The multiplatinum band is over the infighting, but can the harmony last?
US Magazine, December '95
BY CHRISTINA KELLY
(Transcribed by Chris Tribout)
"Billy, you're still wearing makeup," says Smashing Pumpkins bassist D'Arcy, whose usually bleached-out hair is blue with the kind of Murray's Pomade that Elvis used. She and singer Billy Corgan are both sporting cosmetic residue from a photo shoot that went last into the previous night. "No, I'm not," says Corgan. "Yes, you are," she says. "No, I'm not," he says. Of course, Billy Corgan is wearing eyeliner. Rock stars wear makeup, and the 28-year-old Smashing Pumpkins singer is an R.S. in the old-fashioned, enigmatic-tortured-artist sense. Short, shiny, black-dyed hair frames his oversize, oddly feminine face.
Everything about him is big. Six feet four inches tall and substantial, he towers over a table in the band's rehearsal studio, a building with exposed brick walls in a weird, dreary Chicago neighborhood that is neither hip nor posh, neither industrial nor residential. On the eve of the release of the band's third album, the incredibly ambitious double record Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, Corgan, second guitar player James Iha (pronounced ee-hah), D'Arcy, (just the one name) and drummer Jimmy Chamberlin are checking out a pitch for the video of the first single, "Bullet With Butterfly Wings," and bantering back and forth. "This one looks like James," says Corgan, holding up a photo of a fat man rioting in the mud. Iha, who looks like he just stepped out of a CK ONE ad with his newly silver-streaked hair, appears horrified. "On a day when he's bloated," Corgan continues. "Is James ever bloated?" The answer from D'Arcy is no.
It's a scene not unlike that of amiable co-workers in an office goofing around while they get their jobs done. Smashing Pumpkins are hardly the seething mass of contention and imminent breakup that they've been rumored to be almost since forming in 1989. Nor are they, as Chamberlin puts it, "a bunch of snotty kids with their first taste of success. We're all kind of humbled." After selling close to 6 million albums, seeing their interpersonal problems discussed ad nauseam in the press, dealing with the indie-world snobbery and their own demons and headlining the 1994 Lollapalooza tour by default after Kurt Cobain's suicide, the Pumpkins took all of three days off before launching into 10 months of work on Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness.
A double record just seemed like a good way to kill off the Smashing Pumpkins that people know, and hopefully invent a new one. Or just kill it off," explains Corgan. "Every band reaches a point where the thing that they create becomes a parody. It's weird when you start playing something that actually sounds really good, and you go, 'We can't use that because it sounds too much like us.'" Iha, who at 27 complains about feeling so old you'd think he walked with a cane, is in agreement with Corgan that the band should change direction after this album. "We're known for a lot of dynamics in songs--like loud-then-soft--which is the norm now with alternative rock, and it's just really sickening," he says in his deadpan, laconic way. "I don't want to be 35 and playing these gonzo rock songs. It's fine to be punk rock, but I don't want to be punk rock and old. I'm getting more into singer-songwriter stuff."
As on such classic albums as the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, the 28 songs on Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness are meant to hang together conceptually. "The album's title is a general commentary on life," says Corgan. "It's split into day [Dawn to Dusk] and night [Twilight to Starlight]. Symbolically, it's like the cycle of living and dying, and attempting to live and going out of your way to die." That's a considerably broader, vaguer theme that the highly autobiographical material Corgan mined for their first and second albums, Gish and Siamese Dream.
With lyrics like "The world is a vampire" and "Despite all my rage I am still just a rat in a cage," "Bullet With Butterfly Wings" seems to deal with the realities of being a rock star and fueling the music-industry machine. You can only guess, though, because Corgan, who in the past has obligingly explained the meaning of all his deeply personal songs, is backing away from being so open. "It just gets manipulated down to where it doesn't even sound like my sentence," he explains. "You send those words off into the world, and they boomerang, and they come back and hit you in the head."
It makes sense that Corgan would be feeling a bit guarded, after exposing his most private issues, from a painful childhood (his divorced parents left him to be raised by a stepmother) to his bouts with suicidal depression and his decision to go into therapy. "Siamese Dream is much more personal," says Corgan. "Almost every song is about a relationship. 'Cherub Rock' is about my relationship to the indie world and to the media, 'Today' is about my relationship with myself, and 'Quiet' is about my relationship with my parents. Everything was me-versus-them or me-versus-me. This album is more about cultural issues: youth, hate." Smashing Pumpkins reached this crossroads situation fairly quickly.
The band got together a half-decade ago, in sort of piecemeal fashion, as bands are wont to do. Iha was a kid from the suburbs of Chicago studying graphic arts at Loyola University. "I was playing in a band with these two guys," says Iha. "We were sort of popular, and then it didn't work out with one of these guys, and we needed to find somebody." Corgan had just moved back to Chicago after living in Florida and playing in a band satirically called the Marked, with another guy who has a birthmark *the wine-colored birthmark on Corgan's arm has been a source of pain for him). "We got together with Billy, and then the other guy left, and it was just me and Billy," he says. "We demo'd songs on a four-track for a while. Our first show was at a Polish dance bar on the West Side of Chicago.
