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Knowledge Transfer: My Chemical Romance's Ray Toro Returns With Solo Bow 'Remember The Laughter'

Tuesday, 15 November 2016 Written by Alec Chillingworth

Changing nappies might not get the blood pumping like headlining Reading Festival with Brian May at your side, but having a baby puts all that stuff into perspective. The awards, the sold-out crowds, the adoration and disdain...it’s all disposable. It’s all gone if you want it to be.

And Ray Toro chose to bin it. He played guitar in My Chemical Romance and, by the looks of things, had a pretty good time. In a little over a decade, the New Jersey band changed the world. ‘The Black Parade’, their third album, altered the way we perceive music in relation to the realm of pop culture.

It still stands as the last time a rock band did that. No-one else has really come close in the 10 years since its impact. Reminiscing about the final days of My Chemical Romance today, Toro doesn’t seem bitter, jaded or unwilling to talk. He’s the same joyful, humongous-haired Ray of sunshine we saw in the videos and the live show.

“When you’re in a band and you’re first starting, it’s easier to focus on what a band should focus on: writing great songs, performing live and being the best you can,” Toro says. “Things start growing bigger and there are just more moving parts – responsibilities, deadlines, timelines. It’s just a bunch of stress that gets added to your life. I haven’t had that for the past three years. Allowing myself the time to grow as an artist and songwriter was the best thing I could’ve done for myself.”

Since the band split, the central foursome have all shown the world what they can do. Vocalist Gerard Way has crooned like Bowie during a burgeoning solo career, while his brother Mikey dabbled with other artists in the studio before settling with synth-pop outfit Electric Century. Frank Iero, their other six-stringer, has returned to his roots with two albums of furious, heart-on-sleeve, no regrets, no apologies post-hardcore. And Toro? Now for something else entirely.

You know him for the guitar hero moments. Forget all that. Well, most of that. Toro’s debut solo release, ‘Remember The Laughter’, is about as closely linked to My Chemical Romance as it is a Norwegian black metal band that recorded their discography on tape inside a goat. It is not what you’re expecting and nor should it be. Music’s supposed to be unpredictable and, on that level, Toro’s delivered.

‘Remember The Laughter’ is a sonic dodgem with pillows on the front. Toro leads us through a smorgasbord of genres, with his Queen-indebted guitar solos the only true link to the old days. It’s a sugar-coated, undeniable pop record sprinkled with strings, piano and Toro’s accessibly blunt vocal delivery.

“Less musically and more conceptually, certain songs have a classic rock influence like Pink Floyd or the Beatles,” Toro says. “We Save is kinda my take on a blues riff; other songs like Look At You Now and Requiem are a little more rooted in ‘80s solo artists like Phil Collins and Peter Gabriel, like with the atmospheric stuff they were getting into at the time.”

Lyrically, ‘Remember The Laughter’ revolves around a loose concept. A man returns to his childhood home and hears a familiar melody. It leads him to the attic, where he discovers a wind-up toy from his youth and a time capsule filled with childhood memories. The budgetary constraints of an independent release stopped Toro including a giant picture book with the vinyl and CD versions, but a quick stop at his website reveals the album’s lyrics and accompanying visual prompts.

Small intervals break up the musical flow and contribute to the narrative, with tracks like Wedding Day and Father’s Day dragging up actual recordings from Toro’s life to solidify the story. “It’s recreating an actual moment of life,” Toro says. “It’s real life amplified.” One of these episodes, though, holds particular poignancy. Waiting Room rattles along with cold hospital room beeps and that familiar wind-up melody tying everything together.

“That sound of the wind-up toy brings [the protagonist] back to the day his father passed away,” Toro says. “Waiting Room sets the scene for his father passing, then Remember The Laughter switches viewpoints where it’s a conversation between father and son. That song’s basically the last words he leaves with his son before he passes on. So that’s what that interstitial is about – it’s a scene-setter, a closer for the whole record.”

That’s an ambitious statement for any musician. But for a man who’s been out of the game, save for mostly under-the-radar Soundcloud snippets, for three years? A man who played guitar in one of the 21st century’s most important bands? Well, let’s just say there are high expectations.

“I was able to put [everything] into words,” Toro says. “My thoughts and feelings on becoming a father, a little bit dealing with the break-up [of My Chemical Romance], the generational passing-down of knowledge, dealing with my regrets about things I could’ve done differently with my parents and how I treated them – how I saw them and maybe didn’t appreciate them enough.

"I feel like I was able to really process a lot of things going on inside me through the lyrics and songs, and that was definitely something very new for me. I’d never written lyrics before. Some of the things I’m writing about and singing about, it took me three years to get to that point.”

Sometimes Toro’s lines wander into slightly hammy territory – The Lucky Ones’ “Life is a mystery” coupled with Together With You’s “Love is a mystery” are the prime culprits – but the earnest approach benefits him. He’s not spitting double entendres, nor veiled, spooky metaphors for death. He’s just singing what he’s feeling.  

The record’s semi-autobiographical, familial aspect runs deeper than just the lyrics, though, as Toro’s wife and then-two-year-old son both appear on ‘Remember The Laughter’. His son frequented the studio and fiddled with the gear before ending up playing percussion on The Lucky Ones, while his wife provides vocals on an unspecified song. We thought it was Walking In Circles. We were wrong. “I just happen to have a really high voice at times,” Toro deadpans.

The personal points on the record are counterbalanced by tracks like The Great Beyond, where aspects from outside Toro’s initial lyrical inspiration seep into the mix. “There’s this free-climber called Alex Honnold and he’s amazing,” explains Toro, enthusiasm leaking from him like a punctured Capri-Sun. “There’s a documentary about him called Alone On The Wall and basically he climbs mountains with nothing but a bag of chalk and his bare hands.

"The Great Beyond is inspired by him. [The protagonist] goes off on his own spiritual journey to find himself, and maybe his parents aren’t 100% sure it’s the right thing for him. I tried to picture myself on the side of a mountain and imagine what sounds I’d hear, so that’s why the beat’s the way it is in the verses; why there’s an eagle and you can hear a chalk bag as a percussion instrument.”

Mixed, engineered and almost entirely performed by Toro, ‘Remember The Laughter’ is very much this man’s pride and joy. Every nuance of the record is explained with intricate detail and the subject matter held within comes straight from his heart. Whether you like it or not remains to be seen, as its influences are often drawn from well outside the My Chemical Romance sphere. Whether you listen to it or not, though, really comes down to this: do you want to hear some honest music?

'Remember The Laughter' is out on November 18.

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