|Q Magazine Band Interview|
|October 31, 1995, 11:00 pm|
Q Magazine November 1995 [No Day]
Hey there Mr Blue.....we’re so pleased to be with you.
Being in mega-selling Smashing Pumpkins is no picnic. Led by despondent despot Billy Corgan Nirvana’s natural heirs didn’t get where they are today without their share of detox, despair, depression and Amanda de Cadanet. Tom Doyle Orders a double (album).
The sporting of thick, dense, black sunglasses early in the working morning is really only acceptable if you are firstly, blind, or secondly a bona fide rock star. On this particularly nippy August morning, all four members of Chicago’s Smashing Pumpkins shuffle downstairs in heavy wraparounds - not, one can safely assume, in an effort to protect their naked eyes from the frankly sunless, grey Dublin skies.
Cab rides to the to the banks of the Liffey are ordered to enable the quartet to pose, poker-faced and grimly, for the benefit of the Q camera (some Pumpkins even performing shades-free), while a handful of diminutive tinker lads stripped to their underpants take turns diving from the dock into the freezing, cloudy river below and make demands for a couple of «punt» to «mind» the photographers equipment.
The Liffey-plunging youths have big dumb grins on their faces. Smashing Pumpkins do not. For a multi-million-shifting alternative rock-unit (their last album, Siamese Dream, has «done» 4,287,000 worldwide), the Pumpkins seem to be suffering their lot in quiet despair. Their tale is one of shaky inter-band relations, therapy, rehab, and a shower of end-of-the-millenium mitherings, so yawningly typical of the grunge generation. What sets them apart from your Stone Temple Pilots and Alice In Chains - apart from the 4,287,000 records that have changed hands, of course - is the tapered energy and controlled distortion of the Smashing Pumpkins’ sound, which has by-passed the US punk ethic of grunge and gone straight for the 70’s rock jugular. Their ballads are inevitably awash with Mellotron or Hammond and White Album sleepiness, all topped with Billy Corgan’s remarkable, almost feline vocal.
Today, it must be noted, is one of the first days they have been free to set foot into fresh air after an 11-month period of writing, rehearsing and recording their third and most exhaustive record, a 28-track double album titled, without a hint of shame, Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness. The reason for this burst of creative productivity? «Vitamins», Corgan smiles, pulling a little pillbox out of his pocket, as if to prove the point.
«Yeah», drummer Jimmy Chamberlin concurs darkly as the band’s resident ex-drug addict, «Vitamin H». Back at the hotel, they sit toying boredly with tea and and sandwiches and sarcastically enquire of Q,
«suppose you’re going to ask us all about double albums then?». Of course. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. Out Of The Blue. Sign O’ The Times. Classics all. If some double albums are a display of the strength of material and others are a display of bad self-editing where do you think yours falls?
«I think we were really careful about it», begins Chamberlin. «We cut 50 songs and there’s 28 on the record, so it’s not like we put everything we had on there». «I figure it is going to be the last album of how we are, so we might as well make it good and get it all in there,» Corgan continues, ever mindful of the fact that past accusations of his in-band tyranny (allegedly playing most of the instruments on their second album Siamese Dream himself) have led time to his - and the group’s - refusal to be interviewed individually, though he still hogs much of the airtime, and the others actually wander off, distractedly, during the interview.
«I think after this album we’re definitely going to take a creative left turn and try to to move on to some new area of music», enthuses Corgan. «We didn’t invent the loud- quiet rock thing, but we helped popularise it, and now there are so many bands imitating The Smashing Pumpkins sound, it gets to the point where you’re competing not only with yourself but with other people doing yourself and it just becomes redundant. Bush, for instance, are one of many Nirvana junior bands who are highly irritating to me at this point of time. They all jumped the train , and so we’re gonna build another train.»
Prior to the founding of Smashing Pumpkins, an ill-fated affair with Courtney Love, and the other events that marked his elevation to the status of trainee-star, Billy Corgan spent his teenage years in the stereo-mediated company of Thin Lizzy, Judas Priest and E.L.O. They’re hardly regarded as the most credibility-assuring names in today’s climate - but this musical education to a large extent shaped both his individual guitar-playing and songwriting styles.
«That’s the environment I grew up in,» he says,»and to us it’s never been an ‘uncool’ thing. We were just going for what we liked and then it obviously it was run through the alternative music strainer. We don’t have a problem with it, though everybody else seems to have. When it comes down to it, what’s the difference between Boston’s first album and Nevermind. They’re just great rock albums».
