As the reunited icons return with a new album, Andrew Trendell meets Billy Corgan, James Iha and Jimmy Chamberlin to talk friendship, the future, life after D'Arcy and that Disneyland meme...
Theirs is the story they were never meant to have. The band who swam against the tide of trend and expectation became a cliche rock n’ roll car crash of drugs, death, in-fighting and implosion, all under the shadow of one of what the media would have you believe was one of rock’s most tyrannical egos.
In their wake, their musical offspring Muse and My Chemical Romance would seize the mantle of concept-driven, arena-ready rock theatre. But after dabbling with the technicolour follow-up band Zwan (2003) and shoegaze electronica of solo album ‘TheFutureEmbrace’ (2005), Billy Corgan – he of the aforementioned ego – felt the need to jump back into the game that he started. He took out a full page ad in his hometown’s Chicago Tribune newspaper and announced a revival of Pumpkins, declaring: “I want my band back, and my songs, and my dreams.”
However when the band dropped ‘Zeitgeist’ in 2007, drummer Jimmy Chamberlin was the only original Pumpkin on board. Bassist D’Arcy Wretzky left before final album ‘Machina’ amid rows about drugs and creative contributions, and guitarist James Iha had been replaced by Jeff Schroeder, who’s still with the line-up today. Two more albums under varying incarnations would follow, most notably 2014’s genuinely ace ‘Monuments To An Elegy’ – hailed by fans and critics as a return to form, but failing to set the world alight as they once had. The discussion still remained around Corgan’s feuds and the make-up of his band.
“I’d kind of given up, honestly,” Corgan tells NME from the basement of his favourite West London hotel. “I mean, I was kind of done with it. I was very disappointed in the reception [of ‘Monuments’] and I just thought, ‘I just can’t do this anymore. I just can’t do this cycle anymore’, you know? Just getting questions like, ‘Who’s in the band? What does it mean?’
“I just had reached that point in my life, and having a kid and all that, I was like, ‘Maybe I just don’t want to do this anymore’. The energy around the solo and other stuff – even though it wasn’t commercially successful – the vibe was more organic; like, ‘Oh, I love this song’, rather than, ‘I love this song with an asterisk’ or something.”
“It’s not surprising when you’re part of what people reach for, to lob like a Molotov cocktail in their cultural battle” – Billy Corgan
Rather than suffer from paralysis through analysis, Corgan’s path was illuminated. Iha sought the rekindle their friendship, and their returning chemistry saw them jamming once again. Before long, Chamberlin was on board for a tour and music started flowing. The band recently played a sold out Wembley Arena amid gruelling reunion dates, and they’ve just dropped their stellar new Rick Rubin-produced album ‘Shiny and Oh So Bright Vol. 1 / LP: No Past. No Future. No Sun.’ The title might be Pumpkins as fuck, but the mood in the camp is far from as tumultuous as what you’ve come to expect.
“As the years have passed I felt like I wanted a positive reconnection. To not have any bad blood,” Iha tells us of why he got back in touch with Corgan. “When we had dinner we weren’t talking like, ‘Let’s put the band back together and do a tour’. We were just trying to move into the present as far as being friends.”
Friends reunited, a playful sense of creation stirred memories of the old days.
“It took me right back to being in my dad’s house,” says Corgan of their early reformation sessions. “I had really weird sense-memory things, like looking across the room and being like, ‘Wow, this is a really long journey’. Because Jimmy and I had obviously kind of come and gone, so I’d already been through that with him. But to have it with James after having started the whole thing with him and…” he smiles and excitedly starts measuring the width of the table. “You know, my dad’s bedroom literally was the size of this area we’re in right now. Imagine there’s my bed, and here’s the stereo. The room to work in was this big. So when we would play we were like right up in each other’s faces.
“And the first time D’arcy ever tried out was, like, in the corner. So imagine three people in a room with a drum machine playing like this. So that’s my sense memory – the proximity of just me and him looking at each other and just kind of feeling through vibes and grooves. So I just went right back to that place. I was like, ‘Wow, that’s really intense’, because I didn’t think it was possible.
“I mean, I walked around for a good 17 years thinking ‘That’s never going to happen again’.” He laughs. “Is this real? It was very humbling – that’s the best way I can say it.”
