It’s hard to believe that the Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream is twenty years old this month. But it is. It seems like just yesterday that the Chicago-based group fronted by Billy Corgan made grunge-era rock fans salivate for more after their debut Gish.
But Siamese Dream, on the strength of singles like “Cherub Rock”, launched them into the stratosphere, selling six million copies and turned the Pumpkins into a must-watch act. They delivered, with the even bigger double album Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. The world was their oyster, and for much of the decade, they were one of rock’s biggest acts.
Longtime fans know what happened next. Touring keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin overdosed. Drummer Jimmy Chamberlin was fired due to his own drug issues. Guitarist Jimmy Iha left and bassist D’arcy Wretzky disappeared into the ether. Corgan was said to be a control freak and went into a new electronic direction before disbanding the group and forming the short-lived act Zwan.
Yet Corgan never stopped writing songs. He also felt he had something to prove. He put together a new version of the Smashing Pumpkins, featuring southern California-based guitarist Jeff Schroeder, bassist Nicole Fiorentino and drummer Mike Byrne. Though they didn’t all work on the 2007 comeback Zeitgeist, they did work on the internet release Teargarden by Kaleidyscope as well as last year’s polarizing Oceania.
“It’s not the Smashing Pumpkins!,” you may say. Schroeder would beg to differ. While in Stockholm, Sweden, the cordial guitarist pointed out several times that the band is just as vital as ever, if not better. He also assured Japanese, Hong Kong and Malaysian fans that the group would play plenty of “greatest hits” alongside new material to keep the whole gamut of attendees happy….
Scott Murphy: Jeff, you’re Korean-American. So does playing in Asia and Hong Kong have any sort of special appeal for you?
Jeff Schroeder: For me it’s actually really exciting. It means a lot to me as a musician to play there—and be an American coming to Asia—and for Asians to see a half Asian face. It’s very powerful. It’s also very personal. It also means a lot to go to Korea and reconnect. I really enjoy going there.
I’m pretty sure it’s the first time the group have played in Hong Kong. Billy loves going to Asia. To be honest, some of our best shows have been there. Korea and the Philippines have been awesome. We’ve gone to Taipei, Jakarta. The crowds are always really awesome. I think they have a different relationship with the music. It wasn’t something that they necessarily grew up with. There is a different excitement. They might not have a reference point. For us, it’s been a really good situation.
Don’t take this the wrong way, but when you mention Smashing Pumpkins, people say—“How is that even possible?”…everybody left! What would you say to refute that?
In the U.S., we’ve had to do a lot of work, even since 2007. I was there during the initial reformation. We had to deal with the first wave of James and Darcy not being here. We had to prove ourselves to show that you play with the same intensity. When Jimmy left, we got Mike. Then we got Nicole…etc.
We’ve done some really great shows in the U.S. and proved to people that the band is legitimate. I would just urge fans to come, listen to it and judge for yourselves. We bring our own intensity and fervor that recalls the past, but is also very different as well. I’m a fan of bands. I would look at it as something akin to Deep Purple or Black Sabbath. Do you like Ronnie or do you like Ozzy?
This version of the Pumpkins is very, very good. I can confidently say that!
And “Oceania” seemed to be an album that people either loved or hated….
There are some people who think if it’s not the old band they won’t accept it. I think it’s more their problem. We’re just doing our best to write music that’s relevant to 2013. It’s not 1992 or 1996. We’re making music for the present. Music has changed. That’s not on my shoulders.
It must be quite a trip to follow the band as a teenager then find yourself in the Smashing Pumpkins later on…
When I first became familiar with the band, I was 17 or 18. And so I already had developed some musical taste. So the band was actually important to me because it linked different genres together. Alternative music was the early melding of hard rock and metal and the coolness of post-punk. It hadn’t been done before. That linkage was so important. So for me to play in the band—I was a big fan of the music so it’s how I hear music. I feel a kinship with the concept of the band.
One of Billy’s greatest legacies is that when all is said and done, I don’t think too many artists have been able to house so many different styles and have it all make sense. There aren’t many bands that can do that.
For me it’s exciting to play all this different stuff.
What kind of set do you anticipate in Hong Kong?
This tour has been so long that we’ve been adding and changing. We realize that people in Hong Kong have never seen the band. We take a lot of care to build a set to allow this band to express itself but audiences will hear a lot of new music and the classic material that they expect. We work really hard to put on a great show that makes people leave happy and say….”Wow, that was a good show!”
As a guitarist, you’re called “The Shredder”. How is it working with Billy (Corgan) and do you have fun in the studio?
I don’t think making records is that fun. It’s a lot of hard work. For the band in general, the recording studio is taken very seriously. A better way to describe it is a prolonged intensity. I’ve never had a chance to take that much time to make an album. Seven days a week, 12 hours a day, working at a super high level to play really tough parts. You have to keep your mind focused. But that’s what making good records is about. You have to reach their levels of intensity. It takes a lot of struggle and searching to get there.
It’s about finding things in you that you didn’t know you had. I think Billy was actually pretty helpful. He gave me my space. He would produce the album and say he didn’t like a part, but he gave me plenty of time to do my thing. A lot of times he wasn’t even in the room. He wouldn’t hover over me either.
I think as a guitar player you respect that. He was very respectful of all of us. He wanted us there and believed we could do it.
You mentioned that you two go record shopping a lot. What are some typical buys?
Billy and I mostly—to be honest we’re buying mostly rock from the sixties and seventies era of music. He even gets a little more obscure than me. If there’s a used record store anywhere near the venue, we’ll go. We’re not that picky.
