Smashing all the "alt" expectations
Orange County Register - Dec 1996
By Tom Moon


We've been hearing the complaints for months. Alternative rock has grown tired, derivative, whiny and manipulative. It's a haven for unimaginative guitar-grinders and copycat lyricists. What started as a unrefined emotional vent has become a carefully crafted corporate commodity.

Billy, Corgan, one of its most adroit songwriters and a constant target of ridicule, is doing something about it.

At the close of their current tour, which comes to Arrowhead Pond of Anaheim on Monday and Tuesday, he and the other remaining members of the Smashing Pumpkins intend to return to the drawing board. They're talking about completely tearing up the sound, investigating technology, losing the big guitars. Radical stuff.

To Corgan, there's no choice.

"At the beginning, alternative was speaking a real language," the 29-year-old Chicago native said before a Detroit show this year. "It was the sound of sincerity and passion. That's been coopted. What was so powerful has been squeezed out.

"If you're taking people's money and asking for their attention, there has to be something going back. So we decided we would do that this time - really perform, really give (it) all - and that would be it. It's hard to consider leaving this, but if you're going to grow, you've got to be willing to let go of something that's given you so much."

Corgan is sitting in a candlelit room with tapestries on the walls and clove incense in the air. The band calls it "the dark room," and it's one of two specially decorated areas backstage. (The other, "the light room," is outfitted with a huge video-game rig and a massive table of food.)

It's hard to imagine Corgan and the other Pumpkins - guitarist James Iha, bassist D'Arcy - letting go of their plush existence. Corgan has become the very symbol of alt-rock excess, a lightning rod for scorn and blame. His haughty pronouncements and bratty singing style are the artistic equivalent of a kick-me sign: Anyone looking to trash alternative music can find a ready target in Corgan, portrayed in the press as humorless and self-obsessed.

Corgan's response: "We're not beautiful, we're not enigmatic, but every year we get bigger. I read the press and they say we're the antichrist. And I see the people going crazy every time we play. There's a disparity there."

When he and his cohorts scout for their next sound, Corgan says, they have no idea what they'll find. He's enthusiastic about exploring keyboard technology and sampling, the tools of "pastiche artists" such as Beck, who Corgan believes is doing some of the most interesting work in pop.

In truth, it doesn't much matter where they end up: What counts is that they're going at all. Few successful acts are willing to undertake the total transformation Corgan envisions - certainly none that came to prominence in the alternaville '90s.

And fewer still start from the Pumpkins' position of power. The band has sold more than 6 million copies of "Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness," the double CD released to critical acclaim last fall, and is one of a handful of alternative groups to blossom into an arena draw. From a business standpoint, there's no earthly reason to change a thing.

A new five-disc box set featuring "Mellon Collie" leftovers is similarly being hailed as some of the best work in' music right now.

Which is precisely why contrarian Corgan is initiating the change. "We've pretty much maxed out as the band we formed eight years ago."The double album has accomplished what I hoped it would: People can't just write us off anymore. ... If people don't respect us now, they never will." Fans long respected the band.

The heroin death of sideman Jonathan Melvoin this year resulted in the ousting of longtime drummer Jimmy Chamberlin. For a while Smashing Pumpkins was known for that, but the new album, "The Aeroplane Flies High," has returned the focus to the music.

"Mellon Collie" is something of a benchmark - ballads dusted with orchestral strings and moments of brutal, pulverizing guitar. It's got the mosh-friendly stuff associated with the early '90s Pumpkins and a slew of grabby, passionate pop songs that have little connection to grunge. Most ponder the meaning of loneliness: "Zero" culminates with Corgan's shouted declaration that "Emptiness is loneliness and loneliness is cleanliness and cleanliness is godliness and god is empty just like me."

The album reflects the Pumpkins' journey from aggressive, full-throttle noise band to more subtle exponents of a variety of post-punk styles. When the band started, Corgan recalls, its musical resources were limited: "Power was greater than anything else we could accomplish early on. It was like, "If we play heavy, people will feel heavy".

As his songwriting progressed, Corgan discovered he had underestimated his melodic skills. He had always generated riffs and guitar lines that grabbed people, but he never bothered to do the same with his vocals. The critical reaction to the Pumpkins' 1993 "Siamese Dream" changed that.

"People were saying they didn't really hear songs," Corgan says, still stung by the criticism. "So the Mickey Rooney part of me kicked in. You know, 'They said I couldn't write pop songs!' So I went out and wrote pop songs ... the '90s version of Tin Pan Alley songs."

Though Corgan's music became more accessible, the public perception of him was still as a dour loner, a rock mope for whom sadness was the only muse.

Corgan points to "Mellon Collie's" "Muzzle" as a joke at his expense. "It was one of the last things I wrote for the album," he recalls. "And by that time, I was really aware of the repetition in terms of theme. ... So when I wrote the lyrics of 'Muzzle,' I was thinking: 'People were going to tell me to shut up. Might as well have fun with it myself.' "

A similar openness now informs the band's stage show. In the past, the Pumpkins were one diffident bunch, blasting through song after noisy song, creating a swirling mosh pit that sometimes careened out of control.

"We didn't care who showed up or what they did," Corgan says. "Now, we want people to have a good time. We're more inclusive. It's like we used to wait to see how people responded to us. Now, we're putting our hand out first, and if the audience puts theirs out, everybody has a good time. That's really our whole attitude now: We live in a take-it-for-granted world, and we're just saying we won't be taken for granted".

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