Modern Drummer Interview with Jimmy Chamberlin - 2000-08-??
(lookup on archive.org)
Editor's Note: As we were going to press with this issue, we learned of Billy Corgan's decision to break up The Smashing Pumpkins after the band's current tour ends. The following interview with Chamberlin took place earlier this year.
Jimmy Chamberlin's first US tour since returning to The Smashing Pumpkins wasn't in arenas, but in record stores for disc-signing sessions. He imagined the digs and barbs from fans lined up for autographs and handshakes: "Are you still doing drugs? Do you care that someone died? You don't deserve to be back in the band." To some degree, Chamberlin figured he deserved the scrutiny. On the night of July 11, 1996. he shot heroin with Jonathan Melvoin, the band's touring keyboardist, and Melvoin died of an overdose. A week later, the remaining Pumpkins released a statement saying they'd "decided to sever our relationship with our friend and drummer, Jimmy Chamberlin." A week after that, Chamberlin pleaded guilty to a charge of disorderly conduct and was sentenced to a rehabilitation program. The Pumpkins toured and recorded without him, and few people heard anything of Chamberlin for the next two and a half years.
"How do you go from being adored to being thought of as a loser?" Chamberlin asks now. "I cry in my heart every day for Jonathan, but I expected the band to be like the Four Musketeers — all for one and one for all — so getting fired hit me like a ton of bricks. Was I shocked? Yeah. Was I pissed? Yeah, for a second. But as I stepped back and looked at it, I realized that's what they had to do to save their own careers, and also for their own integrity. Why should they put up with that nonsense? I certainly wouldn't. I knew they didn't do it out of hate, and I didn't love them any less for it." Chamberlin's impact and influence on The Pumpkins was never more clear than with Adore, the 1998 album created without him. Gone were the jazz-influenced rhythms, atop-the-beat accents, and crushing snare fills that established Chamberlin as one of modern rock's elite craftsmen. Largely supported by flat, mechanized rhythms, Adore fell flat with fans. Chamberlin noticed it all from an emotional and physical distance. Emerging from rehab, he went to auto racing school, earned a license, and raced on the professional street-stock circuit for two years. He indulged an interest in astronomy — he owns four telescopes and has an observatory in his plans for a new home — and saw a windfall of cash by investing in a company that makes medicinal cervical caps.
Rumors of his forming a new band with Kelly Deal and Sebastian Bach were greatly exaggerated — they jammed together for a day. Otherwise, Chamberlin didn't touch his drums until Pumpkins leader Billy Corgan invited him back. Machina: The Machines of God is somewhat a "welcome back" party for Chamberlin — listen to the outro of the opening track, "Everlasting Gaze" to hear what he means to this band. Chamberlin is quick to note, though, how much the band means to him. The day after Corgan asked him back, he dove into a disciplined practice regimen to make up for lost time. Along with drugs, he's also kicked what was a multi-packs-a-day smoking habit.
Chamberlin hasn't ditched the trappings of rock stardom altogether, though. He's wearing tight black pants and a black cotton long-sleeved mesh shirt that hugs tight to his body — all purchased during a recent trip to Milan, Italy. His bleached dirty-blond hair is designed to look like a mess. He isn't quite clean, either — he still drinks — but says he has a handle on the "demons" that lead him to drugs and nearly ruined his life, in and out of the band. Chamberlin found the record-signing sessions personally and artistically validating, and he no longer takes for granted the potentially widespread impact of his music. "The signings, for me, were like being welcomed back by every kid," he says. "The greatest thing I hear is, 'You're the reason I play drums,' and the second greatest thing I've heard is, 'You're the best rock drummer since John Bonham,' which almost made me fall out of my chair. I don't know of the kid knew what he was talking about, but that was quite a compliment — and I'll take it." Just before sitting down for another autograph outing this past February, Jimmy talked about his ouster and return to Smashing Pumpkins, his evolution as a player and a person, and the creative process behind Machina: The Machines Of God.
MD: When we interviewed you last, on the eve of Mellon Collie's release, you said you were clean. Were you?
Jimmy: Yeah, at the time of the interview I was.
MD: So what happened?
Jimmy: I don't know…stress? Whatever happens. We're a lot older now, and I kinda look at it like that. When your unreality becomes your reality, it's hard to put a gauge on it, and that's what happened. At the time, we were arguably the biggest band in the world. You achieve this rock star status and start believing your own bullshit. You start thinking you're indestructible. But there's a lot of stress and responsibility that goes along with that, and you may not want it. At some point you begin having this love-hate relationship with your career, and then it all becomes about escapism. Some people deal with it one way and some deal with it another way. A lot of times people deal with it the wrong way. That's what happened.
MD: Did you feel like a public pariah during your time away from the band?
