Jeff Schroeder: "The Smashing Pumpkins guitar sound is very unique in terms of what’s required"

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(Image: © Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images)

When MusicRadar caught up with The Smashing Pumpkins this time last year, Billy Corgan was in London promoting his second solo album, Ogilala, and teased that wheels were in motion for something special - a reunion of sorts - regarding his main band’s impending 30th anniversary this year.

“It’s no secret I’m keen, though it hasn’t arrived yet… hopefully it will, because I think it would be an awesome thing,” the frontman winked to this writer.

Lo and behold, just four months later the Chicago grunge-pop heroes announced they would be embarking on the Shiny And Oh So Bright Tour, focusing on the music of their early golden era with axeman James Iha and drummer Jimmy Chamberlin returning to the fold alongside singer/guitarist Corgan and fellow six-stringer Jeff Schroeder.

Eventually, it was revealed that Shiny And Oh So Bright, Vol. 1 / LP: No Past. No Future. No Sun. would in fact be the title of their 10th studio album, produced by Rick Rubin and set for release on 16 November. Along with offering the infectious melodies and earworm hooks this band built their career on, it also occasionally delves into a cranked thrash-metal heaviness that few could have seen coming but the four members themselves.

Ahead of two highly anticipated European shows in London and Bologna, long-serving guitarist Jeff Schroeder takes time out to reveal more about this new exciting era for the alt-rock legends and gives us a run through the various rigs we’ll be seeing on the stages behind them…

You’ve been in this band for 11 years. Does now feel like an especially exciting time, bearing in mind the sonic potential of a triple guitar assault?

“Yeah! It’s getting close to 12 years and I definitely think having three guitars has changed how we approach the live set. There’s us in the studio, which is the no-holds-barred mindset where it’s whatever the song needs. It could be one guitar or 50 guitars, it doesn’t really matter! 

“Then we sit back and think about how we’ll play it live, coming up with some sort of amalgamation of everything you’re hearing. Having one more person can allow us to voice and orchestrate the parts more as they were, you can realise them closer to how they were made in the studio.”

Which must, in many ways, make it feel like a very new band again…

Recordings are one thing, but for a band to really thrive in this environment you have to be able to put on an amazing live show

“Definitely - even though on this tour we’ve been mostly playing material from the first five albums with James and Jimmy back, we’re presenting them in a way that’s never been done in the past. It doesn’t really feel nostalgic. There’s a certain level of excitement because it really is new sonic territory for the band, especially on the live side, which has become such an integral part of modern music…

“Recordings are one thing, but for a band to really thrive in this environment you have to be able to put on an amazing live show. I think people’s expectations are much higher than they used to be 20 years ago. When people go to a show, they want to hear something that sounds as big their Spotify playlist, haha!”

There are some really unexpected moments of high-gain heavy metal on this new album. Seek And You Shall Destroy is as Metallica as the name suggests, coupled with moments of Solara and March On…

“Haha! Yeah… it’s funny, people always ask us what pedals we use to get that kind of distortion and it’s almost always - other than Siamese Dream which used a lot of fuzz - mainly cranked amps. Vintage heads or combos on 10, turned up and wide open. You can’t get that type of distortion out of a pedal; I’ve never found one that really replicates 100-watts of tube power. That just doesn’t really happen!”

So where exactly did that heaviness come from in terms of the writing?

“At the beginning of the year, we got together and I don’t know how many ideas we had in total, but it all felt pretty new. We got in a room in LA and just started coming out with riffs.

“There was a specific purpose: the idea was originally to record one song when we announced the tour. Like a talking point: ‘Hey, James is back, we’re going on this tour and – oh, by the way – to pique your interest even more, here’s this new track we did with Rick Rubin!’ It didn’t need to be a hit song or a pop song, simply something to get extra excited about. That really was the guiding principle.  

“Those riffs came out heavy! When you have a riff writer like Billy and then a drummer like Jimmy, it can be like pouring gasoline on a fire. It can get explosive really quick. It’s always fun being able to play guitar on top of that structure and foundation they’ve built together over 30 years.”