Yes, despite what the legend would have you believe, Billy Corgan does feel humility. Not that former comrade D’Arcy Wretzky would have you believe it. I put it to Corgan that the rift with D’Arcy has been very publicly and adequately explained. “Ugh!” he replies with a comedic eye-roll. “Yes, I’ll let you explain it then…”
Very well. After early talks with the bassist about her involvement in the reunion started well, things soon deteriorated amid a communication breakdown and questions about whether she’d be able to handle the gruelling schedule – with the band claiming that she turned down their offer to rejoin. Wretzky disagreed, and in a series of very public outbursts, called Corgan ‘insufferable’ and ‘manipulative’, claiming that he ‘couldn’t sing for shit’, and even claiming that he might have a brain tumour. Corgan said that their ‘bridges had been burned forever’ as a result.
“It’s different if you lose a key and founding member, but it’s all been positive,” says Iha of life after D’Arcy, very diplomatically. “At this point, our lives are so different to how it started when we were 20-years-old. What we have going on away from the band is just as important. It makes you appreciate being able to do music for a living.”
After she filled in for Wretzky on the band’s ‘Machina’ tour, was there ever a discussion about having Hole icon Melissa Auf Der Maur rejoin the band on bass?
“It’s not even worth getting into that history,” replies Corgan. “I don’t have any ill will towards Melissa, but she never considered herself to be part of the unit and made it very clear that she didn’t ever want to be considered part of the unit posthumously. It was kind of like, ‘I’ll do this for this window’.”
“There was drama with us all in the past, but it feels like a movie I watched a long time ago” – James Iha
Due to the mix of members in the current Pumpkins line-up, Corgan is reticent to call it a “reunion” and more of a “reboot”. In that, the band are joined on bass by Jack Bates; the son of low slung Joy Division and New Order legend, Peter Hook.
“You know, the thing about Jack is that his dad was so influential in the way that I play,” says Corgan. “And so the weird thing about Jack is because he’s had to study under his father, he plays with that cool kind of aggression. It’s not like punk, but it’s kind of got a vibe to it. So because he’s learned to play that way because of his father, it’s almost like Jack plays the way I play, because I ripped off his dad. We both learned from the same mentor.”
“Jack never makes mistakes, he’s just a supreme musician and super solid person behind the scenes.”
The 2018 line-up is completed by guitarist Jeff Schroeder. His significance is not to be underestimated. Having been in the band for the last 12 years now, he’s been a Pumpkin for as long as Iha was initially, and has since formed an indelible bond with Corgan. You only have to witness their symbiotic onstage interplay to know that.
“Obviously the press narrative is more the convenient – you know, that ‘the boys are back’ thing,” sighs Corgan. “But the reality is that Jeff and I went through a series of experiences, good and bad in the 12 years of Pumpkins phase four or whatever. We learned a lot and that makes us understand the pace of contemporary music more so than if I’d just gone and done another band.
“In essence, through being in the Pumpkins in the shadow of whatever the original thing was, we learned what was real about that and what was not real, what was mythological and what was a fraud. We have a very clear eye on how to navigate that.”
Part of that mythology was Corgan’s own alter-ego of ‘ZERO’, the demi-God rockstar cartoon superhero that Corgan created embodied in the ‘90s. You found him on the eponymous track, throughout the narrative of ‘Machina’, and in every sharp-tongued interview, baiting the media and the rest of the industry.
Earlier this year, the man who stuck out against the laissez-faire attitude of grunge by being as competitive and contrarian as possible declared that he was “done playing the class A heel”. “I did it because I enjoyed it,” he told Loudwire. “I thought it was fun. I thought I made a lot of good points through the years that exposed the hypocrisy of much of the media complex as far as how they treat celebrity, that they’re really not interested in the work, they’re more interested in what the work gives them in terms of opportunity of creating clickbait and stuff like that.”
This marked the death of ‘ZERO’, RIP. With him gone and all that matters is the work and their relationship, have the other Pumpkins noticed a change in Corgan?
“Honestly for me, there’s never really been one Billy versus another,” drummer Jimmy Chamberlin told NME earlier this year. “We’ve always had a great relationship. When we’ve disagreed, it’s always been a peaceful disagreement. We can always see each other’s point. There’s just really no point in being that way any more. Having been around for this long is no mean feat. We’ve all reached the point that we can just stand back and celebrate this in the most graceful way we know how.”
And for Iha?
“Billy’s the same,” he laughs. “Well in some ways he’s changed his perspective on the press and how the band is viewed, but he says a lot of the same things though. He has strong convictions haven’t changed, his outspokenness hasn’t changed. There was drama with us all in the past, but it feels like a movie I watched a long time ago.”
One can’t help but wonder what the dearly departed ZERO would have thought of his host’s viral moment. You may remember that in 2015, Corgan was papped looking thoroughly miserable on a rollercoaster at Disneyland. It was meme gold, and spread like wildfire. Corgan points to their tour manager across the room and chuckles, “You see Doug over there? He was next to me in that photo”.
