"We were talking about Ritchie Blackmore the other day," snickers Smashing Pumpkins guitarist James Iha. "I heard some liver version of Smoke on the Water, and he just kicked up this rockin' guitar solo...Heh, Heh, it was really cool. I was in my car coming home from an interview or something and I was just like God he is so rockin! And he had that really cool hat with the belt buckle on it, like he's a witch or something...What? It's a Welsh woman's hat? Are you sure/ That's really weird..."
In the world of James Iha "stuff" is inevitably weird or rockin'. At its very best, stuff is both. Like Smashing Pumpkins new album for instance. The astonishingly titled Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness is a 2 CD set with a running time of nearly two and a half hours it's about the length of a full length triple album. Suffice it to say you can get a shitload of ironing done while your listening to it.
Naturally Smashing Pumpkins are not a band who do anything by halves, and if their career to date reveals anything it is a taste for the epic. Ignoring for a moment the grand sweep of their music-swooning one minute, jackbooting across metallically Europe the next-their seven year history is marked by Homeric lashings of incest, intrigue, threats and imitations of insanity. Their last LP, the four million selling Siamese Dream took 14 months to make-a blink of an eye if your the Stone Roses or the Blue Nile but practically centuries if you're as delicately balanced a collective as the Pumpkins.
"If I had spent fourteen months in a small room with Jesus I'd want to fist fight with him," Billy Corgan told TGM in the Summer of 1993, but fist fights weren't the half of it. With Corgan insisting on no less than 27 separate guitar tracks (as many as 40 on the song Soma) the band's singer-guitarist-leader slowly drove everyone up a wall.
The result was as epic as its design was megalomaniac. Siamese Dream was 62 minutes in length and ran the gamut in sound and texture, from Today's poignant serenade to Cherub Rock's fearsome adrenaline blast. What it had over Gish was better songs and that guitar sound fuzzier than a deluxe set of Fuzzy Felt yet somehow ultra-disciplined, the sound of motorbikes in space. Gish had leant on a combination of ADA preamp and a 1984 JCM800, but the result was thin and redolent of conventional metal; Siamese Dream rediscovered the Electro-Harmonix Big Muff and when loads of fat fuzz wasn't quite fuzzy enough, employed the EH Microsynthesiser.
But what the band and Dream producer Butch Vig refer to as the "super sonic fuzztone" - the foundation of Cherub Rock and Hummer-was more extreme still. An MSA fuzz unit was pulled out of an old pedal steel guitar by Triclops sound engineer Mark Richardson and placed in a simple metal box. Even with the tone and gain controls rigged it up it didn't look like much. What it did though, was rock like a bitch. So they've sustained what amounts to double before...but never something of Mellon Collie's length.
In fact not since the withering of progressive rock have we seen such brass balled ambition. Mellon Collie's makes Yes's Close to the Edge look snappy: ELP's aptly titles Welcome My Friends...To The Show That Never Ends was nearly as long, but even that was live. Was there ever a point where the Pumpkins began to think...
"That this was a bloated, disgusting mess?" laughs Iha. "Did I think that? To be candid with you everyone kind of laughed at the concept of a double album, but when the songs started mounting up we realized we could do a double and that it could be valid and artistic and not suck. It was based on the songs really, and we really kept going with the songs and arrangements and sorta decided not to sit back and reassess until Flood (the album's producer) came in. We were sending him demos and Billy was talking to him a lot on the phone so he knew what he was stepping into. I suppose listening to a double album is kind of like going to the chiropractor...It's pretty good for you but you can't force it on anyone else,heh, heh."
If Mellon Collie sags sporadically that it to be expected. What's remarkable is the high volume of brilliant work: the unfamiliarly rock of Here Is No Why, the hyper Metallica of Where Boys Fear To Tread, Porcelina of Vast Oceans grandiose three-act opera; the ambient dreamscape that is Cupid De Locke...The latter particularly betrays the influence of Producer's Alan Moulder and Flood, providers of atmospherics, and recontextualizations of guitars for U2, PJ Harvey, Ride, My Bloody Valentine, Curve Swervedriver...Hey so did the Pumpkins set out to make a shoegazing album? "They've worked with a lot of very progressive bands, " shrugs Iha. "I just think it's really good that we didn't choose Joe Alternative Rock Producer. The last thing we wanted to make was an alternative rock guitar album again..."
