How The Black Parade turned My Chemical Romance into superstars
Six months after The Black Parade made My Chemical Romance the biggest band on the planet, we tried to find out if that success had become a poisoned chalice...
This feature was first published in Metal Hammer issue 163
There’s little point belabouring what’s now an undeniable truth: My Chemical Romance, erstwhile New Jersey nobodies with a dream, are fucking huge. But if you think their follow-up to 2004’s already rapturously received Three Cheers For Sweet Revenge is merely a commercially minded cash grab then think again.
It’s a big, fuck-off concept album that more happily sits in a peer group born in the 70s. But, as even they acknowledge, the making of The Black Parade was no split-second decision.
Fraught with fears about its reception and their own ability to even achieve such lofty artistic heights, their time in the studio was a jumping-off point into a chasm that may just have been an abyss. Instead, they found themselves at the top of the charts, and – judging by how hard it is to get hold of them these days – it’s been a softer landing than even they expected. Hammer first tried to catch up with them in LA, then New York and finally settled on Japan – all in the space of a few days.
Life, for them, is moving pretty fast. They can hardly believe it themselves. “I almost forgot we were in Japan,” chuckles drummer Bob Bryar.
How is Japan?
GERARD WAY: “I love Japan. It’s amazing. I’m just really excited to be back on tour again. That’s just, you know... I’ve been looking forward to starting this tour for quite some time.”
BOB BRYAR: “It’s going really well. We’ve played the new record everywhere now and it’s going well wherever we go. It’s just weird to see. It’s awesome. It was kind of a risk putting this out!”
Were there points where you doubted how The Black Parade would be received?
GERARD: “I had these Frankenstein moments like that once or twice a week, where I was asking myself, ‘Am I nuts?’ I needed confirmation from somebody that had showered in maybe a week that could tell me I’m OK, and that we’re doing the right thing, and that we’re not fucking crazy... that I wasn’t driving us into the sun!”
BOB: “Yeah, we definitely hit a point. We were just out to do something to make us happy. I knew that I liked it and we knew it would be special to us, but I didn’t want people to go, ‘What are these dudes doing?!’ Luckily that didn’t happen.”
RAY TORO: “While we were in the studio it was all about having fun. The more insane or wacky the idea was, the more likely we were to try it. You tell yourself you don’t care but you really do. Of course you want people to like it.”
GERARD: “When it was done, I knew that we’d created a monster.”
A monster record or something monstrous?
GERARD: “Definitely a monster in a good way, but at the same time it’s such a personal monster. This was a really personal record; this is us laying it out there. It changed things. It’s not so much that as when I was doing Helena though. That was a lot tougher because I wasn’t really ready to deal with my grandmother’s death so head-on, and then when we put the record out it was, ‘OK, you’re going to be dealing with this for the next eight months.’ There was no death that spawned this record.”
BOB: “It was definitely a challenge to make this. We were grouped with a lot of other bands and this album blindsided a lot of people. It made them re-evaluate us. This is the defining record. This is who we are. We took everything that we had – every idea, every emotion – and we took it to a place that we hadn’t been. We cornered ourselves. It’s going to be hard to beat this. It’ll be a whole new idea... maybe stripped down and raw?”
Concept albums aren't very common these days.
GERARD: “Setting ourselves apart came naturally. People say, ‘You worked really hard to distance yourself.’ No, we just worked to do something really special and crazy and nuts. But it came more honestly and organically. We weren’t thinking, ‘We can’t do it like such-and-such band.’ It was, ‘We need to do something that’s going to blow people’s minds.’”
RAY: “We’ve always tried to mix it up, to change. We’ve always worried about everything sounding the same. It’s the records that stand out that really excite us.”
BOB: “You can tell some bands were in the studio going, ‘OK, here’s our single, now let’s fill out the rest of the record.’ And there’s bands putting out records they’re calling concept records, but there’s no concept there. Our record has everything.”
It sounds like an exhausting process. Would you do it again?
GERARD: “That’s a good question! I actually don’t know if I’d be able to do it again. It was totally draining and painful. I mean, it was super fun but physically it was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. Going to bed at 6am, waking up four hours later and doing it all again. That was every day. I was constantly obsessing over the record, not just musically but all the visual stuff that went along with it. That stuff took so long because we could never just bang out a record, put a collection of songs out. We can’t just do that.”
Success often breeds conceit. How have you stayed rooted?
