“I’m excited about the unexpected,” says former My Chemical Romance guitarist Ray Toro about his debut solo album, as well as the artistic exploits of his former bandmates. “The band was great because we all came from different backgrounds and different personalities. The question then was ‘Okay, what can these guys make together?’ Now it’s about, ‘Okay, what else is going on inside the head of this one personality?’ There might be expectations, but I’m out to shatter them.”
Toro’s solo debut is shaping up to be quite an ambitious project. Although he’s known as a top-notch technical shredder, Toro is branching out in significant ways, emphasizing songwriting capabilities over fretboard calisthenics. He’s writing, singing, producing, programming and playing many of the parts (he even drums on a couple tracks), leaving no time to do 111 takes on a guitar solo. Assisting him on the as-yet-untitled record are drummers Jarrod Alexander (on loan from Gerard Way And The Hormones) and Tom Rasulo, respected session guitarist Tim Pierce, bassist Chris Chaney, keyboardist Jamie Muhoberac and even Toro’s wife Christa, who contributes vocals (“Look At You Now”). At the time of this writing, he’s only issued two songs, “Isn’t That Something” and “For The Lost And The Brave,” a song he had written a year ago, but was inspired to release online after reading the tragic story of transgender teen Leelah Alcorn.
While the big questions of what label and when it’s released have yet to be answered, Toro spoke with Jason Pettigrew from his home in Studio City, California, about relocating to the West Coast, becoming the captain of his own ship, choosing conscience over commerce and whether his personal listening habits lean towards alienation or stomachaches.
I had no idea you were out in California and that you left New Jersey behind.
RAY TORO: I’ve been out here three-and-a-half years. I think the last time we spoke, I would’ve been more bi-coastal. My wife and I started going from city to city getting apartments and trying different places out. We grew to like it here so we started looking for a house. We’re a little outside of LA. It’s a lot more of a family-paced vibe, but still close to the city.
When did you start actively working on this record?
I’ve been working on it for the past year and a half or so, writing and tracking as I go. It’s been a little bit slow going because there are a lot of different hats I’ve been wearing this time, obviously. I had to learn how to sing, write lyrics, write songs on my own. It’s a whole bunch of different pieces to the puzzle. I also had a kid, which is also great because it’s informed the stuff that I am writing about. I’m hoping to get [the album] out this year. The tracking is almost done; it’s more about having proper release plans like meeting with labels and figuring how the rollout is going to be. My goal is to have it out by summer.
You haven’t signed with anyone yet?
I’m kind of a free agent right now. It was super-scary to have so much unknown after the band [broke up], both personally and in my music. At the same time, I realized there were benefits to it—like being fully in charge of something.
So much of your identity has been wrapped up in one thing. Are you finding being a solo artist daunting or genuinely liberating?
A little bit of both. The daunting side of it is having all of the pieces of the puzzle fall into place. I want to tour on the record so now I need [to get used to] singing in front of people and being the center… Actually, I don’t want it to be the center of everything, but that is the voice people want to hear. Obviously, in My Chem we had an incredible lead singer in Gerard [Way] and that’s where the focus was. There was comfort for me as a guitarist because that is what I am confident at. That’s one of the things I’ve had to grow into, the confidence to sing and be able to perform in front of people. Also on the daunting side is the business side of everything. Out of any of us in My Chem, Gerard was in touch with the label and management to discuss the direction of the band. That’s a piece that is completely new to me, as well.
But I’ve always loved challenges, learning new things and pushing myself to become better. On that side, it’s completely liberating because I get to grow as an artist. Towards the end of My Chem—and this was my own doing, I guess—[I felt] a little stagnant in my guitar playing. Having a different role in this project has gotten me to learn a lot of different aspects of recording and producing. That’s the liberating stuff.
I would think the first-time solo bow would be perceived as a clean slate for you. You’ve never done this before, so you don’t have to write a full-blown rock opera. People know you as part of something for over 10 years, but they don’t know you, personally.
Totally. And that’s a real exciting aspect of this project for me. People have a perception of what I’m about, and what I am capable of. It took a while to find my voice—from my singing to a musical direction I was going for—and I had to grow into it. I think when people hear the record, they’ll hear a different side of me. [The record is] a mish-mash of influences and the things that I’m into and the sounds that I’m liking right now.
