EQ Interview Extras: My Chemical Romance
By Ken Micallef
The January 2011 issue of EQ profiles My Chemical Romance’s Danger Days: The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys. Here, bandmates Gerard Way and Ray Toro and producer Rob Cavallo expand on their recording sessions and their collaboration methods.
What was happening in your personal life during the recording sessions for Danger Days??
Me and Lindsey [Way’s wife, artist Lindsey Ann Ballato] had a child; we went through this odyssey. We weren’t [being] fearless. I told her, “I haven’t made this special thing,” and she really encouraged me to realize that I was an artist. She said, “You’re an art kid, in a rock band, but you’re an artist; that is what you do. You were making a record like a guy in a rock band, and that is not you.” That signified the change, and I then got fearless. I wanted to make this crazy song with drums and nonsense digital sounds. I wanted it to be a poisonous album, I want it to contaminate things. I want the album to have this infiltration quality, this neurotoxin quality. All the noises, all the digital sounds, I wanted it to feel like a feel like a fun disease, like a drug. And it was my rebellion against 30-something rock culture. This rocks way harder; it captured the spirit of everything we wanted to do the first time but hadn’t achieved.
How do you like to track vocals?
Usually I have the lyrics all written out. Doug and I work so rapidly together, and Rob sits in the back and listens. Doug and I watch each other via camera. We have a system: We do a few passes to get warmed up, but if it hits right away, we do it, then we double it, then we do the chorus, then we double that, do harmonies. Double, double, double. We only punch in the overlaps. It’s us going straight through, and we keep building and building, but I know exactly what I want to do when I am in there. So I might say “stop,” and do a weird harmony on one word. Constantly building. I like getting used to the situation; I don’t dictate anything. It’s why I like performing live and why I think I am really good at it. I look at the room and learn the room, what it feels like to be in the booth. I learn the mic and how it feels to use it. I usually start with a ton of reverb on my vocals, but slowly, the more comfortable I become, it gets completely dry. That helps me to feel like it’s live. When I am singing, I have a ton of room and reverb in my ears, too, because traditionally when doing shows, I am just hearing the room and it’s bouncing off the walls. I am so accustomed to that live sound so I want to feel like I am in a theater in the studio. I have to be inspired; then I am done. And we always cut vocals at night, like it’s show time. Never before nine at night. In the day, I drink coffee and chat, tweak and fix things, and play with new sounds. At night, we are ready—that’s creation time, then we get cooking and we are done around 2 am.
You have a home studio for preproduction?
Yes, I’ve got a little computer setup, a MacBook Pro, Apogee Duet, and Garage Band or Logic or Pro Tools, depending on the application for demos of solos and certain guitar parts. Sometimes I come up with something on the spot, other times I do a lot of homework. Often I will track parts at home and bring it into the studio to flesh everything out. We wrote the whole record in the studio this time, so I had to be ready. The “Scarecrow” solo I worked out at home, and brought it into the studio, but mostly on Danger Days, it’s off the cuff. It’s challenging, it’s like always being on call. We always had to be up and ready to go, sometimes working until 5 am. I had to be on top of my game.
What were some of the amps and guitars you used?
For basic tone, I used a Plexi that Cavallo modded to one channel, with an extra gain stage for more gain and saturation. And a white Marshall JCM 800. And another amp, a Vox VBM1 Brian May Special. It’s so good. I used it for solo tones like on “Vampire Money.” The whole song is made up of that sound. Plugged the amp direct to board. The VBM1 is super aggressive, saturated distortion, nice harmonic feedback. We floated around those three different amps. Some pedals, like the Electro Harmonix Pog, that adds lower plus higher octaves; my solo work involved me stacking octaves to emulate a symphonic feel. Those four pieces of gear were crucial. We miked cabs; the great thing about Cavallo and McKean is that they have everything dialed in. As soon as they hear the song, they are adjusting mics and preamps and making it happen. We are there to play, and they are creating the environment for us to play our best. There is no one better than Rob Cavallo and Doug McKean for doing that.