Jimmy: Yeah, absolutely, and I think I was for a while. But that went away. It's amazing the amount of forgiveness that's out there.
MD: How did you emerge from all this? Were you determined in a personal or professional sense to move on?
Jimmy: The music business has been my life since I was eight years old. Up until this, it was the only thing I could turn to that was constant. But I was pretty fed up with the music business for what it had done to me, and I wasn't going to go back to that. But you can either implode or grow. You can either kill yourself or…. But what can you do but go on? What was I going to do — stop playing altogether? I didn't really want to play with any other bands; I wanted to play with The Pumpkins. I knew in my heart that we'd get back together at some point. But at the same time, there were other things I wanted to do, and road racing was a great outlet for me. Jack Baldwin, one of the top racers out there, kinda took me under his wing, and the racing community was very supportive of me and welcomed me into their family with open arms.
MD: Did you start seeing invitations from other bands?
Jimmy: Not really. I mean, a few things came up, but I don't think anyone seriously wanted any of my baggage. But it was a little upsetting because I felt that I was pretty capable of playing with anybody at that point. If I learned anything in thirty-five years, though, it was to trust my heart and intuition, and I just knew I was eventually coming back to The Pumpkins.
MD: When you were out of the band, how much did you know or care to know about what was going on with them?
Jimmy: I pretty much stayed away from it. But I heard they were having problems with drums, which really upset me. I really hoped when they went to make Adore that Matt Walker or somebody else really kicked some drum-ass on the record. I mean, with the groundwork I'd already laid, it was just about as open a canvas as a drummer could get. Billy could have gotten any of those guys to play like me — they're all great drummers — and it took a lot of guts for Billy to go completely away from that.
MD: What was your reaction when you first heard the record?
Jimmy: I was a little surprised, and I think a lot of people had that reaction about it, that it just wasn't the same without me. But it wasn't supposed to be the same — there's no way it could have been. There really are no drums on it, and the couple of drummers who came in to play a track or two didn't have any music that allowed them to shine. I could see where Billy was going probably better than anybody could, but part of me was glad that there weren't a whole lot of drums on it. It kind of saved my drum-ass, in a way. Had it not been any different — had it sounded even sixty percent like a Pumpkins record — I would have been so sad. So I kinda let out a deep breath and it reinforced to me that, yeah, I am capable of doing something unique. It was artistically validating. I don't mean that in a negative way, that I thought the record was bad, I really like the record for what it is, and I'd like to go back in sometime and re-record it. It would be an interesting, fun project, but I don't know if it'll happen. We're doing a couple of songs from Adore in our shows — "Ava Adore" and "Punk" — and they're full-on rock songs. Part of the beauty of the four of us is anything can happen — the wheel could fall off the cart at any time — and that's part of the magic of this band.
MD: Did you touch your drums at all during your time away?
Jimmy: Pretty much not. If I didn't step away so completely, I wouldn't have been able to come back to it now like I have. I was having a great time in racing, but music has always been my first love, and the opportunity to make another Pumpkins record was too good to pass up.
MD: Talk about the process that brought you back into the band.
Jimmy: Six months before I got back in the band I knew it was going to happen. I just knew it in my heart, some kind of cosmic alignment going on. Billy and I have always been very close, and our hearts are very close. We were together for ten years, so no matter where we are, we can pick up on each other's energies. I'd been in contact with his assistant for a while, and then I was in LA for a Halloween party, and The Pumpkins were doing some show with KISS. Billy and I had lunch and talked about the new record. He was saying something like, "When we make the new record," and I was like, "What do you mean we?" just to mess with him. But it wasn't weird at all. It felt exactly the same as it had always been. When Billy said he wanted me back in the band and to play on the next record, I literally flew home the next day and started practicing. It was the best day of my life. Of course, after not playing for two years, making another record with this band wasn't the easiest thing in the world. I started out with Stick Control and Around The Drums, all those books, and I got myself a set of Roland V-Drums and worked out on those. They have a built in metronome and they're just amazing practice tools. But it took me six months to even get close to being ready to record a song.
MD: What aspect of your playing needed the most reconditioning?
Jimmy: Playing the simple stuff was the hardest part. The fills and chops are just a matter of getting your muscle-memory back together. The fast single-stroke rolls are just a matter of calisthenics and getting back in shape. But I was never the best groove player in the world to begin with, so playing slow stuff was a real bitch. But if I know one thing, it's how to practice. I'd sit in the room for five or six hours a day. That's the kind of commitment it takes. Even when we were in the studio rehearsing, I'd get up at nine in the morning and go into the studio. We'd work from noon to midnight and then I'd stay there practicing until three. I talked with Billy about having to catch up, but he didn't seem worried about it, and he was pretty surprised at how fast I got it back.