I’m just as guilty of the preconceived notions between the roles of you and guitarist Frank Iero in MCR. I always perceived Frank as the 1-2-fuck-you punk-rock lifer, while you were the highly technical, blitzing shred-master, and the dichotomy of those styles were key to MCR’s resonance. The music you’ve been issuing is focused on your efforts as a singer/songwriter. I expected that you would’ve gone on a tech-metal-fusion bender for your first post-MCR statement. I remember going into your dressing room one time and you were hunched over a laptop making At The Gates ringtones.
I remember that! [Laughs.] I feel like every musician has different aspects, shades and colors to their playing. In the beginning and during the course of My Chem, my playing was focused on that thing. But that happens to a lot of people: Take a band like Thrice, whose sound changed so much because of the different aspects of the members’ playing. As you grow older and discover new music, there are different things that jump out and influence you. You did get to see some of that in the later My Chem records, a little on Danger Days and definitely on the one that we were writing that didn’t come out. There had always been an individual growth with all of the members and the band as a whole.
People have a perception of me—and rightfully so. The truth is, I actually missed just playing guitar. After I finish this record and tour on it, the next [record] I may do is an instrumental album, where I can just focus on playing guitar. I can make as many records as I want with different sounds, and I think you’re going to hear that from the rest of the guys [in MCR] too. We all have a lot of music in us and you will see other styles from us, as well.
Did you ever contribute any kind of lyrical ideas or concepts to MCR?
No, it was all Gerard. I don’t know if this happens with other guitar players—and it feels kind of weird to say—but I grew more attached to the melodies that Gerard was singing and not so much 100-percent of all the words. After the band broke up, I looked at the band and the lyrics in a whole new light, like I’d been reading them for the first time. What I learned from it was that not everything has to make complete sense; lyrics can be ambiguous. One of the artists I’ve been listening to a lot, Tom Petty, I like the storyteller aspects of his lyrics. They’re a little more straightforward. When you listen to a Tom Petty song, it feels like you’ve opened a chapter to a book, a self-contained short story. [My lyrics] are a marriage of that storyteller aspect, but also leave certain things ambiguous here and there.
You really tapped into something when you shared “For The Lost And The Brave” in response to the tragedy of Leelah Alcorn. The track was recorded prior to her passing, but you made a psychic connection between its sentiment and her struggle.
Like I said on my blog, I had written that song over a year ago. At the time, it was influenced about some of the things going on in Arizona at the time and the state of the world in general. Lyrically, I honed in on the perspective of someone that was transgender and that’s how the lyrics became focused. I will never understand the transgender struggle, so I did not want to come off like a Puerto Rican male who doesn’t share those same struggles but [still] comes off as speaking knowledge. That was my big fear in putting it out. But after reading stories about Leelah and reading her final Tumblr post, I was like, “I just can’t not put this out. I cannot worry about any responses.” One of the exciting aspects of the world we live in is that music and art can be very reactive now. I may have written that song a year ago, but it’s very connected to what happened. If I can get my voice out there somehow and lend my support to the transgender community, if I can open one person’s mind, I’ll feel good about it.
I’m assuming you get recognized by MCR fans out in public. What’s the frequent response? “What are you doing now?” or “When you broke up, you crushed my fuk’n heart, dude…”
[Laughs.] It doesn’t happen as much as it used to like when [MCR] were on MTV a lot. Some of them don’t know that the band broke up, but the majority of people say they’re looking forward to hearing something new from me. But it’s usually, “You were in one of my favorite bands ever.” [Laughs.] I’ll be sure to tell you if someone throws piss and vinegar at me for the band breaking up. There are fans who just knew the band from radio hits and might not follow our own individual paths. Then there are the hardcore kids who are going to want to hear everything we’re doing separately. We had the band break up, but now we’re going to get four different records instead of one. And that’s exciting to me. Because they are all going to be different.
Last question: What’s the better record: Hesitant Alien or Stomachaches?
Honestly? I love them both because it’s each guy’s vision and probably what they’ve been wanting to make for a while. There’s aspects of Frank’s style and playing you can hear in the band, but this is him given free reign. It’s great to hear how he’s grown as a player and songwriter. I love the fact that he put it out, went on tour and now he’s announced headlining dates. I just see that confidence and assuredness in him and I hope to have some of that when it comes time for me. On Gerard’s record, it’s like his mind, unleashed. I hear some of the guitar sounds that he had been wanting to bring into My Chem. The songs are really exciting and he really pushed far away from My Chem was doing. It takes guts to push far away from everyone’s expectations. Both records have shown me a lot for sure; it’s given me a lot to look up to and hopefully I can do the same. alt