Mikey Way: “Don’t be so preoccupied with yesterday and tomorrow, because there’s a whole today that you’re gonna miss”
“If this makes someone feel better for even an hour in a day, then I think I did my job,” smiles Mikey Way. “Even if it’s one person that loves it.”
The My Chemical Romance bassist is currently unpacking the wonderful self-titled second record from his side-project with Sleep Station’s David Debiak, Electric Century. Released alongside an accompanying graphic novel and a whole new world for fans to dive in to, Mikey is aware that his latest ambitious undertaking could serve as a welcome break from the strange times we’re all living in right now… not that it was initially planned that way. That’s simply how Electric Century have always been since their inception.
“The benefit of this project is that it is a pandemic, and people aren’t able to do conventional things to release art, so it’s pretty cool – this was going to be unconventional anyway, but I think people are now more open to something unconventional,” Mikey enthuses. “We didn’t plan on touring on this. We maybe were going to play some shows – in fact, there was one that we were going to do at San Diego Comic Con. But we weren’t really going to tour on this, especially in light of, you know, I have something else going on that is touring.
“But I still felt so strongly about this album and the graphic novel that I wanted it to be exciting, and I wanted it to be fun. And I think people are ready to be immersed anywhere else – people need escapism right now. And not only that, but they also need emotional release, and I think you’ve got both: escapism is the graphic novel, and I think the music is the emotional release.”
The self-titled follow-up to 2016’s excellent For The Night Control, Electric Century does indeed provide both of those things. An 11-track effort produced by Mikey’s MCR bandmate Ray Toro, the record takes in the infectious ’80s new wave of their debut, and ramps things up even further, packing in finely-tuned musical ideas while tying in cohesively with the story of the graphic novel.
“We kept going back and revising things, and then we would sit with things for a while, and we’d add to it,” the bassist explains of why the partly-fictitious and partly-autobiographical (“That’s my sweet spot!” says Mikey, “I love mixing music with fiction”) album has taken such a long time. “One of the things that extended this project was that we wanted the graphic novel to be as great as it could possibly be, and great things take time. The graphic novel gave us the time to perfect the music, and we were able to really make sure that this is the statement we wanted to make. Even until two weeks ago we were still tweaking songs! So I think the graphic novel gave us the freedom to really make the music everything we wanted it to be.”
Here, Mikey dives into all things Electric Century – from the album’s creation, to working with Ray again, to keeping the project open-ended and continuing the story…
Was the album all created remotely or were you able to get into rooms with both Dave and Ray at various points before – or even during – the pandemic?
“It was all mostly before the pandemic that we did the brunt of it; I think some time in 2018 me, Dave and Ray got together in Los Angeles and did a big chunk of it. And then the rest was done with Dave sending stuff to Ray, and me going to Ray’s house, or us sending stuff to Ray and him sending it back. We got to do it in a way that a lot of projects are done in the pandemic nowadays! That’s how this project was done before the pandemic: it was done mostly remote. There was only one time where we were all in a room together, and in fact me and Dave, before we went to Ray’s, were never in a room together. He would demo stuff, send it to me, I’d give him feedback and make edits, send it back… And then once Ray became part of the project, he joined in on this process where we were sending him things. And then it all came to a culmination of us going to Ray and recording.
“I always joke with people that me and Dave have never really played any of these songs together in a room – we’ve rarely even been in the same room when we’re creating things. And maybe that makes something special… maybe we’ve stumbled upon something where we’re making something special, far apart.”
When Dave sends you an idea or demo, is there anything in particular that you’re really listening out for?
“Most artists will tell you about this thing that happens and it’s like you get this feeling in your chest or your throat when you hear something. I kinda listen for that. I want to feel something when I hear it, and stuff will jump out to me and I’ll be like, ‘Dave, that’s the one we need to hone in on.’ I know what Dave’s great at, and when I hear him reach that point I’m like, ‘Let’s explore that.’ Maybe internally it’s hard for a human being to point out what they’re great at, and I feel like I’m great at finding what’s great out of what Dave’s doing. I talk to a lot of musicians and they kinda feel the same way: it’s like, ‘Ah, man, I know what you mean!’ Most musicians have this sixth sense where, if you feel something and you know it speaks to you, then maybe it’ll speak to other people, too.”
