoons, and it dawned on me that we’re all going to die. So, I became hyper-sensitive about It, and still am to this day.
“That’s what happens when you’re a borderline psychotic, and therein lies the beauty of this band – our duality. There’s a duality to each band member, too. There’s a desire to have this constant conflict. If we write a song and it turns out to be really poppy, we have to make the lyrics really fucked up. There’s psychosis to everything we do for sure. One day we’re probably gonna write this number one pop tune that will be about a massacre!”
Yet, despite Gerad’s growing pains, having Mikey in the band has helped him to sort his head out. “We get along real well,” grins Mikey. “And it’s super sweet! Our relationship now is pretty much the same as it’s always been. I think we just wrestled more back then. We’d professional wrestle each other WWE style, but the rule was no punches in the face!”
“I don’t really picture them as brothers,” adds Ray. “They’re more like best friends. I’ve never seen two brothers have a relationship like them.”
Bob: “If I were with my brother every day, day in, day out, we’d be at each other’s throats day and night. But these two aren’t at all.”
“It’s easier for me and Mikey to be on the road, because we’re brothers,” explains Gerard. “I know it’s a strange thing to say, but I guess that’s why me and him wake up okay in the morning, because it feels like we’re at home. We used to hang out and play video games together. We did everything together, and it’s the same now.” “I wish their hygiene was better!” laughs Frank. Since they officially broke out of New Jersey in 2002, with their debut album I Brought You My Bullets, You Brought Me Your Love, My Chemical Romance have had a pretty rapid rise to success. In the UK alone, they’ve graduated to bigger and bigger venues each time they’ve toured here. And they’ve actually sold more records than the likes of The used, who were seen a major scream superstars at the time.
“We really weren’t aware of that,” says a stunned Gerard. “But we really try not to pay attention to those sort of things. I guess the less you pay attention to record sales, and comparisons between your band and other bands, it keeps your band the way it is.”
“There was a point where we realized that it gets less about the music and more about the industry and time goes by,” adds Frank. “We did this interview where the people interviewing us had no idea we were, or that we were even a band! They’d just seen us on MTV or in a magazine or something, and thought we were… I actually don’t know what they thought we were! Hopefully, those times will be few and far between. It’s really not what it’s about. We didn’t set out to be icons.”
“Ultimately, we make music for ourselves, to make ourselves feel better,” continues Gerard. “But there was a definite goal to help people when we started out. And that is the difference between us and everyone else, I think.”
Frank: “We started out with a lot of goals, and we met them pretty rapidly. We still have a lot of long term goals, but it’s had to articulate that to people without sounding like assholes. Of course, I want to play huge world tours, etc., but out ultimate goal is just to reach as many people s possible.”
While MCR may feel like a gang of cool rock star muthafuckers these days with their co-ordinated black and red schtick – even Mikey’s ironic computer geek aesthetic is on the right side of cool – in high school they were less A Clockwork Orange and more Revenge Of The Nerds.
“The whole black and red thing isn’t satanic, as some people have said,” grins Gerard. “However, we do have a huge love and respect for the Dark Lord – the Dark Lord being [Alkaline Trio frontman] Matt Skiba. It all came out of a video we were doing, actually. We did the video for Helena, and like everything we do we art directed it. And we all started to like the way we looked in that video. I liked the way we looked kinda uniform. It was important for us, because not only had the band become a gang but we needed to look like a gang, too. It wasn’t a calculated thing. It was just one of the moments when you look at yourself and go, ‘I really like the way we look’.”
This is one of the great things about MCR – they’re putting the ‘star’ back into ‘rock star’. Like all the rock star greats before them, MCR have a real sense of showmanship. A sense of mystique that grunge with its dour dress code, nu metal with its safe and sanitized look, and the bands who roll up to a gig wearing exactly the same fucking thing they always wear day in and day out have robbed us of.
“Well, we, um, actually do wear the same clothes all the time,” confesses Gerard. “I don’t have any other clothes. Apart from my pyjamas. Or breakfast parts, as I like to call them. The make-up is what we don’t always wear. It’s a process to get us ready to go onstage. That’s why it always feels a bit odd to get up in the morning, and get ready for photo-shoots. But, yeah, we all make a conscious effort to look like jerk-offs all the time. That’s why we smell so bad!
“When we went to high school, we were definitely the kids who didn’t fit in. I used to wear a lot of black and got hassled for it. As for a Revenge Of The Nerds kinda vibe, if you look at the kids who came to our shows back in the early days, it’s exactly what it was. We’d end up playing as lot of scenester shows, but you could always tell who came to see My chemical Romance, because they didn’t look like anyone else. They didn’t fit in with anyone else, and everyone gave them dirty looks. They were usually alone too. But now I seem to have been given this ‘cutesy frontman’ tag. Like, what the fuck? I don’t think I’m cute in any way, shape or form. I just thought people like me because I’m a crazy asshole. That’s the weirdest thing, because we don’t understand that at all. So it’s very strange for us that we’re pin-ups on people’s walls.”
Frank is a little more philosophical about it all. “Well, if that’s the way it’s gonna happen, then it’s fucking hilarious! Do you really want photos of us spiting at each other and puking up? If you d, you’re fucking crazy!”
This was first published in Metal Hammer issue 138.
Three Cheers For Sweet Revenge was released on June 8, 2004
Read about the band’s 2006 concept album The Black Parade here.