"Joining the band has been unbelievable," says Smashing Pumpkins guitarist Jeff Schroeder. "This is where I really wanted to go musically. I was a fan of Billy Corgan's music for years, so to be able to work with him on his vision and help take the band to a new place is incredible. It's great to be part of something that you can be completely passionate about."
Schroeder was the first member to join the Pumpkins lineup that now also includes frontman Corgan, bassist Nicole Fiorentino and drummer Mike Byrne, so he can be regarded as the next-to-eldest statesmen of the new group. With combined interests in literature, alternative rock guitar and professional hockey (on the day of our interview, the California native was thrilled to be in Winnipeg, Canada, but bummed that there were no teams playing), Schroeder brings with him a playing style that is by turns poetic, highly individualistic and full of virtuosic force, and he makes his presence felt vividly on the Pumpkins' 2012 album, Oceania.
Speaking to MusicRadar, Corgan called Schroeder a "far superior" guitarist to himself. "What I love about Jeff as a musician is, he's always learning, he's always pushing himself."
We talked to Schroeder about how he came to join his favorite band, what it's been like forging a guitar language with Corgan (who is, of course, no slouch on the instrument), how the group gets along these days, not to mention which guitars, amps and effects he's using on stage.
It's been six years now, but a lot of people still don't know how you came to join the band.
"How I joined goes back to 2006 when Billy and Jimmy were in LA working on Zeitgeist. A friend of mine who knew someone at their management company sent me an e-mail and said, 'The Pumpkins are getting back together, and I think you'd be perfect for the band. Here's their manager's e-mail. You should send them a package.' I wasn't a professional musician or anything. I mean, I'd been in bands, but I didn't have a bio and photo and all that stuff. To this day, I'm not interested in being that type of musician.
"But because I was a massive fan of the band – I'd seen the band many, many times, and I just loved Billy's whole musical vision – I typed up a bio and sent it off, and a couple of days later I got a call from Jimmy Chamberlin. That was in the fall of 2006, and I've been here ever since."
What did your actual tryout consist of?
"It was me and another bass player, Jenni Tarma, who actually went on to play with Kylie Minogue and a few other people. She's been around LA for a while – really good bass player. Jim, Jenni and I played a few songs, and then it evolved over time. We got together a few more times. I don't think it was until a few months later that they made a real decision. They were cutting the record, so I'd go in, jam, hang out and see what they were doing. The relationship just grew and evolved."
You got in the band when it was in a transitional phase, but pretty soon it was a brand-new lineup playing with Billy.
"Yeah, it seems transitional now in hindsight. At the time when it was Billy and Jimmy, that was very much anchored in the 20-year relationship. The musical and personal dynamic – there was a lot of history there. Once Jimmy left, that was a big chance. It was a new era, and all the relationships were reconfigured. And once we found Nicole, you had those four people that made sense together."
Schroeder shreds with Corgan (Mike Byrne on drums in back) in Las Vegas, 2011. © RD/ Kabik/Retna Ltd./Corbis
How did you go about trying to forge your identity as a guitarist with Billy?
"It's actually quite difficult, because within the Pumpkins, Billy's guitar is such a dominant voice. You have to work out a plan to play with him. You can either try to play like him, or you can do the other thing where you start forging an alternate voice or a counter voice to go along with that. That's been fairly difficult because I've had to play differently than I would in my own music or how I would play if I were the only guitar player.
"It's taken some time, but now, after five or six years, Billy and I rarely have to talk about what I'm doing. Through a lot of playing together and making a lot really bad mistakes, we've realized what works and what doesn't work. It feels pretty natural now, but it's something we've had to figure out. It took some doing."
I imagine it's something of a balancing act for you. Even though you joined the band and it became a new lineup, there was still an established sound.
