, guitarist for My Chemical Romance, is justifiably proud of the band's newest album, The Black Parade
. When you hear it, strains of Queen and The Beatles come floating out of the speakers, big and thick orchestrated guitar lines and dominant vocal melodies hovering over a big bed of bass and drums.
What you don't realize when you hear the songs, when you hear the single, Famous Last Words
, is just how much work goes into making these songs sound that way. What sounds like a simple little guitar lick could be a dozen overdubs in various neck positions augmented by a guitar synth and maybe even a keyboard. Sounding simple isn't simple.
talks about some of those songs and how he created the sounds.
Ultimate-Guitar: Did you know going into the studio that you wanted to make a big record with a strong guitar sound? An epic record to be compared to the likes of Queen and The Beatles?
We had done a lot of writing on the road a year before we went into the studio. A lot of the stuff that came out was stuff that sounded very similar to (Three Cheers For Sweet) Revenge or sounded a lot like what could be the follow-up to Revenge. So we finished up that year in Australia, I think, around December. We took a couple of weeks off, we came back, and when we started writing again one of the first pieces that got brought to the band was something that Gerard was working on. It was the intro to the record, the song The End. It just started out as some strummed chords and it was very reminiscent of Five Years. We were like, Fuck, wouldn't it be great if like In The Flesh drums come just crashing in, and the chord progression becomes like that single-note riff and very brooding and very large.
So we did that in the studio and it just felt fucking awesome.
We connected that intro to the song Dead that we had written the year before. It just felt really great, just like the transition from the intro into a really fast, punk-beat song. It just felt really awesome. We were like, Fuck, this feels really, really special.
It felt much bigger than anything else that we had ever written. The End into Dead kind of set the bar for the rest of the record. I think that's when we were like, You know what? The rest of the songs have to live up to this in size and feel.
We just kind of went from there.
That's kind of where we first started talking about writing a concept record, but really it was always about the songs first. The songs, I guess, kind of told us what the record wanted to be. But I think by that point, after The End and Dead got written, we were like, We want to try to go left of field. We want to try something a little different than what we've done in the past.
So that's how that started.
Did it inspire you to check out new guitar rigs or sounds? Was there a feeling that you had to come to the studio with new and more panoramic guitar sounds?
For us, we met with Rob Cavallo in New York. He just came to the practice studio and we hit it off with him right away, just talking about music, talking about guitars and some of our favorite sounds from some of our favorite records. We hit it off just right away. What kind of drew us to him was not only his knowledge of guitar and sound - he's got this huge, huge collection of great vintage amps and tons of great guitars. But there was just like an attitude that he had that was very similar to us. He just loved making music for the sake of music. We knew that we would get a lot if we went with him. What we got was a stable of guitars and amps and just years and years of recording know-how. We just had this guy that we could trust.
Me and Frank, at least, we're not the biggest tech heads. We're not too heavily into gear. We're kind of very just plug into an amp and play. At that point, we needed someone to kind of guide us, I guess, a little bit in experimenting with different sounds and different amps and things like that. Rob was the perfect person to kind of get our feet wet.
When the band first started, we were at that point where we could only buy and play what we could afford. What we could afford was pretty much nothing. I remember the first cabinet that I ever had was this Laney 4 x 12 that by any standards is a piece of garbage. You wouldn't even want to power your car stereo with it. It was what we had to us, and that's pretty much what I had been using. I didn't have the knowledge, I guess, and just the resources to experiment with different gear setups and stuff. On this record, we got to play a lot with different toys and just different things to kind of create some different sounds.
Had Rob not done the Green Day record, would you still have been attracted to his producing skills?
It was kind of funny. I think it's more if we hadn't toured with Green Day. When we toured with Green Day, they knew that we were heading in to going in to make the next record. I know they were doing a lot of behind-the-scenes kind of talking to him and also talking to us. And I guess, unbeknownst to each other, the guys from Green Day were like, You guys would love Rob. You guys should work with him. I think he would make a great record with you guys.
To Rob, behind the scenes, they were like, You've got to work with My Chem. They're a great band.
So they were kind of almost likeYou know when you want to set up a friend of yours with a girl? They're kind of talking behind their backs and kind of dropping little hints. That's kind of how that came about. I guess someone of Rob's caliber, I guess we never thought we could even work with him. So I think that's why he never came up.
When you look at his body of work, he's done so many great records. What's great about him is he's got a really wide range from working on soundtracks to like Disney movies with Phil Collins, to having recorded with Fleetwood Mac to having recorded with Jawbreaker, with Green Day. He's just got a really wide range of musical styles. It was like, Fuck! We could work with this guy? Let's do it!
