|Corgan and Pumpkins Interview|
|June 30, 1998, 11:00 pm|
Source: Access Magazine
Pumpkins Made to Disorder
Sean Plummer. Access Magazine. July/August 1998. [No Day]
Initiations are strange and dangerous things: Hopeful Japanese mobsters cut off part of one finger before becoming fully-fledged Yakuza; newborn babies are circumcised; one African tribe expects the sons of a newly-dead warriors to ingest part of the dead man's genitalia to ritually pass on the father's strength.
Then there's the journalist's trek to Chicago's South Side to interview the Smashing Pumpkins about their new album Adore. It's an adventure which takes place at the band's rehearsal space, located in an industrial stretch of grey houses and bullet-strafed diner where, in the words of guitarist James Iha, "the gangs scare away the rats." Even more deadly is the acidic Pumpkins humor, as evidenced by the following exchange between singer Billy Corgan, bassist D'Arcy and me:
Q: I had the chance to talk to Clive Barker a couple of years ago...
Billy Corgan (suspiciously): Are you saying I look like the guy from Hellraiser?
Q: No, no. He quoted another writer as saying that no work of art is ever finished, only abandoned. When do you know a song is done?
D'Arcy(incredulously): Has everyone asked that question today?
Q: That's a common question?
Billy Corgan (unsmiling): No, no. We've never been asked this question ever until this album.
D'Arcy: Until today.
Ha, ha. And I thought suffering fools gladly (ie. journalists, record company executives, fans) was Lesson #1 in the Rock Stars Handbook. Still, if the Smashing Pumpkins are a little touchy, they have good reason, considering the events of the last two years. (More on that later.) But, seriously, about that last question Billy... "I don't know," the bald-headed, black-clad singer finally says. "We haven't been able to answer that question yet. It's all kind of a confused thing.(pause)It seems that we just go and go and go until we exhaust every possibility..."
"And ourselves," D'Arcy adds.
Has Adore been a harder album than the others to make? "They're all a pain the ass to be honest," Corgan deadpans. D'Arcy, who becomes angry and defensive if you ask what she thinks is a stupid question, smirks.
"In their own special way."
Corgan ignores this. "Siamese Dream [their second album] was a total perfection overload. Melon Collie [and the Inifinte Sadness, their breakthrough third album] was just a total overload. This album was like deconstructionism to the point of being a science project, where everything was just being ripped apart continually and reconstructed. I think this album was difficult because I felt like I had my eyes closed and I was searching around in the dark to find elemental things that would make a connection to other things, and not many people have tried to bridge the gap between technology and acoustic-based music, old music and new music. Every song could have been played just like a folk song but I though, Who the fuck would want to hear this? Not even I would want to hear this, not after a week."
Adore rocks, but it's also the quietest Pumpkins album. The grand metallic bombast of anthems like 'Cherub Rock' and 'Bullet With Butterfly Wings' has been replaced by electrobeats ('Ava Adore', 'Apples + Oranjes', 'Pug') and off-key weirdness('Annie-Dog', 'Shame'). For better or worse, it's a personal, inward-looking record for Corgan, not a sweeping cry of teenage angst. Given the infinite sonic possibilities afforded by a modern recording studio, finishing Adore was more an arduous task than usual. "And an unlimited budget," Corgan adds, getting up to make himself a sandwich. To Iha, he says, "Tell him about the time Butch hired the bagpipe players. That's what this album was like."
Iha, an incredibly shy and silent man who spends most of the interview looking down at the carpet, dutifully recounts the time Butch Vig, the producer of the band's debut Gish and its follow-up Siamese Dream, was hired to do a remix for The Cult's 'She Sells Sanctuary'. "He wanted to add something other than just to remix it, so he thought bagpipes would be cool. And the song was in one key..."
"D," Corgan offers.
"D. And the bagpipes play in..."
"B flat," the singer chimes in again.