The group came together in 1989, initially as a collaboration between Corgan, guitarist James Iha and bassist D’Arcy Wretzky, who wrote and performed together for some months using a drum machine before enlisting the squint-nosed drummer par excellence Chamberlin. They are, it is fair to say, a mixed bag.
(At this suggestion, without explanation they begin making retarded grunting, squawking noises.) In fact, it’s hard to imagine them having enough in common to even become friends had they not been thrown together by music.
«It was definitely a relationship formed out of trying to pursue a higher musical ideal,» claims Corgan, «and we got to know eachother over time after that.» Chamberlin laughs wryly. «Very slowly though, you might say.»
«It’s the antithesis of the band-as-a-gang thing,» adds Corgan. «We don’t all think the same, walk the same, dress the same. But it was definitely like, Look, this musical idea is ten times more important than anything else. If we can make this thing happen then everything will fall into place, and it took a while and it now has.»
Do you socialise out of work?
Wretzky: «Haha! We’re always working! This is socialising.»
Corgan: «There’s the point you come to where you suddenly think, Gee, I wonder why noone in the band is calling me? But then you realise that everything is fine and everybody needs their space. It’s not a matter of not caring, it’s a mature understanding of the fact that we’re here together so intensely, all the time.»
Wretzky: «It’s like when you’re growing up at home and then you move out and don’t call.»
Chamberlin: « It’s real complicated and busy when we’re together and there’s nothing to talk about when we’re not together- (Smiles). We’re all doped up anyway. It’s like, Look, don’t call me in the middle of the fucking night. Piece of shit. (sweetly) But see you next week though.» A short time after it’s release in 1991, the Smashing Pumpkins first LP, Gish topped the US College charts and was loudly fanfared as debut album of the year from every available alternative hilltop. This was, claim the four, when the rot set in. («Everybody felt so secure that we stopped giving a fuck»). The everyday pressures led to general lethargy and petty sniping, which in turn led to them blowing their pivotal appearance on the Reading Festival bill of 1992. It was reported at the time that their poor showing nearly caused them to split.
«That’s all bullshit,» Corgan states flatly. «One gig is not going to make us break up. That’s English journalists overhyping the importance of an English festival. We were upset with each other because it was one of a handful of times where we’ve let eachother down.»
Wretzky: (To Chamberlin) «Remember that fight we had in the back of the bus? Jimmy and I were vowing that we were never going to be in each others band’s ever again»
Chamberlin: «Before that gig, we were all super-punked-up and Henry Rollins was on stage before us doing fucking push-ups on stage. We go on stage and in the middle of the second song - Boom - the wheel falls off the cart. Billy broke his guitar, threw it into the audience and hit our record company president in the head!»
«Sometimes I think in a weird kind of karmic way we were just supposed to suck at that gig,» Corgan philosophises. «Honestly, in seven years, we’ve probably had about three or four bad gigs and that was, like, number one.
This was mere chickenfeed in the light of what followed. During the making of Siamese Dream, the Pumpkins became possibly the the most dysfunctional group of their X generation (expecting perhaps Nirvana, whose glut of ills were building steadily, though only in their frontman). Rumour number 1. Chamberlin put down his drumsticks and went straight into rehab completing his contribution to the record. «That’s true. It’s weird because you’re young and someone hands you a bunch of money and tells you that the more fucked up you are, the more people will like you, so for a while you buy into it. Then you get to the point where it’s like; I don’t care, I just want to die. These guys basically sorted me out. I don’t blame anyone, because it’s not difficult to get mixed up with drugs when you’ve got loads of money and not a lot of maturity. It’s still not easy, it’s an everyday thing. Sometimes I need to go out and fucking tie one on» Rumour Number 2. Wretzky and Iha were involved in in a romantic tryst, which is now over. is it easy to still be in the band together?
Chamberlin (Erupts into wicked laughter) «You notice who’s answering»
Do you have to bury feelings?
Iha: (Pauses) «No. We get along fine. I think our relationship now is really good.»
Wretzky: «It’s much better. We don’t throw furniture at eachother anymore. Let’s just say that when Jimmy was in rehab and we were still in the studio, I was wishing that it was me in rehab.»
Chamberlin: «I was wishing it was her in rehab too.»
Rumour number 3. Corgan was driven into therapy by the antics of the other three and the anxieties with producing the record. He became a hellish dictator.