Regarding American Idiot, I think what that kind of showed us was a punk rock record and a rock record can still be relevant today. It's still important and can still make a mark. If anything, that kind of gave us the courage, I guess, to break away from what we had done before and kind of try and bring some of the music to more of the roots of stuff that we used to listen to when we were younger. I think American Idiot set that up for us.
How would you describe the previous album musically? How did you intend to make The Black Parade different?
|"We had done a lot of writing on the road a year before we went into the studio."|
I think in Revenge you're hearing a band that necessarily didn't find its legs yet. It didn't find what it truly was. I think that there are flashes of that in songs like Helena and Not Okay and some of the other tracks. But I think it was our first record that we had written with Frank. At that point, he had been touring with us for a while but still kind of a new member. The way that me and him kind of played together was very different from the way we play together now.
Back then, we had such a small practice space and everything was so loud that you can't really hear somebody else's playing. You're only hearing what you can play. A lot of the guitar stuff on that record is very much him coming up with his own parts and me coming up with my own stuff, then us just laying them down. That's interesting how that works together, but never really figuring stuff out together. It was more he wrote his stuff, I wrote my stuff, and then we tracked it. For this record, we tried to concentrate more on working together on the guitar parts and making sure that if what I was playing had to be a little more simple or what he was playing had to be a little more simplified, then we would do it.
When we do the live show, we kind of split it up between The Black Parade set and My Chem songs(presumably is referring to the material from the Revenge album). On the My Chem songs, our fingers are moving all over the place. We're constantly playing, and sometimes to the point of overplaying. I think that's because we really couldn't hear what each other were doing. So I think this record, it's a lot more concentrated and it's a lot more focused with the music. I think we tried to orchestrate the guitars a little more and kind of make them work together, as opposed to us just playing whatever we wanted. I think that's kind of like one of the biggest differences between the previous record and this one.
Another thing, too, is our first record, we suffered from that writing thing, where you have like a million parts. When you're a young band, you hate the idea of choruses. You hate the idea of hooks. You just don't want to hear those words. So you try and cram in as many sections into one song as you can. On Revenge, working with Howard Benson, it was like, You know what? It's okay if certain parts come back.
We had gotten, I think, into a little bit of a rut actually. Some of the songs, they're your basic arrangements - verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus, out. On this record, we kind of had to unlearn what we learned on the last record. I think this record is very much more a mature band that feels a little more confident in their songwriting ability and in their playing as well. I think it's a much more mature My Chemical Romance.
On the opening track The End, you hear everything from acoustics to guitar synth. How did you orchestrate that?
So you have a single-note riff. When you have a really cool single-note riff like that, it kind of leaves it more open to orchestrating it. What we talked about doing was not only doubling the riffFrank kind of doubles the riff that I'm playing, but kind of plays like hanging single notes over it. He's kind of arpeggiating the chords while the riff goes through. In the studio we were like, Fuck it. Let's try playing every octave that we can on the guitar to see what that does, to widen that.
It's really interesting.
When you sit in front of the console, you're sitting in front of the speakers and you have your low G on the low E string and you're playing the riff there. Then you move it up a notch. Then you're playing the same riff on the B string. Then you move it up a notch and now you're playing it on the B string. Then you move it up one more octave and you're playing it on the high E. Then you move it one more octave. We use a slide, so we can get to the 24th or 28th fret on the guitar. You know, a fret that's not there. So we use the slide to get an even higher octave on the guitar. It's cool because as each octave got added, you're sitting in front of the console and sitting in front of the speakers. You can literally hear the sound and the scope of it widening. It's hard to explain, I guess. You can only hear it. I guess your field of sound was kind of concentrated when it was a single note. Then as you added the octave, it would spread farther and farther. It sounded like an orchestra.
On top of that, we also doubled the riff with really, really low piano. That did the same thing, where it just made it even wider and wider. I think it was Rob's idea. I guess he was just driving one night and he was listening to it on his stereo, the demos. He was like, I want to try and really widen this and make this as big as possible.
That's what we did. That's kind of how that track came together. Like I said, it's a complete tribute to In The Flesh. The Wall is one of our favorite records. It's a record that we kept listening to and tossing around. We watched the movie tons of times when we were making the record. So that's kind of our homage to that. It's such a great, great opening that we wanted to kind of pay homage to that. A lot what the End
is directly comes from In The Flesh because it's such a great way to kick off a record.
Is there a guitar synth on there? If so, whose idea was it to bring that in?
