Smashing Pumpkins endure adversities that would finish off a lesser band and return with Adore, a confident nod toward pop music's electro-textural future.
Lounging in red-cushioned Victorian-style chairs that flank an antique bedside table inside their Chicago rehearsal studio, Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan and guitarist James Iha flip through a pile of high-contrast, black- and-white promotional glossies, while bassist D'arcy Wretzky relaxes on a green couch nearby. Even though it's fairly well-lit inside the studio, Iha's eyes hide behind a dark pair of shades, but his terse lips and lumbering pace betray his lack of interest. Corgan appears significantly more concerned--but not about the photos, which he barely glances at as they shuffle by. When his fluffy, gray, standard poodle saunters into the room, his mood perks a bit, but he's obviously still distracted.
"I'm pretty unhappy with my voice right now," he finally admits, grimacing slightly. Corgan's discontent isn't a result of too much screaming, excessive partying or a common head cold; it stems from something far more troubling and permanent. "I'm not technically as proficient as I should be, and that really holds us back," he says. "I started taking voice lessons nine months ago, and my voice teacher told me, 'You sing completely wrong.' Also, my natural voice is very high, and even when I sing from my diaphragm, it's still very narrow and nasal."
Corgan's major frustration isn't that he will have to work hard to improve his voice; it's that he simply will have to accept his vocal limitations. After all, he's not really used to accepting anything. Ever since 1990, when the Smashing Pumpkins first emerged from the Chicago alt-rock underground as a totally unknown entity, the band has thrived on pushing the limits and striving for the impossible. They've became notorious for locking themselves in the studio for months on end, recording dozens of different takes and splicing together the best segments until they're perfect. They've endured exhaustive touring, inner-band turmoil, lineup shake-ups and critical crucifixion. And not only have they lived to tell the tale, they've gained incentive and inspiration from their adversity.
Salvador Dali once said, "At the age of 6 I wanted to be a cook. At 7 I wanted to be Napoleon. And my ambition has been growing steadily ever since." Corgan's goals might not be quite as global, but his scope is almost as wide. As ringmaster for the Pumpkins, he wrote all the music and lyrics for the band's new Virgin album, Adore, but he didn't stop there. He also produced the disc, and during what little free time he had, he provided production assistance for Courtney Love and Marilyn Manson. Iha and Wretzky, meanwhile, spent their spare hours courting and signing other bands for their own label, Scratchie Records.
"There's the current cultural value system and then there's our value system, and we feel our system is higher than what most people believe is good enough," says Corgan, explaining his band's perfectionist work ethic. "The more we learn and experience, the more we want to take on. I see plenty of three-star album reviews for albums that aren't very good. I think there's a general agreement about what is great, but the lines of good have gotten real blurred. To us, the Beatles are everything. So if we ever need to check our egos, we ask, 'Is this as good as the Beatles?' And we go, 'Well, no it's not, so we better improve.'"
On Adore, the Smashing Pumpkins have not only improved, they've adapted, mutated and metamorphosized into what is fundamentally a different group. They've abandoned the seven-minute epics, soft-verse/loud-chorus alt-rock constructs and screechy, agonized singing, and have replaced them with simple folk-pop melodies, electronic embellishments and reflective, vulnerable vocals. If 1990's Gish and 1992's Siamese Dream were about rebellion and revolution, and 1995's Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness centered around wallowing in the aftermath and decay, Adore is about clearing away the shattered pieces of the past and building a new frontier out of the carcass of the old one.
"For years, me and all of my funny peers were all screaming our heads off, and we got everyone's attention doing it," says Corgan. "So, now what do we do with the attention? We take it to the next level, which is to heal. To help people to see soulfulness in a technological society. To remember what's important in a world that doesn't stress importance of any kind." Corgan's on a roll, and he knows it. Maybe he should add proselytizer to his brimming resume. "You can watch TV all day, and all you ever see is a bunch of fucking puffed-up heroes, people we call 'geniuses' who aren't geniuses, people who are famous for 15 minutes because they gave somebody a blow job, and we won't even remember their names 10 years from now. It's important for people to throw all that shit out the window and get in touch with the stuff that really matters--stuff like friends and family and peace of mind."
Coming from a band that helped redefine '90s guitar rock, what's most noteworthy about Adore is its lack of raging, churning guitars. From the tender acoustic guitar of "To Sheila" to the billowing textures of "Perfect" and the melancholic flutter of "Shame," Corgan and Iha use their instruments to color and shade, not dominate. "We'd been playing together for so long, it was hard to get a new, original rock Pumpkins song out each time. So, the change in sound just seemed to make sense," says Iha.
