Smashing Pumpkins History:Part 1
102.1 The Edge
Transcribed by: June Corgan
If you would like a copy of this interview on tape, email Nikki
If you would like a copy of this interview on tape, email Nikki
Chicago has always been known as a great music city. This hertitage has gone all the way back to the Southside blues clubs in the 30's and 40's. In the 50's it was 'Chess Records', that great electric blues label that featured everyone from 'Muddy Waters' to 'Bo Diddley' to 'Chuck Berry'. And, alright, Chicago gave us 'Styx' in the 70's, but the city redeemed itself in the 80's when groups like 'Ministry' and 'Big Black', and 'Urge Overkill' started making records. Plus there was the whole "house" music scene which changed the course of dance music.
Now in the 90's Chicago is realy hot! We've got 'Veruca Salt', 'The Poster Children', 'Liz Fair', 'Material Issue', more 'Ministry', more 'Urge Overkill'. But, if you talk about Chicago these days, there's one name that always comes to mind first. A four-piece co-ed group, whose reputation has been building ever since things have started coming together in 1989. They're now one of the biggest groups in the world. And from the outside they made it look easy; everything they've ever done has only made them bigger and more popular. But the truth is, it wasn't anything like that. The climb has been long and hard, and at times ugly. This is the real story behind 'The Smashing Pumpkins'.
'The Smashing Pumpkins', one of the most important bands in the world right now. Well, the first thing we've gotta do is cover some history. And everything starts March 17, 1967. That's the birth date of singer, and leader, Billy Corgan. We've got to start with him because, well...lets just face it, he's practically 95% of what the Smashing Pumpkins are.
William Patrick Corgan is his full name. He was born in Chicago in a really middle-class family. Well, actually, not completely normal. Billy's dad was actually a pretty good guitar player, and once auditioned for a band called "The Amboy Dukes". They were formed in Chicago in 1965, and before they moved to Detroit, they wanted to pick up another guitar player. Billy's dad was interested, until he found out his day job payed more than the 'Dukes' ever could. He turned down that gig, and it eventually went to a guy from Detroit named Ted Nugen. Yes...that Ted Nugen.
Even when he was really young Billy had a feeling that he was different from all the other kids. Part of this problem had to do with this big birth mark on his left hand; made him very self-conscious. But that was nothing compared to the emotional up heavel he felt when his parents split. He lived with his mom, then with his dad. Then one set of grandparents, then with the other. Then with his great-grandparents, then with his dad, and his new step-mom. Some pretty tough auxiliary for a kid who wasn't even 5 years old yet.
To make things even more difficult, Billy was often placed in charge of his three younger brothers, including Jesse, the youngest. Jesse was born with a serious genetic disorder, and required constant supervision. Couldn't walk or talk, or anything on his own.
Now, wait, it gets even more complicated. Part of the trip his parents laid on him was that they often told him he wasn't like the other children. He wasn't sure what they meant by that, but it sure made him feel isolated and different. Just the kind of thing a kid needs on top of his parents splitting up, and being forced to raise his three younger brothers, and one of them being disabled. Oh, his step-mom noticed all of this; Billy's sense of rejection, guilt, and obligation. So, she decided that he suffered from a persicusion complex, and sent him to a therapist. A therapist who just happens to be mom's good friend. Well this is great. So they expect him to spill his guts to a close family member, when a lot of his problems had to do with his family. IS it any wonder that he grew up feeling like an outsider? ("Disarm" plays)
Dispite all the emotional up heavels in the Corgan household, there was always music around. Afterall, dad did have visions of being a rock star. There were all kinds of records lying around. Like, 'The Beatles', 'Black Sabbeth', 'Judiest Preist'.
Later on Billy got into 'REM', 'U2', 'David Bowie'. Bought himself some few 'Thin Lizzy' albums, and ggot really into some of the British glam stuff, like 'T-Rex', and 'The Sweet'. And of course, dad still had his guitars.
