Having always stuck to a “We are the weirdos, mister” kind of ownership over their outsider-as-insider status, this month Smashing Pumpkins deliver an album that will delight some and elude others – not unusual for this band. We spoke to Billy Corgan about SP’s 11th record, Cyr.
Electronic beats are certainly something Smashing Pumpkins have used as the base of their cauldron’s brew in the past (most notably on 1998’s divisive Adore, but even in moments from 1995’s ambitious and universally revered double album Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness). But now that celebrated, jazz-trained drummer Jimmy Chamberlain has returned to the band’s fold – joining other OG members James Iha (guitar) and captain-guitarist-vocalist-songwriter Billy Corgan, along with guitarist Jeff Schroeder who joined in 2007 – how do these rhythms unfold? On a drumkit? On a laptop? “The same way it’s always been,” says Corgan over videochat from him home in Chicago, where his young son Augustus is trying to jump onto his lap. “I’ll come to Jimmy with an idea, and he makes it better,” he smiles.
There’s a spot on the album where drums cease for whole bars at a time entirely – the stabby-synthed, feline-elegant, sonic sculpture of Tyger Tyger. “I have a big problem with space – I’m used to singing over a massive, raging band,” Corgan explains. “I had to trust my vocal, and kind of step up. Singing Tyger Tyer was one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve had in the studio.”
From the studio to dreams of the stage, Adrenalynne gives personification to the feelings of live performance; over fizzing hi-hat and silvery synths, Corgan sings: “When you’re on the stage/ When you feel the ice bolt through you/ When you’re on the stage/ That’s life.” Does it really feel as if the spectre of adrenaline/Adrenalynne visits him, when performing? “Oh yeah, I’ve had many experiences where I feel, you could say, spirits have visited,” he says. “It could just be that when you play a three-hour show, you’re so high and immersed that psychic things happen. It has happened before – if I can tell you a little story here – that we’ll be playing a song the way it’s supposed to be played, and I’ll think, ‘I wish Jimmy would play this fill right here coming up, because that’s what it really wants’, and he’ll play exactly what I was thinking. I’ll ask him about it after the show and he’ll say, ‘I don’t know why I did that – it just came to me.’”
The Pumpkins’ stage shows have a certain reputation for potential prickliness if Corgan doesn’t feel the audience is respectful, much like Corgan himself within the media. (He’s described his irascible interviews past as the result of a sort of cyclical cynicism, and himself as a “creature of reaction”.) “[Playing live] is not exactly like sex, but it is similar,” he offers. “I think the audience really wants to see: if I’m tired, I’m tired. If I’m sad, I’m sad. If you’ve ever made love to someone where you reach a level of raw fragility where you’re showing things that are normally hidden, it’s very like that. For a three-hour show, there’s production, but there’s not really a lot to look at – the audience is looking at you, and your journey.”
Amongst Cyr’s details like the hectic harpsichord that gets a spotlight solo within single Ramona (of this stylistic decision Corgan says, “The ‘Old Pumpkins’ way is, ‘Where does this song get boring? What do we need to do to make it not boring?’ Of course that then unravels a whole other f*cking set of problems, because if you move the exciting part from the end to in the middle here, where does it go after that?”) and the beautifully ethereal female backing vocals which pervade the material, comes the hard-rock behemonth of Wyttch. Its slamming kit-drums, poisonous little guitar line, and ominously aerial syth-strings wrap around Corgan’s repeated yells of “Samhain!” and other wailed, harmonised voices. The chorus chords are the real kicker, descending steadily into these weird footholds that you can’t anticipate. “It’s like doom metal,” Corgan says. “The chords take you to strange places, but if you own it – commit to it – it suddenly isn’t strange. It’s the way James Hetfield writes.” Has Corgan ever written with James Hetfield? “I wish!” he smiles. “He’s an amazing writer, an incredible guitarist. That’s why Metallica are kind of their own world. And I think, well, if you’re Metallica, why wouldn’t you? You don’t need anyone else.”
Cyr is available in multiple editions of coloured vinyl, including a beautiful, JB-exclusive bone. As you can imagine, Corgan is a fan of the wax. “Oh yeah, I have like four thousand records,” he grins. Does he ever let his kids put the needle on? “I’m glad you asked that question,” he says. “My son is five, and for his birthday last year I bought him his own record player, and some Disney records. He’ll put on Lady and the Tramp – y’know, something that makes be want to kill myself – but it’s cool watching him do it. And then we’ll do, ‘Don’t hold it like that, hold it like this; this is how we take care of the record.’ All this serious record collectors sh*t a five years old!” We’re putting our clams on the fact that with rock royalty parentage and a complete scriptorium of LPs, Augustus is going to be a vinyl fan for life.
Cyr by Smashing Pumpkins is out November 27 via Warner.
Keep up with the latest Australian release dates for music.