Fuck off…we're from Chicago! - 1992-01-??
(lookup on archive.org)
Fuck off…we're from Chicago! by Nick Jones
“Isn't this where the Beatles grew up?” inquires Billy Corgan from the stage of the underworld club in London's Camden town. His 4-piece Chicago band Smashing Pumpkins are half way through their UK debut. The place is heaving. Billy hasn't lost his sense of humor anyway. It's buzzing so hard in here the narcissistic crowd drown out the Pumpkins' quiet pastoral passages. But cast ye not your pearls before swine, matey, these Pumpkins will smash you to a pulp before the end of the number!
With a nod of the head they crash simultaneously into a maelstrom of a climax. Upfront the head-bangers go ape! The soundman lights another stick of incense to mask the beer and sweat. Confusingly, his t-shirt reads “Fuck off…We're from Texas”!
Confused? You won't be if you get your ears around the album Gish, released in the UK in September on HUT (through distributor APT). Gish is a great debut by anyone's standards. It courses bewitchingly through vein and brain. High impact rock-pools ripple outward, octanes multiplying. Into fierce feedback sorties, in the words of Jimi Hendrix, “…not necessarily stoned…but beautiful.”
Head Pumpkin Billy Corgan's tortuous four months in the studio (he co-produced Gish) beats the hell out of paying a trick cyclist: “it's that perfection thing,” he muses, “it's that Todd Rungren thing. You name it, we did it-hard, intense-we did every part over until it was RIGHT! It's such an ambiguous thing, y'know, music, the band, you never know where you are, where to draw the line, until you get into the studio, to make a single, or album, or whatever; after years of thinking about it, writing and playing, then you have to draw the line somewhere, but where? I should've gone to see a psychiatrist!” flaxen haired groovy chick bassist D'Arcy giggles, “yeah, instead you went and got your palm read!”
This is the first time in London for the whole band: Billy, James, D'arcy and Jimmy. Released earlier in the states, Gish went to No. 1 on the influential Rockpool college radio chart and inspired a hat full of rave notices.
“We didn't come outta nowhere, despite appearances,” elaborates Billy. “We've been working hard in Chicago for a couple of years, promoting ourselves. Y'know, I had a hundred people tell me 'you'll never make it out of Chicago!”
So welcome to the UK where Gish has only recently been released (it came out in June 1991 on Caroline Records in the US).
“Yeah, we're really peaking in America right now-so we come here and no one knows who we are!” laughs James.
“But, y'know, its great this thing in the states, its reinforcing what we're doing, its a nice pat on the head, which is not the best rationale, I know, because if no one cared, we'd still have to reinforce what we do! But it helps to make us want to push the frontier, push a little harder, push our music even extreme, different, more out on a limb…hopefully!” explains Billy. “It was very important for me to make the album sound EXACTLY how I wanted it to sound-not homogenize it by mixing it how everybody mixes. I mean if you listen to a lot of records, I hear a lot of current releases, and its like 'the big-drum sound', 'the same guitar sound', y'know? Most people don't know this, but like 80/90% of the records you hear today have the sampled drums on. Even if it's a live band, the drums are sampled, and triggered so every drum sound sounds perfect! All the drums you hear on Gish are actual drums, in a room, not processed, not fucked with-the guitars are the actual sound. Where a lot of people cut corners, go 'well whatever' I said this is exactly what I want and we'd work at it and work at it, until we got exactly the sound that I was happy with. I wanted to make an organic rock record. It's important to get into a studio and then forget it’s a studio as much as you can, y'know, and try and not let the environment impose.”
Gish was made at Butch Vig's smart studios in “beautiful Madison” WI, a two and half hour drive north of Chicago: “We'd drive up there for four days, come home for three, drive up for 4. The whole thing took from December 1990 to March 1991 and because $20,000.” This is quite a modest budget nowadays. Butch Vig, the album's co-producer with Billy, has previously worked on the “guttural blast” of Killdozer and TAD. How did the Pumpkins hook up with Mr. Vig?
“Just a phone call really,” says James. “People had suggested to us working with him before.”
A local Chicago record man and ally of the band, Mike Potential, sent Butch an early demo he liked, so when they put in the vital call, it was that simple; Butch wanted to work with them anyway. “This was before he became a BIG producer,” smiles Billy, “now he's on his way to being a HUGE producer. He just finished the new Nirvana record and a lot of people are going to be after him when they hear that record.”
But lets now go right back to the band's beginnings and Chicago. Billy Corgan, despite being the son of a professional jazz guitarist, is self-taught and grew up listening to British rock, Ozzy, Black Sabbath, and only played in one other band before Smashing Pumpkins. Called The Marked, he describes their music as “Hindu-influenced gloom.” He met James, also a Chicagoan, who was weaned on UK rock too: Ozzy, Sabbath, plus The Who, Led Zep and Pink Floyd. They began writing and playing around until Billy literally bumped into D'arcy outside a Chicago nightclub. She missed her flight out of Chicago and was staying with friends. “I was sick of playing in my bedroom,” remembers Billy, “so when I found out she played bass and guitar I invited her into the band so we could get out and gig.” With a drum machine, they first played at the Avalon in Chicago in 1988 and started making demos. Joe Shanahan, the owner of a local club The Metro, liked the tape and offered them a gig if they got a live drummer, recommending Jimmy Chamberlin, a native of Joliet, a town just south of Chicago. Jimmy joined for The Metro gig, and although he wasn't particularly impressed with their standard of musicianship, he stuck it out and became an important establishing force during those formative months. Shanahan was completely taken in with their sound, and continued to book them into The Metro, offering them support slots to the Buzzcocks, Jane's Addiction and Petrol Emotion, among others.
