LIFE AFTER GISH

September 3, 2009 – 4:05 am

Sick of the tired comparison with Nirvana? Here’re Smashing Pumpkins with some Blank Generation Blues. By Gerrie Lim. The article was published in BigO #96 (December 1993).

So this is Generation X, I’m musing to myself in the lobby of the Hollywood Palladium, as I contemplate the horde of twentysomething kids who’ve come from hither and yon to pay due respects to that gnarly neo-grunge quartet from Chicago called Smashing Pumpkins.

This Los Angeles whistle-stop is only an early foray into their current 43-city tour, supporting their new album, Siamese Dreaming, now certified gold after entering the Billboard chart at No. 10. Smashing Pumpkins are merely the latest success in the nationwide alternative music assault, in the wake of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots, Blind Melon and Soul Asylum. Whither this phenomenon?

Ask the kids I talk to in the lobby of the Palladium, a cavernous venue well suited to the Pumpkins’ amazing sound, a heady melange of psychedelic punk-metal that resonates with the ebb and flow of a sledgehammer pounding your skull followed by breezy, jangling-guitar caresses so unbearably sweet that you’re prompted to forgive the band for the ringing in your ears. The kids, they’ll tell you they’re alright.

For nobody here seems worried about hearing damage tonight. The crowd is a veritable cross-section of today’s grunge generation: virtually equal numbers of lads and lasses clad in T-shirts and bermuda shorts and Reeboks and Nikes, lots of unwashed blond hair and unfazed blank stares, with a conspicuous absence of leather and chains and boots (and, to beat a record I thought held only by Springsteen concerts, an equally conspicuous absence of black people).

A pretty Chinese-American girl in a braless blouse smiles at me and looks like she’s seen the second coming of Jim Morrison. “I really love these guys,” she gushes. “I think Billy Corgan is a genius.” “Next to maybe Perry Farrell,” the hirsute dude next to me says, laughing. “I don’t know why I like ‘em, I just do. They rock, man!”

The aforesaid genius Corgan, 26 years old and de facto head Pumpkin, writes most of the music and plays most of the guitar and bass parts on the band’s recordings, a benevolent dictatorship of sorts that his bandmates - guitarist James lha, bassist D’Arcy Wretsky and drummer Jimmy Chamberlin - tolerate with a sanguine aplomb not unlike, say, the way the other three geezers in the Who tolerated Pete Townshend.

Corgan has, indeed, been appraised as a visionary composer who has somehow found a way to infuse the usual thunderous duhh-duhh-duhh chord crunching with lighter nuances, often breaking up the band’s turbocharged music with, as Los Angeles Times writer Lorraine Ali succinctly described it, “dreamy interludes - rest stops, if you will, in the restless journey.” Not easy listening, but not industrial blather either, something in-between and indefinable.

Adding to the charm are Corgan’s lyrics, which seem to successfully jar the sullen heartstrings of these desperately pained kids, making songs like Today, the band’s current hit single, a new anthem for this new generation:

Today is the greatest day I’ve ever known
Can’t live for tomorrow, tomorrow’s much too long
I’ll burn my eyes out before I get out
I wanted more than life could ever grant
Bored by the chore of saving face
Today is the greatest day I’ve ever known
Can’t wait for tomorrow, I might not have that long
I’ll tear my heart out before I get out

Perhaps not quite Bob Dylan, you might say, but not for nothing was the preceding single entitled Cherub Rock. The kids packing the Palladium tonight are the single most frightening congregation of jaded young Americans I’ve ever seen in one place, yet it’s almost as frighteningly obvious that they’ve embraced this music with a fervor bordering on religious epiphany.

Their effusive sincerity, when I stop to hang out with them in the lobby, silences my own cynicism about the sorry plight of these young pseudo-ne’er-do-wells, children of too many ’70s parents who’d divorced too early and too often, pissed-off teens and postteens still ruefully uncertain of their nebulous rage. And, of course, it all makes me rethink the sundry wonders that MTV hath wrought.

Consider this: Smashing Pumpkins, born in Chicago in 1987, released two singles (on indie labels Limited Potential and Sub-Pop: I Am One and Tristessa respectively) before enterprising big indie Caroline signed them, putting out on EP, Lull, and finally their acclaimed 1991 debut LP, Gish, recorded for a paltry US$30,000 and selling a surprising 300,000 copies. This led to a major-label deal, with Virgin, who gave the band a generous US$250,000 budget for Siamese Dream, which has since sold in excess of 500,000 copies.

