FLYING HIGH AGAIN - Guitar School
February 1997 - BY Alan di Perna
(Thanks to Eve's mom for typing this out).
"I've often felt that our B-sides show more of our true character than some of our albums".
Billy Corgan's cue-ball cranium inclines forward as he speaks. The day's worth of stubble on his oversized head picks up gun-metal glints from the sunlight of a Louisville, Kentucky, afternoon.
The Smashing Pumpkins are on the road once again, but before going out to pummel another arena full of kids into a state of bliss with their roaring, angst-fueled rock, Corgan, Pumpkins co-guitarist James Iha and bassist D'Arcy, have taken time out to tell Guitar School about their new release. Titled The Aeroplane Flies High, it consists of five extended-CD singles boxed in a groovy retro carrying case like the ones used by swingers in bygone rock eras to tote their vinyl seven-inchers.
"It's a fashionably hip accessory to have," declares Iha, who knows a thing or two about fashion, having paraded his own sculpted good looks on several catwalks, modeling designs created by his friend, the couturier Anna Sui. But, like Iha himself, The Aeroplane Flies High is more than just a pretty package. Inside the box, you get all five singles from the Pumpkins' multi-platinum album, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, plus all the non-album B-sides from those singles, including some foreign-market tracks never before released in the states. Along with all this, Corgan and cohorts Pumpkinize five tunes from the new-wave Eighties, covering Blondie, the Cars, the Cure, Missing Persons and a latter-day Alice Cooper obscurity called "Clones." It's quite a set.
"WE SPECIFICALLY WANTED TO COVER SONGS FROM OUR TEEN YEARS -- THE MOLLY RINGWALD ERA."--Billy Corgan
You think a guy would be tapped out after creating a monolithic, dual-disc, epoch-defining concept album like Mellon Collie. But not Corgan. Apparently, there was a wealth of ideas he didn't get to use on the album, many of which surface on The Aeroplane Flies High. The set offers an intriguing glimpse at what goes on inside that Uncle Fester globe of his. There's everything from tender acoustic ballads to the marathon riff fest, "Pastichio Medley," which splices together all the razing guitar hooks that din't make it onto Mellon Collie. It's an odd, fascinating mix--just like the Smashing Pumpkins themselves.
Seated around a cafe table, all dressed in black, the three principal Pumpkins are like an other-worldly trio from some demented opera: Corgan, the gloomy, obsessive leader; Iha, whose Midwestern "dude" mannerisms contrast starkly with his delicate, fashion-plate looks; and the ever-practical, terminally pale D'Arcy, whose coldly appraising gaze takes in everything that goes on around her. As Iha, who was once her boyfriend, observes, she doesn't say much. But when she does, look out.
"I had a revelation last night when I was lying in bed," D'Arcy announces. "I'm going to have to learn how to play guitar." "Remember when I gave you a guitar," says Iha, "and we had the wah-wah pedal set up in the bedroom? Hours of fun!" "Well, half an hour of fun," D'Arcy counters. Ouch.
All three Pumpkins look tired. Corgan and D'Arcy are nursing nasty colds. Iha says he's getting over a bout of botulism in the deadpan tone of voice he uses most of the time and which makes it hard to tell whether he's being serious or shitting you. Suffice it to say these three have been through a lot in the past year.
The five cover songs on The Aeroplane flies High gain extra poignancy from being the last tacks the band ever recorded with drummer Jimmy Chamberlin. Shortly after those recordings were completed, Chamberlin was ejected from the band for his unresolved drug and alcohol dependency problems and for his role in the heroin overdose death of the Pumpkins' touring keyboardist, Jonathan Melvoin. Chamberlin was replaced by Matt Walker of Filter, and touring keyboard duties have been taken up by Dennis Flemion of alterna-deviants the Frogs.
The Pumpkins are doing their best to soldier on. Corgan says the cover tunes on The Aeroplane Flies High were recorded "right before we went back on tour and all that bullshit happened. We had about a two-week break and we recorded as a group for about five days. James had done his Cure cover, 'A night Like This,' on his own. I did the rest of the stuff: finished up the vocals and things. And D'Arcy did her vocals at her farm.
Every song has some kind of story behind it, like I had to go to a funeral and laid down the solo for 'The Aeroplane Flies High' before I went. It was just supposed to be for a tonal reference. I didn't expect it to be any good. But when I came back, I was pretty floored by it. Almost everything in this box set was done haphazardly like that. The sessions were squeezed in around touring and other things. It wasn't like the clear space you would have for making the album."
GUITAR SCHOOL: Do you subscribe to the theory that the best guitar solos happen when you're not really trying?
BILLY CORGAN: Yes, I would subscribe to that.
JAMES IHA: Generally, we wear lab coats in the studio. We tend to sterilize all the guitars, drums, bass and vocal tracks.
CORGAN: Although I have to say that James' solo on "Zero" is pretty wicked. And we worked on that a long time to get it right. It's a mover, though.
IHA: It was so loud in the room: just the amp hiss and the roar of 13 different pedals hooked up together.
