main main songs + releases music the band news + press tours online

[what's new]

<-Prev : MTV Next-> : Guitar World Magazine Feature

Back to the Interviews index

Modern Drummer Interview with Jimmy Chamberlin - 1996-05-??
(lookup on

Modern Drummer Interview with Jimmy Chamberlin, May 1996


"If a biotech company doesn't have a drug out within three years, you're not going to make any money. If they've got something in the fire, you have to look at how much the company is worth'"

It's just past noon, and Jimmy Chamberlin, lighting what has to be his tenth cigarette of the day, is revealing the strategy behind his latest fixation.

"If they're only worth $300 million, the chances of somebody buying them out are pretty good, unless they're a subsidiary," he says. "But you should look for those smaller companies with a lot of growth potential. If you buy early and the company gets sold, you're going to make some money."

Suffice to say, Chamberlin has made some money. By his own assessment, he's "made a killing" since diving into the stock market. Then again, some "inside" tips haven't hurt.

"I knew a lot about DigiDesign and DigiTech because we use their software for mixing and arranging. I knew it was the best stuff out there," he reveals. "And I'd heard a rumor that Silicon Graphics was going to buy DigiTech. So when DigiDesign bought Avid, I knew the stock was going to go through the ceiling."

Now, armed with America Online, an Internet account, and subscriptions to Forbes and the National Investors Business Daily, Chamberlin scarcely finds time for his other diversions – mountain climbing, fishing, driving (his Ferrari), boating, and of late, skeet shooting. But Jimmy officially joined corporate America when he bought five percent of a company that solely develops a medicinal cervical cap for women.

Still, in a sense, he wouldn't have any of it if he couldn't rip out single-stroke rolls.

Jimmy Chamberlin grew up in blue-collar Joliet, Illinois, juggling assorted grunt jobs and drum lessons, studying jazz and working his way into a variety of gigs, from show tunes with J.P. & the Cats to local television with Eddie Carossa's Polka Party. He didn't tilt toward rock until replacing the machine in Billy Corgan's fledgling Smashing Pumpkins. Even then, Chamberlin infused the music with an unmistakable flavor of jazz and an embracing of drumming technique.

Grace notes, ferocious fills, cutting rimshots, and sizzling single-stroke rolls – signature Chamberlin licks – weren't all that common with the "modern" rock drummers six years ago, when the Smashing Pumpkins debuted with Gish. Chamberlin's talent only came to international attention when Siamese Dream, the 1993 follow-up, went platinum four times over. But as dozens of other, newer groups have since tried copping the band's formula – frail verse, fiery chorus, frantic finish – nobody has convincingly imitated the Smashing Pumpkins' swagger and sway.

Tired of the chase, though, the band has taken a stunningly sharp detour with Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, a double album that not only mocks modern rock a cliche, but rails against the monster the Pumpkins helped create. For those reasons, among others, Chamberlin insists this is the band's last rock effort.

"We've always been about originality," he urges. "We don't want to be a parody of ourselves. I'm thirty-one now, and I don't see myself playing "Jellybelly" at forty."

Still, it's "Jellybelly" and about two dozen other tunes from Mellon Collie that have the band holed up in the Pumpkin Patch, a rehearsal studio tucked behind one of north Chicago's many brick facades. With less than a week before leaving for its worldwide tour, the songs are still far from second-nature.

Chamberlin pulls another cigarette from its silver pocket-size case and checks out the new kit Yamaha just shipped him. He asked for a golden pearl covering, but the closest Yamaha could get was a sort of marbled gold paint. He's been playing on the set all morning, weathering dirty looks from bassist D'Arcy while the drumheads find comfort zones on new bearing edges.

Drum tone, at this moment just prior to leaving on tour, is the least of Jimmy's worries. There are his stocks, his company, his two Siamese cats, his girlfriend, and the home he won't see much of until 1997. "Frankly, the band sometimes takes us away from other things we want to do," the drummer admits. "But if it weren't for the band, we wouldn't have these other wonderful things in our lives. I've got the boats, the cars, and my corporation, D'Arcy has three antique stores and an apple orchard, James [Iha, guitarist] is modeling now. And all of this took some maturing on our parts to put into perspective. We even sat down and talked about it, trying to keep our heads on straight and realize how lucky we are. We tried not to lose sight that it's all because of the music.

"For me, it came down to remembering my roots and why I got into music in the first place," he adds. "I remember the times when I had nothing in my life, and music was what made me happy. It's such a personal, powerful thing, and I've been fortunate enough to make a living at it. And ever since I've come to terms with what music means to me, I've been better and more committed about everything and everyone else in my life."