Nirvana’s Nevermind boardmeister Butch Vig produced both albums and, of more historical significance, on October 30, 1993, as all fun-loving Americans proceeded to celebrate that perverse tradition called Halloween (in all its Great Pumpkin finery), Smashing Pumpkins appropriately guest-starred on television’s pinnacle of hip ‘n’ flip, Saturday Night Live.

‘It was a coincidence, actually,” Vivian Gueler, Virgin’s international publicist, assures me. “If Billy ever thought that it was deliberately scheduled to coincide with Halloween, he would’ve refused to do the show.”

Lest you think him grim and humorless, Billy Corgan, all six feet and three inches of tortured soul, with his short hair and clean-cut visage making him look something more like Donny Osmond’s kid brother than a typical rock god (over which some little grrrls, I’m sure, surely understand) actually spouts some decent patter, and then some.

The following is an extract from a press conference held the morning of the Palladium show, in which Corgan and fellow axemate James lha met me and an assortment of magazine scribes. I decided to begin the face-off by broaching the subject of their newfound “new mainstream” celebrity, and they let the pumpkin gourds fly. And, as for that Palladium show, my ears are still ringing.

There is a feeling now that with the way alternative music has taken off, and with your album debuting on the Billboard chart at No. 10, that you’re now part of the so-called “New Mainstream,” what’s been actually referred to as the “post-Nirvana industry.” How do you feel about that?

BILLY CORGAN: Well, to put it that way doesn’t sound very romantic but it’s the truth. Alternative music is becoming a big business. And historically, at some point, bands like Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin and the Cheap Tricks of the world were the alternative bands of the time. Maybe in hindsight they don’t look as alternative, but they were the alternative choices of their time. And as popular taste continues to expand internationally into world music and alternative music, I don’t think it’s such a big deal.

I have no problems with the idea of being successful, or commercially successful, as long as you do it on your own terms. And I think we do everything we do on our own terms. If that’s being successful, we have absolutely no problem with it. The very notion that something is successful therefore it becomes not so good, I think, is not true.

How do you feel about being dubbed “the new Nirvana”?

BC: I think that’s a media creation. Put it this way: If you know music and know anything about us, you’d know enough to know that we come from a different place, 2,000 miles from Seattle, a different sensibility. We said different things, we dress different.

JAMES IHA: And we sound nothing like Nirvana.

BC: On that stupid kind of level, we’re not the next Nirvana. Nirvana’s one of the few bands that we have never been compared to, musically, up till the time when they became really popular. So, here we are, we’re floating along, we’re being our own band, we’re so different, we’re being an anomaly, and then, all of a sudden, we’re “the new Nirvana.”

Where is that coming from? Is that coming from our record company? No. Is that coming from us? No. It’s the media. Why? Because the excitement that gets wrapped up into a band breaking, becoming the next big thing, whatever, sells magazines. And fascinates people. They’re continually fascinated by who’s gonna be the next king of the hill. And that’s why we have the whole backlash syndrome - all of a sudden these guys “aren’t as good” and people start writing bad press about them.

You know, one person might think that might be good to be that because people are going to pay attention to you, but to me all that does is degrade what I do. That all I am is riding on somebody else’s coattails, that I couldn’t do it myself, blah, blah, blah. We’ve been compared to Nirvana, Pearl Jam, all of them. And it’s all offensive, because all that says is you’re not as important as the person you’re being compared to. “You’re not as good,” that’s the only message I take from it. So I’m completely offended by the whole idea.

To me, it’s ultimately such a soulless thing because it isn’t about music, it’s about information, it’s about entertainment. So it comes down to questions about who’s doing drugs and who’s f***ing who. We have some great, wonderful music that doesn’t get reviewed because somebody would rather talk about the personal life of Rock Star No. 2. We got bumped off a cover in England because some guy did some felonious interview with Kurt and Courtney.

And it was a totally bullshit article but we got bumped off a cover that we should’ve been on, that we earned and we deserved, because the personal life of a famous rock star was more important than our new album. And that, to me, is very offensive. I can’t make peace with that.

But what if a new band came along that gets called “the next Smashing Pumpkins”?

