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Smashing Pumpkins go Major-Label Way
July 30, 1992, 11:00 pm

Source: Orlando Sentinel Tribune

Parry Gettelman, Sentinel Popular Music Critic. Orlando Sentinel. Orlando, Fla.: Jul 31, 1992. pg. 12

Parry Gettelman is the popular music critic for The Orlando Sentinel.

Smashing Pumpkins fielded a flurry of major-label offers before opting to debut on independent Caroline Records. After making its mark as an indy 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 its flare 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 indy album to top the College Music Journal charts since fIREHOSE's if'n 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 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 minitour 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 different 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 hold of these days," Iha said with a laugh.

Iha described newer material as perhaps "more spacey, more aggressive, more weird-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 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 really 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 input 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.

Sunsplashing. Nothing like parking hassles, bathroom lines and a big, hot expanse of asphalt to get one in the mood for an evening of musical enjoyment. But once the entertainment got under way at Reggae Sunsplash '92 Saturday, it was easy to overlook the fact that the event was held in the less-than-scenic parking lot of the Mill on Kirkman Road in Orlando. And although some 4,500 people turned up over the course of the event, which began with local acts during the day, the stage area never got uncomfortably crowded.

Singer Barrington Levy opened the nighttime portion of the show with his smooth combination of sultry "lover's rock" and dance-hall reggae. Papa San, who has performed on rap as well as reggae bills, took the energy level up a few notches with his rapid-fire bursts of rhymes and performed a delightful duet at breakneck speed with honey-voiced Carlene Davis.

Next up, John Holt, who led Jamaican group the Paragons way back in the '60s, displayed classic vocal style. Forget Blondie - Holt's version of his song "The Tide Is High" was sweeter and more danceable. Holt, like Levy and Papa San, had the able backing of the tour's groove-happy "house" band, SKOOL, featuring Ray Hitchins on guitar, Jimmy Peart on keyboards and Hopeton Hibbert (son of Toots) on bass and vocals.

South African artist Lucky Dube, dressed in camouflage, and his 11-member band, patriotically dressed in red, gold, green and black, put on the best show. They also made the strongest call to social and political consciousness with such songs as "No Truth in This World." Dube's supple tenor and sweet, piercing falsetto were underlined by tight harmonies from two female singers. Dube, his singers and the horn section also staged a well-choreographed and joyous dance marathon.

British group Aswad has enjoyed commercial success in the U.K. and abroad since the mid-'70s. The band combined reggae roots with a polished pop sound Saturday on such hits as the irresistible "Don't Turn Around." Veteran Jamaican singer-songwriter-producer Tommy Cowan pulled everything together as master of ceremonies, delivering calls to unity and peace, joking with the audience and leading big sing-alongs.

Local gigs. The Generators will be at Boomer's in Orlando tonight. The Groovemonsters will play the Junk Yard in Casselberry tonight and Saturday. Swarmface will be at Orlando's Sunburst Pub Saturday.
PHOTO: Chicago's Smashing Pumpkins, now on Virgin Records, share a producer with Nirvana. PHOTO: Lucky Dube and his band were the highlight of Reggae Sunsplash '92.

Credit: Parry Gettelman