Smashing Pumpkins Go Major-Label Way July 31, 1992
Orlando Sentinel Tribune
By Parry Gettelman
Smashing Pumpkins fielded a flurry of major-label offers before opting to debut on independent Caroline Records. After making its mark as an indie band with last year's Gish, however, the Chicago-based band decided the time was right to move to the majors and signed with Virgin Records.
"It's that big corporate sellout," said guitarist James Iha cheerfully, speaking from his Chicago home. "We're going to start endorsing fast food and guitar strings."
Popeye's Chicken might be a possible sponsor, Iha joked.
"I like Popeye's Chicken. They don't have a rock band yet to plug 'em. We could do a little Mardi Gras music interlude on their commercial."
Of course, it's hard to imagine what "a little Mardi Gras music" might sound like filtered through the Pumpkins' hard-edged, murky-but-melodic guitar-rock sensibility. A 30-second commercial wouldn't give the band much room to exercise it's flair for dynamics, either. And singer-guitarist Billy Corgan's lyrics might be a little too oblique even for the most subliminal of ad campaigns.
Whether or not they're poised to become the Ray Charles of chicken jingles, the Pumpkins - who will perform Tuesday at Orlando's Beach Club - appear ready to take on the challenge of commercial success. Gish became the first indie album to top the College Music Journal charts since Firehose's back in 1988. The album made Spin magazine's Top 10 for 1991, and the band was a runner-up in the artist-of-the-year category.
The Pumpkins have built up a reputation as a live act as well. They opened recent shows for Guns N' Roses and were offered an opening slot on part of the U2 tour. [However, the dates will likely conflict with the Pumpkins' already-scheduled mini tour of Europe.] The Pumpkins also did a last-minute series of European mega-festivals, subbing for Pearl Jam.
Iha said that he, Corgan, drummer Jimmy Chamberlin and bassist D'Arcy aren't unduly worried about life in the big leagues.
"We've never really been anti-major-label. When we did the first record, we were scared that we wouldn't have the power or track record to show that we know what we're doing. Whenever you sign with a major label, and you don't have any quote-unquote 'clout,' they just kind of say, 'You don't know what you're doing anyway,' and force producers on you, force artwork on you, this, that and the other thing, even the musical direction of the band. In that sense, it's totally disgusting."
"In another sense, there's the distribution. The record gets to people where it could never get to them before. Not to say Caroline has small distribution, but sometimes we'd go to towns and people would say, "We went to four record stores just to find your record."
And, as Iha pointed out, Nirvana seems to have been able to do things its own way while enjoying major-label support.
Besides being bands with good songs, well-channeled aggression and distinctive guitar sounds, Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins share producer Butch Vig. The Pumpkins will be working with Vig again when they go back into the studio, probably in December, to make their first record for Virgin.
"He's a hard man to get a hold of these days," Iha said with a laugh.
Iha described newer material as perhaps "more spacey, more aggressive, more weir-schizophrenic." All four members of the band come from different musical directions, he said, although they all like such '60s bands as the Velvet Underground and the Stooges. And they're all into My Bloody Valentine and a few other contemporary bands Iha would just as soon not name since the band doesn't really look to them as overt influences.
"Billy has lots of roots in '70s classic rock and also '70s soul music, and Jimmy has kind of more of like a musician's background, jazz, progressive rock and classic rock. I know classic rock pretty well from my brother, and I know a lot of new-wavey and punk rock stuff. D'Arcy - I don't know what she listens to; I was never fully clear on her musical background."
Corgan was the sole songwriter on Gish except for "I am one," which he co-wrote with Iha. Iha has started writing more songs, however, including a B-side that will turn up on a forthcoming European single. And the band has considerable in putting in the ultimate form Corgan's songs take.
"They mutate in 50,000 different directions," Iha said. "When we did the first album, songs would change over a few days, or change over months, but generally they always come out sounding very different when we're through with them. We tend to play a song into the ground and just see what happens,make little changes here or there or scrap the whole song and keep one part."
Both Corgan and Iha love to play around with the guitar parts on songs, using arsenals of '70s effects - wah-wah pedals and Big Muffs and pedals "with really funny names that do really funny things."
Once the band goes out on tour, the songs don't keep mutating as drastically.
"But on the road, we tend to bring out the extremes in a song, probably just from the way we play. We play a lot more aggressive than we used to and try to find those parts in the song where we can just turn on the fuzz machine and the space and phaser pedals."
The Pumpkins use some acoustic guitars on Gish and recently started doing some acoustic shows. However, Iha said they won't be bringing any acoustic guitars to Florida with them.
"When we tour around, we're much more in the mode of playing electric - we hide behind all our volume and stuff," he said with a laugh.
Chainsaw Kittens will open for Smashing Pumpkins at the Beach Club.