|The Last Gasp, Kick and Punch?|
|June 30, 1996, 11:00 pm|
Source: Impact Magazine
SMASHING PUMPKINS - The Last Gasp, Kick and Punch?
Impact Magazine. July / August 1996 [No Day]
Billy Corgan says that since he has already subverted classic rock, influenced Nirvana and done orchestral rock epics, there's nowhere else for the Smashing Pumpkins to go with rock. So what's next? Maybe...disco?!
"We're our own opening band," quips Billy Corgan, perched with an acoustic guitar on a tall stool on the stage of Toronto's Phoenix, where the Smashing Pumpkins played a two-night stand back in January. The band performed only a handful of epic shows of familiar and fresh material for what Corgan refers to as the "true blue fan element," ardent Pumpkinheads who had been panting for new music and were rewarded last October with the release of Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, the band's third studio album.
The beautifully packaged, panoramic two-hour soundscape containing 28 tunes on two discs elicited many descriptive summations from critics, ranging from "sprawling genius," "courageous" and "oddly beautiful" to "indulgent," "pretentious" and "bloated." But the naysayers have been pretty well drowned out by the sound of cash registers ringing in sales of over 6 million in the U.S. (the album hit double platinum in Canada before any other territory), far exceeding sales of the Pumpkins' breakthrough album, Siamese Dream, which hit it's stride when they headlined the 1994 Lollapalooza tour.
The Pumpkins played less than a dozen gigs between the end of Lollapalooza and the beginning of this year, but instead of settling back, they kicked into an even higher gear. The monumental task of writing and recording a double album so soon after touring would have caused burnout in many bands , but the Chicago sons and daughter - Corgan, bassist D'Arcy, guitarist James Iha and drummer Jimmy Chamberlin - not only saw it through, but are now following it with a massive North American tour.
Even through a crappy personal cassette player, layered over the dull drone of the plane en route to Chicago, the music on Mellon Collie sounds inventive, wide-ranging and tuneful. At the interview Chamberlin is a no-show, while D'Arcy and Iha are attentive, nodding and adding the occasional aside. But Corgan does most of the talking. There is a hint of a chip on his shoulder, although it's diminished by his earnest charm, his disarming honesty about his ambition and his desire to explain himself completely. With a buzzed haircut to match, he explains how he created his own kind of concentration camp to get this album made.
"I started working almost immediately after Lollapalooza," he says. When you haven't written in a while, it's really hard to write more than a couple of hours a day. I got to the point where I was writing four hours a day, then rehearsing for four or five hours. Which doesn't sound like a lot, but in terms of head time it's exhausting. By the end of the album I was working 16-hour days and sleeping four hours - for like 60 days straight. I can't conceive of how I could do that, but it kind of builds to that."
When did he know that Mellon Collie would be a double album? "We had a meeting where I outlined what I wanted to accomplish," he explains. "It's hard to explain the subtlety of this, but often I'll articulate what I think we should do, and then everyone else say aye or nay. As long as everyone agrees that's the way to go. I laid out a couple of different options. 'Do we want to totally move on and be another band right now? Or do we want to finish the Smashing Pumpkins thing?' Everyone thought that was the right thing to do. That was the whole mentality going in, to write the last Smashing Pumpkins album."
While the first two Pumpkins albums were produced by Butch Vig, this time the band worked with Flood and Alan Moulder. "The whole thing with Flood was, he had proven that he was capable of assimilating everything that needed to be assimilated, from huge string arrangements to rocking drums to technology," Corgan says. "You name it, the guy's done it. He's a pretty brave man. He was absolutely the right person. And we got Alan partially because of the work he'd done [mixing] on Siamese Dream, and he and Flood are old friends, that that helped it along too."
"We recorded ourselves just on cassette or eight-track," says Iha. "Some songs changed a lot, but some of the rock stuff was closer to the demo and sounds more like a live band. That's the great thing about someone like Flood, because he could step back and see the big picture, see that some of the songs needed to go in a different direction."
With a double album there's a danger of repeating yourself, but the Pumpkins presumably wanted to have as much diversity on Mellon Collie as possible. "Actually, about two months in we started doing test albums," Corgan recalls. "One night Flood and Jimmy and I piled in my car and drove around for three hours and listened to the whole thing, trying to get an impression of how it was flowing, what was working and what wasn't. At that point we had to cut some. We felt it was really important that it flow, that it not get boring, that it not suffer."
Still, the band admits that it is difficult to absorb the whole album at one sitting, especially the first time. "People just don't have that kind of time, to just sit and only listen to music," acknowledges D'Arcy.
