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Billy Corgan and Jeff Schroeder Talk Guitars - 2012-10-30
Anne Erickson
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Over two decades after the Smashing Pumpkins first brought their amalgamation of psychedelia, dream pop, shoegazer and hard rock to the masses, Billy Corgan is on his eighth studio album with the Pumpkins, Oceania. With Corgan, guitarist Jeff Schroeder, bass player Nicole Fiorentino and drummer Michael William Byrne in the fold, the Pumpkins have fashioned a lush, assertive, sensitive opus in Oceania, with distorted guitars, rousing melodies and, of course, lots of singing Gibsons.

Hours before the band's Detroit stop of their Oceania Tour 2012, Corgan and Schroeder chatted with about the band's trajectory, their go-to Gibsons and what particular guitar Corgan famously used on Pumpkins classic "Tonight, Tonight."

Billy, when you started the Smashing Pumpkins decades ago, did you have any idea the band would become such a pioneering musical influence?

Corgan: No, I didn't. I think that's because in the beginning, our whole mentality was just to get out of Chicago and get a record deal. You don't start thinking of those other goals or those other aspirations until you achieve something on which you can build. We saw over and over again around us, bands that were being called the next-big-thing in Chicago and would never get past the state line as far as national interest. So, it's surprising. There were a lot of years there where the band wasn't name checked, which seemed strange to me, because I knew we had influenced a lot of bands. But really, in the last five years, all of a sudden, people are really name checking the band, which is cool. It's nice.

Why do you think people are naming the band as an influence so much more now?

Corgan: I think maybe the values that the band represents are like a fine wine: They've gotten better over time. There were a lot of value systems that were around the band where people pretended they were cooler or more indie, and those have kind of fallen by the wayside. I think that being musical and the integrity of having your own musical language is more important over time than whether somebody likes you or whether you're popular. Even though we were popular at different times, we did a lot of things that were highly unpopular, so it's not like we just had this beautiful arc across the horizon. Our walk through the '90s was extremely contentious, and so was my walk through the 2000s, mostly personally. So, it's surprising for me to now see that the confluence of visual images, the overall musical aesthetic of the band and the actual language of the band is now being commonly referred to in a way that has become part of the greater lexicon of people's language, and to me, that's the biggest honor you can have as a musician. It's to the point where people can play something, and people can say, "That sounds like the Smashing Pumpkins." That's one of the biggest honors a musician can get. That's the unofficial honor.

What are your current go-to Gibson guitars?

Schroeder: I play a lot of Les Pauls, but I have a few different kinds of Gibsons that I play now. My main E natural guitar is a Les Paul Iced T Sunburst with a '60s neck that I really like a lot. It kind of looks like a Jimmy Page, Led Zeppelin era guitar. I've also been playing a Goldtop reissue with a '50s neck and a white Les Paul Custom. I really like them all. They all sound different. They're all really good for different applications

Corgan: Onstage for this current tour, I have an early '70s Firebird. In the studio, I use a lot of Gibsons. I have a mid-'70s 335 that was most famously used on "Tonight Tonight." It's that chiming guitar sound. It's one of those guitars that has a switch on it, so you can switch between a single coil and a humbucker. I have a really incredible '54 Les Paul Bigsby and a '72 Les Paul Custom that's like a Jimmy Page guitar. We also have a '78 Les Paul that sounds a little bit more like Randy Rhoads to me. It reminds me of what guys were sounding like the in late-'70s. It has more of a glassy sound to the tone. And I have a ton of Gibson acoustics. I have a lot of Gibsons that I use in the studio, because it's just part of the stew we make.

What makes Gibsons special and the right fit for the Pumpkins?

Schroeder: People always say, "Oh, this sounds like a Les Paul guitar," but nothing sounds like it. Get the right Les Paul with the right amp, and it's just an aggressive, big rock sound that's become iconic. There's nothing that can replicate it. I have yet to find a guitar that sounds like a Les Paul that isn't a Les Paul.

Corgan: For me, the thing I notice that stands out about Gibson as a brand name, first, is their ease of play. They're the easiest kinds of guitars to play. To use a modern term, they're very user friendly. Secondarily, there's a real consistency in Gibsons. You don't have to work really hard to get a great sound out of a Gibson guitar. They just sound really great out of the box. Other brands, you have to really jerk around with. You can pretty much take about any amp, crank it up, plug in a Gibson guitar and it's going to sound really good right out of the box.

