We come to kick butts Smashing Pumpkins brings a mix of bombast and beauty
Chicago Tribune Arts Section
July 25, 1993
By Greg Kot
(Thanks to Brian Muehlhaus for sending this to us)

"My stepmother told me I had a persecution complex," says Billy Corgan, the cherub-faced singer-guitarist-instigator or Chicago's Smashing Pumpkins. "I don't know if it's self-fulfilling, but it seems like every step along the way there's some resistance to what I'm doing. I take it for granted that when I turn some corner, there'll be somebody standing there saying, 'You can't pass.'"

Adversity makes some bands crumble. Other bands rise above. Smashing Pumpkins has soared-- "altitude not attitude" the band's T-shirts proclaim--leaving bridges burning in their vapor trail. The quartet's new album, "Siamese Dream," their first for major label gorilla Virgin Records (Rolling Stones, Janet Jackson) will be released Tuesday. It follows "Gish," an unexpected 300,000-seller for indie label Caroline Records in 1991.

"We thought it might do 50,000," says former Caroline executive Janet Billig. "It really didn't get a lot of support from radio or MTV."

So what happened?

"Magic dust," Billig says, not trying to be funny. "They've got magic dust. You see them play live and people start talking."

It's a magic born not of technique or musicianship, but of strife and risk. "One of my friends says that when there's a problem in his life, all he wants to do is turn and run away," Corgan says. "And I say, when there's a problem in my life, I want to run at it."

The 26-year old singer grew up in a divorce-riddled family in Glendale Heights, a self-described 'stupid, nongroovy' fan of bad metal music and basketball. When his ability could no longer keep his passion for sports, the gangly, 6-foot-3 1/2-inch youth turned to the guitar and formed the Marked, which evolved into Smashing Pumpkins with guitarist James Iha, bassist D'Arcy and drummer Jimmy Chamberlin.

Soon the band was developing a distinctive sound--a mix of metal roar and confessional whisper, bombast and beauty--and a demeanor to match: dour, serious, self-possessed.

"We weren't blessed with amazing, God-given talent, so we have to work really hard," Corgan says of the nosmiles image. "But also, we didn't come to make people laugh. We come to kick their butts. It's like a mini paramilitary unit."

At their best, the Pumpkins are a devastating, high-wire guitar act, and soon were opening for the likes of Jane's Addiction and the Buzzcocks in Chicago. When local groups who had been around twice as long grumbled, Corgan responded with typical tartness.

"There's an awful lot of whining in this town from bands who, let's face it, aren't very good," he told the Tribune before "Gish" was released. "There are bands here that wish nothing more than to be popular in Chicago. It doen't matter that they couldn't get arrested anywhere else. To me, that's not success."

In the summer of T91, at the New York Music Seminar in New York, the Pumpkins packed CBGB's and left a long line of industry hot-shots outside. Afterward, many people who managed to sqeeze in--including a healthy chunk of the East Coast music press--proclaimed the Pumpkins the seminar's revelation.

Now, with "Siamese Dream" one of about a dozen good-to-great records out in Chicago this year, the Pumpkins are getting Next Big Thing writeups in national magazines. Which, Corgan says, misses the point of the band entirely.

"I feel like weUre the square peg trying to be stuck into the round hole," he says. "We're not a hit song kind of a band. Our songs aren't three-minute pop hits. We're being taken as if we're part of this rat race: the "next big band" rat race, the "next Nirvana" rat race.

"We accept the inherent limitations of our music in terms of mass culture. Mass culture is not necessarily gonna embrace the Smashing Pumpkins. We knew that three, four years ago. Is "Siamese Dream" gonna be the transcendent album that captures the imagination of the entire world? My response to that is that I"m not writing albums for the entire world. I"m writing albums for people of my generation, and if the rest of the world wants to listen, fine."

Corgan's disgust with the business end of being in a rock band is addressed on "Cherub Rock," the new album's opening track. "Who wants honey as long as there's some money?" Corgan sings. "Get me out, get me out, get me out."

