By Dave Thompson
(Thanks to McCarthy for sending this to us)
You made it, then? You didn't kill yourself on the way? "I said I was a jaded rock star, not a suicidal one."
Billy Corgan has quite a reputation to live up to. In the months since Smashing Pumpkins second album, Siamese Dream, was unleashed, his pre-released press has haunted him with a vengence. On every magazine cover (and whining interminably within) , his miserable face gazes out with dispair, a career depressive who's finally got the world to pass him a tissue. I've seen him described elsewhere as a tortured artist. He reminds me of Eeyore.
Of course, he's got loads to be miserable about. Signed to Virgin Records on the strength of thier debut album, Gish, Smashing Pumpkins walked straight into the Next Nirvana Countdown, not by virtue of being grungy or grotty, or even coming from Seattle, but because... well, you know what they say about "timing is everything"? It's true. It's also true that it's not what you know, but who. The Pumpkins simply got it right on both counts.
They shared producers with Nirvana and a concert tour with the then rapidly breaking Pearl Jam (opening for the Red Hot Chilli Peppers). They had a single out on Sub Pop, and they turned up on the soundtrack to Singles. Maybe Seattle was just a place the Pumpkins had seen through the sides of a tour bus, but hey! America's a big place. How is anyone supposed to keep track of every little band's home address? They got lumped in with a national geographic obsession faster than you could dial a 206 area code number at random and have the phone answered by a mutant in-bred backwoodsman named Jethro.
And the expectations started rising.
It's been quick, these Pumpkins' rise to glory. Quick and relatively quiet. One day they were just another indie band; the next day, they were the new Nirvana. And if that's created problems, it's also paid off well. Siamese Dream, the band's second album (and first for Virgin) debuted at #10 on the national chart, on the strength of reputation alone. Corgan admits that when he heard the news he started "leaping up and down in an airport somewhere. But it's not something I like talking about, because I don't want people to think that sucsess is all I care about."
Yeah, you're misunderstood enough already, aren't you?
He agrees, then senses the windup. And I swear he just called me a wanker.
Smashing Pumpkins came together six years ago. The most hated band in their native Chicago, the teacher's pets in a classroom full of brats..the more time passes, the grosser grow the similes. It is true that the Smashing Pumpkin's fourth ever gig was opening for Jane's Addiction, in front of 1,000 fans. And it's also true that the show's promoter was one of Corgan's friends. But as Corgan himself is still patiently explaining, plenty of unknown bands get good breaks. " That doesn't necessarily mean that people will like them, though, does it?"
Because people did like the Pumpkins. Before long, thier own shows were pulling in crowds of 800-plus. So, while the proverbial Friends in High Places may have jumpstarted them a little, a car won't run unless the engine's in gear. Obviously, I deduce, the Pumpkins were ready for Big Things from the moment they started.
Cautiously, Corgan agrees. Cautiously because right now, everything he says is open to scrutiny. The sensitivity that comes out in his songs is now leeching into his very personality, he gives the impression of forever being on guard; forever watching his back; forever sitting on the edge of his seat, waiting for the monster to jump out of the TV screen- BOO! He jumps.
A couple of singles during -89-90, the Sub Pop one included, were followed by a deal with Virgin's pseudo-indie label, Caroline. The first album, Gish, appeared the following year, six months ahead of Nirvana, but close enough to get sucked up in it's slipstream.
The thing is, Corgan still can't figure out why. "It was good that we were get all this attention," Corgan confesses, "but I wasn't altogether happy about the direction it was coming from."
Anyboday who heard Nevermind, then tried the Pumpkins for more of the same, on the strength of mutual producer Buth Vig's new credentials, was doomed to disappointment. Both, of course, are classics in their way. But while Nirvana roared behind a silscreen cheen, the Knack getting up on the wrong side of the bed, the Pumpkins offered a far more volatile mixture, Queen with Calvin Johnson on guitar. Chalk and cheese. It wasn't the Pumpkins' fault people fancied a weird change of diet that month.