For guitars, I used a Jimmy Page Les Paul—great guitar, classic Gibson Les Paul sound. My style of playing is meat-and-potatoes chunk rhythm guitar, then usually on the leads, I mix it up. On “Summertime,” I got this nice shimmery, jangly clean tone on a Jerry Jones Danelectro. It’s got the lipstick pickups, a beautiful guitar; that guitar had the craziest amount of cut. We used that on every song on the album for certain spots as it has a certain sound.
How do you like to work in the studio?
The first take always has to be great. I am not a fan of doing a lot of punches or overdubs. When I do my first run through, I like it really loud; I like to stand up when playing, and I like to feel like I am playing a live show. In the studio, we have the speakers cranked and head banging. That helps me play better, and it’s usually how I like to track. I like to do as much as possible in one take, then do fixes. Then the layering comes in; I love doing that. Brian May was a master at layering little pieces of guitar. It created a beautiful symphonic sound. I do that on “Bulletproof Heart”—the leads near the end of the song—and “Scarecrow,” the solo section is very layered. I love experimenting and creating these soundscapes in the studio. So I like to work as loud as the engineer can handle.
It sounds live.
As much as we can, we like to get that first raw take. We never do multiple takes. If you’re not hitting the song within four takes, there is something wrong with the song or the tempo. We also create tempo maps. Songs have all these little fluctuations, some choruses have a 2-BPM bump up from the verse. Once the map is done, we’re off to the races. We like to capture the energy of all of us playing together. We will use demos in the final mix.
On “Sing,” it began with a drum loop; that was all we had. Then Gerard found a chorus, and he and Rob worked a couple hours on a chord progression. Once we had that, I knew what to do next. We started layering guitars on top of that. “Scarecrow” started out with the opening looped piece of guitar hitting a D chord, then we added the drums and progressed from there. Normally we write in preproduction and play live together in the rehearsal room, but this record was cool because we had a mix of writing live and then writing section by section. It didn’t limit our creativity. We had everything at our disposal.
We used a couple tunes off the Brendan [O'Brien] record, but they sound totally different. We started from scratch. It was amazing journey. We’d talk a lot. Then we pick up the guitars. Then we talk, then we pick up the guitars. Then we talk some more. Then Gerard writes lyrics and melodies. I got to play some piano.
You were a co-songwriter to a degree?
I do and I don’t. I don’t take any songwriting credit. But they let me throw in a couple chords here and there. Like on Black Parade, I played a lot piano. Gerard gets an idea, we discuss an overview of what we are trying to accomplish. Then Ray or Frankie will come up with a riff, or Gerard will have a song in his head that he communicates to us then they play it.
What did you all talk about it?
Gerard said he wanted to make music with synthesizers, or dance beats that didn’t come from drums, that it is all drums, a live drummer with some machines. The concept was to make something new and colorful and something that was not you’d heard before.
So your job is to push them to get there.
Like I said, we talked a lot. On the 12 or 13 songs on Danger Days, but I think that in terms of what happened once they were in the studio with me, there was left on the cutting room floor another 20 or so song starts. Songs that we started to track. We would come in and just do it. We tracked over a four-month period.
Was there a concept for the album?
It’s inspired by Gerard’s unpublished graphic novel of the same name. The first two videos are where that graphic novel comes to life. In the first video, “Na Na Na,’ you get introduced to all the characters, the little girl, the evil guy, and you see the laser gun battles. Then the second video, that’s the second installment of that story, based off Gerard’s graphic novel. It’s uplifting and colorful, but you know those signs you see in the video, “Would you destroy something perfect to create beauty?” It’s the idea that chaos creates true beauty. Is it uplifting? Yes, but from the negative. When you see the videos, My Chemical Romance are the bad guys. They are trying to do something good, but they are really the bad guys.