In their 12 year career, My Chemical Romance did the unthinkable. Four kids from New Jersey with a penchant for all things vampiric, Comic-Con and nerdy formed a rock band that would reinvent itself with each record, from the angry I Brought You My Bullets to the cinematic Danger Days. Like all good things, the band came to an end, but not before establishing themselves as a definitive act in the emo/pop-punk genre.
Lead by frontman Gerard Way, whose relatable oddball-ness earned him cult icon status, MCR eventually called it quits in early 2013. Soon after, Way announced he was working on a solo record called Hesitant Alien, music that would sound completely different from his old band. We sat down with Way to talk about life post-My Chemical Romance, exploring new sounds and learning how to stay true to your art.
You've said Hesitant Alien feels very English. How did you first get into Britpop?
Going into high school I discovered The Smiths, The Cure, all that stuff. Then grunge happened, and I didn't respond to it at all. I liked Nirvana a lot because I just saw them as a punk band, but the rest of grunge I couldn't relate to. Period. I was somebody that wanted to escape where I came from, not live and work and die in the place where I was born. Grunge seemed to celebrate that. It seemed to celebrate being stuck and being bummed out and drinking beers. It didn't gel with me. A friend of mine who got me into British music would go to Barnes & Noble or places that end up getting stuff like Q [Magazine], and all they were covering was Britpop. I'll never forget the cover of Select Magazine that had Damon from Blur wearing a Catholic school uniform. [I thought,] "This is the alternative that I'm looking for—this celebrating wanting to be greater than where you're from." It seemed like all of those musicians, especially Pulp, came from this really dismal, working class type of place but strive for something more. That resonated with me. It felt like they were singing about New Jersey.
“I was somebody that wanted to escape where I came from, not live and work and die in the place where I was born.”
You've said This Is Hardcore is your Pulp record of choice. Frontman Jarvis Cocker has said that album is their weird one, the one that stopped them from reaching any kind of mega-fame.
I think that's why it's my favorite. As a kid going into art school, I completely identified with that. I understood that's what they were doing. There's a line in that first song that's seven minutes long where [Jarvis Cocker] says, "You're going to like it, but not a lot." I love that. It's so self-referential, it's so self-aware. It's something I took with me into My Chemical Romance. Though we never sounded like Pulp, the first track on Black Parade is so self-referential. It so talks about the ride we were on, and it so talks about kids wearing makeup... I like the idea of any artist trying to escape the trajectory of a successful career. I think there's actually a nobility in that. I think there's a coolness. It's made some of my favorite albums. When Bowie was in Berlin, that's all he was making.
The Britpop influence, however subtle, does appear in My Chemical Romance songs. The opening guitar riff to "I Don't Love You" feels like a hat tip to that music. Were there other songs you wrote in the MCR days that were directly influenced by the genre?
Even on Three Cheers For Sweet Revenge, which is a really kind of aggressive punk-metal record for us, "Give 'Em Hell Kid" starts with the same bass line as "Hypocrite" by Lush. It's in there. It's not that easy to spot, but it's all over the place. "Planetary" is a lot like a Blur song. We covered Pulp and Blur in that band, which I find pretty interesting for being a punkish band, a rock band from New Jersey. It's in there, it's just spread out and under the surface.
Does the record, at any point, feel nostalgic for the time you were first discovering this music?
Yeah! When you look at a song like "Drugstore Perfume," sonically, maybe, it's inspired by the Jesus & Mary Chain. When you really pick apart those lyrics it's about being from New Jersey but it's a very British song in how it handles being from New Jersey. I think that's a direct influence of listening to something like Different Class and coming up with my take on things and drinking in abandoned factories and stuff like that. I think "Millions," to me, sounds like a pretty big nod to Supergrass.
I love that you compare New Jersey to these towns in England because they do seem like similarly gray, middle class, manufacturing towns.
It was interesting, going to those shows you would see other kids on the PATH train... there weren't many of them, but you would see other kids coming from industrial places going to Pulp and Blur and Lush and bands like that. They were there. It's directly about being from a hopeless kind of place, a mundane existence and wanting to leave that.
In the endless Blur or Oasis debate, whose team are you on?
