“I Still Have Nightmares… But Quitting Is Not An Option”: The Rebirth Of Frank Iero
There is no resolution. There is no meaning. There are no neat bows tying up errant strands or loose ends. Because real life rarely pans out how it does in movies.
Sometimes, all that’s left is a festering pit of anxiety in the stomach – gurgling, acidic and debilitating. Because if you’re brave enough to question the apparent entropy of the universe, be prepared to end up with anything but satisfactory answers. That’s where Frank Iero finds himself in 2019, still recovering from the fallout of the day that changed his life forever.
“Thanks for not making me cry and not treating this like a fucking Oprah [Winfrey] interview,” he says, gently chuckling as we get into the heart of a lengthy, often heavy and sprawling conversation. It’s the kind of laugh that belies a very real gratitude, or perhaps relief, at not being forced to yet again retell and relive the garish details and still-raw horrors of the road accident that he and his touring party were lucky to survive in Sydney, Australia on October 13, 2016. Two and a half years on from that brush with mortality, his physical convalescence may be complete, but the psychological and emotional scars endure.
“I think about it every day,” Frank confesses. “I still have nightmares about it. That moment, I will never forget – it’s still there. It’s not like an experience that shall-not-be-named, nor do I have to shy away from it, but there are certain elements of that day that I don’t know if I’ll ever be okay with. I just have to accept it and move on, but it’s like nothing’s been settled. That’s a horrific feeling.”
It’s a chilling insight into Frank’s state of mind as the release of his new album edges closer at the end of this month. Barriers is his debut release on UNFD, and it’s also his first with new band The Future Violents, which sees him once again joined by long-time collaborator, fellow survivor and brother-in-law Evan Nestor on guitar, alongside former Murder By Death bassist Matt Armstrong, multi-instrumentalist Kayleigh Goldsworthy from Dave Hause And The Mermaid, and Thursday’s Tucker Rule on drums. On an album full of firsts, though, chief among them is that this is the first one written since that life-changing event. Understandably, there’s a lot of pain sewn into the seams of the songs – the kind a psychologist could have a field day pulling apart and analysing. Ask the man himself what he thinks a professional might make of the lyrics on Barriers, however, and he’s got little but exasperation left in the tank. At least, right now.
“I’m fucked if I know,” Frank shrugs, with a typically stoic, good-natured smile. “Every psychologist I go to, I don’t have a good relationship with them. We don’t get along, it’s weird. I remember as a teenager going to see a psychologist for the first time ever and he told me that I should think about doing acid. So I was like, ‘Well, I guess I have to, it’s doctor’s orders,’ but that’s probably not the best advice. It opens doors, but I don’t know if that’s the advice that I would give to my kids.
“Maybe I just haven’t found the right therapist yet,” he concedes, “but I seem to end up finding people who rub me up the wrong way and give me advice that I disagree with. As if I know better…”
Maybe in this instance, Frank Iero does know best. It’s clear from talking to him alone that he is still very much in the grip of the trauma that naturally comes as a result of a near-death experience, and he readily admits that is indeed the case. But it’s one thing knowing the theory and received wisdom of how to deal with such trauma, and yet another entirely being the person who is left to pick up the pieces in the aftermath; to put that theory into practice every day. It has, understandably, changed his whole outlook on the world.
“I know this probably stems from what I experienced, but I started thinking about how violent, and sudden, and abrupt life can be,” he explains. “Elements of this world, they aren’t always the prettiest things, and they’re not always the things that we expect. Living violently, for me, means to be active in living; it’s the action of causing a ripple in a stream. To live passively, to just be a passenger, to be someone who’s just kind of observing is a very… When I think about the world being the same place it was before and after me, that feels like a sad existence. I feel like there needs to be a change caused by every life, and change is inherently violent. So when I named the band, I thought of not just the people involved in making the music, but the people who are involved in listening to it and being affected by it as these elements or conduits for change – the ripple…”
Frank talks about the ripple effect a lot now. In that respect, Barriers is something of a first creative wave on his part – the thinking being that its very existence might encourage and inspire change elsewhere, in ways which are as yet unforeseen, even to him. That comes with a lot of pressure, self-imposed or otherwise. Not that he felt that he had any choice in the matter, regardless.
“I knew what I wanted to talk about on Barriers, I just didn’t know how to say it at first,” Frank admits of the imposing challenge he faced going into the album in earnest last March. “I felt like the things that I needed to get out on this record were so enormous that every time I wrote something down, I was like, ‘That’s just not good enough, it doesn’t cut through to the heart of it.’ Sometimes you try to be too clever and it ends up blurring the magnitude of what’s being said. So it took a while. And I’m glad that it did. There are songs on this record that I’ve wanted to write for years and years and years.”
