Inside Gerard Way’s Crusade to Change American Music
“The main objective was to change the landscape of music a bit. To re-boot Britpop in America”
When he was fronting My Chemical Romance, Gerard Way was the driving force behind high-minded (and color-coordinated) concept albums like The Black Parade and Danger Days: The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys. But in the four years since the group’s last proper record, Way lost his band, his patience with the industry and his desire to do rock & roll on a grand scale.
Still, he never lost sight of a simple goal he set while making his solo debut, Hesitant Alien (due September 30th): “I have all these amazing Britpop records, and I have shoegaze records, but I don’t have anything on the radio anymore,” he says. “So the main objective was to change the landscape of music a bit. To kind of re-boot Britpop in America, see how that goes.”
It’s a tall order, but Way appears up to the task. In a new interview with Rolling Stone, he reveals how life as a major-label frontman prepared him for his latest endeavor, discusses his desire for reinvention and divulges what might have happened if My Chem had made one last record.
What is it about Britpop that has always appealed to you?
So many things. The style of it, the energy; it was a real exciting time. It was like the alternative to grunge, and it was so refreshing. It wasn’t harkening back to that Duran Duran excess, it was something different. It was a feeling that British music was being liberated, and I loved it. I loved everything about it. I loved the attitude, I loved the way people looked, I loved the song titles, the album artwork. There’s this British company called Stylorouge, they did all the stuff for Blur, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and they also did the campaign for Trainspotting, which, to me, was the most brilliant design campaign of all time for a film. And then, you know, I remember stuff like seeing an issue of Select magazine that had Damon from Blur on the cover, wearing a schoolboy outfit, and I was like “This is it.”
“I’m proud of My Chem because I went with my gut, and what I thought the world needed at the time”
The influence of Britpop wasn’t really apparent in My Chemical Romance; why does it play such a prominent role on Hesitant Alien?
When I was in art school, I worshipped Britpop. And when I got out, I found myself very depressed and struggling. I kind of desired this new kind of sound, and it was the sound I made with my friends in My Chemical Romance. So it’s almost like this solo record is a re-education of what I was into before My Chem. And I’m proud of My Chem because I went with my gut, and what I thought the world needed at the time, and it didn’t sound like Britpop. So I trusted my inner artist, and I went with that and it worked out really well. And when the time for that was done, it was almost like being under a spell for 13 years, and then the spell broke, and I’m that person from art school again.
So, it was time. Can the same be said about ending My Chemical Romance?
It was the right time for My Chemical Romance to end. In my mind, it was becoming really dark, because I started to feel that’s what people wanted from the band, based off the experience of Danger Days. I think it was a little bit like, “Let’s fall into a comfortable zone,” where it’s just a uniform now, a brand. You know, “Let’s tweak the brand.” That’s where it was kind of going. And the amount of art I planned for the last My Chem record, it was like Danger Days was getting a little out of hand. It was getting to the point where I felt like I was starting to make giant art projects because I wasn’t enjoying making music as much. Danger Days was the first record where it started to feel like that.
When we eventually released Conventional Weapons, it was interesting because, when we made that, it represented our attempt at trying to be a proud American band, and pushing that with the music. It ended up not working for me, and what didn’t work about it was that our influences were largely British. So, it was almost like celebrating becoming a large band, a large machine that played sheds and stuff like that. It wasn’t so much celebrating it, it was embracing it. To me, Conventional Weapons is the audible sound of people embracing their American largeness. And, like I said, that didn’t work for me.
Was making Hesitant Alien a liberating experience?
It was. But it was also a difficult experience. We recorded in a lot of different places: Some of it was done in Rob [Cavallo’s] studio, Lightning Sound, some of it was done in the old My Chem studio, but most of the record was done at the Sonic Ranch in Texas. We went there for a month, and that was the hardest I’ve worked on a record since Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge. Just trying to get everything done, on a budget, and doing it the way we wanted.
What do you mean by that?
I mean just about everything [laughs]. When I was 15, I bought my first pedal, this Russian Big Muff when Sovtek was making them, and I would constantly bring it to MCR recording sessions and it never found a place. Fuzz was kind of not happening at that point. So I started with that, and I got a Fender Blender, and Wattson fuzz pedals, I got clones and reproductions, and I built up this arsenal of fuzz. So I was wanted to use all of them on this record, and all Fender guitars. Telecasters and Jazzmasters were, to me, the whole record. It’s what I had, most likely because that’s what Graham Coxon and Supergrass played.
And then there are songs like “Drugstore Perfume,” which is my American “Common People,” or “Bureau,” which was influenced by stuff like Bowie’s Station to Station. There’s saxophone on the record, on “No Shows” and “Get the Gang Together,” because I kind of wanted to bring it back. “How’s It Going to Be” we did with Wendy Carlos in mind, and “Zero Zero” kind of started as this Blur “Song 2” thing, kind of fuzzed out, but we always heard Joy Division in it, so it ended up in going in that direction.
It doesn’t sound like you were influenced by many of your contemporaries.
Yeah, that’s kind of why it’s called Hesitant Alien. Being in a really big machine band like My Chem, I was constantly rallying the outsiders, fighting to get noticed, and then I started to realize “You know what? You don’t fit in, and that’s actually how you fit in. You actually are part of that machine.” My whole trip through music, I always felt hesitant, and I always felt like an alien. I remember being on TRL, and we’re wearing the full get-ups and the makeup, we looked like vampires, and I felt like a space alien. I felt like I’d come to earth for the first time, and I was on this crazy TV show that made no sense to me. And the audience was so young, and I didn’t know what was happening, and our songs were getting played next to pop stuff and how do I relate to that? So, I’ve always felt like an alien. That’s cool.
To that end, what are your hopes for the new album?
All I want is a great first showing, and then I want to follow it up right away. I’ve started to write again, I can cut a song tomorrow. And I think there’s a similar spirit going on with what [guitarist] Frank [Iero]’s starting to do now that we’re not in My Chem anymore. He’s just going and cutting songs at Third Man, and I know he’s always wanted to do that, so to see him do that makes me really happy. So, for me, the goal now is to always be making. I don’t want to be in a situation where it’s this heavily scrutinized piece of art that takes three years to come out, because of the market testing and the focus grouping. I’m not interested in any of that. The goal is to start a new machine, just get it going, play a lot of shows, meet a lot of interesting people, pull the mask off a little.