"So in order to get the bagpipes to play the line right he had to speed up the bagpipes after he had it and it ended up sounding like kazoos. It was totally unusable."
D'Arcy laughs. "That's ok because it was probably a bad idea."
"He's a really great guy," Corgan says.
"Very nice man," Iha agrees, nodding. "Very good ears."
"Inside there lurks a killer," Corgan says mock-seriously, putting down his plate. "Don't get fooled."
The recording of Adore began last spring in Chicago with producer Brad Wood (Liz Fair, Placebo), shortly after the completion of the triumphant-and tragic-Melon Collie tour. Corgan, however, wasn't happy with the results. ("I felt like he was not completely grasping everything that needed to go into making a Smashing Pumpkins record.") The band got packed up and headed to California to finish the Adore sessions under Corgan's watchful eye. "We put on the old captain's hat and steered the Love Boat right into harbour," he says. Additional sessions with producer Rick Rubin(Slayer, Beastie Boys) did not make it to the final album.
Corgan's need for control is legendary-he allegedly played all the instruments on Siamese Dream, except drums-and, sitting here, speaking with the three of them, there is no doubt the he is the leader. Iha, when asked to comment on Corgan's role as a producer, doesn't so much hesitate as choke. "He was a pretty... Well, this album...I don't know. We knew what we were doing all the time but he has a pretty set idea of what he likes and what he doesn't like in a song. A lot of other things go around in circles sometimes. Like some of the guitar parts I did, I just sat in a room with an engineer, and he's telling me 'maybe something like this' or 'maybe something like that' or 'how about this?' So I don't know. It goes back and forth."
D'Arcy laughs breaking the tension. "It's all so exciting, you can tell!"
"It's a lot of work recording," Iha continues carefully. "It's a lot of this and that. People think records are made in a week, or three or four days. I wish they would be, but we're not that kind of band."
"Our recording sessions are more like a bingo game," Corgan says.
D'Arcy nods. "It's very orderly."
Adds the singer: "But you never know what number you're going to get."
Billy Corgan did not deliberately set out to undo the Pumpkin's status as a heavy, alt. rock guitar band in writing Adore. It just sort of happened that way. "I wasn't interested in making this wimpy acoustic album where we'd get even more sensitive than we've been." (Whether or not this is a reference to Iha's failed-and pretty wimpy-solo record, Let It Come Down, the implication is there.) "I wanted to make something that had some real energy and spirit in it. So for me, it wasn't just about writing great songs. I really didn't care what form they took. I worried about that later."
Much or Adore's flirtation with electronica can be put down to the influence of Bon Harris, whom Corgan met through producer Flood (Depeche Mode, Nine Inch Nails) during the recording of Melon Collie. Corgan ran into the former Nitzer Ebb frontman again in L.A. and invited him to work on a track for the new album. "He kind of took it home and came back," Corgan explains, "and his ideas were fantastic. We just kind of set him up in his own area he and he would twiddle knobs all day.
"And the great thing about working with Bon...people talk about electronica or whatever. He helped start it. It's like going back to the real source of it, not the seventh [version] down the line. He comes from all that really pure electronics. So I felt he brought a real kind of more open, pure thing to it, as opposed to trying to be trendy.
"He gave me this thing that I read. It was a speech that Stockhausen gave"-referring to seminal German electronic composer Karlhein Stockhausen-"and Stockhausen was talking about how electronic music can be the real new music, because you can create pure tonalities in electronics that you can't create acoustically. Anything in acoustic sound has all these resonant frequencies, where you can create pure tone with electronics. So just like Bach used the organ or Mozart used cellos and violins, electronics can be the new classical compositional tool. It allows the composer to do something that hasn't been done, because he'll be allowed to use tonalities that are new, just like those [acoustic] tonalities were new when composers were composing.