MP: Electronic sounds and sampling are such changes for this band. What inspired you to go that way for Mellon Collie?

JC: Flood [producer] had a lot to do with that, but it was really a conscious decision on our part to move into some new territory. We wrote so many songs for this record – about fifty – and without the benefit of technology and taking different approaches to recording, they might have suffered from a little sameness. With the exception of "Bullet With Butterfly Wings" and "Jellybelly" and maybe one or two other songs, we wrote all the songs within a four-to- five-month period. Even though they were great songs simply from the standpoint of drums, bass, and guitar, when you're dealing with fifty songs, we felt we had to do something to set them apart.

We finished Lollapalooza and took an astounding three weeks off, which is a really long time for this band, and went right back to work. After fourteen months of touring the band had a certain amount of fire going, and we didn't want to lose that. This band has such a serious work ethic and, to be honest, a lot of our motivation is based on fear. We know that if we leave each other for a long period of time it might take us weeks to get back in sync. And I don't know that we would have been so open and eager to move into a new direction if we hadn't jumped right back into things.

MP: Talk about the process of not only writing fifty songs, but getting them on tape.

JC: We definitely wanted to get everything on this record that the band was capable of in this particular style of music. But we also wanted to take the first steps in really testing our boundaries. That's why there are songs like "Lily," the country song. That's an element of this band that just can't fit into the framework of a fourteen-song CD. On the flip side, here we'd amassed all this work and half of the songs didn't have any titles. We were constantly confused – "Well, which song is that?" – and there would be songs we'd just forget. Billy and I got into an argument one time about this one song because he said I was coming in too early. I said, "No, it's written right here: Come in after one bar." So we were going back and forth for about an hour, only to discover we were talking about two different songs!

But I think it was a great experience for me as a musician because it forced me to come up with different things to play on different songs. There were times while we were learning and rehearsing when Billy or D'Arcy would say something like, "Jimmy, isn't that just like the fill you played on 'Bury Me'?" So I had to challenge myself to veer away from my old standbys – which everybody has – and stretch my creativity. I think that's what helped me embrace the technology and not limit myself to just the drumkit. I used everything from hair spray to a pair of scissors – whatever was laying around – to come up with different sounds. We used a bottle of aspirin as a shaker. We'd just throw it on tape, sample it, and loop it. You can hear that kind of stuff on "Cupid." A lot of that had to do with Flood, and without him, I don't think we would have dove into it nearly as deeply and aggressively as we did.

I think a lot of drummers have a phobia about technology. I went through that phase where I was firmly against drum machines and sampling – it had to be one-hundred percent live, organic drums. I was like that on our previous records. But once I got over that fear, I really liked it. And the bottom line is I'm still playing the parts and it's still my imagination. It's just a different interpretation.

MP: But on the whole your drum sound comes off a lot more primitive, almost "fuzzier," than it sounds on the previous Pumpkins albums. The drums on Siamese Dream sound a lot more "produced."

JC: Again, it comes back to intentionally doing things differently than we'd ever done them before and pushing ourselves into new creative avenues. Instead of putting two or three mic's on a drum, we might have just put one mic' on it and compressed the shit out of it. On "Here Is No Why," I was trying for a totally dirty sound. So we just hung a little condenser mike above a small jazz kit, right over the snare drum, and placed a mic' in front of the kick drum – with no hole in the head. Then we compressed the track until the hi-hat was as loud as everything else. The overall effect is this very loose and trashy sound, like an early Beatles type of sound. It has an edge that we couldn't get from a clean-sounding snare. But other than that, we didn't fool around that much with the miking. We set up two overheads way at the other end of the room, two above the drumkit, and two in the back corners, and we had those channels available if we needed to get more midrange or whatever. And I really left a lot of that up to the engineers. My main concern was the snare tone.

MP: Are you still as particular as you used to be about the sound of your drums?

JC: Definitely. I've always been a control freak when it comes to my drums. The thing is, a tech might tune my drums exactly the way I might tune them. But if I come up with a weird "honk" on the snare, it's cool because I tuned it that way. If a tech gets that same sound, it's like, "What the hell is that honk?" It's not the tech's fault, but I just save myself and a lot of other people some grief if I do it myself. I still do all of my own tuning in the studio. I still tune my own snares for live shows. I let Tim, my tech, tune the toms and the kick drum. But I don't mess around when it comes to the snares. If they're going to sound funky, I want it to be my fault.

MP: You mentioned that you went through a store's worth of cymbals for the new record.

