The Smashing Pumpkins of 2010 are just fine and dandy - so says Billy Corgan during an exclusive and wide-ranging interview with MusicRadar. "This is the best lineup the band's had since the original four, and I think we're really going to put something together," he says. "I feel really positive."
He has a right to feel excited, as the first decade of the 21st Century hasn't been the easiest for Corgan or the once unstoppable Pumpkins. The group, which dominated the '90s with groundbreaking and chart-topping albums, fell into disarray, members began coming and going, all of which prompted Corgan to end his beloved band.
Corgan, guitarist James Iha, drummer Jimmy Chamberlin and bassist Melissa Auf der Maur (who had replaced original bass player D'Arcy Wretzky) played their final show on 2 December 2000 at The Metro in Chicago, Illinois.
The shortly lived band Zwan featured both Corgan and Chamberlin, but Corgan pulled the plug on that outfit in 2003. Then, in 2005, to the surprise of many, the guitarist took out full-page ads in The Chicago Sun-Times and The Chicago Tribune announcing his intention to reform the Pumpkins. "I want my band back, and my songs, and my dreams," he wrote in the ad.
Only Chamberlin took part in the reunion, but gradually the basis of what would become the Pumpkins of today took shape. Guitarist Jeff Schroeder and bassist Ginger Pooley signed on, and Corgan once again had a group. Following the release of 2007's underpraised Zeitgeist, Corgan and the Pumpkins were free agents, and the guitarist stated that he was intent on issuing singles only independently.
Recent developments have been coming at a fast clip: Chamberlin split last year. His replacement? The then-19-year-old (!) Mike Byrne.Then Ginger Pooley dropped out, deciding to devote her attention to her family. Corgan posted an online search for a replacement bassist and a keyboardist, and while the keyboard issue may or may not be resolved soon, a few weeks ago the Pumpkins welcomed Nicole Fiorentino to the fold (Mark Tulin of The Electric Prunes had been filling in on recordings).
All of this while Corgan and the band have been tackling a massive 44-song set called Teargarden By Kaleidyscope, which will be released free online, one track at a time (although 11 physical EPs will also be available commercially). Of the first four, they range from bracing rockers (Astral Planes) to shimmering acoustic ballads (A Stitch In Time). A Song For A Son, the first of the batch, already feels like a Pumpkins classic, its epic scope and arrangement at times recalling Stairway To Heaven.
Billy Corgan is very much an interviewer's dream. Fascinating, candid, witty, eloquent, insightful, there's never a dull moment. From record making to guitars to Pumpkins past and present - and hey, we even talk a little baseball - he holds your attention. In fact, our talk was so comprehensive that we're presenting it in two parts. The following is Part 1. Look for Part 2 in the coming weeks.
Listen to the podcast below and read on for text of the interview.
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First things first. Let's talk baseball. What are your thoughts on the Chicago Cubs this year?
[sighs] "It looks like another year of implosion. For years the complaint was they wouldn't spend enough money. Now they're the third-highest payroll in baseball. I don't know. I was really happy when they brought in Lou Pinella - I think he's a fantastic manager.
"I don't know what the issues are. Obviously there's some sort of chemistry issue going on. I haven't spoken to anybody on the team for a long time, so if there is an issue, I wouldn't know about it. That's just my general sense, when a team doesn't click."
You're one of the more notable rockers who's a baseball fan. Do you ever talk to fellow musician fans like Eddie Vedder or George Thorogood about the sport?
"No. I don't know too many people professionally that are baseball fans. I know a lot of people privately who love to talk baseball."
Well, on to music. Recently you've named Nicole Fiorentino as your new bass player. What were your reasons for choosing her, both playing-wise and as a person? Also, you were doing an online search for a bassist and keyboardist - were there any serious contenders?
"The funny thing with Nicole is, we did a charity benefit in the fall - me, my friends Mark and Kerry. Our friend Laura Masura was in a serious accident. Nicole was in the band that was on just before us, and I remember watching her play and thinking, Wow, she's a fantastic bass player, and I met her briefly.
