"Smashing Pumpkins: Living the Dream"
August of 1993
By J. Kevin Unsell
(Thanks to Brian Muehlhaus for sending this to us)
Sitting in the living room of Billy Corgan's house on Chicago's North Side, I watch the turntable spin around and around. "The Pleasure Principle" by Gary Numan in on, but no sound is coming out of the speakers. The house is very quiet except for the fan, which blows of air into an already steamy room. I'm alone in the room, but the rest of the Pumpkins will be arriving shortly to rehearse an acoustic set. The living room in not living anymore. It is still.
Today is the calm before the storm. Tomorrow, Corgan, chief architect/singer/songwriter/guitarist, and the rest of the Smashing Pumpkins - Jimmy Chamberlin, drums; James Iha, guitars; D'Arcy, bass - will take off for Europe on a brief acoustic tour before the release of their thunderous new album "Siamese Dream" (Virgin), their major label debut. Today is also the calm after the storm, for in the two years since the release of "Gish" (one of the largest selling indie records ever) and one year since the song "Drown" on the "Singles" soundtrack catapulted them to new heights, Smashing Pumpkins lived up (or down) to their name. The band was racked with personal problems, rumors of heavy drug use, and they came close to splitting up.
But, all of that is apparently behind them now, as listeners of "Siamese Dream" will attest: it shimmers in charity and burns the black candle at both ends. Billy Corgan, who has broken the silence of the room with his potato salad munching, wants to set the record straight. No more hiding behind clouds, he says.
Corgan begins this lenghty, candid interview with a logistically complex description of what Smashing Pumpkins will be doing over the next several months: a truncated European tour, a mini-Midwestern tour of small clubs that they would normally never play (rough 'n' ready local boys Catherine is the opening act), then three sold-out shows at the Metro this month before heading back to Europe for a six-week festival tour. The beginning of October marks the genesis of a two and a half month tour of the States blasting out the velvity barrage of "Siamese Dream."
Yet the newly married Corgan doesn't seem to mind the grind. He's feeling, sounding, and looking better than he has in a long time. For awhile, things were not so sunny and the clouds were darkly moving in.
What's been happening in the two years since "Gish?" Corgan lets out a deep, hysterically loud laught:
"Nervous breakdowns. My life fell apart. Everything went to shit. It's really weird. Pary of you is still this stupid Chicago kid, but all of a sudden your opinion matters where it didn't matter before. Not to say that this caused a nervous breakdown. But I'm saying that all of these things added up to create not a pleasant thing...Girlfriend problems. A wife now."
Is this the same woman you had been going out with before? (Corgan and his wife had broken up before the marriage.)
"Right, right. It was really awful," Corgan says as he finishes his potato salad. "I slept on D'Arcy's floor and I lived at the practice space. This is all while I'm writing the new album. The whole thing was messy and I was flipping out and I had Virgin calling me every week going, 'When are you gonna go in the f---ing studio?' and I'm like, "I don't have enough tunes.' The band was...everybody just lost sight of why, for lack of a better way to put it, why we were in Smashing Pumpkins, what the Pumpkins were about. We suddenly became cliches. Everyone was either drug-addled, too busy to bother, too busy bein' cool."
"I'm not saying that I'm excluded from this kind of commentary. You get really caught up in everything that surrounds being a band except being a band. The visceral part of actually getting together, playing, and making music suddenly doesn't seem as important when you've got 20 interviews and Joe wants you here and Bill wants you here.
"We just fell apart as a band," he continues. "People could leave this band but I'm the only person who could break the band up. The band came, in my mind, as close as it ever has to that point. I really felt that we had lost sight of what we were...I felt that we have lost sight of being a great band. We had become like every other band. I felt that suddenly we had become common. I really challenged everyone. Everyone started to make an emotional commitment."
To doorbell rings and Corgan goes to answer it. I sneak a quick look at his vinyl collection: "Lights Out, UFO; Hemispheres, Rush; Curtis Mayfield Live; Jackie Gleason Presents That Moment;, Jail Break, Thin Lizzy; Bitches Brew, Miles.
Corgan comes back into the room with Jimmy Chamberlin, tough and tight drummer for the Pumpkins, who's wearing an old Spin T-shirt, green combat shorts, and turned-down boots. Chamberlin plops on the couch and Corgan concludes this troublesome topic with what eventually lifted the Pumpkins out of this slump.
"I believe that it was my desire not to fail. Fear. It's just one of those things. I shot my mouth off a lot, I said a lot of things and, suddenly, I was goona be a f---in' chump. And the thought of that and the thought of having worked so hard and toured and done everything and then put out a shit album...It seemed so worthless."
"So I made up my mind at that point ot kick into another gear. I was gonna do anything. And it took its toll on my friendships, it took its toll with my family relationships, it took its toll with my girlfriend. I mean, everything fell apart and suddenly I'm sleeping on D'Aarcy's floor."
