|[Interview] all Smashed up?|
|November 15, 1996, 12:00 am|
Source: St. Petersburg Times
all SMASHED up? Series: POP BEAT; [STATE Edition]
ERIC DEGGANS. St. Petersburg Times. St. Petersburg, Fla.: Nov 15, 1996. pg. 12
At first glance, the breakup between drummer Jimmy Chamberlain and his bandmates in Smashing Pumpkins reads like the most painful of divorces.
Fired from the band after he was found by police in a room with touring keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin - who had died of a heroin overdose - Chamberlain's presence still casts a shadowy pall over the band he once ignited with his fiery playing style.
He may be out of the band and in a drug treatment program (the drummer pleaded guilty in early October to disorderly conduct charges stemming from his arrest at the scene of Melvoin's death), but Chamberlain's image is all over the band's new box set, The Aeroplane Flies High, due in stores Nov. 26.
Pictures of the drummer - in one, he wears thick, black glasses; in another, he's mugging with an unlit cigarette dangling from his lips - litter the inside of the five-CD set like photographs of a ex-lover you don't yet have the nerve the throw away.
Even now, nearly six months after the drug overdose that killed Melvoin in a Manhattan hotel room, the band's publicist has no Chamberlain-less photos of the Pumpkins. And guitarist James Iha will barely admit the band's onstage chemistry has changed with the addition of Filter skinsman Matt Walker and Frogs keyboardist Dennis Flemion to round out their '96-'97 world tour.
"Basically, Matt is playing, like, 80 percent of Jimmy's parts," says Iha, who notes the group even asked the rock-steady player to imitate Chamberlain's unintentional fluctuations in tempo during many Pumpkins' numbers.
"Until we started playing with Matt, we didn't realize how off we were," he adds. "We had to make him play to us. That's all part of the songs now."
This perceived reluctance to move forward belies some statements Pumpkins' leader Billy Corgan made months before Chamberlain's departure - where he noted the band's 7-million-selling album Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness marked the end of an era for the group.
"What Billy was talking about is that we're sick of being a four-piece rock band," says Iha, calling from a tour stop in Maine. "We're getting old - see what rock 'n' roll has done to me? I feel a thousand years old. Maybe it's time to tackle the Burl Ives songbook. But whatever we do, it will probably be a lot less . . . rock format. We might be a little more processed or technology-oriented."
Anyone doubting the band's ability to pull off such a change, need only check out Aeroplane . . . , a 33-song collection featuring all five released singles from Mellon Collie - the title track, Bullet With Butterfly Wings, 1979, Tonight, Tonight and Thirty Three - all the songs included as B-side releases on every CD single, and five previously unreleased cover tunes, ranging from Alice Cooper's Clones (We're All) to Blondie's Dreaming.
Taken in one shot, this mountain of material goes down like a bracing, whirlwind tour of the group's creative abilities, spanning everything from a surprisingly emotive acoustic reading of Tonight, Tonight to the near-Lynyrd Skynyrd-isms of Tribute to Johnny and the Pastichio Medley, a 22-minute overview of nearly every rocked out riff discarded by the band.
And even though some bands would likely give their eye teeth to write hooks as catchy as some buried in Pastichio, don't expect to see them on a Pumpkins record anytime soon.
"I've heard those riffs for about 5-million hours tenfold, so dumping them is okay with me," says Iha only half sarcastically, noting that between the writing, rehearsal and recording sessions for Mellon Collie, the band worked about six hours a day, seven days a week for 10 months.
"It was horrible," he says, tartly. "You can only play a musical phrase so many times before you go crazy."
Another attraction for fans - admittedly, the only people likely to shell out $49.98 for Aeroplane's assemblage of rarities and oddball covers - is the inclusion of several Iha-penned numbers, including a duet with Veruca Salt co-leader Nina Gordon called . . . Said Sadly.
It's a major feature spot for Iha, who is pretty much shut out as a songwriter from Mellon Collie by bandleader Corgan, and another peek at the volatile inner workings of a band once so creatively divided that Corgan decided to record over Iha and bassist D'arcy Wretzky's parts for the group's sophomore record, 1993's Siamese Dream.
"Consider me like George Harrison," Iha says, comparing himself to the Beatle who only got one or two songs onto each of his group's records. "I'll probably just end up doing my own record after this tour. My voice is a lot different than Billy's, which would change the continuity of the (Pumpkins') records."
And what of the whispered rumors that one reason Iha's tunes don't appear on Pumpkins albums more often is that leader Corgan is, well, a control freak?
"I don't want to go back to the past," the guitarist says, dodging the question a little. "The time during the recording of Siamese was really strange . . . . We were under the gun to finish the record and it wasn't an open atmosphere at the time. On the new record, we all sat in a room and played riffs a million times until people found their parts. Then we all took some aspirin and went home."
For a somewhat less guarded picture of Corgan - at least a pre-fame, pre-Pumpkins Corgan - Sandy Crouse, a manager of the Patty and Friends antique store in St. Petersburg, offers a few comments on her impressions of the frontman from his days with The Marked, a modern rock band that played the Tampa Bay area in the late '80s.
"He would come to a soup kitchen (downtown) every day," says Crouse, who notes the band moved to Chicago not long after she met Corgan. "One time, I went over to his studio and took him something to eat. I told him, `Why don't you get a job?' He said to me, `I'm going to make it with my music. I'm a musician, not a dishwasher.' He's like any person that has a lot of stuff inside that they want to get out, he wants it done right - he wants it done according to his vision."
Corgan's unwavering focus is something that has dogged the band for years, causing some industry types to dismiss Iha and D'arcy (she has dropped Wretzky in her stage name) as hip-looking window dressing for the guitarist/frontman's mercenary alternative rock vision.
The unflattering buzz will likely increase with Aeroplane, artfully timed to coincide with the Christmas buying season and the band's ongoing, headline-generating tour. In a phenomenon that's sadly typical of today's highly competitive music business, some have even suggested the band's open dialogue about their split with Chamberlain had a selfish dimension - bringing increased attention and record sales.
But Iha says their decision to continue playing had nothing to do with selling records and everything to do with supporting the band they'd all nurtured for seven years.
"It just seemed like a lame way to break up . . . because the drummer has a (drug problem)," he says. "It's been too many years and we're all too old for this. Basically, he screwed up, and we got rid of him and it was a good thing for all concerned."
For now, Iha is content to concentrate on his new label with D'arcy, Scratchie Records - featuring buzz bands like Fountains of Wayne, Full Fledged and Chainsaw Kittens - and the Pumpkins' tour, leaving the philosophizing and naysaying for others.
"I don't want to sound overly dramatic, like some rock cliche or something, but it's like working the same job for eight years," he says. "You work real closely with people and you get used to them. So we decided to carry on." AT A GLANCE Smashing Pumpkins appear with Garbage tonight at the Ice Palace, 401 Channelside Drive, Tampa. Tickets are $27.75 for the 7 p.m. show. 223-1000.
COLOR PHOTO, Publicity photo; Caption: Smashing Pumpkins
Credit: Eric Deggans