BC: I’d feel sorry for them. (laughter) Because they’ll have to go through the same shit we’ve gone through. See, you take what is basically a fertile mind, a 16- or 17-year-old teenage mind, who is not sophisticated enough to know every subtlety, does not know all the indie bands, does not have enough money to have 500 albums, take that mind and you feed them full of comparisons. “This band’s not as good as that one” or “They’re not like those guys.”

When we’re up on stage, we have to fight that. It’s not about being good. We have to prove to this mind that we’re not these things. It’s a constant uphill struggle to eradicate the information that’s been fed into their heads and the MTV visions that go in. To me, it makes it almost impossible to be a band in 1993 because the amount of information that’s available through the television and through the media, and the amount of misinformation available, makes it impossible to move anybody.

And it’s really pushed us to the extremes, because every night we gotta deal with this. I have no problems with people choosing to like us. To me, one of the greatest compliments I can get is some kid who’s obviously really into metal, he’s got the jacket and the chains, he’s fully into metal, and he comes up and he says, “You know, I usually don’t like your kind of bands, but I like you.” It’s that element where that kid identifies with the human aspects of the band. I have no problem with that.

I used to ask myself, when I was 17, when I was listening to R.E.M. and U2 and Metallica - all, at the time, obscure bands - ‘Why are these not the biggest bands in the world? How come it seems like only I’m listening to these bands?” I would go to school and kids would laugh at me, because I listened to those “new wave” bands U2 and R.E.M. That sounds completely funny now. But to me, I could not understand why they were not the biggest bands in the world. And now, they are. So, there you go.

From your humble beginnings in Chicago, you’ve become nationally known. How have your feelings changed through the transition?

JI: People really didn’t follow us at the beginning because there are a lot of different cliques in Chicago and we really didn’t fit into any of those. There was the WaxTrax scene, the Touch and Go noise bands, the Mid-Western garage bands, and since we didn’t fit into any of those I don’t think we ever got many live reviews or even single reviews of the early things that we put out.

Now, since alternative music’s kind of big, with Urge Overkill and Liz Phair also being from Chicago, now all at once they’re saying it’s like something new. But I don’t know, it’s just kind of reactionary. They’re nice to us now, but it’s still kind of like backhanded compliments.

BC: We’re still viewed in Chicago as an anomaly. Liz Phair and Urge Overkill have roots in the Chicago music scene, whereas we came from nowhere. Besides James, who played in this small group in Chicago, I never played in any Chicago bands. D’Arcy and Jimmy never played in any Chicago bands. So, all of a sudden, one day this band shows up playing like this thundering rock and crazy music and they were asking us, “Are you from Seattle? Are you from L.A.?” (laughter)

People had a hard time believing we were from Chicago, because we didn’t fit the basic mold. Now we’re tolerated, and I think the fact that we put our money where our mouths were in trying to support Chicago music - because that was always one of my complaints, that it was always very non-supportive, that the bands who were popular in Chicago treated everybody else like shit - I think the attitude has warmed to us a little bit because we’ve proven what we always said. Now that we’ve become a “big band,” we’re not doing those same things. We are supporting our local music scene.

You’ve talked in previous interviews about using music as a canvas. Do you draw inspiration from arts other than music?

BC: Sure. It’s so easy to get wrapped up in like how many records have you sold and all this kind of craziness, and then you think about someone like Vincent Van Gogh who painted feverishly his whole life and produced this great body of work and never got recognised while he was alive. I think that if you’re an artist, at some point you question why you bother. The world is not designed for artistic people. The world is designed for people who make money. And so you have to ask yourself: “Why am I doing this, what am I trying to get at, what am I trying to express?”

Looking at great art or trying to understand someone who works so hard to do great things, and trying to appreciate it on a level that goes beyond words, is very inspiring because if all you ever do is sit around and think about how many records you sold or how much more popular you are than Joe down the street, you can’t win. There’s no sense of satisfaction in that, because the Whitney Houstons of the world will always sell more records. If that’s how you judge artistic merit, then the great artist of our time is Michael Jackson. I think you understand what I’m saying.

Your press release talks of your intention to “crush heavy rock into dust” and “swallow pop whole. ” Care to elaborate?

JI: Someone else wrote that. Someone at Virgin. (laughter)

BC: Well, you know, I wouldn’t read too much into a press release. Just because it’s exactly that. It’s not to try and motivate the public, it’s to try and motivate jaded rock writers into actually listening to the record. So, if we had to trick you into doing that, then, fine. (laughter)

Here, I’ll answer a question I haven’t been asked. People oftentimes try to harken us into a band of the past or some kind of ’70s mentality. The whole idea behind the band is not at all to go backwards. It’s all about going forwards.

