By Mark Guarino
There comes a time in every band’s life that they feel the calling to make what scholars call “great art.” Thus the concept album was born.
My Chemical Romance waited until their third album to take their Pink Floyd moment. “The Black Parade” (Reprise), released last fall, is an arena-ready rock album that tells the tragic story of the Patient, an invalid trapped by his mind and, of course, a scarred childhood. The band mixes the arena pomp of the 1970’s, the goth style of the 1980’s and the misfit malaise from 1990’s icons like the Smashing Pumpkins. Full of grand flourishes and a circus backdrop, the album also features a cameo from Liza Minnelli.
The Belleville, N.J. band got its start through the collaboration between brothers Gerard and Mikey Way. Guitarist Frank Iero stepped in at the beginning and through the combination of dark themes and an affinity for pop hooks, the band became one of the rising stars of the post-Sept. 11 era.
Iero, 25, recently talked about life before and after “The Black Parade.” What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Q: Before “The Black Parade,” MCR was lumped into the Jersey emo scene that includes bands like Thursday. Was this album a way to break out of that?
A: I can honestly say, when writing the record, we never thought about the word “emo.” Or distancing ourselves from anything. We just wrote what we wanted to write. We just wanted to write something timeless and something we would be proud of in 20 years. Something that maybe broke down boundaries we set up around ourselves. We just wanted to experiment and write something that we would be proud of forever.
Q: This album is a big leap from the previous two albums, which were more or less just sets of songs. Was making this album always the intention?
A: Well, even going back to our first record, which was on an indie, we wrote concept songs but not a concept record. One of the songs we wrote, “Demolition Lovers,” really told the story about these two lovers that got caught in hell. We really liked the story and thought more about it. When we wrote (the 2003 album) “Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge” we took that story and kind of ran with it and wrote our first loosely based concept record. When that record was all set and done and we got sat down to write “The Black Parade,” we started writing on the road and wrote a bunch of songs, scrapped a bunch and two stood out that had this battle between life and death and heaven and hell. And (the album) started to take shape. The more we wrote, the more the story started to come about. And when we sat down to bang out the details of “Black Parade,” we wanted to make it as tight a concept as possible. Because a lot of things happened in our real lives that filtered their way into the songs.
Q: MCR has adopted a circus theme for this tour and album. Are visuals just as important as the music?
A: Absolutely. We’re the kind of band where every aspect of our band is our business. We have such a heavy hand in everything. Whether it’s the website, the artwork for the record, the merchandise, any artwork associated with it has something to do with the songs and the stories we’re trying to tell. I think that’s missing from music these days. I remember I used to get these concept records and find little hidden meanings that had to be figured out. And if you were a fan, there was something tangible about it, something to latch on to. That’s what we try to have, that feel we could recreate and make it a record you had to go out and get. We wanted a piece of art and our piece of art incorporates everything, from videos to artwork on the record.
Q: MCR is part of a generation of bands — AFI, Evanescence — that are making music around pretty heavy-handed themes. Why now?
A: Sometimes I guess the popular music or pop culture will always turn to something dark. Maybe it is a dark time. You look around and you just turn on the news or read the paper and there are not a lot of happy-go-lucky things going on in our world. There’s a lot of cynicism and lot of despair and a lot of people wondering what their (expletive) purpose is. I don’t think that’s a new thing.
Q: You’re the oldest of the group. How did you meet up with the others?
A: We all lived within two miles of each other. I lived a few blocks from Gerard and Mikey. But we didn’t know each other. All of us were in music scene at different times, but we never crossed paths until later on when we were getting into our 20s. But I was in a band and they wanted to form a band. I talked to Gerard at a party. He went over the concept of this band he wanted to do and the kind of things he wanted to sing about and what it meant to him. And he asked me if knew of any musicians. And we talked about it and he had liked the record I put out. And he wanted to know about practicing. My band, we would practice every day for four to five hours a day. So down the line I got them a few shows and I let them come to our practice space and practice where we practiced. And it was cool, bands pushing each other to get better. And finally my band dissolved and they asked me to join. And the rest I guess is just history.