"Siamese Dream" takes the band's flowing arrangements,which leap from guitar caterwaul to blissed-out calm and back again, to new extremes. It's a record best experienced on head-phones, with the guitars of Corgan and Iha merging into rampaging rivers, while D'Arcy's bass and Chamberlin's drums navigate to tempo changes.

"We constantly play there dumb rock-riff songs and try to make them something beyond that," Corgan says. "These days, if we're gonna do rock, it has to be in extremis. It has to push the boundaries of power. Otherwise it just seems so redundant."

Where "Geek USA" blows out the burners, "Disarm" is almost painfully introspective.

"There was a lot of bitterness, but it was vailed, on the last album," Corgan says. "I'm no longer afraid to express that bitterness. So it's got more of an edge."

In that sense, the album is a collection of snapshots from Corgan's turbulent upbringing and his subsequent maturation as a musician and a man in a sometimes hostile music community.

"I've never had a stable life," he says. "I lived in five different places before I was 5. I saw divorces, messy break-ups, boyfriends, girlfriends, drugs. I don't trust stability. I understand chaos. I muck things up because it forces you to react. I don't understand what it is to have everyone like you and think you're great."

No wonder Corgan feels right at home in Chicago. If anything, he says he's become more rebellious with age. "We were calm and meek when we started out, but we had so many people screw with us it's turned us into something else," he says. And he's characteristically unrepentant about badmouthing the scene in years past.

"A lot of the arguments levied against the band aren't about the music, but about the politics," he says. "About our refusal to conform and bend to the indie community, who never gave us the [expletive] time of day in the first place. Why should I pay homage to a group and a community that ignored us until we sold enough records that they could ignore us no more?"

When it's suggested that rejection is his fuel, Corgan readily agrees.

Exhibit A is a show last year at the Rosemont Horizon when the Pumpkins opened for Guns N' Roses.

Before an indifferent audience of 15,000, Corgan went nuts, ripping into his guitar with vengeance and bashing a microphone stand into the stage.

Shaken from their lethargy, some of the crowd booed while others cheered as Corgan stood on an amplifier, guitar aloft. "Guns N' Roses will be on next to blow your little suburban minds," Corgan sneered.

"So many opening bands--and we will no longer be an opening band--go out there with their tail between their legs and accept whatever fate is cast upon them," Corgan says. "I refuse to do so. This is my 45 minutes, and you're gonna listen, and you may hate or love us, but apathy is against that. And when the audience is out of it and the band is out of it, I just start pushing those buttons to get a reaction."

"I have done the most incredibly stupid things. But in a romantic sense, I look back on that behavior and see someone who is beyond fear and beyond 'What are they gonna think?'"

"A major breakthrough for us was, 'If it's bad, so what?' Let it destroy itself, but make something of the moment. I'll say stuff like, 'Sorry , we're so bad tonight,' and suddenly the band's on their toes. It forces the issue."

Corgan's assertiveness has caused some discomfort, if not hurt feelings, within the band.

"Sometimes it's hard for the band to separate their own personal feelings with what I do as an aesthetic for the band," he continues. "And that aesthetic centers on the fact that we're not a rock mythology band. We're not so cute and hot and trendy, like Suede is and Led Zeppelin was."

"So if we can't be that, then let's be the opposite, which is reality times 10. What you've got is four people who get up on stage as themselves and amplify their real personalities...I'm gonna take your preconception and shove it down your throat."

In Chicago, there are a few scenesters who would enjoy seeing Corgan eat those words. He knows it, and he relishes the challenge.

"I keep upping the ante," Corgan says. "It's the difference between having a career based on momentum and a career based on innuendo. Sometimes even the band has trouble understanding that. They'd rather keep on doing what theyUve been doing."

"But I keep breaking windows, and once you do, there's no going back. I break things and either the band rallies around it, or quits. There's no middle, because it's my band to destroy."


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