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Modern Drummer Interview with Jimmy Chamberlin - 1994-01-??
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Modern Drummer Interview with Jimmy Chamberlin, January 1994


Jimmy Chamberlin says he's never played in a more jazzy band. That alone might qualify Chamberlin as a bit "whacked" in some people's eyes–mainly because few would equate crushing, pulsating guitars and acidic, unintelligible lyrics with jazz. But if there's a hidden catalyst behind Smashing Pumpkins' rise to the altar of alternative rock, its the exploratory, anything-can-happen aspect of their music. It's the spirit of improvisation that links them with jazz.

While Smashing Pumpkins have embraced a seemingly free-form approach to performance, their business acumen is nothing short of calculated. A series of smart career moves steered the band out of the underground and into the exact position they'd idealized and worked toward for over five years. The Pumpkins sidestepped major-label pressure, turned down offers to tour on the last two Lollapalooza bills, quietly sold more than 300,000 copies of their hypnotic debut album, teased fans with a great song on the Singles movie soundtrack, and had industry insiders climbing the walls for a follow-up.

All they had to do in 1993 was make music. But that seemingly simple task nearly smashed Chicago's answer to Seattle and sent Chamberlin and his bandmates individually and collectively into a tailspin. "We felt enormous pressure to make a great record, and it definitely got to us–and to me, personally," says Chamberlin, now clean and sober after about with substance abuse. "Everybody was worried about the record. Everybody in this band is a perfectionist: We knew we had to make a great record–not for anybody else, but for ourselves."

Much of singer/guitarist Billy Corgan's lyrics are still intentionally dreamy and indiscernible, lacing the new Siamese Dream with the airy quality many fans latched onto with Gish, their 1991 debut. The album is actually a more subtle step in musically maturity than it is a sonic departure. If there's and obvious difference, it comes from Chamberlin. His jazz influences again are apparent. But where he admits to "running amok" with the tempos in Gish, Jimmy consciously welded the meter throughout Siamese Dream, yet still retained much of the energy.

Alternative fans are hailing the Pumpkins as a guiding light. To nobody's surprise, the new record jumped out of its first week at retail into Billboard magazine's Top-10. Meanwhile, at twenty-nine, Chamberlin has clearly established himself, alongside contemporaries such as Stephen Perkins and Matt Cameron, as a drummer paving new directions in this genre.

MP: You obviously went out of your way to streamline your playing this time, as opposed to the real loose feel you had on Gish.

JC: I totally did, because I wanted to bring out both sides of this band. We have our anal-retentive, studio side, and we have our balls-out live show. The more the band matures, the more apparent those separate sides are. It was a conscious thing to keep the live feel that was on the last records, but to also take advantage of some things you can also to in the studio. We edited tracks, and I brought in new snare drums for the different verses.

I did all the drum tracks for Gish in four days, and then I sat around for a month and a half while everybody else screwed around with their guitar parts. This time we did two drum tracks and then got the bass and guitar parts down. Then we'd go on to the next song. We pretty much did it one song at a time, which was great for me.

There are a couple of parts where I used a click, like on "Mayonaise." Its really slow and I wanted it to just glide. I'm still guilty of over-playing on Gish–maybe not over-playing, but the rambunctiousness–is very appropriate because it represents a very young band. I think the immaturity on there has a lot of charm.

MP: Were you happy, though, with the energy on this record?

JC: I think its a very cool-sounding record, and the best I can hope for is that its an accurate representation of my playing at this time and of where I am emotionally. Sure, we were a lot more careful with the record this time, but there are still places on there where I screwed around. I'll play little fills that just come out of nowhere, like on "Geek USA." Those are too hard for me to try and pull off again if I'm thinking about them. Then I realize I have to go home and practice this stuff so I can do it live every night.

MP: Did you do a lot of pre-production or personal planning before this record?

JC: A lot. I'd never even played some of the songs on Gish before going into the studio, which was cool in one respect; there was a lot of spontaneity and nervous energy on that record. But we totally went into panic mode before this record, because we didn't have enough time to write in the two years we were touring for Gish. We found ourselves with five or six completed songs and people from the record company on our backs wondering when we were going to go into the studio.

So we ended up locking ourselves in a rehearsal space for six months and working on nothing but new music eight hours a day. That wasn't such a stretch for us, though, because we're very precise these days with our arrangements. We got to the point where we were eighty percent satisfied with the songs before we went into the studio. You can prepare twenty-four hours a day before going in there, but you can lose your objectivity. Some things are going to be different when you get there, and things will definitely change. When you hear things bare on the 24-track, you can tell if the drum track is too raw, if the drums need to be more driving in certain places, or if the vocals need to be pushed. "Geek," for instance, was completely rearranged once we got into the studio.

