"Smashing Pumpkins Into the Fire"
September 1993 Volume 1 Number 1
by Jennie Punter
typed by Justin King
"Were you there the night we had the fire-breather?" asks Billy Corgan, the Smashing Pumpkins' main songwriter, singer, and guitarist, from his Chicago home. Seems I attended the wrong night of the two-gig stop the band made in town on their 40-date tour - sandwiched between Pearl Jam and the Red Hot Chili Peppers- early last year.
"This guy gets on stage and blows fire, the flames were 15 feet long, they were over the audience, they were burning above us," Billy remembers. "The first five times he did it, people were like, 'Whoa.' The he did it about 15 more times. Finally, I had to go overand tell him to get offstage."
Then again, Smashing Pumpkins have never been fearful of jumping into the fire. The proverbial frying pan was their uncompromising 1991 debut, Gish (Caroline), which had them touring solidly until they recorded their new, brilliantly brooding slab of reckless yet graceful guitar music, Siamese Dream, with Butch Vig this year.
In the meantime, they had the dubious honour of being the only other non-Seattle band on the Singles soundtrack besides Paul Westerberg, whose "Dyslexic Heart" was the first single. The Pumpkins' contribution, the glorious "Drown", was the hit single that never was.
"Here's the story behind that song, OK?" Billy says. "We wanted it to be a single, we were pushing for it. I was even willing to make a video. Radio stations were playing it. And when it came time for the third single, they said, 'Screaming Trees'. And I was like, 'Screaming Trees??'. But what label is Alice In Chains on and what label are the Screaming Trees on? Epic, which is the label that put out the soundtrack. And that's what killed the song.
"But the funny thing is, when we play that song now, the reaction is like it was a hit song. Eight minutes - you get a lot for your quarter," he says.
Long songs, i.e., over five minutes, are par for the course with the Pumpkins, who fearlessly flush out their melodic compositions with both feedback drones and delicate, quiet passages. "We mutate most of our songs sooner or later," Billy says. "'Rhinoceros,' off of Gish, is a five and a half minute song, which just seems too long, so we've cut about two minutes out. And we like it now. I don't believe in being tied down to anything."
Nor does Billy believe in pandering to pseudo-fans. "I've gotten into screaming matches with audience members who don't like the way we're playing the song," he says. "I've always said, 'You come here to hear what we have to say. If you want to hear the album, go home and put on the headphones. If you come here, you get what we think we want to play. And if you don't like it, then don't buy our records and don't come to our shows.' We're not puppets. We don't get up and smile and say the same things between songs every night. If we're assholes, that's what we are. If we're nice, we tell jokes. It all comes out in how we play the songs.
"To me, playing a song live is a vehicle for emotional expression. They are not vehicles to show what a great guitar player you are. That's worthless. I reall think that a 15-year-old comes to a show to feel energy and to transcend. I think what's great about us; we're willing to fall on our faces. We're willing to stretch ourselves out and break in half.
"I read one of those self-help therapy books, and the phrase that kept jumping out at me was, leap and the net will appear. And that's the best way to be as an artist. Go where you're afraid, go where you think you're gonna fall. And as a band, we've always pushed ourselves beyond our proficiency," Billy says with a laugh.
One of those times was in front of 60,000 people at last year's Reading Festival in England. "It was awful," Billy remembers. "Gish had been out for over a year. So we were playing songs that are two years old. The mentality of the band had changed, the way the band plays had changed. We were trying to play new songs and they weren't all worked out. We just fell apart.
"It was like multiple nervous breakdown onstage. And 60,000 standing in fron going 'Hey, what the fuck is this?' does not help."
It probably comes as no surprise that the Smashing Pumpkins' formation came about through more than a little tension and conflict. "Well, James Iha, the other guitar player, I met through a mutual friend. He hated me and wouldn't play with me, and somehow I changed his mind," Billy says. "When [drummer] Jimmy Chamberlin joined the band, he knew nothing about alternative music. I mean, zero. Which is funny, because now Jimmy is like, 'Do you know the new Unrest record?'
"And then D'arcy, I met her outside a club. I'd seen this band and I thought they were awful, and I went outside and heard this woman say, 'Wasn't that band great?' I turned around and said 'You're fucking out of your mind.'
"So we got into this argument. And at some point, she said something like 'What makes you think you know so much about music?' And as we were talking I found out she played bass. She was in a band and was living with them in a house and had to sneak out to practice."
As for Billy, his musical style is the result of getting in touch with his inner child. "I think back to when I first started playing guitar," he muses. "I would sit around my room and play these Hindu-sounding things. But when I started playing in bands I completely ignored that. I was trying to be a rock guy or whatever. All I am now is what I've always been. I took all these different roads and wrong trails to get right back where I wanted to be in the first place."
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