"Oh, of course. I certainly wasn't going to walk into the room and tell Billy, 'OK, you have to reconfigure your sound for me.' That would have been absurd. [Laughs] It's very much me going, 'I have to fit into this.' It's one thing to listen to a band, but once you actually play with them – and I was very, very lucky to have played with Jimmy – it's totally different. You hear things in a new way. I already knew some of the songs, but in truth, I wasn't playing them correctly.
"To make the guitar parts sound like the Pumpkins is very difficult to do, even if technically it sounds easy. There's a certain feel, an attack, a certain way to play the guitar – it's the reason why no other band can sound like the Pumpkins, even though they are emulated."
Billy has spoken about the lack of egos in the band, how there's no drama. Is this because you're all such awesome people [Schroeder laughs], or have you actually worked on maintaining a healthy spirit amongst everybody?
"I think it's a combination of both of those things. In the big scheme of things, you have four really decent people, which is strange in the rock world. Nobody is doing drugs, nobody is doing stupid stuff in life – we value being in a band, and we do what we can to maintain that. But then we've also had discussions about how to maintain that. Billy has been very clear that he doesn't want to re-create the old dynamic with new people. So we watch ourselves and call ourselves on things.
"A lot of it has to do with maturity. We do value what we do, and we realize that it could go away, so we enjoy it while it's here. But we also like being around each other. We're very different people – if you looked at us on paper, you'd probably say, 'That's not going to work.' Between the age differences, background differences, cultural differences and everything else, we shouldn't work. But we do. Other bands we've toured with have tripped out on us and how we function. There's a certain mystery to it all."
You were studying for your Ph.D in Comparative Literature before you joined the band. What were your plans after you got your degree?
"I was planning on being in academia and being a professor and teaching full time. At some point, it's something I may return to. For the last two years, the band has been so incredibly busy, so I had to make a choice of one over the other. I love being in the band, so it wasn't hard. But I am passionate about literature, and I think literature, music and art are so tied together."
Of course, you realize that were you to go into teaching, your students would say, 'Yeah, that book sounds great, but tell us about being in the Smashing Pumpkins!'"
[Laughs] "Yeah, there have been times when I've done some teaching, and once people knew what I was doing, they just couldn't fathom why I'd want to be at a university. They thought I should be indulging in the fantasy – partying, doing drugs, all the things I don't do."
What was it like recording the full album Oceania vs Teargarden By Kaleidyscope, which you were doing piecemeal?
"The last two songs on Teargarden, Lightning Strikes and Owata, were the first times the four of us recorded together. Oddly enough, it took what seemed to be a crazy-long time to do two songs. When you're working piecemeal, you can lose focus on the big picture. So doing Oceania was more in line from what I grew up with. I'm an album guy."
Billy told me that a couple of the new songs happened spontaneously in the studio. Was there a different kind of excitement working on those songs than some of the cuts that were very planned out?
"Being in the Pumpkins, that's how it always is. That's the working relationship. You have to be ready to shift quickly – one minute you're working on a keyboard part for a song, and in a few minutes something else could be happen. The raison d'etre of the Pumpkins is 'follow the excitement.' You could spend three months on a part or section, but if something else opens up a new vista or horizon, that's where we're going to go."
What do you think of Billy saying that you're technically better on the guitar than him?
"I don't know about that! [Laughs] I can maybe do a few things that he can't do as far as picking and things, but he can do a lot that I can't. To me, technical ability only goes so far. Billy is so expressive on the guitar, and I'd rather have that expressive quality that what impresses people as technical ability."
Bringing Oceania live: Smashing Pumpkins on stage, 2012.
He's suggested that you check out certain players to absorb their vibe. Anybody you can mention?
"In the song Pinwheels, he said that I should maybe approach it in a George Harrison kind of way, sort of the All Things Must Pass era. I was already a huge Beatles fan, but you know how it is when you listen to something and then you really listen? That's what I did. In my scholarly way, I studied George Harrison and Beatles songbooks note-for-note. I picked out the scales and how they worked against the chords, but I also looked at where George would place the melodies. That was really helpful."
