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The Pumpkins Won't Be Smashed
June 30, 1994, 11:00 pm

Source: Musician

The Pumpkins Won't Be Smashed

James Hunter. Musician
. July 1994. [No Day]

Jim the guy who serves Chicago breakfasts and Chinese entrees at Jim's diner, seems nonplussed by the presence of a journalist and tape recorder at Billy Corgan's table. Jim is a Smashing Pumpkins fan. A framed poster for Gish, the band's 1991 Caroline Records debut, adorns his modest room's west wall, and over the course of my lunch with Corgan, he shows up a time or two at the table, inquiring about the publication, wondering whether Corgan had heard Bono plump for the Pumpkins a few weeks ago at the Grammys telecast, and generally exuding pride at Corgan's patronage.

And why not? Siamese Dream, the Smashing Pumpkins major label bow, is about to be certified double platinum. Yet, on this cold, sunny, Chicago afternoon, it's not two-million Jims Corgan conjures as he splashes catsup across his eggs over easy and home fries. What he sees instead are many recent instances of disdain. What he sees, following Siamese dream's Top 10 Billboard chart debut and first rate reviews and even a number eleven showing in the Village Voice's national Pazz & Jop Critics Poll, is a full on media backlash.

It may have been anticipated by the New York Times writer who dismissed the band's public airings of their woes as fabricated dramas. Though the dramas were real enough: the breakup of a romance between guitarist James Iha and bassist D'arcy, drummer jimmy Chamberlin's drug problems during the long Siamese Dream sessions in Georgia, Corgan's obsessiveness and drive, further band turmoil during the Los Angeles mixing dates and ensuing European Tour. Just last week producer Steve Albini, in the letters pages of the Chicago Reader denounced the band as musically vacant careerists. Pavement, with characteristic ambiguity, has appeared to knock them on a tune on their current Crooked rain, Crooked rain. And a recent magazine feature on Soundgarden crafted a cameo of Corgan as a guy who begins speaking and clears rooms.

"I've become a caricature, " Corgan says. "I'm not fighting me. I'm fighting a caricature of me. It's very rare that you read bad press about us that alleges anything bad about the music. It's usually criticisms of things that I do, say, or how I behave. We just got a review of and English show. It says my on stage antics were all a put on, that I wasn't really angry that I was faking. If you’re being yourself, and people misinterpret it as being phony, where do you go from there? Should you be yourself more?"

It was over a year since I had watched Corgan lay down the overdubs for Siamese Dream at Triclops Sound Studios in Atlanta. He wasn't a pop star then just a very serious musician intent on calibrating every sonic aspect of the record. The overdubs were what producer Butch Vig called" backgroundy stuff, " those parts that swim around athletically in many slower Siamese Dream passages, softer counterparts of an overall guitar attack inspired, Corgan grinned "by the Gulf War."

The song "Soma" had been called "coma" that day. Iha's guitar had been rigged to vibrate an aqueous effect. It sounded at first too bright, then too analogies drenched for Corgan's ears. As Iha kept strumming three cords-"three cords, three cords, three cords," he'd actually begun to chant: "nice and smooth" Vig had coached- Corgan monitored the processor's readouts, puzzling over the effect's numerous numerical permeations. He and Vig finally found a sonic character that they liked.

"I want to try it one more time with a pick, " Corgan said. "We've been working on these stupid guitars for two days."

"They're not stupid," Vig replied. The mood of that session was loose yet as goal oriented as any I'd attended, calm yet unapologetically intense. When at last Corgan and Vig agreed to tape the effect, a phantom feedback noise showed up as well, not guitar and not keyboard in its icy, inhuman character. Corgan, halfway out of the control room and eager to watch a football game on TV, stopped in his tracks." I know what your going to say," Vig said, lifting off his baseball cap. "right," Corgan said "Let's get the feedback." Vig spent the next 45-minutes turning a knob until the feedback was properly phrased. "Okay, " he said. "It's done, now let's do some goddamn rocking' guitars." "I dun no, " said Corgan. "I'm feeling kind of wispy." He and the other Pumpkins set up in the tracking room to work on an arrangement of "Suicide Kiss", a song which never made it onto the record but was clearly very gulf war. Vig watched through the glass there was nothing wispy about it.

Now, back at home between several British shows and a series of American concerts that will climax with Lollapalooza '94, Corgan glances out the diner window and says he would like to vanish, " I always loved pop songs, " he says. "But what attracted me to alternative music was that I thought I could pursue them without pop conventions, just do anything you want, and if you were good at it, then people wouldn't slag it. Naive. Stupid. "I started this band with the idea that we were going to be different. I believed that we would write good songs, be good live, play with a certain amount of intensity, not be phony, all of these things would add up. And, as we played the more that we were ourselves and the more intense that the music got, the more popular we became. I just want to disappear, and write an even more amazing record. That will destroy all of these things for awhile. And then we'll go through all of this again." This last comment cracks Corgan's earnestness. He laughs, "I mean, if our problems had been some kind of press play, we'd have come up with something more creative than 'the drummer's on drugs.'"