"It is a lot," admits Corgan. "There's a lot of emotional material. But it's not that we're expecting it be listened to all at one time. That's not really the point. The point is - it's like a book, with different stories. You can read one or you can read them all. And this is where the idea of the pretentiousness of it all kind of escapes me, because it's there if you want it. And it's only going to be about one-and-a-half times the cost of a normal CD. So it's not even going to be times two. So the band's made a commitment on a musical level and also on an economic level. The thing I'm most proud of is that if you do listen to it all, when you get to what would be the fourth side there's actually different things. It's not just a repetition. We don't just go into this space jam for hours."
Corgan has said that he usually has one epic per album, but there's a few on Mellon Collie. "Well, three in 28 songs is pretty good for the Smashing Pumpkins," he says, laughing. "We may get around to that yet - the four-hour thing, the Don Giovanni opera epic."
Corgan sings some songs in his lower register, which he for some reason doesn't use that much, saying it's his "insecure register.
"My voice splits into octaves when I sing - especially up high," he explains. "It's very weird for me to sing low because I don't really have it. 'Beautiful' was very difficult to sing because [tries singing it and wavers] I don't really have that 'low' to go to. I'm walking right on the tightrope of where my voice disappears, whereas when I sing up higher it's not a problem."
One little ditty that caught my ear was "Cupid de Locke," which has strumming harp sounds and Shakespearean-style lyrics. I thought it was kind of sweet and funny. "I'm glad you reacted that way, because that was kind of my intention," Billy says. "I was reading something with these words 'doth' and 'thou,' and I thought it would be kind of cool to write a little love sonnet with that in mind. So I wrote this two-paragraph thing with this very colorful language, not really intending to put it in a song. Then a week later we started playing the music of the song, and I remembered I had this thing. And basically it's as I wrote it. I had to fix only a few little things."
It certainly not a very "rock" song, which makes me think of Corgan's comment that after this album, the band will have exhausted the rock thing. "I think the context I mean that in is ROCK as we understand it, which is like classic rock, ending songs with a bang - all that stuff," he says. "I think we've exhausted our ability to translate that into something different. And I think it behooves us to, um, move on and invent something new.
"If the Smashing Pumpkins were formed to subvert classic rock into something different, which is what a lot of other bands of our peerage have basically done, there comes a point where you realize that you've come to the end of that road. Let's face it, I mean, ROCK has reached its wall. And the good things that came out of the early-90's bands - so often imitated now that you can't even differentiate dynamically - the dynamic that was 'Teen Spirit,' or some of the stuff that we did on our first record, is such a standard cliche now that I'm almost embarrassed to use it. That's part of the problem that I have with 'Bullet With Butterfly Wings.' It's like, I helped invent the cliche and now I'm embarrassed to use it.
"It's the difference between keeping your ear to the ground or living in your own world. I could go around beating my drum about how Gish was a ground breaking album, and how it's no mystery to me that Gish was made before Nevermind. Gish-era Pumpkins was ahead of its time, and we were beaten into the ground for being a retro band. I could toot that horn all I want, but it doesn't change the fact it's no longer moving me. And it's certainly not moving the people that we're playing to, like it once did. I think this is the final gasp, punch and kick from us, and then we'll just do something different. It doesn't mean it wouldn't be intense, but it won't rock in a conventional way."
It does feel like bands are rising and falling faster than ever. "I think we're headed right back to disco. It's like 1974 all over again. Here comes KC and The Sunshine Band. I really think we're going to have to have that, or another KISS. That's my prediction."
But there was punk happening too. "There will always be cool stuff going on," Corgan acknowledges. "But to me, Cheap Trick is one of the greatest bands of all time. Most people couldn't tell you that. It's not even that they would disagree; they don't even know. If Cheap Trick were a new band right now, how big would Cheap Trick be? They would be humongous, they wrote nothing but fucking pop gems. Timing, context has a lot to do with what's perceived. And unfortunately we're living in an age when the perception is extremely skewed. I mean, everybody wants to talk about this punk movement. It's no PUNK MOVEMENT. I read a telling interview with Mick Jones of The Clash, and he said a lot of these bands are really good but they're not saying anything. We were on a mission, we had social changes, we had agendas, we had causes, we were fighting against something. These bands aren't fighting against anything. They're just riding on the road that's already been paved. And he's right. Everywhere I turn it's like, punk rock punk rock. Nirvana, Green Day and Rancid. Explain it to me, I don't understand..."
There's a lull in the Smashing Pumpkins' set, and I'm thinking of yelling something about the essence of punk. Then I turn around and spot Geddy Lee of Rush, sitting two seats away. Maybe Billy was right.