"Reading that gave me a totally different approach, and it really made me understand where Bon was coming from. His place is not a trendy place. He uses [electronics] as an open field of creativity, as opposed to guitar. Every time we pick up a guitar, we're fucked, because there's like 700 miles of great guitar players. How are you going to be better than anybody? What are you going to play that somebody hasn't already?"
So is it exciting or scary to be combining familiar elements-bass, drums, guitar-with these newer electronic elements? Corgan bites into his sandwich. "Taste," he says chewing. "That's the biggest problem to me. It's like, lets be cheesy. Once I started applying the same aesthetic that I would apply to our guitar playing-which is like, if you're going to do a cliché, you'd better know why you're doing it-then everything seemed to be fine. It's not that big a deal. It's just sound, you know? I mean, if I knock this table, it's a sound." And the lyrical occupations on this record, are they the same as his previous work? Corgan snorts, sensing a dumb question. "Are the lyrics different? Yeah, I think what I write about [on Adore] is very different from the past albums. I think Melon Collie was kind of the end of a certain way of thinking and being, and I knew that when I was writing." Latching back into his sarcasm, he adds, "This is the new Billy-new brand spanking, fresh, clean."
A fresh start was exactly what the pharmacist prescribed after the debacle which became the Smashing Pumpkins' lives during the Melon Collie world tour. To recap briefly: a 17-year-old fan, Bernadette O'Brien, died in a mosh pit at the band's show in Dublin; touring keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin died of a heroin overdose in a New York City hotel room; and longtime drummer (and Corgan confidante) Jimmy Chamberlin, who was shooting up with Melvoin at the time of his death, was kicked out of the band. (They finished the tour with Filter drummer Matt Walker and Frogs keyboardist Dennis Flemion. On Adore, the drummer seat was filled by a number of performers, including Beck's touring drummer Joey Waronker and Matt Cameron, formerly of Soundgarden.)
For the brief summer tour planned to support Adore the Pumpkins hired Kenny Arnoff, a decision which surprised a lot of people given Arnoff's history drumming with the likes of Bob Dylan, and John Mellencamp. "He's a great drummer," D'Arcy tells me simply. "He's done so many different things. He was telling us stories about working with Johnny Cash. He's just worked with everybody, it seems like. He's really versatile."
"Yeah, he's a great musician," Corgan affirms, "and I think he'll understand the record at a deeper level because of his experience. We wanted somebody we thought we could really count on to be a solid groove drummer because the record is pretty much all grooves." I've been asked not to talk to about Chamberlin, but I don't have to. Corgan's implication, again, is clear: Disorder will no longer be tolerated within the Pumpkins camp.
Like I was saying, initiations. For me, I tell Corgan, the Pumpkins' true initiation into the mainstream of rock music-and, on a larger scale, the realization that 'alternative rock' is completely dead-came last December, when the band opened for the Rolling Stones, a symbol of rock & roll tradition if one ever existed.
Corgan sighs. "About this, I think they [the Stones] were a lot more progressive in 1968 than we are in 1998. I think they were doing a lot more radical, interesting, world-changing things than anything that the bands today are doing. Our era's going to end up being viewed as the era that didn't quite finish what they started. I'm not trying to separate us out. We were given a lot of power. We as a collective, the early '90's bands, just didn't take full advantage of the situation. The Pumpkins are one of the few bands left standing. There's really not much left to stand for."
"I don't know," D'Arcy says. "Obviously, they couldn't even pull it together within their own bands, which is why they're not around. So how are you going to pull together collectively?" "I think it's a sign of the times, too," Iha offers. "When all those '60's bands were happening, there was a much more political and youth culture atmosphere than there is right now. I think the late '60's...the times let bands have an open podium as [opposed] to bands right now. Bands now are just about entertainment."
Do the Smashing Pumpkins take it upon themselves to mean more than that? Corgan thinks about this for a moment, warming to the topic. "Let me put it to you this way: I think it's incumbent upon the bands to do their best with whatever they have. But I think the media's really responsible for not taking a lot of bands to task for basically just being entertainers. It's one thing to imitate a band from 20 years ago, it's another to imitate a band from two years ago. And the media just refuses to take bands to task for not being progressive enough; and at the same time, doesn't reward the bands that are willing to take chances.