Having thrashed out the basics of the album in a month and a half at their own rehearsal facility in the band's native Chicago, the Pumpkins moved into a recording studio proper. Or rather, two of them. Moulder and Iha in one room, Flood and Corgan in the other, the days were crammed with constant dicking around with guitar sounds.
"The main difference between Siamese Dream was very methodically recorded: drums, bass, guitar, vocals, everything was overdubbed. But on this record everything varied from song to song. We did anything from overdub overload to-Thru the Eyes of Ruby has something like 25 separate guitar tracks-to actually recording all live at the same time as a band. The time in our practice space was well spent, 'cuz we didn't have to feel self conscious and we didn't have the clock ticking over our heads we just got the band rocking!"
Although Iha wrote the music for two of Siamese Dream's most memorable tracks, Soma and Mayonaise ("I get my George Harrison allocation!"), the record seemed very much the work of one man. Corgan's perfectionism looms above everything, while the electricity played 90m percent of the guitar solos. This time Corgan and Iha lead guitar split is closer to 50/50, and the whole record has a looser spontaneous ambiance. "I think that the fact that we had two rooms going gave us the scope to say whatever works, works, " muses Iha. "It was studied, but it was less perfectionistic. And we were less inclined to revert to a formula-like here's the Big muff pedal and let's triple track it. This time it was, Oh one guitar sounds okay let's go with that. I used the Digitech Whammy pedal a lot on the record, and I used an E-bow a lot too, which is something we haven't used for five years or something. Flood helped a lot. His thing is not going for the perfect take but the take that feels best. There was less technical obsessiveness and more feeling-which was totally refreshing. And the producers kept everyone busy. Flood would ask Jimmy (Chamberlain drums) to come in a little earlier, just so they could work on a bunch of drum loops before the rest of the band arrived. I'd go and check out D'arcy recording her bass and them later on I would just fuck around with the guitar. It was just "funner", and we ended up learning a lot of cockney slang and discovering Reeves and Mortimer."
"I think I'm a fairly interesting player" Iha modests. "I'm not very technically adept but I actually made a conscious effort about three years ago. I had to decide whether I was going to be a really good guitar player or if I was gonna learn how to write songs. I don't really try and improve on it. I mean we get better because were playing all the time, but I don't go home and practice scales or anything like that. This is actually the best guitar playing I've ever done. I played more interesting, weird, simple good stuff than I ever have. I'm just not into practicing although I wouldn't recommend that attitude to anyone else!"
And how would he compare himself and Corgan as players? "It's amazing. We've played together for seven years and we're still totally different. He's much more technically adept, a lot faster. He plays totally different melodic ideas, he uses a lot of vibrato on everything. It's hard for him not to play vibrato! I'm a lot simpler in terms of note choice and I'm a lot more laid back-I'm way, way back in the pocket. He's more like Ritchie Blackmore and I'm Neil Young, heh, heh! I like a lot of real rockin guitar players but I can't really play like them. Are there people I'd like to play like? Well I like the Stone's Mick Taylor a great deal around the Exile on Mainstreet/Goat's Head Soup period. I like Clapton on the Derek and the Dominoes records.
It's not the style I strive for, but it's the very best interpretation of British blues I think-very song oriented and no bullshit, really bold yet really melodic. From a new band- I think the guitar player of Shudder to Think is totally rockin. He's called Nathan Larsen and he plays like this combination of total power chords and atonal jazz. He's an amazing guitar player. He has the best rock moves bar-none. So what if Iha were to buy an instructional video who would be on it? "Well, Duane Allman would be nice, but I guess it's too late to get him to do one now..."