I ended up being on no team. When that was going down, I was a huge fan of Great Escape and Blur. Massive! I was absolutely on the side of Blur, but I would later come to really appreciate Oasis. Not even that far in the future from that. I loved them both. It was funny because Mikey, my brother who was in My Chemical Romance, he was a big Oasis fan, and I was a big Blur fan.
You could say "Pulp." It's an easy way to back out of that one.
Right, right! I'm going to steal that answer from now on. I'm going to be like "Nah, I like Pulp!"
Speaking of Pulp, they were a band totally obsessed with sex. It's almost in every song. Does that come into play on Hesitant Alien?
That's interesting. I think sex works itself into the live performance, the energy feels a little more sexual then it does on the records. I've never felt very sexy making an album. That's never made it's way in, but it's something I've never explored so it could be a good place to examine in future records as I get more mature, too. [Pulp frontman] Jarvis [Cocker], to me, always seemed extremely mature. I think that's why the way he handles sex in his music was very mature. I think if I tried to do that five years ago or eight years ago, I wouldn't have handled it very maturely. There's still time to talk about sex.
You've said Hesitant Alien is about not fitting in and realizing that alienation is your place—it's how you fit in. Why is it "hesitant"? That part seems a little sad...
I like that element of it. The hesitancy absolutely refers to how you feel as an artist in a big machine—the business, the red carpets, all the fanfare and all the stuff that has nothing to do with music, but that you're constantly subjected to by being in a band. I never felt conformable on a red carpet. I was actually kind of startled by the people who knew how to work it and were extremely comfortable at going to award shows. I always knew I was extremely different from other musicians at those things because the way they handled it, "Ugh, they like this where I don't like this at all. I don't fit in this at all." I've always been very reluctant to participate.
Why did you opt to make a "Gerard Way" album instead of starting a new band?
I think early on there was a sense that I was going to start a different band. What that felt like was that I wasn't really taking ownership for what I was doing, making music, making art. It felt like I was trying to correct problems that I had in the past that had nothing to do with the guys in MCR and everything to do with the machinery and the business... I was in a band. Why would I start another band? In the future I could start other bands, but it was important for me to get out there as a solo artist.
When did you start writing solo material?
When the band was dissolving and breaking up, even though I was struggling with that and obviously I was processing and grieving that, I was still making music because it's something that I just do. I didn't know I was making an album, and I didn't know I was making a solo album, but I was making songs. I had been writing for some time, even before the band broke up, but it wasn't because I thought I was going to really put any of it out, that it was anything.
“Rock 'n' roll, to me, is about control. It's about who has it, who loses it, who wants it, who is trying to take it.”
You've always been really open about depression and alcoholism, and I know that came into play near the end of My Chemical Romance. Was that a reason for the breakup?
It wasn't. I would say the only way it was related is that I wasn't in line with what was true for me. I wasn't following my art. I was trying to stay part of this machinery and that was, in turn, not making things that easy for me emotionally. I'm just prone to having an imbalance. At that point, it would take me about a year and a half to not only fully accept it, but fully treat it. What absolutely wasn't helping was the situation. Being super depressed wasn't what caused me to stop being in a band. Being completely honest with myself is what did that.
Taking control of your own end is powerful.
That was the sole purpose. Rock 'n' roll, to me, is about control. It's about who has it, who loses it, who wants it, who is trying to take it. And there are parts of that that are beautiful, the fact that it's about the loss of control. Then there are other sides where you kind of have to take it back. You have to say, "This is the way it's going to be." You kind of reclaim your art and say, "No, I want this to stay special. This is how I'll do it."
You've played a couple solo live shows now, how do they differ from My Chemical Romance gigs?
My Chemical Romance was very aggressive. It was this kind of combative thing. I think that was one of the things that was great about it. [Now playing solo stuff,] I finally got very comfortable in my skin to the point where it feels like people want to see me do my thing, and I'm very happy to do it. There's an ease that I have now. There's a comfort level. There's no nervous energy about trying to make sure absolutely everybody in the place completely adores you. That doesn't exist anymore, the desire to make everybody happy. I think a lot of the time My Chemical Romance was fighting to do that, but I've lost that fight. I think that's good.
Now it feels like the goal is to constantly put out music. I expect the same from all the guys who were in MCR now. I would expect to see so much more music and art and creativity come out of those individuals than we could've accomplished in MCR.