At first Billy wasn't all to thrilled in having dad giving him some lessons. So dad spent most of his time teaching one of Billy's younger brothers. This was the one that was being encouraged in taking up music for a living. No one ever thought that Billy might wanna do this.
But one day after school, this would be about when he was 14, Billy walked into his friends basement to check out this flying V guitar that his friend had bought. It's the kind that Rick Neilson used to play in 'Cheap trick', and the kind that Ace Freely sometimes plays in 'Kiss'.
Suddenly something clicked; listening to music had always been an escape, but playing it seemed even better. ("Bury Me" plays)
Just a quick note about 'Bury Me' from from 'Gish' album: James Iha's back up vocals were recorded just after he blew through 5 Twinkies, 2 packs of M&M's, and a big glass of Mountain Dew. And the sugar rush hit him, just when he walked into the recording studio to sing. So that explains why he sounds a little wacked out there.
Anyways, back to the story. By the time he was 18, Billy was good enough to have his own band. They were this really gloomy, sudo-goth, quozzy, satanic, death metal outfit called "The Marks". And they were named after the fact that Billy and the drummer both had these really big birth marks.
Unfortunately, the mid-80's Chicago scene already had it's share of gloomy, goth bands, so 'The Marks' moved to Tampa, Florida. Death metal thing was just starting to happen down there, and Billy figured they'd fit in there. Didn't work out that way. Nine months later 'The Marks' were finished, and Billy, and his shaved eyebrows, were back in Chicago, with no band, and no prospects. This is 1986.
It was a pretty desperate time for a while, until he met James Iha. James Jonas Iha was 19, and he also grew up in surburban Chicago, and eventually ended up at Loyalola University studying graphic arts.
When they met, they talked about starting a bans together, and actually worked on a couple of songs together, but then JAmes took off with this band. They were called "Snake Train". Billy heard nothing from him for a couple of months. But then 'Snake Train' died, just like 'The Marks' did, and soon James was on the phone hoping to find work with Billy.
They had some good ideas, managed to get some low-key gigs at some of the local Polish bars around Chicago. The first show they played was nearly 1988, at a bar called "Track". Billy describes their music at the time as "geeky, gloomy, art rock".
Wasn't long after that, that Billy and James decided to check out a band called "The Dan Reid Network", at a bar called "Avalon". Now Billy and James HATED the band, and they weren't very subtle about it; calling them some "MTV-prepped AOR band", that "disgusted them". And the result of these comments was one of the great moments in musical surendipity.
One of the people in the club club was D'Arcy Wretzky, and she really liked the band. And she was really pissed when she heard Billy and James talking about them. And she really didn't like the way they would take them apart. She also didn't mind telling them they were both full of crap. They got into this huge argument out on the sidewalk, which oddly enough resulted in the three of them deciding to form a group together.
Ok, lets talk about D'Arcy for a second. She was about the same age, knew how to play bass, had recieved some classical training on oboe and violin, and she was always a pretty scrappy kid who often fought with her sisters. She once boasted about scaring her older sister into submission by throwing knives. She had also spent sometime in Europe. After she had finished high school, she moved to Paris to live with a foreign exchange student. But, then one of D'Arcy's friends came over to visit during Christmas, and they did something that got them both kicked out of the house. D'Arcy didn't have any choice, so she flew back to Chicago. O'Hare was the closest airport to South Haven, Michigan where she lived with her parents. But when her landed, and she tried to call her folks to come pick her up, they weren't home. So there she was; starnded at O'Hare Airport, with no money, and no where to go. Her only option was to phone a friend who gave her a place to crash. Within a couple of days, staying in Chicago looked a whole lot better than going back to South Haven, Michigan. So she got a job in a bakery, and decided to stay. Three months after she started baking buns, she runs into Billy and James outside the 'Avalon'.
Now, they may have had a group, but they still had no drummer. But that was ok, because the Pumpkins thought they could accomplish everything by using a drum machine. And that was the line-up that they used to record a quick demo that they sent out to some of the local bars. Ironically enough, the first place that offered them a gig was the 'Avalon'.