Doug beams and stands up to reveal: “I’m wearing that Disneyland shirt right now!”
For a man who once took great pleasure in playing the media, one can’t help but wonder how he feels about the Pumpkins returning in the era of social media. How do they navigate the digital age?
“I just don’t give a shit,” shrugs Corgan. “The free wild west internet is ending. We’re going to this other thing now, the dark web is emerging. I think the one thing that I’ve learned from that is that there are people who are really skilled at manipulating the digital world because it’s so free – meaning it doesn’t cost a lot. Like, you can create your image, you can create your avatar, you can you can do your funny meme, you can — but at the end of the day, only qualitative people can rise above the maelstrom of, let’s call it, daily culture.
“We’ve all reached the point that we can just stand back and celebrate this in the most graceful way we know how” – Jimmy Chamberlin
“And so then it’s not surprising when you’re part of what people reach for to lob like a Molotov cocktail in their cultural battle. You know, so one day you’re a hero and the next you’re an idiot. It’s like — it’s no different than if they use Homer Simpson or something. You’re a cartoon figure…You’re like an emoji or something.”
And what does this mean for their music? Here’s the band who were once told they were committing commercial suicide by following ‘Siamese Dream’ with the sprawling epic double album of the huge-selling ‘Mellon Collie & The Infinite Sadness’. How do they hope their eight track comeback album will fare some 23 years later?
“I think we as a culture have been through so many iterations of what the album even means anymore, and I’m not sure anymore,” he replies. “I just now almost think of it as more songs on the big wood pile, and eventually people through streaming are going to find it. There’s something really comforting about knowing, ‘Okay, just put it out and people will find it. Even if it’s 20 years from now, they’ll find it’.”
He may be right. At their Wembley gig, there are kids bawling and howling to ‘Cherub Rock’, ‘Disarm’, ‘1979’ and ‘Bullet With Butterfly Wings’ who are clearly younger than the songs themselves. The elegiac grace of new single ‘Silvery Sometimes (Ghosts)’ also lands like an old favourite and you sense that these were all discovered side by side in amid the digital hiss of the playlist world. Time is a circle rather than a line and there is no context, just love.
For the band, too, there was no concept on this record. They just wanted to be Smashing Pumpkins. As a result, many fans have hailed that ‘classic’ sound they retrieved.
“If you just put me, James, Jimmy and Jeff in a room, this is the kind of music we would make without an intellectual override, or me saying, ‘We’ve got to be more this, because I want to reach this goal over here and I want to be this guy’ and kind of forced narratives or something,” says Corgan of their approach. “It’s organic in the sense that this is how the band just sounds. So maybe that’s why people say it’s ‘classic’, but to me that that ship sailed a long time ago.”
And from that energy and inspiration, much more music was born. Don’t fear, Pumpkin fans – there will be another album. Corgan assures that ‘Shiny and Oh So Bright Vol. 2’ is coming “next year”. And as with all things Corgan, nothing is black and white.
“That fits into this other thing that I haven’t announced yet,” he tells us. “So that’s why I’m being cagey about that. I want to figure out how I want to roll it out. I don’t want it to come out in an interview because if it doesn’t come out right then I end up having to sort of reverse explain it. I’m not ready to discuss it yet.”
“In essence, through being in the Pumpkins in the shadow of whatever the original thing was, we learned what was real about that and what was not real, what was mythological and what was a fraud” – Billy Corgan
We’re intrigued. With a glowing new record and a live show driven by opulence and indulgence, the spirit of the latest incarnation of the Pumpkins is clearly one of celebration – of themselves and for the fans. Wembley left our gaze on the horizon. Here’s Corgan flanked by his veterans and friends, with a vim that takes you right back to their glory days, but the vision of the spectacle and the shimmer of the new material lifts it all above an exercise in nostalgia. Backed by an audiovisual spectacular and with a setlist tailored for the journey, all are driven deep into the idiosyncratic and cinematic world of the Pumpkins. Here’s hoping the car doesn’t crash time.
How will the artist who re-shaped rock measure the success of latest feat?
“I think at this point it’s just endurance,” Corgan concludes. “Because I can assume now that I’ve created this big pile of music and people are eventually going to find it. If they want they can do the deep dive and they can put it on a playlist and circle back around. So I feel a lot less pressure to be in the moment.
“So that puts me back into place where I’m just going to do what I want to do. I think I do better that way. Less fight.”
‘Shiny and Oh So Bright Vol. 1 / LP: No Past. No Future. No Sun.’ is out now