CORGAN: It made me nauseous. The sine waves coming out of the amp were coming through the walls and making me sick.
GS: Did your produce, Flood encourage you to be spontaneous in the studio?
D'ARCY: He won't be spontaneous himself, but he forces other people to be.
GS: Was the guitar equipment you used on the B-sides and box set covers very different than what you used on Mellon Collie?
CORGAN: Same bullshit. Probably even more so because there's less time to experiment when you're recording a B-side. You don't have three hours to dick around with distortion, so you go with the equipment and settings that you know are going to work--what's already been proven. The logistics of trying to do all these songs during touring cycles were pretty daunting. With each of those B-sides we had to meet the deadline for the single release. It wasn't like we had all year to do the 28 of them.
GS: Do you think the cover songs included in the box set will change people's perception of Smashing Pumpkins? Show the band's fun side?
CORGAN: I didn't know we had a fun side.
GS: The cover choices are all so Eighties
CORGAN: We specifically chose from that era. Those songs were all roughly from our teen years. At one point we were going to do "The Ghost in You" by Psychedelic Furs, but then we found out Counting Crows had done it. But you see, it was those kind of songs. The Molly ringwald era.
GS: Which member of Smashing Pumpkins is the most metal?
CORGAN: That would be me. I'm starting to give that up, though.
IHA: He's seen the error of his ways.
GS: Which member of smashing Pumpkins is the most pop?
CORGAN: We're pretty even on that one. Surprisingly enough, we all tend to like the same pop music. As a musician D'Arcy is probably more melodic than th rest of us, and the band has pushed her more toward...
IHA: ...the atonal.
D'ARCY: I get more into rock as they move away from it.
CORGAN: As we wimp out, she wants to play heavier.
GS: Your version of the Cars' "You're All I've Got tonight" is pretty stripped down.
CORGAN: Yeah. Ric Ocasek told me that it was his favorite cover of one of his songs. That was pretty high praise.
GS: In your version of Blondie's "Dreaming," the main riff is rendered kind of atonally. It sounds like a guitar through some sort of random harmonizer program.
CORGAN: A ring modulator, actually.
IHA: And I played an auto wah-wah part on that. Just some patch in some rack. That was the name of the patch.
CORGAN: It went together with the ring modulator surprisingly well. If you listened to it on its own, it sounded like crap, but with the ring modulator, it was blissful.
GS: You said you're all alike in our tastes in pop music. Does that extend to your tastes in other things as well--books, movies?
D'ARCY: James is down here [gestures down towards floor] when it comes to books, movies and other stuff. Billy's in the middle and I'm up here. [laughs] Not in terms of better or worse. I suppose you could do it as a horizontal scale, too. James likes all that dark, dreary and depressing stuff. To him it's not good if it's not depressing. And I don't like it if it isn't happy.
CORGAN: And I only like it if it has explosions. It doesn't matter what the mood is. So there you have it: our psychological demographic.
IHA: D'Arcy is the mother hen of the Pumpkins. She has an innate sort of knowledge about healthy food and things in general. What kind of clothes to wear. What's funny.
D'ARCY: And what's not.
IHA: Me and her have fights. We duke it out.
D'ARCY: It's funny 'cause Billy and I used to fight. But now James and I fight.
GS: So James, what was it like to duet with Nina Gordon of Veruca Salt on your song, "Said Sadly"?
IHA: Oh, she's great. A hell of a singer, a heck of a gal.
CORGAN: Not bad to look at.
IHA: Right. good looker.
CORGAN: That'll go over real well with the feminists.
IHA: And she dresses well. And she likes the song, I think.
CORGAN: She feigned enjoyment really well.
GS: So you just heard her voice on that track?
IHA: Yeah. I thought it would be good to hear her in a different context, other than the rock that is Veruca Salt.
CORGAN: He took her from screaming siren to sultry sensualist.
IHA: It's just a country rock song--a true rock pop song. I'm friends with Nina and Louise [Post, also of Veruca Salt]. So I called Nina up and asked her to do it. She kindly came over and sang it. She was in and out of there, got pick up by a limo and taken to the next airport. Me and Nina exercise at the same place.
GS: Is that how you met?
IHA: No, but she turned me on to it.
D'ARCY: You sound like you're fishing for something with those questions. You going for that romantic angle?
IHA: Hey, we're just good friends.
D'ARCY: If we can't get James to tell us about his sex life, he sure as hell won't tell you. He's, like, Secret Agent Man.
CORGAN: I'll tell you what, though. Just recording with James is a sexual experience. The way he presses "record." You gotta see it.
IHA: Generally I record in my boxers. Nothing else. It throws some people off.
D'ARCY: And he lets the dog watch.
CORGAN: Actually it's pretty cool that James did that track with a guest artist. I wish there was more of that in the Pumpkins. I was even kind of hoping on the next album that we could get a lot of people that we know to come in a play, just bits and parts. We know some people who are geniuses in what they do, but they haven't necessarily had mass acceptance. That doesn't make what they do any less relevant to me. It would really be cool to try and get more people involved next time.