For the most part, Billy plays Stratocasters live. What kinds of guitars do you like to use to complement his sound?
"Especially for the old material, and we're getting out of that paradigm, but it's the combination of the Strat and Les Paul. It's hard to get away from that to play those songs. Before I joined the band, I never played a Gibson. I always played Fender Strats, Jazzmasters, Teles – never a Gibson. When I joined, I had to play Les Pauls and SGs, and to be honest, I wasn't liking them. Their feel is so different from Fenders, and at the time, they seemed so one-dimensional.
"Over the last year or so, I've picked up some Les Pauls that I really like, and so now I get it. You get the right Les Paul, and it'll be able to do things that a Strat or a Tele never can, which is great. Two completely different voices – Fender and Gibson. I've got a Les Paul from the Custom Shop with an iced tea flame top – it kind of looks like the Jimmy Page/Zeppelin guitar. It's got such a vibe. Oh my, I love that guitar! [Laughs]
"I play that Les Paul on a lot of the new stuff, and I think I'll be playing it a lot more in the future. I also have a '50s goldtop reissue that I really like and am using. Those two guitars cover a lot of ground. Oh, and I have a white Les Paul Custom – I use it on some of the heavier stuff.
"For the new material that's more atmospheric, I use Fender Jazzmasters and Jaguars, which I was very used to playing before the Pumpkins. On the old stuff, like on Thirty-Three, I'll use a Jazzmaster. I just love the sound of those two guitars, the Jaguar and Jazzmaster."
"We do value what we do, and we realize that it could go away, so we enjoy it while it's here," says Schroeder, second left, with Nicole Fiorentino, Corgan and Byrne.
I imagine with your move to more Gibsons you had to rethink your amps on stage.
"Right now for the stage I'm using two Orange 4 x 12 cabinets with Celestion Vintage 30s – amazing. For amps, I'm using modified versions of Randall's MTS Series, which are modular, so they have interchangeable preamps. The preamp section allows you to put in four different preamp modules – it's a design that Bruce Egnator did, and Randall licensed it.
"About a year ago, I got an e-mail from this company, Salvation Mods, in the Czech Republic, and they wanted to send me some mods for the Randalls. Their stuff just blew my mind. Amazing, amazing work. They made me four different modules that I'm using. What we've come up with is the Matchbox – a Vox AC30/Matchless-style preamp. I use that for clean.
"For low-level distortion, I use a Vox with a Fender EQ section – that's probably my favorite preamp. I have a Marshall that gets into the high-gain, and also for high-gain stuff I have a copy of an Orange Rockerverb. Those are the preamp sections that emulate amps. Lately, I've also been using the Orange Rockerverb 100 and a cabinet. We played Jay Leno, and that's what I used."
What kind of pedalboard do you have?
"Ahh, that's crazy, too! [Laughs] I have a Fractal MIDI controller with 15 loops. On the ground I have a bunch of pedals: the BCM Brian May, a whiteface Rat reissue, a Menatone Blue Collar overdrive, a Fulltone Plimsoul, a Line 6 M9, a Fulltone Clyde wah, a Boss RC-30 looper and the TC Flashback delay – but that's the one you can buy only through Pro Guitar Shop.com. They call it the Alter Ego. I also have the Strymon El Capistan tape echo.
"In the effects loop of the preamp, I have the Eventide Time Factor, and I also have and an old Alesis MidiVerb 2, which I only use on preset 45, which is called the 'Bloom' setting. It's a reverse reverb kind of thing, and it's very beautiful."
How are the new songs sounding live? Do they feel nice and broken in already?
"What's interesting is that the new songs sound totally like the record. We didn't know how they'd sound since the songs were created in the studio, but I'd say everything translates really well to the stage. Having the guys at Salvation Mods make the preamps for this tour, the tones are very similar to what's on the record. They sound awesome."