Gerard Way
Credit: Andrew Benge/Redferns

Gerard Way is an outsider of sorts — and he’s okay with that. “I learned to accept my place in music as, I’m extremely different but that’s how I’m needed and that’s why I belong,” Way tells EW. Hence the title of his debut solo album: Hesitant Alien.

After fronting My Chemical Romance for 12 years, Way announced the band’s breakup in 2013 with an essay that hinted at music to come. Now, just about a year and a half later, Way is back on the music scene with Hesitant Alien, an album heavily inspired by Britpop and missing the dramatic darkness of My Chemical Romance albums like their first, I Brought You My Bullets, You Brought Me Your Love or their cancer-centered concept album, The Black Parade. “I think I’m trying to push stuff on the radio in a newer direction,” Way says. “Stuff that hasn’t really been on modern rock radio is what I’m going for.”

Way called up EW a couple weeks after making his solo debut at England’s Reading Festival to talk about what it was like playing the morning slot, why he thinks his new album is rock and roll, and if he’ll ever pick up the guitar onstage — spoiler, fans: You might be fighting for one of Way’s picks soon.

EW: You recently had your solo festival debut in England, so how did it feel to have this momentous performance in a place where Britpop, the genre that influences your new music so much, is from?

GERARD WAY: Even in England where it was born, there’s not really a revival of it right now. Not only is it obviously completely missing from American music, it’s also feels like it’s missing a little bit over there. It did feel very new to play that kind of stuff, not just because it was new, but it felt, even for the crowd, that that kind of stuff was, for some of them, pretty new-feeling. But it felt like it made sense. The crowd, even though they didn’t know the songs, they were completely engaged. And they seemed to love it. They were trying to participate as much as they could. They would find a beat and clap to it or pogo or something. It was really amazing to see that part. So it feels like it made sense there.

Did you have a good time?

I had the best time. I was completely unprepared for the amount of people that were there. And the ones running in, and the amount of love and people just interested in what I was doing and excited about it and happy to see me onstage again. I was not prepared for that. I was prepared for opening a festival at like,11:30 in the morning and having there be maybe a couple hundred people. I didn’t know it was going to be thousands.

You’re famously known for being from New Jersey, and that played a lot into your music with MCR, so did geography play any part at all in this new album? [Way currently lives in California.]

I think that every record made here, in California, has a little of that California energy that you can’t shake off. I remember when I first played it for Jimmy from Mindless Self Indulgence and his wife, Chantal, she had heard it and said, “oh, this is kind of like a California version of stuff like My Bloody Valentine and things like that,” this California shoegaze. So you can kind of hear it in there, I think it was maybe the uplift that’s on the record in a lot of spots, but the music that was recorded in New Jersey, a lot of that had to do with wanting to escape. And it’s not that I hated the place, it’s just where I was born and I never thought I was getting out of it.

That’s something a lot of people can relate to.

And I think that’s one of the reasons My Chem connected with a lot of people. Everybody can relate to wanting to leave home.

You tend to have a specific look for each album, and from photos, it looks like you’ve been sticking to orange hair and a bright blue suit recently. How’d you come up with this look?

It was one of these things where I started to think about what the record was and what it meant. And something, on the base kind of sonic level, the record’s really fuzzy. And it’s really kind of like a wall of fuzz, a wall of sound. I wanted a look that really contrasted what you were hearing. And I also wanted to convey, like the cover of Iggy Pop’s Idiot, when you look at the cover, he’s like wearing a suit jacket and stuff, but no matter how much it seems they’re trying to clean Iggy up, they can’t do it. And I wanted to convey that as well. But also Bowie and also John Lydon when he was in Public Image Ltd. There was kind of new wave, no wave thing happening, as well as the Berlin period. So I did combine a lot of looks.

What’s the most important song to you on this album?

The most important song to me is “No Shows,” and I think that’s the song where I realized I was in fact making an album and it was in fact going to be ambitious. It wasn’t just going to be a simple noise rock record that I just kind of put out quickly. It was something I wanted to spend a little more time on. The song itself really encapsulates what I think the record is representing — not needing to belong to something in order to fit in. Not needing the lights, not needing the stage, not needing to go to the show, not needing to be a part of the scene, just you’re different, and that’s actually how you fit in. I learned to accept my place in music as, I’m extremely different but that’s how I’m needed and that’s why I belong.

Was there a point when you realized that?

It was when I made the record, and I came to the conclusion that I make what I make and my audience is what it is and I can’t pick or chose that, nor should I. I definitely hit a point where, you know, when you’re in a larger band and you’ve kind of been around for years and you start to realize your fan base is pretty young at times, you start to desire fans that are closer to your age. You start to desire to make music that will connect with them. Even in trying to do that, no matter how much I would try, I still made the music I made. And whether or not that connects with 30-somethings is something I have no control over. And I started to really accept what it is I sound like. And at the same time, I think I did a really good job of changing what I sound like and something that’s really obvious on first listen is that it’s not mixed in a way, nor does it sound like anything on kind of modern rock radio. And that’s not a slight to any of that stuff, I just think that ears have become trained to hearing vocals sit in a specific spot, and there’s a certain amount of gloss that needs to be there, and there’s a certain amount of vocals, you need a lot of them, and the guitars are kind of mixed low, so I sought to do something a little more challenging and a little more rewarding.