MP: What effect did the producer, Butch Vig have on your approach and what you put on tape?

JC: He really keeps me from going overboard on drum production, which is really good, because when the guitars are being layered over for the twentieth time, I naturally want to reach for the reverb to add some body to the drums. Butch is a drummer himself, and he's very much a purist and likes dry drum sounds. I always say, "Man, the drums just aren't going to be loud enough." Then I go away from it for a while, come back, and the drums sound great.

We did work a lot on the drum sound, too–not so much with the miking, but more in terms of heads and placement of drums. We went crazy with snare drums; I used a different one for practically every song. I had about fifteen snare drums next to me when we were recording, everything from a Yahama standard chrome to a 1939 Radio King. On the song "Today," it's really heavy, and then it dries out when it comes into the verse, with just the drums and bass. So what I did was play the heavy part with a Pearl 61/2″ chrome Free-Floating snare, which is really a kickin' snare. Then I stopped the tape and matched up a click track to where I was playing before. We then edited in the verse, which is where i used the Radio King. The drum is so totally dry and crisp that you can barely hear the snares on it. In production, they kind of matched the sounds up a little, but it sounds like night and day on the dry tracks. We also used a click on the end of "Hummer," where I changed my snare drum and ride cymbal. Instead of using a click arrangement. Then we'll match up the click to whatever we recorded and use it for the intro and then pull it out.

MP: Doesn't that kind of ruin any momentum or natural feel you might get if you'd played it all the way through?

JC: It can have that effect. It really depends on the day and how I'm feeling. Some days I can nail it right away, and other days I feel like choking somebody because I'm just not getting it.

"Mayonaise" is probably the hardest we did, even though it's probably the simplest for drums. I was hearing this gliding sound in my head, but through two days of tracking it, I just wasn't hearing what I wanted. It wasn't happening for me. I wasn't relaxed enough and I was over-thinking parts, but then I just sat down on the third day and did it. Now, listening to the record, I can definitely tell you which songs were recorded on a good day and which were done on a bad day, which ones were done on a Monday and which ones were done on a Friday. [laughs] I don't think the drumming suffers anywhere, though. It's just a more honest representation.

MP: But you went out of your way to tighten the tempo this time. All the songs seem to be more in-the-pocket than anything on Gish.

JC: There was the feeling that, "Hey, this is our first major-label record. It's gotta be consistent." We didn't want it to sound helter-skelter. But I'm kind of scared, too, that people will think it sounds like a major-label record. I mean, everything I hear on a major label sounds like it was done to a click. By my own nature, i just hate click tracks and I don't like to adhere to any set meter the whole way through a song. But I don't want people to think I waver too much, either.

MP: You mentioned how you changed snare drums often for this record, which I think is kind of funny, because the snare sound on Gish was immediately identifiable. Even though it was your first record, all you had to do was listen to the drums, particularly the snare pop, and know that it was you playing.

JC: Well, I don't want to become reliant on or known for any one particular sound. I don't want to use tones to define my sound; I'd rather use technique. I'd rather have somebody hear the song speed up in an area or listen to the way the drums push the vocals–or maybe how the drums can be minimal at one point and blazing the next–and know it's me and my schizophrenic personality. [laughs]

What I love about Gish is that it's the result of four people with grandoise ideas about being in a rock band just telling the world everything they know in ten songs. That record stands on its own, but when you get older you want more out of yourself.

MP: What was it like when you first joined, stepping into a band that had only used a drum machine as its drummer up to that point?

JC: It was basically a process of me deprogramming them. I went in with the idea that if they wanted Jimmy Chamberlin to play drums, it wasn't going to sound like a click track. They used to give me weird looks sometimes. [Bassist] D'arcy would be like, "Gee, could you speed up a little faster?" [laughs] They were so used to this flat tempo that it was hard for them to get used to the music with some movement behind it. But I'll be the first one to admit that my meter was a problem, even through the last record and tour. It's always been a challenge for me to not let my adrenaline get the best of me when we play live. We've gotten to the point now where D'arcy and I know where each other is coming from, and we can play together pretty effortlessly.

MP: How did being in this band affect your playing, since it was your first real rock situation?