RAY: “You have that core group of friends – your parents, your best friend, your girlfriend – and nothing changes with them. Just because you’re doing well, they treat you the same and I love that. You still get shit. I love that too! If I come home late, I want to get shit from my girlfriend. Or I want to get yelled at by my mom because I haven’t called in a couple of days. That’s what keeps you normal.”
GERARD: “I’ve made it a habit, along with the other guys, of avoiding really conventional things like those LA parties. We don’t really mix well with those things so we don’t go to them. I feel pretty normal still. When I come off tour it takes me a good three or four days, but then three or four days go by and I don’t even remember I’m in the band. It’s really strange. Actually, the weirdest thing that happened was after the last tour when I went to Portland, Oregon for about a week and just holed up in a hotel room. I did a bunch of writing – this is just before Christmas – and about four or five days in I felt completely back to normal. Almost as if My Chemical Romance was a total dream and I wasn’t even sure it had happened.”
BOB: “We’re not going out to big parties to judge other people, that kind of bullshit. The only time where this all feels like too much is when people pry into our personal lives. People go, ‘Oh, I found this picture of you in grade school...’”
Has that happened?
BOB: “Yeah, we’ve all had it. People will find our yearbooks. Gerard and Mikey have had people outside of their house. I’ve had kids outside my house. We did a signing in Chicago one time and a few kids came by with pictures they took of my house and asked me to sign them. I was like, ‘Why would you show this to me? This is weird.’ My mom is a waitress, and they somehow found that out and they’ll go eat and request her. That’s going a little bit too far.”
Do you miss your anonymity?
GERARD: “Yeah. But you get an interview like this and it makes it easier because it’s stuff I want to talk about. And there’s a few guys who we’ve built a relationship with. That’s not anything to bitch about – that people want to read what I say. But my hair has nothing to do with what I want to say. It’s the needless fucking celebrity bullshit that make it a grind.”
But you’re approaching celebrity status yourself.
GERARD: “It’s funny, I was seeing somebody who called me the most confident person with the least amount of self-esteem ever. I’m extremely confident, I believe in myself, but I’m also self-deprecating to the point of humour. If I was saying, ‘Yeah, my shit don’t stink,’ that’d be faking it, and there’s so many people faking it out there. There’s a suspension of disbelief you’re supposed to have with these people but I don’t buy into it. I don’t mind being extremely extraordinary onstage, but I’m not going to bullshit people.”
There’s an inherent defensiveness in these bandmates’ tone that suggests they’ve already taken more than their share of abuse, but it’s hard to imagine that being any real surprise to a group that owes more to classic rock acts like Queen these days than anything you’re likely to hear from more recently hatched musicians. There’s a candour to Gerard that can’t be mistaken for anything other than genuine self-belief, though to some it may seem like arrogance. It may fit into standard clichés about new-found stardom, but perhaps My Chemical Romance really were just having their fun in the studio and inadvertently wrote a hit.
What do you make of the critical reaction to The Black Parade? Despite the sales, not everybody ‘got’ what you were doing...
GERARD: “The critical reaction was just cynicism. I read something saying, ‘This is some major label thing and you can tell that the label directs them, yadda yadda yadda.’ It’s like, what label in the world would dress us like that? Have you seen what we look like lately? Who the hell would dress us like that?! We had people at the label fucking terrified of the way we looked! Of course there’s jealousy and resentment, but we’re really lucky and we’re really blessed. I mean, shit happened real fast. It’s crazy. We can’t stop it. We didn’t sell ourselves up the river. We stayed true to our morals and our integrity and we still got huge.”
Are you embarrassed by your good fortune?
GERARD: “Yeah, it’s really surreal. It’s not that it’s embarrassment of it, but it’s like, boom! Shit, man! Especially when people really feel passionately pissed off at you for achieving so much so fast. We’re like, ‘Man, shit wasn’t my fault! We just worked our fucking asses off!’ The way I always saw it is that any resentment or being pissed off with us for achieving so much so fast or for having the amount of growth that we’ve had... it’s like, ‘How can you get pissed off with that?’ What have we done wrong?”
RAY: “We just got very lucky. You can’t fault people for getting lucky. We would still be doing this if we were still in a van. We worked our asses off. We haven’t stopped in five years. If we’re lucky because kids got turned on to it, that’s not our fault. We’ve always stuck to our guns, we’ve never exploited our fans. It isn’t how long it takes, it’s how we got here, and I know we got here the right way.”