Jeff, you joined the Smashing Pumpkins about six years ago. How were you introduced to Billy and the band?

Schroeder: What happened was that a friend of a friend who was interning at the management company was asked, "Hey, if you know of anybody you could recommend for the band, they're getting back together, but they need a guitarist and a bass player." I hadn't ever tried out for a band before, so I didn't have a bio or a photo or anything like that, so I put something together and sent it off, and six years later, here I am. But I didn't know Billy at all. I was a complete stranger.

Billy, what were you looking for in a guitarist when you found Jeff?

Corgan: Even though the Pumpkins' music, on the whole, isn't as technical as, say, if you play Megadeth, our stylistic blend of '80s shoegazer influences from the U.K. mixed with '70s hard rock and '60s psychedelia, that mixture of influences is super rare. It's not like there are thousands of people who play like that. So Jeff, just personally, was into that kind of stuff and had seen the band back in the day and kind of understood it in a way that came from him. It's funny, because I've been in the situation of auditioning people a few times, and you can meet people who are really highly skilled, but if they don't have a particular taste in their playing, I don't really know how to judge how they are as a musician. So, it was really easy in the beginning to judge that Jeff was a really good musician. But even then, it took us a long time to synergize the way he plays with how I play, because at the end of the day, the band is also about adapting to the people in the band and creating harmony in the way we play together.

Jeff, what did you want to bring to the sound of the Smashing Pumpkins and, specifically, Oceania?

Schroeder: I don't think it was that much of a personal thing, because we had been playing together for a while before recording Oceania. We'd spent many, many hours playing together and working on new material, so it wasn't like one day I said, "Oh, I want to play like this on the record." It's something that evolved over time. I think, basically, my goal or my role in the band is to be a complementary voice to not only Billy's guitar playing but his vocals. Just finding another melodic counterpoint to go along with what's already there. I think that's how I see my role and how I fit in.

How do you get the characteristic Smashing Pumpkins tone?

Corgan: I think if you want to get the Gibson end of the Pumpkins sound, you take any amp that has a pretty good pre-amp in it, and the treble is probably not going to go any higher than about 3 o'clock. You want the treble on 2 or 3 o'clock. You don't want the highs too cranky. You want to scoop the mids a bit, so the mids are probably somewhere in the range of 10 o'clock, and then the bass is in the range of 3 o'clock. So, you want bass but not too much bass, you want treble but not too much treble and you want to scoop the mids, and that's pretty much where you start. And crank the pre-amp all the way up.

Schroeder: That's half of it, and then I know a lot of people with the Pumpkins get really caught up with, "What pedal is it? What distortion is it?" But from being an outsider and having to learn the material and get it to sound right, I would say a lot of it is honestly the construction of the riffs themselves. It's how Billy plays and writes. That's 50% of the sound. You could get the right guitar and the right amp and still not have the same sound. It's a very unique style of guitar playing that, even though I was very familiar with the band and liked the band and thought I could play some of the songs? if you really want to play it right and get it to sound like Smashing Pumpkins, it's a very unique style of guitar playing. It's very difficult to emulate, which I think why you can't find a lot of bands who can just easily sound like the Smashing Pumpkins, because it's a guitar style that you can't just figure out easily.

What's next for the Smashing Pumpkins?

Corgan: We're planning to start writing a new album. We're also trying to find new ways to be creative. As we see the disintegration of the record business and maybe the rise of the band business, how are bands going to survive and thrive in the 21st century? So we have a lot of work to do as far as how to take the Smashing Pumpkins into the future and not be enslaved by a business, which is basically dying. To give props to Gibson, Gibson is an American company, and it's based around quality. And I don't think that's any different than how we look at it all. We're an American company, and our future is based on whether or not we can deliver a level of quality that is unique. What Jeff was saying is right, in that anybody can say, "Oh, I built a guitar that sounds just like a Les Paul" or a "Les Paul-like guitar," but there's something magical when the people who know how to do it really do it, and I think that's the way we look at what we do. There are few bands playing who can really do what we do. We know it's not for everyone, but in a way, that almost encourages us to do it more, because that's the only thing that keeps us going. There are 900 bands now that all sound the same, and nobody knows their names, and we don't understand that culture that sort of celebrates ubiquity. We look at it like we just have to be more of who we are. The old record business almost asks you to be less of who you are to fit in, and I think those days are over.

Source: Gibson Guitar Part 1, Part 2

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