Then, Billy met D'Arcy outside of some club." D'Arcy, now 27, ended up in Chicago by accident. After graduating from high school in the small Michigan town where she grew up, she moved just outside of Paris to be in a band with the French student from her school. "My sister came for Christmas and got us both thrown out of his mom's house," says D'Arcy, who, though she looks very punk rock, has a spacey, new-age vibe. She flew back to Chicago, the closest big city to her home, and was stranded at the airport with no money. D'Arcy's parents were away on a vacation, so she called an acquaintance. "I begged her to pick me up," she says. D'Arcy stayed and started working low-wage jobs at a bakery, a motorcycle store and a Japanese restaurant. "I was the only member of the band to ever work for a living," she says. "Builds character, though. I have the most character."
Three months after moving to Chicago, D'Arcy met Corgan. "I went to his house and listened to his tapes," she says. "It was acid rock mixed with some Middle Eastern influences. It was really good." Without even auditioning, she was in the band. Through a mutual friend, they met Chamberlin, 31, a former studio musician whose emotional drumming style impressed people right away. "You couldn't have picked more completely different people at the time," says Chamberlin. He is from Joliet, Ill., a blue-collar town southwest of Chicago, and the son of a big band-style musician with a day job as a legal representative for the railroad. "I had been playing since I was 8, but I was never in a band where everyone was set on getting a record deal. And soon everybody quit their jobs, and we were playing in a band that nobody liked."
The indie world called Smashing Pumpkins careerists because their music did not conform to the straight-ahead punk aesthetic espoused by purists. Still, the band had impeccable alternative-rock credentials: They put out a single on ultracool Sub Pop, Nirvana's first label, and Butch Vig, who went on to produce Nirvana's major label debut, produced their brilliant first album, Gish, released on the independent label Caroline in 1991. Music fans and contemporaries called them sellouts because they had an arrangement with major label Virgin before their first record even came out. Corgan got back at the naysayers on Siamese Dream with "Cherub Rock."
But you can tell the criticism still stings. "I have had people insinuate that my childhood was a marketing ploy, manufactured--that it's no more difficult or different than anyone else's childhood," he says. "Those things may be true. Those things may be false. The fact of the matter is, I felt what I felt." The Pumpkins' internal problems are well documented: Iha and D'Arcy, who had become a couple, broke up during the tour for Gish; Corgan caused strife by doing the bulk of the guitar and bass parts on Siamese Dream. The brouhaha surrounding the infighting reached its peak when Rolling Stone magazine had Dr. Joyce Brothers do an "instant psychoanalysis" of the group. "I had to laugh," says Corgan. "But this whole tag of us being the dysfunctional band and all that kind of crap is just so stupid. How dysfunctional can a band be that has been recording for five years, put out 80 songs, sold 5 million records?"
Yet no one in Smashing Pumpkins denies the group once had problems getting along. "We used to fight, but that's healthy," says D'Arcy. "I mean, we're still here. We've learned to accept each other for who we are and to care about each other more. And maybe we just gave up on each other." D'Arcy's issues with Iha are long resolved; she has been married for a year and a half to Kerry Brown, a drummer with the indie band Catherine with whom she lives two hours outside of Chicago. She's not making any predictions about her longevity in the Pumpkins. "Billy's talking about moving off in this other direction, and I have to see what this direction is," says D'Arcy.
"Billy and James and Jimmy are always like, 'We feel so old, we can't rock anymore,' and I'm just starting to get into it." It's a good thing, because the band will be kicking off an extensive tour beginning early next year.
On this record, Iha has an increased role. He plays a lot more of the guitar parts. He also wrote and sang one song, the pretty, underwater-sounding ballad, "Take Me Down," and co-wrote "Farewell and Goodnight" with Corgan. "The big change is that it's not Billy being the big 'I do this, I do that,'" says Iha. "It's much better. The band arranged a lot of the songs for this record, and the songwriting process was organic. The circumstances of the last record and the way we worked were really bad." But Corgan seems unable to completely let go of his auteur identity. "To be honest, the way the band works hasn't really changed at all," he says. "It's more about how everyone relates to each other. I accepted my responsibility in the band and stopped placing unrealistic expectations on other members."
Personally, Corgan's feeling much better, thanks, than he did three years ago. He's still married to his longtime girlfriend and living in a house near Chicago's Wrigley Field, despite rumors that he had an affair with former flame Courtney Love during Lollapalooza 1994. "I'm more at peace," he says. "I still hate the world, just not as much." Atlantic Records senior vice president Janet Billig, who worked with the band on Gish during her tenure at Caroline and co-managed Nirvana, says of Corgan: "There are very few rock stars now and the ones we do have seem to self-destruct before they have a good run. I don't think Billy will self-destruct. I think he'll be a rock star for a while generation, like Robert Plant."
That may be true, but at present Corgan is dealing with the "Now what?" feeling of having realized his dreams of wealth and fame. "When you don't have anything, it's like you have to care," he says. "You have to have some kind of plan. Whereas having achieved most of everything I ever dreamed I could hope to do, having made enough money to never work another day in my life, I don't really care about stuff as much. It's good not to care what people think about you. But it's bad not to care about what happens to you. When you're young and set your mind on something, it sets a course for you. It gives you something to do, it gives you something to talk about. Even when your life sucks, you can still dream. But once it's fulfilled, it's a weird thing. It's like, the road's done."
Well, not quite yet.
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