The Great Pumpkin Finally Shows Up
Pulse (Tower Records magazine) September 1993
By Brett Milano,
(Sent to us by BCorgan00@aol.com)
"I hope you don't think we look like Rod Stewart or anything," apologizes Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan. The rest of the band-guitarist James Iha, drummer Jimmy Chamberlin and single-named bassist D'Arcy-cringe in agreement. And the source of their embarrassment? They're starting an interview in the back of a limo (which the Virgin Records folks have rented to make their press day in New York go a tad smoother) and they're deathly afraid of coming off like rock stars. You'd think they might just kick back and enjoy the ride, but that definitely wouldn't be Smashing Pumpkins' style.
Make no mistake, these self-proclaimed geeks from Chicago do not make up a happy-go-lucky band. That's part of their charm. There are a few good reasons why their long-playing debut, 1991's Gish, was a left-field hit-some simple (cool tunes, bitchen guitar sound), some less so ('60s psychedelic, '70s arena rock and '80s indie-rock influences all reshaped into a sound that felt fresh and honest). But the album's real hook was its emotional intensity- the way the songs reached breathless peaks and then shifted into minor keys, the way the guitar tones reflected the tangled feelings of the lyrics, and the way Corgan's voice sounded oddly vulnerable against the bravado of the band. If the grunge-rock bands that the Pumpkins vaguely resembled were flaunting a casual, "yeah, whatever" attitude, the Pumpkins were just the opposite: They wanted every guitar flourish to be a catharsis, and every song to be a life-changer.
So here we find Smashing Pumpkins about to unleash a killer second album (Siamese Dream, Virgin) and take their place in the big leagues, and what are they doing? They're stressing about what will happen if the record flops. "If this record's a failure it would be the end of Smashing Pumpkins, I'll say that much," says Corgan, now safely returned to a quiet office after the limo ride. "I'd like to think that this monstrous piece of work we've just done will mean something; I'd like to be validated on that. But i will say that the expectations of the people areound us are so high and so enormous, that i couldn't look in the mirror if it didn't meet their expectations. Because they'd be looking at me like I was a loser, and I couldn't deal with that.
"When I was 20 years old, the idea of being in a band that was popular and played huge places seemed really exciting," says Corgan, who's 25. "But the road to travel to get here was not much fun. And it's made me evaluate why I even bother, why my heart is still in music. If the Pumpkins ever blew apart, not just the people, but the whole concept of the band, I don't think I'd ever go down the same road again. I think I'd do music that I knew would be nowhere near commercial. I'd be an eclectic artist. Because at this stage of the game you've got so many people whispering in your ear what you should and shouldn't be doing, that it's a little sick. It comes down to money invested, what other people have at stake.
"There's a really strange anxiety right now. I mean, we've been told so many times that this is an amazing record that you'd think it's going to be the Great Pumpkin. Seriously, like it'll be the much-ballyhooed arrival that never arrives. That's really scary."
He needn't worry, Siamese Dream is the best kind of follow-up record: the kind that expands on, and experiments with, the strengths of the debut. Its 13 songs are alternately more poppish and more challenging than those on Gish, and even more inclined to take tricky leaps into different keys and moods ("There should be lots of parts if a song goes over four minutes, or else it's going to get boring," Corgan says). With hot producer Butch Vig's help (Vig also produced Gish), they've gotten more ambitious in their search for evocative sounds. Guitar parts range from the lovely Eastern tones of "Rocket" to the ominous feedback on "Hummer" to the wall o' noise on "Geek U.S.A.," with all of the above turning up on the nine-minute centerpiece "Silverfuck." Not to mention a pair of tracks with no guitar sounds at all : "Disarm" is performed with just acoustic piano and strings, while "Spaceboy" could pass for an old T.Rex ballad, complete with Mellotron.
"I think the emotional range is really wide, from complete depression to exalted happiness," says Corgan, who's the band's main writer and the main architect of its guitar sound. "I've had people tell me that it's a melancholy record, but I don't necessarily agree with that. If anything, I think Gish is more depressing than this is. But a lot of people mistake emotion for melancholy, and they think that the display of emotion is in itself an act of sadness, and I don't think that." Indeed, if the album has an overriding mood, it seems to have to do with being overwhelmed by good feelings for the first time in your life, and not knowing how to handle it. "That's pretty accurate," Corgan says. "I do get sick of hearing about how the band's music is more important than its lyrical content. We're putting a lyric sheet on this album, so hopefully that will prove otherwise. I think we're fearlessly honest in terms of laying ourselves open, and I think that's the most enduring quality about this band. If a band's greatness was judged by its honesty, I think we'd be near the top."
