There's something strange about Gerard Way up there in the spotlight, something new. It's not just that the My Chemical Romance frontman has traded his usual elaborately layered stage outfits for snug black jeans and a shredded black T-shirt, revealing a torso that's gone from chubby to Bowie-in-Berlin gaunt. It's not just that he's dyed his once-dark chin-length hair a crazed-clown red – a look that Way, 33, also rocked in his pre-fame teenage years, inspired by Kurt Cobain and Wayne Coyne.
No, what's really odd – as My Chem power through new songs and old on Jimmy Kimmel Live's neon-studded outdoor stage on a brisk Hollywood night – is the jaunty, sexy thing Way is doing with his hips. It takes a few seconds to register, especially since he's singing one of his older, angrier songs, "I'm Not Okay (I Promise)": Is the 21st century's most theatrically mopey rock star, the guy who, not long ago, sang about being "the savior of the broken, the beaten and the damned," actually . . . dancing?
He is – and it's all part of the plan. "In my head, that's what I dreamed up," Way says the next day, his hazel eyes lighting up at the mention of the moment. "I wanted the songs to mean something new. I wanted to feel free, I wanted to dance." Appropriately, the songs on My Chem's synth-infused new album, Danger Days: The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys, are the first to which dancing – rather than, say, headbanging, or weeping in the darkness of your suburban bedroom while silently cursing your parents – is a possible response.
With its hyperactive drum machines and laser-gun keyboards, Danger Days is the first My Chem record to capture the trashy energy of the comic books and sci-fi that the unabashedly dorky band members love. (Living out every 13-year-old nerd's most preposterous fantasies, Way is both a rock hero and an award-winning comic-book creator, thanks to his whimsical Umbrella Academy series, soon to be a movie.) Says Way, "Me and the guys decided to hijack all this shit: We're going to hijack beats, we're going to hijack hip-hop, electronica, we're going to hijack pop and pop art and use it all as a big art weapon."
But the album's sunnier tone is a risk for My Chem, who became idols to Gen Y kids too young for indie and too smart and/or miserable for Disneyfied pop thanks to the punchy, anthemic goth-punk metal of 2004's Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge and the doomy, Queen-meets-Floyd grandiosity of 2006's The Black Parade.
As they recorded, the album's producer, Rob Cavallo (who worked on Green Day's American Idiot as well as The Black Parade), took to comparing the shift to the leap U2 made with Achtung Baby. Says Way, "He was like, 'Up to that point, all you saw was dark and introspective U2, but then you got a band that wanted to have fun and also say something.'"
Adds Cavallo, "We actually said, 'Modern rock is dying or dead, so we're going to do something to make it new again.'" The idea was to imagine what My Chemical Romance – or indeed, rock itself – might sound like in 2019, and then hop forward. To muster the requisite 1.21 gigawatts, all it took was advice from a comic-book genius, a diet, four marriages, a baby or two – and an entire abandoned album.
One morning last January, Way stood outside a secluded bungalow deep in the California desert, not far from Joshua Tree, and began to sing into his iPhone. After a long night's discussion with his wife, Lindsey (an artist and bassist for industrial-punk act Mindless Self Indulgence), he had finally decided on the concept for his new record: It would be set in the desert and draw from a comic-book idea he'd been toying with about post-apocalyptic superheroes. "My brain was kind of exploding," he recalls, "and I was like, 'I see the desert, I see a motorcycle doing doughnuts, I see crash helmets, I want guys firing ray guns.'" He also had an idea for a "theme song" for the heroes, inspired by a riff My Chem guitarists Frank Iero and Ray Toro had presented to him the previous year: "I thought, 'It needs to sound like the most violent Saturday-morning-cartoon theme song ever.'"
The song came to him more or less whole, and he sang as much as he could remember into a recorder app in his iPhone, which he finds more "immediate" than firing up GarageBand. Ten months later, Way stands in the pleasantly messy study of his northeast L.A. house, playing the file back through the phone's tiny speaker. Sure enough, it's a nearly complete version of the willfully obnoxious "Na Na Na (Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na)," which became Danger Days' first single and defining song. It's not a song particularly suited to a cappella performance, but, as Way says, "I never have a guitar around when I need one."
There are a couple of guitars in Way's study – a Martin acoustic and a sparkly Squier Super-Sonic, cheap but stylish. The room is a fortress of adolescence in what is otherwise a fairly grown-up house: There's a Porsche 911 Carrera in the garage, surreal paintings on the living-room walls, Way's 19-month-old daughter Bandit's toys stacked neatly in plastic cases. But in the study, a Boba Fett helmet sits on the desk, near a tiny R2-D2, while the bookshelves are packed with vintage Dungeons and Dragons manuals, comic-book anthologies, rock books (a Lou Reed lyrics compilation, a Nick Cave biography), William Gibson novels and some of the heavier literature Way intends to finish someday, including Moby Dick. (The copy of Girl, Interrupted is Lindsey's.) On the floor is the oversize mouse mask Way wears in the hyperkinetic "Na Na Na" video.
