Rediscovering themselves as creative, dangerous and daring

After spending most of 2009 working with producer Brendan O’Brien on a follow-up to their hit 2006 album The Black Parade, the members of My Chemical Romance were hit with an unsettling realization: They didn’t like their new material all that much. They felt bored and stifled. So when a quick session to write a couple of additional songs veered in a more inspiring direction, the band saw its chance to start over.

Re-teaming with Black Parade producer Rob Cavallo, the musicians—singer Gerard Way, bass player Mikey Way and guitarists Ray Toro and Frank Iero—ditched the rules they had established for themselves about their sound and the kind of songs they wrote (for the sessions, drummer John Miceli replaced now-departed member Bob Bryar behind the kit). Unburdened of those constraints, the group soon emerged from Cavallo’s Calabasas, Calif., studio with Danger Days: The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys. Although imagined as a series of pirate-radio broadcasts coming from California in the year 2019, the band’s energetic, hook-filled fourth album is not designed as a strictly conceptual theatrical piece in the way The Black Parade was (witness Days’ straightforwardly rocking first single, “Na Na Na [Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na]”). “It was a long gestation period to get to this record,” says Ray Toro, “but I don’t think it would have worked any other way.” We spoke with Toro about the changes and self-discoveries that finally led to My Chemical Romance’s new music.

Were you comfortable with how elaborate The Black Parade tour was?

I felt like we were doing a stage show or a musical, instead of being a band. We wore these rigid costumes, the show was the same every night. It wasn’t choreographed, but it was timed out to feel like the album. We missed the spontaneity. When you say “rock ’n’ roll band,” you think spontaneous. The Black Parade was very restrictive. We had stripped out all the best parts of the band, even the creativity, and we didn’t get back to actually being a rock ’n’ roll band until we started doing Danger Days this year.

Why didn’t you release the album you made with Brendan O’Brien?

At the end of 2009, we decided to get into the studio with Rob Cavallo and write one or two new tracks to fill out that [O’Brien-produced] record. We realized the momentum from these new songs was carrying us, and we decided to scrap everything else we had done. It was clear to us that the true My Chemical Romance was in the songs that ended up on Danger Days. That’s us being creative, dangerous, daring—and the previous stuff we were working on had none of that.

Why did that epiphany take so long?

We have a desire to constantly create something new, and after we were done touring on The Black Parade, we didn’t have anything left. So we took a break, then started the process: We wrote and recorded an entire record and scrapped it. If we had tried to get into the studio sooner after finishing the tour, we probably wouldn’t be a band today. And if we put out that record we were working on in 2009, we probably wouldn’t be a band today.

The situation was that dire?

We just weren’t in the right place at that time. It really took writing “Na Na Na” and reuniting with Rob Cavallo. All those elements really added up to this atmosphere where it was inspiring to work again. Prior to that, we were showing up at the studio like zombies.

Where did “Na Na Na” come from?

We were all frustrated, and Gerard had gone out with his wife for a long weekend in the desert. He ended up writing the riff and the lyrics to “Na Na Na.” When we got back to Cavallo’s studio, he brought it up and we tracked it. There was an energy in that room that was very different from the prior sessions. It was pretty clear when we wrote that song that we were going to start over, but we didn’t really know it until we were about four songs in. That song was the catalyst for starting over and rediscovering what this band is. Before, everything was, “You can’t, you don’t, you shouldn’t.” We wrote “Na Na Na” and all of that went out the window.

When did the concept emerge?

It was all organic. Gerard had been coming up with a lot of art pieces. He was working on a comic with a friend of ours, Shaun Simon, back home, and it had some of the same ideas as the record. If you look at the lyrics, it’s about the returning of color to the world, of danger. That’s the crux of what the record is about. But it’s only conceptual in the sense that it’s framed as a pirate-radio broadcast from the future. When you listen to the record, there’s not a story being told. As far as characters and settings, that’s more for the videos.

Did you purposely avoid a narrative?

On The Black Parade, one of the things we got stuck in was trying to tell a story. That’s a big undertaking, and when you’re trying to tell a story, the songwriting suffers, because sometimes you have to do certain things musically to tell that story. This album was simply about writing a collection of great songs.

What was the writing like?

We did most of it in the studio, which was cool. That’s also why it’s the most organic record we’ve done. We had all these tools at our disposal all the time, and that was a great way to write. There was no time that took place between when you had an idea and when you could try it. To me, music is something that you have to capture right when you hear it. This is the first record we really wrote in a studio, and I think we’ll always do it that way. The possibilities are endless.

How fast did you work?

The first batch of four or five songs came pretty quickly. Two days after “Na Na Na,” we wrote “Vampire Money” and then “SING.” Each song was so different from the last, and every day in the studio you were getting something different. We were being challenged as musicians and songwriters to do something different, something that we’d never done before. I can’t even explain how exciting that is. There was this energy, this vibrancy, in the studio, and in the music, too. You could definitely tell when somebody had an idea. We usually would get to the studio in the early afternoon, and you could just see a look in people’s eyes, like, “I’ve got this idea!” It was the most freeing feeling any of us have ever had. It felt like rediscovering the band.

–Eric R. Danton

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