NEW BANDS WAIT FOR BIG BREAK
"28 REASONS THE SMASHING PUMPKINS ARE COOLER THAN BOMB-POP, CRAFTIER THAN YOUR CLASS VALEDICTORIAN, AND MORE IMPORTANT THAN REO SPEEDWAGON (in no particular order)
1) They don't dress like anybody you know. Killing some down-time in a sprawling Chicago warehouse, Pumpkins bassist, D'arcy, is hurriedly thumbing through a stack of band photos, trying to pick out some perfect publicity shots. In each picture, she's sporting a ball gown, the kind Cinderella might've tripped over right around midnight. Her new frosted hairdo is '60s Edie Sedgwick, and - in person as well as on film - she radiates a striking, camera-friendly beauty at which past Pumpkin shots have only hinted. Drummer Jimmy Chamberlin saunters in, decked out all in black. He checks out the photos next, and seems content that they've captured his best side. It's only guitarist James Iha - hammering away at a Sega 32X version of Doom a few feet away - who doesn't seem too concerned about the images. But of course, he's wearing buckled George boots and an archaic Kiss T-shirt, and his long dark tresses are streaked with vibrant blond.
Finally, in walks the group's gangly six-foot-plus leader, Billy Corgan, looking resplendent in a vintage leisure suit with collars so big and pointy he appears ready for runway takeoff. His hair is dyed black, and trimmed to a polite bank-teller length. Like Iha, he simply seems to be wearing what comes naturally, and has left pop-star preconceptions on his closet floor. Has this irascible outfit worked out all its well-publicized differences since going triple-platinum with 1993's Siamese Dream? "Most everything... there are a few little things," says D'arcy, microwaving some leftover Popeye's fried chicken. Iha looks away from his bloody Doom screen for a second. "It basically comes down to the clothes we wear," he sighs. "Nobody likes what each other wears." "You've used that one already, James," berates D'arcy, hands on her hips. "You know you can tell a lot about a person by the shoes they wear. But a Kiss T-shirt cancels 'em right out."
2) In the face of staggering success, they still behave like the little Rascals. His hands furiously working the Sega controls, Iha starts simultaneously discussing Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness, the band's stunning 28-song (hence our little list) double disc set, which is divided into two 14-cut sections: "Dawn To Dusk" and "Twilight To Starlight," and was produced by Flood, Alan Molder and Corgan. "I think basically everyone's happy with the record, and it's probably the best record we've ever worked on," he murmurs, staring transfixed at the screen. "A lot of it had to do with Flood and the way we went about recording the thing - at the base of it, there's a rock band, and Flood really wanted to emphasize that end of it. Ahhh, fuck it! I just blew it!" Iha slumps down in his chair as his Doom character explodes, the victim of faster pig-faced aliens. He reappears on screen for one more attempt, and Chamberlin - who's been watching the whole time - begins barking directions: "Go back! Go back! Yeah, that's right! Go in there!" Happy with his new armor vest, Iha continues. "So we did live recordings, like the song 'X.Y.U.' - everything is live on it, including, the vocals."
3) The Smashing Pumpkins have a lot to say. The mystique, the whole '70s aura of the hallowed "double album" gets Iha going first. "The album I used to listen to was Pink Floyd's The Wall, which is an awesome album. But what we did is nothing like The Wall - it's a loosely-based concept with no central figure, more a collection of songs with universal themes." Blam! Two more pig-faces from Doom's difficult eighth level bite the dust. "Can I ask a question?" says Mellon Collie conceptionalist Corgan, finally taking his seat after a lengthy phone call. "Has the interview started? Is James in this interview? I mean we're not doing this interview unless everyone's in on it. I got another double album to write so hurry up!" "I thought it was gonna be a triple album," quips D'arcy, as Iha reluctantly hits the pause button. Corgan chuckles. "All we keep getting is 'What a pretentious thing to do,'" he says. "But what's so pretentious about hard work and doing a lot of good songs?" D'arcy nods in agreement. "When I was a kid, a double album was great," she says. "Plus you could open it up and look at all the pictures."
