"Orange Crunch" -- Smashing Pumpkins' Double-Fisted Knockout
By James Rotondi
Guitar Player January 1996 By James Rotondi
"'God, you guys work more than any band I've ever seen!'"
Billy Corgan snickers mischievously. He's relating one studio owner's reaction to the marathon recording sessions that produced the Smashing Pumpkins' latest double-disc tour de force, *Mellon Collie & The Infinite Sadness*. "We thought it was funny that he'd even say that." Corgan grins with the strange mixture of defensiveness and warmth that characterizes his personality. "We're just not screw-off people; if you're going to be there, you might as well work. What else are you supposed to do? Snort some coke and *then* do a guitar line?"
Maybe it's only coffee, but something's getting Corgan up in the morning. He's an ambitious, driven talent and notorious taskmaster in the world of alternative rock, a genre that prides itself on the oh-well-whatever-nevermind slacker credo. In a musical milieu where smokin' chops are almost a liability, he's a potent, gut-wrenching soloist and master of the pumped-up, post-Sabbath raunch riff, a reformed five-hours-a-day guitar geek weaned on Blackmore, Yngwie, Hendrix, and Jimmy Page. But Corgan's always been ambiguous about his role in the alternative rock scene. "Cherub Rock," the lead-off track from 1993's double-platinum *Siamese Dream*, attempted to address his dilemma: the kid who grows up with Judas Priest, Queen, and Boston, only to front a band that becomes one of the central icons of an alleged counterculture movement he doesn't even feel a part of. Many folks in Chicago still bear some residual resentment over the band's relatively short dues- paying time and their seemingly overnight surge to prominence, even though the Pumpkins' high profile helped precipitate the mainstream success of Chicago bands like Veruca Salt, Liz Phair, and Urge Overkill.
They may have had some lucky breaks, but it's hard to dismiss the band's--and particularly Corgan's--relentless drive and big- picture guitar vision as key ingredients in their success story. From the writing phase to the mastering stage, *Mellon Collie* -- co-produced by U2 and PJ Harvey overseer Flood -- took over ten months of what Corgan calls "almost continuous work" with second guitarist James Iha, bassist D'Arcy Wretzky, and drummer Jimmy Chamberlin. The album's 28 tracks embrace everything from the band's trademark tight, slaughtering thrash to King Crimson-esque art-rock, Britpop balladry, glam- rock boogie, Cure-ish post-punk, Prince-y soft-funk, and pastoral country rock with a Gram Parsons bent. From E-bows to pedal steel to guitar synths, Billy and James exploited their gear options as exhaustively as their techniques.
The Smashing Pumpkins' first two full-length records, *Gish* and *Siamese Dream*, were massive sellers, and early on provoked frequent comparisons to Nirvana and Jane's Addiction. That reaction was probably attributable as much to the band's wall of high-gain power chords and their dreamy, Eastern modality-meets-pop-hook melodies as to their angst- heavy lyrics. They've retained those qualities, most notably on "JellyBelly," "X.Y.U.," and the fittingly titled "Tales Of A Scorched Earth." But on *Mellon Collie* they've introduced a world of new textures, sounds, and moods, almost as if to bury those early comparisons. "In terms of public opinion, we're still either coattail riders or psychedelic thieves," shrugs Corgan, sitting on a road case at the band's Chicago rehearsal facility. "We've ridden the line between being seen as innovators or followers. But I've got my own agenda. We started the band in a much different climate. Before the band was formed, I'd tell people I was going to form this band--nobody believed me. When I said the band was going to be big, nobody believed me. By the time I said I was going to do a double album, I'd built up enough 'nobody believed me' that people started believing me!"
Perfectionists like Corgan are capable of great accomplishments, but they're usually sticklers for the unfulfilled detail. Listening from the outside, there's a sameness to many of Corgan's melodies, and though his tortured, dynamically active singing voice may be emotionally expressive, it's not always the strongest melodic vehicle, particularly on the slower, sparer tunes. But of all the elements to second-guess, Corgan's choice is quite surprising. "We've hit a wall on the guitar," he states flatly. "I still want to be excited about it, but a ripping lead just doesn't do it for me like it used to. I'm thinking much more in terms of the song than the guitar technique." Corgan says that he and Iha have become more concerned with the visceral impact of guitar solos, rather than the richness of their structure or melodic content. Fittingly, when Corgan tears into a solo, it's anything but an intellectual exercise.
"For the solo in 'Fuck You (Ode To No one),' I played until my fingers saw blood," he claims. "You can't play a weak guitar solo in such a propulsive song. It's got to be attack-style. To do that, I put on the headphones and stand one foot away from the amp. I turn the amp up so loud that I literally have to play harder than the feedback, because if I stop playing even for an instant, the whole thing explodes." Laden with huge, vibrato-laden bends that shriek up the neck, stretched in ways that would sound sour in less muscular hands, Corgan's leads are anything but delicate and methodical. But then, that's not what he's looking for, at least not on the heavy material. "I'm not interested in impressing anybody with technical virtuosity," he says. "I want to hear *power*. I want the fucking hammer of the gods."