For instance, in Holland the other day, Billy bought a lot of Bowie bootlegs. They’re really deep into the studio outtakes. We get off on hearing bands working on songs in the studio. We like to hear bands going through the various stages.
I’ll buy a lot of sixties and seventies rock, but I’ll also pay a lot of money for the Creation Label stuff (artists on that label included My Bloody Valentine and Ride).
You two met Eddie Van Halen (of Van Halen) recently too. What was that like?
That was in October. It was amazing! What happened was, the guitar tech I had at the time couldn’t finish the tour. He had to go home and so we had to bring in a guitar tech. We suddenly had one day to find somebody. Through the divine grace of God, Van Halen had just finished their tour and their tech was doing something at their house. So I got Eddie Van Halen’s guitar tech. After I got the message and looked him up, he just opened the door.
Billy invited Eddie to the show. He was unbelievably nice, gave us a guitar and was just really, really great. He knew Billy from before, but Eddie was so wonderful and gracious. It’s really embarrassing and scary to play guitar in front of him. When I was warming up, he was watching me. It’s pretty humbling. When you really think about it, at that level of guitar—paradigm shifting—he’s one of them. He’s on a Hendrix level. It’s pretty amazing.
What’s the experience like going from the acts you were in…to being in the Pumpkins? How did it challenge, surprise, etc…?
I haven’t done anything besides the Pumpkins in a long time. I don’t want to do other music now. In fact, I don’t have time!
With so many of the band’s past albums coming out via reissues and a new live DVD coming out, what do you want to say about each?
It’s really cool because I’m living in Chicago now. We have a studio up there and there’s basically a full time staff going through all the archives. So, I’ve had an opportunity to hear things that aren’t even on the re-issues. When I look back and see it, and I’ve heard everything from 4-track tapes when Billy was 16 to Adore—just the magnitude of music that’s been created—it’s just unbelievable.
I don’t think people have can possibly realize how much music Billy has written and how hard he’s worked. It’s insane. It’s really inspiring. I’ve gotten to hear and see things that have blown my mind. That’s exciting!
Billy’s worked really hard at finding things that people want to hear. He asks my opinion as well. I’ve had a chance to participate in that way. The reissues are done really well. Another thing people don’t realize is that there are months and months and months of work for every reissue.
As for the new live DVD, I’m pretty excited because we worked really hard to put a show together. Most bands that go out—we feel it was a very ballsy end to play the new album from beginning to end and actually have it go over. The first 63 minutes of the show were the whole new album. I’m very proud of the fact that we could play the album really well and I’m proud that it’s been documented.
That’s where people can really hear what the new band has to offer. It’s amazing how well the band plays. There’s very, very, very little touchup. Only a couple things had to be fixed….that’s how the band really plays.
For Billy it’s not about being a workaholic—it’s being a musician. Any band who takes what they do seriously, give up a regular life. But the rewards are amazing. Every day I get to play in front of people. Even simple things like having a guitar tech—you’re lucky to have that—there are many great things. But you also lose out. You don’t really have a home, except a hotel. You miss birthdays, weddings, a close group of friends…
Are you all getting along?
That’s the one strange thing. We get along really well. It’s a maturity thing. Between Billy and me and Nicole, that type of daily drama that bands have just isn’t exciting. We really respect each other on that level. That’s not to say that it’s always great. I can argue in a healthy way…but most of those arguments have to do with the music and the band and we walk out of the room as friends. I really can’t say anything bad about anybody.
How do you all adjust to the new media landscape?
I don’t know if we really embrace it. If anything, for me personally, I look at things dialectally. For the good, there’s the bad. I benefit from the digital age by having access to bands that would have been a lot harder to find. Billy and I are very much from that generation. We used to have to go to the record store and dig through the bins. Now you can find anything, which is awesome.
But I don’t think we’ve embraced it. As a band, you’re in an industry that is somewhat crumbling in terms of a financial infra-structure. Bands don’t make money in the way they used to. The music industry was bloated and ripped off artists. But it’s always changing….maybe that’s the way it’s always going to be. It just makes you have to be aware of what you are doing. You’re not plugging into a system like the seventies and eighties. Now you have to be a lot more savvy. Maybe that’s good. I don’t know. But it’s a lot tougher.
We’ve come to the conclusion that it forces you to make really good music. We’ve had to raise our bar. High quality music cuts through the B.S.
Are you working on a new album?
We have to start the process of a new album. Doing something as good as Oceania won’t cut it. It has to be exponentially better. We might be in the studio for five years. We’re in no hurry.
As you travel internationally, how do you and the band feel about the U.S., given recent events?
It’s complicated and contradictory. As a musician and American, I’m on tour and live a privileged life. I’m lucky and I realize how much people are struggling in the U.S. Coming to Europe is always eye-opening—I feel like people here are living a slightly better life. Obviously we’re dealing with city centers. Day-to-day life seems to be a little more comfortable here.
Daily life isn’t as easy in the US as it used to be. My vision of the future isn’t as optimistic. Global economics is becoming more complex and life is more of a struggle for US citizens. That’s kind of how I see it.
You have 24 hours to go anywhere, eat anything, do anything. Where are we off to?
Barcelona, eating tapas, going to the beach and drinking wine. Tapas there are just unbelievable!
The Smashing Pumpkins are playing in Osaka and Tokyo at Summer Sonic on August 10-11 (tickets), in Hong Kong at the Asia-World Expo on August 13 (tickets) and in Kuala Lumpur at Good Vibes Festival on August 17 (tickets).