"What I didn't know was that after that show she had talked to somebody in the Pumpkins' management and said, you know, if Billy ever needs anybody to let her know. At that time, I wasn't really looking for anybody because all indications were that Ginger Pooley, the previous Pumpkins' bassist, was going to continue. And then she made a decision to focus on her family, which we really respect her for.
"So it was kind of a last-second thing that we were looking for a bass player. Unknown to me, Nicole had already reached out to management - that's how I found out that she was interested and right away I connected her I as someone I wouldn't mind having. It was an instant click, probably the easiest search I've ever had to find a musician."
Corgan with new bassist Nicole Fiorentino. Image: ©Kristin Burns 2010 courtesy of Smashing Pumpkins.com
So were there any contenders from the online search?
"There were, but something about Nicole said that this was the right person. We've been practicing and rehearsing with her every day for about three weeks, and she's just fantastic. I'm so pleased with her. She's, like, the favorite person I've ever had in the band to play bass. She's contributing so much. She's a lovely, easy person to get along with, and I really, really am exited about this lineup of the band. I think this is the best lineup the band's had since the original four, and I think we're really going to put something together. I feel really positive.
"As far as the keyboard search, I did look at a bunch of people. I found a few people in the range, and then through scheduling and stuff it hasn't clicked to contact anybody. But I haven't given up on it. Also, we don't have any impending tour dates, so that's part of the thing.
"I'm not sure I'd necessarily want to hire somebody on keyboards full-time. I'm actually really enjoying playing as a straight four-piece again and asking the guitarists to carry a lot of that emotional weight. So, for the time being, we'll be a four-piece.
"But if I could find that Rick Wakemanesque or Jon Lord-type person, I would love to have somebody of that caliber. Unfortunately, a lot of people don't play that style…You just don't see much of that anymore, and I think that could be really adaptable to what the Pumpkins are doing now."
I was intrigued by your posting that you wanted somebody 'prog-rock' a la Jon Lord/Rick Wakeman. Do you see that figuring more into the new music that you're doing?
"I do. But that being said, without it right now we're just asking guitarists to take over that weight, which is fine. Each one has its upsides and downsides. Sometimes, when you have somebody who plays keys, you end up inventing work for them to do. I would love to have someone like a Jon Lord who integrates into the rock sound, and that's why I thought of him as the consummate person to fit into a rock band style. When he's supporting, you don't really notice him but he makes the band heavier. And when he busts out, he really adds a classical or dramatic feel to the music. I think that could really add to what we're doing."
Somebody you actually 'air keyboard' to.
"Yeah! I remember seeing Yngwie back in the day - was it Jens Johansson? You know, an incredible talent like that where they were playing dual-lead lines, I think there could be a lot of cool stuff. I mean, the Pumpkins has always had a lot of prog in it. Rush was one of our biggest influences, although it wasn't necessarily apparent in our music.
"I think one way to age gracefully is to incorporate those type of elements in a way that opens the music up in a psychedelic way - less riffy and more atmospheric. So if you have somebody who can really add to those elements, I think it can really make for interesting, heavy, emotional music in a way that's not reliant on always trying to 'rock' in quotations."
Speaking of age, you have somebody now quite younger than you in the band…[Corgan laughs] …Mike Byrne, your new drummer -
"Yeah, age 20."
From what I've seen on YouTube, he is pretty fantastic. What do you think you've been showing him, but also, what has he been showing you?
"When we first worked with Mike, he'd never even been in a recording studio, so you can imagine throwing him into sessions where he's playing with Mark Tulin, who's been recording for 40-plus years. Me, I've been recording for probably 25 years. So just adapting him to those different kinds of pressures - what's a good thing, what's a bad thing, what are realistic expectations?…You know, the first time I ever walked into a studio, I couldn't understand why you had to do more than one take! And I'm not saying he has that; I'm just saying that comes with the territory if you don't know that process.