JC: Sabian has just been great about working with me. I was on the phone with Bill Zildjian [Sabian executive] all the time trying to articulate what I wanted in cymbal sounds. For example, I said to him, "The simplest way I can describe what I'm looking for is the sound you hear when you drop an egg on a hot griddle. That's the sound I'm looking for." And he made about twenty sizzle cymbals for me. Some of those cymbals were really interesting and a couple were actual prototypes of new models. With that many choices, though, it's a crapshoot about what you decide to use and what makes it on the record. If I could live in a drummer's perfect world, I would add the cymbals after everything else on an album was recorded. Cymbals have their own characteristics. Some sound great in some songs and don't sound so great on others. And a cymbal that sounds great on its own might really clash with the frequency or the notes coming out of the guitar. Sometimes an old, beat-up trash can or cymbal will be perfect because it fits into the sonic pocket created by the other instruments.

MP: Why did you have Yamaha make you two kits for the new tour?

JC: It's really cool, actually. We're not taking out an opening band – at least for the opening leg of the tour – we decided to be our own opening act. The first set is going to be our softer music, where I'll play the smaller kit. It's James' idea to come out in pajamas for that, but I don't know if that's going to happen at this point or not. But we'll play about forty-five minutes of the softer stuff, take a short break, and then come back and play the heavier material, where I'll use the full kit.

It's kind of an experiment – we've never done anything like that before. We're excited about it because when you're concentrating on a rock show, a lot of songs can get lost in the shuffle. And I've been playing two kits for quite a while. On the new record I used the big kit for all of the fast rock stuff, and I went to the four-piece jazz setup for some of the more straight-ahead, poppy songs.

Actually, I just got the big kit and I think it might be too big for me to play. I got a 24″ kick with this one, which raises everything in front of me, and my arms are cramping up from having to reach so high from the snare to the toms to the cymbals. So I might take the 20″ kick from the small set and use it with the big set and use my old white kit for the jazz setup.

Who knows, though? Anything can happen on the road. I actually came up with this tom configuration on the road. [Editor's note: Jimmy's rack toms are in a slightly different order, left to right: 14", 10", and 13"]. I just got sick of doing all my fills from the high to low toms, so I wanted to force myself to do things differently and use my left hand more on that lower tom. It's straight out of the Billy Cobham philosophy.

MP: How do you feel about playing the same parts you recorded on some of the band's older tunes in concert?

JC: I wouldn't say I intentionally try to play them differently, but I try not to worry about it a whole lot and get locked into anything. I mean, most of my parts on the earlier records are things that just came out of me when the tape was rolling. If I'd tried to work out some of the fills that are on there before the tape started rolling, I never would have pulled them off and I would have driven everybody crazy, trying for the ten-thousandth take to get it right.

It's funny, sometimes it seems like I'm a lot more free to play what I want when we're recording than when it's a show. Once you do a record and you start listening to it the parts get ingrained in your head and they become concrete elements of the song. There are songs like "Bury Me," which has the rimshot at the end of it. I never planned it, but it's become a signature part of the song, and now every time we play it I feel I have to play the rimshot right there. Some of the songs on Siamese Dream I can re-interpret a bit now, but there are songs like "Cherub Rock" where all the fills and flams are etched in stone. That's one of the things I was thinking | about when we were making the new record. I went in telling myself, "Well, are you sure this is what you want to play? Once you record it, you'll hear it on the radio, it will be permanently in your head, and then there's no turning back." That's one of the good things about taking a basic | approach to my parts, which I did more of on this record.

MP: What impact did Flood have on your drum parts and sounds?

JC: Butch Vig [producer of Gish and Siamese Dream] really placed an emphasis on the drums, where the drumming had to be perfect. Flood isn't a drummer, so he goes more for capturing a mood or feel. He doesn't care if things are technically perfect; he wants it to be emotionally convincing.

Nothing against Butch, because he's great and he achieved some amazing results for us. But with Flood, I could enjoy the moment more and it didn't seem like the high-pressure gig that it was. We were doing three or four drum takes a day, and it took us about the same amount of time to do this record as it took to do Siamese Dream, which has half the number of songs. And with the technology – sample, loops, and keyboards – Flood also opened up another avenue for us to go down. I know that for me, personally, it has really expanded my vision. I have a drumKAT at home now and I'm toying with different sounds and coming up with ideas for playing on top of the programming.

MP: Are there any songs on the new record where you really feel you broke new ground for yourself in terms of performance?

JC: If there are, it's definitely among the slower, softer songs. "Take Me Down" is the first time I've ever really been able to do any cool brush work in this band, and I played congas on that tune as well. I really saw that song in a jazz combo vibe, which really takes me back to my early days of drumming. Another different song for me was "1979," which is a drum loop with me playing over the top of it. That's the first time I've ever done anything like that.