The way Corgan sees it, Smashing Pumpkins simply got caught up in one of rock'n'roll's periodic upheavals, scooped out of the kitty-litter of life and dumped on the shores of a brave new musical world. Did Elvis Costello complain when he was labeled "punk" and sanctified accordingly? Or Roxy Music, when its private art-school party was gatecrashed by the Glam Rock explosion?
Yes they did. But they stuck out their chins and rode the wave regardless. And when the debris settled, they were still standing proud. Because it doesn't matter what other people project upon you; if you remain true to your school, you're okay.
Or are you? the problems started somewhere in the middle of an 18-month tour. Guitarist James Iha and bassist D'Arcy Wretzky curtailed a long-time romance several thousand miles from home; drummer Jimmy Chamberlain developed what Rolling Stone prudishly described as "a propensity for substance abuse"; Corgan simply forgot how to write... and how to live.
And while that didn't stop him signing the inevitable major lable deal, it did keep him quiet where it matters. He turned to food, eating himself into a state of bloated obliciion, a little human butterball who used to write great songs. Used to, because he found he couldn't even do that anymore. The scars left by six months of physical gorging and mental anorexia festering through the nightmare of not being able to get his pain down on paper, are still visible.
Siamese Dream, the Pumpkins' second album, came in four weeks and a quarter of a million dollars behind schedule, and that was after Corgan had started writing again. The key track was/is/will forever more be "Today", a Life Sucks but What The Hell-It Can't Get Any Worse kind of song which was both the first past the writer's block and the first thing the band played for Virgin.
"We were working on the album, and there were all these people from Virgin coming round, th find out how things were going. So to get them off our backs, I decided to give them one song, 'Today'. And they loved it. The next thing we knew. all these people were shooting their mouths off about how great the album was oging to be, what it was going to sound like, and all on the strengh of this one song. We're sitting in this studio in Atlanta, and all we're hearing is that the album's a killer!"
The pressures to make sure it was just built from there, and for a moment it was touch-and-go. Corgan started eyeing the microwave again. "Then I realized that I just had to get on with what I was doing, and not care about what everyone else was going to say. Of course, I remained aware that the album was going to be scrutinized, that people weren't just going to put it on and say 'yes, very nice'. So I really went out of my way to trim the fat, listening to playback and saying to myself, 'It's a good song, but is it a hit... does it have that necessary..."
"Everything that mattered to me seemed to have gone out the window, I was changing details that I wouldn't normally change. But at the same time, I had to hang on to what made recording so special to me in the first place. When I was 14 years old, listening to a record on headphones, I didn't want a straight-ahead punk rock roar, I wanted little bits that went off in one ear and made you think, 'Wow'.
"The thing about recording is, the essentials really are basic. Drums soud like drums, guitars like guitars. So they have to be embellished, and that's what I enjoy most, the things you can do so that a drum sounds like something more than a drum, or a guitar sounds like something more than a guitar. Or more than just one guitar." Fact: certain passages in certain songs used 26 tracks for the guitar alone!
And while he "knew all along that some people would critize because there's so much going on in each track," he remained true to his vision. "I can understand people critizing a song because they don't like the music, or the lyrics. But to hammer it because I made a deliberate attempt to beautify it, because I didn't just release some backroom demo with teh guitars mixed too high, that's like critizing me for the way I walk."
He pauses, then adds, "Besides, I always got off on prog rock!" Later, he confesses that he rarely listens to other people's music while he's writing, "because I find myself subconsciously stealing things from whatever I'm listening to at the time- riffs, tiny inflections, things like that." Pressed for examples, he demurs, then relents at least a little. "Well, I have been known to sing a Doors song to one track on Gish!"
This time around, he's adamant that he restricted his borrowing to moods, not melodies- like when he found a mellotron simply rotting untouched in the studio. It was probably the first time it had been touched since the '70's, when such things were the rage, and when Corgan's own musical tastes were forged. He still adores Electric Light Orchestra.
