PROFILE THE GREAT PUMPKIN
Guitar World - September 1993
BILLY CORGAN INDULGES EVERY GUITAR FANTASY HE'S EVER HAD ON SMASHING PUMPKINS' SIAMESE DREAM
By Alan di Perna
"I gotta tell you about the Pumpkin chord!" Smashing Pumpkins guitarist/singer/ songwriter/theorist Billy Corgan laughingly prepares to initiate me into one of his band's masonic secrets. The "pumpkin chord" turns up in many of the noise-loving Chicagoans' songs, including "Cherub Rock", the hooksome slab of psych-rock that kicks off their new album Siamese Dream. "It's just an open E with an A flat octave played at the 11th fret", Corgan explains. "But what's funny about it is we've now used it in so many songs that when other bands use it, even if they're not trying to emulate us, people always tell me, 'Oh, they sound like Smashing Pumpkins.' I like the idea of having exclusive claim to one chord."
The statement is typical of Billy Corgan: tongue-in-cheek and slyly self deprecating. As if one silly E chord were the only memorable thing about Smashing Pumpkins. With his novel combination of traditional metal and alternative guitar pop influences, Corgan takes a ride on a safety-be-damned joyride through some wild sonic neighborhoods. His songs unfold according to their own delirious logic - bruisingly thrashy one moment, swooningly melodic and hypnotic the next. I'm happiest when I feel I've stumbled across something that nobody's ever done," he says. "There are so many records with loud guitar on them. I try to use that guitar power in a way that puts you in a different universe.'
Corgan began reaching for the stars at an early age. His father, a working r&b guitarist, provided stylistic guidance more than actual hands-on instruction: "He taught me what to look for when listening to other guitar players. He steered me toward guys like Jeff Beck and Jimi Hendrix and told me, 'Forget Clapton; he sucks.'" When Billy started playing, at age 15 or so, he promptly discovered the joys of "standing in front of my Bassman stack and feeding back over Black Sabbath records - in key!" About three years later, he ended up in St. Petersburg, Florida, on a lark. "I cut all the strings," he recalls. "It was just a chance to go somewhere else and be whoever I wanted to be. It's very strange down there - because that's where some of the magnetic poles meet, someone once told me. There are more gruesome murders in Florida than any other state. It's constantly over 90 degrees. And at 93, your brain starts to cook. it makes you goofy. It might as well be called hell. But I like it."
During his nine-month sojourn in Florida, Billy also started his first band, the Marked - purportedly named for the members' birthmarks. "It was a strange mixture of death rock and really aggressive Zeppelin drums," he recalls. "A lot of different things that shouldn't go together, stylistically. It was pretty adventurous on guitar, too. But basically, for me, that was the band where I learned what -not- to do in a band. I was very starry-eyed and I thought we were going to storm the world. When we didn't, I came back to Chicago and was so bummed out that I sold all my pedals and gave up playing distorted guitar for a long time. That was the beginning of my song writer period. I stayed holed up in my room for about two years. I lived with my father and did odd jobs to make money, but basically, I just concentrated on writing songs with my Mustang and Fender amp. They started off being minimalist pop songs and just developed from there."
When Corgan finally did return to the light - circa 1988 - it was to recruit bassist D'arcy Wretzky, second guitarist James Iha, and drummer Jimmy Chamberlin. The Smashing Pumpkins germinated. "We were never a hip band," Billy insists, downplaying himself once more. "When we started, Chicago was still very much into the post-Replacements, Husker Du, garage band kind of thing. We were considered passe, like, 'Oh, my gosh, you play guitar solos? What's your problem?'"
But all that, of course, was B.G. (Before Grunge). In 1990 Seattle's Sub Pop label recognized the Pumpkins as kindred spirits to Nirvana, Mudhoney and the company's other homegrown acts. The Smashing Pumpkins' second single, "Tristessa," released on Sub Pop, measured big on the underground Richter scale. Major labels came courting, but Corgan resisted temptation. Instead he chose the indie Caroline label to release the band's first album, Gish in 1991. Co-produced by Corgan and Butch Vig (Sonic Youth, Nirvana), Gish established Smashing Pumpkins as a force to be reckoned with in the Nineties' alternative guitar upheaval. Post modern axe aficionados were impressed with the record's bold spectrum of guitar textures. But Billy, true to form, was less than 100 percent satisfied, and now feels that the guitars sound "kind of dated."
It's not that Corgan is an unduly negative individual. It's just that he sets very high standards for himself: "Our creative ambitions are so high that it puts a lot of strain and stress on us," he says of the group. "We are always attempting to go beyond our means." The guitarist declares himself much happier with the new Smashing Pumpkins album. Having finally signed with a major label (Virgin), Corgan says he "got to indulge every guitar fantasy I ever dreamed of," on Siamese Dream. Again the band retreated into the studio with Butch Vig. But this time British noise-pop production ace Alan Moulder (Curve, My Bloody Valentine) was called in to help with the mixing. One thing Corgan wanted to do with guitar sounds on the album was "create a real sense of depth, without necessarily using delays or reverbs - to use tonalities instead."
This approach embraces everything from the tape-flanged solo on "Cherub Rock" to the 15 tracks of E-bowed acoustic guitars on the quiet section of "Soma". Between them, Corgan and James Iha own "a sick amount of guitars." They share guitar duties pretty equally on the record, although Corgan does all the solos - usually on one of his Fender '57 reissue Strats, the model that recently became his main axe.
As great as the tones are on Siamese Dream, it's Corgan's writing and arranging that really sets them off to ideal advantage. He is a master of contrasts, juxtaposing sandpaper stridency with passages of bell- like clarity. "It's probably just my short attention span," he jokes, "but one of our basic principles in the band is something we call a 'reset.' Say you've got a totally monster riff in a song. Now matter how good it is, after two minutes that riff is going to be worn down - it's not as exciting as it was during the first 30 seconds. So you need to provide a way to 'reset' that, by going to a quiet part of whatever, so that when the riff comes back, you've recaptured the initial rush of the song. The thing is, it's a bitch to write like that. We usually get the cool riff right away and then spend two months trying to figure out the last 20 percent of the song."
Though he acknowledges being a demanding perfectionist, Corgan denies reports that he's a tyrannical bandleader: "People try to put that label on me, but I don't buy it. I can never fault myself for knowing what I what. I've never been n a situation in my life where somebody else has worked harder than I have or wanted something more than I have." The inner dynamic among Smashing Pumpkins' four members, he adds, is "kind of like a carnival. It's never settled into any kind of fixed relationship. In terms, of emotional states, the band has always been all over the place."
Which is an apt description of Corgan's lyrical stance as well. He comes off as an eternally bruised romantic. The title Siamese Dream, he says, has to do with the two-edged nature of relationships: "It's great to find you have a connection with someone, but it also means that you're locked in. Like Siamese twins, the two of you are attached forever. Once someone enters your life, they may be there forever, in your head - even if they physically leave." A lot of the album's songs, he adds, "are based on my relationship with my wife, who was my ex-girlfriend at the time I wrote the songs."
The newly married Corgan recently bought a house in the Chicago area. Is he ready to settle back into complacency? Not likely. There's too much work to be done. The alternative scene, he declares, "is going to go straight into the gutter. Commercialization has brought the lure of big money, so groups have inevitably started compromising their values."
How does Billy plan to resist?
"Just by continuing to explore the outer limits. Now that I feel a little more comfortable about my ability to write a song, I feel a lot more daring in terms of what I can do sonically. Songwriting goes beyond trends. A good song is eternal."
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