For Frank Iero, making music has always been a coping mechanism. But it’s also much more than just a way of dealing with the hardships of life – it’s a means of stepping back to take in the hurricane that is life, both in all its glory and devastation and acknowledging the things you could, and maybe should, have done differently.
“People like to say ‘I live my life without any regrets,’ and I think that’s bullshit,” he says. “I think that if you don’t have any regrets then maybe you didn’t really live. Life is about mistakes and life is about scars and those are the things that help us remember that we’re alive. You shouldn’t get everything right – you should know what it feels like to feel sorry.”
Regret flows through Barriers, Iero’s third solo record, more than anything he’s ever made before. Made with his new band, The Future Violents, and recorded and mixed by Steve Albini, it’s an album that directly and deliberately challenges the doubts that plague us, whether on a trivial, everyday basis or a more meaningful level. To that extent, its fourteen songs are much more than a deeply existential journey into his heart and mind. They also reinvent who he is as a musician and tackle head-on the fundamental question of what it means to actually be alive, to be human.
“I never expected to do one solo record in my lifetime,” he chuckles, “let alone three. Every time I start a new record, I say to myself ‘This is it. This is the end. This is the last one.’ It got me thinking about how we set up these obstacles around ourselves. Sometimes they’re for protection and sometimes they’re to keep people out, and sometimes we even set them up so that we fail and we find solace in that failure. But whenever I find something that scares the shit out of me, that’s when I know I have to do it! And so these songs are about experiences that were either walls I wanted to break down or walls that I’d built up around myself in order to protect myself. But these songs were also things that I’d never attempted before but had always wanted to try.”
That much is clear from the very start of the record. It begins with “A New Day’s Coming”, a song that sounds nothing like anything Iero has ever made before. Part organ-led gospel singalong, part stirring, joyous hymnal, it actually began life as a lullaby. In this form, however, it reaches deep into his own past and tearing down any notion of who he was or is as a musician and songwriter.
“I would sing the chorus to my kids every night,” Iero explains, “but I couldn’t seem to finish it. I knew it was good but I could never figure out how to make it work in real life, and not just in this bedtime setting. And then I decided that with this new band, they were the key. It was the time to break down this wall, that I was going to make this song that I’d wanted to make for the past two or three years. And I originally based it on old soul songs that I really loved, asking myself how, say, Otis Redding or different Stax recording artists would do a song like this. I wanted to incorporate a lot of the inspirations that my grandfather and my father instilled in me as a young man. But I finally cracked it by taking those influences and putting my own spin on that style.”
He did so by infusing the song with a sense of hope and optimism and, as he puts it, a “sentiment that a change is coming” to counteract the negative aspects of being alive that can so easily infiltrate our thoughts on a regular basis. “I love that it’s so different from anything else you’ve ever heard from me before,” he continues. “It comes in first and blows the doors off with this idea that even though we’ve experienced all these things in the past, the sun is still going to rise again tomorrow and you have another chance to get things right. And I felt like that needed to be the sentiment that started the record.”
That gives way to a flood of different feelings, a blur of emotional vulnerability, existential uncertainty and optimistic dread that flows through each of these songs, alongside a great deal of self-recrimination and penance. Those things were all present, to some degree, in both of Iero’s previous records – 2014’s debut solo record with the cellabration, Stomachaches, and 2016’s Parachutes, made with a band he named the Patience – but never as much as they are on this record. Much of that can be traced back to October 2016, when he was on tour in Australia and a bus ran into he and his bandmates before crashing into their tour van. Although everyone escaped with their lives, it was a serious crash – and one which, more than two years later, understandably still shapes both Iero’s life and the music that he makes – although perhaps not in the way you might think.
“This is the first batch of songs I’ve written since having that near-death experience,” he says. “And when you face death, there’s a very definite moment where you ask yourself, ‘Okay, did reality kind of just split off? Am I truly here or am I not?’ So a lot of what you’re hearing in these songs is me questioning if I’m actually alive or is this all just a figment of my imagination. And if it is just my imagination, then should I just kind of yield into this dream state of what I perceive reality to be, even though it might not be real life? The worst part of that is no-one can really answer that question for you. People will try to, but then you start to think, ‘Well, if I’m imagining everything else then who’s to say I’m not also manufacturing this conversation in my head?’ And then you start to feel weird and selfish for thinking that the universe revolves around you and it just brings up all the shitty things you think about yourself that you believe you require penance for.”
With this latest cohort of musicians – previous collaborator Evan Nestor on guitar and backing vocals, Murder By Death’s Matt Armstrong on bass, Thursday’s Tucker Rule behind the drum kit and Kayleigh Goldsworthy on piano, organ and violin – Iero has created his most expansive and full-sounding set of songs to date. After the despondent yet hopeful soul of the opener, lead single “Young & Doomed” is an insistent, dark rock’n’roll anthem that flails with a wild and uncontrollable angst and energy. “Basement Eyes” and “The Unfortunate” turn the regret up to 11 yet still pack a bold and rebellious punch, while “Six Feet Down Under” is a bluesy stomp through the underworld of existence (or lack thereof). Elsewhere, “24k Lush” is a searing, soaring song of sorrow, and “Moto-Pop” is a loose, reckless and doom-laden rush through the past through which Iero emerges scratched, bruised and scarred, but, most importantly, alive. Yet while musically there’s more space on these songs – more room to breathe and contemplate, more tender, fragile moments than ever before – it’s no less vicious or intense than anything that preceded it. It’s a frenzied whirlwind of everything Iero has experienced and felt in his life, but in the eye of that past, present and future storm, it finds him at his most comfortable and confident.
“This is who I am, I create in order to survive. And every chance I get I’m going to evolve and change,” he says. “The ambition is to be for these songs to be perceived without any kind of past notion of what the project is supposed to sound like, to break down any and all boundaries and barriers that we’ve set up or that other people have set up for us. We really did go in and create something brand new for ourselves and that’s been such a challenge and fun undertaking. Barriers is a record that I still can’t believe I made and I’m so incredibly proud of it. I can’t wait for other people to be shocked and appalled and inspired by it. Hopefully it scares the shit out of them.”
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Frank Iero Vocals/Guitar Evan Nestor Guitar Matt Armstrong Bass
Tucker Rule Drums Kayleigh Goldsworthy Piano/Organ/Violin