Have you had a lot of abuse?
GERARD: “I’ll listen to most records and I’d think, ‘When was the last time you took a risk?’ A lot of people will bitch and complain about us... ‘Dude you’re still making the same fucking pop-punk record you’ve been making for 20 years’ – what do you fucking expect? Are you that surprised? Are you that bitter about the fact we’ve done something really sincere and really honest and it’s worked out? Isn’t that weird? We did the right thing!”
Some people might begrudge you your successes.
BOB: “That’s just something that people do. It’s just jealousy. Put yourselves in our shoes – we’re playing songs we love. What else should we do? Our music connects with people. Any band that wants to go, ‘We’ve been touring for eight years and nothing has happened,’ well, that’s not our fault. But bands that are bigger than us aren’t saying that. Like Green Day. You’d think they would be impossible to be around but they were the nicest band we ever met.”
When did you meet them?
BOB: “We did a radio Christmas show about two years ago, I think. They said hi and all of a sudden we got an offer to do their tour. The first day we got there I thought they were going to just throw our shit up on the stage and kick us off at the end and give us a closet to live in. But that totally wasn’t what happened. I was sitting in our dressing room and Billie [Joe Armstrong, frontman] came in and sat down next to me and said, ‘Hey, how you doing?’ He introduced himself like I didn’t know who he was!”
Did that set an example to you?
BOB: “Yeah. Because people will go, ‘Wow, I can’t believe we’re hanging out with you, you guys seem like complete dicks.’ I’ve seen so many bands that get mildly successful and they do turn into the biggest dicks so I can’t blame [those people for thinking that about us].”
Gerard, you once told us about bumping into Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson in New York...
GERARD: “Yeah! That dude was completely normal. He wasn’t trying to uphold this bullshit illusion, and meeting people like that on the way up was good for me to see because it let me know I was doing things the right way. I can’t fathom why people see me like I see him, though.”
BOB: “We’re really nice to fans but as soon as you fuck with us then we are the biggest dicks you’ve ever seen.”
Is that what happened when Bert McCracken told people at the Warped tour not to watch you?
BOB: “Yeah, pretty much! But you’ve got to take that dude with a grain of salt. You just can’t take him seriously. Our reaction to that was getting on the stage and blowing his band completely away.”
You re-shot the video for I’m Not Okay, which originally portrayed your life on the road in the early days. Are you nostalgic for those more innocent times?
GERARD: “There was definitely an innocence period, and that [time in the original video] was about it. Even with Helena, though, that was still there. But the more music we make, the more we’ve actually started to find more magic in the creation of it. We’ve gotten more into it, and that’s where you start to find the real innocence. If you keep that really pure, it’ll stay there and there’s nothing that’ll touch it, that’ll touch the making of the music. Especially if you’re never making records to make money and you’re not motivated by mortgages or... we all live really humble lives. It’ll never affect our music.”
BOB: “We’ve done vans for a long fucking time, and been in positions where we had to hitch rides and sleep on people’s floors. We’ve experienced it. Maybe not as much as some bands have, but it’s not like we’re out there acting like the biggest rock stars in the world.”
RAY: “We’re still the same group of guys we were five years ago. But then you think about the places that we used to play compared to now, and that’s pretty fucking wild. When you sit down and think about it, you get these, ‘Holy fuck!’ moments. Like, ‘Holy shit, I can’t believe we’re in Japan playing to loads of kids!’ Those quiet moments of reflection, where we think, ‘Man, we’ve done it. We’re living the dream.’”
So what did happen to the beaten-up old van that you used to go on tour in?
RAY: “I think it’s parked on the lawn of one of our old tour managers’ house. The first day we got our tour bus, the van was on its deathbed. It was slowly dying – as were we, because the exhaust system was fucked up so it was shooting noxious gas into the cabin! We were passing out and hallucinating. It actually caught fire once while we were driving up to the Warped tour. That was the day we got our bus, ’cos we’d put a lot of miles on that van!”
And with that, My Chemical Romance are off to soundcheck at Tokyo’s sold-out Club Citta. It’s a fair guess they won’t be taking a van to get there, but whether the road ahead of them really stretches as far as they can see is impossible to say. But the enthusiasm and confidence in their voices as they embark on the rest of the biggest tour of their lives seems to suggest that they’d walk if they had to.
My Chemical Romance's 10th anniversary edition of The Black Parade / Living With Ghosts is out now through Reprise.