A Conversation with Gerard Way of My Chemical Romance

This is the original transcript of the interview, only minor editing has been applied for readability. This has been the basis for articles but has never been published in the original form.

Wortraub: Why are you doing this alone?
Gerard:
: The guys are at home working. They are actually doing various other things, like press in the US, while I do press out here in Europe. Also I am the only one without a residence. I am homeless at the moment. Plus, I like to give them breaks whenever I can.

Wortraub: This is “only” your third album. And you have reinvented yourselves from album one to album two. So why is it necessary to become your alter ego The Black Parade?
Gerard:
: For the same reason that one and two were so different, because of the reinvention. It became necessary to be a new band and we actually wanted to do that, in a theatrical setting. The purpose of becoming The Black Parade was really to provide a theatrical outlet for the concept, to have a physical embodiment of that concept. The trick of it was that it allowed us to bring that concept to a small club. When you do a concept album, you want to bring that concept to your live shows as well. With My Chemical Romance and the “Three Cheers” album we only started that with “Helena”, the Church Windows, and the video and so on but we could not bring it to the stage. How were we to do that? But with The Black Parade we wanted to do it live as well, the concept and everything. So we decided on the alter ego in a really theatrical sense.

Wortraub: It is this protean idea of ever changing form then?
Gerard:
: Right. And it also keeps people guessing. It keeps your band from becoming part of the problem of redundancy, constantly rehatching the same ideas. So, you need the reinvention also for yourself.

Wortraub: So you would rather frustrate expectations than fulfill redundancy?
Gerard:
: I would rather exceed expectations than fulfill redundancy. Being redundant doesn’t do anyone any good. What you have to ask yourself as musician is, what is special about my band. For us it was not the aggression per se, it is not the speed. It is the desire for self-expression. It is the specialness of how we approach things. Our take on, let’s say, Russian folk or on the last record our take on Cabaret. I think a large part of art is interpretation. For us what makes us special is not the aggression, not speed but how we approach things, as artists.

Wortraub: You mentioned Russian Folk but also there are other elements on the record, like Jewish Folk, Carnival music, show themes and even a waltz. Where does this carnivalesque element come from, these influences?
Gerard:
: I have grown up with a healthy diet of show tunes and movies like Cabaret, musicals in general. That is where it kind of came from and those are the things that appeal to me. In addition some of my favorite artists like Tom Waits or Nick Cave have all dabbeled in this kind music. Or Alabama Song by The Doors is obviously a cover but their take on this Kurt Weil song was really inspiring. I felt, that this was a sound that needed to be reinterpreted, captured.

Wortraub: But this album has more influences on it, as a concept album it is in line with David Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust”, Queen’s “A Night At The Opera” or Pink Floyds “The Wall”. Why would you choose a concept theme for the record?
Gerard:
: Because all of those records touched us even before punk rock did. Those were the records that really got us. Also there is a degree of invention that happened around that time. We did not want to ape them but we wanted to recapture some of that majesty, some of that theatre that they have. And those three albums you have just mentioned were specifically important. We see the album less as a rock opera, which would be something like “Tommy” but more like a rock concept which is “The Wall”. “Night At The Opera” is even more a theme record that a concept, that is what I like about it. You can listen to it as a concept but also as single songs and it still makes sense. The accessability and the eclectic nature of “Night At The Opera” combined with the strong theme and the concepts of “The Wall” is what went into “The Black Parade”.

Wortraub: You mentioned the prog rock influences but you are also from a post-punk era. Those two rock scenes were historically opposed to each other though. How do you combine those two totally opposite approaches?
Gerard:
: We just did it. It wasn’t a conscious thing. We came out of a post-punk era and grew up in minituarized punk scenes that existed in New Jersey. That will never leave our DNA, even though we have never been a punk band. I always felt that we are a rock band that had roots in a teenage upbringing living in the punk scene. I think, we simply combine everything we think is great about music, even if it is opposing views. We are going to make them work together.