JC: It totally stripped me down at first. At no point did I want those guys to think I was a jazz drummer. I've always considered myself a jazz drummer; I still do. But when I first joined, the songs were fairly jangly, and I associated that with 2-and-4 drumming. Billy and I were totally afraid to show each other what we could do. We both could riff out on "Third Stone From The Sun" if we wanted to, but we were pretty conservative. The daring approach came later on, and that's when songs like "Tristessa" came along. If anything, I was a little more controlled on our earliest stuff then I was later on when we did Gish. You can hear a little bit of apprehension on our tapes from the early days.

MP: Your jazz influences obviously come out in a what you do with the Pumpkins, though.

JC: I don't see jazz as a swing feel or a bebop feel. I see it more as an emotional representation of somebody through music. And that's what the Pumpkins are to me. I can pretty much do whatever I want in this band and play to the utmost of my ability. And to me, this is the most jazzy situation I've ever been in.

The most obviously jazz-influenced things to come out in my drumming are the dynamics and how they really shape the songs. The songs will be balls-out, and just drop to nothing, and I'll use things like ghost notes and left-handed ruffs, which are representative of a lot of jazz I listen to.

MP: Did you feel yourself having to play harder and louder then you had before in any other band?

JC: Oh, absolutely. A lot of my finesse really suffered at first, and it was a drag. Now we're to the point where our shows are bigger and we have better monitors and I don't have to compete to hear myself. But I still have to kick ass. I believe there's a happy medium between trying to shove your bass drum down the throat of a concert audience and doing these jazzy, technical things that just get washed out in the mix.

MP: Because of your jazz interests, did you ever play traditional grip?

JC: I had to play traditional grip when I was in drum & bugle corps. But aside from that, I've pretty much been a matched-grip player. I have a tendency to play all my crashes with my left hand; I don't have anything on my right side except my ride cymbal and one China. I do have a cymbal in between my rack toms that I can crash with either hand.

I think it all has to do with breaking my arm–a compound fracture–when i was twelve. I was really into a practicing regimen at the time, but I had to wear a cast for almost a year. Every time I wanted to practice, I had to shove a drumstick inside the cast. And I think it helped me a lot in the long run because I'm fairly ambidextrous now.

MP: How do you think your playing has matured or changed in the two years between records?

JC: I definitely think my tempos are more consistent now, where-as on Gish I really couldn't play a 2-and-4 for the life of me! But then again, I didn't really want to. I listen to classical music, and those tempos are always changing. I love that freedom; it's so cool. But I've learned how to really play straight since the last record, and my snare drumming has improved. All I did for the last two years is play, though, so I was bound to get better. After six months on tour, you can pretty much set up you kit blind-folded.

I found that I was looking for things to challenge myself. So I consciously worked on stuff and picked on one particular area and worked on it on tour, before the show or between shows or when-ever–sometimes during the show. Sometimes it was just a matter of thinking about my technique. On the tour with the Chili Peppers and Nirvana, Dave [Grohl], Chad [Smith], and I would warm up in the bathrooms, just banging on the toilets with drumsticks before the show. Stuff like that is fun.

I also did a lot of research, I've probably got two hundred more CDs now, and I've listened to a lot of world-beat music, like the drummers of Burundi. I don't think getting better necessarily has everything to do with reading George Lawrence Stone books. I think it has a lot to do with your mental interpretation of music, too. You can't just work on Stick Control and Syncopation, because that alone will just make you sound like the next Dave Weckl.

MP: But it's obvious from watching and listening to you that you've had formal education.

JC: I got all my technical education when I was younger, going through school and then when I was in college. My brother, Paul, has been a drummer since before I was born, and by the time I was eight years old, I had a record collection that consisted of Ian Paice, Cozy Powell, and a lot of other great drummers. I grew up listening to the best of the best drummers, whether it was rock, big band, or jazz drummers. I appreciated all of it because I couldn't stand listening to just one style of music as much as I couldn't stand playing just one style. I did have the rock ethic, though–I definitely wanted the chicks and the fast cars–but not necessarily the long hair and the twenty-piece drumkit.

When I was nine, I started taking lessons from Charlie Adams, who plays drums for Yanni now. He's an excellent player who's very much into rudimental playing, and I went through a few technique books with him. I took lessons from him for five years, so that gave me a great foundation, plus I played four hours a day on my own at home, listened to my brother, and went to shows. I used to come home from school at 3:00 and sometimes play until 9:00.

Then I took lessons for three years from a teacher who was Charlie's protege and who was really into the big-band thing. That was really good for me in the way of technique. And since my dad was a clarinet player, I already had a good idea of what it took to move a jazz song.

