My Chemical Romance emerges from a dark time with the danceable album ‘Danger Days’


LOS ANGELES — High in his ridgeline home, sitting on a porch that feels like a ledge, Gerard Way peered through cigarette smoke and the late-afternoon Pasadena
haze as he searched his memory for the moment when his band, My
Chemical Romance, shed its skin. “I think,” he said with a world-weary
chuckle, “the liberating moment is when we decided that we were allowed
to make a dance record.”

These are strange seasons for Way and his band, who
deliver their fourth studio album, “Danger Days: The True Lives of the
Fabulous Killjoys,” on Monday and have just announced a world tour that
finds them back from the brink of despair and bitter breakup. What was
their salvation? Comic books, old sci-fi films and drum machines, it
turns out, as well as the healing exercise of recording an entire
“safe” rock album, scrapping it and starting from scratch.

“It’s strange how we got to this place, but I think
there was no other way to do it,” said Way, who spent nearly a year
with his band mates recording a straightforward proto-punk album with
producer Brendan O’Brien (known for earnest-searcher sessions with Pearl Jam and Bruce Springsteen) only to jettison it all and starting over with Rob Cavallo (best known for his Green Day work and as the newly minted chairman of Warner Bros.
Records) to create a wild-eyed concept album that feels like “Mad Max”
reimagined with guitars and the trickster wink of OutKast.

“Danger Days” is getting some strong early reviews (Dan Martin in NME gushed that it’s the “best rock record of the year by such a
margin that you actually feel rather embarrassed for everybody else”)
but much of the reaction is pure surprise — this is not where My
Chemical Romance was supposed to end up, not after all those years of
marching through the pop-punk scene in eyeliner and delivering
glammed-up melodrama for smart kids.

Way, an art-school soul with real-world bruises and a croaky New Jersey
voice, actually dares to hope that the shout-along choruses and
pop-epic aspirations of “Danger Days” could be genre-saving. “I don’t
say it in arrogance, but it might reposition rock, because rock is
getting slaughtered out there …”

That savior language is startling for people close
to Way because, over the last few years, his band looked like it was
the one that was sinking down into the murky depths.

A few days earlier, on a slate-gray Saturday morning in downtown Los Angeles,
the band members gathered to shoot a music video for the “Danger Days”
track “Sing” and, instead of guitars, they were hefting laser guns. The
video is part of the unfolding saga of the Killjoys, the future-world
personas played by the band that are battling against the Draculoids
and an insidious corporate behemoth called Better Living Industries.

The weapons, characters, logos, back story, vehicles — all of it sprang from the mind of Way, who attended the School of Visual Arts in New York
and interned at DC Comics’ Vertigo imprint before he took a detour into
rock stardom. It was during his time at Vertigo that Way met Grant Morrison,
now one of the most celebrated comic-book writers in the world and the
man who recently killed off (temporarily) Batman’s alter ego, Bruce Wayne.

On this morning, Morrison has a different target —
he’s playing Korse (whom he describes as “a human bloodhound, a hunter
who dresses like an undead, post-apocalyptic Doc Holliday“) and is eager for the moment when the script calls for him to put a gun beneath Way’s chin and pull the trigger.

There’s hardly anything new about rock bands finding
a common ground with comics or illustrated imagery of the fantastic,
whether it was KISS and Alice Cooper rocking out in the pages of vintage Marvel comics, Spider-Man getting the cover of Creem in 1973 or Bono and the Edge writing music for the web-slinger’s Broadway
show. There are hundreds of examples of crossovers, but My Chemical
Romance and “Danger Days” is most likely the very first time that comic
books saved the career of a band. And fittingly, it happened just in
the nick of time.

In May 2008, My Chemical Romance was running on fumes by the time it hit the stage at Madison Square Garden. The core of the band — the lead singer and his brother, bassist Mikey Way, with Ray Toro on lead guitar and Frank Iero on rhythm guitar and backup vocals — were road-weary and more than a
bit emotionally battered. The lead singer was especially heartsick and
confused after the Daily Mail of London used the band’s somewhat ominous name (which is a reference, by the way, to the work of author Irvine Welsh)
to shoehorn the group into controversy after the hanging suicide of a
13-year-old Kent girl. One headline — “Why no child is safe from the
sinister cult of emo” — would have been laughable if it wasn’t so
exploitative and shrill.

