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Unexploded Band
June 30, 1993, 11:00 pm

Source: Select Pop Babylon

as in Unexploded Band.

David Cavanagh. Select Pop Babylon July 1993. [No Day]

Smashing Pumpkins are about to join the Kurtocracy with this year's essential yank-rock LP. That is, provided they don't split up first. Or kill each other. And if there's no suicides either .. tick, tick, tick...

I DON'T THINK YOU HAVE TO suffer, for great art. It's just that we happen to." Smashing Pumpkins are a band that could snap apart at any minute, and take several people down with them. The singer thinks the others are not pulling their weight, and regularly threatens to commit suicide. They accuse him of being a hysterical neurotic. He says he's the one with the vision. They say he's a mentally unstable tyrant who should relax more.

The drummer fell horribly by the wayside on tour last year and had to be professionally cleaned out. The singer had to go into therapy. The bassist kept throwing up. The guitarist, whose quote you've just read above, was living on orange juice and houmous. Their Reading Festival appearance last August at which they were, quote, going to do what Nirvana had done the previous year, embarrassed and depressed them so badly that the singer had to be talked out of splitting the band up there and then.

Meanwhile the new Smashing Pumpkins album, the one that's surely going to break them worldwide, is 33 days behind schedule, the drummer's gone down with food poisoning, the singer's cut most of his hair off and the rest of the band are wondering how long they can go on like this.

A GERMAN HEAVY METAL JOURNALIST RECENTLY PUT IT TO the Smashing Pumpkins that they were "boring". They're still shaking their heads about that one. His part of Germany must be really interesting.

Certainly Venice Beach in LA becomes more colorful when these four native Chicagoans arrive on a shades-shopping expedition. Last night in the studio Billy Corgan was dressed all in black, looking young and intense like an unmanageable teenage son. This morning he's wrong-footed everyone with a garish blue shirt that would be confiscated at many airports. He's a big man with a chirpy, high-pitched voice. A strawberry birthmark covers the whole of his left hand from wrist to fingertip.

The girl with the white hair and the purple shades is D'Arcy Wretzky, the bass player. If she's aloof and enigmatic onstage, the offstage D'Arcy is somewhere between bored and sulky. The album's at the mixing stage, so the other Pumpkins apart from Billy have pretty much finished. There's nothing much to do except watch MTV, staring wide-eyed and frightened as Roseanne Arnold and John Goodman duet on 'The Ballad Of John And Yoko' at Farm-Aid.

Behind her chewing on a falafel, is James Iha, the tiny Japanese guitarist with the orange hair. James is one of the thinnest people alive, and that falafel's not going to put much on him. He walks and speaks like he's deciding whether to wake up fully or go to sleep forever, and something of a dry humour is exhibited by his insistence on singing snippets of 'Sandy' by John Travolta in the car every time we pass a school.

Drummer Jimmy Chamberlin, who like James and Billy has radically changed his hairstyle since the band's last UK sighting, dined on badly-cooked red salmon last night and is clearly not a well man. At the first news of his illness eyebrows were raised communally in the Pumpkins camp: he looks a seriously heavy-duty hard partyer as it is, without falling back into old habits. He clutches his Marlboro's, does some photos, growls "I'm outta here" and walks off without a word to the others.

Eight months after the fateful afternoon, they can still do you a pretty graphic autopsy on the Reading catastrophe. "We were so awful it was disgusting," says Billy. "It wasn't a good show," says James quietly, "although I had a good dress on." "I just said, Right, that's it - we're going home," says Billy. "My rig shut off twice and I still don't know why," says D'Arcy. "We sucked," says James. "We couldn't see our tuners because it was so sunny and we couldn't see the lights on them."

What's it like when you get it right? Euphoria?

D'Arcy: "Oh yeah, absolutely. It's the best thing in the world. It's the biggest high in the world for me."

"I'm personally just relieved, " says James quietly.

"I know there's times when, we play live," says Billy, "where I know there's not a better band. Because we're moving like a train."

They are very hard on themselves. Ask them what percentage of gigs are truly great ones and Billy shrugs: "About ten percent."

"We're really, really picky about technical proficiency," explains D'Arcy.

"We like to play the songs at least halfway to what they should sound like," says James.

The falafel's gone. It hasn't had any visible effect.

BILLY CORGAN'S WORLD COLLAPSED AROUND HIM LAST YEAR. You can hear all about it when 'Siamese Dream', the Butch Vig-produced follow-up to 1991's 'Gish', comes out in July. Billy's girlfriend left him (hear 'Soma' for details) and he lost his apartment. It was not a good time for this to happen. The 'Gish' tour had reached inclines of boredom and intensity so steep that the band capitulated to stress by day and performed in dresses by night. "Everybody just went into their own comas," says Corgan. He was last seen over here smashing up microphones and guitars at Reading and threatening to pull the band offstage at the T&C if one more person stagedived.

"I just really got suicidal. I went into this extreme self-loathing. I couldn't write songs for a long time. I started to think who'd miss me if I died." And he was expected to write the Pumpkins their 'Nevemind'. He looked to the band for help. He says he got none.

"Everyone just retreated into their own hole. They used the success of the band and the little bit of money that came in to insulate themselves."

When Corgan talks about the Pumpkins, he uses a wistful past tense, as though he were talking about a band that split up years ago. Actually, two members of the band are standing mere feet away from him, separated by a glass partition.