One of the 50 people in the crowd that night, the night of their first gig, was Joe Shanahan. Joe owned another club called "The Caboray Metro". It's a really cool, highly respected place. And he offered the group another gig if, and ONLY if, they got rid of the drum machine and hired a real person. Joe referred Billy to a mutual friend, who in turn referred them to Jimmy Chamberlin.
Jimmy was from near by Joliette, Illinois, and as a musician he was way ahead of the other three. His father played jazz clarinet, his brother was a drummer, and Jimmy had been playing drums since he was, like, 8. And this guy could play! He was big into the whole big band thing; 'Benny Goodman', 'Gean Troupa', 'Buddy Rich'. Tough music, and you really had to have the chops to play it. But Jimmy didn't have much of a problem. Every though he was really young, he had a part in a 10-piece show orchestra called "J.P and the Cats", that played in Holiday Inns from Chicago to Nevada.
Needless to say he wasn't all too impressed with the musician ship he found in the Pumpkins, and to be honest, he wasn't really all to much of a big rock fan. Up until he joined the Pumpkins, Jimmy thought that the most radical band was 'Squeeze', and he wasn't sure he wanted to join a band that would be heavier than 'Squeeze'. But he really liked their musical ideas, and he really liked their attitude: "The Smashing Pumpkins were never meant to be a small band," Billy maintained, "This band is either going to be a big band, or a no band."
Jimmy joined the Pumpkins in time for their fourth gig, an opening spot for 'Jane's Addiction' at the 'Caboray' in Chicago, and within six months, they had a pretty impressive local following, all based on the word of mouth. They went from playing infront of 50 people with a drum machine, to selling out rooms that could hold 800. They were finally ready to make some records.
If you had been following the Pumpkins around Chicago in 1989-1990, you might have been lucky enough to pick up a couple of tapes that they used to sell after gigs from the stage. There was one called "Moon", featuring five songs, then there was a nine track cassette called "Eye", which featured a very, very, very ealry version of 'Rhinoceros'. These days those tapes are rare, and whoever's got one, has something very valuable.
In 1989, a small Chicago label called "Limited Potential" released the first offical Smashing Pumpkins single. It was called "I Am One", and only 1,000 7" singles were pressed up, and the song also appears on a compliation of Chicago bands called "The Absolute Middle of Nowhere". The original version is practically impossible to find now. Copies of that 7" sell up to a $100 each. But the Pumpkins re-recorded it a few years later for their debut album "Gish". Billy calls this "the first real Pumpkins song." The one that really kicked the band into gear. ("I Am One" plays)
The Pumpkins were with that label for just that one single, that's because out in Seattle, "Sub Pop" had snagged a copy of "I Am One", and asked the Pumpkins if they would be interested in having one of their songs released in part of "Sub Pop's Single of the Month Club". (Now remember this is 1990, and the whole Seattle scene is still an underground secret)Thinking that this would be a nice boost to their integrity and creditability, the Pumpkins said sure. So 'Sub Pop' got a song called "Tristessa" and released it on a 7" single made up of marble pink vinyl.
Now this isn't the same version that later showed up on 'Gish', they recorded that one too, but let me play you the b-side to that single. They recorded it on the same day as the original take of "Tristessa", which was the first time they got to work with an unknown producer named Butch Vig. Here's a song called "La Dolly La Vita". ("La Dolly La Vita" plays)
After that 'Sub Pop' single came out, they were ready to release their debut album with 'Sub Pop'. But then Billy Corgan heard something that disturbed him. Now forget the fact that 'Sub Pop' was almost broke, and had trouble paying their bills, and their bands, Billy heard that the 'Afgan Wigs', another 'Sub Pop' band, would not be able to have a say in what their album cover would look like. Billy wanted complete control, so he told 'Sub Pop' to get lost, and he started sending demo tapes out to other labels.