Travels is one of many songs with this warm, slightly overdriven amp tone that sounds expensive. What are we hearing?

“To be honest, there was nothing too out of the ordinary tracking the album as it was done so quickly. We recorded all eight songs in about 21 days, which for us is extremely fast. So the gear [available to us] was very limited because we weren’t in Chicago, we were in Los Angeles and we only had what we took.  

“I think I used a Jaguar-style guitar for the parts on this track. There were some vintage Laney amps, some vintage Marshalls and in particularly I used something made by Carstens Amplification right here in Chicago. There’s this 50-watt, British-style head called the Warm Machine.

“Effects-wise, it was just an Eventide H9, which I always travel with, and this Line 6 HX Effects unit. It was either one of those two things for my parts, that’s it. For any delay stuff or atmospheric stuff, it’s always Line 6 or Eventide.”

What do you feel are the current standout moments of the set?

My current rig is really a hybrid of the newest, most-forward digital technology out there but coupled with your basic tube amp, speaker cabinet and classic setup

“For me, one of the highlights is Siva, which was on Gish… that’s always fun to play. We play it like the record, but it stretches out in the middle a bit. Me and Billy trade some solos and then him and Jimmy go into this Zeppelin jam. It’s pretty early in the set, so it’s a good way of gauging how good we are that night, haha!

“I think there are about 34 songs on this run. Porcelina Of The Vast Oceans is usually a highlight... I love playing The Everlasting Gaze, which is from Machina/The Machines Of God - down-tuned guitars are always fun.”

You currently have Drew Foppe, who’s worked with everyone from Slipknot and Deftones to Shakira, Sheryl Crow and Fleetwood Mac, as your guitar tech…

“Drew is honestly one of the best. I’ve had a lot of really great guitar techs, like Jason Baskin, who worked with Matt Bellamy from Muse for a long time and now he’s with the Zac Brown Band on a permanent basis now.  

“But Drew is one of the most talented I’ve encountered… he can do it all. He can build a guitar or his own amp, but he’s completely fluent with the new digital innovations. My current rig is really a hybrid of the newest, most-forward digital technology out there but coupled with your basic tube amp, speaker cabinet and classic setup.”

From what we’ve seen, you’ve mainly been using Yamaha acoustic and electrics going into a Randall RM4 preamp with [Czech boutique engineer Antonin Salva] Salvation Mods, using effects from a Line 6 Helix, Eventide H9, Electro-Harmonix Synth9 and a Spaceman Mercury IV…

“That’s my main rig. At the heart of it is the Randall RM4. A lot of the time, maybe 75% or 80%, it’s just that. The cleans and distortions all come from that. The digital stuff is there to accentuate what’s already there. I’m not using any modelling in terms of amps; it’s purely effects.  

“Actually, both me and Billy are using these modded Randall preamps. My cleanest sound is basically a Vox AC30 type of tone, my medium half-cranked is more Zeppelin territory - like a Vox crossed with a Fender - they call it the VoxyFace. I have two higher-gain sounds: one is a Marshall JCM800 style tone and the really high gain one is based on the Marshall Randy Rhoads heads. My tone is very British-voiced - I like a more midrange-heavy sound.”

What made you switch over from the Les Pauls you were using early on in the band?

“That’s an interesting point. There are two stories - partly it’s down to James coming back, and his preferred guitar to play is a Les Paul. So I didn’t want to sit in the same sonic territory - especially when you have three guitar players, you have to be very conscious of how you fit in. When you start dealing with high-gain distortion as well, you have to be very, very particular about how to slot in.  

“The other is that, funnily enough, I wasn’t a Les Paul player before I joined the band in 2007. That was actually the first time I had played one live! I’ve always been a Fender, bolt-on, 25.5-inch scale neck guy. So switching to the 24.75-scale on a neck-through body felt completely new! Over the years, I’ve really learned what types of Les Pauls I like and now I have quite a few that I really love, using them for recording quite a bit. But when it came to this tour, I had a bit more freedom to be more like me than replicate what was done in the past.”

And what was it about the Revstar series that attracted you?