4) They've not only grown up on Kiss's Alive, Bob Seger's Live Bullet, and REO Speedwagon's You Get What You Play For, they'll admit to it in public. "Hey man," Corgan smirks, "We're just runnin' against the wind. Watch the young man run! But this concept seems to escape a lot of people who ask us questions about our supposed '70s-rock influences. How could you escape it? It just was! It wasn't like when you were 12, you were making decisions between Bob Seger and Judas Priest. You just listened to everything, and it didn't dawn on you that one thing was better than the other. I loved Cheap Trick better than everybody."
5) The neurotic-rocking Siamese Dream went triple-platinum because it not only speaks to, but for, a neurotic new generation. Corgan penned all but two tracks on Mellon Collie - Iha's "Take Me Down" and the set-closing "Farewell And Goodnight," cowritten by Iha - and he admits he knows his audience well: "The most common themed fan letter that we get, which is kind of sad but true, is this kind of 'I'm 14, I have these feelings, no one can understand why I have these feelings, everyone thinks I'm crazy, my parents hate me, I have no friends, I wanna kill myself.' And I think the things that would probably trouble a human mind are coming faster than they would have in the past, because you're exposed to the stimulus by which you would compare yourself and say 'Oh I have these feelings too.' People are basically the same, but it's the rate of maturity, the rate of people trying to tackle feelings that they're not even ready to face."
6) The 'infinite sadness' in the Mellon Collie is no joke. Since the Pumpkins '91 debut Gish, Corgan has had difficulty tackling his own feelings. He's admitted to having a nervous breakdown, undergoing therapy to deal with his "typical fucked-up childhood," and becoming a rock star because "it was the one thing that would take me away from being a human being." Today, especially after finishing such a magnum opus, he says he has more respect for himself, but things are still shaded a tad gray. "I think that if you remove every aspect of life, save for being born and dying, the very fact that you know that this moment and every successive moment is fleeting, that your life is on a string that can be cut at any time, well, I think that life is inherently sad. If we knew we had forever to live, we wouldn't be so escapist, we wouldn't be trying to climb over each other like ants."
Corgan spins out songs the way your Hamilton-Beach spews popcorn: dazzling, diverse material. For example:
7) the orchestral monolith "Tonight Tonight";
8) "Bullet with Butterfly Wings," a tom-tom tribal musing on fame;
9) the damning machine-throb riff of "Fuck You (An Ode To No One)";
10) the deceptively titled "Love," which feels like a fuzzy Goth-rock ceremonial, despite its synthesized handclaps;
11) the ambitious nine-minute epic "Porcelina Of The Vast Oceans," which tempers dreamy guitar passages with Iha's grunge nastiness;
12) the yin/yang of "Bodies" hyper march and slow, deliberate vocals;
13) "Thirty-Three" and its folksy mix of acoustic guitar and delicate piano droplets;
14) the jerky beatbox rhythm of "1979," which builds into a plush pop crescendo;
15) "Tales Of A Scorched Earth," a cut so aggressively grindcore it sounds like Reznor on methedrine;
16) the finger-plucked airiness of "Stumbleine" one of the nicest compositions in the Collie catalog;
17) "X.Y.U.," in which you actually get to hear Corgan shout 'ka-boom!' over a cacophonous chorus;
18) "We Only Come Out At Night," sing-song silliness performed on piano, bongo and zither;
19) the unabashedly Beatlesque arrangement of "Beautiful"; and...
20) its Beach Boy counterpart, the sunshine-y piano ballad "Lily (My One And Only)."
21) Corgan even had the guts to take the Lord to task in "Zero" - "God is empty just like me/Intoxicated with the madness/I'm in love with my sadness."