Way pauses midsentence when he hears a tiny voice say, "Hiiiii." Bandit is home, and running frantically through the house in a plaid jumper that makes her look like the world's tiniest grunge revivalist. "Dada," she says, smiling. Way dashes over to her, looking ecstatic.
His daughter has no idea yet what he does for a living. "She has a sense that I bring a lot of costumes home and a lot of big heads and a lot of big bright toy ray guns," says Way. "One of my favorite things to do is, in the morning, watch her and Lindsey just color. She's so young, I still think she just thinks I'm a roommate."
Way married Lindsey (who performs as Lyn-Z) on the final date of the 2007 Projekt Revolution Tour – after a courtship that lasted all of three weeks. Bandit, a happy surprise, followed in May 2009. "We could see genuine happiness that we hadn't seen in him for a long time," says Toro, who, along with all his bandmates, also got married in recent years. "I mean, yeah, it's fucking crazy. He told us, 'I'm fucking getting married today,' and we were like, 'All right!'"
"We make a part of each other come alive," says Way, who had broken off an unhappy engagement before he got together with Lindsey. "It's, like, when you're in your 20s, you're just getting used to the dating thing and you're hiding your comic books, but then you meet that person one day that you can show your comic books to. I think that's what we do for each other: We make it so we can take the guard down." He's sitting in their den, where a giant TV covers one wall, and original Umbrella Academy art hangs above Bandit's playpen.
As a pudgy preteen in working-class Belleville, New Jersey, Gerard Way would awe his little brother (and future My Chem bassist) Mikey – as well as various waitresses – by drawing elaborate sci-fi fantasias on diner place mats. "I don't know what it is," says Mikey. "He's got that thing: He sees it, and he can just do it. It's pretty wild." Practically from birth, Way was almost frighteningly overflowing with ideas – for songs, for movies, for comic books, for costumes – as if some vandal muse had permanently kicked the cap off his hydrant. At the moment, he's working on a pitch for a sci-fi TV show: "It's about the two greatest star-fighter pilots in the galaxy – who mirror the lives of Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls," he says excitedly. "That's the only thing I'm going to use to sell the show."
Last year, however, Way's imagination failed him. He found himself having trouble writing lyrics while working on a set of songs that ultimately left him cold. My Chemical Romance recorded an entire album with producer Brendan O'Brien, and the concept was to have no concept: just straight, Stooges-influenced hard rock. At the time, it seemed like the right idea – a move toward a more adult style.
Way was feeling ill at ease with the style that had defined My Chem – which he started to see less as an aesthetic than as a prison. "With Revenge, we set this tone of dark, tortured Gothic imagery, because at the time, I genuinely was angry, tortured, pissed off at God, and the list goes on. I was raised Catholic, so it's like a checklist. I had every angsty thing you could have. I was in my 20s, but basically reacting to the world as a 16-year-old, which is kind of nuts."
His friend Grant Morrison – an acclaimed comic-book writer blessed with a similarly uninhibited imagination – was among the first to tell him that the O'Brien album felt like a creative retreat. "He was putting so much of himself into the Killjoys comic-book project he was working on, and I thought, 'That's the energy you need in the record.' I just said, 'Do the Killjoys! Make that part of the record!' To me, the coolest, shiniest, sexiest, darkest, scariest thing you can be is pop." Way ultimately cast Morrison as the villain in a series of Killjoys music videos, and they're planning a video game connected to the plot.
But it was Lindsey, during the couple's trip to the desert, who finally got through to Way. "I had to end up in artistic paralysis to realize I was an artist," he says. "Lindsey goes, 'You have all the time in the world to get old.' It was like saying to myself, 'Don't go down without a fight, don't be the boring thirtysomething rock band that everybody wants you to be.'" So they scrapped the O'Brien record and started over, reusing (though rerecording) just three of the original songs.
Part of Way's liberation from the past is the fact that he's walking lighter these days, literally. A strict diet has brought the five-foot-ten singer down to 156 pounds, the lowest weight of his adult life. He had been as heavy as 198 pounds at points over the past decade. "It was about feeling freer and moving and being a little more fearless onstage, that's what this was about, so I just had to get in shape," he says. "I grew up with severe body issues, and then basically used our wardrobe to shield those body issues for the entirety of the band's career. It was, 'Let's see how much more we can keep covering and putting this body in a prison, because you feel bad about yourself.'"
In the end, Way did write one song about growing up for Danger Days: a wistful, Smashing Pumpkins-esque ballad called "The Kids From Yesterday." It's My Chem's prettiest tune. "It was the last song written for the record," says Way. "When we finished it, I felt so complete, because to me, it's about accepting, 'Oh, I did grow up, I just did it the way I wanted to.' I did it on my terms, and I felt great about it."
At the moment, Way is wearing a gray sweater over his black jeans, tucked into quilted leather boots that look oddly familiar. On his wrist is a TAG Heuer Monaco watch. "It's the first nice watch I ever bought," he says. "I've never had a nice watch. I never had a nice car, anything like that. I didn't buy into that. But I got to the point where I said, 'You know, I just want a nice watch.'" He looks down at his feet and smiles. "And Han Solo boots. That's a dream attained, to be able to dress like Han Solo for a living."
This story is from the December 23rd, 2010 issue of Rolling Stone.