"As far as what he's been showing me, I think Mike is a fantastic heavy groove drummer. He gives the music a kind of a different swing, but what's nice is he's very adaptable to basically the style that Jimmy helped create, which is a very fast hands, busy style. So what's nice is, Mike can kind of oscillate between what is classic Smashing Pumpkins drums and then kind of bring his own thing to the table. A lot of the new music we're doing now in rehearsal is becoming more and more of what Mike's really great at. So it's kind of a different flavor of the band, but it still integrates in a way that doesn't sound completely different, which I didn't want.
"All kudos to Jimmy. Jimmy's one of the best drummers in that world. But that style, that busy style, was something I kind of had to encourage Jimmy to do through the years because it just seemed to sort of work with the music. So with having a different drummer besides Jimmy, it's not necessarily that you want him to play different; you want somebody who can do that but bring their own thing to the table. Mike's doing a really good job of that."
Do you feel any kind of age gap with him, or is the age difference kind of a cool thing?
"You know, I think ultimately with musicians it's about enthusiasm and focus. I've played with people who are older than me who are spaced out [chuckles]. It really comes down to, do you really want to be there, and do you want to work and enjoy that journey of the work? I'm really excited to say that everybody in the room right now is on the same page with that, and I've never had that, where all four people have the same level of work ethic."
Let's talk about the recording you've been doing. Has it been fairly easy so far, or have some of the songs that you thought would be easy presented unforeseen problems?
"The first four that are out were sort of not really difficult to understand because they've been played live a bit. I think that with the second four that haven't come out yet, that are done and mixed and everything, I think when people hear those songs they'll start to see a transition into different uses of the guitars, different uses of technology, and [that I'm trying] to integrate some of these other influences to create a bigger sound for the band.
"I use Neil Young as a reference. I think he does a great job of staying contemporary while at the same time he remains true to doing what he likes to do. So if you want to be overly simplistic about Neil Young, you'd say, 'Well, he's a really great acoustic songwriter, and when he writes electric songs he plays guitar in a very kinetic way.' You identify it as that's the 'Neil Young thing.' And I love it, I can't get enough of it.
"Over time, through making peace with different things, I've kind of come back around to, you know, whatever it is that's the Smashing Pumpkins' guitar sound - that's sort of the way I like to hear rock music. So I'm trying to take that feeling and bring it into a new era of music, which, of course, is using all sorts of different technologies and approaches to achieve new results.
"It's less organic maybe than what we grew up with, which is just four people in a room, and using more of the technology in the studio. So I'm trying to balance old-school and new-school approaches, and I think on the second four you start to see where that's maybe working and not working, but that's part of the journey I want for the album. What I'm excited about now is, now that we're sort of an intact four-piece and rehearsing every day, it's getting back to that band approach."
One giant component of your sound historically has been the Stratocaster…
What is it you like about the Strat so much - the sound, the feel, the body shape?
"I just think it's a really…basically, it was modeled after a violin. Although they changed the neck - now it's more of a flat neck from what it used to be - it's still an incredibly expressive instrument. Even when I play chords, I feel like I'm able to articulate a lot within the chord.
"If you just want to go for sort of pure, big sound sound, the Les Paul, you never get tired of it. You hit an A chord on a Les Paul and it sounds like rock 'n' roll. But what Fender has, and what I've talked to them about in working with them, is Fender makes guitars - when they make them the right way in my eyes - that allow an individual person to express themselves through the instrument.
"If I was being critical, and I don't mean this as a negative, but there's not a huge difference, say, between Slash's guitar sound and Jimmy Page's guitar sound. But if you take Jimi Hendrix and Ritchie Blackmore and Stevie Ray Vaughan and Rory Gallagher, those are all Strat players that basically used a similar type of sound, and yet they were able to articulate their own personalities through the instrument in a very individualistic way.
"I feel like something about the way I play the Strat, it sounds like me. When I play Gibsons or something, it doesn't sound as much like me. I don't know why that is, other than the instrument seems to repond more to the articulation."