"We had to change," clarifies Corgan. "We'd taken our way of playing rock about as far as you could go. The juice had gone out of it. People had become more interested in Roni Size, and rightly so. The third generation of grunge crap that's out right now is just unbearable. We don't feel any connection to that whatsoever. We just felt like the loud-music thing had come and gone, and we didn't want to be one of these old, tired bands that keeps doing something long after it's worn out its worth."
On the surface, it might seem like the Smashing Pumpkins have exited the alt- rock bandwagon and bought a ticket on the electronica express. After all, Adore is peppered with pulsing electronic loops and samples that recall the dance-pop of Depeche Mode and latter-day Cure. A minimum of research, however, reveals that Corgan and company were actually ahead of the curve. There are subtle keyboard patches under the fuzzy buzz of Siamese Dream and more blatant electro-pop references in Mellon Collie's "1979." And as early as 1995, the band was telling interviewers how they were planning to add more computerized ingredients to the mix. "The electronic thing is no big deal; it's just another tool you can use to make a song interesting," says Corgan. "There's no longer a distinction for me between synthetic and organic instrumentation. And there's a delicacy you can attain with keyboards which is really nice."
He sits upright and refocuses his steely gaze. "Don't misread that," he warns. "It's not an anti-rock statement at all. We're just calling a spade a spade and realizing that the only way we could get to a different point, musically, was to be willing to walk away from the thing we love the most. I still love loud, raging guitars--and believe me, we'll go back there."While the Smashing Pumpkins had already planned to subordinate the guitars and upgrade the keyboards before they started working on Adore, the drum machines that clatter, hiss and thumb through the record were a matter of necessity, not artistic expression. It's common knowledge by this point that the band fired longtime drummer Jimmy Chamberlin in July 1996 because he was unable to kick heroin, and was busted for possession of the drug the night the Pumpkins' touring keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin died of an overdose. What's not so well known is that filling the vacant drum stool has been a difficult task. Shortly after Chamberlin's dismissal, the group resumed its tour with Filter drummer Matt Walker, who stayed on through the initial recording sessions in Chicago last year with Brad Wood. But Walker and the Pumpkins didn't see eye to eye, so he was dismissed. Subsequently, Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron and Beck sticksman Joey Waronker were invited to record with the band. In the end, Walker appeared on seven tracks on Adore, Waronker on three and Cameron on one. But most of the percussion on the record was electronic, programmed by ex-Die Warzau member Bonn Harris and Corgan, adding yet another task to the frontman's voluminous duty list. Waronker was invited to play on the band's current tour, but he declined because he wanted more money than the band was offering, says Corgan. The band since hired Kenny Aronoff for the tour, but Corgan emphasizes that the longtime-pro drummer (John Mellencamp band, et al.) has not joined the Smashing Pumpkins full-time.
"Basically, we had a very special kind of relationship and language with Jimmy that we are finding impossible to achieve with anybody else," he says. "Maybe we have to go through a whole period first where we literally don't have a drummer in the band before we can be happy playing with someone else. Obviously, we would have preferred that the band would never have gone without the four of us. But what happened happened, and we're just trying to deal with the situation as best we can."
"In a very real sense, the Smashing Pumpkins people know and love is dead," he adds, indicating his sincerity with a swift sweep of his hand. "We don't pretend that the band that still exists is the same Pumpkins that took on the indie-rock establishment and kicked people's asses--the band who did it their way and told everyone else to fuck off. I think that the fact that we are not in denial of that is one of the reasons the record is powerful. Rather than saying, 'Let's go out and get a guy that plays like Jimmy and keep the train a-rolling,' we just accepted it as our fate."
As soon as the group decided to anchor Adore with drum-machine rhythms instead of live drumming, the songs started to jell. Not only did the drum machines exorcise the ghosts of the past, they brought the Pumpkins back to a simpler and happier time, before fighting, drugs and death threatened their existence. "It was like we went full-circle," explains Corgan. "We basically went back to how we worked before we even met Jimmy, which was just the three of us and a drum machine. We used to just pluck away and futz around and come up with these gothic-ey sounding songs. We did six or seven shows like that. I've got 'em on tape. They're hysterical. Of course no one will ever hear those but us."
Iha nods his head in agreement because, once again, there's nothing left to say. Corgan said it all. The Smashing Pumpkins readily admit they're not a democracy, but they're adamant about being a band, and they insist on doing interviews with all members present. This presents a problem, because in addition to being the singer, songwriter, lyricist, producer and poster boy of the Pumpkins, Corgan is also the dominant spokesman. And an hour into the interview, it becomes clear that Iha and Wretzky are getting a little fed up with being mere observers. When asked about his pet peeves, Iha sarcastically responds, "Oh, I didn't know you were talking to us. I kind of forgot we were involved at this point. I guess not being included in interviews is my pet peeve." Wretzky isn't as vocal about being ignored, but she's just as demonstrative. She crosses and uncrosses her legs, she sighs, and finally she lies face down on the couch and pouts. Recognizing his bandmates' unhappiness, Corgan tries to intervene. "Maybe you should ask these guys a couple questions," he suggests. "I get so caught up in talking sometimes that I don't give anyone else a chance to say anything."