What have you learned from working with Dave?
“What I’ve learned from Dave is to just be relentless! He’s relentless; he just doesn’t stop. At any given time there will be 40 demos that he’s sent me – and even over the past few months he’s sent me a bunch. He just tirelessly makes music, and I think there’s something admirable about that. His work ethic is amazing, and I think that’s what he taught me. I mean, I knew it before, but he’s really taught me to be tenacious with things.”
You’ve spoken about needing to stay creative, always. But what was the driving force that was pulling you back to this whole concept in particular?
“When Electric Century was all about to kick off, I went to rehab [in 2014], and by the end of that 30 days, I was like, ‘I don’t wanna tour anymore.’ I wanted to take care of myself, and I think it kind of set the stage for this project – in my head, it was like, ‘How can I make this fun and not have a conventional record cycle?’ I always respected what Gorillaz did and thought, ‘Well, they make it work and they’re living in a ‘fictional’ world…’ And it made me realise that it could be done. I put a pin in that for a bit, and then around 2018, towards the end of the year, Z2 reached out and were like, ‘Hey, we’d like to make a graphic novel for the next Electric Century album,’ and I was listening to them pitching it to me and the guy said, ‘Hey, I kinda see this project as something like the Gorillaz!’ and it hit me like a lightning bolt, as I’d never said that to anybody before. From that moment on I was like, ‘This is what we need to do,’ and it kind of informed the project. I want Electric Century to exist in this almost Twilight Zone world.”
Did having such a big project to meld together drive you a bit mad at points?!
“Um… no! I had a lot of help from people – one of my best friends Shaun Simon co-wrote the comic with me, Dave and Ray were there to help me make the music… I feel like with an ambitious project like this, I also had ambitious people with me. Some of the most creative, hard-working people I know worked on this, so I never felt overwhelmed. I felt like, if there was ever a moment for me to feel overwhelmed, somebody would be like, ‘Yo, I’m gonna help you out!’ It was a great tag-team effort.”
How did Ray get involved when it came to production?
“We were unsure of what we were going to do with it. Dave had somebody that he loved working with, but they both felt it wasn’t a good match for the project – it was a mutual thing, which is fine. So then the first name that popped into my head was Ray – I was like, ‘Oh, Ray! He can do this!’ He did a tester song with Alive, and Dave was sold – we were just blown away. It’s funny about that song, too, because when I was in rehab [in 2014], Dave came to visit me – he brought a tape recorder with a cassette in it with Alive, and it was just him and an acoustic guitar. And I listened to that thing for probably a month straight – I was just lost in it, and I kept imagining all the things we could do with it. I kept roadmapping it in my head. That was the one that I kept going back to – I was like, ‘It’s got to be the song.’ And I think we succeeded with that; I think Alive is the anchor of the whole thing.”
Were there any conversations with Ray about, ‘Hey, you can tweak things as much as you see fit’ because you have so much trust in him?
“Oh yeah, we let Ray do whatever he wanted! We were like, ‘Get as crazy as you want.’ We were excited to get his guitar on there, and his vocals are on there a lot as well. There’s a ton of Ray Toro on that album, and I’m super-excited about it. Just getting to hear his solos makes me happy – he’s one of the greatest guitar players on planet earth, doing what he does best. Getting to hear that on a record again made me so happy. He’s one of the best there is, and everybody knows that.”
What made Till We’re Gone the first song to show people ahead of release – was it a case of it opens the album and welcomes people into this world, so it was always going to be the first song people would hear?
“For me, Till We’re Gone is a great way to explain our sound, if you listen to it. It sets the stage – like when you watch a movie and you see the opening credits, and all the actors’ names cycle through! I feel like, when I listen to that song, I picture a movie starting. And not only that, but just sonically it’s everything that Electric Century does best, I think, in one song. And it’s also short and sweet. It’s got a very traditional song structure, and I feel like that’s the best first taste for this album.”
When we last spoke, you mentioned how the album sort of came before the graphic novel, and you had to create the story around that. Was the album tracklist quite easy to fit together, or did you have to rearrange songs to fit in with the story to make everything cohesive?
