"No More Guitars" - BigO magazine - 1995
(Transcribed by Martin Gil)
"When I was a little kid, I used to walk through these big grassy fields," says Billy Corgan, lounging in a Chicago studio. "I'd get really discouraged when I found garbage there, because that meant someone had been there before me. I feel that way with a guitar now. I cannot go somewhere where we can do what we want to do without being judged on what's been done before. Can't we just be the Smashing Pumpkins?"
Maybe. Maybe not. For Corgan, the Svengali of the much talked about and much heard Chicago quartet, there has always been trouble in paradise, from infighting and getting shelled by the media to caustic rumors of Corgan's megalomania. But one thing is certain: Corgan and the Pumpkins have stayed true to their music, and even their most vocal detractors cannot accuse them of selling out. From a guitar point of view, much of what the band has accomplished has served to stretch the boundaries of a tired alternative-rock genre into something with swagger and intensity. Now, with the release of Mellon Collie & the Infinite Sadness, guitarist/vocalist Corgan and second guitarist James Iha are searching desperately for another challenge, another wall of convention to bring tumbling down. This time, they might bring down the guitar itself.
"I think we've given up on guitar, to be honest with you," says Corgan, seated at the table in a black corduroy blazer. "It still plays an integral role in the band, but it's not the lead role. It's obviously what I know, but I really think that we hit a finite wall." Iha agrees, "As far as standard rock-guitar playing and the way we play it, I think it'd really be hard to come up with another album of rock jams."
The news should seem shocking: Smashing Pumpkins--the band who damn-near commercialized bludgeoning space-riff drone--giving up guitars? But to Corgan and Iha, two talented players who have grappled with pushing the boundaries of modern rock for some time now, the revelation comes off sounding matter-of-fact. The effect is heightened on this particular day, since the Pumpkins' downtown Chicago studio is getting pummeled by torrential rains and those storied Chicago winds. The dimly lit three-room studio is a comfortable, spacious and peaceful refuge from the elements. The vaulted-ceiling center room houses the lion's share of the bands equipment. Surrounded by four brick walls, one covered with a beige linen sheet, drummer Jimmy Chamberlin's Yamaha kit sits up on a rise in the middle of the room. It's surrounded by a separate rack of cymbals, a coat rack of mic chords and mics, and a random allotment of amps (Fender Bassman) and heads (Orange). A guitar rack contains a burgundy Gibson bass, a black Epiphone, a garish, bright pink and turquoise Ibanez Talman, and a Strat with the words "I Love My Mom" scrawled across its face.
In the far corner there are two white marked boards side by side on the wall. Each one has a list of fourteen different song titles down one side and seven columns across the top, all with different instruments as column headers: Drums, Bass, two Guitar entries, Vocals, Keyboards and Miscellaneous. Each entry in each column is checked for all 28 songs, signifying that every track for Mellon Collie has been completed. Through the studio is bustling, Billy and the band, all seated at a kitchen-type table in the first room, seem to be the calm at the center, resigned to a long day of interviews. Publicists, managers and assistants shuttle about the room with purpose, each with a cellular phone on his or her ear, trying to align the lives of one of the country's most sought after bands. Through it all, the affable, confident Corgan continues to talk about the end of the line for the guitar.
"No matter how you look at it," says Corgan, "the guitar has been taken to its extreme in terms of speed and as an aggressive instrument with a band like Slayer. Overall, it's really been maxed out. There's not much more you can do." He pauses for a moment to let Iha speak, but his mate remains silent. "I still think there's unexplored territory but I think within that territory you're talking about minimal returns.
"When I play guitar now I don't feel like I'm breaking new ground." he admits. "I play now and almost everything i do sounds like a Jimmy Page cliche' or it sounds like I've done it a hundred times before. It's almost impossible to find something new that's your own. That's why I feel new technology is the only way to afford yourself something like that. Technology will help me recapture the same feelings I had when I first started playing guitar: that 'sky's the limit' feeling."
Using computer technology, it seems that Corgan and Iha have confronted their post-guitar challenge. For Mellon Collie, the band employed Studio Vision Pro with Pro Tools running on a Macintosh 8100 to do loop samples and manipulate basic tracks. The techno-rig has potential: the Pro Tools application an handle up to 128 tracks. But because Corgan didn't learn about the technology until midway through the recording process, he and Iha applied their newly learned techniques only during post-production. For all their previous work on the album, the band used a 24-track analog machine and an additional 16 tracks on Pro Tools. (The new setup will likely be used to its full advantage on their next project.)
