My Chemical Romance

Tackling something as creatively perilous as a concept album requires a near-spiritual belief in one’s artistic self worth, because the beguiling and cruel mirror that is rock music more often than not devours grandeur and reflects it back as buffoonery. Even worse, you know your little epic is going to be compared to the masterworks of the genre, such as Tommy, The Wall, and Sgt. Pepper. And the real killer is that no matter how much you pontificate, and no matter how much the press darlings blow kisses all over your genius, it’s ultimately the timeless quality of the songs in the song cycle that resonates—lest you end up with something like Styx’s Kilroy Was Here or Jefferson Starship’s Blows Against the Empire, rather than your version of “It was 20 years ago today…”

The latest act to brave the concept-album minefield is My Chemical Romance, whose The Black Parade [Reprise] offers an impassioned—albeit somewhat naïve—chronicle of death, rage, and alienation. MCR’s Frank Iero and Ray Toro were challenged with constructing parts that matched the scope of the project, and they did it with pretty much one guitar each (a Epiphone SG-400 for Iero and a ’91 Gibson Les Paul for Toro), and very few effects.

The Black Parade isn’t simply a collection of rock songs—you had to portray an emotional landscape. So how did you even start?
Toro: Well, we knew going in that we wanted the record to be very symphonic, with strictly arranged and very layered guitars. So rather than just play barre chords, we’d often play interlocking single-note lines and then arrange the guitar parts as you’d arrange strings for an orchestra. We felt the grand scale of the concept kind of “allowed” that approach.

Iero: Ray and I typically develop musical concepts around our childhood experiences—which helped us deal with the demands of the lyrics. For example, on the bridge of “This Is How I Disappear,” Ray’s high lines and my chord progression with moving bass notes were based on a music box my mom gave me when I was a kid. What we played wasn’t the actual music box melody, but the parts made me feel the same way as I did when I listened to it back then. All the parts on the record were composed around how things made us feel. Another example is “Sleep.” Certain parts on that song pay homage to these haunting melodies we heard during the end credits of the Dune movie, which were performed by Toto. We get ideas from everywhere. Nothing is too weird for us.

How do you avoid the trap of cloning the music that inspires you?
Iero: That’s where the feel factor comes in. You don’t envision something, and then copy the exact part and emulate the tone. You interpret the way a part makes you feel—or you steal one tiny technique from it, like a bend or trill—and incorporate it into your song. Sometimes, the vibe will be so different that no one will know what inspired the part. Other times, someone will feel the same thing you did, and they’ll zero in on the exact part that inspired you.

How did you approach the album’s massive guitar layers?

Toro: For main rhythm parts, I’m not a fan of mids and high end. I like my tone darker and a little thicker, and I like to shoot for a roomy, Brian May-like sound. For the overdubs, we typically used the same guitar and amp setup. The main part would be more overdriven and saturated, and then we’d pull back on the gain a bit to give the harmonies a little more clarity. Unless a certain part demands a different guitar, I’ll stick with my Les Paul. For me, it’s more important to have a guitar that I’m comfortable with, because there are always things you can do with amp settings and console EQ.

What inspired the orchestral arrangements?
Toro: I’m a big fan of symphonic music—and how voices and strings can be arranged—and I love listening to classical guitarists. When I first heard Segovia and Bream, I was shocked at how they’d take this music that was written for 40 instruments, and distill it down to one 6-string guitar. They’re doing so much—hitting the roots, the bass lines, the middle melodies, and the high melodies. It’s mesmerizing. So I brought aspects of what those guys do into this band.

The Black Parade isn’t as tightly scripted as, say, Tommy. How did that affect your interpretation of the material?
The funny thing is that the songs often tell you what they want to be, and we didn’t think it would be fair to prevent them from going where they wanted. Therefore, if a song strayed from the concept a bit, then we’d simply evolve the concept. To us, that was the most organic way to deal with the material. And, as a result, the story takes you on a journey, and it grows on its own.