Then I took lessons from a teacher named Hugh Wilson, which presented a 180 degree turn for me, because he was a timpanist who was just getting into drumset playing. What he was really into was Brazilian and Latin rythems, so the next two years were just sambas and stuff like that. It was really cool, but it had a really weird effect on my playing at the time. I used to tape myself on a reel-to-reel tape player; I still have all the tapes of me practicing from the time I was fourteen on. There's this two-year period where my snares were off all the time!

MP: Have you always sat so high behind the kit? It almost seems like you're standing up.

JC: I sat pretty low in the studio this time, actually. But now that we're out on the road again, I'm back to being up there. It's not for anything visual. It all started because my rack toms are long and I love to have everything flat, like a snare drum. Snare drumming is probably my strongest suit, and with everything flat, I'm pretty good at pulling rolls off that way. My snare sits pretty high, almost as high as my toms. And because my toms are mounted on my bass drum, they almost have to sit at the top of the post to stay flat.

MP: How does that affect your bass drum technique?

JC: I'm used to it now, and I think it makes me play a little more heel-up. When I was low, I used to play a lot more jazzy. Up high, I tend to push things a little more, like I'm trying to push the sound forward. I like to project when I play, and I think sitting high really helps me move the songs. I went low in the studio mainly because of my back, which starts hurting when I'm sitting there six hours at a time. I've tried stools with backrests, but they don't feel right to me.

MP: When did you first apply the technique you learned early on into a band situation?

JC: That didn't come until I was about fifteen. I was pretty much good enough at that time to smoke all the other drummers in my area, because I came from a pretty small town. But I didn't really every play in high school bands. I played with this garage group called the Warrior Band, which played Pat Traverse-type music, and they were all about twenty-five and pretty good musicians. There I was, fifteen years old, playing Friday and Saturday nights, getting sloshed, and having to go back to school on Monday. At sixteen, I had a girlfriend who was twenty-three! But I was making $400 a week doing these gigs, and I was totally convinced at that point that music was something I was going to do for the rest of my life.

My dad, being a musician, was supportive of the time I put into practicing and getting better. But he had six months to feed and had to work at a railroad for steady income. So that hindered any career he might have had, and it made him think more practically about any musical career I might have wanted.. He started stressing education a lot more, and I ended up going to Northern Illinois University for about a year. I screwed around a lot, but it was good for me because I got to read some interesting charts and keep up my reading ability. I've been reading all my life, and I can still sight-read fairly well.

MP: When did rock music come into the picture?

JC: I'd been listening to rock practically all my life, but I didn't really play in any full-on rock band until the Pumpkins. After the Warrior Band, when I was seventeen, I played in a wedding band and made a lot of money. Then I started playing with this polka band–Eddie Carossa's–and his father had a local TV show every Saturday called Polka Party or something like that. I did that for about a year and a half. At the same time, I was doing a radio show. So every Saturday, I was playing on TV from 6:00 to 6:30, then from 5:00 to 5:50 on the radio every Sunday.

It really demanded discipline of me every weekend because these shows were done live. And a lot of people watched the TV show because forty percent of the population in Chicago is Polish–especially on the south side. We were stars! And it was like I had two totally different lives at the same time–going to school with my friends who smoked pot and listened to Sabbath records, not telling any of them what I was doing on the side–and then wearing this polka-dot shirt that looked like it survived a pigeon bombing and playing polka's on TV! That whole time was totally strange, and one by one my friends started finding out. I eventually had to move on because I didn't want to play polkas my whole life.

I got into this band called Razor's Edge, which was the first original-music situation I was in, and we did about three shows together. On the third show, we played with a show band called J.P. & the Cats, which was the most amazing group I'd ever seen. They had a full horn section and four front singers–a revue band that did everything, from jazz to "Wipeout". I was totally blown away. Their drummer told me he was leaving, so I auditioned. The first thing we played was the opening chart to "West Side Story", which was totally cool, exactly what I was looking for.

At this time, I hadn't even told the Razor's Edge guys I'd quit, and, as it turned out, they showed up at the first gig I had with J.P.! I ended up staying in that band for three years, and there was a lot of turnover around me, so I probably played with fifty different musicians in my time with them. We toured all over the place in a school bus and made a lot of money. We were at the MGM Grand in Reno for a month. It was really like a Broadway production on the road. We had dancers with us, too, so it was important that my meter was sharp.

MP: If you were doing so well and enjoying the music, what prompted you to leave?

JC: I just got totally burned out. I got sick of the road and there was very little stability in my life. Theoretically, I could have played with J.P. for ten years and made a living at it. But I wasn't going to get rich and I wasn't going to get any happier in J.P. than I already was. I was getting bored and just wanted to get away from the live gigs.