But there are intangible elements to rock ‘n’ roll that you cannot get around. Loudness. Powerful grooves. Unless somebody invents some new way to play music, those are elements of rock ‘n’ roll that you cannot get around. And you look at any music. An industrial band uses a drum machine, but they’re doing the exact same things - they still have loudness and they’re still playing with heavy rhythms.

So this idea that we’re some kind of a throwback band, I’m really disgusted by it. We’re really committed to trying to push the perimeters of rock. The goal of the band has never been to be a big band.

The goal of the band is to be an amazing band, and if you’re amazing then you will be big. And that’s how it’s always worked for us, because to me if you sit around and think, “How can we be big?” then you wouldn’t play loud, you wouldn’t be that way. I think Nirvana’s probably the best example of a non-compromising band who’s become popular.

So why do you think you became amazing and big?

BC: Well, I don’t think we’re quite BIG big, but again it’s blue-collar sensibility. We’ve worked really hard. When we started, I could barely sing, James and D’Arcy could barely play their instruments, and Jimmy was really the only accomplished musician in the band. So we just worked really hard.

The mythological thing is I shoot drugs all day and then I pick up a guitar and I’m great. Well, it doesn’t work that way. We worked really hard, we spent a lot of time at it. We drove around in a van across the country and slept on floors and we were an obscure band for our first two-and-a-half years. It’s not romantic.

My feeling is, if you have the audacity to expect someone to stand and watch you for an hour-and-a-half, to buy your T-shirts, to buy your records, then you damn well better work and give someone something that’s really good, that’s the best that you have to offer. Too many of my peers whom I think are really amazingly talented people ride on their talent. They take what makes them great and they just kind of throw out half of what they’re capable of.

I think that romantic mythology, that leftover Jim Morrison sensibility, pervades a lot of current rock stars’ thinking. And I think that’s why we don’t see the same quality of work that we saw in the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, because those bands really did work, they really committed to their jobs, which was to write and perform great music.

JI: Like if you spend too long in the studio, or if you spend too long on a guitar part, that’s too “rock star”-like. It’s not very “indie” to work too hard, you know. (laughter)

BC: Like it’s uncool to actually try. You know, it’s the old cliche: You’re in the music business. If you want to be an artist, go stand on the street and play whatever you want. But you are using someone else’s money, and the moment that you use someone else’s money, then you might as well be cereal.

So you as an artist have to find in yourself what makes it art, what makes it your interpretation of that, and you have to deal with the fact that you are on a shelf just like somebody puts dog food or cereal on the shelf. These are not romantic images, this is not feeding into the mythology but this is the reality. Dealing with the reality of how things really work empowers us. It makes us stronger because we’re not deluding ourselves into thinking that we’re not “product.” I mean, we could sit around and think, “No, man, we’re a bunch of artists.”

Well, the fact of the matter is somebody is out there making money on us. In fact, somebody’s probably making more money on us than we’re making. You have to deal with this reality. And I think, it’s 1993, we can get beyond this mythology now. I think we can be real people. We can be artists and we can be business people and be successful at both.

But how exactly do you deal with it, being in this business-oriented situation and thereby being a product in some sense, and keep your artistic side of things, your creativity, going?

BC: It’s pretty difficult but you just have to prioritise. You have to commit to the idea that you are an artist. It took me a really long time to accept that I am an artist 24 hours a day, that my mind is always thinking about music and what I’m going to do or how I’m going to approach something. I think James does the same thing. You live it. You make a decision to market and box your art. And that’s because there’s a desire in you to want to reach people. You don’t want to die the obscure artist in the studio. You want to die having people having experienced what you’ve experienced. That to me is an essential part of art.

So, choosing to be on a major label is like choosing a good distributor for your art. We chose Virgin Records because we felt they were the best representatives, in the sense that they would not get in the way and they would protect our rights as artists. We talked to other labels where it was very obvious to us that they would get in the way. They wanted us to change the way we looked, they wanted us to change the direction of our music. I mean, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that, with us, if we played more mellow, melodic songs we’d probably sell more records because we’d probably have more songs on the radio.

How do you feel about your international audience, like your being press darlings in England?

