Gerard Way goes about his romance on his own

After post-hardcore-sounding beginnings under the leadership of Thursday’s Geoff Rickly, My Chemical Romance had their big break in the mid-2000s, when they became the spearhead of the emo wave (here it is, that divisive word) and were named one of the most influential rock bands by the readers of Kerrang! magazine. After a few slack years and an eventual split on March 22nd, 2013, Gerard Way, the band’s singer and mastermind, makes a bold return with Hesitant Alien, his first solo album, far removed from the dark atmospheres of the early years of his career.

So, is Gerard really that hesitant? Not quite. Puzzled by the sheer size of the monster My Chemical Romance had become, yes; put off by the workings of the musical industry, definitely. But the choices that have led him to make this new album show that the man is assertive: more than just a record, he was trying to create a new world, in which he would make no compromise and pay tribute to the great figures that made an impression his teenage years.

In the following interview, the singer talks about his career, from New Jersey to the big society events of the music industry to the writing of comic-books, about his influences, and about the driving force behind it all: emotion.

« I stopped feeling like there was anything to galvanize against, and I started to feel more alien. »

Radio Metal: My Chemical Romance broke up one year ago but you released Danger Days, your last full-length album in 2010. Why did you wait for so long before starting to write new music again?

Gerard Way: Well, there was obviously a lot going on emotionally, and I guess business wise too, in terms of a project that was ending: it takes a while to understand when something is ending. It wasn’t like I just woke up one day and said: “That’s it!” It was the process to get there. So yeah, that takes time. But you did point out something that was one of my major issues with being in kind of a larger machine of a band in that when you become part of a larger machine, your output dramatically drops. You’re spending a lot of your time touring and because you are such a large operation, you’re making art like a 10th of the time and everything else is surrounding it around, like the shows, press or things like that. That’s one of the things I wanted to reverse right now, with this project. To say: now I want stuff coming out all the time. I don’t wanna be trapped in something. I want to always be making something, always be creating.

Is this why this new record is a solo project, and not another band project? Do you think it helped you to make “100 percent uncompromised art”, whereas for the last My Chemical Romance record, apparently things got a bit out of your control?

Yeah sure, absolutely, you know, when you’re just writing the song… And I did co-write some stuff with some guys, like little bits here and there. But when you’re sitting there and you’re constructing a song from zero, it’s just you and a guitar, there is no compromise… But even more so, even if I wouldn’t compromise with the other guys in My Chemical Romance, there’s other compromises that come up, there’s compromises from being on a label, there’s all kind of things that can come up… Making this record, obviously there wasn’t going to be creative compromises coming from a band situation but even the external compromises I had to fight against. Not just fight against them but I had to put a brick wall up. I wasn’t going to make a pop record because that’s all that’s selling or I wasn’t going to make an EDM record, I made the record I really wanted to make.

Are you still in touch and in good terms with the other guys from My Chemical Romance?

Yeah! Yeah, we still talk, everybody is very supportive of each other’s new music, everybody is looking forward to it. I’m rooting for all of them, I think they’re making great stuff.

There’s a song called “Brother” on the record. Is it about or for Mikey [Way, Gerard’s brother and My Chemical Romance’s bass player]?

Yeah, it’s about Mikey… It’s about this period of our lives when we were in our early 20s’: we were out really late, going out in New York City a lot… This song is about these evenings, experimenting with drugs, all that stuff, and I guess all the sadness and the darkness that comes with that, trying to figure out how you fit into the world, what your place is and what you are supposed to do with your life.

For this record, you’re naming Damon Albarn and Jarvis Cocker as your main influences. With My Chemical Romance already, you covered “Song 2” by Blur and “Common People” by Pulp. What draws you to these artists?

When I was about 19 or even before that, when I was still in high school, grunge was really big and kind of changed the landscape of music, but the issue was for me that I didn’t respond to it. I couldn’t get into grunge, I didn’t understand it. But brit pop, shoegaze and bands like the Smiths and artists like Morrissey, I really connected with that stuff, because although they were singing about England, in a lot of ways to me they were singing about New Jersey, just singing about this working class situation where you’ve been born, where you’re gonna live, work and die in the same place… They were singing about that.

And you’re naming Mary Timony and Carrie Brownstein as influences as guitar players. Can you tell us more about them?