You touched on something I was going to ask: When I hear you play, you do have a singular style. I don't hear you quoting, say, Jeff Beck or Eric Clapton, either in licks or tone. Do you ever hear yourself quoting various guitar players?
"Oh yeah." [laughs] I rip off all my heroes. I just think I'm not that skilled. One thing I'll say, and I'll really credit my father with this…he really encouraged me not to copy anybody's guitar style. He really did encourage me to play in my own way. And so, when I try to play like somebody else, I don't know how to do it, so I kind of have to do a fake imitation of what I think they sound like.
"If you listen to A Song For A Son, the first solo in that, to me, is very reminiscent of Jimmy Page and then the second solo in that is very reminiscent to me of Hendrix.
"The thing is, when I think about getting older, it doesn't bother me anymore. It used to really haunt me. And I think what's nice about where we're at in rock history is, we can look back now, it's been 40 years - or 35 years - since the height of Zeppelin, the height of Hendrix…Clapton, obviously, is still playing really, really well. But you can look back at that period - Cream, Blackmore - and say, 'Wow, that was a really fascinating, incredible period for music.' Because even though a lot of music has happened and guitar music is more popular than ever, people haven't really topped that level of playing.
"For me, I see them as highpoints by which you can continually go back and draw from because in many ways they're masters of what they do. So it doesn't bother me to sort of ape them because I think they understand something that I don't."
How many Strats do you own? Are you a big collector?
"Mmmm, no. I have very few kind of rare Strats. Most of my Strats, when I was buying them, are from the mid-'70s, what we called 'Bullet Strats.' And that was my main model. Then I went off of Strats for a long time, and I didn't go back to them hardcore until I stated to do my own Fender guitar (opens in new tab), and then I went back to playing them all the time now. I'm really happy with the way my model turned out because it really does what I need it to do. [laughs] It's kind of funny, because they've offered to build me Custom Shop ones and I've said, 'No, this is fine.'"
Well, that's important - to know that the guitar that bears your name is actually one you want to play!
"Yeah, I play it every day in practice, and I've found that the sound and the attack is pretty adaptable."
As far as other electrics go, I've seen you use 335s, Les Pauls, SGs, Flying Vs - are you still using those as well?
"No. I have a couple of the…I think they got in a big lawsuit over them…the [Gibson] Lonnie Mack [Flying V] models. They only made a couple of hundred of them. I had a couple of those that I played with Zwan for a while.
"Most of my really nice guitars I have I never take on the road. I have ones that are really nice for recording. For example, the first solo on A Song For A Son, the one I said sounds like Jimmy Page, that was a '72 Les Paul - it just has that sound. And I played that through a Randy Rhoads head that Marshall had done a few years ago - a beautiful sound."
"Uli Jon Roth had turned me onto using Super Tremolo amps. For some of my other stuff I've been using Line Drivers - I have a Dallas Arbeiter Line Driver that I found, and I use that through a Super Tremolo amp to get that sort of Blackmore sound. But yeah, I have some really nice guitars…they're just too nice to take out."
Recording-wise, you go straight to tape, right?
"I'm starting to use Pro Tools a little bit more for technology advantages, but still, all the core sounds are analog."
Pretty much because of the warmth and clarity?
"I think Pro Tools is in the 90-95% range, almost at the tipping point, where it really does beat tape, or is so comparable that you argue against it. But I still think tape has the advantage for certain things, particularly cymbals and especially things with distortion signatures, guitars being one of them. It would be so easy to work in Pro Tools all the time, but sonically it's hard for me to invest that much energy in something if I can't totally sign off on the sound."
Any new guitar effects that you're using?
"No, most of my stuff is vintage. I actually don't use that many effects - I really should. [laughs] I have some wonderful toys that I never use. My father used to laugh at me when I was a kid, because he was, you know, 'cord in the guitar, the other cord in the amp. No effects.' And he used to laugh at me and say, 'Someday, you'll play like this.' And I really have gotten to that point where, except for soloing, I'm pretty much pure sound all the time."