There's no guitar synth on that song. There are B3 organs in the back, but there's no guitar synth on that. We used the guitar synth on the track Disappear and Mama. There are certain sections, where you have big, single-note riffs. Because of what we did on The End, instead of stacking the octaves higher, we decided that we went the other way. We played around a lot with this guitar synth - I think it's like a Roland GS1. I can't remember the exact model number. You plug in a MIDI guitar to it. It has a MIDI out and you can plug it in to a MIDI guitar. You have access to all these cool sounds, and one of them that we found was like a subsonic sound. It's almost like the sound that you can't hear, but you more feel. Like when it's mixed into the track, you can feel it. We ended up using that on the slow riffs on Disappear and Mama to give it this really, really cool, low, rumbling bottom that you couldn't really get from anything else. So we used that a little bit.
There's just this one part, I also playedIt sounds like horns on the verses of Mama, which we used the GS1 for. That was really cool. There are a lot of cool effects on there that you can play around with. It was definitely something that we were, in the future, looking to use even more. There are just a lot of really cool things you can do with that.
Are you playing the acoustic on The End?
Yeah. On the record, it's actually the Martin that Billie Joe used to record Time Of Your Life with. Rob's had it for like the longest time, and it's a really, really, really nice-sounding guitar. It's just really full. It's almost like what you would wish an acoustic guitar would sound like. It was definitely a pleasure to be able to play that guitar. That song Time Of Your Life was fucking such a great, great song by Green Day. I was kind of like, Whoa, I get to play this guitar.
Is that same guitar on Disenchanted?
Yeah, it is.
Is that a finger-pick part?
Yeah, the top, the intro. That's all finger-picked stuff.
Dead has the big staccato guitars and the big lead lick. Did you have a basic guitar-amp setup?
Yeah, the basic guitar setup for most of the record was what we used during the writing of it. I was using a Marshall 2000, a JCM 2000. It ended up going down before we started writing.
That must have been discouraging.
Yeah! It actually ended up working to my advantage. I guess there was this limited run of JCM 800s that I guess Guitar Center, they had bought up and they had sitting in a warehouse for the longest time. When people started asking about these 800s, they released a limited edition. I think it was like limited to 2, 000 or something, and Rob ended up getting one of those heads. It was fucking amazing. I would be like at 1 or 2, and everybody else would have to be like maxed out to 10. It was literally the loudest, most aggressive amp I have ever heard in my life.
We used it for the writing and I just fell in love with. We tried a couple different heads. We tried an Orange and a Hi Watt We were just like, Let's just use the sound that we used to write the record. It just seemed more natural. So we just ended up using that 800 into probably like a 1968 Marshall. That was pretty much the main rhythm sound for the record.
Did you ever come up with a sound that at first seemed perfect, but later on didn't quite work with the song?
Yeah. There are definitely times where it's a lot of guess work. A lot of times, the way your ear hears something is a lot different than it sounds on tape. So there's a lot of experimentation. Sometimes you have the right amp combo, but you don't have the right guitars. That happened with a lot of the lead sections, where you have your amp setup, but you just don't have the right guitars. You have to go through, maybe 3 or 4 guitars and track each one to see what it's doing inside the track. Not only do you have to get a great sound right off the bat, but you also have to get something that fits in well with the track.
One of the things that you learn is you don't want to overmix anything. You don't want to overcompensate for the fallacies of the tone when you're mixing. You want to get the best tone possible because this way you have more to work with. For example, if a tone that you have doesn't have a lot of high end or doesn't have the right mids, you don't want to make up for that in mixing. You want to have it there so you can even add on top of that. It's a lot of experimentation.
I know for the solo on I Don't Love You, we had the right amp combination. We were using a Fender Bassman with a Blues Driver pedal. But we went through a couple of different Fenders. I knew I wanted the Strat for that solo. We actually ended up using the Strat that Rob put in the P-90 in it. I've never heard a Strat with a P-90 in it before, but it was fucking awesome. It sounded great, so that's what we ended up using for that. But there were definitely times where you're like, Fuck, I've got this really great sound. Then you hear it in the track and you really can't discern any of it. That definitely does happen.
On the solo for I Don't Love You, there are almost Hendrix bends. Then it goes into slides and things. Because it's a ballad, did you run through different ideas in creating it?
|"I think this record is a lot more concentrated and it's a lot more focused with the music."|
For me, it all depends. I usually go on first instinct. It's just like when you're tracking in the studio, the first 1 or 2 or 3 times that you lay down a part is usually the best. That's when it's really coming from the inside. You're not overthinking it. Then when it gets past that, that's when the overthinking starts and you're not really playing from the heart. That's just how it works. For that song, I had been playing pretty much the same solos since when we first wrote the song. I just tried to go for something very simple and very tasteful.