Which isn't to say that the band and Vig didn't spend endless hours in
the studio, in a search for some absolutely perfect guitar sound.
"Absolutely. A frightening amount of time was spent. A song gets very
specific in the studio; everything from the tempo to the instrument can
determine the feeling. How do we want the drums, what's the intent there? How
aggressive is the bass going to be? The amount of treble you use, the kind of
strings you play- all those things determining a kind of emotional bed for
the songs. You can get a song like 'Mayonnaise,' which has loud guitars but
the attack is still muted, kind of lush even though it's loud. Or a song like
'Disarm,' which is probably the most intense moment on the record even though
it's not loud at all. It was a great lesson to me to know that you didn't
have to be loud and abrasive to create that kind of head rush."
As for the guitar sounds, "There was a lot of wizardry involved. There were times when I had five pedals hooked up in a row. I play a lot of leads standing in front of the amp, two feet away from the speaker, and the guitar would be louder than the headphones so I had to crank the phones up to some brutal volumes to get a musical balance. There were some sounds I could only get by standing one foot away from the speaker. I don't want to ruin the mystery, but we went to ridiculous lengths to get different guitar sounds. Everybody's already heard every guitar sound ever, so we wanted to come up with something as new as it could possibly be when you're still using guitars, foot pedals and an amp."
There are also a few cheap thrills in "Geek U.S.A.," whose intro finds them riffing away in near-Metallica fashion. "I think we've reached the point where if we're going to be a rock band-you know, playing rock songs-they's have to be that overwhelming in terms of intensity, because we're so bored with the genre that we can only get our rocks off by playing something like that," says Corgan. The song's title also serves as a manifesto for the band, even if they look rather hip nowadays in their thriftshop-chic outfits.
"That's what i've been told I am my whole life. A freak, a geek, whatever that word means is what I am. I don't necessarily see that as a bad thing. Long ago I found out that I couldn't be fashionable if I tried. You begin to revel in your own lack of ability to be cool. It was like that in Chicago. We were this band of complete idiots, playing long guitar solos that everyone considered passe. We'd play at home and people assumed we were from out of town.
"I was afraid we were gonna do Gish 2," Corgan says. "That would be a really dumb thing to do. I wanted to change the whole intent of the band, we've gotten more open to being melodic; and we're not so hung up about rock structure vs. pop song structure. I'd say the Pumpkin sound has become a little more..."
"Broad," suggests Iha.
"Concise," says Corgan at exactly the same time.
D'Arcy breaks into a laugh at hearing her bandmates contradict each other. It's evidently not the first time she's heard it.
Follow-up albums are notoriously hard to make after a young band's seen success with its debut; we've all heard the old cliche about having 20 years to write your first album and six months for the second. But the Pumpkins got a heavier dose than most, and the two years between Gish and Siamese Dream seemed to present them with every hassle in the book. Interband squabbles? Check. Drug problems? Check. Really disappointing attempts to begin work on schedule? Check. Occasions when the band came close to chucking the whole thing and breaking up? Check, and then some.
"My memory of that time is nothing but pain and a lot of negativity," says Corgan. "Lots of clouds. Lots of screaming," adds Iha. "We were just burned out, had just come off our first major tour and everyone was beat," Chamberlin adds. "We tried to start writing the new record right away, which was a complete mistake," Corgan continues. "For about nine months we couldn't write anything that didn't sound just like Gish. There was no distance there. After all, it was the first time we'd been in the position of having to write a second album. Doin Gish was fine, because no matter what we did there was nothing to preface it with, so it could have been anything."
In short, just as Gish was catching on, Corgan started to realize he had no idea of what to do for an encore. (The Lull EP, with leftover songs from the first album's sessions, was brought out to fill the void; as were one-song contributions to two compilations-the Singles soundtrack and Pravda Records' K-Tel tribute, 20 Super Explosive Smash Hit Explosions!, for which the Pumpkins covered the Ozark Mountain Boys' "Jackie Blue.") But for someone who'd always had grand ideals for his band, writer's block was a hard pill to swallow.
"Gish was a pretty heavy debut album. It covers a lot of ground; the musicianship is pretty good, what the songs deal with is not your basic indie-rock songs. So suddenly we were a year older and still dealing with the same sounds, the same issues. And I include myself in that problem, too. Suddenly you wake up and everything you've worked for is gonna go down the fuckin' toilet because we can't even get it together to rehearse, and focus on what the band's supposed to be about. This is not the most appealing thing to talk about in public, but to me the whole thing was just a shame. All the success provided for us was...Nobody had to work day jobs anymore, so everybody was just kinda sitting at home. When we had a foe to fight against, when the world didn't believe in us, we had a lot more glue to hold us together than when the band was, in everybody's eyes, succeeding."