"You couldn't be more driven than Billy," D'arcy says. "It's not possible." She's sipping coffee and trying to wish away a headache in an equally untrendy spot across the street from sound Works Studio in Wrigleyville, the generally middle class area of Chicago where Corgan, Iha, and Chamberlin reside. D'arcy lives in Indiana. At 26, her personality is like her bass playing: exact, formal, a willed steadiness that gives passionate sensation sane underpinnings. When she first left her rural Michigan hometown, D'arcy moved to France. Upon returning, she disembarked at Chicago's O'hare airport and decided to stay, living in a "punk rock house" for "a really fun three months" as she dryly recalls before she met Corgan one night outside a club.

He was writing some songs on and off with Iha, while working at a record shop. D'arcy was a waitress, Iha a Loyola University student. Chamberlin played in a motley assortment of rock and jazz outfits. D'arcy remembers the first time that they played together as sounding unlike anything she'd been hearing on the local scene. "It was good," she laughs.

"We were a decent band right away, " Corgan had observed. "It wasn't like we slugged it out in small clubs. We got fairly popular fairly quickly. People thought we were from another city." D'arcy much like Iha was more or less an amateur musician. But hardly punk. "We try to make very beautiful music that varies and to record it as well as we possibly can, " she says. "It's easy to do the punk rock thing and record something off the cuff shabbily. Imperfection is not such a difficult thing to achieve." Still D'arcy claims that technical proficiency is not for her what it is for the guys.

"Yeah right," snorts Chamberlin 29, who meets me for coffee and cigarettes, while enduring a bad cold. "But then, I don't have all those Pussy Galore records she does either." Corgan rightly calls Chamberlin one of the best drummers rock. Still, he's not the sort of "good" musician who's dying to play with the Eagles. "It was pretty awkward, " he says of the band's very early days. "I was used to playing with people who knew how to play their instruments really well, with people who could read (music)." The jelling last year of the trained and untrained Pumpkins is, in Chamberlins, view the real story now. His attitude toward his own substance abuse, is that it is something completely copped to, covered, and licked old news. The concerns of Pavement or the English critics are from his mind.

"Music, is a sensitive thing for everybody, " he says, "no matter what your level of expertise. It's an emotional concern that has to be taken seriously. You can't insult art based on technical proficiency. Perhaps a better gauge for it is honesty, because it's all a spilling of emotion." Like the other Pumpkins, Chamberlin now discounts the band's dysfunctional rep as something that journalists love to analyze more than the music. "I mean, " he says of the other band members, " these people are my friends."

I walk into James Iha's apartment to the strains of Bonnie tyler's "Total Eclipse of the Heart." He's making tapes for use between sets during the Pumpkin's upcoming U.S. shows. He's certain about the Tyler, pretty certain about "Love is all around" from the Mary Tyler Moore Show, " as well as the Carpenters' "Yesterday Once More." Iha says he loves ballads, and that is the end of that. Done taping he puts on Astor Piazolla to surge around in the background as we chat. His mixed breed sled dog Bugg jumps around totally hyper.

Iha himself is as wry and laid back as a JJ Cale tune. Iha plays me "Blew Away, " an original love song based on the "fake country" he says he loves these days, released as a B-side on the UK single release of Siamese Dream's brilliant "Disarm." The sound is a long way from the Pumpkins, circa '88 to '91 "Our heavier songs were always pseudo prog rock/metal/psychedelic/Goth. And then we'd have these super pop-pop songs. Urge overkill was always happening back then, as well as many of the Touch and Go bands. But we never really saw them, never really clicked with anyone. We did play with The Crows who turned into Red Red Meat.

It's been noted elsewhere that Corgan tends to play most of the fast leads and extravagant guitars while Iha favors "weird slower parts." He agrees. "In the beginning, " he says, "there were all these weird tangents, and basically the first album was honing them all, getting the rock heavy Smashing Pumpkins sound together. The second album is the diversification of all that. Still, at the core it had the songs that distinguish us, and things with different instrumentation, pop elements like "Today" and "Mayonaise" that definitely were not on the first album. Plus, we spent more time on everything."