Billy picks up the thread, “A&R guys always put Chicago down, they had a very bad stigma about anything quality coming out of Chicago. I mean inside Chicago is a dead music town. I mean there are bands doing well from Chicago, touring around the world and stuff, but in itself, it's not a good place to work as a band-it's difficult. In twenty years, one major record label has put a base in Chicago! There's another one now, I think, but it'll last about a year and the guy probably won't sign anyone. Most of the bands from Chicago are very short-sighted, and they don't see a future. A label wants a band with vision, a band that's going to mean something in 1992, a band of the future. I mean not bands that would like, y'know, uhhh, I mean, Chicago has got eight thousand replacements and two thousand husker du's. Nobody cares.”
“So the very fact that Joe Shanahan and Mike Potential picked up on you, I mean, Joe said this is important, this is different, and the fact that he'd never done that before and he runs The Metro, so not only does he see every band in Chicago, but he sees every band passing through. Every band touring, on the way up, plays The Metro, and he's dealing with all this. It's a great club, a great room, there are all these people around, and he turns around for the first time and says 'here's a band I really believe in'. Y'know, he's got no management in us or anything; there's no financial connection. Nothing-he just dug us, like a favor. So his validation of what we did at least got people to listen to the tape. I mean if the demo tape had sucked then it wouldn't have mattered what Joe had said, but you know, what happened is that people listened to the tape and said, 'well, this is kind of different,' and that's what started the ball rolling.”
The original demo included material on the current album Gish. “Tracks were recorded on a 16-track in a guy's basement,” says James. “There's I Am One, Rhinoceros, Bury Me, Daydream, and those tapes are still out there somewhere!” “You'd only be disappointed,” replies Billy. “But, you know, it was a very important time for us when everything started to converge.”
Mike Potential, the local record man, put out the first Smashing Pumpkins single, a 7″ only, which coupled I Am One with Not Worth Asking (limited potential records Spring 1990). It sold out its 1500 pressings and is now worth 20 pounds-if you can find it. The only previous material issued “before we got our feet on the ground” says James, are two tracks on a Chicago compilation Light Into Dark (Halo records 1989). “A better compilation the Pravada came out in 1991″ adds James, “and that has us doing a cover of the Ozark Mountain Daredevils' 'Jackie Blue'. I don't even know if you can find one in the UK!”
Meanwhile Mr. Potential was pushing the band and the Seattle-based label Sub Pop heard the single. Sub Pop became interested and the group talked about going to Seattle and playing some shows. “We were kind of hoping for an album deal, y'know,” continues Billy. “And originally we were going to do a singles club thing for Sub Pop, but finally we put out Tristessa and La Dolly Vita in September 1990. It did really well on a pressing of 7500, and the Sub Pop affiliation really helped. It created a general interest and definitely helped us to get national. About the same time, Caroline got interested in us and major labels started to pop up all over the place. This onslaught! We just kept practicing!”
Smashing Pumpkins knew that they were going to make that album, but it was a case of waiting, sifting through information, deciding which company to go with. A strange period for any band.
“We'd, like, hear that these A&R people are going to show up at this gig…y'know, like, 'you better be ready!' I mean we tried to be very very careful not to fuck up. We definitely held back on live work. We played it the opposite. We refused to go anywhere to showcase. We said, 'if you want to see us, you're going to have to come to Chicago.' It's a weird time, y'know, because all of a sudden it's perceived momentum. It's not even *real* momentum, it's perceived momentum. You have to watch out for that! This was about the time that management stepped in through Andy Gershon of Raymond Coffer Management, and they gave us another level of credibility-because I mean, here's this guy managing the Cocteau Twins, Love and Rockets, and all of a sudden he wants this American band from Chicago! Not some Cocteau Twins imitator from the East Coast, but these guys from Chicago! So that really created a different aura around us. Suddenly, we're having shows in Chicago and there's 14 A&R guys from all over flying in to see us!”
Finally, Smashing Pumpkins signed to Caroline, an independent distributor in America, and a company that would give them the space they required. “To be totally honest,” says Billy, “if we had signed straight off to a major corporation, I don't think Gish would've been as good as it is. I mean whether anybody thinks it's good on a relative scale, I think it would've been stifled in a lot of ways. Y'know, they would've tried to make me shorten the songs, blah-blah-blah, whatever else they do to make an album more palpable for the ears.”
D'Arcy chips in, “yeah, how can you concentrate with record people in the studio, looking over your shoulder, how can they do that? I mean, get outta my face!”
The Smashing Pumpkins were left to their own devices. It shows.