Frank Iero has been ruminating on a theory of late. It’s one that’s as disconcerting as it is complicated, but in the aftermath of the confusion and existential reflection caused by surviving a near-death experience, he’s often wondered if he’s really here at all. Imagine for a second – as he finds himself doing a lot these days – that he didn’t actually make it that day. Or perhaps that he was supposed to meet his end in the accident, and yet he somehow avoided that fate – that he’s cheated death, Final Destination-style. It sounds like classic survivor’s guilt – when a person who has experienced something tragic or catastrophic subsequently feels so unworthy that they believe they should no longer be alive – although he insists it’s something much more than that. These are the kinds of complex questions currently swirling around inside Frank’s head – an illustrative example of just how profound an effect the events of October 13, 2016 have had on him.
“There are a lot of elements of it that are really fucking weird,” he gasps, holding his hands up as if acutely aware of how ‘out there’ he sounds as he tries to explain his frame of mind. “You start to feel almost like, ‘What if that was your path and you were cheated out of it?’ And yeah, you’re happy to be alive, but at the same time this trajectory that you could have possibly been on, maybe that was your time? So, why are you here? Is there something you’re supposed to do? What if you’re not supposed to be here, and you’re just fucking everything up?”
He takes the edge off the weight of that grim thought by adding in a touch of gallows humour – something he does a lot nowadays – by suggesting that maybe it’s his fault the current president is such an abject failure, as if somehow his own survival that day has had the knock-on, chaos theory-like butterfly effect of creating that disastrous ripple in the wider scheme of things.
“I don’t know if it gets any easier with time,” he frowns, considering the possibility that this eternal questioning of everything may be his reality now. “This [event] has absolutely, 100 per cent changed my life. When you watch movies and people have these kinds of experiences, they’re usually like, ‘Oh, but now I feel great about it, because I could have died and everything’s awesome.’ I mean, I’d like to think that. So you’re left wondering, ‘Why don’t I feel like that?’”
It doesn’t help that he’s since had to return to Australia for a doctor’s appointment, bringing the ordeal back to the forefront of his mind – a “really fucked-up experience” which resulted in a week-long panic attack from the moment he stepped off the plane. But while he says that everyone involved in the crash is doing much better now and they chat about it occasionally, they all have days where it’s still as frightening as it is difficult. It’s a struggle captured ultra-poignantly on the song Six Feet Down Under. ‘There’s a part of me that’s not sure if I’m here / Yeah, there’s a definite part of me that don’t believe in the now / And that’s just the start of it, ‘cause I ain’t convinced you’re all real’ Frank sings, laying out the full extent to which he is wrestling with the weight of what’s happened to him and trying to make some sense of why.
“Not to get all weird and metaphysical,” he begins by way of a jocular disclaimer, before indulging those very tendencies, “but like, is it possible that there’s these crossroads or branch-off moments where things could have gone one of two ways? And maybe there are different planes of existence where we didn’t make it. And this one where we did. And am I currently living in that one? I don’t know. Even in my therapy sessions, no-one can really answer all the questions that I have. Did I actually come out the other end? Am I still alive? Or is this all just a weird figment of my imagination? No-one can truthfully answer that question, or tell you that this is real.”
It puts into stark focus the scale of the task Frank Iero faced in writing Barriers. It makes you wonder how he managed to get through it at all, when his mind was plagued with demons and dilemmas much bigger than the average human being ever faces, let alone an artist trying to express such thoughts and feelings creatively.
“I came to a resignation,” he explains of the process of rebuilding himself from those depths. “Whether I believe it or I don’t, or I question it or not, I’m here, and I have to live in the world that I perceive to be the real world. You can’t just be like, ‘Oh well, this isn’t real. So, I’m gonna just start fucking going off, snorting rails and betting the house, because it doesn’t matter.’
“You have to accept this life and I’m thankful for this life, because I have my wife and my kids and my family,” he continues, gripping on to the only tangible sources of comfort and reassurance he can muster. “I’m making music that I really enjoy and I’m very lucky. If this is a figment of my imagination and I wake up at some point, I’m going to be so bummed. I listen to this record and I go, ‘Wow!’ but I think, ‘Well, this is the kind of record I could only make if I was actually dead and I did it all in my imagination!’ That’s where I’m at right now.”
Admittedly, where Frank Iero is at right now seems like a place of tremendous pain and darkness, but in the process of rebirth and finding himself again via Barriers, he’s happened upon a path that may yet be marked ‘enlightenment’, ‘peace’ or at the very least offer some form of contentment.
Incredible as it is to think, given all that has come before, this is the most personal set of songs that Frank Iero has ever been involved in. It will also, he claims, be his last album. But then again, he says that every time he makes a new one. This time, however, he has good reason to believe in his own fatalism, given the close-call nature of the cards life has dealt him in recent years. It’s why a record he believed would be his last one needed to be filled with firsts. After all, if there’s a possibility that you’re not going to ever get to do this again, why not give it everything you’ve got left, right? That’s why he’s stepped outside of his comfort zones in ways he could scarcely have imagined before now. That’s why his face appears on the cover artwork for the first time ever. That’s why a lot of the stuff that’s made the final cut are actually first takes (“Shit’s unforgiving, so you better be on”). That’s why Frank has written in a much more direct and personal way than he has ever done. And it scares the crap out of him.