Commenting on his initial exposure to the digital technology, Corgan says, "At first it was like, 'What a bunch of f*****' dry s***.' But once you learn it, you stop thinking about it. I really feel I can finally go in a field where no one's been." Iha feels the same. "I think it's a great tool. There's a big misconception about samplers. You don't have to use it like Nine Inch Nails to make an impact. It should be just like using a different guitar pedal."
Corgan explains that the track "Keep It" on the new record is a good example of the way his new machines have provided him with a different recording technique. "We recorded the rhythm-section part of the song first then I had Jimmy & D'Arcy [bass] play the bridge for a few minutes.
Later, I'd go back and find the best two to four bars of the bridge, sample it, and run it through the song. We did that for each section of 'Keep It,' and then I assembled them--the rhythm section and the guitar loops--then I manipulated the sounds by running them through high-pass filters. Suddenly you have something that doesn't sound like anything you've done before." Corgan's eyes light up with the thought of having a new and infinite spectrum of creative possibilities. If it wasn't clear on earlier records like Gish and Siamese Dream, it's obvious now that he thrives on new ideas.
"Technology ultimately succeeds by whether the song is good or not," he continues. "It doesn't have to be cold and futuristic. I'm looking at the other end of technology. I feel that nobody's really found the warmth in it.
And I feel that I can still find interesting applications for the guitar." He sits back in his chair and crosses one leg over the other, displaying his well-worn Doc Martens. "I feel I'm coming late to all this technology, so I'm surprised there's still room for innovation." He laughs, "Then again, the world is still trying to figure out what punk rock is."
Newfound admiration for technology aside, Corgan and Iha used their traditional setup when laying down most of the basic tracks for Mellon Collie. Corgan played predominantly through his super-tweaked live setup: an Alesis compressor, a Marshall rack preamp and a Mesa/Boogie 500 Series power amp. For pedals, Iha and Corgan layered it on thick: Big Muff Fuzz, Fender Blender, a DigiTech Whammy, Eventide harmonizers, wah--you name it. They sometimes laid down 8 or 10 guitar tracks at a stretch. For their guitars of choice, the simple formula remained as it has since the beginning: Strats and Les Pauls.
"We just want to stay as far away from cliches' as we can," says Iha, pulling his feet up on the chair and leaning his chin on his knees. His long black hair pokes out the back of a funky blue wool cap. "I heard a Living Colour song with a solo break yesterday and it had every cliche' in the book: the pig squeal, the Eddie Van Halen, the whammy-bar ascension--the worst cliches' of heavy metal. There's not one thing that you could hum in that solo, there's nothing you can take away."
"I've reached a point where I'm not interested in listening to guitar at all," says Corgan. "The only people I can listen to these days are Johnny Winter, Robin Trower and occasionally Hendrix, but I have to say that I'm burnt on Hendrix for a lifetime." He pauses for a moment to eavesdrop on a phone conversation happening on the other side of the room. "The only other style I'm into is the Delta blues style-Leadbelly, Blind Willie Johnson and Son House." He shakes his head in reverence and disblief. "That one man can make so much sound-I'm amazed. As far as guitar players' guitar players, I don't give a f***. It's really missing the point." He makes a sweeping motion with his hand. Subject most definitely closed.
Of course, Corgan and Iha haven't forgotten the days when, as young guns, they too took the stage with frequent, wanking solos and flashy metal licks. "We were interested in proving some guitar points back then," Corgan remembers. "But back then guitar was totally out of fashion, so playing a solo was an anti-statement. Now our whole goal is song structure. We're not balancing the priorities of having to show how good we are as guitar players against the song. The song always wins. The self-indulgent aspect of the band that existed before was there to compensate for what wasn't there in the song structure; if you're not gonna win somebody over with a great melody, we're gonna beat you into f****** submission, and that's what we did. And we did it really well, too!"
Mellon Collie & The Infinite Sadness does crystallize the Pumpkins' ability to exist without a big guitar hook at every song's core. Corgan and Iha, along with D'Arcy and Chamberlin, have found solace, even occasional quite, open spaces of feedback-less grooves. Not that the record lacks fury--big-riff songs like "An Ode To Know One" and "Bullet With Butterfly Wings" prove otherwise. But the ambitious two-disc project reveals a songsmithing side to the band, one where a decent song and an mind-numbing progression of power chords.
"We feel walled in by our past work and everything else that's gone on since," says Corgan. "That's why we're jumping whole-leg into technology. But I trust my ability to write a song. I don't need a guitar hook to make it happen. If there is one, then great--but it's not a necessity, and that's a different point to be at than when I was younger. Maybe we'll make a totally acoustic album or a modern-age psychedelic album," he muses. "Not the Starberry Alarm Clock version, but a real modern sound with heart, one where you still have tunes bubbling underneath. I say let's push the envelope sonically and still have great songs."
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