BC: I feel our popularity in England is more based on the fact that we were really popular. Most bands get popular because the press makes them popular. We were popular in that the press finally gave us some press. I still feel that the English and European markets don’t understand us.

Here’s the thing. If you grow up in America, whether you like it or not, you heard Aerosmith, you heard Black Sabbath, you heard Led Zeppelin. It’s just part of the culture. It’s not part of the culture in England as much for the generation that’s in their ’20s. Even our manager had a hard time understanding why we played loud, hard music. Because he just didn’t understand it.

He said, “You play such beautiful music, why are you laying this ugly rock music?” But it’s part of what we are. One of the slags against most European bands, at least in alternative music, is that they don’t know how to rock. I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that they didn’t grow up with that sensibility. They don’t hear it, it’s not part of the culture.

Has touring changed for you now that you’re playing bigger venues?

JI: It’s getting more boring, I think. (laughter)

BC: It is getting more boring. But some funny things have happened.

JI: A strip-club owner came up to us in San Francisco and he said, “Man, you guys are great! I’m a strip-club owner here in San Francisco and my girls love your music.” Implying they were playing our album while the girls stripped. (laughter)

BC: Which we liked, because it’s good romantic music and it’s healthy. (laughter) We played in Slovenia, which is part of the former Yugoslavia, and we played for 2,000 people, but they can’t buy the records! So it’s almost useless. I mean, it wasn’t useless from the point that we went there and entertained, but we might as well have been the Elvis Revue Show.

Because there’s nothing that they can take from that and hear our music again or be part of what we’re doing, so it was almost useless, you know. It felt good to go there and they were very happy that someone cared enough to go because everyone’s so worried about getting shot and everything. As far as I’m concerned, I’ll go anywhere where people can actually find our records and continue to be a part of what we do.

One way that people here have indeed become part of what you do is through your videos. You’re viewed as representing the MTV Generation. What are your feelings about MTV?

BC: Well, first thing I’ll say is, it’s helped. It’s obvious it’s helped. There’s no way around it. Bands like Nirvana could not have sold as many records as they have without MTV. There’s absolutely no way. So, it’s good. The bad things about MTV, you have to say, “Is it because of MTV or is it about the music business?” MTV was created by the music business. They didn’t start it, but they built the monster that is MTV. Because somebody at some label saw that they could sell more records by having their band on there.

And once one person saw that, then it became a competition, of everybody trying to elbow each other out of their way to get their artist on MTV and get the most airtime, because it translates into record sales. And so you have people selling millions of records who don’t even tour. Mariah Carey never toured, and she sold millions and millions of records.

Ten years ago, this was totally impossible, unless you were Barbra Streisand or somebody who was well known. It just did not happen. But I don’t think it’s MTV’s fault. Because if you were MTV, and you had labels basically handing you your entertainment programming for free, which is what they get - they have to spend literally no money to provide the entertainment that they do, and then rake in the money from the profits from it - well, why the hell not?

Do you also agree with the observation some have made about you being part of the very first generation that has come out of families where mothers went to work, and mom and dad weren’t there, this new rock generation?

BC: Yes. About two years ago, we were being interviewed by this woman in England and she said we were, along with the Nirvanas and whatever, “the next punk rock,” the next Sex Pistols wave of punk rock. To me, this is not railing against an establishment.

We’re not like a bunch of anarchists. You’re talking about a bunch of people who can’t understand why they feel so empty and jaded and apathetic. I mean, people who feel hateful. People used to take their hate out on black people and minorities. In some parts of Europe, they’re starting to do that again. But in America, I don’t feel that our generation feels those feelings. They’re not taking them out on anybody, they’re taking it out on themselves.

They don’t even know why they feel this hatred, why they feel such apathy. I don’t know if this will make any sense to you, but to play a concert and to stand before your generation, and the one that’s about to follow us, ages 14 through 28, and just see how jaded people are - a good song, a smiling face, a true feeling, doesn’t do it. People want to see things smashed to bits. They want to see you rip your heart out. Then you start to wonder, you start to question, what is this. It’s not a feeling, it’s a lack of it.

And I do really identify with that. It’s built into our psyche to feel this. Even if you didn’t come from a broken home, you grew up around people who did. Call it what you want, Generation X or whatever. We’re it.

Note: Formed in 1988, The Smashing Pumpkins broke up in 2000. The band reformed in 2006 with Billy Corgan and Jimmy Chamberlin, the latter left the group in March 2009.

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