Yeah! I got to see both of their bands when I was 19 years-old and just starting art school. But when I was a teenager in highschool, both of their bands – Sleater-Kinney and Helium – had an influence on me, and on the way that they played guitar. Obviously Corin Tucker within Sleater-Kinney as well, I don’t really mention her enough but she was also pretty innovative on the guitar. Her and Carrie doing things together on guitar, they sound really interesting. So it just spoke to me. And that’s kind of how I really learned to play the guitar. Even though I had yet to become a confident player, my way in was through their music. The way I would explore with the guitar to find sounds came from very strange fingerings on the neck of the guitar, really strange things that I would try, that came from them.

According to the press release, for this album, “there was no concept and no call-to-arms”. This is of course a big change compared to My Chemical Romance, where every record was coming with a whole universe, concept and aesthetics. Why this change? Where you getting tired of that? Is it a way for you to start from scratch, doing something drastically different?

I knew it was a way that I could challenge myself. I knew that making a concept record and making up a story and kinda hiding behind fiction was something that works really well for me but it’s also something I’d been doing for about 12 years. It felt like the time to really expose myself in different ways, even if it’s through abstraction or talking about being stuck in New Jersey and mundane things. It was a challenge. I was really looking in every possible way I could challenge myself on this album, and that was one of the ways.

« The music is a very automatic thing for me, it’s something that just kind of happen and I just make it. And it has always got me out of the darkest place. »

Why did you chose the title “Hesitant Alien”? Since you mention “struggles and beginnings”, does it refer to you?

It does, yeah. Especially in My Chemical Romance, that experience was about being an outsider, and being an outsider can be a very aggressive and combative experience, there’s this “us versus them” side to it, and I think towards the end of being in the band, it stopped feeling like there was a “them”. I stopped feeling like there was anything to galvanize against, and I started to feel more alien, like I was from some other place, and that was cool. That was okay. It wasn’t that I was an outsider, shunned by society, or pushed to the side – I felt like that for 10 years – but I felt like now I’m just coming from somewhere else. And the “Hesitant” part of the title refers to all the stuff in the business, the fame and the nonsense that comes with it like having to go on red carpet, to do weird TV shows where you feel like you don’t wanna be there, in very big crowded rooms at awards shows and stuff… I never really felt like I fit into that.

Anyway, once again the aesthetics of the album seem to go beyond music: your looks are very stylized, the style of the video for “No Shows” is very peculiar and so on. Why is it important for you to have this very global, all encompassing approach? Does it have something to do with your interest in visual arts?

It does. Anytime I make a record, I feel like I’m going to connect art and fashion in some way, I feel like there’s always gonna be a visual representation to the music. It’s just the way that I’ve done but I do think that yes, it’s connected to my visual art side.

To which extent the guy we see on the cover is a character? It was a striking element in most of My Chemical Romance’s career – Three Cheers For Sweet Revenge was very cinematographic, many songs on Bullets were too, in Black Parade you were a marching band and in Danger Days, comic book characters –, so is it still there, even in a more subdued way?

Yeah, exactly, I think it is there in a subdued way. The title itself in a way creates the character and I think again, every time I make a piece of music or art, there is a character attached to that, even if the character is 90% me, and 10% hair color, clothes and make-up. This time the character feels more in line with who I am than just a character. But having said that, all those characters I played in MCR, they were who I was at the time. So this is no different in that way, yeah, that feels like another character.

Does this character help you to write the music or the lyrics? Does it help you on stage?

No, this part hasn’t materialized and this is probably because there’s a lot of me in this character, because when I’m up there now, I feel very natural, there’s no nervous energy and no aggression, I feel very relaxed in a positive way, not in a bored way. It wasn’t really helping for the record because I hadn’t really created that character yet, it was almost like I had to make the record to discover the character as opposed to when I was working before, I made the character first and then made the record with that character. I didn’t do that this time, so I didn’t have any help from that character.

You’ve always been extremely open about your personal struggles: depression, addiction, etc. I remember an old quote from you, probably from the Black Parade days: “to create a mythology, you have to be an open book”. Would you care to elaborate on that? Do you still agree with that statement?