“Gerard was really taking it hard, and we were all
ground down from the tour cycle,” Toro said. “Being from Jersey, that
show should have been a celebratory moment for us, and it wasn’t. We
had all these songs from (our biggest commercial success) ‘The Black
Parade,’ but the songs had lost their meaning for us. When we left the
stage I think people thought it might be our last show, and I think
maybe Gerard made it sound that way too.”

The band went off in different directions. Way
immersed himself in comics with the subversive superhero series
Umbrella Academy, a collaboration with Brazilian artist Gabriel Ba, and quickly proved he wasn’t one of the many Hollywood
names dropping in on the suddenly fashionable Comic-Con scene. “Gerard
is the real deal,” Morrison said, “and certainly not a tourist in
comics.” The series won an Eisner Award, the highest honor in the
industry and a strong indication of peer acceptance.

After months of soul-searching, the band gathered
last year and went in the studio with O’Brien. The plan was to strip
away the glam and get back to basics with a proto-punk sound that would
channel their inner Iggy. Way said there was a lot of pressure to make
an album for grown-ups.

“There are a lot of rewards, like you get coverage
in men’s magazines and you find yourself dieting and cutting your
hair,” Way said. “There are people around you that want you to make
‘the American rock record’ for the fans who are in their 30s now. When
we finished it, we realized what we had done: We had become acceptable
and sterile.”

Toro said the band was essentially lost and didn’t
jibe well with O’Brien’s fast-paced approach. “The sounds weren’t
there, and the production value wasn’t there, and a lot of that had to
do with us because we didn’t go all in on that record, we held back on
some level,” he said. “We had put up a lot of walls. We were very much
against doing the same thing we did on ‘Black Parade.’ We actually saw
that album as the enemy.”

With that album being mixed, the old friends from
Jersey began experimenting with different sounds and instruments. But,
according to Toro, the impetus and structure that led to the new sound
was all in Way’s iPad — his sketches, logos, characters and
descriptions of a world that was somewhere between the visual ethos of
“The Empire Strikes Back” and the scabby consumer-culture commentary of Frank Miller’s “Give Me Liberty” comics.

“That gave us a place to go, a place to fill with
new sounds and a whole different set of rules,” Toro said. “We made
music for that world, and we didn’t feel boxed in by our past or any
expectations from anyone else.”

Iero said the band often felt constricted by
rock-world scrutiny and expectations, and with the total abandon of
their first “Danger Days” single, the brash and blistering “Na Na Na (Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na),” they hope to have pushed their amps into
the dance floor, just as U2 did after leaving the deserts of “The Joshua Tree” and looking for strobe and leather with “Achtung Baby.”

“We’ve always wanted to do it, something you could
dance to, and deep down we always thought we could bring something to
the table if we could do it, but the live shows always made us pull
back and be ‘a rock band,'” Iero said. He added that fans are already
embracing the other-world premises of Way’s creation.

“It’s not a concept as much as it is a high
concept,” Iero said. “We want to present the world and the characters
in that world, and there are certain situations. It’s a place you can
live. And the idea is that radio broadcasts from that future are the
music on this album, and the music videos will tell this story that
takes place there.”

The response is strong (Spin called “Na Na Na” an
“in-your-face punk anthem with blistering guitar leads, an epic
breakdown, and Gerard Way’s sneering delivery”),
but the band has gone so deep into this new mode that there is
considerable downside if it fails to connect in the popular imagination.

“Any time you create something that’s really near
and dear to your heart and you unleash it on the world, it’s like
opening up your chest and standing there,” Iero said. “You’re very
vulnerable. Nobody can love it as much as you do, but when the kids
take it and run with it, it can be amazing. But you do worry.”

Back at the top of the mountain, Way doesn’t seem
worried at all. He is pulsing with excitement about the idea of
creating action figures and merchandise based on his “Danger Days”
future, which he views as a loving spoof of the George Lucas retail
items that he grew up with, and has found his spirit revived by going
to the vintage, fluorescent fantasies of midnight movies such as
“Zardoz” and “Barbarella” and creating an art project disguised as a
rock album and tour.

“We have made this record now that no one expected
and that we never expected,” Way said. “We could have given the world
this rock record, and that would have been perfectly acceptable, but
instead we went and made a pop-art record. Look, I had all this armor
on before and I was separated from myself. Now I’m me. I’ve connected
all of art; I don’t think of things as being separate. Now the only
armor I have left is the lack of caring about the aftermath of
everything that we’ve done. The reaction to what we’ve done is
something that I don’t worry about. This is purely me right now, and
that’s really refreshing.”


(c) 2010, Los Angeles Times.

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