Chamberlin goes out back for a smoke. I ask Corgan about the oft-reported rumor that Smashing Pumpkins had already signed to major label Virgin when they signed to indie Caroline. Any validity to this tale?
"It's true. Here's the thing: at the time it all happened, it made no sense to tell anybody. You gotta remember, this was two years ago and indie consciousness and indie political correctness was a lot more uptight. The situation with us was, we had every major label flying in to see us. We had humongous offers. I can remember when "Spin" reported that Nirvana had signed for $750,000. The offers that we were getting were in the neighborhood of that. We were definitely a buzz band."
"So we could sign with these major labels or we could sign with Caroline or we could sign with Sub Pop. With that on the table, I'm thinkin', if we sign with an indie, we take the chance that if things don't got quite right, we lose the momentum that we have and we're f---ed. If you're in New York or L.A., maybe you wouldn't be as f---ed, but if you're in Chicago and your album dies, you're in trouble. That's reality..."
"So we signed knowing that no matter what happened with the Caroline album, we would be able to have a second album. Virgin was the best because they accepted that we wanted no label intervention. Virgin didn't have anything to do with the Caroline record, not at all. When we were on Caroline, we were a Caroline band."
One consistent trait that has always been an alluring part of Smashing Pumpkins is the dichotomy of heavy and soft that exists within the same song. This characteristic is just as apparent on "Siamese Dream" at it was on "Gish.". The polarity is as startling as wet blood on white velvet, a glinty silver filling embedded in a rotten tooth, or the hot/cold sensation of touching smoky dry ice.
"On a simple level," Corgan explained, "when you play 'heavy songs,' you notice that the heavier songs seem heavier when you play mellow songs with them. Then, one minute into a heavy song you start goin', 'Man, this is gettin' to be a drag already.' It's all about makin' the songs seem fresh. I mean, how many rock songs have you heard where it's got the greatest guitar riff in the world and then, one minute in, you've heard the song? There are no surprises, nothin."
"Our philosophy is either up and down or up, up, up and up. It either gets loud and then quiet. "Today" [a fine example of this dynamic from "Siamese Dream"], when we originally played it, was loud all the time. Somewhere not too long before we recorded the song, I got really sick of the heavy. I was gettin' bored. If I'm gettin' bored, I'm thinkin', somebody else it gettin' bored. So we decided, let's not just make it quiet, let's pull the bass out. You really have to be attentive to your own interests in the song. I think that determines the arrangements more than anything. I can just tell from playing with everyone for so long when they're getting bored with a song."
I look over at the turntable: "The Pleasure Principle" is still rotating. Corgan offers me some water and shows me the CD book for "Siamese Dream". It's huge, about 20 pages of lyrics, disturbing photos, little drawings. "Siamese Dream" continues in the Pumpkin's tradition but expands, broadens, and takes a lot more chances than "Gish." Midwestern heavyweight Butch Vig (Nirvana, Sonic Youth) produced again, and the Pumpkins have beefed up the arrangements: the majestic "Disarm" has 40 tracks of violin and cello symphonically injected into the mix, "Soma" features R.E.M.'s Mike Mills on piano, and the ballsy "Geek USA" is "like Gish all in one song," according to Corgan. The album was recorded in Atlanta, which seems an odd choise at first.
"Our initial criteria for studios were: not Chicago because of home distractions - family, friends, Smart Bar," Corgan glares humorously at Chamberlin, who shakes his black-topped head and chuckles, "and warmth, because we knew we were gonna be recording in the winter. People are generally in a better mood when it's warm out. On some days, before we would record, we'd sit outside for 30 minutes and catch a little sun. It was nice. We also managed to miss another winter in Chicago: two years in a row. But we got the Blizzard of the Century in Atlanta. Plus, the studio was well equipped for what we wanted. The board they had in the studio, Steely Dan had recorded on and John Lennon. It was a very '70s sounding board. We wanted that - that Black Sabbath sound!"
Chamberlin is flipping through some photos on the couch. Corgan's simple, elegant silver wedding band catches the reflection of the hot sun. During the making of "Siamese Dream," what did the Pumpkins want to do differently from "Gish?"
"Everything. From an aural/sonic standpoint, I wanted it to be more dense. I wanted to sound more like the band live, in terms of the ferocious intensity. I wanted better guitars and bass sounds because that was the thing on "Gish" that bugged me the most over time."
"From a lyrical standpoint," Corgan explains, "I wanted to walk out from the ambiguous cloud that I had hid myself behind for so long and start actually saying something. It's not to say that I wasn't saing things before, but to have the courage to say things I knew I was gonna take shit for, say things that I knew I was gonna be questioned about. I mean, you can make up anything that will have meaning to you, but I wanted to have meaning to for someone else and I was willing to take the risk taht went along with that."
