The transformation of My Chemical Romance -- How the rock band made ''The Black Parade''
After midnight on a rainy highway somewhere between Liverpool and Glasgow, My Chemical Romance are coming down from a fiery set in front of more than 2,000 devout fans. Bathed in the eerie green light of the tour bus, frontman Gerard Way, 29, is typing on his Sidekick, excited about tomorrow’s lunch with one of his heroes, Scottish comic-book writer Grant Morrison (The Invisibles). Frank Iero, 25, is texting too, while his fellow guitarist Ray Toro, 29, grabs a box of Gilmore Girls DVDs and disappears. Gerard’s brother, bassist Mikey Way, 26, is already in his bunk. It’s an oddly domestic scene, until drummer Bob Bryar, 26, launches into what sounds like a typical story of rock-star excess. ”I puked for, like, two days,” he says as his bandmates chortle. ”I was so sick.” Tales of debauchery are to be expected. On tour in Britain a few weeks after their critically lauded third album, The Black Parade, debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 and its first single, ”Welcome to the Black Parade,” hit No. 1 in the U.K., these guys should be living it up.
After all, My Chemical Romance are a rock band at the height of their careers, building on the momentum of their 2004 platinum breakout, Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge.
But despite their name — taken from a 1996 collection of novellas called Ecstasy: Three Tales of Chemical Romance by Irvine Welsh — this quintet finds no better living through chemicals. Turns out, Bryar’s puking was the result of a bad smoothie, and these days the band rarely indulges in anything stronger than Marlboro Ultra Lights and coffee. There was a time when things would have been very different, but they’ve learned their lessons about excess the hard way. Now they save their energy for what’s important: the show, the fans, and the music. An hour into the bus ride, silence is punctuated only by the wheezing of the wheels on the road, and by 2:20 a.m., everyone is in bed.
Earlier that day, Gerard Way is smoking a cigarette backstage in Liverpool. Dressed in jeans and a strangely optimistic white oxford shirt, the singer is discussing one of his favorite topics: destiny. ”I knew I was special,” the Belleville, N.J., native says earnestly. ”But there was no battle for me to join, no epic struggle. I was like, What am I supposed to do? ” He found the answer on Sept. 11, 2001. Then a fledgling animator commuting to New York City, he stood on a Hudson River pier, watched the towers fall, and thought, ”I need to feel immediately better. I need to immediately help people.”
So Gerard started a band inspired by Britpop, punk, and New Jersey’s post-hardcore scene. But his motives weren’t entirely altruistic. ”It was ultimately for me,” he says. ”I wanted to feel a part of something. I wanted to be in a gang.” You’ll hear a similar story from every member of My Chemical Romance, shy twentysomethings rescued from their dark bedrooms, unhappy jobs, or college careers, and propelled by a sense of purpose far bigger than the VFW halls where they got their start. ”We went to go see the Smashing Pumpkins at Madison Square Garden,” Mikey Way recalls. ”Me and [Gerard] were both like, This is the band we want to be. We want to save people’s lives.”
After releasing their indie-label 2002 debut, I Brought You My Bullets, You Brought Me Your Love, MCR toured for two years. Painfully shy, Gerard dealt with stage fright by transforming himself into a thrashing, spitting Gollum, hiding behind a mask of red eye shadow and fake blood — and consuming vast amounts of alcohol and pills. By the time the band signed to Reprise for 2004’s Revenge, the singer was a wastoid — and the others were too drunk to care. ”He was saying some f—ed-up s—,” Iero remembers. ”Like, ‘I’m walking around this venue looking for a pipe to hang myself from.’ And you would laugh…because you kind of felt the same way.”
As Revenge took off and the crowds got bigger, Gerard fell deeper into drug-fueled depression. It was a suicidal breakdown during a Japanese tour in 2004 that forced him to get help. As soon as he got back to the States, he saw his therapist. ”He said, ‘When you leave here, you’re going to go buy Brian Eno’s [ambient classic] Music for Airports, and it’s gonna calm you the f— down,”’ Gerard remembers. ”I had a bottle of vodka in the trunk just in case, and I listened to [the CD] in a parking lot and felt a lot better. So I threw the bottle out and went to AA.” He gave himself a week to get clean before returning to the tour — and somehow pulled it off thanks to his bandmates: ”I got in the van with these dudes. That’s what got me through it.” He says he’s been sober ever since, and his over-the-top stage persona hasn’t suffered one bit. ”I’m actually a lot crazier sober,” he insists, flashing his impish grin.