D'arcy, Iha and Chamberlin sit back and fold their arms, waiting for the prime Pumpkin to wriggle his way out of this one. He doesn't really believe such heresy, does he? Corgan clears his throat. "Well, sometimes I do. I read this book by Philip K. Dick which had this amazing theory that the Christian God that we worship is the real God's insane brother, and by worshipping the wrong God, everything about us is all fucked up. This is the normal human struggle - if God is this omnipotent being, how do people die tragic deaths? How do 400 people go down in a plane? That's kind of hard to reconcile, and I think a lot of people feel that way."
Corgan also repeatedly uses Freudian phrases like
22) "disconnect" in "Fuck You";
23) "my mistakes" in "Love" (even thought he's reportedly happily married);
24) "I won't deny the pain" in "Galapagos"; and
25) " I fear that I am ordinary/Just like everyone" in Muzzle." Are things really that mixed up in Pumpkin-land? Hasn't Corgan found his way out of the maze yet? "I think that you find that the maze just gets deeper," he quips. "I found the minotaur and he kicked my ass! But everyone has a weird balance, you know what I mean? I was stupider four years ago, but I had more fuckin' energy. I would've run you over with a truck four years ago - that's how much more fuckin' energy I had. Now the energy's different but the mindset's matured.
"And with 'disconnection,' we're talking about different levels of existence here, like in high school. I'd sit and look at that fuckin' clock and think 'I'm not gonna make it! I can't make through the rest of this day - I'm gonna freak out, I'm gonna fuckin' strangle this teacher, I'm gonna fuckin' shoot this guy next to me!' Well how do you get through that? You just turn yourself off. How do you get through, like, your fuckin' parent beating you over the head? You just shut it off."
26) The Smashing Pumpkins believe "celebrity breeds idiocy," and have learned to trust no one. "People can be real assholes," D'arcy hisses, brimming with venom. "Like the guy who stole those tapes from me - he was supposed to be my friend, well, my sister's boyfriend, actually. And he pretended like he was nice." Chamberlin jokingly terms the situation "Pumpkingate," but adds that it was no laughing matter. "D'arcy's sister's boyfriend stole a bunch of our demo tapes from her house and sold them before the record was done. It was a huge soap opera - he sold 'em on the Internet, and it was pretty sophisticated." "These kids were not just kids," D'arcy continues. "They were like big-time, man - they were dealing drugs, selling guns, robbing people's houses, and apparently everybody knew but us. And when I find 'em..."
27) A problem-fraught group few expected to survive past Siamese Dream has - at least emotionally grown up. Corgan agrees there's some maturity happening in their camp. "Going through the things that the band has been through has been very painful," admits the seasoned 28-year-old. [28 songs, 28 years old, this is even CMJ issue 28 - ed.] "It would've been easier, in some ways, to just put it to its happy rest. It's very difficult to take a situation that's not mended and mend it, build new bridges, try to open new communication. But if we never played again, if we never did anything again, I mean, this is a pretty amazing testament to who we are and what we stand for and believe in. And that's a different feeling than, say, if we'd broken up after Siamese Dream. We would've walked away going 'Man, we never quite did it...'"
28) Lastly, and most importantly, the Smashing Pumpkins despise Bush. Not George Bush, but that grade-B Pearl Jam/Nirvana wannabe band from Britain. This is something the whole group can agree on - the ethical tie that binds. Corgan jumps onto his soapbox at the mere mention of the group. "Music has basically followed a shallow route for 50 years," he scowls, pounding his fist on the table. "People come along, do something really cool and different, everyone copies them, the original thing gets diluted, distorted, and eventually the diluted - in most cases achieves more success than the thing that started it. And I kinda thought the alternative scene was gonna be different: We thought 'brave new world!'
"So it's really weird to be competing against the imitators. It wasn't always comfortable competing against Nirvana, and it was certainly not healthy living under that shadow at times. But at least there was honor in it. We all respected that it was a great band - Pearl Jam too. But competing against Bush?! It's nothing to get your dick hard about, you know what I mean? There's no mojo in that!"
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