Fearing the clean-cut star he was morphing into, My Chemical Romance’s Gerard Way took drastic action to change his image - and his music - in a rebellion against ‘that 30-something rock culture’, he tells Ed Power
Running a hand through a strawberry-red shock of hair, Gerard Way becomes suddenly animated. "One morning I looked at myself in the mirror," says the My Chemical Romance singer, in a tone of barely suppressed horror, "and thought, 'I'm being assimilated!'"
At the time, Way was hurtling towards his 30th birthday. For most rock stars, 30 is usually the point at which you are carted off to the retirement home particularly if, like My Chemical Romance, you happen to operate in the teen-specific genre of emo (for the uninitiated, emo is the punk-pop equivalent of the Twilight movies, with extra make-up and lots more moping in the dark).
Way was clean shaven, smartly attired -- he'd even been to the gym and was acquiring the beginnings of a six pack. For a guy whose stage outfit once consisted of a black marching-band jacket with bone-white epaulettes and a party-pack of eyeliner, it was a terrifying vista.
"Dying my hair red was a direct response to being sucked into the 30-something GQ magazine lifestyle," he says. "Don't get me wrong. I actually love GQ. But it was like, 'if I ever end up on the cover of something like that, I should have bright red fucking hair'. It was a direct rebelling against what I've become."
Backstage at the grimly utilitarian Edinburgh Corn Exchange, Way -- now an ancient 33 -- is in a confessional mood. My Chemical Romance have returned from a two-and-a-half-year hiatus and the singer, whose connection with his audience runs deeper than most musicians would consider comfortable, feels he's got some explaining to do. For the red hair, yes, but also the band's upcoming fourth album, a swirling sci-fi carnival ride entitled Danger Days: The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys.
While proud of the record -- overjoyed with it actually -- he's painfully aware fans who flocked to MCR's angst-riddled earlier LPs might not know what to make of the group's lusty new direction.
"We had done this entire album -- a rock record," he says. "It wasn't what the band was great at. It was unambitious. We'd run away from what our strengths were. Suddenly we had all these rules. We were going to make a great rock record. We were going to be a great American rock band. We were slowly being assimilated into that 30-something rock culture. The band got as boring as that culture is."
In other words, My Chemical Romance -- which Way founded in New Jersey in 2001 with his brother Mikey as a way of coming to terms with the pain he felt over the September 11 attacks -- were transforming into bloated self-parodies. "It was super scary," he nods. "We physically started to watch it happen. We'd cut our hair and got rid of the colour. We were wearing, like, leather jackets and black shirts. Hitting the gym, that kind of thing. I saw a flash forward to our future and, man, it was frightening."
The day he became a red-head was the day everything changed. Junking six months worth of recordings with Pearl Jam producer Brendan O'Brien, MCR hooked up with Green Day wing-man Rob Cavallo and bashed out single Na Na Na. Throw-away, glammy, a bit on the schlocky side, it captured what My Chemical Romance did best. Suddenly, the shackles fell away and the songs -- vivid, rebellious and determinedly not middle-aged -- started gushing forth.
"It's not a concept record. On the other hand, it is 'high concept'," says Way of the album. "You basically have a dystopian city, surrounded by this wild apocalyptic frontier. It's a transmission from 2019 and you have a gang roaming a desert in a car. I was paying close attention to Diamond Dogs by Bowie. That's what Diamond Dogs was about as well."
Hmmm... it sounds like something from Lady Gaga's stage show. "Not to badmouth her at all, but I always felt we'd been doing that sort of thing for a long time," he interjects. "I actually love her. I was truly inspired to see someone embrace art in the way she had. That's what we had always hoped to do. She's inspiring for sure. We had always been inspired by Queen. So to see someone take their name from a Queen song and for them to do the Elton John/Bowie thing... I love how she challenges people. It's a positive."
The similarities run deeper than you might think. Much as Lady Gaga claims a special relationship with her fans -- her "Little Monsters" -- My Chemical Romance have forged intense ties with their audience, dubbed the "MCArmy". "We've been talking to our kids like that for a long time," says Way. "It was cool to see someone else doing that. We definitely have that in common."
In fact, it was because of their intense closeness to their supporters that My Chemical Romance lost their way in the first place. A multi-platinum, arena-slaying phenomenon, 2006's The Black Parade turned Way and company into the public face of angst-slathered goth-pop. Granted, there were other emo groups -- lipstick 'n eyeliner show ponies such as Taking Back Sunday and Fallout Boy, even Jared Leto's vanity band Thirty Seconds To Mars. None, however, looked, or acted the part quite like My Chemical Romance.
When an emo backlash broke out, with kids targeted for their side-parted hair, pierced lips and black T-shirts in places as far-flung as Mexico City and London, they felt they had put their audience in harm's way. The nadir was the suicide in 2008 of 13-year-old British teenager Hannah Bond, for which the UK tabloid media hysterically blamed the bleak lyrical content of The Black Parade.
"We didn't want to see kids hurt because they were dressed in black and were considered a threat or villainous in some way," says Way. "That was horrible. So we ran far away from Black Parade. It was a dark, uncertain time for us. We knew we would always play music together. We didn't know what that would be. We felt a responsibility and a sadness for what was happening."
Battling demons is nothing new for Way. When My Chemical Romance first blew up in 2003, the rock-star lifestyle took him to some dark places. His drinking got to be a problem, eventually spiralling into full-blown alcoholism. In those dark days after The Black Parade, was he tempted to take comfort in old vices?
"Not at all. So many years go by and you get used to it [not drinking]. Actually, it stops being an issue. I quit cold turkey, on my own terms. Nobody put me in rehab. I didn't go to AA. Well, I showed up at a couple of meetings. I was never really involved though. It [the story] was one of those things that got much bigger than it needed to be. I just wanted to stop drinking. It wasn't a huge struggle."
That said, there was an upside, he feels. "I guess the positive effect is that people looked up to that. It inspired people to do certain things. That was a positive. The negative is that I didn't want to turn it into a preachy thing. I don't see myself as a heroic figure. I don't see myself as a role model. I'm not a martyr. It took me a long time to come to terms with that. But I have. And now everything is okay."
Danger Days: The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys is released next Friday