D'ARCY: I was just kind of hoping that we could have other people do the entire album.
IHA: That would be good too. We could stay home.
CORGAN: We could send them out on tour, too.
GS: Which one of you was friends with the Frogs first?
CORGAN: Kind of me and James simultaneously.
IHA: We saw a show while we were recording Gish in Madison, Wisconsin.
CORGAN: They were mind-blowing.
IHA: They came out of the dressing room, if you could call it a dressing room. One had silver wings and the other one had on a pink sailor suit. We thought, "This is going to be the worst show ever." We were just standing there in shock. But then they rocked.
D'ARCY: I thought Butch [Vig, rock producer] took you to that show.
IHA: Butch could have been there right.
D'ARCY: He was telling us about their records and stuff. I was disgusted and you were thrilled and delighted.
GS: How has your new drummer, Matt Walker, affected the band's musical dynamic?
CORGAN: We're probably more cyber.
IHA: We're really loud. Jimmy had more of a jazzy flair with his snare work. I would say Matt is more meaty.
CORGAN: He's like a cement mixer.
IHA: He's played to a click so long with Filter that he's like a robot with his kick and snare.
CORGAN: which is interesting, because we push and pull a lot.
IHA: Yeah, the beginning of a verse will be a different speed than the end, for some weird reason. And we'll look at Matt like he's making the mistake.
GS: What was your first show with Matt and Dennis like?
D'ARCY: I thought it was good. We played a club in Chicago and I had a really good time. It was a surprisingly good show, considering the two of them had so little time to prepare.
IHA: Yeah, Matt basically had a week-and-a-half to learn all the songs. Which is tough, because the songs are all written with integrated drum parts. It's not just jamming and shit. He's gotta stick close to what's on the record.
GS:The box set includes a tribute to Johnny Winter. What is it that you like about him?
CORGAN: He fuckin' rocks. that's what. Few guitarists have maintained as pure an approach to the blues throughout the post-Hendrix era. Stevie Ray Vaughan and even real blues blues guitarists have been influenced by Hendrix, just in their phrasing and stuff. Few guys kept so straight an arrow course and play so true to their own style as Johnny Winter. He's an amazingly kinetic guitar player for someone with so pure a tone and style. The only thing that probably ever pushed him in one way or another, stylistically, was when he was playing with Rick Derringer. It had this weird dynamic where Derringer was kind of glam. And on that song "Tribute to Johnny," we're trying to cop that Derringer-era Johnny Winter vibe. Circa '74--somewhere around there.
IHA: Although in a very sub-par kind of way. We would definitely be one of the worst roots, traditionalist sort of bands. Maybe the closest we ever came was when we used to try and play this Cheap Trick song that had kind of a Fifties rock riff in it. but we were so bad at it. We only know how to play those cyber-metal rhythms that have been created over the past couple of years.
GS: Billy, tell us about your father playing the guitar solo on "The Last Song."
CORGAN: The last time I actually played guitar with my father, I believe I was 19 or 20 years old, and I so badly offended him that I haven't played with him since. I know I shouted out something to the effect of, "It's in major not minor!" And he told me to fuck off. And that' the last time I played with him. so it's a subject we've avoided for a while. But he'd come down to the studio to visit me. He was just listening to what I was doing. I knew I needed something for that part of the song. So I thought, "Oh, guitar solo." so I got my dad to play.
GS: It's not like you actually sat down shoulder to shoulder and played guitar together.
CORGAN: No. But we've talked about doing that. Because my father's an amazing guitar player and I would really like, a some point, just to be able to play music with him without worrying about anything. I think it would really be cool. I mean, James has seen my dad play. He's wicked, man. He's got that Albert King cut to his playing.
GS: Has there been a reconciliation, then? In the past, you've said things to the effect that he wasn't supportive of you as a guitarist when you were growing up.
CORGAN: Yeah, but I mean I'm cool with all my family now. That's all been overly ballyhooed. Unfortunately it got turned into a kind of cultural Gen X bullshit thing. But I'm fine with my father. The ironic thing is, although I don't think my dad was as supportive as he could have been, I still was so influenced by his playing. So, one way or the other, he's had his impact on me. It's really cool to hear your father playing on something you wrote. I don't know what to equate it to.
D'ARCY: The Judds. [laughs] I was thinking, "That's never been done before." But then I thought, "No, wait, the Judds."
GS: But very rarely done in rock, anyway.
IHA: Yeah you're right. There are very few father/son, mother/daughter duets. D'ARCY: Rock is always about rebelling against the parents.
GS: I think Ringo Starr did some shows with his son.
CORGAN: No, listen, I have great respect for my father. He's been a real inspiration to me musically. He was the one who said the magic words. Things like, "Don't bother learning how to play anybody's solos. Don't learn anybody else's songs; write your own. Stop waiting around for band members to show up. Why don't you just learn how to play bass and drums? So you understand how to write music as opposed to trying to write for guitar." Those are really important lessons in my life.
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