The band members' personal lives were no great shakes either. Though Corgan recently got married, he says his heart was in much rougher shape when he had to start writing a follow-up. (Before hooking up with Kurt Cobain of Nirvana, Hole's singer Courtney Love was Corgan's girlfriend. Iha and D'Arcy were a couple of long standing but broke up on the last leg of their American Gish tour.) It appeared the inevitable stress of being thrown together into the spotlight was pulling the band members away from each other. Which led to the widespread rumors over the past year that the Pumpkins were in big trouble-that they couldn't get started on the second album and were hating each other to boot.
"The band probably came as close to breaking up as it ever has," Corgan admits. "Everybody's problems manifested themselves in a different way," says Chamberlin. "Billy was going through a lot of emotional struggles while we were rehearsing. I had some problems with drug abuse. James and D'Arcy had their own problems. We had individual breakdowns together, and that took the focus away from the band."
"What was unfortunate was the people basically dealt with the stress by not dealing with the band," adds Corgan. "So we found ourselves in the very dubious position of having to scramble at the last second to put together what was going to be a record. And there was a lot of pressure on me, to come up with the album that the record company was expecting. I thought that the band itself had become so low in terms of individual priorities. Suddenly we were four people who were in a band because we were supposed to be, because it was financially viable. But not because we were wanting to do amazing things, or to make great art. That really broke my heart. We'd lost sight of the things that always made the band different, like songwriting. At the last minute we pulled it together, and a lot of the right ground was covered. But it was done, in my mind, with a lot of damage."
But isn't the songwriting basically Corgan's department? "It is and it isn't. I structure a lot of it. But a band is four people, four souls that feed into a kind of collective mood. If you're just one person and you're not getting any support, then you're just simulating the mood of four people. If i recorded the album by myself, it would sound totally different."
Which leads us to another popular Smashing Pumpkins rumor that Corgan essentially did make both albums by himself, using the rest of the band only for minimal support. It's been suggested that he plays virtually all of the guitar parts, maybe even the bass as well. "He's not a very good drummer, enough said," says Chamberlin. "There's all sorts of rumors about me being the Svengali," Corgan says. "Yes, the guitar parts are slanted toward me. But a lot of that has to do with me being the songwriter."
Yes, Smashing Pumpkins is really a band-but on the other hand, the other members seem to have learned not to step on Corgan's toes. Case in point : The relative lack of vocals from D'Arcy, though she's proven to be a more than capable lead singer. On Gish she handled the lovely closing number "Daydream." On Siamese Dream she gets to open the album, singing the first verse of "Cherub Rock," but after that her voice is never heard from again. Considering the wide range of guitar sounds the band has explored, it's surprising that they haven't taken the more obvious tack of incorporating male/female harmonies.
"I have no problem with that; but D'Arcy doesn't write songs and she doesn't necessarily say, 'I've got this vocal part.' So unless i tell her, 'Sing this,' she probably won't be doing vocals. And under the circumstances this album was written, I had a hard enough time figuring out what the fuck I was gonna sing." "In the studio, a lot of the same aesthetic can be acheived by having Billy sing," Chamberlin adds. "Yeah, a lot of what sounds like her on this album is really me," adds Corgan. "On 'Quiet,' where there's that ghostly kind of high voice , that was me."
In the end, the Pumpkins pulled Siamese Dream together in a time-honored way: They locked themselves in their practice space and rehearsed their butts off. And Corgan dealt with label pressures in an equally time-honored way: By telling everyone outside the band to flake off.
"Stop me now before I ruin my career," he says before outlining his dealings with Virgin. "I've had to look people in the eye who hold my career in their hands and say, 'I don't want your fuckin' opinion.' You have to have the confidence in yourself to look right at people and say, 'You can't come to the studio, you can not interfere, don't tell me how to write songs.' I mean, I work with people because i respect them, but sometimes you have to tell them that, and it's hard- like looking at your boss and saying, 'Sorry, but I don't trust you at the moment.' Deep down inside we have that confidence, and we had it before anybody knew who we were.
"And the funny thing is, people were scared when we made the first album. At the time people were trying to steer us to the right, toward this happier pop kind of vision. And the first album was successful, to a lot of people's surprise. So then Gish became the new formula and we started getting told, 'Don't change, stay the same,' and we were saying, 'But we want to change!' I can understand why people start losing their desire and the will to make great music. What goes on behind the carnival can really be scary."
Of course, the band has joined up with a bigger carnival for this album. Gish was on Caroline, which is wholly owned by Virgin/EMI but operates as an indie; for Siamese Dream the band is on Virgin proper. Fair enough, you might say: it's nothing new for an indie band to hook up with a major label when it's on the way up. But it also looked like Virgin was pulling a fast one by farming the band out to Caroline for its debut- launching the group with indie credibility intact, only to groom it for the inevitable major-label splash on the follow-up.
