The PV Q&A: Gerard Way On Substance Abuse — “Drugs And Alcohol Were Part Of A Larger Learning Process For Me...And Thankfully, That Lesson Didn’t Kill Me”

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By Tom Lanham

By the time My Chemical Romance released what would be their final studio album in 2010, Danger Days: The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys, all the creative joy of their bandleader Gerard Way had somehow been killed in the process. By 2013, the Eisner-Award winning author of The Umbrella Academy had relapsed into alcoholism and depression, and — to save himself, and his family life with wife Lyn-Z and baby daughter Bandit — he broke up MCR after 12 years, tapped into the Britpop and shoegaze outfits he enjoyed back in art school, and flew solo with his angular, guitar-centered new solo set, Hesitant Alien. At 37, Way sounds positively reinvigorated on the marching “Bureau,” a jackhammered “Millions,” the Phil Spector-plush “Drugstore Perfume” and “Action Cat,” which combines a Joy Division-heavy bass line with handclap percussion and a veritable wall of riffs. At one point, he thought he would have to move the clan far away from its native Los Angeles to achieve clarity and sobriety. “But now I’m super-glad we didn’t — I’m really glad we stuck it out,” he says.  

Purevolume: Didn’t someone pounce on the film rights to The Umbrella Academy?
Gerard Way: Yeah, they did. It was funny, too, because it was one of these things where there was a buzz about the rights, but it was like clockwork. Me and Gabriel Ba won the Eisner for it, and I think the rights were acquired the week after by Universal through a deal with (comics publisher) Dark Horse. And it’s just like anything else — it just went through a lot of development and made its way through all that, and I think they just let go of their option. So it’s a free agent again.
PV: Your song “Bureau” feels like it’s about cold-blooded showbiz.
GW: Yeah. It is. It’s about Hollywood, it’s about the music business, it’s about the film business, the business in general. I almost called the song “The Business.” But that reminded me too much of that band I like. So I called it the “Bureau.” And there are a lot of really dangerous pitfalls to an artist — you can make commercial activity work well with what you’re doing, but you have to be very cautious about how far you go. If the one thing you’re good at is making stuff, you really need to stick to that. And if somebody is going to produce something based off your work, that’s really cool. But that should never be the end result. I learned that. And thankfully, I learned it really quick.
PV: What other lessons has the industry taught you?
GW: I don’t know how valid this is, but I kind of feel like what I learned is, if you’re making something really pure, and you’re making something you really believe in, it’s almost always going to work. It’s when you get into this stage of trying to anticipate what’s going to work, or creating work that you believe is expected of you, that it doesn’t work. And I think I learned that for sure from being in the business. I also learned that everybody kind of gets their moment to be doing stuff like playing the VMAs and all that stuff. But a lot of artists still exist without that. In big ways. [MCR] had fallen off the American radar, but we were still doing things at the end of the band like closing Reading and Leeds for 70,000 people. But you can kind of fall out with what’s hot, or the public eye, and still be extremely relevant. Because when you’re in it, you always think “Oh, this is it — when this goes away, relevance goes with it.” But then you realize that No, if you keep making the stuff you believe in, you’ll always stay relevant. The more you take your work seriously — the more you treat it like an actual craft, which it is — well, when you treat it with respect, then it respects you back.
PV: There’s also an old adage that says "If you step off into the universe, the universe will reward you."
GW: Yeah! And it does! Especially if you put stuff out there, if you keep that cycle going. If you have stuff to say and you have an artistic side, you put it out. Don’t hoard it. Don’t wait for the right moment. Just put it out. And also just put stuff out into the universe. Like, I remember when I really wanted to win an Eisner, I put that out there. I didn’t say it to anybody, but I was really very open to receive something like that, just to receive that kind of energy. And so I put that energy out there, and by some crazy, cosmic twist, Gabriel and I did it — we won an Eisner for that book. So I think you just have to put that positive energy out there.

PV: Well, you also went to the edge of the abyss, almost tumbled in. Which, historically, is often simply part of the creative mindset.
GW: For me, it’s a little different. For me, drugs and alcohol were part of a learning process. And actually, one of the healthier things I did for myself, personally, was, I was able to separate substances from art. And I was able to realize that those two aren’t as exclusive as I used to think. So drugs and alcohol were part of a larger learning process for me, as a human being. And thankfully, that lesson didn’t kill me, like it does a lot of other people. So I was lucky to make it out of that life lesson. So I think it’s part of that journey. I used it on my journey as an artist, but I don’t know that it was really a part of it, or a part that needed to be there.
PV: Without getting ghoulish, what was your final wake-up call?
GW: It was something really simple. I’m a person who’s naturally imbalanced and prone to these periods of severe depression, and these periods of this intense kind of mania. So that’s just a natural imbalance that I have going on. And drugs just made it worse. So I was already in a dark place. But then I had a night where I was up ‘til…well, I don’t think I slept. I was just on drugs all night. And I felt like the lowest I could possibly ever imagine, emotionally, and I felt kind of dark. And I was like “This is it. I’ve got to stop.” So it wasn’t a violent wake-up call, thankfully. It was very soft.
PV: But still, you have to be congratulated on just daring to execute such grand, theatrical concept albums as The Black Parade and The Killjoys.
GW: And they were super fun to do, even when they were really hard. It was always fun to make a broad gesture, and you’ve got to figure out what your battles are and how you’re going to make that gesture. Like this time, for example, there was no high concept. There were no real costumes, there’s no story, there’s nothing like that. So I had to tell the story sonically, and I had to make sure the instruments on the record were telling the story. And that was where the high concept was — it was all in the sonics. So that’s how I approached this one.
PV: You’ve said that Blur and other Britpop bands were a heavy influence. But I hear a lot of Smashing Pumpkins.
GW: For sure. And that’s probably from the fuzz. One of the main fuzz pedals I used on the whole record was this Russian SovTek Big Muff, which is the pedal that came out at the time when the Pumpkins were using the vintage one. So it sounds different than the vintage one, but that’s the pedal. And there’s a ton of fuzz on Siamese Dream. And the whole concept of Mellon Collie, too — that had a pretty big impact on me, visually. And that was such a fun time in music, I think. The Pumpkins were at this point where it was just amazing to watch, and to be a part — and a fan — of.
PV: There’s a song on Alien called “Maya the Psychic.” Have you ever consulted a psychic?
GW: No, I haven’t. That song is a little bit about mental illness. It’s kind of about hearing voices, more than anything. You could be mentally unstable enough to hit a point where you’re hearing these phantom sounds and phantom voices, and I had gotten to that point. So while part of my mental recovery was happening, it made me think of psychics, and it made me put a character into that. But it also has a bit of Los Angeles to it, because there are psychics everywhere here and people kind of hinge their whole lives on them. Like “Am I gonna make it? Am I gonna make it big? What’s my life gonna be like? Am I gonna be famous?” Sadly, that culture really exists out here….

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