The doorbell rings again and Corgan hops up to let in guitarist James Iha, who is wearing a red Special Olympics T-shirt, jeans, and has cut and dyed his formerly long black hair into a dishwater blond shag. Corgan shows the Pumpkin boys a recent wedding gift: an oblong black velvet "The Last Supper," but Jesus and all of his disciples are black. Everyone marvels at the masterpiece.
Corgan wants the guys to listen to (appropriately enough) a Judas Priest cut, "Electric Eye." He flips the CD player on and Corgan and Iha start a Rob Halford impersonaltion duo. Corgan says he saw them live at the old Arlington Race Track before it burned down and Halford came riding out onstage on a Harley, so he pretends that he's riding a hog. As the tune cranks through the humid room, Iha has Halford's screams down to near perfection. I vote Iha the winner because he actually made me see the lasers beaming around the room.
The gathered Pumpkins move into the adjacent music room to start rehearsing the acoustic set for the European tour that begins tomorrow. (Covers in the set: "Dancing in the Moonlight (It's Caught Me In The Spotlight)" by Thin Lizzy, "Kooks" by David Bowie, "M.E." by Gary Numan, and "All We Ever Wanted" by Bauhaus. Chamberlin is tapping his drum kit lightly with drum brushes and padded sticks. Iha picks up an acoustic guitar. D'Arcy arrives and unpacks her bass (which is festooned with rat decals). She plugs in and the bass starts to drone.
In was disconnecting to hear the icy beauty of "Rhinoceros," from "Gish," done acoustically. The song transcends the electric CD cut to become a loose, powerful skeleton of a song. The beauty of Smashing Pumpkins is in its ability to rock heavy and then go to whisper levels with equal intensity.
At the end of "Rhinoceros," Iha starts to cough and D'Arcy asks if he is still taking his antibiotics. He nods his shaggy head. The band shifts into the Thin Lizzy cover, which becomes more like a country version that the original song. The room has become one giant song. The clouds have passes and I lookin into the other room: the record player has stopped spinning and the band is playing live with passion. Their eyes are closed (as if dreming) and everyone is singing. Looking at the band with their clenched eyes reminds me of what Corgan said when I asked him if there was a real Siamese Dream: "No one is having the dream, we are all living it."
There were some quotes highlighted in the article.
Chicago: Smashing Pumpkins' Kind of Town
Corgan: "I think we gave up the idea of leaving long ago. First off, you're never home enough to be home, and then whe you are home, it's great that you know where the hot dog stand it. I can't imagine at this point picking up and going somewhere else. It would be really disorienting."
Chamberlin: "Another thing is, if we lived in L.A., going home would be like going to work. Here, we're far enough away from the industry."
Corgan: "We mixed [Siamese Dream] in L.A. for a month and we were there and it was great. We hung out for a month, saw a bunch of people, but this is where we live. Where you grow up is where you grow up. You can take the boy out of Chicago, but----"
Chamberlin: "You can't take the white trach out of the boy!"
The Title, "Siamese Dream"
Corgan: "I think I was on the phone. Stuff like that just come to me, not that I have visions or anything. Gish was like that: just sorta popped into my head. The same thing with "Siamese Dream." On the phone, I thought, "Siamese Dream, that's it!"
Disco, Disco Dump
Unsell: Speaking of Back Sabbath, I relate a story to the Pumpkin boys: while listening to "Quiet" (which at full volume is anything but) from "Siamese Dream," something was shaken off the shelp in my kitchen in the next room. The only other time that this had happened was when I put on lold Black Sabbath records.
Corgan: "We wanna cause Disco Dump. Do you know what that is? [Chamberlin starts to laugh hard.] We are all having these heaing problems, so we all went to get earplugs made and they gave us this [pamphlet] 'You and Your Ear.' It describes Disco Dump, which is like you're bombarded with really low bass frequencies--"
Chamberlin: "and you'll have an involuntary bowel movement!"
Corgan: [laughing] "It's called Disco Dump! So that's where we're at: we wanna cause Disco Dump."
Chamberlin: "It means to me that things like [fame] come along at such a slow pace. They're so gradual that it's hard to take a step back and notice it. You're still the same person so it's hard to say, 'Well, now I'm famous and last week I wasn't.' It's like a record deal: it happens so gradually taht when it actually happens, it's not like, 'Wow, I'm signed!'"
Corgan: "Yeah, I can remember the day we actually signed our record contracts. We all looked at each other and went, "OK, see ya!' We didn't have champaign or anything. it was more like, 'I gotta go home and feed the dog."
Chamberlin: "Nothing really changes. As far as Chicago goes, I don't thing we're recognized here anyway."
Corgan: "I think we're recognized more in other places. In Atlanta, everywhere we went, it was like "Pumpkins!' Here, you can walk down the street and no one notices."
Chamberlin: "Yeah, here I can walk, take the bus, take the el, go thrift shopping..."
Corgan: "But here's the thing: if you go into the Metro, somebody's gonna recognize you. What's fame. We're well known within a certain group. It's like we're well known to dairy farmers or smething."
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