But for soloing, what do you use?
"I really like this LovePedal, but I don't remember which model it is. It's got a real nice, almost kind of '60s fuzz sound. It gives me that kind of liquidy kind of solo sound that I like. I had Iron Works, they built a reissue of what Tony Iommi uses for a wah, a Parapedal. They have their own model and I had them build me a rack unit, which is great, so I have the foot controller in front of me but the module is all the way back in the rack so I don't have to run 30 feet more of cord.
"And a few other things: I use a fake Leslie simulator and some other stuff. But really, I'm getting pretty lean in my old age. I just want to hear the purest sound possible."
You're gonna be plugging straight into the amp like your dad said.
Let's talk about some of your new songs. By the way, before we do so, how close are you to hitting that magic number of 44? You wanted to do 44 songs scattered on 11 EPs.
"Well, I finished eight." [laughs]
"And I'm preparing what will be the next four. I'm looking to when we'll be recording again. We have some touring coming up, so I'm not really sure. But the next four are ready to go. I'm really enjoying the process; it's really pushed me to approach my work in a different way, and I think that's the best thing for me."
You might have mentioned this somewhere, but what is it with the number 44?
"I guess I was into thinking, for the Mellon Collie album, I think the Pumpkins put out 56 songs or something? We had 28 on the album and 28 B-sides."
Yeah, that was a lot.
"And I think for Pumpkins albums Machina I and Machina II there's something like 35 or 40 songs. So I knew it was somewhere in the 40 to 50 range that would be a significant body of work, and I just kind of hit upon 44 one day. I mean, now that I've opened by big mouth it seems like a really big number. And it is! But I like the challenge. I like the challenge of 'Can I come up with 44 pieces of music that are each in their own way worth hearing?'
"Because I think that's the real demand right now. You have more people than ever putting out music, and getting anyone to pay attention to what anybody's doing is obviously difficult - and I like the challenge. Each time I put something out I have enough faith in it that I can say, 'I think this is worth listening to.'"
Well, these first four certainly are. Let's get into some of these. Astral Planes, which I think is a great, great rocker, how many guitars did you lay down on that? There's the main the riff and the really cool flanged solo that drifts in and out -
Are you playing all of those solos, or is your other guitarist, Jeff Schroeder -
"No, I'm playing. I think I'm using a '61 SG - no, no, it's a Les Paul Special, which Ric Ocasek from The Cars turned me onto - through a mid-'70s Marshall combo amp. So the guitars are left and right, just two tracks. In order to get that song, you have to play pretty tight. For the solo…I can't remember what I used. I know we did a tape flange to give it that sound. But I was using some kind of '60s fuzz to get that octavey kind of sound. And then in the middle…shoot, I can't remember what I used. There's that crazy part in the middle where it gets kind of jangly…gosh, I can't remember."
When you do a solo, say, in a song like this, do you have it plotted out? Do you have it demoed or do you sometimes go in and wing it?
"Those I wing. I want the sound…I think when I write solos best is either they're totally worked out and they're like Brian May, where it's like perfect - like doo-doo-doot! - or if it sounds like the guitar player is figuring it out as he goes along. Lucky for everyone, they don't have to hear the 14 takes where I don't know what I'm doing. But I like it when you find that take where it sounds like the guitar player isn't sure what he's doing -"
Like he's just learning the song.
"Sort of like on the rails, you know? That's what I like about those solos, they feel kind of right on the rails. 'Do I even know what key I'm in?' kind of thing, you know? That's my mentality. I want that kinetic energy."
Now, you say 14 passes…Do you ever comp solos? Do you take little bits of take one with some of take eight?
"Yeah. Yeah, I have. But I don't play consistently enough that it's easy to do that. You know, the takes are so different, take to take. The general strategy is, I'll sort of work out a beginning, middle and end and the rest I'll just wing."