In 2016, ten years after My Chemical Romance’s theatrical opus The Black Parade became a musical landmark for morbidity in the 21st century, Frank Iero met death. Literally, not creatively.
The prolific guitarist was touring on his second solo album since MCR disbanded in 2013 when he was victim to a near-fatal bus accident in Sydney, Australia. In a wincing interview with MTV News a few months after it happened, he described how he was dragged under the bottom of a bus and miraculously saved by a large rucksack he was wearing, which hitched onto the bumper. Once he became aware of what had happened, he rushed over to tend to one of his bandmates who was crying out, “I can’t feel my legs,” and he soon realized his other bandmate was bleeding profusely. “It’s incredible to me that we’re all still alive,” he said in the piece. “No one that witnessed the accident thought that we would be.”
Barriers (out Friday via UNFD) is Iero’s first new record since that harrowing day, which he calls a “monumental, life-changing event” while speaking with Billboard. On it, Iero delves deep into his experience and the myriad ways it’s affected his day-to-day since then. From fatherhood to reckoning with life-long regrets to existentially questioning whether he really did make it, Barriers is a breaking down of the walls he built to protect himself from the most trying tribulations he’s ever dealt with. It’s also his most sonically diverse and musically risky record yet. The band he enlisted, dubbed The Future Violents, features members of Thursday and Murder By Death, and their musical proficiency helped Iero lean into the blues and jazz influences that informed his taste as a child.
Iero spoke to us at length about mortality, parenthood, being “scared shitless” and making what he believes is the best record of his entire career.
You’ve rearranged your band’s lineup for each of your solo albums. Why is that? Why not go with the same group?
I think it’s one of those where life happens, but also, I like the fact that it kind of puts you out of your comfort zone. And it makes you think about music in different ways. I [joined] my first band when I was 11, I played my first show at 13. First tour at 17. And for me, the exponential growth as a musician has always come from playing with people who were better than me, or maybe think in different ways. And as scary as that is, and as much as that disrupts a path, as a musician it’s always been beneficial in the long-run…. I feel like that’s when I make the best music and when I make the best musical decisions — when I’m terrified.
So were you terrified about the lineup you chose for The Future Violents? Did they intimidate you?
Oh god yes [laughs]. I’ve known Tucker [Rule, drummer] since probably 1999/2000. And when I first saw him play [with Thursday] they had signed to Eyeball and they were the tightest, most ferocious band I had ever seen. And I remember thinking to myself like, oh my god, this band is fucking phenomenal and this drummer: not only is he powerful and tight and plays with such feeling, but he’s writing hooks on drums. And that was just so mind blowing to me.
Same thing goes with Matt Armstrong [bassist]. I met him through Tucker because Thursday ended up playing a show with Murder By Death… And that was the thing: Thursday was fantastic, but this band [was] doing something even more cinematic. And I feel like both those bands really influenced what everybody else was doing.
Evan [Nestor], who’s my brother-in-law, I met him when he was like 15. And got to watch him be a young man and start local bands and stuff like that. And I got to see his first couple shows and I knew that he had something special. And when he was of age I took him on tour and it never stopped, basically. And then the last person that we filled the band out with was Kayleigh Goldsworthy, who is a multi-instrumentalist that I met about two years ago. Unreal, man. Another one where it was like, whoa, this person is on a different wavelength than everybody else. It’s hard to put into words, it’s hard to teach. It’s just something that you have. And when you see it you know it’s special.
So yeah, was I scared? Fuck yes. But basically I got this dream team together and I was like if I could place together all the people that I wanted to start a band with, it was this band. And if that didn’t work, then geez I’d be such a fool, right?
I’ve read in a few places that you never thought you’d make a solo album, and every time you do you’re like, “alright this is the last one.” You’ve been a very active musician for two decades now, so I’m wondering why the advent of another solo record surprises you?
I think it’s because it is so depleting. As fulfilling as it is, it takes everything out of me. And I think to myself, oh well there’s no way I could ever do that again. And then I find myself in the position like I did, where I had this band that I’d always wanted to do. It is that silly moment of, just when you thought you were out, they pull you back in. And it’s fuckin’ true man, it’s crazy.
Even after doing this record I was like, “oh man that was a rough one.” I didn’t think I’d be able to accomplish what I did…. So the idea of putting it all on the line again and opening up those wounds and having to do all of this again, that idea is like, oh man, I don’t know if you can? But at the same time, I don’t know if I can’t. Music to me is a lot like breathing and I would have a hard time never writing another song and making another record.
You said this was “a rough one” and you were really surprised you made it out of it. Why was this one so challenging?
Well this is the first record that I made since I had an accident in Sydney. And that was a near-death experience and it changed me. I think when you have an experience like that it seeps into your DNA and you evolve. And you become a different person than you were. Your brain doesn’t think the same way, you don’t react the same way. Food doesn’t taste the same. These are all just physical changes.
And so going into it, it was hard for me to write this record. I knew I had this giant elephant in the room that I needed to address, but everything that I was saying just didn’t seem important enough or encompass all of the feelings and emotions that I had about it. So for the longest time I pushed it off and I thought to myself, “well hey, maybe that’s just what I did in a past life and I don’t really know how to do that anymore?” And that was sad, but I decided that I would have to kind of move on.
