Music News

Chemical Reaction

Singer and provocateur Gerard Way considers My Chemical Romance to be the "odd band out" on the Warped Tour bill. "A majority of indie bands, emo bands, hardcore-punk bands, whatever, look the same, act the same and write about the same stuff," he points out. "As much as people go to be different, a lot of what's there isn't different. But we really are."

This declaration includes more than a smidgen of hyperbole, since, musically anyhow, the Romancers' repertoire sticks to the modern-punk template more often than not. But lyrically, visually and in terms of persona, the group consistently eschews the conventional, and the main reason is Way. Songs such as "Give 'Em Hell, Kid" and "You Know What They Do to Guys Like Us in Prison," from Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge, the act's latest salvo, exhibit an entertaining, wide-screen sensibility, not to mention narratives whose violence, ghoulishness and fascination with fatal irony recall the finest pulp fiction. The quintet's theatricality is custom-made for MTV, and the players -- guitarists Ray Toro and Frank Iero, drummer Bob Bryar and bassist Mikey Way (Gerard's brother) -- take advantage. "I'm Not Okay (I Promise)" has Revenge's least interesting words, but they seem downright compelling in the context of a Rushmore-inspired clip overflowing with scenes of teenage lust and humiliation. As for "Helena," it's transformed into a wonderfully macabre production number (a gorgeous corpse dances at her own funeral) that almost revives the artistically moribund video format.

Way began exercising his imagination early on. "I grew up in Belleville, New Jersey, which is basically Newark," he recalls. "It wasn't a safe area as far as going out and playing with friends. So, from a young age, I learned how to live in places that didn't exist." He devoured books, often of the comic variety, and "wrote a lot of stories about wizards, boy magicians, stuff like that. I was very interested in magic and card tricks." Still, the first songs he penned, around age fifteen, weren't particularly mystical. "I was really into Kerplunk-era Green Day," he says, "so I tried to emulate what they were doing, what they were writing about. That's why there was a lot of stuff about girls. I hadn't really dated girls, but I pretended that I had." He also admired Iron Maiden, whose cartoony backdrops inspired him to take pen in hand. He went on to study illustration at New York's School of Visual Arts, which hooked him up with an internship at an area animation house. At first, he was essentially "a photocopy boy," he concedes, but staffer Barb Nash took a liking to an idea he had for an animated television series.

"It was called The Breakfast Monkey," Way says, "and it was about a small Scandinavian creature who had the power of 'breakfast magic,' which is really indefinable. He could do things like make giant waffles appear out of nowhere." With Nash and cohort Joe Boyle, Way roughed out a Breakfast Monkey sample in which, among other things, an excitable Mexican wrestler's head is transformed into a stack of pancakes. (It can be viewed online at bmonkey.html.) Way says Cartoon Network was interested in the concept, but the network eventually passed because of bad timing -- 9/11 had just happened -- and its commitment to another bizarro food-related project, Aqua Teen Hunger Force, which has become one of his favorites.

He's far from bitter that his shot at TV fame missed the target. "Stuff happens for a reason," he allows. "And when I walked out of that, I started the band." Besides, he says, "there's a lot of opportunities to do visual art with My Chemical Romance. All your creativity is relative, be it music, art or whatever. You can focus on one thing and make it your career, but it's great if you can use all of your skills. And this is the kind of band where, luckily, I can use every single skill I have."

In contrast to the upbeat Monkey, the songs that formed the basis for the Chemists' full-length debut, 2003's I Brought You My Bullets, You Brought Me Your Love (made for Eyeball Records), were quite dark. "There was a lot of bleak stuff happening, not just in my personal life, but in the world," he explains. "Skylines and Turnstiles," a Bullets track that dealt with the toppling of the Twin Towers, found Way dealing with such themes in a heartfelt yet familiar manner reminiscent of Thursday, a rising band fronted by Bullets producer Geoff Rickly. More original, however, was "Vampires Will Never Hurt You," a goth-punk extravaganza in which Way declares, "We're hanging out with corpses and driving in this hearse/And someone save my soul tonight."

Suddenly, fans began referring to the crew's sound as "vampire punk," and while Way says the musicians played up this image to some extent, by donning "black clothes and eye shadow," they stopped short of "wearing capes or spitting out blood -- and not doing stuff like that kept us from being a kitsch-rock band, a gimmick-rock band. There have been times where it came close, but we never went the full distance with anything, and that gave us room to evolve."

Revenge has a much more noirish feel than Bullet does, as is reflected by its cinematic touchstones. "Hang 'Em High" was specifically influenced "by Quentin Tarantino's True Romance," Way says, and he namechecks "Kubrick films and early John Woo movies" as general inspirations on everything from the music to the disc's cover, which sports Way's rendering of a desperate couple spattered with hemoglobin. The performers have since adopted variations on the black-suit, black-tie, white-shirt look of the illustrated man, but they've also demonstrated an onstage fondness for bulletproof vests. "It's a statement about danger," Way maintains, "and we definitely feel like we're dangerous -- dangerous to the kind of bullshit acts that are coming out in mainstream music, who make a career out of writing about girlfriends, or the shit everybody else writes about. They're selling a million records just relating to fifteen-year-olds about heartbreak, and we aren't going to take that route. That makes us a threat."

Maybe so, but they've found success anyhow. Revenge has gone gold in the U.K. and is selling briskly in the States despite the fact that Reprise, the outfit's label, has been in turmoil of late. (The imprint's parent company, Warner Music, laid off 20 percent of its staff prior to going public in May.) A slot on the Warped Tour's main stage won't hurt, either, and although Way suspects some members of the crowd won't totally understand their approach, he's confident that non-conformists will relate.

"Whether you're a guy with a pickup truck who listens to Metallica, or a sixteen-year-old girl who has a terrible home life, there's something about us that's going to appeal to you," he says. "Maybe it'll be because of your outcast side. Maybe it'll be because of shitty experiences you had as a teenager, and now you're in your twenties. Maybe it's because the world is so fucked up. Or maybe it's just because you're different -- and we are, too."

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts