We all know that no one is born “cool.” And Frank Iero—along with so many of the musicians and people he encountered, befriended and forged creative relationships with—followed his dreams, muses and instincts to create his musical worldview. Before he was part of the juggernaut that is My Chemical Romance and embarking on his solo career, Iero was discovering all the punk/alternative culture that both thrilled and perplexed him. 

Here Iero discusses his mythology through the prism of music. He talks about the bands who kissed both his brain and his heart as a listener. Armed with that knowledge and inspiration, he found himself moving through a number of bands in the New Jersey underground, all the way up to Pencey Prep, which would later (albeit briefly) turn into I Am A Graveyard.

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As he discusses his personal musical development, Iero’s exuberance in his fandom refuses to recognize boundaries. He may have been conceived by his parents long after the original Misfits were falling apart. But Iero’s enthusiasm for all things punk has remained as unstoppable as the aesthetic highs he’s made for himself.

So going into Pencey Prep, was Sector 12 in between Steve Weil And The Disco Kings and Pencey Prep?

Yes. Sector 12. How do you know about that? Was it because of the T-shirt? [Laughs.]

When John [McGuire] left high school, we were all like, “I don’t know if we really want to keep calling ourselves Steve Weil And The Disco Kings because we don’t think anyone gets it.” So we changed the name to Hybrid, and John fucking hated the name, and none of us, I think, were happy about it.

There was a street fair [in Nutley, New Jersey], and we booked a gig playing on the back of a flatbed truck in the middle of the main street there. We were like, “Damn, this is huge.” They’re going to bring up flyers and be handing [them] out [to] the entire town. All the bands, names in it. We get one, and it says Hybrid. We were so mad!

It’s still better than Steve Weil, though.

[Then] I started to figure out, “How do I put on my own shows? How do I make it so that I can get to play with my favorite bands and also help out bands?” What you start to figure out in this scene is you have to be good. It’s a favor. I’ll put you on this show, [and] you put me on that show. I’ll do your flyers for you. It’s all about helping out to further things.

The end game was getting a crowd, getting your music out there so that eventually you can have kids sing along to your music. I remember going to Manville Elks or Garfield American Legion. This was probably the largest in my area. It had a stage built-in. I remember like 500 kids in a hall, and you’re on the floor that felt like an atomic bomb. That’s all I ever wanted.

That feeling of 500 kids stuffed into a hall singing along to your songs. I’ve done that now, and I’ve done sold-out stadium shows, and that hall, that might be the best. There’s something about that energy, that immediacy. It’s the best drug I’ve ever done. So, that was the chase. That’s where it all started.

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So we went from Steve Weil to Hybrid to Sector 12. Sector 12, I ended up getting to record at Nada. We put out a demo cassette tape, [and] we sent those off to every label we could think of. We got a very nice reply from Dischord. I remember vividly being like, “Wow, this is amazing. They listened to our demo.” They didn’t sign us, of course, but it was very, very kind. It was like, “Keep doing what you’re doing. We’re really only working with bands from D.C., but keep doing it.” That was all the encouragement I needed.

That Ian MacKaye story, that’s fantastic. I just imagine you moving to D.C. and going to Häagen-Dazs like Henry Rollins and shit. So how did this eventually form into Pencey Prep?

Sector 12 were the first band that I was in that started to play outside of Jersey and New York. We just got a Boston show, and as all this stuff [was] going on, the drummer at the time, things got weird with my girlfriend and him. Things just got gross, and the band broke up. 

So I went and ended up hanging out with John McGuire again. He was like, “I want to start a band. College isn’t really somewhere I want to be.” He went to get a job and started the band, and I was like, “OK.” He and I ended up connecting again with Shaun Simon, who I went to high school with for three months.

Me, Shaun and John decided we’re going to start a band. We needed to find a drummer. I’m pretty sure we put an ad out in The Aquarian or one of those backstreet-type publications, and we found this kid named Tim [Hagevik]. At that point, Bruno [Rocha], who played bass in Sector 12, wanted to come back in. He would just come and hang out, but he really didn’t know how to play an instrument. At that point, John was playing bass, so, really, you could just sing and hang out. So we found this guy, Tim, and just started playing together.