And like I said, this amazing aligning of stars came about, and these people that I had wanted to start a band with for 20 years were all free. And I thought to myself, “how shitty to miss out on this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity because you can’t deal with this thing that happened to you?”
After the accident, did you find it easier to speak about what had happened once you started writing songs about it?
I don’t know. Here’s the thing, when an experience like this happens it turns into this three-prong approach and feeling. One is, you’re happy because you know it could be worse and you’re still conscious and you’re still here.
The second one is that you realize that now you’ve met death. And most people just get to do that once and that’s it. But you really get to see how abrupt and brutal it can be, and how everything can kind of be taken from you in an instant. Like first-hand. So you shake his hand and then he turns his hand away from you and you know that eventually, you’re going to have to meet it again. And that realization is a bit hard to swallow. That’s a rough one.
And then the third is probably the hardest one. You start to question, well, did I really make it? Or did I not and is my reality just a weird manifestation of my subconscious? And am I just kind of imagining everything? That’s a rough one because no one can tell you what’s real. And I think the writing of the record and really addressing that head-on.
I wrote a song on this record called “Six Feet Down Under” and it’s directly just a conversation that I had with my insurance-appointed therapist. And it’s basically, thank you so much for all your kind words and the things you learned in school that you should tell me, but none of this matters because you don’t know what I’m feeling [laughs]. Because I don’t know that you’re real and that’s a fucked up — that’s really crazy.
So writing that and just putting that out into the world and kind of saying these things that I know sound a bit insane, that was very freeing. And that helped me get to a point where I can just accept that no matter if it’s real or if it’s imagined, it is my reality and I have to make the best of it because this is the hand that I’m dealt… Because you do get an ache to just say fuck it and throw it all away, and just really taste destruction because at least that feels real. So there’s an acceptance there that I really needed and that I’m happy for.
So how did you find yourself translating all of this musically? How did these experiences sound to you and how did you want to put them into song?
A lot of these songs needed to sound a specific way. And early on while we were discussing where we were gonna do it, who we were gonna do the record with, Steve Albini’s name came up, and going out to Chicago to record at Electrical Audio… and when he signed on and we knew that that’s where it was going to be done, that was huge for me because then I started to write a record that I knew I was going to make with Steve.
And so I started to write and I started to attempt things that I had always wanted to attempt. Different genres and different styles of musicality, and also to chase tones that I heard in my head. And that was huge. When you have somebody at the board that is a genius, that you can speak to in abstract terms and give references to. And they say, “okay give me two seconds.” And they mic it and you’re hearing the tone that you had in your head, that’s huge.
Where does the title Barriers come from? What are these barriers you’re breaking down?
Well I think the main barrier for me was the accident. This event that I didn’t feel like maybe I was worthy enough, or the things I was saying weren’t worthy enough to talk about. I felt like no matter what came out of my mouth, no matter what came out of my hands when I was picking up a guitar, it just didn’t feel like I was able to get everything out.
And it became apparent to me that I needed to be as open and honest as humanly possible, and I think that’s when doors started to open. When I took a song like “Six Feet Down Under” and really just went for the jugular and talked like I was talking to a therapist and let it all out. And that was a huge breakdown of that barrier for me. And me realizing that, I think that gave me the strength to go off and tackle other things.
What were some of those other things that you were shy to talk about?
I think it’s things that I went through in my childhood. Problems with addiction and different elements of abandonment issues, the divorce of my parents. Things of that nature. There’s a lot of stuff that I always maybe touched on but then shied away from. And so this was a time for me to kind of shed a lot of that stuff.
I know the intro, “A New Day’s Coming,” was originally a lullaby you sang to your kids. How does being a father influenced your creative process, and how it influenced some of your thoughts on this record in particular?
Yeah, it’s funny, man. Like the accident, [fatherhood] is a life changing event. It changes everything. Your life is no longer about you. You realize how selfish you are after you have kids. You’re like oh my god, this was just about me and now it’s not about me at all.
So you want to be a better person. So for me, this is the way it started. At bedtime we would do this thing where we would pick either a story or a song. And usually [my daughters] would pick a song and I was lucky enough to be able to write a song with my daughters… It was called “Best Friends Forever.” And it started as basically my daughter Lilly taunting my other daughter, just screaming in her face like, “best friends forever but not now” kind of thing. Whenever she would get mad at her.
So I thought alright let’s take this and turn it into a positive. So I got a guitar one day and we all sat down and figured out what the melody would be and we wrote this song and I ended up actually recording it when I did the EP with Steve Albini. And so at night, when they would pick a song to sing, they would inevitably pick the song that they wrote because they know the words to it.
But then they would want to do one more and I’d think to myself like, “oh man all my songs are a little bit on the darker side, I don’t want to sing a song about drugs or shit like that. I need some new material.” And I wanted to have that, I wanted to have this positive outlook for them. A song that you could sing for them at night that’s representative of, listen, no matter what happens today, you can wipe that slate clean and tomorrow is a new day.
And I thought to myself, wow, what a better way to start this record than wiping that slate clean and saying to the listener as well, it’s not about what you’ve done in the past. It’s not about the records that I’ve made in the past. It’s not about any of that. That’s all gone now, this is a new chapter, this is a new day.