For a song like that, we try to call upon Credence. Who Will Stop The Rain is probably the song that influenced that song the most. I just tried to think of something, I guess, they would play. Something really, really simple, really straight. Something that's not too many notes, just something very classic. That's what ends up coming out.
Like a song like Dead, I think was one where I went through a couple of different ideas for the solo section on that and I kind of pieced it together. Certain songs take a little more time, but other ones just come very naturally. The solo for Black Parade, that song used to be in a different key. That song went through a lot of different forms before it became what it is now. The song was in a very different key, but the thing that always stayed with it was the song was very based around that Canon in D kind of chord progression. It's very classic-sounding. It's basically you're following down the roots of a major scale and it's just this really great, grand chord progression. That never really changed. So I tried to base the solo around that and try to make it very melodic.
When we ended up tracking it, the key changed from D to A. Well, actually, from B to then G and then A. So I had to kind of transpose it. Then I found that some of the leads that worked in the key of D didn't necessarily work in the key of G. So I had to kind of re-approach what I was playing. That's kind of where a lot of the fun stuff comes. When you're done, you set up your M Box or whatever recording you have and you use your Garage Band. I love that shit. I love sitting in a room and staying up till like 2 or 3 in the morning, working out a part until you get it just right. This way, you can go into the studio the next day and just nail it.
On the solo for Black Parade, there's - I don't even know why - I think it was because it was like the last thing that got tracked. It was the last thing that I tracked. I think it was just I didn't want to get out of the studio, so I kept fucking it up and I couldn't hit it right. We just ended up using what I recorded in my hotel room. We just ended up using that and dumping it in for the recording. It's pretty funny. I've heard that a lot about a lot of bands, where there will be a really cheap demo of the song. Whether it's the playing of the parts or the singing, there's just an energy. There's just something about the quality of that demo recording they can never recapture in the studio. I've heard of a lot of bands using those demos or using parts from those demos to get it right. That happened with that song.
What kind of guitar are you playing on The Black Parade for the solo?
I have this Gibson Les Paul that I picked up in Toronto like an '86 or something. I used that for most of the record. That's kind of like my main live guitar as well.
The harmony guitar parts in The Black Parade bring to mind Brian May and Queen. Are you thinking along those lines when you're composing?
Yeah, absolutely. He's definitely like a big influence on those parts. What you do, is you go back and listen to some of the things he did. What's cool is he picks and chooses where harmonies will be, and he also chooses where a complementing part will be. You listen to a lot of his leads and they're not necessarilynot every single note is harmonized. Maybe he'll throw in the octave of one of his licks on one little section and that's it.
I also know Randy Rhoads did that on some of his solos, where you hear just the octave of something come in. Or like Tony Iommi did it a ton of times, where he'll have like 2 guitar solos that are completely different but end up working together. I kind of took a little bit of that from Brian May, where not everything has to be completely harmonized. Like on the solos for Black Parade, it's very heavily influenced by his work.
Are you playing the main parts and the harmonies?
I'll play the main lead and then add the harmony on top of it. It's always interesting playing to yourself. It's weird.
In the song This Is How I Disappear, there's a breakdown section over the vocal part. It gets kind of crazy around there. Talk about how you created that.
That part, like you said, that's the section where it's leading into that really heavy riff that pops in. It's like the vocals are getting crazier. There's this sense of anticipation that something's going to happen. I think what we did with that, that's pretty much feedback. I know I was kind of like pulling the strings off the guitar. It just created this really crazy sound. We ended up putting the guitar right in front of the cabinet, and it just got this crazy, crazy airplane-sound feedback. It's just really hard to describe. It was cool to leave in there. It's always those little moments where you try something a little different, a little bit out of the box, and that's usually where you come up with some of the cooler sounds. That's kind of what that's about. How do you make the guitars and music kind of complement what you want the listener to feel?
The Sharpest Lives has that 16th note, kind of Green Day thing. There is so much depth and presence to the riff. Are there any delays or studio effects on it?
I know on Sharpest Lives, the main riff that starts the song, we wanted that song to sound a little different, to sound a little more electronica compared to the rest of the songs. What we ended up doing, I played each note, single note. Then we ended up sampling it. So instead of me actually playing the straight pulse, it's kind of almost like a loop of it. It's funny because when we first heard it back, it sounded like a CD skipping. We were like, Are people going to rewind or press play or something on it? It ended up sounding, like you said, like really thick.