William Patrick Corgan was born in Chicago on March 17, 1967. Though he didn't begin playing guitar until he was 14, Corgan was surely influenced by his father, Bill Corgan Sr., a professional guitar player with a style that his son describes as "Santana-esque, but more bluesy." Billy remembers his dad's musical influence on him as more cerebral than technical. "I picked up all that '60s blues-rock stuff from watching him play," explains Corgan Jr., "but my father is a very philosophical person, and he had a lot of theories on what *not* to waste your time on."
According to Corgan, it was his father who encouraged him to begin dissecting records in order to understand the roles various instruments play in a rock ensemble. He also told him to stop sitting around waiting for a band to magically appear. "That has a lot to do with why this band is the way it is," Corgan suggests. "I've been able to find an overall philosophy to everything we do. I can help steer the drums and the bass because I understand their roles. I can make it all glue together because I can be of one mind about all these different things.
"But one of the most genius things my dad ever told me," Corgan adds, "was that I should never learn to play like anybody else." Like many players his age, Corgan cut his teeth playing along to albums by Van Halen, Hendrix, Beck, and others, but he rarely tried to cop specific licks. "*Van Halen I* was the ultimate play-along album," he raves, "and I'd pick up a lick here and there. But it was more the feeling behind it. If you wanted to draw a parallel between my attack style of lead guitar and someone else, it's total Van Halen. In his early days he was an *attack* guitar player. That guy had some fucking balls, and that ability to translate gut feeling is what separated Eddie from everybody else." Corgan loved Hendrix--"great phrasing, a great melodicist"--and considers Ritchie Blackmore to be "pound for pound, one of the greatest soloists of all time."
But if there's any single precedent for Corgan's heavily overdubbed single-note signature riffs, it's Black Sabbath's Tony Iommi. The densely layered and overdubbed fuzz guitars of mid-period Sabbath classics like *Masters Of Reality* and *Sabbath Bloody Sabbath* were a central inspiration on *Siamese Dream*'s thick guitar textures. "Those were certainly big records for me," Corgan concurs. "Before this recent revolution of good-sounding metal records, Black Sabbath was the shit. Obviously when you listen to a Pantera record now, it sounds a lot heavier. But in the old days it was like, do I want to sound like Judas Priest or do I want to sound like *Masters Of Reality*? That was a pretty easy choice to make!"
According to Corgan, virtually all the distorted rhythm guitars on *Siamese Dream* were tracked at least four times and some as many as ten. *Mellon Collie* represents a conscious decision to make a leaner guitar record. The majority of guitar parts on the album are double-tracked once, which was intended to make the album sound different, but also to clear some room for the drums: "We wanted to make sure the drums would really rock, and when you've got that many guitars, you're eating up the frequencies that the snare and cymbals occupy." Corgan is also pleased with the clarity of the guitars, which he claims comes from a long-sought balance of Marshall JMP-1 preamp distortion and Big Muff-style fuzz-box sheen: "I've got the balance I've always wanted: all that low-end brute force with the clarity on top, which is why this record rocks a lot harder than *Siamese Dream*. That record had a humongous sound, but we lost the attack, and that's something we wanted to make sure we achieved this time. I've got it now, and there's no shutting me down."
But *Mellon Collie* isn't just about sledgehammer guitars. Session ace Greg Leisz contributes pedal steel to Iha's pretty "Take Me Down," and there are lovely double-stop cascades in "Galapagos." One of the record's finest pieces is "Porcelina Of The Vast Oceans," a nine-minute epic that alternates between a slow, expansive psychedelia and a driving, syncopated power hook with a lightly flanged edge.
The introduction features roughly ten tracks of E-bow, and there's a pretty, ambient tremolo effect percolating in the right channel. As Iha points out, "there was a lot of Flood on that song," but many of the long notes were attained the good old-fashioned way: "That takes some strong wrist, let me tell you," chuckles Corgan. "A lot of that is just standing in front of the amp for 20 seconds shaking the string and trying not to lose the beat after it."
The cavernous reverbs provide a bed for as many as ten breathy vocal parts, plus rhythm guitars and the E-bows, all running through a spectrum of digital effects. "I know it's crazy," says Corgan, "but when it comes out so seamlessly, and it's about as close to perfect as it can be, it really takes you somewhere. That's the thing I'm always trying to concern myself with--the end result and the means to that end."
Iha's demonized "cyber solo" in "Love" began life, in Iha's typically self-deprecating words, as "a really bad blues solo." The song begins with a steady flanged eighth-note chunk figure over a mechanized beat. The sound of Iha's solo, tweaked through an Eventide H3000 harmonizer in the final mix, took hours to cement. "I had the general idea for it," recalls Iha, "and since we wanted something cyber-like, I tried a Roland guitar synthesizer. I sat there for four hours, and finally walked out of the room and said, 'I can't get anything out of this.'" Corgan had the same luck, but decided to go further into cyberspace, renting a Roland VG-8--a device that reproduces real guitar sounds--something that he had a, shall we say, philosophical problem with. "Why the fuck would you want a device that makes your guitar sound like a fucking guitar?!" he crows. "They've got a Twin Reverb sound on there, and a metal setting called something like 'HEVE METTLE' and it's the worst sound-- probably Tommy Tedesco's idea of what a distorted metal guitar sounds like."