For the majority of this show, I’m playing a Yamaha Revstar prototype that hasn’t come out yet… they’re still developing it and talking about releasing it next year

“My relationship with Yamaha grew starting with using their acoustics, then they’d send me a couple of electrics to see what I thought. I found that I really like the Revstars with the right combination of pickups that allows me to sit somewhere in between Billy and James. I want to be right there in the middle.  

“For the majority of this show, I’m playing a prototype that hasn’t come out yet… they’re still developing it and talking about releasing it next year. It’s a 25.5 inch scale, bolt-on guitar with an alder body, maple neck, either a maple or pau ferro fretboard, a two-point vintage tremolo with locking tuners and a graphite nut. I use a Seymour Duncan JB in the bridge and usually a single coil-sized humbucker in the neck, like a Hot Rail or a Fast Track.

“It’s a very classic-rock, SuperStrat type of sound. That’s my wheelhouse right there - I feel very comfortable holding a hot-rodded Strat with Seymours. I kinda realised that the JB has been on more records I love over the years than any other pickup. There’s so much stuff out there, it’s really easy to get overwhelmed with gear. I wanted to go back to square one with a more foundational look at my tonal tools.”

You’ve often cited classic rock players including Slash and Jeff Beck as an equal influences alongside fuzz-rock wizards like J Mascis…

I’m not the guitarist I was when I was in my teens or mid-20s. Now at the age of 44, I’m definitely into different things, though I don’t shy away from my past; I embrace it

“What’s always been important to me is to be on a journey as a musician. I’m not the guitarist I was when I was in my teens or mid-20s. Now at the age of 44, I’m definitely into different things, though I don’t shy away from my past; I embrace it. I started playing guitar in the mid-'80s, so I was initially inspired by Steve Vai, George Lynch and Joe Satriani… those are still some of my favourite guitar players to this day!

“I have to be able to pull up on my whammy bar, like Jeff Beck does. As I’ve grown as a player, the whammy has become more of a part of it all, hopefully in that Jeff kinda way. Accentuating things with small vibrato, little dips here and there. Going only down doesn’t react the same way, so I like being able to pull up…

“Then what made the '90s so exciting is that we got introduced to My Bloody Valentine, Smashing Pumpkins, Dinosaur Jr. or Sonic Youth, so I became very invested in that world as well. That’s maybe why I was able to join the Pumpkins in the first place: you really have to balance those two worlds to play in the band. Recently, I’ve gotten more into newer jazz players who I didn’t even know existed until a few years ago when I started taking lessons.”

What made you feel like you needed lessons, out of curiosity?  

“I felt like I’d been playing the same shit for 20 years and didn’t know what to do. I was burnt out on effects, there was so much shit out there. People didn’t necessarily have massive pedalboards 20 years ago, but now everyone does. I tried to figure out what I wanted to learn with just my mind and my hands, no effects.  

“So I got jazz lessons and he introduced me to New York players like Kurt Rosenwinkel or Jonathan Kreisberg. These guys are fuckin’ crazy monster players because they all grew up in the '80s as well… they understand that energy. Even if they’re playing with a jazz vocabulary, there’s still a rock excitement that’s different to hearing Wes Montgomery or Barney Kessel.”

What do you admire most about Billy and James’s playing - where do you think lies the magic in their synergy?

“It might sound not too hard to play, but very few people could replicate their sound. I wish I learned this a lot younger, but the key to having a good career in music is coming up with your own unique style. Which is true of both of them: they created this world of guitar that we can all talk about. There’s so much sonic territory within it and you can always tell when Billy’s playing. He always sounds like him. That’s the key to the music: they both developed their own style of playing.

“Maybe it’s in my nature, but I take a more scholarly approach to guitar. I’m very interested in learning about other players and their styles, going into the foundation of what makes it all work. I feel like I work well in this band because I can play whatever has to be played - from metal lead to acoustic, I’m able cover a lot of that territory. I’d say the Smashing Pumpkins guitar sound is very unique in terms of what’s required.”

The Smashing Pumpkins play Wembley Arena on 16 October. Shiny And Oh So Bright, Vol. 1 / LP: No Past. No Future. No Sun. is out on 16 November via Napalm Records.