So I started working in studio stuff with a guy named Dave Zukowski in Joliet, and I got a job as a carpenter, which I had done off and on over the years. I really like to build things; it's my second passion. I was building custom houses with my brother-in-law, and the money was excellent and the hours were a lot more appealing than anything I had on the road with J.P. I was still playing–jamming with a lot of blues bands in town and working with Dave on his original songs. The beauty was that there was no road stress involved–just coming home from work, showering, heading over to Dave's, and having a couple of beers and jamming.

Dave had already had a record out, so there was some light at the end of the tunnel for some success. I was still open to having a life in music. But at that point, if something didn't ever come along, I wasn't going to be a frustrated gutter bum. I was happy with my playing, and financial success in terms of music wasn't important to me, mainly because I was pulling in tons of cash in construction.

MP: What opened you up to getting back into the musical grind again?

JC: Dave worked at a record store at the time, and a friend of Billy [Corgan] came in and said Billy was looking for a drummer for one show at the Metro. Dave told him his drummer, who was me, could go in and kick ass for him. So I called Billy and he told me about the situation, that he had all these original songs and was gonna get signed. And I said, "Yeah, right," figuring I'd do this one gig and we'd talk more later.

So I went out and saw the band–Billy, James [Iha], and D'arcy–playing at Avalon with a drum machine. Man, did they sound horrible! They were atrocious. But the thing I noticed was that not only were the song structures good, but Billy's voice had a lot of drive to it, like he was dying to succeed. So I ended up driving from work every Wednesday to rehearse with them. We played that show at the The Metro, and a lot of people were impressed, saying we sounded different from everybody else out there.

I kept on working construction, but the band slowly became a more and more important part of my life, too, but the thing at that point was that I finally had my own apartment, a really nice sports car, and a good job. I was making all this cash, but I still wasn't feeling good, like something was missing. I figured I had to do something with this band or I'd never forgive myself.

So I quit my job and moved up to Chicago. When my money ran out, I sold my car. I worked at a bike shop for a while and lived with this girl, but I was basically in the gutter for three years just so I could concentrate on the band. I went from eating steak every night and driving around in my car to eating hot dogs and beans and trying to get enough money for smokes. But it really didn't seem weird because everybody in the band had the same drive and determination.

MP: When did things start to look up?

JC: We played a lot of shitty gigs at first, but we made up our minds to play four hundred shows a year just in the hopes that somebody would see us. So we decided to only take shows we knew were going to be good shows. We ended up playing a sold-out show with Jane's Addiction at The Metro, which gave us some credibility. But the show was just one in a series of wise career moves on our part.

One thing we realized was that good-time rock bands that drink and party don't make it– we had twenty examples of bands in Chicago to teach us what not to do. We made up our minds to learn every aspect of the business so that when things did start to happen for us, they wouldn't backfire and blow up in our faces a year of five years down the road.

We controlled everything, all the promotion, merchandise….I think the reason we come across as a care-free band is because we're so comfortable with the business side. All the money we made in the early days went back into the band bank account–every cent of it. And we used it to record a thiry-song demo over the course of three months. The owner of The Metro got it into the hands of it Andy Gershon, who's now our manager, and who gave copies of the tape to people. Suddenly there was this huge buzz about us. A lot of people in Chicago accused us of not paying our dues, but it was just a case of us being smart and not playing trash gigs. They don't know I lived in the dumpiest part of Chicago for three years and got mugged three times!

MP: Did you, and a band members, orchestrate the deal with Virgin Records that allowed you to release Gish on Caroline Records?

JC: It was totally a conscious business decision on our part, thinking it would benefit us in the long run. We were scared to death to come right out of the blocks with a major-label record, because if it failed, that could be the end and we probably wouldn't get a second chance. But on Caroline, even if the record only sold 40,000, that would still be acceptable and we'd still have our deal with Virgin.

We have a lot internal fears of failure. We'll sit and tell people how great we are, and then we'll worry backstage about making chumps out of ourselves. I think it's gotten to the point where we've actually talked ourselves into being a great band.

MP: It seems like there's nowhere to go but up for you. How do you like the prospect of living out of a suitcase for the next year and a half to promote the new record?

JC: I love to play every day; that's where this all makes sense to me. We were in Paris to do some press before the record came out, and it felt totally unnatural. I mean, what was I doing in Paris without a drumsticks? We went through Europe just to do press; we had two acoustic shows the whole time, and it sucked! I'm in a band to play in front of people who love the music. And now people aren't there to see the band we're backing up, they're there to see us. That's the real payoff.


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