Corgan and Iha's guitar partnership is a fragile fraternity that probably echoes the nature of their personal relationship. The popular rumor, backed up by Corgan in the press, was that Iha and Wretzky were barely present on *Siamese Dream*, and that the band was extremely close to breaking up. Their personal dysfunctions were written up in a *Rolling Stone* cover story in April 1994, trumpeted as a "Double-Platinum Soap Opera" of therapy sessions, substance abuse problems, and shattered relationships. Sitting in a room together, Iha and Corgan are at first barely civil--"Are you going to close the door?" Corgan huffs when Iha enters the room--but they seem like real pals when the subject turns to their adolescent days cranking Iron Maiden and Rainbow.
"I'm less technically adept than Billy, and probably less technically interested," says Iha, a former graphic arts student who doubles many of the main riffs live, but also acts as color man and vocal foil. "The way I come up with parts is pretty intuitive, and I generally play simple lines, working on my feel. I guess we're basically playing the same notes a lot of the time, but our approach to them is different." Corgan points to the guitar parts on "Porcelina" as indicative of the differences in their styles, his being "more full-ranged and lyrical" and James's being "more singular and harder." Though both players trade rhythm and leads, Corgan seems to solo more often in concert, though he says the gap is narrowing, with Iha increasingly tackling the intricate fills and phrases between song sections. "In the choruses of 'Porcelina,' James came up with a nice descending line," notes Corgan. "I always encourage him to go off, with the only limitation being that he should listen to the vocal. His guitar should get some opposing ideas to the vocal, something completely different from what else is going on. If it helps expand the song without getting in the way of the vocal, that satisfies everything we're looking for in an additional part."
Like a lot of guitarists who also sing, Corgan takes his songwriting craft as seriously as his lead guitar chops. But unlike most guitarists, his shift in emphasis wasn't exactly gradual. "One day I looked at the guitar and thought, 'I fucking hate this and I hate trying to be this. This is fucking gross.' I put the guitar down and started writing." Corgan's lyrics are every bit as ambitious as his arrangements. Highly charged, often bitter, and extremely personal, his words have a way of pegging instantaneous feelings. The first single from *Mellon Collie*, "Bullet With Butterfly Wings," boasts the potent chorus line "Despite all my rage I am still just a rat in a cage," the kind of slogan that makes for instant rock classics. But Corgan the guitar hero still has to duke it out with Corgan the songwriter, producer, and arranger.
"It's very difficult for me to see how becoming a great guitar player in and of itself is a valid lifelong quest," he says. "Steve Vai is without question a very gifted musician and a great mind who changed the entire framework by which guitar is played. But is that really what you want to go to your grave doing?
I could be wrong, but to me it seems so much more important to communicate in all these other ways as well. I know what it's like to think, 'I'm going to be a great guitar player and nothing else.' I know what it's like to be an insecure songwriter but a really good guitar player, who uses his guitar playing to buttress the songwriting. I've been on both sides of it, and there's so much more satisfaction for me now. The best analogy I can draw is that the guy who plays the solo gets 20 seconds in the spotlight, but the guy who writes the song gets the full three minutes. That's the difference."
Corgan's restless imagination is leading him to consider giving up rock music entirely. Because his precursors like Zeppelin and Hendrix have already mapped out so much rock and roll territory, he says that composing for a rock band has become like "writing with one hand tied behind my back." Though he's vague about his plans, the future of the band--as usual--seems uncertain. "I'm looking at this album as a kind of finality with the Pumpkins, because I want to move on in such a different musical direction. I want to be able to walk in an open territory.
With rock I'm competing not only with myself, but with everything that's gone before. The audience knows it too." Still, Corgan sees *Mellon Collie* as an assimilation of all the group's best qualities: the hard edge of *Gish*, the songcraft and production of *Siamese Dream*, the trippiness of their earliest experiments. "It has to do with maturity-- that's the only way I can put it." But he also recognized that the time for such a project was now. He had the resources, his band was finally of one mind, and it was something that he'd always dreamed of accomplishing.
"I believe that God deals you a weird deck of cards," he says softly, "some positive things and some negative things, and you need the ability to put all those things together. There's no better window to your potential than yourself. You know what you're capable of, and it's pretty difficult to live life knowing that your potential and capabilities are unfulfilled.
All you need is the heart to do it. It may sound like I'm giving a high school speech, but if you really believe that you can do it, you can. You have to get up every day and believe it, despite the adversities you may encounter. It has a lot to do with being honest, reflecting on your work with compassion and saying, 'What do I really like about what I do? What can I improve?' It's the experiences, the momentum, the expectations of every moment that make it possible. You just persist in getting to where you get to walk in the light."
Return to Billy's Page