It seemed that since we were introducing a lot of different concepts and sounds on the record, everybody had ideas for the drum parts. It wasn't just lonely ol' me back there, left alone while everybody else worried about the music. The drums were treated as an integral part of the music, and we approached the drum parts and sounds from the angle of how they would enhance and blend into the feel we were trying to achieve with the songs.

MP: Some songs on the new record are very typical of your playing style, but I'm really surprised at how straight you play on songs like "Love." It almost sounds like someone else on the kit.

JC: "Love" was a nightmare to do because we used a drumKAT for the "kang, kang, KANG, kang…kang, kang, KANG, kang." Since I didn't use a click, I had to go back and match it on the drumkit. It was really tough. We didn't try anything like that for any other song. But the spirit behind that drum part is something you will find throughout the record. It wasn't anything intentional, but it's more of an honest representation of where I am as a musician. Even though there's some really great whack-off drum shit on the record, at this stage of the game, I don't think I have anything to prove on a technical level. It's true for all of us. Billy's probably played as fast as he can play – and so have 1, for that matter. It sounds almost cliche to say this, but it really came down to playing what was necessary for the song. In terms of maturity – musically and personally – you learn to play songs for the betterment of the material and not simply to wow your contemporaries. And what can I say, it only took me four albums to get it right!

To be honest, though, as much as I tried to change things up and throw some fresh fills and beats in there, I could probably take you through every song on every album we've done and tell you where it comes from drumming-wise – Paice, Bonham, Cobham, Weckl, Bozzio…. I talked to Buddy Rich a long time ago, briefly at one of his concerts, and what he told me was true: A great musician is someone who doesn't get caught stealing.

MP: But watching you play, it all seems to come so naturally to you. There are fills on the record that sound so physically demanding. yet you make them look as easy to play as 2 and 4. If anything, you seem to labor a bit more at just playing the 2 and 4, like you're restraining yourself.

JC: Maybe that's just because you're used to hearing me throw in a lot of ghost notes, accents, and fills. Before the new record, I'd never really challenged myself with this band to just play straight time. And as for everything else seeming so natural, that's just because I've graduated from page 2 to page 40 of the Stick Control book. I remember thinking the same thing about Ian Paice. I'd listen to a song like "Space Truckin" and hear that unbelievable single-stroke roll at the end. Then I was fortunate enough to see him do it live, and his sticks were so even. And he was so relaxed that he looked like he could have been reading the paper. At the time I was like, "Man, there's nothing great about that." But that was only because it didn't look great.

Speed and endurance are things that don't come overnight. It takes years to hone those skills, and it's all practice. If you want to learn how to do something correctly, you have to treat it with respect and give it the time and commitment it deserves. You almost have to treat it like an opponent. You can't simply play drums for fifteen years and expect to wake up someday and have a blazing single-stroke roll. Buddy Rich didn't, Billy Cobham didn't – nobody did. You have to study and practice.

Even now, I meditate and practice relaxation exercises before shows. I go to acupuncture and I have a diet that's really high in calcium and magnesium to give my muscles the ability to contract and expand. Drumming really takes the discipline of a martial art. Unfortunately, I think all of that is a sort of balancing act for me because I do smoke about a pack and a half of cigarettes a day. My doctor can't believe it. He told me not to quit smoking because if I did I'd have too much energy.

Once I started doing all of those things, drumming became a lot easier. Natural talent and ability come into it, and I was blessed with some amount of natural talent. But I really believe that we all make the choice of how good we want to be. Still, I don't feel I'm half the drummer I can be. I've grown very comfortable playing Pumpkins songs, but not much else. My meter has improved, but it's still not my strong suit.

MP: But you've carved out a distinct style for yourself, to the point where I think people familiar with your playing can pick you out of a piece of music.

JC: Why, because you can hear the tempo speed up? [laughs] No really, that's probably what I'm most proud of. I've received letters from people who've said that once they hear the snare drum, they know it's me. Kids have written to me and told me they pattern their style after me – which is very flattering, but it's also pretty scary. You almost start feeling a responsibility not only to live up to your own expectations, but to the expectations of others. But it's a great compliment and I don't take it for granted.

MP: When do you find the time to practice?

JC: That's the problem – there is no time. If we're not rehearsing, we're either recording or touring, and as I mentioned we don't have much down time. So I try to work on things in different parts of songs while we're rehearsing.

For instance, I just copped this great little fill off of Zappa's Roxie And Elsewhere album. Chester Thompson and Ralph Humphrey do this tom/bass drum thing during a horn line. It's just 16th notes, but they're doing it in unison, although it does "flam" a bit. To play that as one drummer, and get that effect, is pretty difficult. I try to sneak it in whenever we play some fast, whack-off song, like at the end of "Ruby."

