SMASHING PUMPKINS

Planting New Seeds

I still remem­ber my intro­duc­tion to the Smash­ing Pump­kins. In a friend’s back­yard, drink­ing schnapps from the bot­tle and jump­ing from bal­conies. Thrum­ming over it all, the omi­nous, dis­af­fected obser­va­tion that the world is a vam­pire.

It was unlike any­thing we had heard before. We knew grunge, of course. These were the days when Ved­der ruled the known musi­cal world. We knew rock, we knew pop, we knew punk, but with Mel­lon Col­lie and the Infi­nite Sad­ness, the school­yard sound­track went entirely off the rails. It was music that just didn’t seem to fit any­where else, and we flat­tered our­selves by under­stand­ing this as music made just for us.

Though some time has passed since then, the music still holds rel­e­vance. Not only amongst those who swang from bal­conies and fell about the play­ground at the time of its release, but also for those engag­ing in those pas­times now. Billy Cor­gan has just announced that he is return­ing to Aus­tralia to head­line Sound­wave in 2015, prov­ing that there is still con­sid­er­able demand for his work amongst a con­tem­po­rary audi­ence. He’ll be trav­el­ling to Aus­tralia along­side Smash­ing Pump­kins main­stay Jeff Schroeder as well as Rage Against The Machines Brad Wilk and The Killers’ Mark Sto­er­mer almost twenty years later, to per­form songs from the clas­sic Mel­lon Col­lie as well as mate­r­ial from their tenth stu­dio album, Mon­u­ments to an Elegy arrives. As Billy Cor­gan fig­ures, it’s sim­ply another chap­ter in a long and com­plex history.

“I have to say it feels like it’s an unfold­ing story,” Cor­gan says in an unex­pect­edly deep voice. “Some­body said the other day, ‘Your recent work doesn’t sound like your past work’, and yeah, so it shouldn’t! Then you’ll hear, in the next breath, ‘I hear echoes of the past’, and well, that’s also true. It’s the same per­son and it’s the same teeth that the sound is pass­ing through. I’m not here try­ing to rein­vent myself into some­thing I’m not. It’s an unfold­ing story, and as you go along you’re going to learn some­thing and you’re going to for­get some­thing, and that’s part of the story, too. The only inten­tion was to try to make con­tem­po­rary music, and I think the album shows both where we were able to update things, but also my weak­ness in not being con­nected to con­tem­po­rary music. There’s a part of me that doesn’t want to be con­nected to con­tem­po­rary music because I don’t like it, and there’s a part of me that acknowl­edges that liv­ing in that world, well, maybe I need to be.”

While his voice is still unmis­tak­able, it’s now a much richer and pleas­antly weath­ered sound. It struck me that while a person’s voice is so intrin­sic to their iden­tity, for most, we’re never going to be par­tic­u­larly con­scious of how it devel­ops. We don’t actu­ally hear our­selves all that often, despite it being an essen­tial com­po­nent of our char­ac­ter and one of our most iden­ti­fi­able fea­tures. Most of us aren’t ever sur­prised by being con­fronted with the sound of our own voice being played through the car radio, or across a busy super­mar­ket. Though for some­one as pro­lific and revered as Cor­gan, with a voice so unique, it’s an inevitabil­ity of life. So being com­fort­able with the sound of your own voice is important.

“I never wanted to be a singer. I became a singer because I was a song­writer, and I didn’t know any­one who wanted to sing my songs. My first con­nec­tion with music was through the gui­tar. I couldn’t hear the notes in my head, so I had to work out the melody on the gui­tar and then try to sing like the gui­tar. So from the early work on, you’re hear­ing some­one who doesn’t like his voice and is try­ing to find a way to use it in a unique way. As my writ­ing devel­oped, par­tic­u­larly after Mel­lon Col­lie, I wanted to move into dif­fer­ent work but I reached a point where as a com­poser I was becom­ing frus­trated with the singer in me, because I just couldn’t sing my own songs. They were too com­pli­cated for my lack of train­ing. That lack of train­ing was just killing me. So that began a very dif­fer­ent jour­ney. Can I actu­ally sing com­plex melodies in a way that has con­trol? That has author­ship? And that’s been a really long jour­ney for me, and in many ways I think Mon­u­ments is the fruition of all of those years of try­ing to learn how to sing in a way that I’m con­trol­ling the vocals. The vocals aren’t con­trol­ling me."

Devel­op­ing his vocals and the dif­fi­cul­ties Cor­gan has faced in hav­ing these lyrics realised is a con­cern that never strays far from the con­ver­sa­tion. Given the fer­vour with which his fans pull apart the mean­ings and con­nec­tions within each release, its lit­tle won­der. You feel that in another life, he could quite hap­pily have been a writer.

“I should have been an author. I’m a vora­cious reader, one of those peo­ple who know a lot about noth­ing. I do find that there are cer­tain writ­ers that when I come into con­tact with their work, it makes me want to try bet­ter. Peo­ple like Bob Dylan or Shake­speare, Ernest Hem­ing­way, writ­ers that ask you to re-examine the com­fort you have with your lan­guage.
Have you ever read any Burroughs?”

I have, and out­side of Bur­roughs’ writ­ing, it has always been my ambi­tion to emu­late his art tech­niques. To make a hall­way of can­vas lined with spray-paint cans, and then fire a shot­gun down the middle.

“Ha, I actu­ally have one of those shot­gun paint­ings. It was a gift from a for­mer lover. I wasn’t crazy about it, but you know, I loved him and so it works for me. Bur­roughs had that con­cept of the word virus. He talked about how cer­tain cul­tures don’t have cer­tain words, say, the word jeal­ousy for exam­ple. And then a par­tic­u­lar word can get into somebody’s sys­tem and just rum­ble around. He showed me we have a stan­dard com­fort in the way we use lan­guage, and by jux­ta­pos­ing cer­tain lyri­cal images, you can cre­ate a dif­fer­ent kind of vio­lence. You can have the same three words, but if you put the third one first, the first word sec­ond, that’s
sud­denly vio­lent in the sense of how you would ordi­nar­ily hear them.”

It’s a fas­ci­nat­ing approach to song­writ­ing (one which David Bowie has also utilised), and while I admit that I do hold affec­tion for the lat­est Tay­lor Swift release, it’s dif­fi­cult to imag­ine many con­tem­po­rary main­stream artists adopt­ing Bur­roughs’ lin­guis­tic preoccupations.

“I mean look,” he laughs, “pop music, by and large, is dumb. It’s just get­ting them out to the dance floor, and there’s a joy to that. There’s totally a joy to pop music if you’re will­ing to cel­e­brate it. It doesn’t mean you have to get sucked into all its bull­shit, but there’s a cer­tain joy to the right track on the right day. After twenty-five years, I just don’t think I have the same enthu­si­asm for it, and I think that’s really affected me at a deep level. I think when I finally do break from it all, which will prob­a­bly be sooner rather than later, peo­ple will be sur­prised because the lan­guage on the other music that I want to do is vastly dif­fer­ent to my usual work. It doesn’t sound like the Pump­kins, and that’s not so much me try­ing to be dif­fer­ent. I just am dif­fer­ent. A dif­fer­ent lan­guage, which I know doesn’t really have a place in pop music at all.”
 

Live Pics and Cover Photo BY: REBECCA HOULDEN. See more at www.witheverylight.com
Smash­ing Pump­kins are play­ing Sound­wave Fes­ti­val. For more infor­ma­tion visit www.soundwavefestival.com

 

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