"We were doing 'Spaceboy', and it really wasn't going anywhere. Then Butch [recalled from Gish, because not everyone has to break a winning partnership] suggested I give it a go. I did, and after that, I wanted to put it all over everything!"
And one day, he swears, he will.
"Eventually I will make an album which swings more to that side of things, although whether it'll be with Smashing Pumpkins or not is another matter. I've said it all along, that if we didn't have to play live, the band, and the band sound, would be much more flexible. What I'd really like to do... the first thing I'd do if I was making a record on my own, is something pretty heavily technological... turn into One Inch Nails. to be honest, i'm sick of the quitar. I'm jaded. I wish I could just step back in time to that initial rush I felt when we started, not be so aware of the bullshit."
But the bullshit, by which he means the myriad petty conventions which bind him to reality and stop him from really shooting off on the demented tangents he can hear in his head, keeps piling up. His art is an indurstry, and it doesn't matter if you can build the most revolutionary cars in the universe: If you work for Ford, you're gonna build Fords.
Today's stick-in-the-craw point is the length of CDs. Sixty minutes, seventy... once upon a time, a double album was a luxury, something bands made when they wanted to show off. Today, double album length is industry standard, and bands crawl out of nowhere with an hour-plus long record. The question is, were Smashing Pumpkins ready to make a record that long?
"No, we weren't, and we didn't want to do it. But you think about it in those terms these days: 'There's the 70-odd minutes of CD to fill, we have to give people thier money's worth'. I sometimes wish we could go back to the old 45-50 minute norm. A lot of albums, mine included, would benefit from that kind of restriction."
And that despite Siamese Dream having fulfilled pretty much every "next Nirvana" prophecy out there?
"I mean it. If I could have spent as much time on a 45-minute album as I did on a 60-minute one, who knows what it could have been like?
"An example. I wrote 'Cherub Rock' in half an hour. I heard it one day while I was driving up the road and it was one of the last songs I wrote before we did the album. The thing is, there's parts of me that wonder what would have happened if I'd spent four hours writing it, and not done something else. How much better a song would it have been?"
In the time it took to record the album, Smashing Pumpkins recorded 25 songs- 13 for the album, 12 for B-sides and bonuses. On top of that, Corgan wrote another 15. "So that's 40 songs I wrote, and a lot of them are interesting for various reasons. But they're not brilliant, and I do wrestle with that, quality over quantity."
Right now, quantity wins because the market demands it. Corgan just hopes that the quality will shine through regardless. "How improtant are B-sides anyway?"
Very. Especially when you can't be bothered to make a new album, but you have to get something out for Christmas one year! I mean, it worked for Nirvana!
"I'd love to laugh, but we may do that! We have literally an album's worth of B-sides already, and the way tours are these days, a yar and a half, two years on the road, no time to even write a song, let alone record one, we might not have a choice!" Another possibility, he reveals, is to put out an official live bootleg, "a really limited edition, with a plain sleeve and a lousy sound quality."
But that is in the future, and "quite truthfully, I don't like to look too far ahead. Great ideas often have a nasty habit of going horribly wrong." And as we say goodbye, he offers up a typical example.
"When we played London in September, I thought it would be really funny to come out dressed in a clown suit. I dunno, it was one of those things which seemed like a great idea when I first thought about it- 'Okay, I'll wear a clown suit.' But then I was backstage putting it on, knowing that within minutes I'd be walking out in front of 4.500 people with a red nose and a funny hat and big floppy shoes, and suddenly it didn't seem like such a great idea. Only by then it was too late."
The way he tells the story, you expect a sorry ending, a hail of cans and popcorn, rechristening him Bozo forever. Instead, "a friend who saw the show told me afterwards that once the initial shock had worn off, he forgot I was even waring it, and just got into the music again." So that's a compliment, right? "I suppose so." Some people just seem born to be sad.
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