MP: I've heard that public expectations are one of the reasons you put out this double CD, that the band felt it had done all it can in this style and that any future Pumpkins records would be a vast departure from the style you've done in the past.

JC: Well, we knew from the moment we decided to do this that the critics would just rain down on us: "It's so self-indulgent." "It's so '70s." "Nobody makes double albums anymore." And it wasn't easy for us to do it. I figured we'd either breeze through it or all have nervous breakdowns, and I know I straddled the line between the two many times.

But one of the driving factors in this was that we didn't want to make another Siamese Dream, which would have been very easy for us to do. We didn't want to restrict ourselves to the quiet/loud/ quiet/loud formula of songwriting. We've already mastered that, and there are dozens of younger bands out there now who do better imitations of us than we do.

We really saw the tunnel of creativity narrowing for us, and that's one of the reasons for embracing Flood and all the ideas and technology he brought to us. If you look at the all-time great, bands, they were constantly re-inventing themselves to not only keep things fresh, but to keep themselves interested. And if we hadn't done this, I don't know if there would have been much of a future for us as a band. Sure, we could have intentionally made another Siamese Dream and sold five million records, but we have to make ourselves happy, too.

There's a period every band goes through where they're either going to self-destruct or overcome it and survive. That turning point for us, I think, was immediately after Gish. We were so overwhelmed with the success. We thought we were rock stars, and that affected how we operated. Band members would show up late for rehearsal or they wouldn't show up at all. We went through our transition from starving and having no money to having some fame and money, and then going through our depressions, our nervous breakdowns, our drug habits.

I had an emotional breakdown during the recording of Siamese Dream, to where I had to leave the studio for five days. But what turned it around for me, personally, was realizing my love for music. I looked back on all the bike shops I worked for, all of the construction jobs I did, and all the drum lessons I took to get to this point, and I realized it wasn't worth throwing all of that away on some star trip.

I'm really thankful that I've been allowed to go through my battles and still hold onto what's important. And for me as well as the band, the war is over and we're through defending ourselves. We don't have anything to prove anymore. We're at the point now where we should make the best rock record we can and then move on, and that's what we've done.

MP: It must be scary, though, where you're about to do what has been reported to be your last rock tour. Are you wondering what's going to be coming next?

JC: I'm not worried at all about that. I'm sure that if and when the band ends there will be plenty of drum work for me. As much as I love this band, playing with the same people all the time can really be one-dimensional, and you can tend to be locked into a certain style of playing. I mean, it's been seven years since I played a shuffle. I probably couldn't play a decent shuffle now to save my ass! That's why I'm really looking forward to the end of this tour, when we're planning on taking a year off – which I know won't actually happen. But at least if we plan on taking a year off, we'll at least have two or three months off.

I'd like to use the time off to get away from this style of drumming and take some lessons from a good Latin teacher, or go to Trinidad or somewhere and totally immerse myself in a different approach. I'd also like to do some clinics for Yamaha and Sabian. But instead of the typical drum clinic, I'd like to bring along a stand-up bass player and do a jazz combo clinic.

I had a chance to do some other outside things, but I couldn't make the time because of the band. Charlie Adams, who was my first drum teacher and who has been Yanni's drummer for years, turned me on to this big band drum solo record that Ed Shaughnessy was doing. Charlie l knew what kind of big band guy I am at . heart, and it would have been a dream- I come-true to play some sort of Gene I Krupa-style solo on that record. But we were doing Lollapalooza and there was no way I could get away.

This tour will tell us a lot about whatever future this band has. I think Billy and I will a do something together, whether D'Arcy and James are a part of that or not. Billy and I have done some remixes together and we even wrote a calypso song once. I'd love to play a decent samba with Billy as the writer. I think he'd be brilliant at it. But if we do make another Pumpkins record I'd like to do it with a completely different kit, play a completely different style, and just turn some heads all over again.


1984 | 1988
1990 | 1991 | 1992 | 1993 | 1994 | 1995 | 1996 | 1997 | 1998 | 1999
2000 | 2003 | 2004 | 2005 | 2006 | 2007 | 2008 | 2009
2010 | 2011 | 2012 | 2013

Main | Songs & Releases | Music | The Band | News & Press | Tours | Online

copyright © 1999-2023
Section corrections/submissions:
General site info/bugs: /
Get updates on twitter / connect via facebook. Like the site? Order something from Amazon. is in no way associated with or authorized by the smashing pumpkins, zwan, billy corgan, or any of their agents.