For a minute or two, Iha and Wretzky reiterate what Corgan has already expressed. Then Iha reveals his fondness for Dianne Warren's smash hit "How Do I Live Without You?" and Celine Dion's penchant for melody. But it isn't long before Corgan again becomes the center of attention. In past years, Corgan's monopoly over all things Pumpkins has been a major source of tension for the band. Recently, however, all parties involved have come to the realization that his efforts are for the common good, and that his songs, lyrics and production are the strongest thing the band has to offer. Even so, Corgan's domination may shed light on why Iha and Wretzky work on Scratchie Records in their spare time. It certainly explains why Iha recorded his own solo album for Virgin, Let It Come Down, last year. "After the Pumpkins did a European tour," Iha explains, "I had half an album's worth of older songs that didn't make it to the final cut of the Pumpkins records. So I decided to write some more stuff and do my own record, with my singing and production the way I heard it in my head. It was a very enjoyable experience."
Composed entirely of summery melodic pop songs that sound like a cross between Big Star and the Byrds, the record received mixed reviews, but it offered Iha a creative outlet he sorely lacked. "Sometimes it's frustrating not having more creative control, and I wish I had more songs on Pumpkins records," he admits. "But I'm given a good amount of freedom to come up with guitar parts and stuff, and Billy writes great songs."
As the band entered the studio with producer Brad Wood last fall, expectations were high. So were the group's spirits. But while Corgan knew he wanted to forge a new sound for the band, he didn't have a direction in mind, and without any sort of road map, Wood was unable to satisfy the singer's needs. As a result, much of the session work was scrapped. "The band was getting along better than ever, which was great, but we were really frustrated because we didn't know what we wanted," admits Corgan. "We were walking away from something we were very comfortable with, and going back into the woods in the dark. I finally decided to produce the record myself, because it was impossible to explain what I was looking for--since I wasn't really so sure myself."
Over the next six months, the Pumpkins output seesawed between organic rock songs, gothic synth tunes and full-fledged electronica, and finally reached a balance with an eclectic combination of all three. They recorded some material live and other tunes one instrument at a time. Drummers came and went. They used different amps, effect pedals and drum machines and spliced different takes together. "Everything evolved over time," says Corgan. "In the beginning, it was more of a simple, acoustic album, but we got bored with that so we started tinkering with more effects. Then we got to the point where nothing could be done without running it through some weird effect, so we started going the other way again. It was especially hard because we didn't have a finish line to reach, so we didn't know where to draw the line. There's still a part of me that feels we didn't go far enough."
Billy Corgan has always been neurotic--even a bit paranoid. Part of this probably stems from his musical-chairs childhood. At age 3, his financially strapped parents gave him to his great-grandmother, who in turn passed him over to his paternal grandmother. Not long after, he was shuffled off to his other grandmother. Then, after his father divorced and remarried, Corgan moved back into Dad's house. He bonded with his new stepmother, and remained with her after she divorced his father. During his impressionable "wonder years," he was teased for the long birthmark that runs up his right arm and hand, and later wound up naming his first gigging band "the Marked." As a teenager, he was fraught with insecurity and unhappiness, which he endured by reading a lot. At age 15, he picked up his first guitar and quickly discovered the cathartic power of visceral power chords. But his goth haircuts and alternative-before-alternative-was-mainstream listening habits made him a pariah, and after school, he would return straight home and practice in his room alone for hours on end.
"You walk into high school with a pretty open mind, and you quickly realize where you exist on the food chain," he says. "This guy's cuter and this guy plays on the football team so he gets fucked even though he's ugly. You get a scheme of the world pretty fast."
If childhood anxieties made Corgan wary and defensive, stardom turned his skeletons into saber-toothed demons. The contradiction between adoring fans and an overly critical press confused him, and he reacted by lashing out a lot and stressing out even more. "I was constantly in an attack posture," he admits. "You know when you see an animal that feels it's being attacked?
It's scared and it's got its teeth showing. Well, that's how I was for a long time. I was like a defensive animal. I couldn't make up my mind whether I wanted to flee or attack, and I oscillated between the two and brought a lot of trouble upon the band and myself that was probably very unnecessary.