When TGM last spoke to the Pumpkins they were so fed up with one another you could taste it in the air. Today, Iha's keen to present a united front, eulogizing Corgan's guitar solo on Fuck You (an ode to no one) "It's our best junk yet- and keen to underplay his own songwriting contributions (including the closing Farewell and Goodnight) Last time too, they were predicting an epic third album, marked by Brian Wilsonesque experimentation, and pop wags will no doubt dub the Mellon Collie the Pumpkin's Smile. In which case the Pumpkins might well have found their very own Van Dykes parks... "Flood definitely facilitated songs like Cupid De Locke, nods Iha songs that we'd never had the means or the notion to explore before.
It wasn't in the game plan... and there was the single album constraint. And guitar wise there were influences , like not going for the Ritchie Blackmore guitar solo on every song. We tried to be a bit more obtuse, varied, and interesting. Like on XYU I was using a whammy pedal and I kept getting these intermittent breakups-like dang-dan-dan-dan-dang-dan-dan-dan-dang-fllllplplplplplsh! You just step on the pedal and it destroys the sound! It's like a tape machine going haywire or something. And like there's this really heavy slow part on the outro of the song and that's Billy like hitting the guitar on the amplifier. So there's no wank guitar solo! though there are a few of those on the record heh, heh. '
XYU is kind of a disturbing one though. It's the monster inside of the band trying to get out! That's actually the song that we recorded all live-live guitars, live vocals, live bass. We set up all in the same room and it just goes against all the rules of recording no separation at all!" Phew! A touch of punk rock from the least punk rock band in the post-Nirvana stadium/alternative spectrum. Of any of that current crop, though, you'd expect the unlikely-looking Pumpkins to take to rock stardom the easiest. After all. If you learned to play guitar by soloing over Van Halen I every day after school- as Billy Corgan did your not likely to be hankering after a speccy style Sebadoh punk rock celebrity: ie no kind of celebrity at all. For his part Iha accepts the four million plus sales of Siamese Dream with a simple shrug. "Well that's a lot of records, yeah but we were more concerned about this record we don't think about fouling up or anything."
But what about the faux Pumpkins; the army of kid grungers peddling their xeroxed loud/quiet dynamic rock and hitting chart pay dirt? Do Reef and Bush get on the Pumpkins' tits? "I hear a lot of Nirvana ripoffs and they're horrible." Judges Iha. There are a lot of really bad alternative rock bands at the moment. I can't figure out why people would buy em...probably because there is nothing else.
There were a lot of people who said I don't want to listen to Led Zeppelin again, or I don't want to listen to the Stones again, but hell you know they're classic. I would much rather listen to that then some Better Than Ezra record. I just think that for a lot of these new alternative bands Nirvana is ground zero for them. Nirvana was an amazing band, but most bands who take that three minute loud/soft guitar thing, the stark only bass sections, the rockin' chorus...So many other bands use that formula it's almost as if they have heard no other music.
Three albums and already sounding like grumpy pop uncles! Do the Pumpkins plan to grow old gracefully in the rock and roll eye? "I think that everyone agrees that REM have done it very nobly, " clichés Iha. "They certainly haven't catered to the press or some bullshit image. U2 I think haven't done it badly. They've gone off the deep end at a couple of points-or maybe the press portrayed them as doing that-as far as I can see they have done it right.
I dunno-bands who aren't so self conscious about making the twists and turns-putting the albums that they have wanted to put out without having to appear in some stupid advert or create this imaginary press image, just for the sake of being cheeky or something, like so many British bands do. I don't wanna name names, but there's this whole Brit pop thing. I like Oasis and Blur but I think so many of those other bands are absolute shit. They're like art students or drama students trying to play something up in the weekly papers. To Americans it's such a joke. They don't rock which after all is the bottom line- but on the other hand they don't do anything else either.
As a wise man once said, it's a thin line between clever and stupid. Whether Mellon Collie has crossed the line remains to be seen. Titling the individual disks Dawn to Dusk, and twilight to Starlight seems a trifle gauche but only a fool would deny that when they rock they rock. And as another wise man once said that is after all the bottom line.