"So you'll read a review of a band who's made some post-Nirvana album, and they'll give it, like, 3 out of 4 stars and say, 'Well, it's pretty good. They've got good songs. The guy's a good singer. It sounds a lot like Alice In Chains and Nirvana, but you know, it's still pretty good.' And then you read about [another] band: 'This band's really taken chances but unfortunately they don't really pull it off. Two out of four.'
"So who wins in this culture?" Corgan asks rhetorically. "The people who are better imitators. It's like a Disneyworld. The closer you look to the real thing, the better off you are. There's a lot of great music being made, and the media is bought and sold. It's bought its own bullshit to the point where it's stopped being a revolutionary, rebellious arm of music; it's just another part of the cooperate grind. "I've talked to some editors at magazines lately and I've said, 'You have to really think about what kind of message you're putting across to kids, because those kids are going to want to be in bands, and what bands are they going to choose? Are they going to choose the bands that are glorified for being imitators or are they going to choose the bands that are original?"
But, I argue, that's always been the case. Innovators are always going to cite important but obscure bands like Soft Machine or Velvet Underground, while the followers are going to imitate the band of the moment, like Bush imitates Nirvana or, in Canada's case, a lot of bands sound like Our Lady Peace.
"Our Lady Peace sounds an awful lot like the Pumpkins to me," Corgan says. Not that he has anything against the imitators per se. "More power to them. They're imitating us third generation. Even better." But most of all the bands who are truly influential come out of-and will continue to come out of-the underground, I reiterate. Corgan nods enthusiastically. "And that's where er [?] came from. That's where the real energy is. And all I'm trying to say is, okay, when a magazine puts Bush on the cover, it's like everyone is in agreement that Bush is not the deepest well musically. So what do they talk about? 'Gavin's a sex symbol, he's going out with Gwen.' Everyone goes, 'Oh well, the music's not so hot so let's really deal with this other shit because it's star making shit.' The media gets engaged in the thing that's not really important at the end of the day. The fact that Bush has managed to sell records, more power to them. But if the media doesn't hold bands to task for taking the easy way out-which is imitating past successful bands to achieve their success-what message does that send to everybody?"
D'Arcy leans into the conversation. "It's just like we're expected to hold up to this level but these other bands [aren't]. The Spice Girls, it's okay what they're doing?"
"Look at what kind of questions the Pumpkins get asked and look at the kind of questions Bush gets asked," Corgan says. "So who gets unfairly biased against? Everyone says, 'Well, that's the way Bush is so lets talk about Gwen Stephani.' I'm glad to be a Pumpkin, don't get me wrong. I would rather be in this position. It's funny to us because we're always held up to these issues about music and integrity, and then you read about some other band and they talk about how they take drugs or what a fun time they're having. Everyone just decides it's not worth getting into it because it's an agreed-upon thing that there's not a lot of depth musically."
So who suffers the most, then: the bands or the fans?
Corgan, defiant, doesn't hesitate: "The fans! It's fucked up!"
"Just culture in general-or the lack of it-is so vapid," D'Arcy says.
"There has to be a balancing point, okay, between big bands, new bands," the singer reasons. "But lets face it: People put certain bands on covers that they don't even believe in because it sells magazines. So everyone gets caught up in that culture. There has to be some sort or balance."
At this point, the band's publicist walks in to signal the end. I thank the band for their time and get up to leave but Corgan's poodle, who has been begging me for attention for the last five minutes, isn't done with me yet. What's his name, I ask? "Drake," Corgan replies, watching as I rub Drake behind the ear. "He susses out all journalists."
"He likes you," Iha confirms.
Smirking slightly, Corgan tells me. "You've passed the basic test."
Like I said, initiations.
Credit: Sean Plummer