Wortraub: You have mentioned influences of David Bowie, who is a master of self change. Is that something you aspire to, constant reinvention?
Gerard:
: A little bit, yeah. I don’t know how much of that was him doing it for other people or him doing it for himself. I feel like maybe he did the reinvention for his own person. That is why we do it, we do it to keep ourselves interested and challenged. It is a challenge to create an iconic persona and shatter it, because you start from zero. Very few artists want to start from zero, and I think Bowie is one that does. So I like that, the challenge to start from scratch. It keeps you interested, keeps your brain going.

Wortraub: So every album is tabula rasa for you, a clean slate?
Gerard:
: Yes, that is why there are so many differences between the albums. The only connection between the three is the people making them, which gives us our sound.

Wortraub: The album has a very orchestral element, very classical. Is that a natural addition to rock music, I mean it has been done by Queen (A Night At The Opera) even lately by Metallica? Why is that? Does it lend itself to be combined?
Gerard:
: I think so, yeah, but it depends on the artist. If you have artists that tend towards melody it works out really well. For example Queen, with so much movement and melody it fits perfect. We tried to do the movement this time with the melody, not so much with the speed. There is still enough speed on the record.

Wortraub: Let’s talk about the concept then, it is about the death of one person – the patient – who goes through his memories …
Gerard:
: … I like it when to a certain degree interpretation is necessary. I would like the listener to feel that the patient is either on his deathbed throughout the entire record or that he is dead and we are in the afterlife. I like for it to be an option for him to stay alive and get a second chance at his life. It is the story of one man dying tragically young in his thirties. He is reflecting on fear, regret, pain, mistakes and his whole life, and then meeting the Black Parade, these other characters that also have stories.

Wortraub: So, how did you arrange the songs then? It is not a chronological account of his life, feels rather cinematic …
Gerard:
: Yes, there is more of a cinematic approach to the construction of the album as well as really good flow. We wanted the tracks only moved within reason, due to musical arrangement. If we had arranged the songs chronologically it might sound weird. “Welcome To The Black Parade” would have to be further up front. But when that song comes in into the record it is like hitting a reset. I like that. There is a lot of stuff happening but once “Welcome To The Black Parade” starts it is as if the record had just begun. It’s the sense of renewal.

Wortraub: In regards to your concept I had to think of Emily Dickinson, who wrote poems about that … the moment when death comes and she imagined a sort of freedom from both worlds in that moment … is that the point of view that Black Parade is written from?
Gerard:
: Yeah, that is awesome. I never thought about it that way but that moment where those two songs, track one and two, connect is that moment, when you here that flatline. And yeah, maybe as a listener you are in that transcending spot and then you are able to look at all those other songs on the record from that point of view.

Wortraub: That would make “Famous Last Words” the final decision point to go with death …
Gerard:
: … or the other way, to take a second chance or be reborn. I like to think that he has a second chance on life.

Wortraub: … but a second chance doesn’t necessarily have to mean life. It could be consolation with death and then going on to what is next.
Gerard:
: Right. It depends on people’s view on what happens when you die. If there is a heaven or not. If you are hoping there is …

Wortraub: This is actually something I wanted to know from you. What is it that you believe happens after we die?
Gerard:
: I would definitely like to believe that when you die there is something else. It is a hard subject though, because there is a part of me that says: “Well, what’s the point of all of this then? Why do we even exist?” But another part of me says: “The point is to be here and do something special. You got to be the best person you can.” That’s the way I like to think of it. I hope there is something.

Wortraub: Why did you choose such a hard topic like death for a concept album?
Gerard:
: What made us tackle such a large topic is having lived through the hard years of having to grow up too fast because we are still not even thirty yet and had so many hard lessons to learn. It makes you really sad with your life, makes you question why you are here. Especially as an artist. Why are we here, this band? We were asking ourselves what good are we doing?

Wortraub: On your DVD is a biography which shows you growing up out of a phase of self-destruction, which seemed pretty intense. How close to “over the edge” where you?
Gerard:
: Pretty close. Not to be overdramatic but I was thinking about suicide, I was thinking about death. But that was what woke me up. I had to stop the addiction. Luckily it wasn’t that powerful and I beat it. But it got real bad before, the pressure we were under, all of a sudden the band was really big and I was really close to the edge. I actually hit the edge I think. When you are thinking about taking a trip to Japan and not coming back, so you actually don’t pack anything.