Like any good pumpkin, Iha makes the most of his remove. Rummaging through his record collection, he mocks the cover of Who's Next, and calls Nick Drake an "awesome sad man". He points out a passage from the Midnight Cowboy soundtrack where "they're at a party and Dustin Hoffman tries to steal this lunch meat." He's abashed by his creeping interest in singer song writers: "For years I was like why would you want to listen to these guys when they don't rock/" He aspires to some notion of country ambiance, wants to bring more songs into the band and assures me that the reason we both think The Low Spark of high Heeled Boys is Traffic's best is "by this time they were these burned out pros" commandering great grooves. "Oh boy," marvels Iha 26, at one point, deep into trying to extrapolate motive and psychology from a photo of some obscure '60's band's album cover. "That great old rock stuff they can never take that away from me."

Billy Corgan lives with his wife Chris, a museum worker, in a fine and unflashy renovation of a 1897 Chicago house. It sits on an upper-middle class street with only slight residential traffic and noise, not on the lake, where "all the yuppies just have to live, " Corgan notes. The living and dining rooms are outlined with warm, dark Victorian woods, furniture that Corgan purchased along with the house that fits handsomely. A recently acquired, Chicago built 1920's grand piano luxuriates in front of a window.

Corgan, 27, began playing music when he was 15; a sky high score made on a musical aptitude test at age six went largely ignored due to his divorced parents indifference. He describes his home life as "totally uneven, inconsistent. Music and baseball were the two things I turned to for solace. I wore out records by the Beatles and Black Sabbath for example. My father was a musician. I grew up basically with my step mom who was a stewardess. She was gone a lot. I used to listen to the radio for six-seven hours on end. The things that really stuck out considering what else was going on, were Boston, Cheap Trick, Queen, the bands that were sort of post Beatles with a twist. We also had pop records around the house. We had Hendrix's Monterey Pop album and Houses of the Holy. I had no prejudice about music whatsoever. I remember listening to "Return to Forever" at nine."

In '88, Corgan remembers, "I was listening to the Cure and Bauhaus. That's another important stage in anyone's life when you disconnect from the music of your adolescence. A lot of people gravitated toward the Dead Kennedy's and all that stuff; I gravitated toward Echo and the Bunnymen new-wavey stuff. That seemed to strike a chord with me. I sold all my Black Sabbath records, then ended up buying them back. Did I force myself to listen to the Dead Kennedy's because the guy down the street wearing combat boots thought they were cool? No. I tossed them in the corner and went on listening to whatever else it was that appealed to me."

Corgan who maintains that he has played alternative music since he was 18, is a champion of obscure bands who have little or no Black Sabbath, return to Forever or E.L.O. in their backgrounds; after he's mouthed off about strict alternativists, he'll voice regret that some of them don't respect him. But he's not afraid to say that sometimes, bigger is better," knowing that ambition is a cardinal sin in the cranky little world of American punk.

When Pavement's Stephen Malkmus recently gave an interview to Compuserve, an online subscription service, he made a few jokes at Corgan's expense, then sobered up and posted, "I like some songs by Smashing Pumpkins. It's their ideology that I despise." Of course, Malkmus's world isn't really punk: it's post everything, intentionally complicated comedy of manners where guitar parts, or even the sound of an apparently godawful recording, might produce more meaning for some listeners than more conventional texts and music. But what it shares with strict punk is a kind of horror about "super pop" procedures, even when they convey music as well as demonstrably, well, alternative as Siamese Dream's.

Thrust into that world, via sheer fan popularity comes Corgan, a rare pop visionary. He dreams of new musical experiences, which pop's cynical elite dismiss as impossible. He considers, even values, technique at a point when everyone this side of Garth Brooks has their doubts. He spews pointed opinions when the captains of far less successful bands play things as close to the vest as congressional lobbyists. He likes populism but won't brook it's accepted formulas. He says that his only regret about Siamese Dream is that it is not original enough.

Sitting behind his piano, Corgan starts talking about the Pumpkin's next album. Suddenly he doesn't have a worry in the world. Possibly a double recording, he says, it will concern itself with speaking a new rock language, at least sonically and then it will probably require the introduction of some new technological means.

Corgan sites U2's Zooropa as an example of the kind of meticulousness that he imagines his new music will take. He contemplates song texts that will be more understandable, or at least more understandably rendered than before. As a songwriter, he's looking to others for help. "If were going to do a double LP next time we are going to have to find other subjects besides me and my fucked up life."

He says he has always wanted to belong somewhere. Yet he resists the easy pose of an outsider. "Being an enigmatic, twisted rock star doesn't necessarily mean you belong to any club." He says. "When I found the other pumpkins, a group of people who represented what I wanted to represent, and then found out the whole scene was a pose, you find yourself lost at sea. "I've been playing alternative rock since I was 18. It's an old subject for me I've gotten over it for the most part. I remind myself that there is nothing wrong with my assessment of what I want to do. I'm not going to wake up one day and realize I've done it all wrong."

And he won't either.

Credit: James Hunter