By now, alot of record labels were interested. One actually said that the Pumpkins had the potential to be the next 'Jane's Addiction'. Which again irritated Billy, because he wanted people to know that his band was unique.
"It's no wonder to me that there's so much imitation going on, because there really isn't...the ground work for a band to take it's time, learn how to be it's own band and come up, ya know. There's too much money and there's too much quick attention dangled infront of people's faces. See, in our case, we didn't really have a choice. we could've signed with a major label, and have a major label album right away, but it's not what we really wanted to do. We felt much more comfortable, kinda, going in the band, touring...honing the bands shops, all the basic...you know...'hit the road' kinda crap." -quote from Billy
In the end, the Pumpkins singed to "Caroline records", a subsidiary of "Virgin". In December, 1990, they moved up the interstate to Madison, Wisconsin, and into Butch Vig's "Smart Studios", and boy things got complicated real fast.
With the exception of one song, everything was entirely written by Billy. And he was really starting to become some kind of a control freak. Took two months to record the basic tarcks, and then two more to mix and master the record. That's not to say that the album didn't have contributions from the other members; D'Arcy did the cover art work; and the inner sleeve featured a picture of James' dog Buggs. He's a Huskie-lab wire run across.
When the album finally came out in May, 1991, they had decided to name it after Lilian Gish, a silent filmstar from the 20's. This is one of the singles. ("Rhinoceros" plays)
A weird thing happened, shortly after 'Gish' came out. The Pumpkins suddenly found themselves in the middle of this whole grunge thing that was happening. Nevermind that the Pumpkins did release a single on 'Sub Pop', and Billy was friends with this singer named Courtney Love. And at first listen. yeah, the Pumpkins guitars did sound all big and grungy. And then the Pumpkins contributed that song to a movie called "Singles", whaich was set across the whole Seattle grunge scene, so you can see why it happened.
It was annoying to be lumped into that whole category, but it didn't hurt either. Because it's how bands like 'Nirvana', and 'Pearl jam', and 'Soundgarden' get more and more attention, the Pumpkins benifited from more and more the fall-out. Especially after grunge fans discovered that the Pumpkins did the last track on the "Singles" soundtrack. It was called "Drown". ("Drown" plays)
Things for the Pumpkins picked up especially after they appeared on the BBC in September. They recorded three songs for "The John Peel Show", including this old song from 'The Animals', it's called "Girl Called Sandoz". ("Girl Called Sandoz" plays)
The Pumpkins toured behind 'Gish' for about 18 months, and by the time they got home...the band was a mess. They had sucked at the 1992 'Redding Festival', Billy's girlfriend had left him, lost his apartment. James and D'Arcy had been dating, but then they had broken up. Jimmy was getting deeper and deeper in to booze and drugs. And to make matters worse, the Pumpkins were expected to go straight into the studio to record an album that would be bigger and better than 'Gish'. No pressure...right?
By the end of 1992, everyone was telling Billy Corgan that the second Pumpkin's album was gonna make the band "the next Niravna." Only problem is, that Billy didn't really want to be the next Nirvana. And he also didn't have any songs for that album.
He had this complete case of writers block. He tried to come up with some new ideas...but there was just nothing there. And he got really, really depressed. He started eating, and his weight went way up, which made him even more depresssed. Actually it got to the point where he was suicidal.
But then a break through. When he was absolutely at rock bottom, Billy wrote a song about how things couldn't possible get any worse. He called it "Today". ("Today" plays)
When the Pumpkins moved down to Atlanta to start recording their second album, Billy played a demo of that song for Butch Vig and the rest of the band. They loved it, they thought it was great. Then some executives from the record label flew down to see how the sessions were going, because they heard there were some...um...problems. They heard the tape, and they loved 'Today' too.
At first Billy felt really good about getting all this approval, but then he realized it only increased the pressure because everyone now expected all the songs on the new album to be as good as 'Today'. That's when the control freak side of Billy really kicked into full gear, and that's when things got difficult.
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