(Long pause) «I can’t remember what I was thinking,» he remembers. «There was a lot of pressure on me to stay focused and not get fucked up. So if I was a tyrant, it was ‘cos our band was expected to sell a zillion records and write eight generational hits, not because I wanted to be a tyrant. It wasn’t the making of Siamese Dream that pushed me into therapy. It was my relationship with my now wife.»
Why is it so hard to be in a group?
«Why is so hard to be married?» Wretzky ventures. «For me, being in the Smashing Pumpkins is like being married to three people that you never even wanted to date. With the exception of Iha, of course...»
«It was the pursuit of musical excellence that caused a lot of the stresses and strains,» Corgan decides. «Anyway, in the time that the internal problems in the band were being discussed, we were already past them. But then it became this monkey that we couldn’t get off our backs. People have accused us of creating the strife as a sales thing, but we’ve always tried not to be the band who give you daft answers to your daft questions. We’ve chosen to try to be real people and unfortunately that flies in the face of rock mythology and we pay for it every step of the way.»
Perhaps the root of the problem lies in Corgan’s lack of interest in explaining his songs. With 28 new Smashing Pumpkins tracks about to be released, the two main topics surrounding Mellon Collie etc are Corgan’s alleged romance with the estranged Mrs. John Taylor, Amanda De Cadanet (Corgan will only say, «I’m a happily married man. She’s a lovely person») and Courtney’s ongoing verbal obsession with her former beau.
(Softly) «There is no silencing that woman. I have nothing to say to her anymore. I will have nothing to do with her. I won’t talk to her.» Only weeks before her husband’s suicide, she had made a remark to an interviewer about your sexual prowess.
«Well, I don’t believe anything that woman says any more so I wouldn’t believe that either.»
The complete Pumpkins on album
Written before - though released after - Nevermind changed the face of American rock, the Pumpkin’ assured debut combines the twin influences of Black Sabbath and Syd Barrett, but was nonetheless lost in Nirvana’s slipstream. Sold over 300.000. Remastered by Corgan himself in 1994 for extra clarity, after claim that the band were «unhappy» with original. ***
Singles (Epic, 1992)
Various artists soundtrack to regrettable grunge cash-in movie starring Matt Dillon in foolhardy wig. Contains one pumpkins song, Drown. **
Hut Recordings: The Peel Sessions (Strange Fruit, 1992)
Label-pushing compilation (Hut is a sneaky faux-indie label owned by Virgin) culled from Uncle John’s vaults, including MaidaVale-cut versions of Siva, A Girl Named Sandoz and Smiley. ***
Siamese Dream (Hut,1993)
Turnaround meisterwork, passage unhindered by «other grunge band», angst-ridden songs helped into realm of classic rock by graphic Butch Vig coproduction. First two singles, Cherub Rock and Disarm, tickled UK Top 40; album went Top 4; Disarm (not released until March ’94) went to number 11. ****
Pisces Iscariot (Virgin,1994)
Surprisingly rich B-sides and nearly-rans round-up, only available on import in UK. Contains Soothe, previous Disarm B-side, which almost made Siamese Dream, «but I wimped out», according to Corgan’s sleeve notes. Three further Siamese outtakes confirms must-havitude. ***
ON STAGE AT DUBLIN’S SFX - THE second warm-up date there before their headlining return to Reading - the Smashing Pumpkins shake off the cobwebs of their prolonged studio-tanning session to reaffirm their status as a blistering live act, despite Chamberlin’s admission that they feel like «like a rusty robot».Their first time in Eire sees an unstably excited audience chant along to every word from Today from Siamese Dream, despite the fact that it wasn’t a proper hit single in Ireland or in the UK. There’s a tangible excitement emanating from both the band and the audience. «Sure, we felt that,» Corgan admits afterwards. «We were nervous because it was our first time here. We’ve played some places in America so often now that that I don’t believe the audience go home between the shows.»
In the SFX audience, the Pumpkins manage to incite at least one sexual act, one group of shaven-haired lads to snort amyl nitrate at roughly minute-long intervals, and one bloody nosed fist fight. The between-song breaks, anything but moody and difficult, are instead full of bad jokes and good cheer (recurring theme: U2)
Bickering and traumas forgotten for the time being, it would seem this is were the Pumpkins are comfortably united.
«We came, we saw, we rocked, we kicked fucking ass - that’s the way I want us to be remembered,» Corgan states emphatically,»we’re not perfect, but it’s like they say, Pound for pound he’s the best fighter in the world; then pound for pound, if we’re not the best rock band in the world, we’re right up there.»