We're at Rumbo Studios, where Alan Moulder is mixing 'Siamese Dream' into some sort of perfection. Everything Billy's played us sounds fantastic, and even though only the truly insane are expecting a 'Nevermind' type breakthrough, you just never know. All the Pumpkins' salient points are logged in "extremis" on this one: Corgan's arnbisexual singing voice (not even his brother can tell his voice apart from D'Arcy's); his ear for a gorgeous melody; his other ear for a slowly burning forest of guitars.

There are new discoveries. 'Disarm' is just Corgan, an acoustic guitar and 40 strings. 'Rocket' has one of the best endings you'll ever hear. 'Soma' and 'Mayonaise' (sic) are downright beautiful, even if the pain that inspired them threatened to overwhelm Corgan at the time. 'Spaceboy', sung in tribute to his 16-year old mentally handicapped brother Jesse, has an extraordinary mellotron arrangement that puts it, in 1993, in a class of one. 'Today' and 'Quiet' are especially heavy. You never know. One of them could do it.

Billy continues the story. He receded into therapy, genuinely frightened for his life. This was another fraught situation: ten years earlier, aged 15, his step-mother had made him see a therapist, irrespective of whether he needed one or not. The man in question was one of his step-mother's closest friends, which was pretty awkward, since she was one of Billy's biggest problems.

This time... Well, the way he puts it. "it was either die or go". Something worked. Now he feels better. He wants to live. He's talking of getting married. He's just bought a place to live.

"I feel Like an old man," he says, with a self deprecating laugh. At least, it's possible it's self-deprecating. "It's nobody's fault but my own."

-You said once that you wanted the Pumpkins to become a 'way of Life' band, one that fans would dedicate their lives to, like Jane's Addiction were.

"Mmm," he says thoughtfully. "If we're just somebody's flavor of the month then I'm really wasting my time. If I'm not doing something of what I consider great value, then maybe I need to go build houses. And I can't understand why a lot of people (he looks meaningfully back into the studio where James and D'Arcy are) seem to have a real problem with that attitude. If we're not a band that moves people, then it's a big waste of time."

-Do you actually want to be the next Nirvana?

"Well, my weird masterplan hasn't changed at all. I want to be the heaviest, meanest, rockingest, you know, all those things. I don't see why I can't. It has nothing to do with Nirvana. The thing is, and I really believe this, if you're good people will notice. It doesn't matter who else is popular or what else is going on. People managed to have careers and sell records when The Beatles were around. Having said that, I've no idea what it must be like to sell seven million records or whatever it is, and have the tabloids write about your personal life."

-You went out with Courtney Love for a while. Have you kept in touch?

"I don't talk to her too much any more. And I can't really speak for her. Kurt's probably the greatest thing that's ever happened to her. She's obviously happier. I just think she's one of the most talented people I've ever met. Not to defend everything she's ever done, and the way she lives her life, but I think the biggest shame that's come out of everything that's happened is people have lost sight of what a talented person she is. She's capable of making stunning records, she's more talented than me. Although most people I've said that to think I'm crazy."

-Say 'Siamese Dream' is the album that puts you up there. Would it cement the band together or blow you apart completely?

"I really don't know,' he says seriously. "I'd like to think there's a future. But there's only so many more years I can go on like this. We've been in this band for over five years now. Everybody makes a living off of it. At some point it's like, how important is this really to you?"

-So this LP will either make you or destroy you?

"I'd say it will drive it one way or another."

-What do you think now of the others in the band?

"I don't really know. I mean, I love them very much. But they've been very short-sighted. If you're going to do this, you really should do it all the way."

-And what do you think they think of you?

'I... I think they love me and they hate me and they think I'm an asshole and they think I'm intelligent. I don't know. I don't know if you'd ever get them to say anything about me. "

WELL, LET'S TRY. As BILLY GOES INSIDE TO START ANOTHER interview, James and D'Arcy blink their way out on to the porch. They have just had a prolonged argument about the exact address of a guitar shop. The first thing they do when they sit down is have another argument; D'Arcy's still unhappy that James didn't credit her on the sleeve of the 'I Am One' single last year. It's childish stuff, like teenage brother and sister, but it does mean that D'Arcy speaks through clenched teeth for a good 15 minutes afterwards and James is hard to get a peep out of.

-What do they think of Billy?

James says nothing. D'Arcy, after a long pause, says: 'He puts himself under a lot of pressure. Neuroses ... hub (laughs humorlessly). One day he'll blame us and the next day he'll blame himself, and the next day he'll blame the world for it."

James sighs. "It's like the ratio of fun compared to stress is very lopsided with us." James didn't enjoy making the record much, he says, apart from his guitar playing. (Billy refuses to go on the record about which of them plays most guitar: "I don't think it would be politically correct to say.")

-You're a band who obviously live on your nerves. James and D'Arcy nod glumly. Is that healthy?

"It is not healthy," says D'Arcy under her breath.

-Does it ever make for great music?

"No," she says firmly. "I don't think that. I think it can be done without us losing our minds completely and getting stressed out so badly that I'm sick constantly on tour. There's got to be a better way."

-Did you believe Billy was a suicide risk last year?

D'Arcy makes a face. "He's been talking about it for years. You get used to it." She peers through her purple shades. She looks pretty miserable. "Who knows? I talk about it too ... I think Billy's smart enough that he will eventually straighten out his mental problem. He seems much happier lately."

The next morning an entire day of foreign press interviews is canceled. No reason is given. All the European journalists have already arrived in the hotel, flown over at Virgin's expense. Now they have all day to enjoy their breakfast. Communication has broken down. It seems that for Smashing Pumpkins, it really is a profound case of imminent blow-up. One way or another.

Credit: David Cavanagh