From deals with the Devil to Fabulous Killjoys, and even Gerard's Britpop Bowie in 'Hesitant Alien', the Way brothers have never compromised when it comes to storytelling. And, for the return of Mikey Way's Electric Century, the story is his most ambitious yet.
Consisting of an album written with Sleep Station's David Debiak, produced by fellow Chemical Romancer Ray Toro, and a full accompanying graphic novel designed with the help of Toby Cypress, their self-titled second album is an invitation to step into the world of Electric Century.
Few albums come with a synopsis, but this one reads: "Johnny Ashford, former sitcom-star, drives drunk through a storefront and gets arrested. His aspiring actress girlfriend bails him out, and he begins seeing a hypnotherapist. Dr. Evers sends Johnny to his "happy place": 1980s Atlantic City, where he relives his childhood on the boardwalk, hardly noticing shadowy spectres all around."
Sonically, 'Electric Century' continues the band's love affair with 80s / 90s New Wave and Britpop but, as Mikey expands on the storyline, it's evident that romanticism isn't completely rose-tinted. With the story pivoting on a demise which Mikey saw time and again growing up in the 1980s where child actors would fall from grace; many turning to drugs and their untimely grave, the lead role was a chance for him to explore the bright lights and seedy underbelly of his childhood love, New Jersey.
"I always felt sad for them [child actors] because they're so important to you, and then they're almost disposable at some point," Mikey begins.
'This fictional character was your best friend growing up, and then when they get to a certain age, the industry can just toss you aside. That always made me sad, and I was just always a little fascinated with that subject."
His sentimentality for that time when he was growing up, he admits, does look different in retrospect.
"We always romanticise about periods of time in our life, and we're like, 'oh that was really great'. Maybe it was really great because we don't have it anymore. Maybe, right now is really great; that's kind of the concept that I wanted to put there. I do the same thing; I romanticise about the 80s and 90s, and I think it was so cool, but the world was kind of in the dark about a lot of things, and some of the things we did were irresponsible and led us to some of the issues the world has now. But, I have a soft spot for the 1980s. It was when I have some of my greatest memories, and it's probably where I hit some important milestones in life."
That wanderlust also brings a lot of the influences from which both the graphic novel and music draw. There is a geeky giddiness that illuminates from Mikey as he talks about his love of horror, dark Henson films like Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal, Universal Monsters, Dune and Twin Peaks, with elements of all of them creeping into the graphic novel.
But, the biggest influence on the story behind 'Electric Century' is Mikey's own turbulent past. The formative ideas for the project begin in 2014 following the end of My Chemical Romance, his rehabilitation for drug addiction and subsequent hypnotherapy treatment.
Like quicksand, the idea of hypnotherapy was something TV made you believe you'd have to navigate a lot more as an adult- especially in the cartoons of that time. For Mikey, the trip to the hypnotherapist didn't make him dance like a chicken as he had feared. It instead inspired his story about going to another place when hypnotised and also changed his own perspective on how he could go back to a time "before drugs and alcohol, before pressure, before the real world" and still be creative.
He is upfront about not wanting to tour with Electric Century; instead, inspired by his love for Damon Albarn, he had hoped this band could be fictional like Gorillaz.
"That was the last thing I wanted to do," he admits, talking about the idea of touring after he first left rehab. "I still wanted to make amazing stuff and world-build and be creative, but at the time, I didn't want to go through touring; I didn't want to do interviews. I didn't want to do that whole thing. So, Electric Century was the perfect outlet for me. It was very low pressure; we weren't on a record label. It was like a hobby for fun. I always wanted to make Brit-rock songs, Britpop songs… I just wanted to make great songs and use what I had learned in my professional career to do so. I used some of the tricks I learned in my other band, and I wrote those type of songs."
Ultimately, through 'Electric Century' (particularly in the graphic novel), you can see Mikey Way in the storyline; not necessarily like a mirror being held up to himself but more of a kaleidoscope casting shapes of his past.