“There are a lot of things on this album that, oh man, they just freak the fuck out of me,” he admits with a nervous grin, bearing in mind the imminent prospect of sending it out into the wider world. “On the first record [2014’s frnkiero andthe cellabration’s Stomachaches] I feel like you can hear a lot of me trying to hide behind stuff. I don’t fault myself for that, because it was right for that time, plus I don’t think I really knew that the record was ever going to come out. I made it to put in my drawer and maybe play it for my kids one day. I swear I never expected to be doing this. You can probably listen to that record and tell, ‘This person doesn’t think anyone’s going to hear this music!’
“This time, there’s stuff about my relationship with my parents, and my mom especially,” he says of this new, open and more transparent version of himself. “That stuff’s been touched on before, but this was a pretty raw time to do it. Each song is about a moment in time, where there was either a wall being built up or broken down.”
Hence the record’s titular thread and theme. It’s a sentiment echoed in the words of the artwork’s inscription, too. For that, Frank enlisted his father’s handwriting. It reads: ‘Everything from nothing, with nothing to prove, destroy the walls they built around your heart, keep the faith’ underneath the ever-significant and recurring digits 1−3−1.
“They’re an important grouping of numbers for me – one and one being my wife and I, and the three in the middle being my kids. But also, when I first started playing guitar, my friend John had this Telecaster that he had 13 inscribed on, which he gave to me and I used it a lot. So when I made my own guitar, the Phant-o-matic, I put a 13 on it and then when My Chem ended I started this new chapter, so I reversed the numbers to 31. It’s also my birthday [October 31]. So these numbers keep coming into my life.”
The breakthrough moment apparently came with the fittingly-titled, Stax-like soul of A New Day’s Coming, which opens the record and acts as a vessel for “wiping the slate clean and starting anew”. Ironically, it’s a song that he’s been trying to nail for years – existing in nascent form first as a lullaby that he used to sing to his children, and later as a demo that he’d challenge anyone to recognise now.
“Sometimes I feel like songs are like relationships,” he begins, explaining the extended gestation period for that one. “You meet people along the way and you’re like, ‘Oh wow, this could be really great. But we’re not at the right time in our lives for each other.’ They’re all like little love affairs. New Day… is like saying, ‘Forget everything you know, let’s start from here,’ which works in your own personal life, but also in your sitting down to digest the record.
“That really captures what I’m trying to get across with the name of the record, too,” he adds. “We’re so concerned with protecting ourselves that we build up these obstacles and these barriers that we think are going to keep us safe, but they end up holding us in, stopping us from experiencing new things, and we miss out on so much. So there’s that duality to it.”
Duality is key to a lot of what Frank has committed to record on Barriers. In pouring his soul out on these songs, he’s had to expose parts of himself that even he feels uncomfortable with. It’s a cleansing of sorts; expelling all that he’s had bottled up inside and exploding into full view for the first time – a kind of recorded caterpillar metamorphosing into a butterfly.
“You have to remain hopeful, to wipe the slate clean and start anew,” he reflects on the process. “Because not every day is going to be great. Some days are gonna fucking suck, but you have to get back up, brush it off and fucking try again. You have to. Quitting is not an option. There are so many things in this world that are designed to bring us down, that’ll make us bleed and hurt. We don’t need to be an extra thing on top of it all.”
Despite all of the evidence to the contrary in the world around us, Frank can, however, see a distant silver lining in the clouds above.
“I do feel like, as far as times are concerned, it’s cyclical,” he offers by way of a hopeful parting message. “There is going to be a rain to wash this all away. Not to say that we need to take a passive backseat to it – we need to be violent and active in doing things to create that change – but we can’t just say, ‘Oh, everything’s fucked, it’s over. Burn it down.’ We have to turn the hose on and wash the scum off the streets.”
And that lack of resolution gnawing at the back of his mind all this time? All part of life’s great mystery. That’s as much as he’s got for now, and maybe that’s just fine.
“Sometimes you just end up with more questions in life,” Frank admits, wryly. “I like that dialogue of ‘what if?’ That search is not about finding answers. That searching and asking those questions? That’s the growth. It’s like life – we don’t know why we’re here, but all we can do is keep asking questions…”
Frank Iero And The Future Violents’ new album Barriers is out now through UNFD. The band play 2000trees festival on July 11.
Read this next:
My Chemical Romance look back at how they formed the day after 9/11, as a “direct result of everything we experienced and witnessed during those horrific events”.
Take a journey into an enigmatic heart of darkness with Sleep Token’s follow-up, This Place Will Become Your Tomb…