Under the guise of his longstanding indie-folk project Fruit Bats, Eric D. Johnson has spent lockdown making a chilled, blissful version of Smashing Pumpkins‘ landmark 1993 alt-rock album ‘Siamese Dream’. It’s the latest in culture website Turntable Kitchen’s Sounds Delicious subscription series – where artists cover classic albums top-to-toe – which has previously seen Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard tackling Teenage Fanclub’s ‘Bandwagonesque’ and The Pains of Being Pure at Heart revamping Tom Petty’s ‘Full Moon Fever’.
The first single Johnson has released from the record, a sun-dappled take on ‘Today’, gives you some indication of what to expect: out go the bludgeoning riffs, in comes hazy, twinkling dream-pop. “It was more of a mammoth task than I expected,” Eric tells NME. “I approached it casually thinking: ‘I’ve done a million cover versions before – this is just a bunch of them together’. But halfway through, I realised I had to honour the original album while creating something of my own. Then I agonised over making it as good as anything of my own.”
We caught up with him to talk ‘Siamese Dream’ fandom, psychically communicating with his teenage self and why he wouldn’t mind ending up on Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan’s shit-list.
So, Eric, why did you decide to cover ‘Siamese Dream’?
“From the get-go, this was not trying to improve on ‘Siamese Dream’. When I was tasked with covering an entire album, this seemed the right one because it’s so different to what people are used to hearing from me. People would never think that I like Smashing Pumpkins – even though I love them! It was a record I had a remove from and yet also has a deep personal connection from my youth.”
What’s your personal connection with the record?
“I’d just turned 17 when it came out. I wanted to pick something from my teen years to cover because there’s a certain way you fall in love with things then that’s really pure. I grew up outside Chicago, where Smashing Pumpkins are from, and they were our band – it felt like we were rooting for the home team. It was my first idea, but at the last minute I tried to back out and had to be reassured, because it felt untouchable.”
How did you approach it, then?
“In many ways, it’s an uncoverable album, but so is any album worth anything. Of course I’m not going to get Billy Corgan’s guitar tone, which is for me the heart of ‘Siamese Dream’ – it’s one of the most beautiful, crushing guitar tones of all time – so instead I wanted to focus on the songcraft. When you strip it to its basic components, it’s delicate melancholy pop songs.”
Billy Corgan is notoriously uncompromising. Did you seek his blessing?
“No. I wasn’t thinking of any of that, because I just thought this was a lark and a fun thought experiment. By the time I was finished, I was really happy with how it turned out but it’s in no way meant to sound like ‘Siamese Dream’. I keep describing it as my dream version, and I tried to recreate it from memory as much as possible. Of course, I went back and listened to the original to learn lyrics, but I wanted to follow any direction my mind took it in. I have no idea if any of Smashing Pumpkins have heard it, but imitation is the highest form of flattery!”
Did you imitate any of Billy Corgan’s perfectionist, control-freak approach in the recording?
“Yes – only in the fact that I made it in quarantine completely by myself and play every instrument! (Laughs) But I didn’t have anyone to kick against either. This is the first record I’ve made where I play every single instrument, and have produced and engineered the entire thing, so unintentionally, I guess I did.”
Did it ever cross your mind to try and get a Pumpkin involved? Maybe ex-bassist D’arcy Wretzky?
“(Laughs) No! I wanted it to be my own version that was a figment of my imagination so I feel like if I brought in a real Pumpkin – not that I even know how to get hold of them! – it would snap the dream quality of it and bring it into focus. I liked the idea of doing it in total solitude too and I’m sure Billy probably wished he could have in a lot of ways, although the drumming is incredible on the original ‘Siamese Dream’.”
What’s your favourite song on the album?
“‘Hummer’ – there must be something in the DNA of that song because I loved the original as a teenager and the new version is extremely different and it’s still my favourite song.”
What was the hardest track to cover?
“Those bone-crushing true rock songs were the most challenging – like ‘Quiet’ and ‘Silverfuck’. With ‘Quiet’, I went in the completely the opposite direction, so it almost sounds like a strange, looped psychedelic remix, and on ‘Silverfuck’ I used some distorted guitars, so in some ways I was trying to remain true to the original chorus.”
What’s next musically for you?
“I’m getting finished with a new actual Fruit Bats record, which should be out next year. Maybe the ‘Siamese Dream’ stuff rubbed off on me because it’s more of a sprawling, melancholy record as opposed to the last few which have been filled with a lot of three-and-a-half minute danceable pop songs. This one speaks to the current time we’re living in. I wouldn’t call it a ‘coronavirus record’, but it’s a sadder listen. I’m singing about existential things. It’s less direct love songs – I’m singing slightly more impressionistic stories about fear of death and anxiety, which obviously would make sense. It’s produced by my Bonny Light Horseman [his American folk supergroup] bandmate Josh Kaufman, so it bears his imprint – it’s a more emotional record.
“We’re starting work on a new Bonny Light Horseman record in the fall, but we’re trying to figure out how to do it, because I live on the West Coast and the other members live on the East Coast.”
So has the lockdown period been quite productive for you?
“At first it wasn’t because I was too anxious and couldn’t imagine writing something, but ‘Siamese Dream’ gave me an actual task to focus on, where I was looking to the past and singing someone else’s words, and it shot me out of my funk. I thank this project for getting me back into a creative zone.”
What would your 17-year-old self think of your version of ‘Siamese Dream’ – would he be thrilled at the new interpretations, or were you a boggle-eyed Smashing Pumpkins purist who’d think it’s heresy?
(Laughs.) “I definitely consulted psychically with my 17-year-old self when I was making this. I’d like to think 17-year-old me would like it because I had wide-ranging tastes. Even Smashing Pumpkins purists would be able to hear there’s a lot of love in it – even if they might think: ‘I miss the loud guitars!’.”
Billy Corgan has a reputation as one of rock’s premier grumps with a knack for waspish put-downs – such as branding Pavement “sell-outs” or saying he wants to “piss on Radiohead”. Did you worry about incurring his wrath?
“I haven’t thought about it. I might be too small of a fish for him to come after, but I would hope he’d like it. It’s very respectful. When it’s someone like me covering a band which is unexpected, there’s a danger it can be viewed as parody – which it certainly isn’t. You can obviously hear that I wanted to respect the material while making something totally different.”
“But at least I’d get to live in the same world as Radiohead and Pavement. Those are excellent bands. If I get on the Billy Corgan hate-list, I’ll at least be in good company. There’s the pull-quote!” (Laughs)
– Fruit Bats’ full-album cover of Smashing Pumpkins’ ‘Siamese Dream’ will be available August 21 on vinyl via Turntable Kitchen’s Sounds Delicious subscription series