As for the musical aspect of the project, Mikey stresses that it can live independently of the graphic novel and vice versa. However, the ideal conditions for absorbing "Electric Century' would be if you "if you hit play when you open it," according to him.
"I try to make it as simple as that, and you know, if you're still reading it when the album is done, just start the album over again," he encourages.
Independent of the graphic novel, the music manages to tell its own story. Like a musical soundtrack with 'Till We're Gone' working as the scene setter and 'Someday We Will Sing Again' as the driving off into the sunset, credits rolling, ukulele shining closer they manage to bracket the production. The main narrative contains the sort of theatrical storytelling that has become Mikey's "natural instinct", his own words, after his years in MCR. Songs like 'I'll Be Fine' boasts a dramatic arrangement that opens with textured acoustic guitar and tasteful piano notes before swelling on the strings to raise it up before the skyscraper guitar solo bleeds out and, in turn, imitates transformation and movement within the story.
Structured like a story, the most dramatic moments come in the album's final chapters, with 'Oh Mary' and 'Free To Be Ok' bringing the most devastating moments. 'Oh Mary', with its 'Pure Imagination’-like synth line is "the moment of catharsis" and pays homage to the big gothic churches in New Jersey, which Mikey still holds dear. And, as for 'Free To Be Ok', it's the gospel choir singing feel-good moment that follows after redemption.
"I only knew how to do this big idea, to put it through a theatrical lens; that's our sweet spot. So if some of that bled into Electric Century, [in] all my professional career that's what we did every day," he comments, innocently unaware and understating that his "professional career" contributions get mentioned in the same breath as Andrew Lloyd Webber or Danny Elfman for their impact and influence.
Marrying the sound and vision, the synth-laden new wave with dark fantasy and horror, wasn't much of a worry either for Mikey. Taking his love for The Rocky Horror Picture Show, The Nightmare Before Christmas and Phantom of the Paradise for his theatrical direction, combining that with the new wave and punk influences of soundtracks to The Nightmare in Elm Street, The Crow and The Lost Boys, you get the idea of how the different elements of 'Electric Century' manage to live independently of one another.
"I really didn't even think about if it was gonna fit. I was like, 'I'm gonna go for it, I'm gonna do this regardless'. I wanted to do it in a brave way. If you look at a lot of 80s movies, and you look into the soundtrack of the 80s movies, they don't necessarily fit the tone of the movie," he reasons, allowing 'Electric Century' to become a time warp for all the senses.
So seven years on from rehab, from hypnotherapy, from the essence of an idea, both Mikey and David Debiak are offering a hand into the world of Electric Century. This project is the first foray, and it's almost certain not to be their last. Mikey sees the potential for Electric Century to become "almost Twilight Zone-esque," he suggests.
"I think that people go there, and it doesn't have to be a hypnotherapist; it could be something else. But I feel like this the perfect landscape to tell a story that has very dark undercurrents but maybe has a hopeful chord," he adds.
And seven years on from the person who absolutely did not want to tour with Electric Century, it seems changes in the last year might soon mean the duo can bring their fictional band to life.
"In all honesty, one of the positives that came from the pandemic is now technology has made it so a stream is palatable. I feel like the perfect way to consume this band is online; being able to control what it looks like at every step of the way, for this project, it's probably beneficial. So we're actually talking about doing an online show," Mikey teases.
So, with a live show looming and the release of a graphic novel and their second album, the story of Electric Century continues. And, as for Mikey, sober and with the pressure off, he has created a love letter to everything that shaped him growing up in Newark, New Jersey, in the 1980s. It's easy to assume Mikey lives in the shadow of his older brother, but, as the scale of Electric Century's second album shows, the spotlight is big enough for them both.
Taken from the April issue of Upset. Electric Century's self-titled album and corresponding graphic novel are out now.
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