MD: What kind of role did you have in the development of songs on Machina?
Jimmy: I think I had a pretty integral role. The record was basically written with me in mind. I don't think Billy would have written songs like "Stand Inside Your Love" without me on the drums.
MD: From the opening track, it's clear that you bring so much soul to The Pumpkins' music. Your beat as the song closes is almost like saying, "I'm back." But in general, you're much more restrained than you were in the days of Gish and Siamese Dream.
Jimmy: I don't think I'm restrained at all. I played exactly what I wanted to play whenever I wanted to play it. It's just that this is the way I am now and the way the band is. I made Gish when I was twenty-four — eleven years ago — and I was just out of control then. Listen to Steve Gadd's playing on Aja and then now. There's a maturity that may sound restrained, but it's not.
MD: Yeah, but it's also self-imposed. Maturity aside, why do you think you're happier to settle into a pocket now?
Jimmy: I don't think you can easily separate it from maturity. When you've been doing this as long as I have, you learn to hear certain things in the music. You're not only thinking of the drum parts, but also how they affect the song, and I'm realizing that sometimes playing a groove does more justice to a song than a blazing single-stroke roll. The whole point while making this record was to use our hearts and not our brains. We've been through so much — you name it, anything, we've done it — so the last thing we wanted to do was get caught up in expectations and over-think anything. Mellon Collie came from the heart, but there was a lot of math on that record, too. I didn't use any electric drums on this record. There's no triggering. It's all outboard effects and a little contact miking. One song, "The Imploding Voice," had an electronic track, but we took it off. "The Sacred And Profane" is just a drum loop I did and then played over. Take a song like "Heavy Metal Machine." The drum track on the record was only the second time I'd heard that song. That's a perfect example of Billy and me not having to use words at all to communicate. "This Time" was the same way. Billy came in with a Dylan-esque folk song and I put in an Allman Brothers-type drum part, and the song went in a completely different direction. They're all very different songs and I regarded each very differently as a drummer — there are about five different drum sets on this record — and I don't think I did that before.
MD: Your tempos are very solid on this record.
Jimmy: I was very conscious of that. That's always been my weak point, which is stupid for a drummer to admit to, but I have a heard time with it. Songs like "Sacred and Profane" have a drum loop on them, so the tempos have to be right on. We recorded that song very slowly, then sped the tape up so the drums would have that nice, crisp sound.
MD: What about the drum kit you're playing now?
Jimmy: My drum set is exactly the same as before, except now I also use three concert toms. I had Yamaha make me a set of them. I used to have some timbalitos and timbales, but I got really sick of them. Maybe with some smaller concert toms, I can achieve the same kind of percussiveness live without the whacked-out timbale sound. Yamaha came through with the Maple Custom Absolute, which is on the second half of the record. It's the most amazing set of drums I've ever had. The shells are really thin and they have that old, classic Ludwig sound. I also used my old white marine pearl maple kit and a gold maple kit. So for the record I basically used those three kits and different configurations of them, and my main snare was a steel Manu Katch� model.
MD: Were there any drum parts that gave you problems or evolved much from what you'd originally planned?
Jimmy: "Stand Inside Your Love" was a bitch. "Glass And The Ghost Children" was originally a straight groove song, but Flood [co-producer] was integral in the development of it. He said, "Why don't you try playing it as a samba, like some calypso song," and it worked. Flood brings out playing i[co-producer] was integral in the development of it. He said, "Why don't you try playing it as a samba, like some calypso song," and it worked. Flood brings out playing in me that I would never do naturally. I think it's really important
MD: Do you appreciate music any more since coming through this latest episode?
Jimmy: I don't think music was really the enemy. Performing music was the enemy, the business of music was the enemy. Music has always been a beautiful thing to me, but having to produce it got to be a mental strain on me. Now we operate more like a sports team. On a typical day, I'll have breakfast and then go for a run or hit the steam room. It's not like I could be like I used to be — drink all night and then go play a gig. I quit smoking just before New Year's — to the disbelief of everybody — and my drumming has really improved because of that. A three-hour show is nothing to me now, whereas before I would be wiped out. The problem now is I can't go to sleep because I have too much energy. But I do enjoy this band more than ever. It's like coming back to an old lover, and I appreciate it so much more now. Will I make music with Billy forever? Maybe not. I mean, I'll always have the relationship with Billy that we could come back to each other at any time and make music. If this is the last record we ever do, which if very well may be, I think this would be a healthy way to break, whereas the other way would have been unhealthy. There's a lot of life out there, and music can be part of it for me, but it doesn't have to be all of it. No matter what, I won't let the realities and responsibilities of a music career destroy me again. I'll quit before that happens.