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HEADLINER PROFILE: Smashing Pumpkins and the infinite epic

The alternative anti-heroes rock on

by Gavin Heaney

It starts with a drum roll. Two circus snare runs that announce a daring feat of unimaginable tightrope or trapeze is about to begin. Then it happens, the drums are answered by a naked guitar frantically pounding eighth notes. It’s pure anticipation building and building. Then like lightning it rips into heavy distortion blowing the skin off the bone and erupting in flames like a meteor disintegrating into the atmosphere. But at that very climax of controlled chaos, it rolls over, slowing into a herculean half-time of titanic power. Then, inconceivably, an airy seraphim voice, one that somehow seems to be coming from inside your own head, whispers androgynously over the cacophony:

“Freak out

And give in

Doesn’t matter what you believe in…”

Smashing Pumpkins songs such as “Cherub Rock” are like epic poems. They are the musical equivalent of The Odyssey, Divine Comedy or Paradise Lost. They fly to the heights of the heavens and plummet into the fires of the inferno. They follow a tragic and unlikely anti-zero in his quest for love and salvation in a lost, mundane world of crushing conformity. They never apologize or settle on convention or cliche. They continue to offer their listeners the alternative to mainstream music and narrative. According to lead singer Billy Corgan, that was always the mission.

“We’re trying to remind people it’s not the world you see on TV,” said Corgan in an interview with RTE’s Tom Dunne. “It’s not the world that everyone keeps telling you exists…It’s not. It’s the world that’s inside you that really matters and that’s all I care about. I’ve been too much a victim of believing the hype, watching too much TV and thinking that’s the way the world is. It’s not. It’s just really not.”

The Smashing Pumpkins arrived in 1991 with their first album Gish. It was the epitome of 90s grunge; hard rock heavily laced with late sixties and early seventies inspired guitar solos and folk song coffee house lyrics. It was the bright early days of alternative music, the new Summer of Love blossoming with gutter flower children. The long hippie hair stayed, but went unbrushed, sometimes dreadlocked, dyed bright colors. Tattoos and noserings heralded modern tribalism and a new standard of hip. It was an open rebellion against the commercialism of the mainstream music industry and an idyllic return to the real for a while.

But the rest of the world soon caught on to the Pumpkins with the release of Siamese Dream (1993), listed as one of rock’s greatest all-time albums by Rolling Stone magazine. Songs like “Today” and “Disarm” became the alternative anthems that ushered in a new era of storytelling in songs, something that had been vacant in the late 1980s.

“I think ultimately we are storytellers,” said Jimmy Chamberlain, the prodigious drummer of the band, in an interview with BeachLife. “The foundation of storytelling is really to give permission to people to tell their own story and create an architecture where people can feel good about their own uniqueness. It’s the stories we bring from outside the tribe. That’s evolution.”

If any of the band members are conjoined, it’s Billy Corgan and Jimmy Chamberlain. The pair is one of the greatest combinations of songwriter-rock guitarists and rock drummers in one band. Like Jimmy Page and John Bonham or Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker, the Smashing Pumpkins have that kind of melody and rhythm telepathy. Every serpentine whim of Corgan’s guitar is connected by Chamberlain’s jazz-like precision, like Siamese twins at the wrist.

“Billy and I are joined at the hip when it comes to music,” Chamberlain said. “We're finishing each other's sentences, and we've learned through compassion to respect each other. I'm challenging him to play outside of the box and he's doing the same thing to me, and that’s always how the unit has worked. The drums and guitar are part of the narrative, helping to tell the story of the lyrics. Everything is on the same trajectory.”

The 60’s evolved in a massive coming together of people in movements, but the alternative age demanded a new individualism and stubborn originality. The Pumpkins masterfully enabled this self-evolution with their third album Mellon Collie and The Infinite Sadness (1995). If it was too soon in their career for a double album, it was better to reign in the underground than to serve the higher-ups. The sheer output of incredible songs remains a prolific feat; if the album has any fault, it’s that there are way too many great songs to digest in one sitting. Despite all their rage, the Pumpkins effortlessly crossed over again into mainstream radio with hits “1979” and “Bullet With Butterfly Wings.” These two songs served as the vestibules of the albums opposing sides. They were two doorways leading to heaven above and hell below. “1979” is lush and melodic, a romantic angelic sigh resigned to a Velvet Underground hereafter life. “Bullet” is the scorn of a fallen god, scorching a vampiric world with fire and brimstone, raining down rock guitar while chanting:

“And I still believe that I cannot be saved

And I still believe that I cannot be saved

And I still believe that I cannot be saved

And I still believe that I cannot be saved“

Mellon Collie is a transcendental crossing through a Hieronymus Bosch landscape chasing after unrequited love. Corgan pines and whines like a tragic romantic poet expelled from paradise, longing for love and forced to wander in dark woods forever discontented, having once tasted heavenly nectar. The songs are comforting paeans to the eternally disappointed child within us all.

The Smashing Pumpkins still walk the miraculous tightrope between mainstream success and underground phenomena. They have now maintained their artistic credibility across three decades. They remain brazen in their approach, staying true to their essence while exploring new sounds and production.

Corgan has a theory on how and why their music stays relevant despite all the new rages and trends that the turning of cultural paradigms present. “It’s that spirit of invention, that desire to always get to the next place and not just sit on our laurels,” he said. “...You just open yourself up to the world’s music and realize there’s a universal rhythm and universal sound that flows through all of us. Rhythm is the universal language and melody is the universal communicator."

Corgan and Chamberlain, along with original Smashing Pumpkins guitarist James Iha and bassist Jeff Schroeder, are bringing the next chapter of their story to BeachLife and are ready to celebrate the individual and collective spirit of the festival.

“Life is worth living, love is the most important thing and the individual spirit of a person is the biggest asset you have,” said Corgan. “If we bring peace or solace with our sound…If we can provide a beautiful soundtrack for a beautiful moment in someone’s life that’s fantastic.”

The Smashing Pumpkins play BeachLife May 14.


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