Smashing Pumpkins' Sudden Impact
Rolling Stone - October 1993
By Michael Azzerrad
(Sent to us by Eve Stahlberger)
Billy Corgan is laughing and slapping his knee. He isn't laughing because his new album Siamese Dream, has just debuted at No. 10 or because his band, the Smashing Pumpkins, has finally dropped the next and become a Big Thing or because they've stayed together at all or because of his dogged pursuit of an unfashionable vision has been vindicated big time.
He's laughing because his band has just been compared to the godfathers of 70's arena rock Boston. "well, lets just say we never turn Boston off when it comes on the radio, " he says still chuckling (and more than a bit flattered). The Pumpkins' ultra-anthem like guitar rock is heretically over the top. "Yeah, and I won't apologize for it anymore, " says Corgan, sitting atop a zebra print couch in his modest new home in Chicago.
The Pumpkins are pretentious in a way that few bands are these days."If we shoot for the sun, the moon, and the stars, " says producer and unofficial fifth Pumpkin Butch Vig, "were going to try and hit that." To that end Siamese Dream flaunts strings, timpani, mellotron, the whole nine yards while proudly recalling the unabashed pompousness of Queen, the baroque pop excesses of Corgan's beloved Electric Light Orchestra and yes, the obsessively massed guitars of Boston. Corgan, 26 doesn't give a hoot about his peers think of his uncool reference points. "I'm like the fugitive, " he says with a chuckle, running from the one-armed indie rock community."
His love-hate (mostly the latter) relationship with the indie scene goes way back. The notoriously cliquish Chicago indie-rock crowd-primarily bands on the Touch and Go and Wax Trax labels-shunned the Pumpkins from the start: their guitar solos were too long, they looked too "glam", they didn't hang out with the right people, and they were dogged by resentment that they landed plum gigs at the Metro, a key windy city club, without first playing the usual circuit of sweaty Chicago dives. "We were a favorite band because we sold tickets, " retorts Corgan.
Corgan enlisted guitarist James Iha and bassist D'arcy and drummer Jimmy Chamberlin shortly thereafter. The bands raison d'etre, according to Corgan "Musically to overwhelm the senses so when you come see us play, we were going to kick your ass." After releasing a successful local indie-single "I Am One", which would later reappear on their first album Gish-they would land a coveted Sub-Pop 7-inch in December 1990.
Sub-Pop's attention sparked major label interest, and the Pumpkins eventually signed with Virgin Records, although they would first build a grass root base by debuting on Virgin's wholly owned independent label Caroline. Immediately after completing Gish with then unknown producer Butch Vig, they began a fraught year and a half of touring."There was a lot of excitement when we started, " says Chamberlin, "and a lot of bitterness when we ended." Iha and D'arcy who had been a couple of long standing, broke up on tour, while Chamberlin revealed a propensity for substance abuse.
When the Pumpkins began rehearsing for the next album, they'd virtually forgotten how to get along. "Familiarity really does breed contempt, " Iha says over dinner with D'arcy and Chamberlin. Meanwhile Gish released in May 1991, has sold more than 300,000 copies, phenomenal for an indie debut. Pressure mounted on Corgan to write material that would capitalize on their success, but paralyzed by the rampant next Nirvana tag and the desire to please the indie rock establishment, he hit a massive writer's block.
"I lost the ability to function, he says, as the whooshy roar of the nearby train shoots through the house like an invisible jet. "I didn't want to go outside. I was eating like a pig and I was gaining weight. I couldn't write songs. I definitely couldn't play with the band without losing my temper. I just lost whatever it is that keeps you sane everyday." Then he wrote "Today", the second single from Siamese Dream. "I was really suicidal, " Corgan says. "I just thought it was funny to write a sing that said today is the greatest day of your life because it can't get any worse."
More songs soon fell into place. "If I continued on the path I was on, which was being overly conscious and worried what the indie-rock hierarchy was going to think of our new album, we were going to fail, " Corgan says. "Or I could do what my heart told me to do." Things began to look up when they landed a prestigious slot on the Singles soundtrack, but recording the album was an epic ordeal. To achieve Siamese Dream's vaulted cathedrals of sound, Vig and Corgan would sometimes work on a 45-second section of music for two days, pulling 16 hour days for weeks at a time. Some songs used up to 26 different tracks for the guitars alone. Virgin grew impatient as the project went over budget and behind schedule, but the band's appetite for precision wouldn't let the company cut corners.
"Perfection is not an easy thing to do, " says D'arcy earnestly. "We're trying to do something that's great and beautiful and will last, that is a piece of art." Tense, burned out, and frustrated, the Pumpkins would hold passionate venting sessions with Vig-who in the meantime had produced Nirvana's Nevermind-as referee. "We were really freaking out because of the stress, " says D'arcy. "I felt like if I could live through that I could live through anything."
Aside from the lower production costs, they chose to record in Atlanta on the theory that Chamberlin would have a hard time attracting his usual coterie of hard-core partyers there. The theory was wrong. Buckling under the pressure, Chamberlin would show up sometimes too wasted too play and once disappeared for five days. Corgan laid down the law: Either shape up or ship out. Chamberlin shaped up in a rehab clinic. It worked. "Geek USA is still one of the most amazing drum performances I've ever heard, " Vig raves.
As with Gish, Corgan played most of the guitars and bass on the album. The rationale is that although each member had developed their own parts in the rehearsal, Corgan could play them better and quicker in the studio. "He is a great musician, " says D'arcy. "And when your in the studio being charged how many thousands of dollars a day, if he can do something in three takes where it would maybe take me 20..." Four months about a month behind schedule-and over $250,000 later, Siamese Dream was done.
Even mixing took twice as long as planned. While alternative hipsters were embracing low fi-minimal overdubs, CD unfriendly sound and a general disdain for technical perfection-the Pumpkins sprinted as hard as they could in the major direction. "That seems to be our pattern. " Corgan says." It seemed like we never do anything in terms of what's hip. And I don't care."
Corgan's refusal to toe the indie-rock line runs throughout Siamese Dream. On the leadoff "Cherub Rock", he sneers "Be cool, and be somebodys fool this year." "I won't play some one else's game anymore," Corgan says. "This album was really a strong affirmation to myself: 'Fuck you, I don't care. I'm going to do this.' The funny part about it is that its working. Which says to me I should have trusted myself all along.'"
Corgan's first person singular view of the band hints at the root of the pumpkins internal strife. "Part of the tension within the band is what gives them an edge, " says Vig. "It's this volatile thing where they could explode at any minute." Corgan doesn't do press with the others, and Iha and D'arcy bicker during interviews. "It's really a dysfunctional band, " D'arcy admits.
So what keeps them together? "It's hard to explain, " Corgan says finally lost for words. "There are intricacies. Somehow it all adds up. At least in some ways. Every aspect is so fucked." The Pumpkins audience is probably as dysfunctional as the band itself. Corgan's oversize music lends itself well to mass Bic flailing in reverberant, beer slicked arenas, but his profoundly conflicted lyrical persona speaks clearly to the 20 somethings, a generation born of broken homes, lousy schools and diminished opportunities.
But Corgan sees his music as an antidote to his generations well documented apathy. "Some people want to express that apathy with noise and brutality, " he says "But for me, my sensibility is to reflect in a way that transcends it. It's the want to transcends all of that, to find some deeper essence in life, that drives me. That's why I try to make ultimately beautiful music."
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