Loud Americans Welcome to Australia
Richard Kingsmill's exclusive Australian interview with The Smashing Pumpkins - 1996
There are not many bands around these days as ambitious as the Smashing Pumpkins. Jimmy Chamberlin, the lanky drummer from one of the world's premier rock groups, concurs with a sigh and a look which suggests ambition is the greatest bane of the band's life.
Billy Corgan, still chrome-domed, leans across to qualify this. "Both Jimmy and I come from the same musical background: Jimmy played drums for years in Top 40 cover bands, and my dad spent years as a guitarist, forgoing his own music to play someone else's.
"We're both from the background of giving people the hits at the expense of your own music. That's why we're so determined to do what we want to do. We'll be crowd-pleasers to a certain degree, but ultimately it's how we feel on the night. If we can't be true to ourselves, we won't make music anymore."
Born in Chicago in the late '80s, the Smashing Pumpkins found themselves squashed uncomfortably between the city's hardcore Wax Trax industrialists, Ministry and the Revolting Cocks, and the influential house music scene of Steve 'Silk' Hurley et al. They were out on their own.
And for a band notorious for its attitude (bad) and its internal conflicts (even worse) it is remarkable that they've survived this long. Corgan is a perfectionist and everyone knows it. How he hasn't driven the other three (all original) members into psychotherapy is a mystery.
Chamberlin admits it is an unusual set-up but one that works. "The way Smashing Pumpkins works is unlike a lot of other bands. But it is a band. The guitar sound is a James Iha guitar sound, and no one else's. Same with D'Arcy. Those are her bass lines."
Corgan chips in: "And Jimmy plays unlike any other drummer I know. This is by far the strongest the band has ever been, on an internal level, too, not just on a get-along level ... we've always got along pretty well. There's a different strength in it now. 'Familial' is the only word I could use really."
Chamberlin says that recording is more relaxed than outsiders might expect. But, if it was so relaxed, where did the edge come from on Mellon Collie ?
Corgan flashes a rare smile. "From working 12 hours or more a day in the studio for months on end!"
Mellon Collie & The Infinite Sadness was always going to be the real measure of the Smashing Pumpkins' worth. This was their moment to silence the critics and claim their place in the sun.
"People always doubted us," says Corgan. "From the name, to the style of music we play, to doing a double album. We proved them wrong, but then people saw us as jumping on the bandwagon."
Gish was an assured debut. Pity Nirvana's Nevermind tidal wave all but washed it from the face of the earth, until the end of 1991. No longer having a band like Nirvana to compete with has proved to be a mixed blessing for the Pumpkins.
"We were always seen as being in direct competition with them but it was never like that. It was just because Gish came out at the same time as Nevermind that people saw us as competitors. The competition has always been just ourselves. We're just listening to ourselves. How can we get better? That's what drives us."
Much has been made of Corgan's recent comments about the band changing in the future. Considering the band's strength has always been their majestic ballads, it is not hard to imagine that they're going to mellow out even more in the future. "It's something we've heard before but disagree with vehemently," says Corgan. "All I can say is, we're going to the edge of a cliff. But the slow stuff is not where we're heading. Our next album could be the fiercest and angriest we've ever made.
"The Smashing Pumpkins, as we exist today, are going to be irrelevant in three years. That format of band has been explored as well as it possibly can be. How could anyone do it better than what's been done already?"
This argument comes around after every music revolution. We're in the grunge-hangover phase now. Cobain killed off not just himself but everything grunge was. Somewhere down the track, when the conditions are right, we'll come back to this point and pick up all the pieces but, at the moment, Corgan is right: "It's been done ... soft and loud, sweet and sour, fast and slow, upside down and back to front.
"I'd like to the what others could ass to the sound of the Smashing Pumpkins. Expanding it beyond the four of us, adding strings and horns, and also to see what the band can truly do. We're going to explore new territory.
"We've never done what people expected. Once Nirvana hit, we got swamped with all of these sub-Nirvana clones. So now we're going to change, and we'll be there before all those other bands again."
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