Which song was the hardest for you to write or record?

“Brother” is the hardest. That was a song that I actually almost abandoned. Like it didn’t have chorus forever, because I didn’t want to make a big chorus. I wanted the songs on this record to feel like choruses almost the whole way through. A song like “Action Cat” is a good example because you can pick out what the chorus is, but it kind of whizzes by you. And all it does is get you to that next part which is the verse and it gets you back into that melody. I experimented with that a lot on the record, and I couldn’t make that happen on “Brother.” There was so obviously a giant chorus happening and I really shied away from it. I found what was good for me to sing in that chorus and I finally brought it home. But it was the last song. It was one of the first songs I demoed, and the last song that I finished.

That sounds stressful.

Yeah, it is stressful to have something like that, that you know is an important song for your album. And my producer would bring this up constantly, how important the song was to have on the album. And you know this, and you’re still sitting there like, “well, I still don’t know how I’m going to make it work.”

In the letter where you said goodbye to MCR, you have this great line about your Fender Mexican Stratocaster and how it has a voice and you want to hear from it. Did you use that guitar at all in the studio for this album?

Yeah, not as much as I had thought. Because the sound on the album really comes from two guitars, two types of guitars. It’s the Fender Jazzmaster and the Fender Telecaster so those were actually the main guitars. I got to play the strat, but I’m not really a strat person. I don’t know why I’ve never connected with that instrument as strongly as I’ve wanted to, but I connect very strongly with the Telecaster and the Jazzmaster. And I just played those stock, like there’s nothing altered about them. So the stock sounds from those two are basically the entire album.

Are we ever going to see you play guitar on stage?

I think so. It was one of these things where I had to become a very competent guitar player in order to make this album. Because having to write these kind of complete songs, which I would do in My Chem, but I always had assistants. If I had melody, it was easier sometimes for me to just sing it out or somehow play it out, even in a crude way, and then I would get help from the guys and they’d actually turn it into something listenable. But I had to become competent now because I didn’t have that to fall back on. But when I went to go start to get this ready to play live, when we started rehearsing, it felt really strange to stay behind the mic stand and something about that didn’t work. But then, having played the show in England, something felt like, “I can do this for a few songs.” It doesn’t have to be the whole time, but it actually would be kind of nice. There’s a different degree of showmanship that goes into me performing live than with My Chem. My Chem was very theatrical, and it was all about running all over the place, whereas this isn’t. This is about the music. In different ways, it’s about music. So I think absolutely, yeah. The next group of rehearsals that we’re doing for the headline shows, I’m going to be playing guitar on those. So we’ll see how confident I’ll get.

Again referencing that letter, you said that you believe in rock and roll. What’s your definition of rock and roll?

Rock and roll to me, at the time especially, was something that kind of is violently born. Or aggressively born. Has a super bright, brilliant existence. When I think of rock and roll, it’s a moment or it has a definitive life span. It’s really just a moment that captures the youth energy. And rock and roll is something that is oftentimes the subject of control — be it from a band, or a corporation. To me, rock and roll is all about control and it’s about who has it, who’s trying to impose it on who or what, and real rock and roll breaks free of that control. It’s when it becomes harnessed and controlled is when it stops being interesting. It’s just something I really believe in. It’s also, people might confuse punk rock with it too. But I think rock and roll is rebelling and it’s doing anything that isn’t what’s being done at the time.

Do you believe Hesitant Alien is rock and roll?

I do, yeah. I do believe it’s rock and roll. There’s all kinds of categories for it too, which, I mean, I don’t know if it’s noise pop, or fuzz punk, or whatever it is. I don’t know. But it is rock and roll. It celebrates an instrument that’s so connected to rock and roll, like it really celebrates guitar in an age, not even just an age, but a strong opinion in the music business is that the guitar is dead. And while it will never actually die, when you listen to the radio, the guitar is probably the least important instrument. It’s all about the atmosphere and the keyboards now and the vocals. And that’s cool. But I don’t even think I’m a traditionalist. I think I’m very progressive with the guitar. I think I’m trying to push stuff on the radio in a newer direction. Stuff that hasn’t really been on modern rock radio is what I’m going for. So I’m treating the guitar as this kind of new instrument.

You can hear that on a song like “No Shows,” where it’s interesting because it sounds familiar but not in a way that you can quite place.

Yeah, I wanted you to feel, not necessarily a nostalgia, but I wanted you to feel like, “ah, this kind of reminds me of a period in the ’80s,” or, “this reminds me of kind of no wave bands, or bands like Wire.” A band like Wire is a really hardcore music fan band. But it’s not necessarily something that you’d go and talk to a casual music fan about. So it’s trying to bring that familiarity of that kind of experimental art punk and making that present, giving it a representation.

Since the album is called Hesitant Alien, what is your favorite pop culture alien?

Well, my favorite pop culture alien is the alien from Alien. [Laughs] Just because I love that movie so much. And it’s one of my favorite movies of all time. And it doesn’t, it has a personality in its silence and terror, but if I had to think of an alien… There’s so many great aliens that have personality. My earliest memory is like, My Favorite Martian. Like I have memories of watching that as a kid [Laughs].

Hesitant Alien comes out Sept. 30.