"That's another one of those much-ballyhooed rumors," sighs Corgan. "Here's the true, true story: We wanted to sign to Caroline in the first place; we could have signed with about seven different labels and we wanted to go with them. At the same time, the situation presented itself was that we could sign to Virgin for the second album, having the guarantee that it would come out on a major label. And also to have Caroline put the first album out, without having to deal with the major at all. So that's what happened: When we were on Caroline, we were on Caroline. There was no one from Virgin interceding, no one from Virgin promoting the record, no one from Virgin Radio...none of that. People have tried to imply that Virgin was working behind the scenes to make the record happen, that it was all done with Caroline as a front. And that's just not true.
"But we took great comfort in knowing that we'd be on Virgin for the second album, that if the Caroline record didn't do well for whatever reason, that we'd still have the second one. You know how it goes if you're a buzz band on an indie label: Either you move on to bigger and better things, or you fizzle out. If you don't live up to your hype, then suddenly you're not a buzz band anymore and you can't get anyone to see you play. When you're from Chicago, that's a frightening prospect. Seriously. And that has a lot to do with the decision we made. If we were from New York or L.A., we would probably have signed to Caroline and played our cards. But we thought we needed to take a safer position. I thought we got the best of both worlds; and we actually took less money so we could do it. We got to be on the label we wanted, and we had time to learn the business before we graduated to a major. And the people at Virgin had an album's time to get to know the band at a distance. Some of them actually got to be fans of the band, without knowing there was going to be any future affiliation."
Besides, Corgan doesn't subscribe to the idea that there's an integrity gap between indie and major labels. "It's a total crock of shit. The only people who are ballyhooing it are the people who stand to gain from the continued kind of coolness attached to indie labels. Most indie labels aren't what they're cracked up to be; most of them don't pay their artists, most play favorites and shut some people out. I'll give credit to anyone who has the balls to put a label together on their own; that's a great thing. But it doesn't inherently mean that they're doing what's right and major labels aren't.
"As far as we're concerned, signing to a major has gotten us to the point where if someone comes to see us play, they can go buy our records. We want that. And we don't make any bones about that; we want to participate in our culture. We don't go without seeing our moms for a year so we can be cool. We do it because we want to play music and be a part of people's lives. And i can't tell you how many people have said, 'When Gish was out I looked for it in five stores and couldn't find it, so I taped it from my friend.'
"I'm forever the stupid idealist. I really want the record to end up in somebody's hands, where they can put it on and say, 'Wow, this really means something to me. This represents the way I feel, it's part of my life circa 1993.' I was like that when I was 12- I thought Cheap Trick was cool, and I listened to Judas Priest as well. I didn't know that the media was pointing out that one of those bands was cool and the other wasn't- I listened to them both and didn't give a fuck."
But there's a difference between selling records and acting like rock stars, and the Pumpkins plan to keep that in mind. "We're going to try to provide an opportunity for people to come say hello to us whenever we play, and that's as much for our benefir as it is for theirs. We all come from middle-class backgrounds and we haven't forgotten that we were the same kind of people that we play to now. I really, really want to maintain that intimacy where someone comes to see us play and doesn't feel we're speaking down to them. Even though some of them want to look up to us, I don't want to play that role. We're doing our best to provide forums for people to associate with us, that doesn't have to do with rock-star posturing."
"The hardest part is when people start acting like they're afraid of you, because you're in a band," says D'Arcy. "Or when they treat you like dirt because they see you as some kind of paper-thin image, so they have to say something really rude," adds Iha. "We've seen our share of that as well."
"If we've had success, it's happened to us so gradually that we barely noticed- like watching our hair grow," says D'Arcy. "What was strange to me was that it happened gradually, that everything we did was more successful than the last," adds Corgan. "So there was a real potential for arrogance, to assume that all we had to do was show up and the next record would get done. We learned that it doesn't work that way. I've never made any qualms about this: That i've always thought we could do something that's basically stupid, which is playing rock music, but to take it to a level that's something of a higher art form, as daunting as a task as that might be, and to do it with some intelligence and class."
Corgan isn't promising that the band's next album will be any easier to make than the current one. "The problems are mended for the time being, but at some point we're going to have to reconcile them all again. It's like a cycle, and it always starts with the writing of the next album. So to me, the new cycle starts now." And when all's said and done, did all the fear and loathing of the past year drive Smashing Pumpkins to make a better record? Corgan ponders that one for a minute. "I'd say it did. But I wouldn't prescribe it to anyone
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