Q: Belleville is just north of Newark. Is it every Jersey band’s dream to cross the river and play New York?
A: It’s like two different worlds. If you’re a band in Jersey starting out, you’re not going to play New York a lot. It’s not going to happen. You have to drive into the city, pay the toll and then parking, is ridiculous … What you do is you focus on the VFW halls or the clubs in Jersey. That’s where scene is growing and growing. Shows put on by kids, for kids, kids ran it. And it was great, it was a really fruitful scene. But here’s the thing too: There were so many bands in Jersey, so it was really hard to get a show. That’s why you have to be really, really good but still, maybe you have two shows a month. So what we decided to do is we had to leave Jersey, we had to go out in the world and prove ourselves. That was the best decision we could possibly have made.
Q: How did you do it?
A: We would jump in a van and do the east coast. And maybe go to the Midwest. I remember our first full U.S. tour was amazing. We actually made it out to California. And that was a feat that very few bands were doing at this level. But it was easier for us because (fellow Jersey) bands like Thursday, Saves the Day, Midtown, the Bouncing Souls had trailblazed already. When we said we were a band from Jersey, a few kids would show up to see what was going on because they had heard that Jersey bands were the (expletive). And maybe there would be five kids and the next time we should up there would be seven kids, then 10, then 20, and all of the sudden a couple of hundred of kids would be coming to the shows. And that felt really good.
Q: How did you get Liza Minnelli on this record? I imagine she’s not on your iPod.
A: (laughs). It’s weird. It started out we had this character. Her name is Mother War. It was a big role in a song called “Mama.” It’s really a song about loss of life and a loss of innocence. We needed somebody with a lot of sorrow in her voice, who lived a long life and had seen a lot. We tried to have Gerard sing it in a girl voice and put different effects on it but it just wasn’t right. And finally (producer) Rob Cavallo said, “if we had to get somebody to do this, who do you think could play this part?” And we joked between each other, “don’t you think really awesome if we could get Liza Minnelli to do this.” And he made a phone call and apparently she had heard of us and liked what we had done. And she agreed to do it.
Q: Gerard’s been very open about his difficulties with drugs and alcohol back in 2004 before the making “The Black Parade.” Did that turmoil affect this album?
A: Well to even get into that, you have to understand the mindset of the band at that time. We had recorded “Three Cheers” a year before. We were experimenting with drugs and alcohol. Not in a crazy sense, but just sometimes you get drunk before a show. It wasn’t a big ordeal. But then the crowd started to grow and things started to happen and suddenly you got thrust into this limelight. And suddenly it was going really fast and we started to take these drugs and alcohol to numb the whirlwind of it all. And it was almost like liquid courage to get in front of people we never thought we could play before. We were all doing it but he took it to the next level. And everybody was like, “you really have to slow down,” but nobody wanted to be that guy to say, “I think it’s a problem,” because nobody knew it was a problem. He said to us, “hey I think I have a big problem with this.” That was a big wakeup call for everybody. That’s a band killer. At the same time we were going through a member change and we were accepting somebody new into the family and we had a sober singer. We could have ended in this one week. But I guess we’re stronger than that. We realized that we’re part of something bigger than any one of us. We just all wanted really badly to make it work. Knock on wood, Gerard’s done an amazing job, he’s such a strong person, I’ve never seen him falter.
Q: What concept albums were on your mind in the studio?
A: Probably about three of them. “Sgt. Pepper’s” by the Beatles, Queen’s “A Night at the Opera” and “The Wall” by Pink Floyd were definitely mainstays in the CD player. If you don’t know your history there’s no way to create something new. They’re just legendary songs and just great pieces of art. They’re records that really were defining moments in these bands’ careers. They were moments that, when these records hit, you were like, “whoa, I thought I knew this band but I didn’t know (expletive).” That’s what we were looking for. We just wanted that defining moment. We said this to each other: We may write 20 more records, we may write two more records, we may write no more records. We wanted this to be the defining moment in our band’s life. That if we would ever be remembered for something, we wanted it to be this. And we knew we were a young band to take this on, but we felt we were ready.