From the stage of Glasgow’s Barrowland Ballroom, the audience looks like a surging mob. Imperiled teens are hauled out of the mosh pit by bouncers at an alarming clip; the hardier ones sway in the crush, screaming along with lyrics like ”When I grow up, I want to be nothing at all!”
That cheery sentiment — from The Black Parade‘s opener, ”The End.” — is typical of the album, a soaring epic that tells the story of a young man dying of cancer. To realize their vision, MCR brought in Rob Cavallo, who produced Green Day’s Grammy-winning American Idiot (2004). The results are stunning in scope: Full of marching bands, string sections, nods to Queen and Pink Floyd, and even a guest vocal from Liza Minnelli, The Black Parade presents an intense and bleak worldview. ”If it wasn’t like staring into the sun with your eyelids cut off,” Gerard says, ”it wasn’t good enough for the record.”
During recording, the band found themselves dealing with the emotional breakdown of another Way sibling. ”I lost my goddamn mind,” says Mikey, a skinny, gregarious guy with a sloppy smile. He’d fallen off the wagon in 2005 (”When you know everyone in New York City, you walk in [to a bar] and they’re like, Here’s 80 drink tickets!”), and the combination of booze and antidepression meds created a nearly bipolar reaction in early 2006. Recalls Mikey: ”It was like, I’m either gonna leave the band, or I’m gonna leave the planet Earth, or I’m gonna disappear and nobody’s gonna hear from me again.”
Fortunately, this time the others noticed their man down before it got too out of hand, and they encouraged Mikey to leave the sessions and get help. ”You always have to pay a price if you’re going to go really deep into the creativity of a band,” Cavallo says. ”It makes a band stronger.” Having been through this twice now, Toro agrees. ”Great things come from tragedy,” he says. ”We seem to always work out pretty well with it.” As a result, My Chemical Romance’s latest and best-received effort is a blazing portrait of a group falling apart — and coming back together. Nowhere is this more apparent than on the bombastic first single, ”Welcome to the Black Parade,” where Gerard belts, ”We’ll carry on.”
As will their fans: While early U.S. sales for The Black Parade have been decent but not huge (it slipped to No. 42 on this week’s Billboard 200, with almost 500,000 copies sold), the response to their live show has been, according to the band, like nothing they’ve ever seen before. Though the hits from Revenge get the U.K. audiences going, it’s new tracks like ”Welcome to the Black Parade” and ”Teenagers” that fuel the frenzy of the crowd.
After the Glasgow show, hundreds linger near the tour bus, hoping for one last glimpse of MCR. Grant Morrison, Gerard’s comic-book hero, is outside their dressing room, praising their ability to bring light from darkness. ”You gotta embrace that stuff, and absorb it,” he says. ”Steal it back, make it life-affirming again.”
And that, according to Gerard, is the real message of The Black Parade. ”It’s that you can survive,” he says. ”Life is very, very short, and you can choose to live it how you want. You can choose to dumb yourself down and not express yourself just so you can fit in, just so people won’t dislike you.
”Or,” he concludes, voicing what might as well be his band’s motto, ”you can f—in’ live.”
Parade of Influences
My Chemical Romance on a few of The Black Parade’s biggest inspirations:
PINK FLOYD, The Wall
Black Parade‘s most obvious forebear; MCR are planning their own big stage show for 2007.
BENNY GOODMAN & HIS ORCHESTRA, Sing, Sing, Sing
Bryar cribs from Goodman’s famed drummer Gene Krupa.
CURSIVE, The Ugly Organ
The Omaha band’s fourth album shares MCR’s gothic theatricality and instrumentation.
GREEN DAY, American Idiot
An epic punk concept album that sold millions, it showed them rock still matters.