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I became friends with Neil Sabatino, who is the guitar player from [Stick Figure Suicide]. When Pencey was getting together, I was gonna play guitar, John was going to be on bass [and] we had Tim on drums. We said to Shaun, “Hey, we’re going to start this band. We really want you in it, but you have to learn how to play an instrument.”

So we gave him a keyboard, [and] we were like, “All right, well, we should add another guitar player, and I think Neil would be a really good fit because he has experience. There’s a name associated with him. He knows how to book shows, and I think he could bring a lot to the table for the band.”

One of the big things that we could do as well was we would make friends with promoters, kids like us that were doing DIY shows that needed help with flyering, and say, “Hey, listen, I can make a thousand flyers for you if you put us on so-and-so’s show. Then you can just come pick them up, and I’ll mark as paid—one hand washing the other.” That’s really how our relationship with Bomb Shelter and Ricky Saporta started, who is Gabe Saporta’s brother. 

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Ricky was putting on shows at The Wayne Firehouse. I got to see At The Drive-In, Jimmy Eat World, Jets To Brazil, Alkaline Trio and Hot Water Music, I think in the span of a week. That was a big week, but these were shows that were happening. Every weekend there was something you wanted to see. Thursday were playing all these shows, [and] I’m talking about the early days of Thursday.

It was where you wanted to be. I got to see some of my favorite bands, up close and personal, watching what they were doing, how they were doing it. All it did was just fuel that fire of “This is what I want to do. This is what I need in my life to make things complete.” Eventually, we ended up recording again in Nada Recording with John Naclerio [and] recorded a full record.

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I should go back a little bit further. So with all of that happening, Thursday signed to Eyeball [Records], and they put out Waiting. Again, that name came back up in my life. I went to Nada and recorded a demo with Sector 12. We put it out ourselves, and then in Pencey, it was like, “All right, well, I know that’s still an affordable situation for recording."

John invited [Alex Saavedra] to my mom’s house where Pencey were practicing in the basement. I don’t think we blew him away musically, but I think he saw how dedicated we were and how serious we were about it. I think that was endearing to him, and I think he wanted to give us a shot, so he signed Pencey and decided to put a record out. He set a time at Nada, and we went in and recorded a full-length for him and immediately started looking at booking a tour.

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Around this time, Neil had rekindled a relationship with a girl who eventually became his wife, and her family lived out in Minnesota. So he had planned on going out there and visiting her and her family. So we were like, “All right, well, if you’re going to go out there, we should book a tour to get you out there. That’ll be our first tour.” So he was able to book us a show out in Minnesota. Then eventually we ended up booking a show opening for Les Savy Fav, I think at the 7th St Entry.

For us, that was probably the biggest show we were going to play or that we had booked on the docket, especially out of state. So we knew we had to book all the way out there and book all the way back. So that’s what we started to do. Call up any contact we had, pick up a copy of Book Your Own Fuckin' Life and just start making some cold calls. People took pity on us and definitely gave us some shows on the way out, and [we] played a few basements here and there, and sometimes we’d show up and there was no show.

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That tour, I think, was the final straw where the pressure got to be too much and people just needed to get away from each other. We made it home, and the band essentially ended as we got home. I think we’re in another situation where, like Leathermouth, I got to tour on it and then go home and the record came out. Again, Pencey got home from the tour, then Neil left and the record was coming out. So we had to figure out how to get together or at least try to hold it together for the actual release. 

As far as the timeline goes, it’s a little fuzzy for me. I know at one point, we tried to replace Neil and had another guitar player come in, but it just didn’t feel right. I think around that time, we were deciding like, “Do we continue with this band under this name? Do we change the name to I Am A Graveyard and start to write new stuff?”

We had our final show at CBGB without Neil and played the songs that we were writing at that time. The show was booked under Pencey Prep and the idea that it was going to be the last show, but really the songs that we were playing were I Am A Graveyard songs, and that was “Attention Reader,” a song called “Last Rites” [and] “It Would Hurt If I Smiled.” I think we played one Pencey song, which was “19,” which was one of the songs that we continued to play after Neil left.

This interview appeared in issue 389, available here.