Our keyboard guy who came in, his name is Jamie, he came in and did a lot of the B3 stuff and some of the piano work. He put a lot of underlying synth notes underneath to kind of thicken it up. So that part's cool. Live, we get a really good approximation of it. I use a POD pedal. The POD has become like one of my favorite tools because you can set it where you can have a sub-octave, 1 octave up, 2 octaves up. I think you can go even up to like 3 octaves up. That works perfect for the set because a lot of the single-note stuff that's on the record, we usually either double lower or higher. It works perfect. On that song Sharpest Lives, I use the POD with the sub-octave and it creates that synth sound. In the studio, you can do a lot more than you can live. It's like, how do you approximate those sounds? How do you recreate or how do you make it better?
On Famous Last Words, is the song in D Minor?
|"I think in Revenge you're hearing a band that necessarily didn't find its legs yet."|
Talk a little about how that progression would develop? It's a progression we've heard before, but your band makes it really unique.
That's one of my favorite songs off the record. I think I was playing guitar and it was really super-late at night. We were staying at the Paramour House and I was in the big ballroom where we had the practice kit set up and all the gear. I was just playing and I remember Gerard coming down in his pajama pants, and we were just hanging out, talking. He was just like, I've got this vocal melody. Could you play something to it?
That's how that song started out.
A lot of the chord work that I do, I try to have both fingers moving at the same time. So instead of playing power chords all the time, I try to maybe play a D position power chord. Then keep my pinkie on the A, but then just slide my index down to the C. So you have a C on the bottom and an A on top. A lot of the chords in that song are kind of created like that.
And you're also doing a Bb kind of a change?
Right. Then it's the Bb and an open A pops in along with the F that would be left on top. A lot of the chords that are in that riff are chords like that. That's something I got from listening to classical music, where there's always movement in the chords. There is always melody along with the roots.
That's another thing, too, which is funny. Fat Mike from NoFx came out to the show yesterday. That's another band where there are 2 guitar players. When I listen to their records, I hear it as 1 guitar and not 2. When I was learning their songs, a lot of their songs are kind of the same deal. One guy will be on the octave, like a B. Then the other guy will be playing a third up from it on an octave. So you learn how to play chords like that and kind of switch around your hands. So a lot of that comes from that.
I think the most important thing for that song was finding that chorus. The verses are very minor and very dark, and then the chorus is kind of like the light at the end of the tunnel, where you move to the relative major. It kind of gets lifted. It's the same deal. It's a familiar chord progression, but it's all about adding the little things that you can do to make it sound new again. That's kind of the basis. That's how the verse and the chorus came together.
The solo section, it started out as that kind of descending single-note riff with the drums. The song is kind of just trying to build again. The drums start out playing lots of fills. Then it goes into a straight beat. It's almost like you're pulling back to go forward again, then pulling back to go forward again, and pulling back to go forward again. Finally you let loose and you go forward, and the beat kicks in just straight. From there, it was just like the perfect time to do a really quiet breakdown. Go from all this anticipation that you built up and all this energy that you built up, and just kind of suck it away.
That song is fun. It goes through a lot of different changes, but one of the most important things that we've learned with music is always keep moving forward. If you are going to do a lot of changes, where you're getting a little more aggressive and then you pull back, then you've got to give it again. That's the idea for that song. It pulls back and everything gets sucked out except for just the vocal and just the guitar playing the chord progression. Then everything builds back in again.
One of my favorite songs is Only In Dreams by Weezer. That song does the same thing. It builds to this crescendo, everything gets sucked out of it. I love that section of the song. It's just totally simple things. The drums are playing the kick-snare-ride beat. Then he pulls away the snare. Then he's just playing the ride and the kick, I think. Then he pulls away the kick drum, and then he's just playing 8th notes on the ride. Then he goes from 8th notes to quarter notes, then from quarter to half notes. Then he pulls back. Everybody's doing the same thing. Then the drums get re-introduced. So it re-introduced the kick drum, re-introduces the snare. But now, he's playing everything in unison and just building that tension until you can't handle it anymore. Then it explodes. The 2 guitars are playing these cool lines together. That was kind of the same idea with Famous Last Words. We wanted to get that feel of taking away and then building it back up. I think that's some of the stuff that makes that song really work.
What does it feel like to reach the level you're at and to be respected by fans and critics? Does that amount of praise match the amount of work you put into the record?
For us, it just all feels like a dream that we're living right now. The success of the record has kind of surpassed anything that we ever thought possible for it. We knew it was really special and close to our hearts. It's just incredible to see that other people feel the same way about it. It's validating and it feels good to be recognized.
When people call you a Guitar Hero, does it make you feel good?
I don't know why they do, but it feels great.
2007 Steven Rosen