Well… It’s funny because that statement worked for me at the time and I think there’s some truth in it, but there’s also some truth in “you create a mythology by not being an open book” too. So I would look at statement and say it could go either way. You can create a mythology by being an open book but you can create one by bending some of the rules, changing some of the facts and being more mysterious. That could create a mythology too. But either way, I keep creating a mythology by creating a world. That’s what I really feel now. And that goes for everything from an album title to the artistic aesthetics, to the look, to the sound… That’s the world that you create. So that’s how you built the mythology: you create a world.

You’ve also always been very vocal about the fact that My Chemical Romance saved your life. Since the last years have apparently been quite tormented for you, do you feel like once again, you needed music to keep going?

I did. I did need music again. The music is a very automatic thing for me, it’s something that just kind of happen and I just make it. And it has always got me out of the darkest place.

Probably partially because of your own openness about your emotions, My Chemical Romance fans tend to be very emotionally involved in the band. How do you deal with that? Since the end of the band, you are very active on twitter and communicate a lot with the fans there, you even set up a mailbox for them to send you letters: so was it important for you to keep that special relationship going?

Yeah. I think My Chemical Romance was about sharing emotions, and you’re right, because I was so open with mine, they were open with theirs. Everybody on stage was open with theirs, that’s what made My Chemical Romance very special: it was five guys on stage, all sharing their emotions in different ways through their playing and through their movements. So it was important to me that when the band broke up, the people still had an outlet for their emotions, even the negative ones. I get the good and the bad with that. All feelings are violent, you know. So yeah, I did get more active because it was also helping me to have a place to keep on expressing my emotions, it was very good. For me really expressing a lot of emotions, it kinda felt like having a super strong kind of personal connection with people. Then I started to feel like the way I express my emotions now is different than when I express them through art, which is probably why when I’m on stage, I’m not talking a lot about those social issues like I used to, I’m not talking about suicide or mental health. I still find relevant all the stuff like suicide prevention and finding mental health and therapy and things like that, I’m still for that stuff, it just feels like I’m expressing what I feel through the music now more than in between the songs.

Since 2007, you went back to your first love: comic books. You wrote the Umbrella Academy, which won an Eisner Award, and the Killjoys comic book. Do you still have projects going on in that area, or are you focusing on music for the moment?

I do. After I finished the album I was getting all the visual stuff ready which wasn’t a lot, but I had to get in better physical shape, fine tune the look of things, the album art, so there was a lot to do, but there was still time for me to come home at night and write comics. I just did a short story in a Vertical anthology and an issue for Spiderman. I’m currently working on the Umbrella Academy series 3 which is going great, that looks like it’s coming out next year, we just don’t have the date yet. So I’ve got some comics, not as many as I’d like but I also like making music a lot.

And about that: what is your favorite way of expressing yourself? Music, writing, drawing?

I think it’s all of it. If I was limited to one of it I think I would go crazy!

You did your first concerts as a solo artist this summer. What did it feel like to be back on stage?

It was amazing. I wasn’t really prepared for that many people. We were prepared in the rehearsal sense, but emotionally, I wasn’t ready to go out there and to see thousands of people, it was incredible. It’s really nice. It went great, nothing broke, I felt very calm… And it felt good to be back out there, it felt like where I’m supposed to be.

Whereas with My Chemical Romance, you were defining yourselves as an American rock band, with this project, you clearly seem to lean towards British music, especially brit pop, as we can hear on songs like Zero Zero or Get The Gang Together. Why? Is this the reason you played your first shows there, at Leeds and Reading festivals?

Even in My Chemical Romance, that American thing came much later. I think we were always a band that connected with the UK. I don’t think that ever changed, and I think it’s because of my connection to British music. So doing the first show in England, it makes sense, it always kind of made sense: we did a lot of our first shows in London, or at least what felt like the launch of a record or something. It was always in London in England. That has always made sense. I’ve always felt very connected there.

Do you have any tour plans for now?

Yes. I’m gonna be touring in the States coming up, and I’m looking into Europe and then I’m gonna do Soundwave in Australia next year. I’m gonna do Japan, and then probably some more Europe… I’ll be on the road for a year.

Interview conducted by phone 10th, september 2014 by Chloé Perrin.
Retranscription, traduction and introduction: Chloé Perrin.

Gerard Way Official Facebook page: www.gerardway.com.

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