"I got caught up in all the bullshit of the music industry. Then, one day last year, I just woke up and I thought to myself, 'You know what? I don't give a fuck.' There's nothing this band needs so badly that I should allow myself to get this upset and depressed. And now I know we can walk away from anything and be OK. We can walk way from rock'n'roll, we can walk away from the money and the juice and the whole thing. And knowing that makes me a lot happier and more relaxed."
You might think Corgan's personal revelation allowed him to create an album about universal harmony and hope. It didn't. Adore is clouded with images of death and destruction, heartbreak and despair. On "Tear," Corgan sings about a fatal car wreck over the clang of a pulsing sample: "The lights came to pass/ Dead opera motorcrash/ Gone in a flash unreal/ In nitrous overcast." The heartfelt "Once Upon a Time" seems like eulogies for Corgan's mother, who passed away last year: "Mother I hope you know/ that I miss you so/ Time has ravaged on my soul/ To wipe a mother's tears grown cold."
"Listening to this album over and over is so sad it's like taking an emotional beating," says Wretzky, breaking her long silence. "They're beautiful songs, but I just can barely bear to listen to them."
Corgan is reluctant to analyze his new songs, but he admits that he wanted to explore themes of love and loss in order to come to terms with the recent events in his life. "When people die, it makes you think about death," he explains. "We've been through spiritual deaths and real deaths. All kinds of things. Anything associated with someone's passing is painful. I think even when we watch TV and we see someone pass away that we don't like or don't have any respect for, there's still a sadness there. Nobody wants to see anybody go. I don't want people reading too much into these lyrics, because if they do that, it trivializes my mother's death and makes it just another postmodern tidbit of interest. It's much deeper than that: I'm trying to take on our own mortality, and my mother understood that at a deep level and imparted a lot of that to me before she passed."
He glances straight ahead, eyes unblinking, then reveals what he has gleaned from the pain of the recent past. "We walk around this earth thinking we're so fucking important," he says. "As individuals, we're not very important at all. I think the greatest artists--the Dylans, the Lennons--they understood that. And that's what made their work so powerful. They did not let their ego get in the way, because they understood that they were just messengers in a bigger scene."
One of Lennon's best remembered axioms is "All you need is love." Corgan steadfastly agrees with this simple, powerful message, yet he maintains that the path to companionship is elusive at best. Throughout Adore, he grapples with themes of lost love, misdirected lust and mismatched affection. When asked whether the record's sorrowful tone is a byproduct of his divorce last year from his ex-wife Chris Fabian, Corgan laughs sardonically and says, "I made a point of making my divorce a nonfactor on this record. If you're trying to dig up some dirt, I'm not gonna talk about my marriage. It's a closed door. Anyway, I see these songs as being more about the abuse and misuse of love. Part of wanting to be loved is confronting your own self-worth. I have friends who are talking to me about how they wish they could meet the perfect person. And I say, 'If the perfect person walked up to you right now, do you think they'd want you?' And they go, 'No.' And I say, 'Well, don't you think you should do something about that?' We externalize our desires as opposed to dealing with them internally, and that can lead to really dysfunctional relationships."
There's no question that Adore is the record the Smashing Pumpkins needed to make in order to resurrect their interest in playing music. There's also little doubt that Corgan needed to address romantic disillusionment and death to put closure on past events in his life. As with the best work by Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton and James Taylor, among countless others, Adore is empowered by the conflict that accompanied its creation, and is consequently the Pumpkins' best effort musically and lyrically. The only questions is whether the band's skateboard-toting, goatee-coiffed, volume-addicted followers will embrace the band's directional shift.
"If people don't understand this album, it's not because it's not good; it's because it's beyond where they're at musically at this point," boasts Corgan. "When we put out Gish, we got all this indie-rock bullshit about how the
Pumpkins were not alternative enough, and how we were so influenced by the '70s. Well, here we are seven years later, and we guessed pretty good. We knew where everything was headed, and we felt it in our bones. It's the same with this album. We feel it in our bones, and we feel very strongly about it. So if people don't get it, they will eventually."
As the interview draws to a close and the band gets ready to rehearse for their upcoming tour, Corgan is asked what he would do if fans don't get it, and Adore goes the route of U2's Pop, Pearl Jam's Yield or R.E.M.'s New Adventures in Hi-Fi . "What could I do," he says after a short pause. "This band is about being a monstrosity. We're meant to explode and implode and if we don't do that, there's no point. We've always been interested in pushing boundaries, and we're not about to stop now."
He calls over his dog, in a clear indication that the conversation is through. Then, almost as an afterthought, he turns around and concludes, "There's nothing you can say about us that hasn't been said, and there's nothing you can do to us that hasn't already been done. And that's good. Everything from this point on is like fucking gravy. We've made it through the storm. We're on the other side now."
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