Wortraub: So you have been dealing with death before, just in this case it is dealing with it musically and lyrically …
Gerard:
: Yeah, this one is about facing it. This one is about the truth. It is funny that a record that is so layered, has so much production and has so many costumes and faces and masks that we wear, is the most truth that we have ever done. It is almost like putting the masks and the uniforms is easier to face the truth.

Wortraub: Is there also a downside to changing into an alter ego?
Gerard:
: I think the downside is the risk to be heavy handed with it. You don’t want it to be just a gimmick. You have to be very cautious. If you want an alter ego, it should simply serve a purpose and not be contrived. For example we did not want to go around giving interviews in this alter ego. That is contrived even though it might be fun for the future.

Wortraub: What about the risk of losing yourself?
Gerard:
: Yeah, I think there is that too if you are not careful. I think Bowie has for example ridden a fine line, a perfect balancing act. But you can minimize that risk if you go into it very consciously.

Wortraub: You also stated that you wanted to physically change to “the patient” in order to become that alter ego that is why you dyed your hair blonde. How does it feel to be the patient?
Gerard:
: It feels very intense. I saw myself as a member of The Black Parade but when I did the vocals I really wanted to channel that character because that character speaks a lot. There is other characters speaking like death incarnate or Mother War, there are all those kinds of characters talking, a doctor, a nurse … but I wanted to be closer to the main character and I looked strange then anyway because I had become so consumed with the record, I only slept like three hours a night for about two months. I had become so ill looking anyway, that cropping and dyeing the hair was just the last piece of it.

Wortraub: Well, I have to ask about some tags that have been placed on you … with “Three Cheers” you have been emotional, been tagged as “emo”, but with this you have gone even farther. This record is melodramatic, emotion overdose … why?
Gerard:
: We wanted to cross a border and shatter the tags. The funny thing about them is that we were not only never part of those scenes but it was also a detriment to us because we would never get booked on shows. We were considered one of the foremost emo bands of the world but nobody wanted to book us because of that. So we had to fight, sleep on floors and grab any show we could because we did not wear blue jeans, wear band t-shirts and had moppy brown hair. To get that tag is so absurd. But coming back to your question: we needed to be melodramatic in the best way, over dramatic. Best way in terms of theatre that is what we wanted to do. Self-expression. Over the top in the best possible way. This record is totally over the top and could be totally classified as melodramatic. I love that tag. Melodramatic is an ultimate form of self-expression. Putting your hands to your head going “ooohh” *makes the theatrical gesture of a woman fainting*. I love that drama, it is amazing. That is what attracted us to that record. It is so drama, so intense. This record is so intense, it light up our fire. It is about getting reactions. In these days where everything is the same any reaction is good.

Wortraub: Lastely, something you must get in every interview because it has been leaked before: You have Liza Minelli sing on the record?
Gerard:
: I am a huge fan because she is my grand-mothers favourite performer. Also, the record is very burlesque and cabaret. And she is the source, if you break it down, who is more Cabaret than Liza Minelli because she was in the film. So she personified that idea, she was Cabaret, Berlin, Kurz Weil and everything. And I had pictured The Black Parade as being from Berlin, in my head. I remembered this from the film. That’s what I did with all the influences. I did not listen to “A Night At The Opera” or “The Wall” while writing, I remembered it. I also remembered the movie. So I went right to the source and asked Liza to sing. She received “Three Cheers” from us, listened to it, loved it and said “I’ll do it”. We were recording it live via sound board, we were in L.A., she was in N.Y.. Picture Liza Minelli and then crank it up several notches. She was amazing, funny, charming, great sense of humor about herself. She called us out on a lot of shit. She said: “Gerard, you think you are really angry, but you are not. You are just cute and a little scared but you are not angry.” She called me out, you are just playing scary but you are not. She lived through a lot, and that was what made the choice. We needed a survivor.