“What’s interesting is – and when I look back on it all – when we did that initial interview, the album has changed since then. I feel like we were able to use that time to fix things. So there’s a bunch of songs we added, there’s a bunch of songs we fixed. I think that time allowed us to properly marry the two things, and make the songs fit the story that we’d written and vice-versa. When we did those initial interviews, the album was a little bit different, and a whole bunch of songs got added.”
The album begins with these thumping drums on Till We’re Gone, but then it ends on Someday We Will Sing Again which is so stripped back, and the complete opposite of the opener. What was the process of creating that musical journey?
“I like the concept of this big, bombastic opening, and this stripped-back, raw ending. I feel like that’s how we’re put on this earth: we’re loud and bombastic as babies, and then we’re frail and raw when we’re elderly. I feel like that’s a good story arc for an album, and I felt being raw and exposed on that last album was a good juxtaposition for everything you’re gonna hear when you go through the journey. And then it’s the same thing with the story: the story kind of follows a similar arc as well.”
Would you say that this is a more emotional album than For The Night To Control?
“A lot of emotion was channelled into this record, in all its forms. Dave was going through a lot – but of course that’s for him to talk about. But that is exactly what art is: you use it as an outlet to work out your feelings, both positive and negative. Ultimately that is what makes what you create whole and hopefully what the listener can relate to.”
You’ve spoken about mixing fiction with real life in your work – is there any song that you could pinpoint as the most autobiographical on Electric Century?
“Alive – that’s a good one that I just like to kind of remind myself: be present, be alive. That whole sentiment of, ‘Your best moments are actually right here, right now.’ And that’s one of the themes of the graphic novel as well. People kind of romanticise about ‘the good old days’, or ‘when we were kids or teenagers it was so cool…’ but maybe the best days are right here, and maybe you’ve been wishing to be where you’re standing right now and you don’t even realise it. That’s the theme of the graphic novel, and that song especially. It’s a simple thing: be alive. I feel like that’s something I try to remind myself on a daily basis. And especially in light of what’s happening in the world. A lot of people feel like they’re in some strange purgatory – I think everyone feels that. And I think that song is going to speak to a lot of people.”
Is there anything that this project taught you about yourself? In terms of the storyline and putting yourself in that nostalgic headspace, did it make you realise anything?
“It’s something that I’ve always suspected, but I’ve talked at length with people about it, where it’s like, ‘Don’t be so preoccupied with yesterday and tomorrow, because there’s a whole today that you’re gonna miss. There’s a whole today going on.’ We’re all guilty of that – and especially now when we’re all stuck inside and we can’t go anywhere, or do anything that we used to love on the outside world. And it’s like, ‘Well, maybe right here is where we’re supposed to be right now.’ You have to kind of hop into that perspective and realise that we’re all here for some reason, and we have to roll with it and make the best out of the situation right now.”
For people who’ve listened to For The Night To Control this is obviously just the next logical step, but are you nervous in any way, or is it more like, ‘Yep, of course people are gonna like it if they liked the last one’?
“That’s kind of what I feel about this: if you liked the last album then you’re going to love this one even more, you know? We had a lot more time to do it, and I feel like we’re all older and wiser. I’m 40 now – I was in my early 30s when we made the last one! It’s almost a decade on from when Electric Century started, and I feel this is the complete sentence. The last one was like we were getting our feet wet and figuring it out, and this one feels like we figured it out.”
Is that your proudest takeaway about this entire project?
“Well, what I’m proud about is that I didn’t expect this! I didn’t expect to make an album and graphic novel – it started out as an album and as time went on it grew and grew, and it’s something I’m proud of. It’s very ambitious, and I didn’t see it coming. It was that fateful call with Z2 – they said things to me and I was like, ‘That’s what we need to do.’ I’m proud of that, and I feel like it’s mission accomplished in terms of what I want Electric Century to sound like. I feel like we’ve reached the point I wanted it to be – it sounds exactly as I wanted it to sound.”
Could you see a sequel – both musically and with the graphic novel – happening some day down the line?
“Yeah! Honestly, the graphic novel leaves everything wide open. It introduces us to a world, and you can easily revisit this world. And that’s another beauty of this project. I was blessed to work with a lot of amazing professionals, and this whole thing never once felt like a drain or a drag. It was a delight from the beginning to the end, and it’s somewhere we can revisit if we want to!”
Electric Century is out now along with an original graphic novel published by Z2 Comics.
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